China watchdog flags video game approvals; Tencent shares jump

FILE PHOTO: A Tencent sign is seen during the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, Dec. 4, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Tencent Holdings Ltd’s shares jumped by as much as 4.2 percent on Friday after a regulatory official said that some new games have been cleared for sale after a lengthy freeze in approvals.

Feng Shixin, a senior official of the ruling Communist Party’s Propaganda department, said in a speech at a gaming conference in Haikou on Friday that a first batch of approvals for games had been completed, according a transcript of the speech and the organisers of the event.

China, the world’s biggest gaming market, stopped approving new titles from March amid a regulatory overhaul triggered by growing criticism of video games for being violent and leading to myopia as well as addiction among young users.

The freeze on new approvals has pressured gaming-related stocks and clouded the outlook for mobile games, rattling industry leader Tencent and smaller peers.

“We hope through new system design and strong implementation we could guide game companies to better present mainstream values, strengthen a cultural sense of duty and mission, and better satisfy the public need for a better life,” Feng said.

Earlier this month, state media reported that Chinese regulators set up an online video games ethics committee, raising hopes the government was preparing to resume an approval process that has been frozen for most of this year.

“This is clearly exciting news for China’s gaming industry,” a Tencent spokesman said in written comments.

“We’re confident that after the publishing license approval, we will provide more compliant, high-quality cultural works to society and the public.”

The gaming freeze in China has dragged down Tencent’s shares this year and wiped billions of dollars of its market value. The Hong Kong-listed firm’s stock is down around 23 percent this year.

Reporting by Adam Jourdan and Brenda Goh in SHANGHAI and Pei Li in BEIJING; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Christopher Cushing

An online battle for 900 million hearts and minds: India braces for election

JAIPUR/TONK, India (Reuters) – When India votes in a general election next year, it will be the world’s largest democratic exercise, and the biggest ever test of the role of social media in an election.

Volunteers of India’s main opposition Congress party monitor TV news channels and social media inside their war room which was setup for a state assembly election, in Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Aditya Kalra

As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) readies for battle with the newly energized Congress party-led opposition in the election that must be held by May, the role of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp could be crucial in deciding who wins.

India already has close to 900 million eligible voters, and an estimated half-a-billion have access to the Internet. The country has 300 million Facebook (FB.O) users and 200 million on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy. Millions use Twitter (TWTR.N).

“Social media and data analytics will be the main actors in the upcoming India elections. Their use would be unprecedented as both parties now use social media,” said Usha M. Rodrigues, a communications professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, whose research has focused on social media and Indian politics.

The potential for abuse is also immense, with incendiary news and videos capable of fanning violence in the sprawling multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation.

Fake news and messages circulated on social media have led to more than 30 deaths since last year, data portal IndiaSpend says, mostly rumors about child kidnapping gangs.

Political differences have in the past been no less deadly.

“Social media discourse, already bitter, will turn bilious,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said of the coming campaign for the general election.

“It will be no-holds barred on social media given that the opposition smells blood and the ruling party has its back against the wall.”

Both the main parties accuse each other of propagating fake news while denying they do so themselves.

Nevertheless, the battlelines between them are clearly drawn. Congress has attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies and his party’s Hindu nationalist ideology, while the BJP dismisses the Congress as incompetent liberals out of touch with the people.

This month, Congress won elections in three major states that have been the bastion of the BJP, setting the stage for a tight contest in 2019. Helping the opposition party was a revamped social media strategy.

WAR ROOMS

At the last election in 2014, Congress was crushed by the techno-savvy Modi and his array of social media weapons, including a flurry of Tweets from his personal account, a BJP campaign on Facebook and holographic displays of Modi in remote villages.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi got a Twitter account only in 2015. But the opposition party is catching up and the playing field has gotten a lot bigger.

India now has 450 million smartphone owners against 155 million at the last election in 2014, according to Counterpoint Research. That’s more than the entire population of the United States, the crucible for election campaigns on social media.

Reuters visited one of the hubs of Congress’s online operations in Rajasthan, one of the three states it won this month – a drab three-bedroom apartment up a dimly lit staircase in the city of Jaipur.

Inside, party workers tracked news channels and social media posts on a wall of television screens. A three-member team of audio, video and graphic experts designed campaign material that was posted to public websites, while other volunteers used WhatsApp to send instructions to party workers.

“We were kids back then, but we are going to outmaneuver them now,” said Manish Sood, 45, who runs his own social media marketing business and was managing the Congress volunteers at the Jaipur war room.

Still, fighting Modi online isn’t easy. With 43 million followers on Facebook and 45 million on Twitter globally, he is among the world’s most followed politicians. Congress’s Gandhi still only has 8.1 million followers on Twitter and 2.2 million on Facebook.

A request by Reuters to visit the BJP’s social media center in Jaipur was declined, but a member of the party’s Rajasthan state IT unit, Mayank Jain, said it ran similar social media operations from two city apartments.

“Congress understands social media a bit now, but they do not have the volunteer manpower,” Jain said in an interview, showing dozens of BJP WhatsApp groups on his phone, one of which was named “BJP RAJASTHAN’S Warriors”.

RISE OF WHATSAPP

While Twitter and Facebook were embraced by Indian politicians – mainly in the BJP – in 2014, it’s WhatsApp that has now become the social media tool of choice.

In Jaipur city and the nearby rural town of Tonk, where traditional methods like public speeches and poster campaigns were widely used during the state poll, Congress and BJP party workers showed a Reuters reporter dozens of WhatsApp groups they were part of and used for campaigning.

Congress said its volunteers managed 90,000 WhatsApp groups in Rajasthan, while the BJP said it controlled 15,000 WhatsApp groups directly, with its workers campaigning through roughly another 100,000 groups.

But WhatsApp has been at the center of controversy. After the false child kidnap messages were spread on the platform in India, it was flooded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories ahead of the October election in Brazil.

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption allows groups of hundreds of users to exchange texts, photos and video beyond the purview of authorities, independent fact checkers or even the platform itself.

“WhatsApp is the biggest challenge for us right now on the social media front,” said Nitin Deep Blaggan, a senior police officer in charge of monitoring online content in Jaipur.

WhatsApp has limited the number of messages a user can forward in one go to 20 but in India specifically the ceiling was fixed at five. The company blocked “hundreds of thousands” of accounts in Brazil during the election period, and the same was expected ahead of India polls, a source aware of the company’s thinking said this month.

“We have engaged with political organizers to inform them that we will take action against accounts that are sending automated unwanted messages,” Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s head of communications, told Reuters in a statement. He did not name any parties.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was “committed to maintaining elections integrity” and making efforts to “weed out false news”. Twitter said it had made efforts to protect the electoral process and better detect and stop malicious activity.

During the Rajasthan election, police ran a 10-man social media monitoring unit, tracking tweets and Facebook posts related to the state polls. Inside the monitoring room, the posts were shown on wall-mounted screens and automatically filtered into neutral, positive or negative sections.

The negative posts received special attention – they were manually checked and, sometimes flagged to senior police officers for further investigation and action.

An officer looks at computer screens inside a police war room setup to monitor social media posts in Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Aditya Kalra

The sole aim, members of the monitoring team said, was to ensure that no online post spilled into violence.

One of the posts flagged by police when Reuters visited was a video from a Congress leader’s rally where people appeared to be shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan, India’s old enemy.

Congress’ nearby war room had already debunked the video they said was doctored. Within hours, party workers posted what they said was an “original” video, that showed that nobody shouted such slogans at the rally.

Reporting by Aditya Kalra in Jaipur; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Micron sales, profit miss estimates as chip glut hurts prices

(Reuters) – U.S. chipmaker Micron Technology Inc (MU.O) gave on Tuesday quarterly sales and profit forecasts well below Wall Street estimates, citing a market glut of memory chips as consumer and business demand for phones and computers is weakening.

Memory chip parts of U.S. memory chip maker MicronTechnology are pictured at their fair booth at an industrial fair in Frankfurt, Germany, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo

Micron said it expected industry output, including from South Korean rivals Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) and SK Hynix (000660.KS), to outstrip demand from the makers of phones, PCs and servers, pushing down Micron chip prices.

Samsung had already warned of a slowdown in demand and drop in chip prices, flagging an end to a two-year boom in memory chips as global demand for mobile and other electronics devices wanes and fresh supplies from Hynix and Toshiba Corp (6502.T) hit the market. Hynix has also offered a downbeat outlook.

Micron Chief Executive Sanjay Mehrotra told investors on a conference call on Tuesday that the company was taking “decisive actions in terms of reducing our production output” to hold the line on prices.

“We are always reviewing how to best align our output with market demand to focus on delivering healthy profitability,” Mehrotra said in an interview.

But the glut will hammer Micron in the short term, with the company estimating revenue of $5.7 billion to $6.3 billion for its fiscal second quarter and gross margins of 50 to 53 percent, compared to analysts’ estimates of $7.3 billion and 55 percent, according to I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv.

Shares of the Boise, Idaho-based company fell as much as 8.5 percent in extended trading after the forecast, before paring losses to 2.8 percent.

Asked about Micron’s comments, Hynix told Reuters that in the short term, the memory chip sector would struggle through a period of relatively low growth due to weak demand in the smartphone and PC markets, but the outlook would brighten in the long term.

Hynix shares were down 1.6 percent in late morning trading in South Korea. Samsung shares were up slightly.

“The worse may not be over yet if the end-market demand weakens further,” said analyst Kinngai Chan of Summit Insights Group.

Micron is responding to the oversupply of DRAM and NAND memory chips by investing more in its next generation of chips. Major suppliers to smartphone makers such as Apple Inc (AAPL.O) have lowered their sales forecasts, citing weak demand from device makers.

Data centers, which have been a boon for Micron as cloud computing providers like Amazon.com’s (AMZN.O) Amazon Web Services have become massive businesses, were a weak spot in Micron’s earnings. On the post-earnings call, Mehrotra cited “inventory adjustments” at data centers for the pressure on revenue.

Several chipmakers have cited strong demand in the months before U.S. tariffs were imposed on some Chinese goods, leaving analysts wondering if data center owners had tried to get in orders ahead of the levies.

“We expect this headwind will persist for a couple of quarters. We are seeing some cloud customers go through a digestion period following very strong growth over the last two years,” Mehrotra said.

Stifel analyst Kevin Cassidy said Micron was making the right move by slashing output instead of cutting prices to gain market share as it had in the past.

“We see today’s announcements as prioritizing profitability over market share gains,” he said.

Micron’s gross margin was 59 percent for the fiscal first quarter, and executives said U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods cut its gross margins by about half a percentage point, at the lower end of the negative impact it told investors in September.

Micron is ahead of schedule in addressing the expected impact of U.S. tariffs on its products, Manish Bhatia, Micron’s executive vice president of global operations, said in an interview.

“We made very good progress across multiple sites in our (factory) network taking the products that were being made in China and destined for the United States and quickly transferring them to other sites outside of China,” he said.

Net sales rose 16 percent to $7.91 billion, short of analysts’ expectations of $8.02 billion.

Excluding items, Micron earned $2.97 per share, narrowly beating the analyst average estimate of $2.96, according to I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv.

Reporting by Sonam Rai in Bengaluru and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in SEOUL; Editing by Richard Chang and Muralikumar Anantharaman

How Dense Does a Body Have to Be to Break a Concrete Floor?

I often miss some cool stuff the first time I watch a movie. This is probably a good thing—it shows that I’m focused on the story and not the small details. In this case, the movie is 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and the scene involves the density of a character named Vision.

OK, I am going to give a SPOILER ALERT—but if you haven’t seen this movie yet, I have a feeling you won’t be upset about spoilers. Anyway, this scene doesn’t reveal any huge plot points.

So here’s the deal. Vision is trying to keep Wanda (Scarlet Witch) safe in the Avengers’ headquarters. Hawkeye comes to help her leave, but Vision catches them. Although Vision could easily defeat Hawkeye, the same cannot be said for the powers of Scarlet Witch. Scarlet Witch has some ability to control matter—and in this case it appears that she can activate Vision’s powers. One of Vision’s primary powers is his ability to change his density.

So with a bit of magic, Scarlet Witch increases Vision’s density up to the point were he becomes too massive to move. He grows so massive that he breaks through the floor. With Vision out of the way, Wanda and Hawkeye are free to leave and finish the rest of the movie.

Density and Mass of Vision

Now for the fun part. What was the density and mass of Vision when he crashed through the floor? How about a quick review of density? Take a look at these five objects.

Rhett Allain

These blocks are all different, but there is something similar about them. If you took the three blocks on the left, they all have the same mass (about 45 grams). The three blocks on the right all have the same volume (I’m disappointed that they are almost exactly 1 cubic inch—they should have some value in cm3). But wait! What if you take the mass of each block and divide by its volume? This is how we define density. The density is a property that doesn’t depend on the size of the object, just its material. So the two white objects (on the ends) have different volumes and different masses, but the same density. The same is true for the two black objects.

To estimate the mass and density of Vision, I need some particular event that gives a hint about his mass since you can’t “see” the mass of an object. Yes, you guessed it: I can use moment that Vision breaks through the floor to estimate his mass.

Here is what I’m going to do. I’m going to assume the floor is made of concrete and that the gravitational force on Vision (due to his large mass) is enough to exceed the compressive strength of concrete to initiate the break.

What is “compressive strength”? This is the pressure a material can withstand before breaking. Yes, it’s the pressure and not the force (remember that pressure is the force divided by the contact area). This is why you can more easily break a material with a sharp pointy object than you can with a big flat object. The pointy object has a smaller area and therefore you get a bigger pressure for the same amount of force.

But what about the compressive strength of concrete? It’s perhaps between 20 and 40 mega Pascals (MPa) where a Pascal is the same as one Newton per square meter. This means that if the floor breaks, I know the pressure from the force between Vision and the floor. If I estimate his contact area, I can then calculate the force and next his masses.

Really, the only thing left to estimate is the contact area. I could perhaps do a more detailed analysis, but I think it’s fine to just get a rough value. What about a contact area that is a rectangle with a length of 1 meter and a width of 0.5 meters? That would put the area at 0.5 m2. I’m going with that.

Oh, one more thing. If I want to calculate the density of Vision, I also need his volume. He looks like a normal human—at least in terms of size. Humans have a density close to 1000 kg/m^3 (the density of water). If a human has a mass of 75 kg, the volume would be around 0.075 m3. I’m going with that value.

Let’s crunch the numbers. I’m including the calculations in this python script so that you can put your own values in (if you don’t like mine). Just click the “pencil” to edit and “play” to run it if you change any of the values.

Just to be clear, that is massive. The density is extreme (it’s not neutron-star-level density though). Actually, it’s sort of difficult to visualize a mass that large. How about this? What would be the size of a spherical asteroid of that same size? If the asteroid is made of normal stuff, it might have a density of 3,000 kg/m^3. With the same mass as Vision, a spherical asteroid would have a diameter of around 10 meters (30 feet). That’s one big old rock.

Homework

You know (or you should know) that I can’t just stop there. There are many questions left unanswered. I would normally just assign these as homework, but let me answer two of these questions for you.

Would there be a noticeable gravitational force between Vision and Hawkeye due to the large mass?

There is a gravitational interaction between all objects with mass. Normally on the surface of the Earth we only deal with the gravitational force between an object and the other. Interactions between two objects (like people) are usually so small that you would never be able to measure them. In this case, however, one of those people has a giant mass.

The magnitude of the gravitational force depends on both the masses of the objects and the distance between them. If you assume the objects are point masses (not true but an OK approximation), then the following equation calculates the force.

The G is just the universal gravitational constant with a value of 6.67 x 10-11 Nm2/kg2. If I assume a distance of 1.5 meters between Hawkeye and Vision, the gravitational force between them would be 0.0034 Newtons. That is a pretty tiny force. In fact, if you put a paperclip on top of Hawkeye’s head, the weight of this paperclip would be more than twice the gravitational pull from Vision. I don’t think Hawkeye would notice it.

Assuming Scarlet Witch increases Vision’s density at a constant rate, how long will it take for him to have a mass equivalent to the Earth?

If you watch a clip of the scene, it seems clear that Scarlet Witch starts influencing Vision’s mass when his head gem turns from yellow to red. Vision drops to his knees 13.9 seconds later. The floor also starts to crack at this point. Finally, after 20.4 seconds, Vision crashes through the floor.

Assuming a constant rate for the increase of mass (and thus density), the mass increases at 100,000 kilograms per second. If this mass increase rate stays constant, it would take 5 x 1019 seconds to get up to the mass of the Earth (6 x 1024 kg). Hint: that time is super, super, super long. It’s not going to happen. But it was still fun to calculate.

Here are a few more homework questions for you:

  • How long (assuming a constant mass increase rate) until Vision’s mass reaches the point where Hawkeye gets pulled to Vision?
  • If you consider the relationship between mass and energy (E = mc2), how much energy would it take to increase Vision’s mass? What about the power? How does this compare to the power output of the Sun?
  • How large would Vision’s mass need to get before he became a black hole?

More Great WIRED Stories

If Your Business Strategy Looks Too Complicated, It Probably Is. Here's Why

Once a year, I spend two days with my client companies developing their annual plan. While we continuously review strategy throughout the year, the annual plan is a chance to do a deeper dive into the internal and external factors that inform how to go to market.

Getting this strategy right, and keeping it right, is key to long-term growth and success. However, many teams get it wrong. They don’t get it wrong because the strategy they develop won’t work, but because it’s impossible to explain it in simple terms. If it’s not easy to explain, it will be impossible to execute.

Your employees, your partners, and your customers are the ones who will actually be implementing your strategy. If it’s too complicated to understand, they won’t understand it.

After you’ve decided on all of angles you’re going to play and all of the moves you’re going to make, set to work developing a simple, clear, and effective way to communicate it to everyone on the team. Here are three things every strategy must communicate easily and effectively to all stakeholders.

1. Set a clear (and limited) set of focused priorities.

In essence, strategy is about choice. And the first objective is to set a clear and decisive set of priorities for the organization. The fewer the better. These need to be above and beyond the day-to-day work and focused on long-term goals and key moves needed to get there.

Strategic moves include things like creating new products or services, developing new capabilities, entering new markets, scaling up capacity, or even researching technology. While all of these might help the organization, trying to do all of them at once won’t. Pick three to five for the year, max.

Another trick I often employ is to list all of the strategy options that the team  eliminated or de-prioritized. By publishing these strategies as well, you’re making specifically clear what you’re NOT doing in the coming year.

2. Set a clear definition of success and a timeline.

Beyond direction, a good strategy needs a clear desired outcome and definition of success. Too many strategies stop at big ideas without nailing down specifics. The devil lies in the details. Too often, I see a team of people agree to a high level strategic priority, only to discover they are on vastly different pages when the details are fleshed out.

For each strategic direction, create a set of specific goals that are both measurable and time bound. It should be clear to everyone what constitutes completion, and it ideally should include a handful of objective criteria. I generally suggest a simple checklist or short description of the outcome or product.

3. Create a compelling vision of future success.

Now that you have a clear set of priorities and a definition of success, it’s time to paint a vivid picture of success. As humans we’re wired to be compelled by stories and visual images. Turn the goals you’ve selected into a narrative  explaining why you’ve chosen these objectives, why they are the most important ones, and how achieving these will lead to organizational success.

If someone on your team has a creative bent, try illustrating your desired future with photos and illustrations. If you’re developing a new product or service, find images that reflect the impact you want to create on your customer. If you’re expanding into a new geography, create a slideshow highlighting the city or region and explain why it’s such an attractive market.

Having a strategy with a clear set of priorities and objectives with actionable outcomes will increase your stakeholder alignment. By creating a rich vision for future success you’ll drive engagement and motivation. When in doubt, keep it simple, clear, and compelling. A basic strategy, well-executed, will always beat a brilliant one whiffed.

Canada says China has granted consular access to second detainee

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian diplomats received consular access on Sunday to the second of two men detained by China over the past week, Canada’s foreign ministry said in a statement that gave few details.

Canadian businessman Michael Spavor arrives next to the former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (not pictured) after a trip to North Korea, at Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing, China January 13, 2014. Picture taken January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, met Michael Spavor, the statement said. Spavor and Michael Kovrig were both picked up after Canada arrested a senior Chinese executive on a U.S. extradition request.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who said on Friday the detentions were unacceptable – told CTV his government was taking the situation very seriously.

“We have engaged with the Chinese officials to determine what exactly conditions are they being detained under? Why are they being detained?” he said in an interview aired on Sunday. McCallum met Kovrig for the first time in Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that China should free the two men.

Spavor, a businessman, and Kovrig, a former diplomat, were detained after Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on Dec 1.

U.S. prosecutors accuse Meng of misleading multinational banks about Iran-linked transactions, putting the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions. Meng, who is the daughter of Huawei’s founder, has said she is innocent.

China has demanded Canada free Meng and threatened unspecified consequences if it does not.

On Monday, influential state-back newspaper the Global Times said in an editorial that an escalation in the spat with Canada could be coming.

“In the struggle with Canada, China needs to prepare for the possibility of conflict escalation,” it said.

“Beijing must take the contest seriously and maximize the support of international public opinion, leaving Western media no smear to slander its counterattacks as ‘degradation of China’s opening-up.’”

Trudeau told CTV that Canada would continue trying to build up trading ties with China.

“We need to do so in a way that is true to our values and stands up for Canadians’ interests, and getting that balance right is complex. (It) has been made more difficult by recent trends,” he said.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Peter Cooney and Michael Perry

Japanese electronics firms look to re-engineer their design mojo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Akihiro Adachi, a 31-year-old audiovisual equipment designer at Panasonic Corp, longed for some personal space during his lengthy train rides from Osaka to Tokyo. So when his company set out to encourage innovation, he joined with some colleagues and came up with “Wear Space,” a headset that limits noise and peripheral vision.

A designer of Panasonic demonstrates a prototype of ‘Wear Space’ during a photo opportunity in Tokyo, Japan, October 29, 2018. Picture taken October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Many at Panasonic were puzzled.

“Someone said the office full of people wearing this would look weird,” said Kang Hwayoung, another member of the 10-person design team.

But the prototype unexpectedly won a global design award and received positive feedback from unexpected quarters, such as sake tasters who wanted to limit sensory input.

The project is among a range of efforts in the Japanese electronics industry to reinvigorate industrial design. After years of losing ground to design-first rivals such as Apple and Dyson, Japanese companies are now trying to recover the processes and creative flair that produced iconic products such as the Walkman.

Panasonic, Sony and Mitsubishi Electric are among those implementing practices that have been routine at many U.S. and European companies, such as engaging designers at every step and treating packaging as part of the product.

“We used to have designers involved only in final stages of our product development process, just for an aesthetic fix,” Yoshiyuki Miyabe, Panasonic’s technology and manufacturing chief, told reporters. “We are revamping the process so that designers can join us from the planning phase.”

The Japanese government is promoting the efforts: a report in May urged corporate executives to pursue “design-driven management, whereby a company leverages design as a primary driver of competitiveness.”

It also called for tax incentives for design-related investments and new laws to better protect intellectual property. The government is set to revise such laws next year.

“Of course, we had an argument over how much the government can do and should do with private-sector issues like this,” said Daisuke Kubota, director at the government’s design registration system planning office, who was involved in the panel.

“But a lot of design experts asked us for government initiatives, saying that this is really the last chance and Japan would never be able to catch up with global rivals if this opportunity is missed.”

Another member of the panel, Kinya Tagawa, visiting professor at the Royal College of Art and co-founder of design firm Takram, says there has been a sharp increase in major companies’ requesting design lectures for their executives.

“I’m seeing a sign of change,” he said.

THE ROAD AHEAD

All agree there is a long way to go. C-suite designers remain a rarity at most electronics companies while technologists reign supreme, company officials and industrial designers say.

Japan last year received 31,961 applications for design registrations, only a fraction of China’s 628,658 and half of South Korea’s 67,374. In the heyday of the Japanese electronics industry in the early 1980s, Japan had nearly 60,000 applications every year.

Tagawa said the root of today’s problems was the failure of Japanese firms to absorb lessons from the software revolution, which showed the importance of user-centered design principles and easy-to-use products such as Apple’s iPhone. Instead, they remained fixated on engineering.

Ryuichi Oya, who retired as design chief of Sharp Corp last month, says he saw that attitude up close when he moved to Sharp four years ago after a long stint at automaker Mazda Motor.

“Designers at home electronics companies have little say compared to engineers,” he said. “When engineers dismiss design proposals as too costly or difficult from an engineering point of view, designers easily succumb.”

Oya said he found it particularly hard to convince management of the need for a design vision.

“It’s not about whether you like this color or that shape,” he said. “There have to be design principles unique to Sharp and consistent across its product line.”

COMPETITION

Japanese designers cite the contrast with South Korea’s Samsung Group, where its patriarch, Lee Kun-hee, said in 1996 that design was a core management resource “imperative for a company’s survival in the 21st century.” He sharply boosted both the number and status of designers.

At Sony, insiders say design began its return to the forefront after chairman Kaz Hirai took over in 2012. Change has been slow as the company went through a painful restructuring, but the results can be seen its approach to the revival of Aibo, a robot dog.

Designers worked to craft a holistic user experience, starting from the moment a customer opened the box, tapping into a community of Aibo owners, Sony design chief Yutaka Hasegawa said.

“We had intense discussions over how Aibo should be packaged, to make it look closer to a living creature. It’s important because opening the container box marks the customer’s first encounter with the dog.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

They decided to lay Aibo sideways with its head tilting to the left, a more expensive option than placing it face down because the interior packaging must be asymmetrical.

The result was a buzz among Aibo owners, with some posting on the Internet videos showing a “ceremony for opening the Aibo container.”

($1 = 112.7200 yen)

Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki; Additional reporting by Yoshiyasu Shida; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Gerry Doyle

‘The Endless’ Is a Masterful Low-Budget Sci-Fi Movie

Over the past five years, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have released a trio of amazing low-budget sci-fi/horror films: Resolution, Spring, and The Endless. Science fiction author Christopher Cevasco says that what sets these films apart is their focus on compelling characters.

“The performances have to be really strong to pull off movies like these,” Cevasco says in Episode 339 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They’re not reliant on special effects or crazy visuals. You’re immediately pulled in by the characters.”

Benson and Moorhead are real-life friends, which definitely shows in the way that they portray male friendship. For writer Sara Lynn Michener, that’s a welcome change from horror movies in which the characters are both disposable and detestable.

“I really appreciate that they are putting a lot of emotionally intelligent male characters in their films,” she says. “We see a lot of stereotypical male behavior in film, and it’s really lovely to see a film about a man taking care of his friend.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley hopes to see more low-budget sci-fi films like The Endless. “I just think this should be so inspiring to other filmmakers, that you can make movies like Resolution for $3,000 and have 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes,” he says. “This is a model for other people who want to do that.”

Benson and Moorhead are currently at work on a bigger-budget movie, Synchronic, starring Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie. TV writer Andrea Kail hopes the new film is able to maintain the same sensibility as their earlier work.

“I just hope they retain their creative independence, because they’re amazing storytellers, and that should be encouraged, and not reined in by a bunch of idiot studio executives,” she says.

Listen to the complete interview with Christopher Cevasco, Sara Lynn Michener, and Andrea Kail in Episode 339 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Andrea Kail on film school:

“Let me say this—and I’m sure NYU will come after me now—but if you want to be a filmmaker, don’t go to film school. Just don’t. It’s useless. You’re wasting your parents’ tens of thousands of dollars. All you need to do to figure out how to make a great film is watch movies—watch a ton of movies, read the scripts. You can download a million scripts off the internet. Watch the movies, read the scripts, take it apart, deconstruct it, figure out how it works, put it back together—like an El Camino on your front lawn. That’s how you figure out how to be a filmmaker, that is the way to do it. Don’t waste your parents’ money, don’t go to film school. It’ll ruin you.”

Sara Lynn Michener on religion:

“I went to Vacation Bible School growing up, and I was watching [The Endless] thinking, ‘Nope, this is terrifying.’ I always wonder whether it’s more terrifying for me or for anyone else who was raised in a restrictive thought environment, because there’s a very thin line between Vacation Bible School—which is this super-happy friendly innocent thing—and cults where people just decide to kill themselves. There’s a very thin line between those things. So I love movies that explore the horror of groups of people that get together and formulate these terrifying ideas. But yeah, the cult was totally believable to me.”

Christopher Cevasco on H. P. Lovecraft:

“There are some overt references [in The Endless] describing this entity as something we can’t quite see because its colors are off of our spectrum, and so of course those are all references to ‘The Colour Out of Space,’ which is a short story by Lovecraft. It’s about a meteor that crashes in a farm district and starts driving all the people in the area mad, turning the livestock into monstrosities and making all the vegetation really big and overgrown but also rotten and disgusting. A lot of those themes were used in the movie Annihilation which came out last year—I think Jeff VanderMeer is explicitly playing with a lot of the themes from ‘The Colour Out of Space’ in his book that the movie was based on. So there are definitely a lot of overt references to that.”

Andrea Kail on Hollywood:

“When you make an indie film, you’re the creator, and you have creative license because you’re not beholden to anybody. The minute you make a studio film, you are accountable to a bunch of accountants and a bunch of mid-level studio executives who went to the Peter Stark program at USC and then took a McKee seminar and suddenly think they’re film geniuses, and then they start giving you notes and telling you what to do. That’s what I fear. I hope it doesn’t go that way, because [Benson and Moorhead] have a very clear voice and they know what they’re doing, and I hope some dingbat 27-year-old kid doesn’t go, ‘Well I think it should be this.’”


More Great WIRED Stories

Space Photos of the Week: It’s Love vs. Hate in Star vs. Star

The universe does not believe in Christmas, though this photo of a stellar nursery called NGC 346 might remind you of a seasonal decoration. It’s actually a combination of images: NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope provided the infrared, the ESO’s New Technology Telescope added the visible light spectrum, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton spacecraft sent in the x-ray. Clusters like these, dating back to just a few billion years after the Big Bang, are the source material for scientists looking to understand star formation, and by combining data from several telescopes they gain a better understanding on the goings-on at these nurseries.

Two’s the charm: You’re looking at a white dwarf and a red giant, a binary star called R Aquarii. As they orbit, material gets sucked from one star to the other, creating these tendrils of gas and dust. The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope has a new instrument called SPHERE (short for Spectro-Polarimetric High-Contrast Exoplanet Research), and it’s primarily for hunting planets, but it ran a system test on this stellar pair.

More R Aquarii from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, this time from 2012, with rather different details visible on the nebula surrounding the pair. While the white dwarf hoovers material from its partner, the red giant spews out loops that can be seen here in red. So the stars’ relationship isn’t exactly mutual. Like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this couple may seem charming, but don’t let that fool you.

Zooming out quite a bit, let’s take a distant view of R Aquarii courtesy of the ESO’s Digitized Sky Survey 2. The pair of stars can be seen right at the center of the image as a bright orange dot. Even at this remove, you might notice the red loops of gas jutting out from the sides of the stars.

Cut loose, Speculoos: In the clear-skied Atacama desert of Chile, ESO astronomers built a prototype telescope to search for Earth-sized, potentially habitable planets orbiting smaller stars. For its starter snap, Speculoos appears to have done a splendid job with M83, otherwise known as the Southern Pinwheel galaxy, a bright barred spiral about 15 million light years away.

Jupiter’s coming atcha! This photo series comes from Juno last April—April Fools’ Day, to be exact. The changing angle in each image offers a sense of the spacecraft’s trajectory as it flew past the planet. There’s the bright, famous, always-be-photobombing Great Red Spot, but the white, gray, and brown undulating clouds that encircle the gas giant are mesmerizing in their own right.

Amazon Releases $30 Echo Wall Clock

In September, Amazon announced plans to launch an Echo-powered wall clock to help users visually track their timers.

Today, the clock officially became available to the masses.

On the surface, it looks like any other wall clock. The device, however, has 60 LEDs around the clock face to show any active timers you’ve initiated.

For example, if you set a timer for when you need to take a pie out of the oven and another for when your kids absolutely need to stop playing video games and get ready for dinner, you’ll see two LEDs on the clock.

While the clock sports the Echo name, you’ll need to have Alexa set up on another device such as an Echo Dot or your phone to use it. The clock itself doesn’t have any speakers or microphones. It’s meant to work in tandem with another Echo device.

You can snag one of the wall clocks from Amazon for $29.99.

And if you want something a little different, that Billy Big Mouth Bass Echo device has a speaker and microphones, so it works like a traditional Amazon Echo and is definitely bound to start a few conversations with your guests this holiday season.