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  • NBC's New Peacock Streaming Service Is Just One Big Ad-Injection Machine
    Comcast's NBCUniversal is launching a new streaming service in April called Peacock. With three pricing tiers from free to $10 per month, Comcast wants Peacock "to be an ad delivery system to destroy all others in its path," writes Ryan Waniata via Digital Trends. From the report: In a shockingly long investor call, NBC revealed its big new strategy for delivering its many intellectual property spoils online, which will be offered in a multi-tiered plan (with both ad-based and ad-free versions) rolling up a content hodge-podge, including NBCUniversal TV classics and films on-demand, a handful of new exclusive shows, and live content, from NBC News to the Tokyo Olympics. Peacock's ad-based service -- which rolls out first to the company's Xfinity and Flex cable customers from within their cable box -- will arrive in at least some form for zero dollars per month. A $5 monthly charge will get you more content (but still carry ads), while a $10 fee will get you ad-free viewing and the whole kit-and-caboodle. But here's the thing: The execs at Comcast don't even want you to buy that service. It's an also-ran. A red herring. NBCUniversal Chairman of Advertising & Partnerships Linda Yaccarino spoke vociferously to the crowd of investors, saying, "Peacock will define the future of advertising. The future of free." To hook viewers into their ad-loaded trap, NBC execs have leveraged Peacock to offer "the lightest ad load in the industry," with just 5 minutes of ads per hour. To be fair, that ad-to-content ratio would be quite light these days in TV talk. But, Yaccarino continued, these would be revolutionary new ad innovations for Peacock, including ads that won't be as repeated over and over. Ads that will look "as good as the content" they accompany (whatever that means). Solo ads where "brands become the hero" and offer a TV show brought to you by a single advertiser. Ads. Ads. And more ads.

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  • An Algorithm That Learns Through Rewards May Show How Our Brain Does Too
    An anonymous reader quotes a report from MIT Technology Review: In a paper published in Nature today, DeepMind, Alphabet's AI subsidiary, has once again used lessons from reinforcement learning to propose a new theory about the reward mechanisms within our brains. The hypothesis, supported by initial experimental findings, could not only improve our understanding of mental health and motivation. It could also validate the current direction of AI research toward building more human-like general intelligence. At a high level, reinforcement learning follows the insight derived from Pavlov's dogs: it's possible to teach an agent to master complex, novel tasks through only positive and negative feedback. An algorithm begins learning an assigned task by randomly predicting which action might earn it a reward. It then takes the action, observes the real reward, and adjusts its prediction based on the margin of error. Over millions or even billions of trials, the algorithm's prediction errors converge to zero, at which point it knows precisely which actions to take to maximize its reward and so complete its task. It turns out the brain's reward system works in much the same way -- a discovery made in the 1990s, inspired by reinforcement-learning algorithms. When a human or animal is about to perform an action, its dopamine neurons make a prediction about the expected reward. Once the actual reward is received, they then fire off an amount of dopamine that corresponds to the prediction error. A better reward than expected triggers a strong dopamine release, while a worse reward than expected suppresses the chemical's production. The dopamine, in other words, serves as a correction signal, telling the neurons to adjust their predictions until they converge to reality. The phenomenon, known as reward prediction error, works much like a reinforcement-learning algorithm. The improved algorithm changes the way it predicts rewards. "Whereas the old approach estimated rewards as a single number -- meant to equal the average expected outcome -- the new approach represents them more accurately as a distribution," the report says. This lends itself to a new hypothesis: Do dopamine neurons also predict rewards in the same distributional way? After testing this theory, DeepMind found "compelling evidence that the brain indeed uses distributional reward predictions to strengthen its learning algorithm," reports MIT Technology Review.

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  • PopSockets CEO Calls Out Amazon's 'Bullying With a Smile' Tactics
    At a House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on competition in the digital economy, PopSockets CEO and inventor David Barnett described how Amazon used shady tactics to pressure their smartphone accessory company. Mashable reports: "Multiple times we discovered that Amazon itself had sourced counterfeit product and was selling it alongside our own product," he noted. Barnett, under oath, told the gathered members of the House that Amazon initially played nice only to drop the hammer when it believed no one was watching. After agreeing to a written contract stipulating a price at which PopSockets would be sold on Amazon, the e-commerce giant would then allegedly unilaterally lower the price and demand that PopSockets make up the difference. Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter asked Barnett how Amazon could "ignore the contract that [PopSockets] entered into and just say, 'Sorry, that was our contract, but you got to lower your price.'" Barnett didn't mince words. "With coercive tactics, basically," he replied. "And these are tactics that are mainly executed by phone. It's one of the strangest relationships I've ever had with a retailer." Barnett emphasized that, on paper, the contract "appears to be negotiated in good faith." However, he claimed, this is followed by "... frequent phone calls. And on the phone calls we get what I might call bullying with a smile. Very friendly people that we deal with who say, 'By the way, we dropped the price of X product last week. We need you to pay for it.'" Barnett said he would push back and that's when "the threats come." He asserted that Amazon representatives would tell him over the phone: "If we don't get it, then we're going to source product from the gray market."

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  • Google Parent Company Alphabet Hits $1 Trillion Market Cap
    Google parent-company Alphabet has hit $1 trillion in market capitalization, making it the fourth U.S. company to hit the milestone. CNBC reports: Apple was the first to hit the market cap milestone in 2018. Then, Microsoft and Amazon followed. Apple and Microsoft are still valued at more than a trillion dollars while Amazon has since fallen below the mark. Analysts are bullish on the company's newly appointed CEO, Sundar Pichai. In a surprise announcement in December 2019, Alphabet founder Larry Page announced plans to step down as CEO, along with co-founder and president Sergey Brin. Pichai had already been the CEO of Google, which includes all the company's core businesses -- including search, advertising, YouTube and Android -- and generates substantially all its revenue and profits. But he reported to Page, who also oversaw other businesses making long-term bets on experimental technology like self-driving cars and package delivery drones. Now, he's in charge of the whole conglomerate, although Page and Brin still have control over most of the company's voting shares, giving them significant influence in major decisions. "Optimism also comes from the company's growth in its Cloud business, which -- while still far behind the leader Amazon and runner-up Microsoft -- doubled its revenue run rate from $1 billion to $2 billion per quarter between Feb. 2018 and July 2019," adds CNBC.

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  • Researchers Find Serious Flaws In WordPress Plugins Used On 400K Sites
    An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Serious vulnerabilities have recently come to light in three WordPress plugins that have been installed on a combined 400,000 websites, researchers said. InfiniteWP, WP Time Capsule, and WP Database Reset are all affected. The highest-impact flaw is an authentication bypass vulnerability in the InfiniteWP Client, a plugin installed on more than 300,000 websites. It allows administrators to manage multiple websites from a single server. The flaw lets anyone log in to an administrative account with no credentials at all. From there, attackers can delete contents, add new accounts, and carry out a wide range of other malicious tasks. The critical flaw in WP Time Capsule also leads to an authentication bypass that allows unauthenticated attackers to log in as an administrator. WP Time Capsule, which runs on about 20,000 sites, is designed to make backing up website data easier. By including a string in a POST request, attackers can obtain a list of all administrative accounts and automatically log in to the first one. The bug has been fixed in version 1.21.16. Sites running earlier versions should update right away. Web security firm WebARX has more details. The last vulnerable plugin is WP Database Reset, which is installed on about 80,000 sites. One flaw allows any unauthenticated person to reset any table in the database to its original WordPress state. The bug is caused by reset functions that aren't secured by the standard capability checks or security nonces. Exploits can result in the complete loss of data or a site reset to the default WordPress settings. A second security flaw in WP Database Reset causes a privilege-escalation vulnerability that allows any authenticated user -- even those with minimal system rights -- to gain administrative rights and lock out all other users. All site administrators using this plugin should update to version 3.15, which patches both vulnerabilities. Wordfence has more details about both flaws here.

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  • It's Not Just You: Google Added Annoying Icons To Search On Desktop
    Kim Lyons, writing for The Verge: Google added tiny favicon icons to its search results this week for some reason, creating more clutter in what used to be a clean interface, and seemingly without actually improving the results or the user experience. The company says it's part of a plan to make clearer where information is coming from, but how? In my Chrome desktop browser, it feels like an aggravating, unnecessary change that doesn't actually help the user determine how good, bad, or reputable an actual search result might be. Yes, ads are still clearly marked with the word "ad," which is a good thing. But do I need to see Best Buy's logo or AT&T's blue circle when I search for "Samsung Fold" to know they're trying to sell me something? Google says the favicon icons are "helping searchers better understand where information is coming from, more easily scan results & decide what to explore." If you don't care for the new look, Google has instructions on how to change or add a favicon to search results. Lifehacker also has instructions on how to apply filters to undo the favicon nonsense.

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  • Best Buy Opens Probe Into CEO's Personal Conduct
    The board of Best Buy is investigating allegations that CEO Corie Barry had an inappropriate romantic relationship with a fellow executive (Warning: source paywalled; alternative source), who has since left the electronics retailer. The Wall Street Journal reports: The allegations were sent to the board in an anonymous letter dated Dec. 7. The letter claims Ms. Barry had a romantic relationship for years with former Best Buy Senior Vice President Karl Sanft before she took over as CEO last June. "Best Buy takes allegations of misconduct very seriously," a spokesman told The Wall Street Journal. The Minneapolis company said its board has hired the law firm Sidley Austin LLP to conduct an independent review that is ongoing. "We encourage the letter's author to come forward and be part of that confidential process," the Best Buy spokesman said. "We will not comment further until the review is concluded." Ms. Barry didn't address the allegations and said she is cooperating with the probe. "The Board has my full cooperation and support as it undertakes this review, and I look forward to its resolution in the near term," she said in a statement.

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