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Update  August, 2019

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Science & Technology

French hoverboard inventor flies over the English Channel


Franky Zapata, a 40-year-old inventor, takes to the air in Sangatte, Northern France, at the start of his successful attempt to cross the channel from France to England, aboard his flyboard, Sunday Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Thomas Adamson and Jason Parkinson

St. Margaret’s Bay, England (AP) - Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s a French inventor flying over the English Channel on his hoverboard.

Looking like a superhero, Franky Zapata successfully completed the famed 35-kilometer (22-mile) journey in just 22 minutes earlier this month, reaching speeds of up to 177 kilometers per hour (110 mph) on the flyboard that has made him a French household name.

Propelled by a power pack full of kerosene, Zapata set off from Sangatte in France’s Pas de Calais region on Sunday, August 4 and landed in St. Margaret’s Bay, beyond the white cliffs of Dover, in southeast England. He stopped only once, on the British side, to refuel his futuristic invention from a boat in the choppy waters.

“I’m feeling happy ... It’s just an amazing moment in my life,” he said in English following his touchdown in Britain. “The last 10% (of the flight) was easier ... because I had the time to look at the cliffs.”

It was, of course, the record for such a trip: No one else has tried to cross the channel in this way.

It was also a personal record — the furthest distance that the 40-year-old, who drew nationwide attention after whizzing above European leaders in Paris at Bastille Day celebrations, had ever traveled atop his hoverboard.

The wind in the Channel, especially gusts, presented a major challenge, he said, adding that he bends into gusts but is destabilized if the wind quickly dies. It was, he acknowledged, no easy feat — especially given the physical endurance it requires. He said his leg muscles were “burning” during the flight.

“Your body resists the wind, and because the board is attached to my feet, all my body has to resist to the wind,” he told reporters. “I tried to enjoy it and not think about the pain.”

Witness Mark Kerr, a 60-year-old hospital librarian from Dover, said it was quite an unusual sight.

“Spectacular and amazing. Not every day you see a man standing up, flying across the Channel, being chased by three helicopters,” he said.

Rosie Day, a 17-year-old at the British landing site, was impressed by Zapata’s flying skills.

“I was surprised by how quick he was. It was really impressive how fast he came in and the agility of his movements,” she said. “He was very smooth.”

This was the inventor’s second attempt at crossing the Channel. His first — 10 days previous — ended when he collided with a refueling boat several minutes into his flight. That destroyed his transportation, a version of the flyboard that his company sells commercially.

Zapata told reporters this time he was “scared to touch down” at the refueling station on the sea but knew “whatever happened,” his team “wouldn’t let me fall into the water.”

He said he and his team worked around the clock to pull off the feat.

“All week, we worked 16 hours a day ... we worked like crazy,” he said.

French maritime authorities said the refueling operation was dangerous, even though Zapata nixed his initial plan to refuel his power pack from a flying platform.

Instagram expands hiding 'likes' to make you happier


Instagram is expanding a test to hide how many “likes” people’s posts receive on its photo-sharing app. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Barbara Ortutay

San Francisco (AP) — Instagram is expanding a test to hide how many "likes" people's posts receive as it tries to combat criticism that such counts hurt mental health and make people feel bad when comparing themselves to others.

The Facebook-owned photo-sharing service has been running the test in Canada since May. Now, Facebook said the test has been expanded to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand.

Facebook typically tests new Facebook and Instagram features in smaller markets before bringing them to the U.S., if it ever does. The company would not comment on what it's learned from the Canada test or if it has plans to expand it to the U.S. any time soon.

One group that may be affected is Instagram "influencers," the major, minor or micro celebrities who use social media to market products and otherwise influence their hordes of followers. After all, if you post a photo and no one likes it, did you really post it?

People can still see how many people liked their own photos, but won't see counts for other people's posts. Rather, they could tap to see a list of all the accounts that liked the other posts, but would have to count the total manually. It's a task few people would bother with. Likewise, though Instagram isn't hiding the number of followers on an account, it still requires an extra tap or two to find that.

"It makes it hard to find who the influencers are," said Ryan Hilton, a 27-year old Canadian who works in social media and has been part of the no-likes test for months. "It's hard to know who to follow because everyone looks the same."

Hilton, who has a personal account as well as one for his dog, the latter with more than 3,200 followers, added that he understands why Instagram is doing this. Hilton said his younger sister, who is in high school, is "obsessed" with likes.

"It's mostly for the younger generation, people in high school and stuff," he said. "There is a lot of pressure. If someone has 1,000 likes and someone has two likes, that probably makes them feel not very nice."

While Hilton said the change will probably slow down the influencer world a little bit, he pointed out that a lot of young influencers now are using live videos, not static photos, to build their following. Here, likes are still visible.

Oyster seeding: A 'tangible, physical' way to help the water

Christine Thompson, an assistant professor at Stockton University, looks through bags of young oysters growing on whelk shells as part of an oyster restoration program being done by the American Littoral Society in Ocean Gate, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Wayne Parry

Ocean Gate, N.J. (AP) — Restoring oyster beds and helping keep the water clean isn't just for scientists and environmental groups anymore.

Students, younger children and those with no particular scientific background like the idea that something they do this morning can be helping the earth by this afternoon.

Kenna Allocco, 12, of Beachwood, New Jersey, recently helped remove bags of whelk shells with baby oysters attached to them from a bubbling tank in preparation for their journey to a Barnegat Bay reef, in between asking a dozen or so incisive questions of program leaders.

"I'm interested in how all the animal species interact with each other, and in biodiversity," she said. "We're learning about this in school. I made a speech about the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, and I scared my entire class. None of them uses plastic straws anymore."

The efforts are part of a worldwide effort by scientists and volunteer environmentalists to dump millions of baby oysters into waterways where they once thrived before overharvesting and pollution virtually wiped out the shellfish.

In addition to helping improve water quality and stabilize shorelines against strong storms, many people involved in the oyster seeding projects say one of their best benefits is providing an immediate, easy way for people to get involved and help the environment.

"It's a very real, tangible, physical thing you can do and see that it is helpful to the environment," said Zack Royle, a habitat restoration coordinator with the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey coastal environmental group. "You place the seed oysters in the tank, you watch them grow and you put them into action when you dump them overboard."

The New York/New Jersey Baykeeper group is adding to an artificial reef it has built for oysters along the shoreline of the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Middletown, where the shoreline was ripped up by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Meredith Comi, restoration director for Baykeeper, said the baby oysters attach themselves to the rows of concrete castles the group dumped a few hundred feet from shore. As the shells grow, they expand the mass and shape of the reef, providing "speed bumps against wave action during storms," she said.

A Baykeeper project in mid-July placed a million young oysters near the heavily guarded Navy pier. Over the past 10 years, they've set out 4 million of them in various spots.

Since it built the base of an oyster reef using empty whelk shells in Ocean Gate, New Jersey, in 2015, the Littoral Society has placed 6.3 million oysters on those shells, estimating that about 207,000 remain alive and growing.

At least 70 million more could be planted in the next few years, said Capt. Al Modjeski, an official with the Littoral Society.

Once they reach the water, the oysters have about a 10 percent survival rate, scientists say.

Oyster restoration projects are underway or have recently been completed in San Francisco Bay; Puget Sound near Seattle; in coastal salt ponds in Rhode Island and the state's Narragansett Bay; in the Carolinas; in Florida and the other Gulf Coast states; in New Hampshire; and particularly in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia, where some of the nation's biggest oyster restoration programs have been underway for years.

Since launching in 2014, an effort to restore oysters in New York Harbor called the Billion Oyster Project has planted over 28 million oysters, with the goal of reaching a billion by 2035.

In Europe, oyster restoration projects are being done in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.

The work usually involves scientific groups setting up tanks in which to cultivate baby oysters. Then they turn to volunteers to help put them into waterways.

"A really important part of this work is connecting people back to the environment," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the Littoral Society. "This gives them an opportunity to become citizen-scientists and actually participate in oyster restoration.”

Richard Branson inspired by Apollo, his own space shot soon

Richard Branson is presented with a space-themed cake during a luncheon attended by 100 Virgin Galactic ticket holders, to mark his 69th birthday and in recognition of the Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson said his spaceship has just a few more test flights before he jumps on board for the first tourist trip.

The British billionaire celebrated his 69th birthday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center during 50th anniversary festivities for humanity's first moon landing. His guests were 100 other aspiring astronauts who have put down deposits to launch into space with Virgin Galactic. Like Branson, many in the crowd were inspired to fly into space by Apollo 11, which he called "the most audacious journey of all time."

Branson said three or four test flights will be conducted from New Mexico, beginning this fall, before engineers allow him to fly. The two suborbital test flights to date — conducted in December and February over California's Mojave Desert — provided several minutes of weightlessness.

Branson declined to say when his flight might happen.

"My track record for giving dates has been so abysmal that I'm not giving dates anymore. But I think months, not years," he told The Associated Press.

The company is in the process of moving from Southern California to Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert near Truth or Consequences, which has set everything back four months, according to Branson. The test pilots need to practice landing there, he said, before passengers tag along.

"I certainly won't go into space before brave test pilots feel 100% comfortable that we've checked every box," Branson said.

In 2014, the company's experimental space plane broke apart during a California test flight, killing the co-pilot.

The winged spaceship is dropped in flight from a custom-designed airplane; once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward space before gliding back to Earth like NASA's old space shuttles. The latest test flight by VSS Unity reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.

About 600 people, ranging from their teens to early 90s, have reserved a seat, according to a company spokeswoman. Tickets are US$250,000.

When asked if she'll be afraid, Houston violinist Debbie Moran, 62, said she's trying to do everything she's ever wanted to do in life before her spaceflight in another few years.

"We all know it's not the safest thing in the world," she said. "I still have not told my mother."

Myths and risks in app that gives you peek into older self

FaceApp is displayed on an iPhone Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in New York.
(AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Rachel Lerman

San Francisco (AP) — Is a peek into the future worth your privacy in the present? That concern was pushed to the spotlight recently with the resurgence of a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence to transform your current face into your younger and older selves.

People raised fears on Twitter and other social media sites that on iPhones, FaceApp would be able to see and upload all your photos, including screenshots with sensitive financial or health information or photos of kids with the names of their schools in the background.

That's not actually true, but the scuttle serves as a good reminder to think twice before downloading new apps.

Even large, mainstream apps routinely collect user data. But many trendy-at-the-moment apps are guilty of mining user data as a primary purpose. Some personality quizzes on Facebook and similar services collect user information as a business, opening people up to breaches such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

FaceApp app grabs a photo only if you specifically select it to see your face change, security researcher and Guardian Firewall CEO Will Strafach said. The confusion comes from an iPhone feature that shows your photo library within the app. It is an Apple feature that lets you select a specific photo, but doesn't give the app full access to the library, even though it may appear that way.

You have the option of granting access to your entire photo library, but even then, there is no evidence the app is uploading anything other than the photo selected.

"I'm always looking for privacy concerns," said Strafach, who used a network analyzer tool to track what was happening. "When it's not happening, it's not happening."

There's a version of FaceApp for Android, but those phones don't tap photo libraries the same way.

That's not to say the app isn't free of problems, Strafach said.

Among other things, photos get sent to the cloud for processing in both the iPhone and Android versions, exposing them to hacking and other problems. FaceApp does not explicitly tell users that the photos are being sent to the cloud. Some apps try to limit exposure by doing the processing on the devices themselves, not in the cloud.

FaceApp's privacy policy also says it is using data from the app to serve targeted ads and to develop new products and features. It says it does not sell data to third party apps, but lists many exceptions including one that allows it to share data after removing information that identifies users.

FaceApp, which is developed in Russia by Wireless Lab, has had surges of viral popularity before. The app also allows people to swap their genders or add facial hair or makeup.

Wireless Lab told technology news site TechCrunch that it may store users' photos in the cloud, but "most" are deleted after 48 hours. It said no user data is transferred to Russia.

Even with those admissions, Strafach urged people to resist the pull of the app. He said the app should have been upfront and told users it was processing photos in the cloud rather than on phones.

"Bottom line is they were handling sensitive data and they handled it cavalierly and that's just not cool," he said.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

French hoverboard inventor flies over the English Channel

Instagram expands hiding 'likes' to make you happier

Oyster seeding: A 'tangible, physical' way to help the water

Richard Branson inspired by Apollo, his own space shot soon

Myths and risks in app that gives you peek into older self