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From Zoom to Disney+ watch parties: tech for family fun at Christmas | Zoom

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With Omicron spreading in the UK the potential for disruptions to Christmas plans are high, whether you’re limiting your contacts or have been forced to isolate. But the fact you can’t meet in person doesn’t mean all the festivities have to stop.

It will not be quite the same but you can still join your family and friends and have a good time virtually. Here are some ideas to help keep you connected over the festive period – whether it’s checking in for a chat or sharing entertainment.

Easy video calling

video calling at christmas
A quick video call can keep someone involved in Christmas, even if they’re not in the same house with you. Photograph: ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

Video calls are most people’s first port of call. You can use almost any device with a camera, but tablets or laptops are the easiest to set up for longer chats if you have them.

Zoom is one of the easiest cross-platform services available with an app available for most devices. It can be used for free for up to 40 minutes at a time.

For those in the Apple ecosystem, FaceTime is built into every iPhone, iPad or Mac, is very easy to use and now you can send invites to those on Android or Windows for calls in their browser. Google users can use Meet on Android, in Chrome on a computer or iPhone and iPad apps.

Those sitting on their own should use headphones to avoid feedback and help keep conversations more natural, and shorter video chats are usually better to avoid fatigue. Place a tablet or laptop at the end of the table if someone can’t make a gathering.

Party games over video call

video call party games
Switch yelling out answers in person to shouting out guesses at a screen with charades and other party games over video call. Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

Chats can get old quickly, so why not try party games over video calls. Some things are easier to do than others. Charades is a natural fit: just prop up your video calling device and make your shapes to the camera.

Pictionary is also fairly easy to do over a video call using pen and paper, or you can use a shared drawing service such as the free Microsoft Whiteboard to see what other people are drawing on their screens or tablets.

Quizzes are a video chat favourite, too. You can try using Google Docs or similar services, but the old(er) fashioned way of pen, paper and a bit of screen sharing if any pictures are involved often works better.

Share films, TV shows and music over video calls

apple shareplay
SharePlay now works on iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple TV. Photograph: Apple Inc./EPA

The latest addition to the growing list of video call activities is watching videos or listening to music at the same time. Apple’s new SharePlay offering makes this easy – it’s built into FaceTime as of the latest software updates.

While you’re on a FaceTime call you can start watching a TV, movie or playing music in an app that supports SharePlay, such as Apple’s Music and TV, Disney+, Pluto TV and TikTok, and it will sync up with the others on your call when you tap on “play for everyone”. It works on every Apple device, including the Mac or an Apple TV streaming box so you can watch the movie on the big screen.

Watch movies together without needing to call

die hard on groupwatch on disney plus
You can still watch the best Christmas film as a group, even if you can’t be in the same room. Photograph: Disney+

If you’d rather not see the faces of others when watching a film, or you don’t use Apple devices, you can still watch on-demand services together remotely.

Disney+ has a feature called GroupWatch built in, which is easy to use and works on most devices. It lets you invite other people with a Disney+ subscription to join you to watch the content at the same time. Amazon’s Prime Video Watch Party can do similar via Android devices, computers in the browser or Fire TV devices.

Group watching on Netflix is more limited at the moment, requiring the free Teleparty Chrome or Edge browser extension on your PC, Mac or Chromebook, so it won’t work on your smart TV, phone or iPad, but you can text chat with other viewers in a bar to the side. The BBC launched a pilot service called Together last year that allows you to group iPlayer, Sounds, Bitsize, News and Sport on a computer.

But don’t forget, if you pause it your end for a quick pit-stop it’ll pause it mid-action for everyone else too, which they might not thank you for.

For a low-tech alternative you could just tune into a live broadcast on TV or stream and chat with WhatsApp.

Play video games remotely

among us
Among Us is one of many innovative co-operative and multiplayer games you can play remotely on phones, tablets, PCs and consoles. Photograph: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Multiplayer and co-operative video games are big business and they can be exceptionally rewarding when you can’t physically be together.

All the big consoles support online multiplayer with voice chat, and there are many games to choose from. Typically you need to pay for the online service, but many can be bought monthly including £3.49 for Nintendo’s service, £6.99 for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold and Sony’s £6.99 PlayStation Plus. Some games such as the hugely popular Fortnite can be played for free online on most platforms, including consoles, PCs, phones and tablets.

There are lots of great shooting, racing and adventure games to play together, while a crop of excellent party games such as Among Us, which is the modern reinvention of wink murder offer something a bit different.

Shared Christmas playlists or a roaring (digital) fire

Fireplace 4K on Netflix
Stick a fireplace on your TV with Netflix or others for a bit of instant Christmas ambiance. Photograph: Netflix

If it is simply some of the communal Christmas atmosphere you are looking for, and live radio doesn’t quite cut it, then a shared music playlist might be the answer. Spotify is the best known for collaborative playlists allowing everyone to add tracks using either free or paid accounts. But you can at least share a basic playlist you’ve made by sending friends a link from the various apps for Apple Music, Amazon Music and most others services if they also subscribe.

For a bit of ambience, you can put a recreation of a roaring fire on your TV too, so you’re all watching the same mesmerising dancing flames. The easiest way is to play one of the surprisingly large libraries of fire videos on your streaming service of choice, be that Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or others. There are smart TV apps available too for most platforms. Just search for “fireplace”.

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Iran reveals use of cryptocurrency to pay for imports • The Register

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Iran has announced it used cryptocurrency to pay for imports, raising the prospect that the nation is using digital assets to evade sanctions.

Trade minister Alireza Peyman Pak revealed the transaction with the tweet below, which translates as “This week, the first official import order was successfully placed with cryptocurrency worth ten million dollars. By the end of September, the use of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts will be widespread in foreign trade with target countries.”

It is unclear what Peman Pak referred to with his mention of widespread use of crypto for foreign trade, and the identity of the foreign countries he mentioned is also obscure.

But the intent of the announcement appears clear: Iran will use cryptocurrency to settle cross-border trades.

That’s very significant because Iran is subject to extensive sanctions aimed at preventing its ability to acquire nuclear weapons and reduce its ability to sponsor terrorism. Sanctions prevent the sale of many commodities and technologies to Iran, and financial institutions aren’t allowed to deal with their Iranian counterparts, who are mostly shunned around the world.

As explained in this advisory [PDF] issued by the US Treasury, Iran has developed numerous practices to evade sanctions, including payment offsetting schemes that let it sell oil in contravention of sanctions. Proceeds of such sales are alleged to have been funnelled to terrorist groups.

While cryptocurrency’s anonymity has been largely disproved, trades in digital assets aren’t regulated so sanctions enforcement will be more complex if Iran and its trading partners use crypto instead of fiat currencies.

Which perhaps adds more weight to the argument that cryptocurrency has few proven uses beyond speculative trading, making the ransomware industry possible, and helping authoritarian states like Iran and North Korea to acquire materiel for weapons.

Peyman Pak’s mention of “widespread” cross-border crypto deals, facilitated by automated smart contracts, therefore represents a challenge to those who monitor and enforce sanctions – and something new to worry about for the rest of us. ®



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Edwards Lifesciences is hiring at its ‘key’ Shannon and Limerick facilities

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The medtech company is hiring for a variety of roles at both its Limerick and Shannon sites, the latter of which is being transformed into a specialised manufacturing facility.

Medical devices giant Edwards Lifesciences began renovations to convert its existing Shannon facility into a specialised manufacturing centre at the end of July.

The expansion will allow the company to produce components that are an integral part of its transcatheter heart valves. The conversion is part of Edwards Lifesciences’ expansion plan that will see it hire for hundreds of new roles in the coming years.

“The expanded capability at our Shannon facility demonstrates that our operations in Ireland are a key enabler for Edwards to continue helping patients across the globe,” said Andrew Walls, general manager for the company’s manufacturing facilities in Ireland.

According to Walls, hiring is currently underway at the company’s Shannon and Limerick facilities for a variety of functions such as assembly and inspection roles, manufacturing and quality engineering, supply chain, warehouse operations and project management.

Why Ireland?

Headquartered in Irvine, California, Edwards Lifesciences established its operations in Shannon in 2018 and announced 600 new jobs for the mid-west region. This number was then doubled a year later when it revealed increased investment in Limerick.

When the Limerick plant was officially opened in October 2021, the medtech company added another 250 roles onto the previously announced 600, promising 850 new jobs by 2025.

“As the company grows and serves even more patients around the world, Edwards conducted a thorough review of its global valve manufacturing network to ensure we have the right facilities and talent to address our future needs,” Walls told SiliconRepublic.com

“We consider multiple factors when determining where we decide to manufacture – for example, a location that will allow us to produce close to where products are utilised, a location that offers advantages for our supply chain, excellent local talent pool for an engaged workforce, an interest in education and good academic infrastructure, and other characteristics that will be good for business and, ultimately, good for patients.

“Both our Shannon and Limerick sites are key enablers for Edwards Lifesciences to continue helping patients across the globe.”

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Meta’s new AI chatbot can’t stop bashing Facebook | Meta

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If you’re worried that artificial intelligence is getting too smart, talking to Meta’s AI chatbot might make you feel better.

Launched on Friday, BlenderBot is a prototype of Meta’s conversational AI, which, according to Facebook’s parent company, can converse on nearly any topic. On the demo website, members of the public are invited to chat with the tool and share feedback with developers. The results thus far, writers at Buzzfeed and Vice have pointed out, have been rather interesting.

Asked about Mark Zuckerberg, the bot told BuzzFeed’s Max Woolf that “he is a good businessman, but his business practices are not always ethical. It is funny that he has all this money and still wears the same clothes!”

The bot has also made clear that it’s not a Facebook user, telling Vice’s Janus Rose that it had deleted its account after learning about the company’s privacy scandals. “Since deleting Facebook my life has been much better,” it said.

The bot repeats material it finds on the internet, and it’s very transparent about this: you can click on its responses to learn where it picked up whatever claims it is making (though it is not always specific).

This means that along with uncomfortable truths about its parent company, BlenderBot has been spouting predictable falsehoods. In conversation with Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal, it insisted Donald Trump was still president and would continue to be “even after his second term ends in 2024”. (It added another dig at Meta, saying Facebook “has a lot of fake news on it these days”.) Users have also recorded it making antisemitic claims.

BlenderBot’s remarks were foreseeable based on the behavior of older chatbots such as Microsoft’s Tay, which Twitter users quickly taught to be a racist conspiracy theorist, forcing the company to apologize for its “wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images”. GPT-3, another AI system, has also delivered racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks. A South Korean startup’s chatbot, designed to resemble a 20-year-old college student, had to be suspended after it rattled off racial slurs and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks.

Given the cesspool that is the internet, Meta appears to have expected similar things from its own service. Before logging on, users must acknowledge that BlenderBot is “likely to make untrue or offensive statements”. As Vice notes, Meta researchers have described the AI tech behind the bot as having “a high propensity to generate toxic language and reinforce harmful stereotypes, even when provided with a relatively innocuous prompt”.

“Everyone who uses Blender Bot is required to acknowledge they understand it’s for research and entertainment purposes only, that it can make untrue or offensive statements, and that they agree to not intentionally trigger the bot to make offensive statements,” said a Meta spokesperson in a statement.

My own conversation with BlenderBot did not veer into that territory, but it did highlight another flaw in the service: its utter inanity.

The bot began by asking me what subject I liked in school. The bot is open about which “persona” it is using in the conversation; our discussion involved a persona it described as “I like to read. I went to college.” When I asked it tough questions, such as which colleges accepted AI bot students, it offered nonsensical replies (“in some ways, aren’t we all chatbots?” No) and offered further reading by saying, “Here’s the link”, without providing a link. It also kept steering the conversation back to chatbots.

It did, however, maintain its firm stance against its own creators. When I said I wasn’t a fan of Facebook’s ethics, it wholeheartedly agreed: “Me too! That is why I stopped using it and just stick with reading books instead.”



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