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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google introduced audiobooks to its online store on Tuesday, making its smart speakers and virtual assistant more competitive with Amazon.com Inc’s Echo devices and Alexa voice assistant.
Listening to audiobooks is among the most popular nighttime uses for smart speakers, a burgeoning type of home appliance that provides audio streams of music, news and other data based on user commands to an embedded virtual assistant.
But Google’s Home speakers have lagged Amazon Echo in terms of audiobook features. Amazon-owned Audible, the top provider of audiobooks, has not been supported on Home and other speakers with Google Assistant.
Google launching an audiobooks store widens the battle, which has also seen Google’s YouTube unit stop supporting an Amazon product.
Greg Hartrell, head of product management for Google Play Books, listed subscription-less buying as the top selling point for the new audiobooks store.
“You can buy a single audiobook at an affordable price, with no commitments,” he said in a blog post on Tuesday.
Audible offers one-off purchases, but promotes a $ 14.95 monthly subscription that includes one free download and 30 percent off further purchases. Amazon and Audible did not respond to requests to comment.
Google began selling ebooks in 2010. Hartrell told Reuters in a statement that audiobooks are being added because “our users are asking for them.”
About 16 percent of U.S. adults own a smart speaker, according to an Edison Research survey conducted in late 2017. The firm in conjunction with Triton Digital also found last spring that 30 percent of frequent audiobook listeners had used a smart speaker to take in an audiobook in the previous 12 months.
Audiobook sales surged nearly 20 percent annually for three consecutive years, reaching $ 2.1 billion in 2016, according to the latest Audio Publishers Assn. data.
Thad McIlroy, an online book industry consultant, said audiobooks represent the only publishing category with “strong growth” so it makes sense for Google to challenge Amazon despite having a weak ebooks business.
Google-purchased audiobooks can be accessed through Google Play Books on the web, apps for Android and iOS devices or through Google Assistant in speakers, Android smartphones and “soon” cars with Android Auto, Hartrell wrote.
Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Susan Thomas
The speed skating suit has always been the technical marvel of the Winter Olympics. With high-tech fabrics and unusual construction, it’s designed to eek out every bit of athletic optimization. In a sport where a thousandth of a second can determine who gets a medal and who doesn’t, athletes rely on technology to give them an edge. “We’re trying to get the body to be more aerodynamic than it is in its natural state,” says Clay Dean, chief innovation officer at Under Armour, the company behind the suit the US speed skating team will wear in PyeongChang this February.
Speed skaters wage a battle with physics every time they race. As their muscular bodies cut through the air at more than 30 mph, they leave a trail of drag in their wake. The key to winning (against physics and humans alike) is to reduce the amount of air resistance a body produces. Part of it is stance—to minimize their body’s effect, skaters fold themselves over, keeping their backs flat like a table top—and part of it is suit.
Under Armour’s new suit is an overhaul to the Mach 39, the controversial uniform that many blamed for the US team’s poor performance in Sochi. In 2014, not a single US speed skater medaled, despite the high prospects going into the Olympics. Under Armour was a natural scapegoat.
In the lead up to the game, the company heralded the Mach 39 as the fastest suit ever designed. The bodysuits were made from a dimpled polyurethane material designed to divert air drag; designers placed a large, latticed vent in the back of the suit to let the athletes bodies breathe. It turned out that the vent allowed too much air to enter the suit, creating a vacuum behind the athletes that slowed them as they skated.
This year’s suit has no vent. Instead, it’s stitched together from three fabrics like a couture gown. One of those fabrics, a white nylon spandex mix called H1, runs down the suit’s arms and legs in patches. The fabric’s jacquard weave creates an almost imperceptible roughness in the surface. “I would describe it as a very fine grit sandpaper,” says Chris Yu, director of integrated technologies at Specialized, the company responsible for the hundreds of hours of wind tunnel testing the suit underwent.
The texture creates pockets in the surface that make the suit more breathable. It also makes the suit more aerodynamic. Yu explains that anything punching a hole in the air will leave a wake or vacuum behind it. Speed skaters need to make that hole as small as possible. Cylindrical objects like arms and legs are particularly troublesome since wind tends to wrap around them, creating vacuum that can slow skaters’ speed. Anywhere you see the H1 fabric is a trouble spot for wind resistance. Under Armour and Specialized claim the small dimples on the surface of the suit disrupt the airflow ever so slightly, causing the air to re-energize and reattach to the limbs so the vacuum is reduced. “Call it the golf ball dimple effect, if you will,” Yu says.
Golf balls have dimples across the entirety of their surface because there’s no way to account for how the ball will fly through the air. Skaters, on the other hand, move in controlled and predictable ways, making only left turns as they sprint around the track. This predictability allowed the designers to position the H1 material in precise locations on the suit. “You can’t add roughness willy nilly,” Yu says. “If you add too much you’ll introduce more drag; add too little and you’re not re-energizing the air quite enough.”
The rest of the suit is made from a stretchy polyurethane fabric that’s designed to lay flush against the skaters skin, even when they’re folded over. Dean says Under Armour decided to sew the suit with an asymmetrical seam that runs from the lower left leg to the right shoulder, which reduces bunching and allows the skaters more freedom of movement during their left turns. It’s a small but significant detail that the design team decided to incorporate after analyzing the particular movements skaters make on the ice—the low stance, swinging arms, and right leg that constantly crosses over the left. They then spent more than two years testing the aerodynamics of the suit inside Specialized’s wind tunnel, ensuring that the suit met performance standards in every position skaters adopt during a race.
In the lead-up to Sochi, Under Armour kept the Mach 39 so tightly under wraps that the athletes didn’t get to test the new design in competition. This time, the athletes have been wearing the suits in practice and competition since last winter, while seamstress nip and tuck the material to tailor-fit it to each skater. It’s a long-term design process, but Dean says it’s worth it to make a suit he eagerly claims is faster, better, and more advanced than what they made for Sochi. “We believe they do give us an advantage,” he says. “It’s a faster skating suit than what we had before.”
It’s an enthusiasm that Dean tempers when he recalls the backlash from the 2014 Olympics. If Under Armour has learned anything in the last few years, it’s that a bit of managing expectations can go a long way. And that a suit, even the fastest in the world, is only a small piece of why athletes find themselves on the podium. “There’s no guarantees in competition,” Dean adds. “All we can do is prove through science, through construction, and through material that we’ve given them the best possible tools to do their job.”
Travel with me to the year 2100. Despite our best efforts, climate change continues to threaten humanity. Drought, superstorms, flooded coastal cities. Desperate to stop the warming, scientists deploy planes to spray sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere, where it converts into a sulfate aerosol, which reflects sunlight. Thus the planet cools because, yes, chemtrails.
It’s called solar geoengineering, and while it’s not happening yet, it’s a real strategy that scientists are exploring to head off climate disaster. The upside is obvious. But so too are the potential perils—not just for humanity, but for the whole natural world.
A study out today in Nature Ecology & Evolution models what might happen if humans were to geoengineer the planet and then suddenly stop. The sudden spike in global temperature would send ecosystems into chaos, killing off species in droves. Not that we shouldn’t tackle climate change. It’s just that among the many theoretical problems with geoengineering, we can now add its potential to rip ecosystems to shreds.
The models in this study presented a scenario in which geoengineers add 5 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the stratosphere, every year, for 50 years. (A half century because it’s long enough to run a good climate simulation, but not too long that it’s computationally unwieldy. The group is planning another study that will look at 100 years of geoengineering.) Then, in this hypothetical scenario, the sulfur seeding just stops altogether—think if someone hacks or physically attacks the system.
“You’d get rapid warming because the aerosols have a lifetime of a year or two, and they would fall out pretty quickly,” says study co-author Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers University. “And then you’d get all this extra sunlight and you’d quickly go back up to what the climate might have been without the geoengineering.” We’re talking a rise in land surface temperatures of almost a degree per decade. “Even if you do it over five years, you’re still going to get this rapid warming,” he says.
Now, species haven’t survived on Earth for 3.5 billion years by being wilting flowers; if the climate changes slowly, species can adapt to withstand extra heat or cold. But suddenly blast the planet with a massive amount of solar energy that quickly, and you’re liable to catch a species off-guard.
And it’s not just temperatures they’d have to adapt to. Dramatic shifts in precipitation would force species to quickly move to new climes or face destruction. Species like amphibians, which are sensitive to temperature and precipitation changes, would have a tough go of it. And of course, not all species have the option of fleeing. Populations of trees and clams and corals would be pretty much kaput.
Even if a species is particularly resistant to these changes, the downfall of a keystone species could bring its whole ecosystem crashing down. Take coral, for instance. “If you lose the corals, you lose the species that live within those corals and you lose the species that rely on those species for food,” says John Fleming, a staff scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute who wasn’t involved in the study. “And so it really is an up-the-chain process.”
Knowing these risks, it might seem implausible that humans would just suddenly stop geoengineering efforts once they’ve started. Why not just keep pumping sulfur dioxide into the air ad infinitum to keep the planet on life support? Robock explains that the scenario they used isn’t definitive—it’s just a possible option. And there’s a possibility that we might not willingly stop geoengineering.
Say the world came together and decided that solar geoengineering is our only hope for survival. Planes start flying over the equator, spraying millions of tons of gas. The planet cools—but alas, this doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some nations might find themselves the beneficiaries of extra precipitation, while others descend into drought.
In that situation, a massive country like China or India suffering ill effects could blame the geoengineers and demand they stop. “There is the potential for clubs of countries to wield a lot of power to make a global geoengineering deployment work more for their interests than for less powerful countries,” says lead author Chris Trisos of the University of Maryland.
Or maybe the Earth itself plays a wildcard. Volcanoes spew their own sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere all the time; get a big enough eruption and you can send the climate into disarray. That happened in 1815 with the eruption of Mount Tambora, which led to the Year Without a Summer. Or Laki in 1783, which caused famine in India and China because it weakened vital monsoons.
“If there was a series of volcanic eruptions that produce a cooling effect, then that might be the reason why people say, ‘Well, actually, we better stop doing the solar engineering,’” says University of East Anglia environmental scientist Phil Williamson, who was not an author of the paper but who penned a companion analysis of it. “And then you get the rebound effect as a result of that.”
To be fair, science’s exploration of solar geoengineering is still in its early days. Hell, the technology to do it doesn’t even exist yet. It may well be that scientists find that deploying aerosols is just too risky. Maybe a better idea is 2CO2 sequestration. Or marine cloud brightening, as another way to bounce light back into space.
But now is the time to start considering the ethical and regulatory pitfalls of pursuing such a strategy. Late last year, Congressman Jerry McNerney introduced a bill that would require the National Academies of Science to produce two reports—one that looks at research avenues and another that looks at oversight. “I hope that we can sooner rather than later figure out what the potential benefits and risks are of doing this geoengineering so society will know whether it’s even a possibility,” says Robock. “If not, if it’s too dangerous, then it’ll put a lot more pressure on us to do mitigation soon rather than later.”
“The ultimate fear with geoengineering is that we’re trying to alter a system that’s much too complex for us to truly predict,” says Fleming. “So doing that can put us in a worse situation than we’re in already.”
In the meantime, here’s an idea: Let’s dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The whole of life on Earth would certainly appreciate it.