The best Spotify add-ons and tricks

More than a decade ago, Spotify burst onto the scene with a plan to change the way we listen to music—and it’s largely succeeded in its aims. Streaming and renting music is now considered normal, and after Spotify came a lengthy list of imitators, including Apple Music and Google Play Music.

If you have a premium Spotify account, you’ll want to get the most value out of your $10 per month. These tips can help. From saving on data usage to keeping your playlists for posterity, there’s much more to Spotify than you might have realized.

Algorithms rule our lives now, from Netflix recommendations to Facebook news stories. Spotify is no different. When you’re trying to fill out a playlist but struggling for inspiration, the app can use your recent listening history to plug the gaps.

Whenever you start creating a new playlist in the desktop client, scroll down beyond the bottom of the list to see more suggestions. Tracks are listed based on what’s already in the playlist—click the play icon to hear a preview or the Add button to include them.

Maximize the quality of your music

Did you know you can control the quality of the music you stream and download on Spotify, in both the mobile and desktop clients? These options let you strike whatever balance you like between the fidelity of your tunes and the amount of data Spotify uses.

In the desktop client, open up the settings pane via the drop-down menu in the top-right corner, then look for Music Quality. On mobile, open settings from the Your Library page, and find the Music Quality heading. On iOS, there’s an extra Streaming Quality menu.

Archive the Discover Weekly playlist

Spotify’s Discovery Weekly playlist, which appears in your account automatically every week, provides an excellent way to find new music you might like. The problem is, the mix of songs disappears every Monday, replaced by a fresh selection of tunes.

To stop this from happening, archive the playlist from the desktop—and you can do the same for any playlist you subscribe to. Select the entire playlist (Ctrl+A or Cmd+A), then right-click, choose Add to Playlist, and create a new playlist of your own for safe-keeping.

Check what you’re sharing with others

Sharing your tastes with friends and family is all well and good, but sometimes, you don’t want the whole world monitoring what you’re listening to. There’s a Private Session option for this very purpose in the settings for Spotify’s desktop and mobile apps.

For more granular controls, open up the settings screen on your phone or computer. You can enable or disable sharing on Facebook and on Spotify itself (where friends you’ve connected to on Spotify can see your listening habits).

Preview music on your iPhone

Here’s a neat little trick that’s unfortunately only available to iPhone users, at least for the time being. If you want to quickly preview other music without losing your place in your current queue, just touch and hold on the track, playlist, or album in question to hear a snippet.

Once you lift your finger again, the preview stops, and the tune you were previously listening to fades back in. This is especially useful when you’re trying to find songs to add to a playlist but don’t want to keep interrupting whatever’s already playing.

Import playlists from elsewhere

If you’ve moved to Spotify from somewhere else, you don’t have to leave all your playlists behind. Harness a program called Soundiiz, which will do all the heavy lifting for you, entirely behind the scenes. It supports a host of different music services, including Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, and more.

Simply log into the relevant accounts through Soundiiz to get your playlists out of one service and into Spotify. There the odd song may become unavailable, but most of the time, everything will transfer over fine. A similar program called Stamp can also import playlists, and it works well on mobile.

Improve your searching and sorting

Spotify already has admirably intuitive searching and sorting features, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find lots to explore. For example, you can restrict search results by time period. Add “year:1980-1989” to any search to restrict the results to those years. You can change these years as needed to match your favorite era.

You can also use “genre:” followed by a genre to narrow down your searches. Don’t forget the “NOT” keyword, which can exclude certain results.

Meanwhile, within individual playlists, click the column headers to sort your music or press Ctrl+F (Cmd+F on macOS) to look for certain tracks.

Launch Spotify in your browser

In addition to its desktop client, Spotify has a very capable web player that you can access through your browser. This will come in handy during those times when you’re on someone else’s computer. You may also find it helpful if you’re using a Chromebook, or you just don’t want to install another program.

The web player doesn’t have quite as many features as the full desktop clients do, but it’s still very capable. You can edit your account details, as well as control playback from your browser on other devices (like Spotify-capable speakers or even mobile phones).

Track your listening with

One of the services you might have seen mentioned in Spotify is At its heart, is a music tracking and discovery service—if you create an account and connect it to Spotify, you’ll get a record of all the tracks you listen to across all the devices you use.

Spotify already does some of this, but works across multiple platforms and can track your habits across all apps and services, not just Spotify. What’s more, it has one of the best recommendation engines in the business, and is completely free to use.

Tune into an Endless Artist playlist

In a recent blog post, Spotify announced a new premium feature called Endless Artist Radio. Each one of these radio “stations” is a personalized playlist that matches both the style of the artist and the tastes of that specific listener. And it’s endless, which means it will run as long as you want it.

To test out this option, simply search for an artist, then select the result labeled with their name followed by “Radio.” If you enjoy the playlist, you can also download it so you’ll be able to listen offline.

Play Spotify within Google Maps

In the car, most of us treat our phones as both navigation units and music players. Instead of switching back and forth between Google Maps and Spotify, a new update lets you control both from a single interface.

To enable this, first download both apps to your phone. Then launch Google Maps, go to the settings (open the main menu and then tap the cog icon), and hit Navigation. From here, select either Show media playback controls (on Android) or Music playback controls (on iOS). Then tap Spotify to connect your musical account.

Once you accept the terms, you’ll have access to your music’s playback controls within the Google Maps navigation pane—just tap the Spotify icon. You can also open the streaming app from here, then return to the navigation view with a tap.

Written By David Nield

Make your phone and computer team up to get more done

You already split your screen time between your smartphone and your computer. Why not put the two together? There are several ways to use your devices in harmony, increasing the efficiency of both. From syncing data to jumping between apps, here are five ways to make your phone and computer play nice.

1. Sync files through the cloud

If you work on the go, you’ll want access to the same files on both your phone and computer—so sync them up. Lots of apps will do the job for you, but all of them function in more or less the same way. First, choose a service. On your phone, install the mobile version; on your computer, download the desktop client or access the web interface through your browser. Then sign in to your account whenever you want to access your up-to-date files.

The hardest part is probably choosing which service to use. On iOS, the default option is iCloud, and on Android, it’s Google Drive. When you set up your phone, it will prompt you to sign in with your Apple or Google account to configure these services, and once you do, they’ll be compatible with both Windows and macOS machines. That said, you don’t have to stick to the default apps. You can download Google Drive to iOS as well as Android devices. Or eschew both and go for a third-party service like Microsoft OneDrive or the excellent Dropbox. Both work on all the major operating systems: iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows.

If you’re still unsure which will work best for you, do some price comparison. Apple gives you 5GB of iCloud space for free, with paid plans starting at $1 a month for 50GB of storage. Google offers 15GB of free space across all its apps (so your Gmail attachments and Google Drive files will need to share that room), and more will set you back $2 per month for 100GB and up. OneDrive gives you 5GB of free space, with the cheapest upgrade $2 a month for 50GB. Finally, Dropbox offers 2GB to users for free, with extra cloud storage costing you $8.25 per month for 1TB.

2. Bring your browser with you

You already store a lot of your important stuff—think passwords, bookmarks, searches, and browsing history—in your browser. You can take all this with you by creating a user account and then opting to sync your data.

The good news is that all the major browsers offer this option. The only restriction hits if you use Safari on your Apple computer and you own an Android device. The Safari mobile app is only available for iOS, so if you don’t have an iPhone, you’ll have to pick a different browser, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

Once you’ve chosen a browser, download it onto both your phone and your computer. When you launch the app, you’ll see a prompt urging you to sign in with a Google, Firefox, or Microsoft account.

Next, head to the browser settings to adjust the sync options. In the iOS versions, for example, head to an app’s settings and tap the Sign in to Chrome button (Chrome), the Sign in to Sync button (Firefox), or the Sign in with a Microsoft account button (Edge). You follow similar steps in the Android versions. Safari—again, only on iOS—is a little different: Go to the iPhone’s main Settings appe, tap your Apple ID name followed by iCloud, and then turn the Safari toggle switch to On. Once you set up syncing, it will happen automatically in the background.

3. On Windows computers: Share photos and texts

The latest Windows 10 update introduced a new app—called, imaginatively enough, Your Phone—for making your phone and computer work in harmony. The app is still in development, so for now, it just syncs photos and text messages between both devices.

Start by launching the program on your computer: Type “Your Phone” into the search box on the taskbar and pick the top option on the list. When it opens, sign in with your Microsoft account, which will tie together your data across desktop and mobile. Next, enter your phone number. This lets your handset receive a text message with a link to the Your Phone Companion app. You can also install this app manually). Once you’ve signed in on your phone, both devices will be able to “see” each other.

This means you can view your recent phone photos from your larger screen. Just open the computer app and click the photo icon on the left. From this interface, you can scroll through your pictures. Selecting one opens it up in Windows’ default image editor. As for text messages, you view them by clicking the message icon on the left. You can read SMS messages from this interface, and even send them (although technically it’s your connected phone that does the sending).

Unfortunately, for the time being, these features work with only Android phones, not iPhones. But one Your Phone trick works on both platforms. If you’ve installed Microsoft Edge on your phone and computer, you can tap the mobile version’s share to PC button (it looks like an arrow inside a phone) to beam that webpage to the desktop version of the browser.

4. In the Apple ecosystem: Maintain screen continuity

If you rely entirely on Apple’s products—an iPhone and a Mac computer—then you can use its Continuity feature. This provides several different ways to link your mobile and desktop in tandem, as long as you sign into both devices with the same Apple ID, enable Bluetooth, and connect them to the same Wi-Fi network.

One new ability added this year—Continuity Camera—lets you instantly import photos from your iPhone into several desktop applications, with no intermediate stages. Say you’ve opened a Keynote presentation on your computer, for example. Click Insert > Insert from iPhone > Take Photo, switch to your iPhone (which will already be in photo-taking mode), and snap the image. This trick also works in Mail, Messages, Notes, Finder, and other apps.

Another useful part of Continuity is called Handoff. If you’re running a compatible app—Mail, Maps, Safari, Reminders, Calendar, Contacts, Pages, Numbers, or Keynote—on both iPhone and Mac, you can jump between devices and keep the same data on screen. You’ll find these “hand off’ options on iOS’s multitasking screen (to access it, swipe up and hold) and in macOS’s dock.

The last cool feature we’ll mention is the Universal Clipboard, which should work automatically if you’ve set up Continuity (signed in, enabled Bluetooth, logged in to the same network). Copy some text or images on one device, and you can paste it into an app on the other. Once you’ve copied something on your phone, just hit paste as usual on your computer—or vice versa.

Many third-party apps will automatically sync between the mobile versions and a web portal or desktop version. You should download as many of these team players as you can. Even if you don’t think your favorite apps have desktop or web versions, it can’t hurt to check.

Google sets a fine example: You can use its Calendar, Gmail, and Maps within your computer’s web browser, and access the same information through the corresponding mobile apps. As long as you sign into the same account, Google will automatically apply any changes and sync all of your data.

When you’re looking at instant messaging apps, you’ll want something that syncs. Apple’s Messages app updates all your conversations so you can access them on both iPhones and Macs—but this won’t work if you have an Android phone or Windows computer. One alternative is WhatsApp: It’s available for Android and iOS, and you can also view your conversations in a browser window on your computer. To enable this, open the mobile app, tap the Menu button (three dots), hit Settings > WhatsApp Web and follow the instructions. Facebook Messenger also works seamlessly across Android, iOS, and the web.

Other popular apps that will sync between devices include Evernote for digital jottings, Skype for voice and video calls, Pocket Casts for podcasts, and Netflix for streaming videos. But Spotify really sets the standard for cross-platform compatibility: It works on every major operating system (Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows) and has a web portal to boot.

Written By David Nield

Modern birds might have dinosaur lungs to thank for their existence

Birds: They’re just like us. Except their lungs are small in comparison to their body size (much smaller than ours, by this metric) and they have a set of air sacs, nine in total, that run down the sides of their bodies.

A newly described fossil found in China shows that birds evolved one of these notable features very, very early–while they were still dinosaurs, in fact. A team of researchers from China and South Africa just published a study detailing the presence of what they believe to be lung tissue in the fossil. This is the first time evidence of lungs has been found in an avian dinosaur fossil, and it may help explain why one group of avian dinosaurs—the Ornithumorpha, of which this fossil was a member—was able to survive the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs and continue to evolve into modern birds.

The finding “just reinforces the idea that this group was more highly evolved than other Cretaceous avian lineages,” writes paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in an email to Popular Science. O’Connor and her team observed a “speckled white material” in the fossil, according to the paper, and by employing scanning electron microscopy (a specialized type of microscope), were able to study both the material and its location within the skeleton. They believe it’s evidence of lungs, part of the morphological sophistication that may have allowed one lineage of Ornithumorphs to survive the great extinction and evolve into birds.

Modern birds have “structurally the most complex, and functionally the most efficient” respiratory system among vertebrates, according to the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. The system of lungs and air sacs means that birds are able to take in much more fresh, oxygenated air with each breath than we mammals can, since even a full breath in our lungs has “old” air that’s depleted of oxygen within it. Imagine birds as really good athletes with great lung capacity–which they are, since flying everywhere takes tons of energy and requires a high metabolism.

But back in the Cretaceous Period, the last one in the age of dinosaurs, there were lots of other kinds of avian dinosaurs. When the Archaeorhynchus spathula specimen documented in the new paper was alive in the Lower Cretaceous Period, it might have shared the skies over the fossil-rich Jiufotang Formation with whole groups of avian dinosaurs who didn’t make it, says Matthew Lamanna, assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Mellon.

What precisely set the Ornithumorphs apart remains a mystery, says Lamanna, who was not involved in the current study. “Why that particular group survived is a very, very interesting question,” he says, “and one we don’t have a good answer for at this point.”

This new find suggests that maybe vascular efficiency is part of the answer. When he heard about the discovery, Lamanna says, “I was basically like, holy shit, fossilized lungs in a bird from 120 million years ago. That’s really, really cool.” The process of fossilization usually destroys soft tissue—but not always, and maybe not even quite as often as previously thought, he says. It may even be the case that some of the fossils currently held in museum and research collections have evidence of preserved soft tissue that could help explain how the dinosaurs lived in a way that bones cannot, he says. He believes this new paper, which was presented yesterday at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting, might help push curators to return to their existing collection with new questions.

“The way soft tissue preservation is changing the field of paleontology is really important,” says O’Connor. “It is revolutionizing how we interpret skeletal remains.” What paleontologists think based on just the skeleton is “more often than not wrong” when it comes to reconstructing organ systems, she says.

In the absence of soft tissue evidence, paleontologists have traditionally made guesses about organs based on fossilized bones and the dinosaurs’ closest modern descendants, the crocodilians and the birds. But there might be more soft tissue out there than the field currently knows—not just in new finds like this one from China. Occasionally, Lamanna says, paleontologists take a new look at old evidence and discover “that these structures were there all along.”

“If we are not looking, we most likely will not see it,” writes O’Connor. She also thinks that if paleontologists look closer, there is more soft tissue evidence to be found than previously believed.

Written By Kat Eschner

The world's largest organism is being eaten alive by deer

If you visit Fishlake National Forest in Utah, it may seem like you’re walking through a large grove of individual quaking aspen trees. But beneath the earth, all of those trees connect to form a 13 million pound behemoth known as “Pando.”

Technically speaking, the entire forest is one giant clone. Pando (which is latin for “I spread”) is a genetically male organism made up of more than 47,000 trees with identical genes and a shared root system. No one is quite sure exactly how old Pando is—researchers estimate the massive tree complex could be anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of years old—and it is thought to be one of the largest living organisms on Earth. But recently, the clone forest has been shrinking from the inside out. The culprits? Hungry mule deer and cattle.

“Unfortunately, we were surprised that Pando is as threatened as it is,” Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and author of a new paper about the tree system out this week in the journal PLOS One, wrote Popular Science in an email.

Foresters identified the clone in the 1960s and gave it the catchy name Pando in the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t until 2008 that researchers used genetic analysis to confirm that all 106 acres of Pando’s forest really did spring from the same lifeform. Aspen trees can produce both sexually (by throwing out seeds) and asexually (through a process called root sprouting), making cloned aspen trees a relatively common occurrence across the western United States. It’s a handy adaptation to survive a fire-prone landscape like Utah or Colorado. But none of the other forests can rival Pando for size.

Rogers and his team had known for some time that the cloned system wasn’t doing so great. Instead of a mix of new and young trees, for a while now, the forest was made up of increasingly older trees, between 100 and 200 years old.

To find out what was going on, Rogers, who is also the director of the Western Aspen Alliance, and his fellow researchers combined 72 years worth of aerial photo surveys with a boots-on-the-ground examination of tree health, status, and age. They also looked at animal feces and evidence of browsing (whether or not animals were munching on leaves, grass, and fruit in the area) to estimate the number of animals living there. And they examined whether fenced off portions of Pando’s forest faired better than other areas.

It turns out, that Pando has been shrinking for 30 to 40 years because the clone has not been able to replace itself with new growth. Individual aspens are relatively short-lived trees, reproducing as much as possible in a 100-plus year lifespan. The cause? Over the last few decades, the area has seen a booming mule deer population, along with elk and domestic cattle. These animals mowed down young aspen shoots as they sprouted out of the forest floor.

Mule deer aren’t a huge problem in the rest of the state, but there’s no hunting allowed in the swaths of the national forest devoted to human recreation, Rogers says. Domestic cattle can also graze in the forest for two weeks during the summer, contributing to the destruction of young would-be aspens.

Rogers says there might be some ways to mitigate the problem and help the clone start sprouting new trees again. Fencing is not ideal, but it can offer a short-term fix, says Rogers. In an area of the forest blocked off with a sturdy fence in 2013, Rogers and his team found aspen trees that had grown 15 feet in five years. Long-term, Rogers suggested using professional hunting to get the mule deer population under control.

The U.S. Forest Service has suggested insects and disease also threaten the clone forest by eating away at the older trees. But Rogers thinks it’s normal for the older tree to sicken and die eventually, he says. What’s far more unusual is that there is no new growth to replace them.

Protecting this unique ecosystem is about more than just sticking up for one clone. Aspen landscapes retain large amounts of water, an invaluable resource in the dry west. They also support a diverse set of plants and animals. “Aspen are keystone species,” Rogers says. “Thus, a strategy of mega-conservation of aspen can create positive outcomes for hundreds of species.”

Written By Jillian Mock

Yes, you really can work yourself to death

It’s not all fun and video games. In advance of Red Dead Redemption 2, set to debut later this month, members of the team told Vulture they were logging 100 hour weeks to deliver the long-awaited game to fans on deadline. Originally framed as a boast, the familiar claim soon generated backlash, and brought to the surface a question usually carefully repressed: How much work can kill you?

Americans love to labor. While full-time employment is characterized as a 40 hour work week, the average employee actually spends 47 hours at work each week, compared to 35 in Germany or Sweden. The United States is also rare among wealthy nations in that it does not guarantee paid vacation. And those working for companies that do offer paid vacation don’t even take it; 54 percent of worker bees squander half of their vacation days each year.

This approach to work is reinforced in popular culture. Ads for Fiverr, which bills itself as an “online marketplace for freelance services,” celebrate people whose “drug of choice” is “sleep deprivation”. Many executives perpetuate the myth that they need only 4 hours of sleep to function at the highest levels. And Lyft’s PR team was “excited” to turn the story of a woman who continued driving passengers while in the depths of labor into a shining example of the success of the gig economy.

This culture and economic structure has serious consequences—physical ones. In his recent book Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford University organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that some 150,000 deaths in the United States each year, and as many as 1 million in China, can be attributed to overwork. Sedentary lifestyles, sleeplessness, and stress—all provoked by damaging work cultures and economic anxieties—are partly to blame.

Historically, jobs killed with a bang or a flash. Before World War II, most Americans worked outdoors or in factories, where they sparred with felled trees or building-sized printing machines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, was formed to regulate exactly these physically dangers, and they’ve done a great job. Workplace injuries, at least when defined in these terms, have fallen dramatically.

But our bodies are now wrecked in slower and more secretive ways. We’ve long known, for example, that the blue light in our computer screens can cause eye damage, but it’s only recently that researchers have shown the process by which the wavelength stimulates toxic chemical reactions on the surface of our eyeballs—reactions that could lead to diseases like macular degeneration.

We’re also aware that sitting down for hours on end causes muscle strains and repetitive stress injuries. But it’s increasingly clear sedentary lifestyles really can kill. In 2017, researchers found that the average worker was inactive 12.3 hours a day. Worse still, the Guardian reported, the researchers found that those “who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours.”

Like a falling log or a hungry conveyor belt, the consequences of sleeplessness are obvious—especially when that deprivation is severe. Japan has become famous in English language news for a phenomenon called “karoshi,” the sudden deaths of ostensibly healthy people from periods of intense, unbroken work. The concept stretches back to the 1980s, but recent cases include a 31-year-old woman who died after working 159 hours of overtime in one month.

Of course, “karoshi” is not limited to Japan’s borders; wherever people are overworking, it looms. In London in 2013, for example, an intern at Bank of America died after reportedly working for 72 hours straight. The Red Dead Redemption II crew appears to be in good health, but their purported workflow certainly puts them in karoshi territory. (History suggests their players will also be at a similar risk, as elite gamers have died from playing days or even weeks straight.)

Just as with physical injuries, work can cause subtler damage to our sleep schedules, the repercussions adding up slowly, like sand in an hourglass. Studies show that lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can cause anxiety, a lack of control over emotions, physical pain, and impulsive behavior, which can lead to eating or drinking too much. In an August 2018 interview with The New York Times, Tesla executive Elon Musk appeared to embody this phenomenon, talking about his dependence on Ambien to help sleep and reportedly cried in an interview while discussing the car production challenges his company has faced.

Disrupted Circadian rhythms only exacerbate the sense of dread that office politics, deadlines, and high-stakes projects can evoke. In the body, fear and stress start off similarly, prompting the body to release cortisol, a hormone that increases your heart rate and blood pressure, preparing you for a fight or flight response. But fear is acute—it passes, at least in theory, when the threat is gone, allowing cortisol levels to return to baseline. Stress, on the other hand, is prolonged. When cortisol is pumping through over veins for extended periods of time, it can wreak havoc on our organs.

It’s the heart that seems especially vulnerable to the demands of the workplace. In 2010, a study in the European Heart Journal showed that British employees who worked 10 or more hours a day were more likely to have heart problems than their peers who worked 7 hours a day. Even when controlling for behaviors like smoking, anxiety, and even sleep loss, this held true, with more heart attacks and death from heart disease among the overworked group. Other researchers have found similar physical effects of stress. In 2016, for example, scientists reported that “those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs.”

Work provides the means to live, but it’s increasingly clear that the modern workplace can kill, too. Knowing the danger that comes with our desk chair means we can do our best to mitigate the effects of sedentary, sleepless life styles—whether we’re working 100 hours a week making a video game, or spending 100 hours a week playing one.

So if you don’t want to be red dead yourself, stand up, stretch, and send your boss this story when you leave work a little early today.

Written By Eleanor Cummins

This could be the fiercest Pacific hurricane season ever

While the Atlantic Hurricanes Florence and Michael have rightfully gotten most of our attention this season, climate conditions in the Pacific are churning out one storm after another. We’ve seen a whopping 21 named storms in that region so far this year, but even that sheer number does no justice to the intensity of this hurricane season. This Pacific hurricane season could likely end up being the most intense one that meteorologists have ever recorded.

The Pacific hurricane season covers all storms that form between the western coast of North America and 180°W, which is also known as the International Date Line. The eastern Pacific basin stretches from the western coast of North America to 140°W longitude. The central Pacific basin, which covers Hawaii, stretches from 140°W to 180°W. Meteorologists and climatologists often combine the two basins since most of the storms that cross through the central Pacific originated in the eastern Pacific.

Storms that form west of the international date line are still tropical cyclones, but instead of being called hurricanes, they’re known as typhoons. Typhoons are tracked separately from hurricanes in the central and eastern Pacific because of geopolitical reasons and the fact that storms in the western Pacific are influenced by different factors than storms in the rest of the ocean.

The eastern and central Pacific basins have seen an incredible 20 named storms so far this year. The season began with Hurricane Aletta’s formation on June 5 and continued through Tropical Storm Tara in the middle of October. Another tropical depression had a high chance of developing into the next named storm, Willa, by the publication of this post.

12 of those named storms became hurricanes, and nine of those storms strengthened into a category four or five at one point during their lifespan. Nine storms with winds reaching category four or five status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is a record for the most storms we’ve ever seen achieve that strength during one Pacific hurricane season.

The sheer energy released by these storms places this year in record territory. Meteorologists measure the strength of a hurricane season through Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE). ACE measures the energy produced by a storm by calculating the maximum sustained winds of the storm over its lifespan. The average ACE value for the eastern and central Pacific basins combined is about 121. The ACE generated by this year’s storms through October 16 is 294—more than double what you’d see in an average year and putting it just shy of the most intense year on record. The ACE generated by the next tropical cyclone, should it develop, will give this season the dubious distinction of most intense on record.

For context, the entire Pacific—from Asia to North America—is traditionally more active than the Atlantic basin. The eastern Pacific alone typically sees about 15 named storms in an average year compared to just 12 over in the Atlantic. The Pacific is usually busier than the Atlantic because sea surface temperatures are warmer and there are fewer factors present—such as dry air or wind shear—to inhibit the development of storms. The developing El Niño in the eastern Pacific this year is also likely boosting the development of storms and helping them reach their full potential.

Unlike the Atlantic, the list of storm names in the eastern Pacific includes the letters X, Y, and Z to account for the heightened activity. It would be a heavy lift for this hurricane season to exhaust the English alphabet and continue into the Greek alphabet—which has only happened once, during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season—but it’s not a completely implausible scenario at this point.

Despite the number and strength of storms so far this year, relatively few have threatened land at full strength in the central or eastern Pacific. Hawaii faced the greatest tropical threats this year, feeling the effects of Hurricane Lane in August and Tropical Storm Olivia in September. Lane produced the second-highest rainfall total ever recorded during a tropical cyclone anywhere in the United States, dropping 52 inches of rain on the Big Island as it passed just south of the island chain. Hurricane Walaka, the only storm to actually form in the central Pacific this year, made a close brush with Johnston Atoll in October before heading out to open waters.

Thankfully, prevailing winds across the region usually sweep these storms westward, sending them out to sea where they perish in cooler waters, but there are notable exceptions. Storms hit or brush Mexico fairly regularly and can cause significant wind damage to coastal communities and produce life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides across inland mountainous areas. Six storms this year either made landfall in or closely brushed Mexico. Luckily, all of those storms were tropical storms or weaker, and they were predominately rainmakers. The remnant moisture from Hurricanes Bud, Rosa, and Sergio produced flooding rains when they moved into the southwestern United States.

The Pacific hurricane season continues through the end of November.

Written By Dennis Mersereau

Three artificial intelligence and tech tools trying to boost people's mental health

If you’re looking for it, there is plenty of bad news in the tech world. From concerns about hacking and identity theft to a 2017 survey out of England that ranked Instagram as “worst for young people’s mental health” compared to four other social platforms, it can be enough to make you want to become a Luddite.

But the other side of the issue might be able to put a smile on your face: Tech companies and researchers are turning to AI and other software to try to solve just about any problem you can think of, from identifying fake news, to noticing if someone falls, to looking for ways to speed up the amount of time an MRI scan takes.

Some companies are building software to help you change your thoughts for the better or even analyze a voice for signs of depression.

For example, Woebot is a cute chatbot app designed to be an on-call emotional helper.

It’s free, and looks like a texting application, like iMessages. The chipper ‘bot asks questions like “Got a second to reflect on what you’re grateful for today?” It can also graph your moods over time, or teach the user about “all-or-nothing thinking” statements like “Nobody likes me ever.”

Launched last year, the chatbot is clearly no human therapist; its responses are scripted, and it’s not going to fool anyone into thinking it’s a real person. But it is not designed to replace one. Instead, the point is to help people who may not need a mental health clinician, or those who don’t have access to one at the moment. It’s a resource for people who are having a panic attack in the middle of the night, for example.

“It’s designed to be mental health for everyone,” says its creator, Alison Darcy, a psychologist and the founder of Woebot Labs. “We’re really trying to encourage a cultural shift towards this acknowledgment that everybody has mental health and everybody need to look after it every day.” It is not intended to diagnose a mood disorder—that’s the purview of a clinician.

“Mental health is one of the best use cases for AI because we don’t have enough clinicians,” Darcy says. It’s a way of “task-shifting,” or moving some of the burden of work from humans to an app like Woebot that doesn’t ever sleep—and doesn’t send a bill.

Another app in the same general category is called Talkspace, although it connects people with real human therapists, not a chatbot. Patients communicate with professionals via long text messages, audio notes, video messages, or live video conversations. Plus, Talkspace uses the platform’s own de-identified, aggregated data to give the therapists recommendations they can choose to accept or ignore, like suggesting that they send a recorded video message at a certain time, according to Neil Leibowitz, the company’s chief medical officer.

Detecting depression

Then there’s a company called Cogito, born out of the MIT Media Lab. It makes AI-powered software that’s designed for call centers—more on that in a bit. While that’s their main focus, they also do work involving veterans.

For that, they partner with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at an office in Colorado focused on preventing suicide. In a program involving “several hundred” veterans, according to Skyler Place, the chief behavioral science officer at Cogito, vets have access to an app, the Cogito Companion, that they can speak into and record a message to themselves. “Our technology then analyzes the mood of the veteran, as it relates to depression, from the intonation and the energy and the pauses in that monologue,” he says. Clinicians receive a score, from one to 100, reflecting the vet’s mood.

Other research at MIT has a similar focus. Tuka Al Hanai, a doctoral candidate in the computer science and electrical engineering department, focuses on using AI to detect problems like depression by analyzing audio files, or text, from a person’s voice.

She uses neural networks—a common artificial intelligence technique—to figure out whether the speaker is depressed or not. The best neural network, which took in combined data from both text and audio, is 77 percent accurate, she says.

“Mainly, the way we think about this [kind of tech], is that it potentially could be used as a screening aid for medical professionals,” she says. “It probably wouldn’t replace them.”

“The big vision is that you have a system that can digest organic, natural conversations, and interactions, and be able to make some conclusion about a person’s well being,” she adds. She says that people could even learn the signs of depression that the algorithms themselves have learned. “You as a human can learn to internalize whatever it is that the algorithm has learned, so you can go around and be the best friend or neighbor someone has.”

The listener

While Cogito is working with Veterans Affairs on mental health, their main focus is actually in a much different arena: call centers.

Their AI-powered software listens in on conversations between agents working in call centers (from the likes of MetLife or Humana) and the regular humans calling in. It then provides guidance to help the worker do a better job. “We listen for pauses, interruption, tension, energy, enthusiasm, boredom,” Place says. Their system analyzes the audio in real time, every 16 milliseconds.

The result of this AI analysis is visual cues for the call center worker. Since those employees frequently deal with the same issue again and again (and again), they can “go into autopilot and sound robotic and start speaking in a monotonic low-energy voice,” Place says. The call center worker is greeted by a coffee cup notification on the screen telling them to increase their energy. “It’s a really interesting example of AI helping humans sound more human.”

Besides that coffee cup, agents might see a pink heart—an “empathy cue,” Place says, a reminder for the worker to “pause and acknowledge the emotional state of the customer.” Is it sad that people may need AI-driven reminders to be empathetic? That’s another story.

Written By Rob Verger

When and how did dinosaurs go extinct?

For 165 million years, dinosaurs dominated land, sea, and sky. Long-necked Brachiosauruses lumbered along like mobile four-story buildings. Tyrannosaurus rex chased down prey with 50 to 60 teeth as big as bananas. Mosasaurs stretching 55 feet from snout to tail terrorized the seas, consuming everything they could catch.

But 66 million years ago, the world’s climate drastically changed. Dinosaurs had thrived in the warm temperatures and mild weather of the Mesozoic era. All of a sudden, the Earth became much colder and darker. Plants died and food became scarce. All the dinosaurs—except for the ancestors of modern birds—and three quarters of the creatures living on Earth went extinct.

To this day, scientists debate what caused this sudden change. The leading theories involve an asteroid strike and a giant volcano.

Both theories start with a rare metal called iridium. This element is extremely rare on our planet’s surface, but does exist in Earth’s liquid core and in space rocks like asteroids. In the rock underneath the Earth’s oceans and continents, there’s a thin iridium layer in what geologists call the K-T Boundary, or the point in the geologic record where they see evidence of the dinosaurs’ mass extinction.

Discovering this layer led scientists to speculate that a giant, six-mile-wide meteor hit the Earth around 66 million years ago. The impact had the force of 10 nuclear bombs and would have thrown massive clouds of iridium dust and other debris into the air, blocking out the sunlight for years.

Researchers discovered an enormous crater in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico that may have been in just the right spot to cause maximum destruction, as the rocks in this area may have been especially rich in carbon dioxide and sulfur or hydrocarbons, all of which could have been released into the air upon impact and contributed to the rapid shift in the climate. The crater was also around 66 million years old. Scientists found some other strange clues in the ancient layers: shocked quartz, rock that looks like a massive shockwave rearranged its crystals; soot that suggested widespread wildfires; and glass-like spheres that looked like cooled molten rock.

While many scientists think a giant fireball signaled the end for the dinosaurs, not everyone is convinced. Some say the iridium layer and the strange rock clues could also point to volcanic activity instead.

Volcanoes went wild during the last 40 million years of the dinosaurs’ reign. In what is now western India, giant cones belched lava drawn up from the Earth’s mantle, spewing dust and ash. After millions of years of eruptions, scientists reason there could have been enough debris in the air to block out the sun. The volcanoes also could have drawn iridium from deep within the Earth to form the thin layer we see in the crust today.

Some scientists argue the volcanoes would not have changed the climate drastically enough to kill all the dinosaurs. Others say the truth could be a combination of these two theories. The asteroid could even have made the eruptions worse, giving the dinosaurs a geologic one-two punch. Other scientists think the dinosaurs had already started gradually dying off for TK reason before something catastrophic finished them off.

Whether by asteroid or volcano, we do know the whole planet changed suddenly and drastically. And when the darkness lifted, the surviving mammals, reptiles, and birds took over the planet.

Written By Jillian Mock

Keep your home's temperature up and the heating bill down

When the leaves turn, the battle over the thermostat begins. One family member wants to crank up the heat right away, while another insists on saving money by waiting until November 1 on the dot. And once the heat goes on, the dispute between dollars and comfort continues, usually fought over how high to set the temperature.

You can pull some of the chill out of this conflict without wasting power. Taking advantage of convection, insulating your home, and warming your body can all improve your comfort without requiring any thermostat adjustment. Here’s how to keep heat in the house.

Work with convection

Warming your house starts with convection. Based on the fact that hot air rises while cold air falls, you can encourage the warmth to stick around while giving the chillier gas room to drop out of your home, usually into the basement.

In order to get the most out of your furnace, you’ll need to turn your house into sort of a vertical heat blower, slowing the drift of hot air upwards, allowing cool air to sink down, and getting the most out of heat sources, while limiting how much leaks out.

Side note: You shouldn’t aim to prevent heat from escaping entirely. In fact, rather than over-insulating, you’ll want to ensure that the highest point in your house, usually the attic, has proper ventilation to let out the hot, moist air that collects in any building where humans live. That’s because, during the winter, your roof needs to stay at a uniform temperature to prevent the formation of ice dams. These occur when the middle of a roof is warm but its edges are cold. In these conditions, snow will first melt and then refreeze, forming a large chunk of ice on the eaves, which blocks the slush from falling off the building. Instead, it might leak into your home, leaving you with a much higher repair bill.

Make your home cozy

The parts of a building where people live and work need to stay dry and temperate. So architects wrap these so-called “conditioned” areas in a barrier called a building envelope. No building envelope is completely airtight, which is a good thing for breathing—but also means that some heat will inevitably escape. Still, you can take a few steps to keep the warmth in and the cold out.

Start by checking your ventilation: Open any vents and clear out dust and obstructions. Free air flow will help maintain a comfortable temperature. In homes with central heating, don’t forget your cold air returns, vents that usually sit on your wall at about the baseboard level. They’re designed to provide an outlet for the cold air, whose escape makes the room warmer.

Like vents, ceiling fans can help control the flow of heat. If you have these spinners, set them to rotate clockwise, which forces hot air downward. To do so, turn off your fan, wait for it to stop completely, and then use a stepladder to climb up and look at the motor housing. It should include a switch that lets you change its direction.

Next, hunt for leaks. Any portal to the outside, such as a door or a window, is a potential source of cold air. So check the weather-stripping on doors and windows, and if you see wear, such as cracks or peeling, remove the old material and replace it. If you plan to leave your windows closed for the season, you can further reduce leaks by shrink-wrapping them with sealing kits and a hair dryer. You can’t seal up doors inside the house, but you can put down draft blockers to prevent air from migrating out.

Speaking of windows, you can also be strategic about your blinds and curtains. First, figure out which side of your house receives sun and which stays in the shade. During daylight hours, uncover the windows on the sunny side to let in light and heat, and close the blinds on the shady side to block colder air. At night, cover all the windows to prevent heat from radiating out.

You might not think of your basement as a source of leaks, but if you seal it properly, it will help prevent cold air from entering your house in the first place. While you’re down there, install a [water heater jacket] ( and insulate the first three feet of the pipes entering and leaving your water heater. This increases its efficiency, which saves you money.

Another way to make your system efficient: Install a smart thermostat from a company like [Nest] ( This will regulate heat more precisely. Another handy tool is the humble humidifier. Mugginess might be your enemy during the summer, but for maximum comfort in winter, you should aim to maintain the relative humidity at 40 to 50 percent. Or, if you start seeing condensation forming on your windows, you may need to set it lower.

Heat your body

Of course, as the mercury drops, you may find yourself shivering in even the best-sealed home. Feeling cold has nothing to do with losing heat: In fact, your body generally will maintain its core temperature for up to an hour. It’s a question of comfort, which is a bit trickier to manage.

For example, most offices heat and cool the building according to an algorithm that assumes everyone is a middle-aged man, which leads some people to break out shorts in January while others layer on sweaters. Unfortunately, you won’t find a one-size-warms-all algorithm. Factors such as BMI, activity in the hypothalamus (the brain’s thermostat), metabolic rate, and even height can dictate who sweats and who shivers under the exact same conditions. To solve this, you don’t need to fiddle with the thermostat, but you might have to change what you wear and trick your brain a little bit.

When you choose your clothes for the day, the best way to ensure your comfort is to dress in multiple thin, warm layers. These trap air, which is a great insulator. The more layers, the more air you hold against your body, and the more insulation you have. Plus, if you start feeling too hot, you can quickly strip off some of that clothing. And layering also applies to blankets—stack your bed with plenty.

Also, don’t forget to cover as much of your skin’s surface as possible—lots of sweaters won’t prevent you from shivering when your bare feet touch a cold floor.

In addition to clothing choices, behavior can affect your temperature. As tempting as it might be to curl up under a blanket, you should keep lightly active, with activities like walking around the house at regular intervals. This will elevate your body heat and convince your body that you’re warmer.

Another good way to feel warm is to brew a nice hot drink. This doesn’t physically change your temperature, but your mouth is one of the most sensitive places on the body. Warm this area, and it may tell the hypothalamus that your whole body is toasty. That said, you might not want to add a nip to your mug; alcohol opens up blood vessels and allows more heat to escape your body.

The fight over the thermostat may never end. But with a snug house and a few layers, you’ll have a warmer body, and thus a cooler head.

Written By sbushwick

Here’s why NASA is working on a concept manned mission to Venus

Popular science fiction of the early 20th century depicted Venus as some kind of wonderland of pleasantly warm temperatures, forests, swamps, and even dinosaurs. In 1950, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History Museum were soliciting reservations for the first space tourism mission, well before the modern era of Blue Origins, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic. All you had to do was supply your address and tick the box for your preferred destination, which included Venus.

Today, Venus is unlikely to be a dream destination for aspiring space tourists. As revealed by numerous missions in the last few decades, rather than being a paradise, the planet is a hellish world of infernal temperatures, a corrosive toxic atmosphere and crushing pressures at the surface. Despite this, NASA is currently working on a conceptual manned mission to Venus, named the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC).

But how is such a mission even possible? Temperatures on the planet’s surface (about 460°C) are in fact hotter than Mercury, even though Venus is roughly double the distance from the sun. This is higher than the melting point of many metals including bismuth and lead, which may even fall as “snow” onto the higher mountain peaks. The surface is a barren rocky landscape consisting of vast plains of basaltic rock dotted with volcanic features, and several continent-scale mountainous regions.

It is also geologically young, having undergone catastrophic resurfacing events. Such extreme events are caused by the build up of heat below the surface, eventually causing it to melt, release heat, and re-solidify. Certainly a scary prospect for any visitors.

Hovering in the atmosphere

Luckily, the idea behind NASA’s new mission is not to land people on the inhospitable surface, but to use the dense atmosphere as a base for exploration. No actual date for a HAVOC-type mission has been publicly announced yet. This mission is a long term plan and will rely on small test missions to be successful first. Such a mission is actually possible, right now, with current technology. The plan is to use airships which can stay aloft in the upper atmosphere for extended periods of time.

As surprising as it may seem, the upper atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like location in the solar system. Between altitudes of 50km and 60km, the pressure and temperature can be compared to regions of the Earth’s lower atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure in the Venusian atmosphere at 55km is about half that of the pressure at sea level on Earth. In fact, you would be fine without a pressure suit, as this is roughly equivalent to the air pressure you would encounter at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nor would you need to insulate yourself as the temperature here ranges between 20°C and 30°C.

The atmosphere above this altitude is also dense enough to protect astronauts from ionizing radiation from space. The closer proximity of the sun provides an even greater abundance of available solar radiation than on Earth, which can be used to generate power (approximately 1.4 times greater).

The conceptual airship would float around the planet, being blown by the wind. It could, usefully, be filled with a breathable gas mixture such as oxygen and nitrogen, providing buoyancy. This is possible because breathable air is less dense than the Venusian atmosphere and, as a result, would be a lifting gas.

The Venusian atmosphere is comprised of 97 percent carbon dioxide, about 3 percent nitrogen and trace amounts of other gases. It famously contains a sprinkling of sulphuric acid which forms dense clouds and is a major contributor to its visible brightness when viewed from Earth. In fact the planet reflects some 75 percent of the light that falls onto it from the sun. This highly reflective cloud layer exists between 45 km and 65 km, with a haze of sulphuric acid droplets underneath down to about 30 km. As such, an airship design would need to be resistant to the corrosive effect of this acid.

Luckily, we already have the technology required to overcome the problem of acidity. Several commercially available materials, including teflon and a number of plastics, have a high acidic resistance and could be used for the outer envelope of the airship. Considering all these factors, conceivably you could go for a walk on a platform outside the airship, carrying only your air supply and wearing a chemical hazard suit.

Life on Venus?

The surface of Venus has been mapped from orbit by radar on the US Magellan mission. However, only a few locations on the surface have ever been visited, all by the series of Venera missions of Soviet probes in the late 1970s. These probes returned the first—and so far only—images of the Venusian surface. Certainly surface conditions seem utterly inhospitable to any kind of life.

The upper atmosphere is a different story however. Certain kinds of extremophile organisms already exist on Earth which could withstand the conditions in the atmosphere at the altitude at which HAVOC would fly. Species such as Acidianus infernus can be found in highly acidic volcanic lakes in Iceland and Italy. Airborne microbes have also been found to exist in Earth’s clouds. None of this proves that life exists in the Venusian atmosphere, but it is a possibility that could be investigated by a mission like HAVOC.

The current climatic conditions and composition of the atmosphere are the result of a runaway greenhouse effect, (an extreme greenhouse effect that cannot be reversed) which transformed the planet from a hospitable Earth-like “twin” world in its early history. While we do not currently expect Earth to undergo a similarly extreme scenario, it does demonstrate that dramatic changes to a planetary climate can happen when certain physical conditions arise.

By testing our current climate models using the extremes seen on Venus we can more accurately determine how various climate forcing effects can lead to dramatic changes. Venus therefore provides us with a means to test the extremes of our current climate modeling, with all the inherent implications for the ecological health of our own planet.

We still know relatively little about Venus, despite it being our nearest planetary neighbor. Ultimately, learning how two very similar planets can have such different pasts will help us understand the evolution of the solar system and perhaps even that of other star systems.

Gareth Dorrian is a Post Doctoral Research Associate in Space Science, and Ian Whittaker is a Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

Written By Gareth Dorrian and Ian Whittaker/The Conversation