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We’ve all heard it before: “Remote work is the new normal.” Virtual meetings have become common place across the business landscape and an increasing number of employees are opting for pajamas over business casual on a daily basis.

While the remote work boom has seen a wide range of benefits for businesses and employees alike in recent years, there have been some downfalls that need to be addressed. The security of remote work is one thing but being constantly available to your team could actually be having a negative impact on your productivity.

To get a better understanding of how instant messaging might be getting in the way of working on your own schedule, we talked with Noa Elan, the head of marketing for Bubbles — a business communication platform that employs videos and screenshots to encourage collaboration on a more manageable timeline — about the importance of working on your own schedule, the value of truly ‘async’ business tools, and the current state of remote work. Read on to learn more about her insights on remote work and to get an inside look at the Bubbles platform.

The Current State of Remote Work

Remote work has been great for improving work life balance for millions of employees around the world. Still, there are notably some downfalls that need to be addressed via technology, namely the ability to collaborate with your co-workers in a way that doesn’t significantly impede on your own time.

“There have been a lot of benefits of remote work, including equity, diversity, and generally allowing people to live their best life. In terms of collaboration, though, we’ve gone downhill.” – Noa Elan, Bubbles head of marketing

While tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other instant messaging platforms have made business communication easier, the reality is that employees feel it necessary to respond immediately to requests, rather than on their own time. While this may keep the cogs of business moving, the ability to get in a groove to accomplish meaningful work likely takes a hit when you’re constantly available.

“You’re continually stretched with tools that require you to react in real time. You’re continuously being pulled between the conversation you’re in, the Slack that you’re getting, and the actual work that you need to get done, so you end up dreading working with people, because they drain that time even more.”

Considering 75% of workers have reported feeling burnt out over the last few years, it’s safe to say instant message could be making employees feel like they are never off the clock. That’s where a truly asynchronous platform like Bubbles can help.

An Async Future

Elan mentions on multiple occasions that Bubbles is a truly async platform, but what exactly is async?

“Async means that you’re truly able to continue a thread of conversation even when people aren’t doing so in real time, over the course of hours or even days.”

In so many words, async platforms are designed to give you the time to respond in a manner that works with your schedule. However, while tools like Slack and email are considered async by many, the reality is that the average user is not using them in that way.

“People think that async is anything that isn’t a Zoom meeting or an in-person meeting. But the truth is that most tools today aren’t async at all.”

While employees aren’t necessarily required to respond to instant messages and emails in a timely manner, the pressure to do so is clearly present. In fact, a survey from Microsoft found that 50% of employees respond to business chats within five minutes, which hardly sounds like working on your own time. Subsequently, it can be pretty hard to get in a groove with work when you’re constantly available to everyone you work with.

“The challenge with [non-async tools] today is that you’re constantly multitasking, so you aren’t getting any meaningful work done.”

If you’ve ever tried to get any work done while being pulled in a million different directions, you know that this kind of setup isn’t tenable for productivity. Unfortunately, modern day business tools are geared towards this kind of “always available” workday and is likely contributing to poor productivity or worker burnout.

Getting Your Time Back

So how do we fix the problem? We have to fix our tools. Remote and hybrid work models are not going anywhere, as employees have found it substantially increases work life balance while providing flexibility for workers and businesses alike.

However, rethinking and retooling our pre-pandemic business tools to better accommodate those working from home could allow employees to regain some of their own time, allowing them to get work done on their schedule. Because with the right async tool, you can actually feel productive without the looming threat of an instant message.

“Async tools allow you to do real, meaningful work, because it lets you take a step back and have a conversation on your own time.”

As Elan points out, this is where Bubbles really shines. Combining tools like video chat and messaging with more async features found in document editing collaboration software allows users to take work in their own time, rather than feeling the rush of instant messaging bearing down on them.

In fact, Elan notes that while the company is based in the continental US, she works in Hawaii, and Bubbles allows her to feel like she’s still part of the team without having to wake up at four in the morning to contribute. As Elan so eloquently put it:

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Instant Human Hologram Messaging System For Betting Operators And Affiliates

Some operators have already started incorporating hologram technology into their infrastructure.

To explain how hologram technology works, let’s first talk about the companies that offer them. 2Mee is a company founded in 2012 to combine augmented reality (AR) with holograms. Despite having a vision ahead of its time, the company’s first prototype development takes place in 2023. The technology developed by 2Mee is called “Facee,” and it is designed to send instant messages on all devices that can connect to the internet. The company originally designed Facee to enhance messages for marketing purposes. Research shows that 90% of marketing messages do not reach the target audience because traditional message design does not contain any remarkable features. The company claims its hologram messaging technology delivers up to 650% better results. Moreover, using it is not a difficult task: you do not need to have a studio or green screen. No matter what industry you work in, you can start sending hologram messages to your customers with a simple download: the integration is completed in a few hours. So, what do these messages look like? It should be noted that Facee cannot create real holograms, that is, it cannot create 3D images that can be viewed from any angle like in science fiction movies. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not impressive because, at first glance, the sent message really looks like it’s coming off the screen. You can use a virtual avatar or a real person to send a Facee message. Likewise, messages using only the face or the full body can be created. You make a recording containing your message, and when you send it to the recipient, it is displayed in a certain corner of the device without occupying the entire screen. It’s a little difficult to describe what the messages look like without seeing them but imagine a face reaching out from the bottom right corner of your mobile phone and starting to speak: the effect created is very impressive and looks like a real 3D image at first glance.  

Triggy – Personalization Engine

Triggy is a Swedish company founded in 2023 to provide infrastructure services to bookmakers. Rather than offering a complete betting platform as is usually the case, it offers technology that enhances and customizes existing platforms. The technology it uses is called the “personalization engine”, and when any bookmaker migrates to this system, they get: LiveScore: Instant results, statistics and odds for live betting. NextBets: Personal betting suggestions based on user data. Context-Aware Banners: Personal banners with live odds from multiple sources. BetAlerts: Custom and personal alerts about odds, scores and game time. If you are the owner of a bookmaker site, when you switch to Triggy infrastructure, you start to offer a much more comprehensive and customizable service in terms of live betting. Your customers can tailor their preferences and notifications, and machine learning technology can make personalized recommendations for them. It is also possible to add new features to this infrastructure with various plug-in widgets. This is where 2Mee – Facee technology comes into play: Triggy recently announced that it will add 2Mee hologram messages to its platform.  

Holograms Giving Betting Tips

Bookmakers using the Triggy platform will now be able to use hologram technology for the marketing messages they send to their members. The extent of this will be determined entirely by the bookmaker: for example, after you register, the CEO of the site may appear in person in the lower right corner of the screen to thank you, or an attractive woman may appear on the screen while you are placing a bet and offer a new bonus. The content and scope of the messages will be determined by the person who sent them, but we are sure of one thing: it will be a very immersive experience.

Kodak Step Instant Printer Review: Dinky Zink Printer

Pros

Portable design

Affordable

Easy to use

Cons

A few bugs in the app

Charges via Micro-USB

Our Verdict

The Kodak Step Printer is a reliable, affordable instant photo printer. It doesn’t do anything its rivals don’t, but it costs less and has few flaws to undermine its appeal.

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Price

$69.72

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The Kodak Step Instant Printer – not to be confused with the similarly named Kodak Step Instant Camera – is a cheap and cheerful Zink printer that can connect to your phone to print your favourite shots on compact sticky-backed Zink prints.

There are plenty of other similar Zink printers out there, and the Kodak Step doesn’t do anything revolutionary that the rest don’t. But it’s cheap, compact, and gives you plenty of easy editing options – making this one of the better options in a crowded field.

Design and build

Simple plastic design

Range of cheery colours

Compact

Kodak has kept things simple with the Step printer.

This is a compact plastic brick, small enough to slip into a pocket or handbag. Available in white, black, blue, or pink, there are few flourishes to the design outside of your choice of colour.

The only thing that really stands out is a small black-and-yellow stripe on either end. This is just a sticker though – which on the upside means you can peel it off if you’re not a fan, but unfortunately means it’s also likely to peel itself off with sufficient wear and tear.

There are two LEDs for power and charging, one button to turn the printer off and on, and that’s honestly about it. When you want to load paper to print, you simply slide the back of the body off and load in the prints – it’s simple, quick, and pretty difficult to get wrong.

App and features

Easy to pair with free smartphone app

Edit photos and create collages

A little buggy

Almost everything you do with the Kodak Step is controlled through the free app, available on iOS or Android. You can set up an account with Kodak, but this is optional – everything works fine without one.

The first step is pairing the printer to the app, but this is easy enough. They connect over Bluetooth, and in less than a minute I had the app connected to the printer and ready to go.

Images can be selected from your device’s gallery, or you can connect the app to your Facebook, Instagram, or Google photo libraries for more options.

Once you pick an image, there’s a wealth of options. You can just print it as it, either in landscape or portrait format, with the option to either print the full image with a border or crop it in if it’s not in the exact aspect ratio of the Zink prints (most of your photos won’t be).

But you can also edit images. This can be as simple as applying an Instagram-style filter, or you can get more complex and tweak brightness, hue, or colour temperature, or add on colourful frames, stickers, text, or drawings. You can also create collages with multiple photos in one print – but bear in mind that due to the size of the paper, each image may end up pretty tiny.

I’ve mostly been impressed with the Kodak Step Prints app, which is well laid out – and far simpler to use than its strangely laborious step-by-step tutorial process would suggest.

That said, it’s not perfect. For one there are some odd choices, like the fact that the most detailed set of image hue sliders appear only on the ‘Print preview’ page of the app – and not, as you’d expect, in the ‘Edit photo’ section.

There are bugs to sort out too. The app has a tendency to freeze at times, especially when loading a photo to edit. The ‘Print preview’ brightness slider also seems to be entirely broken, raising brightness drastically if you so much as tap on the bar, with no option to lower it below the image’s starting point.

Print quality

Small 2×3” Zink prints

Sticky-backed

Decent detail and colour

The Kodak Step prints onto ink-free Zink prints – a popular format for instant printers and cameras in recent years.

The key benefits to Zink are that the prints themselves are cheap and quick to process, the printer doesn’t need ink cartridges, and that each print is actually sticky-backed – so you can peel off the back layer and turn any photo print into a sticker.

There are two real downsides. One is size – at 2×3”, Zink prints are tiny. That’s part of why the printer itself is so portable of course, so it’s not all bad. But still, these are dinky, and too small to really display anywhere – they’re better suited to making collages or tucking into a wallet.

The bigger concern is quality. This isn’t bad by Zink standards, preserving a fair amount of detail from images and printing at a respectable colour range. Still, a little is lost from every photo, and there’s none of the charm or style you’ll find on an instant film printer like the Instax Mini Link.

Battery life

Battery for up to 25 prints

Charges via Micro-USB

On a full charge, the Kodak Step can apparently print up to 25 prints – I didn’t have that many to test with so can’t confirm, but it did happily make it through a full pack of Zink paper, with lots of standby time, without complaint.

The one small disappointment is that when it comes to charging, you have to use a Micro-USB cable. This is getting to be a pretty old charging standard now, and it’s plausible that you won’t really own or use any other Micro-USB products at this point.

Kodak does include a cable for you to plug into any existing USB charger, but still – it’s a bit annoying that this couldn’t use the more recent and universal USB-C standard.

Price and availability

The Step Printer costs £69.99/$99.99, available from Amazon, Walmart, and more, making it one of the more affordable Zink printers around.

Zink paper is relatively affordable too, though still costs around 50p/50c per sheet – less than Instax prints, but enough that you won’t want to burn through prints with abandon.

Make sure to check out our guide to the best instant printers to see how the competition stack up, or the best instant cameras if you want to take photos rather than just print them (many do both).

Verdict

The Kodak Step Printer is hardly a reinvention of the instant printer, but it’s a good example of the form.

It’s small, compact, and feels durable, with decent battery life and an easy print process. The associated app is simple too, with quick pairing and a range of options to alter your images – though I did encounter a couple of bugs and issues along the way.

Best of all, at the time of writing this runs a little cheaper than most of its rivals while doing fundamentally the same thing – enough to make it an easy option to recommend.

What Does An Algorithm Look Like?

We know that Facebook, Google, and Amazon have algorithms that give us updates, search results, and product recommendations, but what does that actually mean? What qualifies as an algorithm? Can you write one down? What would it look like if you did? Since they run so many parts of our daily lives, it’s important to have a basic sense of what exactly is going on under the hood – and it’s really not as intimidating as it often seems.

Informal definition: algorithms are just recipes

At its most basic, an algorithm is simply a set of well-defined steps that you can follow, generally taking some inputs and producing a different set of outputs. A cupcake recipe can be an algorithm. So are the directions to a friend’s house, playing a piece of sheet music, or the process of looking up a word in a dictionary. Raymond Queneau even printed a book of ten sonnets with lines that can be mixed and matched seamlessly to create 100,000,000,000 original poems. How these algorithms are implemented varies widely, but you don’t need to be familiar with any programming languages to understand the basic logic behind them. For example, the following is an algorithm for giving simple walking directions.

After walking out of your door, turn right.

Walk down the road until you come to Market Street

When you reach Market Street, turn right.

Walk straight until you see a brick building.

Go in the front door.

That’s a very simple algorithm that uses a lot of inputs that humans can easily process; we already know about walking, streets, materials, entering, and all those other things. If we were creating a directional algorithm for a robot, it would have to be a lot longer and more specific, which is what makes many algorithms look so confusing to humans.

More formally: algorithms are clear, unambiguous formulas

One algorithm you probably use every day is Google’s PageRank algorithm, which looks at hundreds of factors about a webpage, runs them through its formula, and assigns it a score. The search results you see in response to your search term are a direct result of that score. It works so well because it follows a clearly defined set of rules that tell it what to look for, what to ignore, and what to do with the information it finds.

To visualize a very simple search process, here’s a linear search algorithm looking for the number 3 in a list of numbers.

list = [1, 3, 5]

Check each item in the list.

As soon as one of the items equals three, return its position.

If three is not in the list, return “Three is not in the list!”

Following these steps, the computer will look at the first number, which is one. Since it doesn’t equal three, it moves on and checks the next number. Since that number is three, it returns something like “The number three is the second item in the list.”

In Python code, a linear sorting algorithm would look like the following image.

All that code is doing is taking a list of numbers, looking at each element in the list, and checking to see if it matches the search term. If nothing does, it just returns “False.” This is an extremely simple algorithm, but whether it’s one line of code or a million, every algorithm in existence operates on the same basic principle: take information, process it according to some preset logic, and get results.

Everyday algorithms

Most of the algorithms that actually run our everyday lives aren’t open source. We don’t know exactly how Google determines what search results to show or how Facebook puts your news feed together, but we can still see the results of those computations. Nonetheless, they are important, and we have a pretty good idea of the basic logic behind them.

Google PageRank works by looking at the number and quality of links leading to and from a webpage, though there are a large number of secret criteria that are constantly being updated to improve results and prevent anyone from gaming the system.

Facebook’s News feed measures the strength of your relationship with people and groups based on your activity, then uses these and some other factors to generate your news feed.

Amazon and Netflix use recommendation algorithms that look at user data, figure out things that each user might want, and show the user those things.

UPS’s ORION system is a huge (1000+ pages!) algorithm, but it can calculate the most efficient route for any delivery while also taking into account all kinds of real-time data and operational parameters, like requested delivery windows.

Artificial intelligence applications like self-driving cars, facial recognition, natural language processing, predictive analytics, and many more rely on algorithms that can take in visual, audio, or digital data, figure out what’s going on, and return appropriate results.

Everything is an algorithm

Once you know what an algorithm looks like, you can’t stop noticing them. They’re not only in our technology, as, after all, they’re in our brains. Everything we do is a result of receiving inputs, processing them, and producing outputs. Most of these processes are stored inside a constantly rearranging black box, but they’re there, behind the scenes, helping us walk around, understand language, and make decisions about things. Humans are equipped to understand algorithms at an instinctual level, so even if computer algorithms are written in indecipherable mathematics and code, they can all be translated into terms we understand.

Image credit: Mandelbrot set image, Websites interlinking to illustrate PageRank, CTP TheoryOfComputation Linear Search, Shell sorting algorithm color bars

Andrew Braun

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Why Some Cats Look Like They Are Wearing Tuxedos

From Sylvester in Looney Tunes to Mr. Mistoffelees in the 1980s musical, some of the most famous (albeit fictional) cats share a distinctively sharp appearance thanks to their black and white tuxedo-style coats. Cats with skin and fur marked by white patches in this way are known as bicolor or piebald. Piebaldism is also common in a range of domestic and farm animals including dogs, cows and pigs, deer, horses, and appears more rarely in humans. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called KIT.

Our team of researchers from the universities of Bath, Edinburgh and Oxford have been working to unlock the mystery of how these animals get their distinctive patterns. We have discovered that the way these striking pigment patterns form is far more random than originally thought. Our findings have implications for the study of a wide range of serious embryonic disorders in humans, including diseases affecting hearing, vision, digestion, and the heart.

Stunning patterns

Piebaldism usually manifests as white areas of fur, hair or skin due to the absence of pigment-producing cells in those regions. These areas usually arise on the front of an animal, commonly on the belly and the forehead. Piebald patterns are among the most striking animal coat patterns in nature.

Although the effects of piebaldism are relatively mild, it is one of a range of more serious defects called neurocristopathies. These result from defects in the development of tissues and can manifest as heart problems, deafness, digestive problems and even cancer. The diseases are all linked by their reliance on a family of embryonic cells called neural crest cells. By understanding piebaldism better, we can improve our understanding of these related and more serious diseases.

Chimaeric stripes

Animals acquire piebald pigmentation patterns on their skin when they are still developing embryos. Piebaldism arises when the precursors of pigment-producing cells spread incorrectly through the embryo. In normal development, pigment cells start near the back of the embryo and spread through its developing skin to the belly. As the cells spread they also multiply, creating more cells, some of which are left behind to ensure all the skin is pigmented.

With piebaldism, however, the darkly coloured pigment cells don’t make it as far as the belly in time to pigment the hair and skin. This results in distinctive white patches of fur and skin, usually around the belly of the animal, the furthest point from where they started. It has long been thought that pigment cells migrate directly from the back to the front and that the lack of pigmentation at the front is due to pigment cells not moving fast enough.

However, our findings, published in Nature Communications, paint a different picture. We found that, if anything, cells in piebald animals migrate faster than in normal animals, but that they don’t divide as often. This means that there simply aren’t enough cells to pigment all the areas of the developing embryo.

Cells starting near the back of the embryo migrate around to the front. Richard Mort

Chimaeric animals develop from a fusion of two early-stage embryos. If the original embryos would have been differently coloured (for example, black and white), the chimaeric animal often has striped or patchy coat patterns, a mix of the two colours. Previously, the predominant theory was that each stripe was created by a small number of initiator cells that spread from back to front.

Our study used a combination of biological experimentation and complex mathematical modelling to demonstrate that pigment cells migrate randomly. Rather than moving in a specific direction like the sprinters in a 100-metre race, the cells move with little or no persistence, like drunks staggering out of the local bar at closing time. The striped patterns seen in some chimaeric mice may simply be the result of several groups of cells of the same colour coming together by chance.

Using our mathematical model, we can explore and evaluate a huge range of possible alternative biological hypotheses for pattern formation. This gives us a deeper understanding that would be impossible with experiments alone. It also means we could reduce the number of animals used in experiments in this important research area.

Excitingly, there is now the potential to use the same mathematical model to investigate other cell types during early development. This creates a new opportunity to learn more about medical conditions linked to early cell positioning, including those that give rise to certain types of cancers of the nervous system and other debilitating diseases such as Waardenburg syndrome, Hirschsprung disease and Ondine’s curse, a respiratory disorder that is fatal if left untreated.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Mobile Apps Are Changing Desktop Software

When Apple launched the iPhone App Store in 2008, few people recognized how revolutionary it was. Four years later, everyone can see that the App Store has uprooted the software industry, creating an app craze that has spread far beyond smartphones.

To find out how app stores are changing desktop software, PCWorld spoke to software makers and research analytics firms. Not surprisingly, many developers are enthusiastic about the easy distribution and streamlined billing that app stores provide, yet these stores also introduce challenges–some that are unique to desktops, and others that have plagued smartphones since the dawn of the iPhone App Store.

Desktop Apps vs. Mobile Apps: Same Model, Different Tastes

Although smartphone app stores have given rise to small-footprint, single-use programs, developers aren’t ready to write off desktop apps. The developers I spoke with believe that full-featured software is far from dead, and that it will continue to have its place in desktop app stores.

Bill Taylor, a product manager for voice-recognition software firm Nuance Communications, believes that the small scale and limited functions of smartphone apps are a byproduct of technical limitations, such as weak processors and low storage capacities on early handsets. More-capable devices, with more-powerful microprocessors and memory, he says, will lead to more-capable apps.

So far, Taylor’s instincts seem to be correct. On the Mac laptop and desktop, users are willing to pay more for great software. Among the top 100 Mac App Store applications, the average selling price is $22.54, according to market research firm Distimo. That’s about $20 more than the average price for the top 100 iPhone apps. The Mac App Store is the desktop equivalent of the wildly popular App Store for iOS devices, which aims to simplify the way Mac users discover and purchase applications for their computers.

Although app-store skeptics like to dismiss these stores as a place for silly diversions rather than serious desktop software, that stigma has more to do with the difference between phones and full-size PCs than with the app-store business model. On the iPhone, games are the dominant category, according to data from market researchers at Distimo and AppFigures. In the Mac App Store, however, utilities are the most popular, and productivity apps are among the top three categories (although, to be fair, so are games and entertainment apps). The data suggests that on desktop computers, fart apps and other time wasters aren’t such a hot commodity.

‘People Love Installing Software’

Healy Jones, vice president of marketing for OfficeDrop, noticed this shift away from the Web immediately after his company released mobile and desktop apps for its document-scanning service.

“We had a thesis that people did not want to install software; that the cloud meant that people could use a browser to interact with software and would never have to install anything. We were completely wrong,” Jones says. “People love installing software.”

Kevin Foreman, vice president of consumer and mobile applications for Inrix, wants to capitalize on the shift away from the Web. In the past, the company has licensed its traffic data to Web-based services such as MapQuest; but with Windows 8, Inrix will launch its first native app for desktops to help people avoid congestion before they get in the car.

Software Redux: The Web Is Out

“We used to live in a world of applications … and the world told us all, stop downloading apps, because you can get viruses and stuff, and we all moved to the Web,” Foreman says. “We’ve come full circle. Now we’ve moved back to an app-based world.”

I won’t get into the debate over the merits of native apps versus the open Web. Plenty of ink has been spilled elsewhere on that topic. But given what developers have discovered firsthand, we may see users clamor for native desktop apps, where they previously deemed Web apps to be sufficient.

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