Browsing Facebook can put you in a bad mood, admits Facebook

Is Facebook bad for your health? It's a question that's been asked many times down the years, and now Facebook itself has weighed in on the issue, admitting that just browsing other people's posts "may make you feel worse" as you negatively compare your own life with those of your friends and family.

On the other hand, actively interacting with other people on social media has been "linked to improvements in well-being" by researchers. Sharing messages and posts with close friends, and reminiscing about old times, can improve your mood, reports Facebook.

"In sum, our research and other academic literature suggests that it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being," say Facebook's experts. As a result, the platform is being tweaked to encourage users to interact rather than just scrolling endlessly through the feed.

Improving social networking

Of course this isn't just a Facebook issue – other social networks work in a similar way, and Facebook's blog post references studies that have been carried out on internet use in general. The same passive vs interactive principles can be applied to Twitter, Instagram, and other networks.

Facebook points to the snooze option that it's just introduced as one of the ways it's looking to improve people's social networking experience and make browsing the News Feed less of a drag on our mood. It lets you safely ignore posts from a particular person or a group you're signed up to without anyone else being any the wiser.

On top of that Facebook says it's investing money into researching how Facebook use and screen time in general could be having a negative effect on our kids. In the meantime, maybe spend less time scrolling and more time posting on your social networks.

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Downloads advent calendar: get Ashampoo ZIP 2017 free today

The holidays are an expensive time, so we’re bringing you a special treat: a full, free Windows program to download every day until Christmas.

Behind door 16 on our free downloads advent calendar you'll find Ashampoo Zip 2017 – a brilliant file compression tool that creates and extracts compressed file archives in over 60 formats.

Ashampoo Zip 2017's integrated ZIP engine is the fastest on the market, with multi-core support for processing huge archives in seconds.

It can create self-extracting files – ideal for sharing – and includes a cloud browser that makes uploading archives a piece of cake. You also get immediate access to files hosted on cloud storage services including Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive and more.

Ashampoo Zip 2017

Download Ashampoo ZIP 2017 free today – it's the only file compression software you need.

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Google officially shuts down Project Tango, moves to ARCore

And that's a wrap – Google has officially pulled the shutters down on its Project Tango program, the initiative launched in 2014 for giving phones a better idea of their location in 3D space and providing augmented reality (AR) overlays through a smartphone's scanner.

In many ways Tango was ahead of its time but now that Google has ARCore and Apple has ARKit, these same AR features – where you can take a video of your living room and see a dinosaur crash through the wall, for example – are potentially coming to every phone, rather than a select few.

The modern day smartphone is fitted with enough sensors and processing power to figure out all the necessary AR calculations without any specialist hardware, which makes Project Tango rather dead in the water.

Continuing the journey

"We're turning down support for Tango on March 1, 2018," said Google in a tweet. "Thank you to our incredible community of developers who made such progress with Tango over the last three years. We look forward to continuing the journey with you on ARCore."

The move makes a lot of sense considering ARCore is now up and running to give developers access to all the augmented reality magic they need – it works with the Pixel 2 and the Galaxy S8 and will be coming to more and more phones further down the line.

Tango only ever made its way into a couple of consumer devices but the work that Google's engineers put in will live on in ARCore, so the enterprise hasn't been completely in vain. With Google and Apple now pushing AR tricks on their phones, you're likely to hear a lot more about AR in the future.

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What will tomorrow’s children make of robot pets?

My robot is bored.

I’ve done everything I can. Anki’s ‘Cozmo’ – Wall-E-meets-EVE in the cab of a forklift – costs around £200 / $180 and brings its own light-up cubes that it is perennially rearranging and stacking. It also has a camera in its head and can recognise my face. When it does, it grins with its eyes and excitedly slaps the table with its forklift, shouting ‘Rich!’. And now I’m ignoring it to write. It’s rolling about the tabletop, flipping over its cubes and turning round every so often to see if it’s playtime again yet. It isn’t. I feel terrible.

The more I play with Cozmo, the more connected I feel to this trundling little ball of emotive plastic. I know that really he’s just circuitry and sensors in a cutesy shell – but the circuitry and sensors in my cutesy shell have turned him into a pet.

If I squint, I can see Cozmo for what he is: a clever machine. But he’s also a handy mascot for an increasingly pertinent question: if Cozmo can blur the lines between animal and machine for me, what about the kids who’ll be unwrapping him for Christmas? 

I know that really he’s just circuitry and sensors in a cutesy shell – but the circuitry and sensors in my cutesy shell have turned him into a pet.

As interactive robots get smarter and more convincing year-on-year, how does a parent on Christmas day meaningfully explain that, just because a toy is made from plastic, they should ‘bond’ with it in a way that’s different to bonding with their pet hamster, rabbit or dog? And should parents even be trying in the first place?

Cozmo with his cube.

“When we designed Cozmo, we didn't really design it for kids especially. We designed it as a pet, and a pet is something that appeals to lots of different ages,” says Mark Palatucci, co-founder and head of cloud AI and machine learning at Anki. 

“When I was young I had a lot of stuffed animals, in particular a lot of stuffed dogs, and I remember losing one and crying for three days. Kids at younger ages don't necessarily need as much to establish an emotional bond with an inanimate object.”

Sit. Fetch. Recharge. Repeat.

Inanimate is clearly what Cozmo is. But that doesn’t help explain to a child why Cozmo isn’t alive. And it apparently doesn’t stop a child – or an adult, looking through the reviews – from developing some level of emotional bond. In fact, it might even help.

“Nowadays, children are used to the concept of robots” says Fangwu Tung, associate professor at Taiwan’s University of Science and Technology, who in 2016 completed a study of 578 children and their responses to and relationships with a variety of robot ‘toys’. 

The droid-pal dream, as cemented with the Star Wars films

“In my research I found that, if the robots looked like ‘real’ humans, the children were uncomfortable. They were comfortable with the concept of robots, and that they can speak and move and make some gestures – but if they look like humans, the children would say, 'That's terrifying!'.”

On the evidence of Tung’s study, and the popularity of pet robots, the sci-fi grail of ‘perfect’ androids that can pass for humans (or, it follows, hamsters) isn’t as important as we might think. So long as the robot can react and emote in some way (Tung says that the most popular robots in her studies had exaggerated features like eyes and mouths – still robots, but robots that can express human social cues), children are happy to ascribe them character and personality. 

[Children] were comfortable with the concept of robots, and that they can speak and move and make some gestures – but if they look like humans, the children would say, ‘That’s terrifying!’

Fangwu Tung

What can be confused, according to Palatucci, are children’s expectations of what their new robot friend should and shouldn’t be able to do.

“A younger kid, maybe six or seven years old, doesn't really know what not to expect yet [from a robot],” says Palatucci. 

"'Why can't he do this, and this, and this?' They don't really recognise how enormously difficult all the technological requirements would be to support those things. But they're used to seeing these kinds of characters in feature films and animated movies, and they don't necessarily have the sense yet of what the difference is between the real physical world and what you would see in a movie. They haven't quite made that distinction yet.”

“Mum! The dog is broken!”

Does that matter? Maybe not. Perhaps Cozmo and his robotic ilk are only confusing to adults, trying to measure their abilities – and by extension, their worth – against their own ideas of what a pet should be: fluffy, intelligent and alive. Sony is currently looking to revive its hair-free robot Aibo dog – a Japanese (and to a lesser extent, global) that hit its peak in popularity in the late 90s, and set for a return in the new year. Check it out in action in its latest guise in the video below.

Perhaps robot pets are some newly emergent third type of ‘thing’: one that makes more sense to children who’ve never lived in anything but an ever-connected digital world of phones, tablets and voice-activated assistants. And if so, how should they be treated? Where do the robots fit in a child’s pecking order of ‘things’?

“I think that children [will still be] smart enough to tell the difference between robot dogs and real dogs,” says Tung. 

“They are [already] familiar with intelligent toys; I won't need to explain this to them. But I do hope they treat the robot just the same as the real dog, because somehow, the robot dogs can still trigger a social response from children… You don't consider toys to be 'alive', but for interactive toys, somehow we project personality [onto them] – so I want the children to treat them nicely.”

“A laptop doesn't look like an animal,” she continues. “Children would look at a laptop, and probably consider it as a 'tool', or an alternative to TV. If they don't treat the laptop nicely, that's [just] the way they deal with tools. But if they don't treat the robot dog nicely, I feel uncomfortable with that. Robots can trigger social responses in children. In other words, children also see the robots as social actors. The way they treat robot dogs [might] imply the way they treat other animals, or people. I don't think you need to explain the difference, but I do think you need to teach them to cherish a robot pet.”

Cozmo – the closest you’ll currently come to R2-D2 in your hand.

What is certain is that as the technology shrinks and the ubiquity of smart devices allows robots to piggyback on phones and tablets (Cozmo does much of its data-crunching in your smartphone), the race for consumer robot manufacturers is to blur the line between living, and not, further still. 

You don’t consider toys to be ‘alive’, but for interactive toys, somehow we project personality [onto them].

Fangwu Tung

“If you look at the trend of where this is going, these robots will start to get more and more of these capabilities without having to augment them with another type of device,” says Palatucci. 

“We're already able to do emotion detection. Cozmo can look at someone's face and tell if they're smiling or frowning or unhappy. That's today. So in the future, I very much believe that much more advanced perception, semantic understanding of the environment, the ability to understand context and history and to have behavior that manifests as a result of that… And I do think when we get to that world, we'll very much be in a world where the capabilities of a [robot] will probably far exceed what your hamster or your rabbit could do. 

“As a result, the type of relationship you could create could be quite a bit stronger than with [for example] a pet snake, or a number of different pets. And certainly in ten years, I think that there will be products like this that are very much their own class of pets, and have relationships that are just as powerful as you have with your dog.”

For many people (not least of all dog-owners), something about that might sound unsettling. But until we can find what that ‘something’ is, and whether it’s more than just a bias from our own childhoods, the march (or slow trundle) of the robot toys will continue. ‘True’ robot pets might not be here by Christmas – but what we teach our kids about them, and what we can learn from them in turn, is something we need to think about now.

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10 things we wish more VPNs would do

Most VPN providers do their best to deliver the core features that customers expect: plenty of locations, decent speeds, simple clients, and fair pricing.

While that all sounds great – and of course it’s far from a bad thing – we don't think it's enough. These are the most basic technical aspects of a service, features you're entitled to get from every VPN. And you should have higher expectations from providers – companies who want to secure you as a subscriber must do more to win you over.

Such as? Good question. We've come up with 10 little-used VPN ideas that could help any provider deliver the service users need and expect.

1. Tell us who they are

Every time you use a VPN you're entrusting it with some of your most important details, but many providers do absolutely nothing to show they deserve this trust. Often, you won't know who runs the provider, where it’s based, and indeed whether there's a real company behind the service, or it’s just some guy or gal reselling other people's kit from his or her bedroom.

The solution is simple, at least for genuine providers: stop hiding. Your service is supposed to be about preserving our anonymity, not yours.

So, make some changes. Add an 'About' page to the website to explain how the company started. Not with the usual vague "we're a group of privacy experts who decided to build the best VPN ever" line, but real details. Give us a name or two. Tell us when you started, where you're based, what you've done, give a contact email for questions and reply – quickly – to any messages received. You get the idea.

2. Present products clearly

Too many VPN websites cram their front pages with generic service benefits you understand already, ('we encrypt your Wi-Fi connection!', 'we give you a new IP address!'), while some of the most basic details, like the number of locations they support, might be hidden away on another page.

Searching the site won't always help. We often find providers spread information about specific topics all around a site, so for instance you might find a couple of sentences about logging on the front page, more details in a FAQ, another take in a blog post and a contradictory view in the small print. Which is correct? There's usually no way to tell.

We think there's a better way of doing things, and it starts by making all the key essentials visible on the front page: the number of locations, countries, how many devices you can connect, the monthly and yearly prices, and any other standout features for that provider.

Keeping the rest of the website well-organized and consistent is equally important. Details on any topic should be easy to find and always kept consistent and up-to-date, ensuring users are never left guessing about any aspect of the service.

3. Shout about their achievements

A quality VPN provider needs to show it's active, has real technical expertise and is always working to improve the service. The key word there is ‘show’ – we don't want to read empty claims on the website, but instead see real evidence that this is an active company which knows what it's doing.

This starts with the provider's public face. Social media, blogs and news pages should always be kept up-to-date. Not just with pointless filler, either, like repeated discount offers or retweets of other sites. Give us useful content, maybe expanding on a support issue, pointing users at a relevant new open source tool, or anything else that shows you understand what we need.

We'd also like to see separate logs of every major service improvement. Always adding locations, for instance? Have a page which records every new server and when it was added. Maybe you've updated a client, or added a new support document? Again, have pages for each which detail what you've done, and when. Most users may never check them out, but anyone who does will see how much you're doing to enhance and improve the service.

4. Team up with other providers

Most VPN providers offer only their core service with minimal frills or extras. If anyone does stray into another area, maybe implementing some kind of service to block ads or malware, it's usually very basic and less effective than similar products you can download and use for free.

This seems odd to us. VPNs are big business with cross-platform appeal, so why don't the top providers team up with other companies to offer you more and better features?

Some antivirus products now include VPNs, for instance. What if this could work the other way round – for example, a VPN provider could team up with an antivirus company to licence some top-quality URL filtering or firewall technology.

If nothing else, VPN outfits could give you better deals on related services from security suites to remote working services and Usenet providers. VPN users are experienced and knowledgeable as a group, and generally speaking they’re interested in security and often have money to spend, so giving them more options and choices will benefit everyone.

5. Offer PAYG pricing

Paying for a VPN normally forces you to choose from a couple of options: either you go for an overpriced monthly plan, or to get the best price you're forced to buy a full year's service upfront. These aren't exactly flexible options, and neither will appeal to light VPN users.

We'd like to see more alternatives, especially pay-as-you-go schemes. Why not allow users to buy, say, a 100GB block of data which doesn't expire at the end of the month? It works with Usenet services (and in other areas), and we think it could be a welcome option with VPNs, too.

6. Provide an honest and complete privacy policy

VPNs are all about privacy, so why is it that so many service privacy policies tell you almost nothing about what data is collected, and how it's used?

We'll tell you why. It's because many providers think a privacy policy is just a place to repeat the general ‘we don't have any logs, no, really’ pledge from the front page, or maybe copy and paste some generic policy template they've copied from another site. And they couldn't be more wrong.

A good privacy policy should be detailed, clear and complete, discussing everything a service does and doesn't collect, and explaining why and how it's used. Crucially, there should be no loopholes, no ambiguity, no need to interpret the text, or guess what was meant, or wonder what may or may not be logged. If the text doesn't give the average user a complete picture of what's happening, it's not good enough.

That's difficult. No – it's really, really difficult. But it's also worth it, even if the policy ends up explaining that, for instance, there's some minor session logging. What's more important is that a provider is indicating that it’s honest, transparent and worthy of the user's trust, and that's what people will take from it overall.

7. Accept Bitcoin

If a VPN says it's a fan of anonymity and privacy, then maybe it shouldn't ask us to pay by card, and log our IP address, and store our payment details indefinitely. And then claim to protect those details with some generic clause along the lines of ‘we promise not to share them, ever, unless we really have to, but it'll all be fine, honest.’

Here's a better approach: just accept Bitcoin. It’s easy enough, at least for those already using it. There are already quite a few good providers using Bitcoin, if you're interested (for example ExpressVPN, VPNArea, IPVanish), but we'd like to see many more.

8. Allow anonymous signups

No matter how clear and detailed a VPN’s privacy policy might be, it's not an absolute guarantee of anonymity. The reality is it's still just a form of words, and you can't be completely sure a provider will deliver what is promised.

That's why VPNs should provide an extra layer of protection by allowing truly anonymous accounts. Don't ask for names, countries, phone numbers, not even email addresses – none of that is absolutely necessary.

Allow Bitcoin payments, as we suggested previously, and users become much safer. Even if an internet action is linked back to their account, there's little or no data which links the account back to them.

Unrealistic? Nope – Mullvad does it right now. Try it: go to the Mullvad site, click Get Account, complete the CAPTCHA and click Generate Account Number. That creates the ID that represents your account instead of an email address, and you can immediately download a client and sample the service for free with a brief three-hour trial.

9. Offer a VPN router

Most VPNs love to boast that you can use the service on ‘all your devices’, but this isn't always easy. You'll need to separately install clients on every mobile, desktop PC and tablet – maybe set up OpenVPN on unsupported devices – and then figure out how to manually set up smart TVs, game consoles and whatever else you need to use. All while trying to avoid falling foul of the VPN's limit of maximum simultaneous connections.

All of this could be avoided if providers would offer VPN routers. Getting started becomes as easy as plugging the new router into your old one and providing your account ID. Once it's authenticated, the router appears on your local list of wireless networks and you can log in as usual from any device.

This ease of use will come at a cost, and we don't just mean the hardware. Many providers sell accounts for single users only, and a setup which encourages whole families to use the service is going to be more expensive. But that will be a price well worth paying for some people, and we'd like the option to be available.

10. Provide a support forum

There are two ways to get support from a typical VPN provider. First you'll search an underpowered web knowledgebase for the answer, and when that fails – as it usually does – you'll have to contact the support team directly and wait minutes, hours or days (who knows?) for a reply.

We would like to see providers offer a support forum, too. This takes careful management – users should be encouraged to post in the forum, but not so much that it's flooded with vague "it doesn't work, help!" messages from folks who never return – but get the balance right and there are real benefits here.

A good forum allows everyone to see current issues, for instance. You can learn from questions asked previously, and maybe diagnose problems you didn't properly understand before. And it shows some real transparency, as the provider is allowing you to see problems users have and how they're addressed.

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