Amazon has banned over 600 Chinese brands as part of review fraud crackdown

Have you noticed some well-known tech accessory makers disappearing from Amazon? Those aren’t just rare incidents — they’re part of a larger campaign. In a response to The Verge, Amazon has confirmed a South China Morning Postreport that the internet giant has banned over 600 Chinese brands (spread across 3,000 seller accounts) over review fraud incidents. These firms intentionally and repeatedly violated review policies banning incentivized reviews, Amazon said.

The online retailer first broke word of the figure in an interview with VP Cindy Tai on the state-controlled network China Central Television. It had previously kept relatively quiet on the broader effort.

The crackdown began in earnest five months earlier, but it received wider attention when Amazon banned Aukey and Mpow. The venders were caught offering rewards, including gift cards, for customers leaving reviews. Amazon later booted RAVPower, Vava and other relatively well-known brands for similar behavior. It’s not clear how many non-Chinese brands have faced bans.

There are signs these vendors are either dodging bans or have otherwise escaped some detection, such as Aukey earbuds under the Key Series brand. However, it’s safe to say the wider anti-fraud strategy has significantly changed Amazon’s marketplace — much to the chagrin of banned companies that heavily depended on Amazon-based sales.

Elon Musk says Starlink internet service will leave beta in October

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband might not be considered a test for much longer. Elon Musk told Twitter users that Starlink should exit beta “next month” — that is, sometime in October. You could theoretically could use the quicker-than-usual service in more countries, or at least without the stigma of beta testing involved.

The company had aimed for complete worldwide coverage by September. To date, the beta has been largely limited to North America and parts of Europe, with notable exceptions like Australia, Chile and New Zealand. Planned expansions are so far limited to Mexico and Japan, but SpaceX has registered subsidiaries in countries like the Philippines and South Africa.

The formal launch could be crucial. SpaceX said it had shipped 100,000 Starlink terminals as of late August, but that number is likely to swell as the beta label disappears and more countries get access. And while satellite service is far from new, Starlink’s high bandwidth and low latency could help close the gap for broadband in rural areas and developing countries where conventional internet access is either unavailable or too slow to be practical.

This is, of course, provided Starlink arrives as promised. Musk and his companies have a history of optimistic timetables for projects that get stalled by technical hurdles and other practical realities. An October launch certainly isn’t out of the question, but you might not want to plan your schedule around that launch just yet.

Valve’s second Steam Next Fest starts October 1st

Valve didn’t wait long to hold its second Steam Next Fest. The Vergereports the games extravaganza (formerly the Steam Game Festival) is now slated to take place October 1st through October 7th. You’ll see a range of upcoming games, including livestreams and chats, but the highlight may be the demos. Most notably, IGNsays you’ll get to try No Man’s Sky creator Hello Games’ Steam release of The Last Campfire.

Other game demos will include Ludomotion’s Unexplored 2, The Artistocrats’ Starship Troopers — Terran Command and Andrew Shouldice’s action adventure Tunic.

Steam Next Fest, like Summer Game Fest and other virtual events, is a substitute for real-world gaming conferences and expos that can’t happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This gives independent creators an opportunity to promote and refine games that might otherwise get little attention compared to blockbuster titles. It also helps Valve, of course — you may be more likely to buy these games and otherwise view Steam as a go-to source for indie releases.

ICYMI: We test out the GoPro Hero 10 Black action cam

This week we’ve got a few reviews for music and photography enthusiasts. First, James Trew put the GoPro Hero 10 Black through its paces and was impressed by the capabilities of the new GP2 processor. Next, Billy Steele listened to Jabra’s $80 Elite 3 earbuds and, due to the combination of price and features, deemed them one of the company’s best gadgets. Lastly, Terrence O’Brien played around with the Arturia SQ80V synth emulator only to be charmed by its fluid user interface and timeless sounds.

The GoPro Hero 10 Black benefits from a new processor

GoPro Hero 10 review.
James Trew / Engadget

James Trew is plain about the new GoPro Hero 10 Black: it is remarkably similar to last year’s model, save for the impressive, new GP2 processor. That chip brings a boost in frame rates across the board, including 5.3K at 60fps. It’s also responsible for the updated HyperSmooth 4.0 stabilization technology, which makes for smoother shooting scenarios, a speedier user interface, faster offloading of media and even improvements to the front-facing display. GoPro says the GP2’s capabilities can help produce improved photos and videos as well.

In James’s testing, this was well born out: He saw noticeably better image quality from the Hero 10 Black than from the Hero 9. James said the difference in detail was instantly noticeable at 100-percent crop, where the Hero 10 was able to capture textures like road surface or leaves. He also enjoyed the added flexibility that came with the new resolution and frame rate combinations — another bonus of the GP2 processing power. The Hero 10 Black also adds a hydrophobic lens coating, which keeps water droplets from gathering in blurry drips, 4K video at 120fps for respectable slow-mo, and a good, old-fashioned wired transfer. With one of the only drawbacks being a shorter battery life, James says that the Hero 10 takes everything that was working for GoPro devices and builds on it.

The Jabra Elite 3 earbuds offer excellent value and impressive sound

Jabra Elite 3
Billy Steele/Engadget

The Jabra Elite 3 earbuds have a lot going for them: they’re affordable, have functional controls, a comfortable fit courtesy of a new design, impressive sound quality and a solid feature set. Billy Steele says they far exceeded his expectations and offer an incredible value for their $80 price tag. During testing, he was immediately impressed by the sound quality, which was adept at highlighting details like the rattle of a snare drum. While he found the call quality to be only serviceable, he found other features — like a mute control on the earbuds — well thought-out. He was also pleased with the nearly seven-hour battery life.

However, low-cost models will forgo some things you may take for granted on other earbuds, and here, the Elite 3 buds lack wireless charging and active noise cancellation. Billy said one of the few drawbacks with the Elite 3’s was the missing auto-pause feature — he found it annoying, but not a dealbreaker. He also mentioned that the only EQ customizations are available in presets, but that the Elite 3 outperformed similar models here due to its balanced tuning and great clarity. With few drawbacks, Billy deemed them one of the best wireless products from Jabra.

Arturia’s SQ 80V is a synth emulator modeled after a classic

Arturia SQ80 V
Terrence O’Brien/Engadget

Terrence O’Brien spent some time tweaking the knobs on Arturia’s new SQ 80V, a synth emulator designed to mimic the dusty charm of the Ensoniq SQ-80. The device contains the original 75 waveforms as well as “hidden” waves from the SQ-80 to provide users with a wide range of sound design possibilities. The majority of the controls, three LFOs and four envelopes, are on a mouse-friendly synthesis tab, while you can change the oscillator waves and tweak the filter right from the device itself.

Terrence says the SQ80 V is ideal for crushed digital sounds, and the two sound packs released alongside the emulator are right in line with that feel. While those packs made it easy to find sounds in the included presets, Terrence said it’s simple to build your own patches as well because of the dropdown menus and tabs. He called the interface “clean, charmingly retro and easy to navigate.” Overall, Terrence said he digs the SQ80 V because it’s approachable to synth players while providing warm, timeless sound.

Hitting the Books: A look at the 1920s airship that nearly made it to the North Pole

During the Roaring ’20s just about everybody was convinced that dirigibles were not just the future of luxury travel but that these lumbering airships could also serve as platforms for scientific exploration and adventure. Why slog through malaria-infested jungles, parched deserts and frozen tundra when you could simply float an expedition to its destination? Among the technology’s most fervent adherents were famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Italian airship designer General Umberto Nobile. In 1928, Nobile attempted to lead the first expedition to land people at the North Pole aboard Airship Italia. However, a brutal storm forced the vessel to crash land, stranding its survivors with precious few provisions and setting off the largest arctic rescue effort in history. 

N-4 Down, by journalist and author Mark Piesing chronicles that rescue effort, led by Amundsen himself. In the excerpt below, we get a quick look at just what level of technological prowess the crew of the ill-fated expedition were actually dealing with.

N-4 Down cover
Harper Collins Publishers

From N-4 Down by Mark Piesing. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Piesing. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Amundsen may have dreamed of multiple air bases in the Arctic Circle, but in 1925 his was one of the only ones. It consisted of two flying boats, no hangars, and a rough runway made from ice.

For the flight he had a team of six men who would be split between the two planes. Lincoln Ellsworth would be in one, Amundsen in the other. The Norwegian had also brought with him for the first time two journalists and a photographer to record the expedition.

The flying boats that Amundsen transported from Pisa, Italy, weren’t just any flying boats. The N-24 and N-25 were state-of-the-art Dornier Do J “whale” flying boats, which went on to pioneer many air routes across the world.

These expensive German-designed machines were cutting edge in 1925. This meant that they were all metal, with a whale-shaped hull and high, raised wings. Two stub wings, known as sponsons, kept the plane stable, while ribs on the hull gave the plane the strength to land on sea or ice. Two chunky Rolls-Royce Eagle propeller engines were arranged back to back: one to pull the plane through the air and the other to push it. The Eagle engines were the first aeroengines that Rolls-Royce ever built.

Alas, the pilots were still housed in an unheated open-air cockpit, obliged to wear woolen underwear, sweaters, two pairs of pants, a sealskin greatcoat as well as a leather jacket, a leather flying helmet, gloves, scarves, and heavy boots to stay warm while flying at high speeds. They all had a parachute (one of the conditions Ellsworth’s father made him agree to in exchange for his money), though the terrible battle to survive they would face if their parachutes worked was something it was better not to think about.

The state of aerial navigation wasn’t much better. Pilots, who still who relied on distinguishing features such as railways, rivers, and castles to help them work out where they were going, were always going to be challenged by the featureless and shifting Arctic landscape. As mariners had done for the last two hundred year, sextants could be used to determine their aircraft’s altitude, position, and ground speed. These sextants were of less use, of course, when visibility was blocked by fog or thick clouds. Then these early pilots could use a magnetic compass, which becomes less reliable the closer to the North Pole the aircraft flies, or a solar compass, which worked like a sundial by using the position of the sun to establish a bearing (particularly useful near the North Pole).

Radio had started to challenge these far older methods of navigation. Radio direction finding allowed a navigator to find the direction to a radio station, or beacon. Then if you could pick up the signals of two or more stations, or beacons, then you could work out where you were by simple triangulation. Airplane navigators had to take all these readings in conditions that didn’t lend themselves to accuracy, taking measurements and keeping records in what was usually a freezing cold — and sometimes open — cockpit in a noisy and unstable machine.

Unfortunately for the crew of his new expedition, the Amundsen of 1925 was not the Amundsen who beat Scott to the South Pole. It could be said that he had lost his eye for detail.

The planes had been test flown in the Mediterranean before they were shipped by train and boat to Kings Bay. What they hadn’t been was properly test flown in the below-freezing conditions of the Arctic. In 1925, no one really understood how these flimsy aircraft and their internal combustion engines would cope with the cold of the Arctic, and Amundsen didn’t seem particularly curious about the possible distinction. Then there were the sextants that didn’t work and the radio sets that hadn’t arrived yet, and which Amundsen decided they couldn’t wait for. Finally, Amundsen didn’t formulate any emergency procedures in the event that one of the planes had to land. Without the radios, there was no way for the crews to talk to each other midflight if something went wrong. He had compounded this risk by turning down the US Navy’s offer of the giant airship USS Shenandoah to act as a rescue ship the year before. But he did remember to take a moving-picture camera with them.

Amundsen’s haste was due to his worry that a narrow window in the Arctic weather was set to close. There was also the nagging fear that someone else would fly to the North Pole before him.

Finally, on May 21, 1925, after one last leisurely, rather staged cigarette to calm their nerves, and with a final shove of the plane from the miners — who were given the day off for the occasion — the two overloaded planes roared one after the other across the rough-ice runway like toboggans, the crews feeling every bump in the ice through the flying boats’ metal hull, then out on to the water and into the air. “It was unreal, mystic, fraught with prophecy,” Ellsworth wrote. “Something ahead was hidden, and we were going to find it.”

The low-lying fog quickly cleared. The film that the crew shot of the glaciers of Svalbard comprised the first images ever taken from the air of these rivers of ice.

Amundsen’s dream of flying over the Arctic Sea was realized. The explorers were covering in hours what would take a week to do with dogs and skis. “I have never seen anything more desolate and deserted,” Amundsen remarked. “A bear from time to time I would have thought, which could break the monotony a little. But no—absolutely nothing living.”

After eight hours, they should have been near the North Pole, and the plan was to try to land. But one of the engines of Amundsen’s plane started to splutter on their descent. It quickly became apparent that they had to land rather sooner than they wanted.

“I have never looked down upon a more terrifying place in which to land an airplane,” Ellsworth wrote. For what had looked like smooth ice from high altitude turned out to be cut by ridges, gaps of open water called leads, and icebergs.

Amundsen’s plane made it down safely thanks to the skills of his pilot. Ellsworth’s was not so lucky. His plane eventually found a stretch of water they too could land on. Unfortunately, distances are deceptive at that height and what had seemed long enough was too short. Ellsworth’s plane bounced across the surface of the sea and smashed into an ice floe. Water poured in. That the rivets on the hull had burst due to the rough takeoff only added to their problems.

Soon there was nothing Ellsworth and his men could do to rescue it; the flying boat floated there like a dead whale. Ellsworth’s men were cold and wet, and they had been awake for twenty-four hours. They needed rest and food, but there wouldn’t be any of either for a while. They had to try their best to protect the plane from being crushed by the ice or sinking while they tried to salvage what they could. Eventually they stopped, exhausted—and the peril Ellsworth and his men were in suddenly hit him. “In the utter silence this seemed to me to be the kingdom of death,” he wrote.

The two crews were now separated from each other by many miles. It was twenty-four hours before they spotted each other across the ice pack.

Even when they were in sight of each other, communication across the ice was hampered because no one knew Morse code or semaphore. Instead, the two crews managed to get a rudimentary flag system going between them. It took two to three hours to communicate a simple message. Walking across the ice wasn’t an option either. It was simply too dangerous.

They were lucky in the end. The blocks of sea ice floated closer together, making it possible for the crews to be reunited after five interminable days. This still wasn’t without risk. Attempts by the men to walk across the ice floes with as much equipment as possible nearly ended in disaster when two of them sank through the slush into the freezing water. One of the men screamed, “I’m gone! I’m gone,” as the current tried to pull him under the ice.

Amundsen looked shockingly changed, exhaustion and anxiety cut deep into his face, but he was now back in the world of the ice pack, a world he knew so well. Quickly he took control. He realized that they had to combine the supplies from both planes to give themselves a chance of survival. More important, perhaps, they were able to siphon the fuel out of Ellsworth’s plane to give them enough to reach home again with the heavier load of all the men on board. But before they could attempt this, they first needed to carve a runway out of the ice. Of course, they hadn’t brought any specialized tools with them, despite having planned to land at the North Pole.

Without radio contact, the world first suspected that something had gone wrong when the planes didn’t return to Kings Bay straight away. Even then, some people thought that the aviators could have stayed at the pole for a couple of days or even flown on to Alaska, as Amundsen had long wanted to do. Some remembered conversations where Ellsworth had said it might take a year for them to walk out of the wilderness if their plane crashed.

When nothing was heard from them, newspapers across America started to report that the planes were overdue. There were demands for a rescue effort to be launched. But the lack of ships, planes, airships, and any idea of where Amundsen and his men had crashed presented would-be rescuers with a fearsome challenge. Still, the pressure was there. One headline in the New York Times proclaimed, “Coolidge Favors Amundsen Relief Should He Need It; President Would Approve Naval Plan to Send One of Our Giant Dirigibles to the Arctic.”

The US Navy was keen to launch its own expedition to rescue Amundsen. Two years earlier, naval plans to explore the Arctic with one of its huge dirigibles had been canceled owing to the expense. Now they were pushing the president to dispatch the giant USS Shenandoah or USS Los Angeles airships to search for Amundsen. Either of the two ships could be ready in days for the mission, sources told the New York Times journalist. The flight itself to Greenland (a possible base for the mission) would then take a couple of days, depending on the weather and where the ships were based at that time. “Practically, every officer connected with the aeronautical service of the Navy will volunteer in the event that a call for help is made on behalf of Amundsen,” the reporter explained.

Israel reportedly used a remote-controlled gun to assassinate an Iranian scientist

Countries have assassinated people with drones, but those attacks now appear to include robotic weapons on the ground. The New York Timessources claim Israel assassinated top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th, 2020 using a remotely-controlled, AI-assisted machine gun. Israel reportedly mounted the gun on a pickup truck by the side of the road and, when Fakhrizadeh’s car approached had a distant operator fire the gun using a satellite link.

The attack was precise, sparing Fakhrizadeh’s wife, but may not have used facial recognition to assist with aiming as unnamed Iranian officials said. While Israel purportedly used the AI to compensate for the satellite system’s lag and gun recoil, operatives identified Fakhrizadeh by staging a decoy car with a camera to force a U-turn and get a clear image.

Neither government has publicly confirmed the use of a robotic gun, although The Times‘ story is based in part on the Fakhrizadeh family’s statements to the media. Iranian investigators only determined the nature of the attack by chance, according to the sources. The Israeli operatives exploded the truck in a bid to destroy the evidence, but the equipment remained intact (if inoperable).

The use of this technology isn’t surprising. While the remote gun was supposedly difficult to set up (Israel smuggled parts in very gradually), it both kept agents out of harm’s way and avoided raising alarms like a drone. If the gun had been destroyed as planned, Iran might have been unable to determine the assassination method.

If accurate, the report might point to the future of espionage. Assassins can now use robotics to take out targets with little risk to themselves, little warning to enemies and a greater chance of deniability. You won’t necessarily see a surge of assassinations as a result (Fakhrizadeh ignored multiple security recommendations), but there’s a real chance this won’t be the last kill of its kind.

Recommended Reading: ‘The Facebook files’

The Facebook files

The Wall Street Journal

If you’ve been following tech news at all this week, you’ve likely read some of WSJ’s reporting already. However, the entire series of articles is worth a look as it shows how much Facebook knows about unequal policy enforcement, how toxic Instagram can be for teen girls, the power of its algorithm, illegal activity and, perhaps most stunningly, how activists drowned out Mark Zuckerberg’s own push for COVID-19 vaccines.

This FDA-approved necklace is designed to prevent brain injuries in athletes

Mark Wilson, Fast Company

Concussions will never be prevented by simply wearing a helmet for contact sports, so doctors and researchers must explore other methods for minimizing lasting effects. With the Q-Collar, a $200 band that is worn around the back of the neck, Q30 hopes to limit brain trauma in athletes by slowing blood flow to the internal jugular vein.

Video games’ sensory revolution: How haptics reinvented the controller

Justin Charity, The Ringer

We’ve come a long way since the Rumble Pack for Nintendo 64. The Ringer explores the role of haptic feedback in gaming through the lens of Sony’s DualSense for PS5, pondering what the future of gaming may hold. 

India says Google abused Android dominance

Google stifled competition and prevented the development of Android rivals in India, the country’s antitrust regulator has decided in a report seen by Reuters. In 2019, Competition Commission of India opened a probe into whether Google abused Android’s dominance in the market where devices powered by the OS are prevalent. In its report on the probe’s findings, the regulator wrote that Google flexed its “huge financial muscle” to reduce manufacturers’ ability to develop and sell devices running Android forks. 

In addition, the commission said that Google requiring manufacturers to pre-install Android apps is an unfair condition to make in exchange for access to its mobile OS. It violates India’s competition laws, the report reads. The regulator also found Play Store policies to be “one-sided, ambiguous, vague, biased and arbitrary.” In a statement sent to Reuters, Google said it’s looking forward to working with the CCI to “demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The tech giant reportedly responded to the probe 24 times to defend itself, and other tech companies including Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Samsung and Xiaomi also responded to questions from the commission. While CCI still decided that Google illegally stifled competition in the country, the company will have another chance to defend itself before the CCI issues its final decision along with penalties, if any.

Just a few days ago, South Korean regulators also came to the decision that Google used its dominant position in the market to hamper the development of Android rivals. They slapped the tech giant with a $177 million fine. They also banned the company from requiring manufacturing partners to sign anti-fragmentation agreements, which prohibit the creation and installation of alternative versions of the Android OS. 

Clubhouse is developing a new way to invite friends to chat called ‘Wave’

Clubhouse isn’t just an app you can fire up to attend talks by famous people. It has different types of rooms you can use, including ones where you can have intimate, private conversations with friends — and in the future, you may be able to invite those friends to chat by “waving” at them. Jane Manchun Wong, who’s famous for reverse engineering apps to find hidden experimental features, has discovered that Clubhouse is working on a new way to invite contacts to have an audio conversation. 

If the feature gets a wide release, Clubhouse will add a “Wave” button on users’ profiles that looks similar to the Wave button you see when you first connect with someone on Messenger. Tapping on it will let a friend know you want to chat, and the app will only open a room for you if they respond. 

Clubhouse started out as an invite-only audio app for iOS wherein you’ll have to join a waitlist to get in. Over the past few months, though, it released an app for Android and opened its doors to everyone. Famous personalities like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg previously used it a venue to hold talks in open rooms where users can host public conversations with listeners. This feature, however, might make it more compelling for more casual use and could convince users not to hop on another app when it’s time to talk to family and friends.

A ‘Destroy All Humans! 2’ remake is coming to PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC

One year after releasing a full remake of cult classic Destroy All Humans!, THQ Nordic plans to modernize its 2006 sequel as well. During its recent publisher showcase, the company announced Destroy All Humans! 2Reprobed (yes, that’s the actual name of the game). It’s coming out “soon” on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and PC.

Developer Black Forest Games is remaking the PlayStation 2 and Xbox title completely from scratch in Unreal Engine 4. The studio says the new game will feature local two-player split-screen co-op, and a “much larger” open world for players to explore. The 2006 original was game in the series developed by Pandemic Studios before the developer was acquired by EA in 2007 and subsequently shut down in 2009.