Antarctic researchers mark

winter solstice with icy plunge

SYDNEY (AFP): Scientists based in Antarctica welcomed the winter solstice by plunging into icy waters Thursday as part of a “mad tradition” heralding the return of brighter days after weeks of darkness. In temperatures of -22 degrees Celsius (-7.6 degrees Fahrenheit), staff at Australia’s Casey research station marked midwinter’s day by cutting a small pool in the thick ice before stripping off and jumping in. Casey station leader Rebecca Jeffcoat said midwinter day - the shortest of the year - was the most anticipated occasion on the Antarctic calendar and has been celebrated from the time of the early explorers. “Swimming in Antarctica’s below freezing waters is something of a mad tradition, but our hardy expeditioners look forward to it, with 21 of the 26 people on station brave enough to take an icy dip this year,” she said. “Midwinter day is really important in Antarctica because it marks the halfway point of our year here on the ice and it means the sun will spend slightly longer in the sky each day.” Celebrations took place at all three of Australia’s Antarctic research stations and its sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island base, with feasting, an exchange of handmade gifts, and messages from home read out.

Jeffcoat, who is experiencing her first Antarctic winter, said the continent was extraordinary.

“The environment is spectacular and harsh, and we experience the most incredible range of conditions, from below freezing blizzards to auroras, or the midwinter twilight as the sun skims the horizon,” she said.

“It is challenging being so far from family and friends, but we have built a really close knit community of friends on station that we’ll likely have for the rest of our lives as we’ve shared this great experience together.”

Australia currently has 75 researchers living and working on the frozen continent as part of the Australian Antarctic Program, with most of them on 12-month postings.

 

 

With a billion users, Instagram

takes on YouTube in video

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP): Instagram said Wednesday it now has more than one billion active users, as it unveiled a new long-form video feature in a bid to attract “creators” like those on YouTube. It becomes the fourth Facebook platform to hit the billion-user mark, including the namesake social network with more than two billion users, and the messaging applications WhatsApp and Messenger. Instagram, which had some 800 million users as of September, has been outpacing rival social networks such as Twitter and Snapchat and has been gaining younger users even as Facebook itself has seen declines in the youth segment. Instagram chief executive Kevin Systrom announced the milestone as he unveiled the new video application known as IGTV. “We have now a community of one billion users,” Systrom told the event in San Francisco. “Since our launch in 2010, we’ve watched with amazement as the community has flourished and grown.” As Facebook itself has moved deeper into video, Instagram will become a direct competitor to YouTube with IGTV. IGTV will enable any user to upload long-form videos and will also include “channels” from video “creators,” similar to a format employed by Google-owned YouTube which has given rise to a number of YouTube “stars.”

“Anyone can be a creator - you can upload your own IGTV videos in the app or on the web to start your own channel,” Systrom said.

Systrom said IGTV is built to be used on a smartphone, and boosts the time for videos from the previous limit of one minute.

“The way we are watching video is changing,” Systrom told the event.

He added that IGTV is “built for how you actually use your phone, so videos are full screen and vertical.”

The launch comes amid a shift in video viewing habits away from traditional television to online platforms including Netflix and Hulu, and with more people watching both professional and user content on services like YouTube.

According to the research firm eMarketer, 181.7 million Americans will watch video content on their smartphones at least once a month this year, up 6.1 percent from a year ago.

Product manager Ashley Yuki told the event that IGTV “is an open platform from day one, so everyone can become a creator.”

Rolling out for the iOS and Android apps, IGTV will allow any user to upload videos up to 10 minutes long, with the limit for larger accounts at one hour.

Systrom described the new app as “a separate space, a dedicated space to enjoy video without being distracted.”

Facebook acquired Instagram in April 2012 for a combination of cash and stock worth some $1 billion at the time.

Since then it has become a strong engineer of growth for Facebook in terms of users and ad revenues.

While Facebook offers no detailed revenue breakdown, eMarketer estimates Instagram will generate $5.48 billion in net US ad revenue this year, up 70.4 percent from last year and accounting for more than one-fourth of Facebook’s net mobile ad revenue.

Facebook itself is also ramping up its video offerings with original shows and this week announced new formats including interactive game shows, quizzes and polls.

 

 

 

 

Famed sign-language gorilla

Koko dies in California

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP): The famed gorilla Koko, known for her mastery of sign language, has died in California, a research center announced Thursday. She was 46. She was born Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “Fireworks Child”) on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. She was a western lowland gorilla. Koko became the subject of books, television shows and press reports after learning more than 1,000 words in American Sign Language from animal psychologist Penny Patterson. She passed away on Wednesday morning in her sleep, The Gorilla Foundation announced. “Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed,” the foundation said. Patterson started to teach Koko sign language a year after she was born, and with collaborator Ronald Cohn moved her to Stanford in 1974, going on to establish The Gorilla Foundation. Koko appeared in numerous documentaries and twice appeared on the cover of National Geographic. The first cover, in 1978, was a photograph that Koko had taken of herself in a mirror. In 1985, the magazine wrote about Koko and her kitten, called All Ball. Their relationship became the subject of a book, “Koko’s Kitten,” taught in schools.

“Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world,” The Gorilla Foundation said Thursday.

In 2005, two women sacked from jobs caring for Koko sued the foundation for allegedly ordering them to bare their breasts to the gorilla in a bonding effort.

The foundation strenuously denied the allegations and an out-of-court settlement was reached.