All posts by John Skrhak

John Skrhak | Gadgets, Sports and Toys Fanatic | Read about them all here.

We just sent a message to aliens who could respond by 2042

Humanity is sending out a musical, mathematical and scientific message for E.T. across interstellar space, and if any aliens happen to receive it and respond, first contact could happen as soon as 2042.

Of course, that’s quite a huge “if.”

Nonetheless, Doug Vakoch, president and founder of METI International, is optimistic that his organization’s detailed message encoded in radio waves dubbed “Sonar Calling GJ273b” could be received by an intelligent civilization.

“[The message is] distinctive because it’s designed with extraterrestrial SETI scientists in mind. We sent the sort of signal we’d want to receive here on Earth,” he told me.

METI is an organization dedicated to searching for and considering how to communicate with extra-terrestrial intelligence. METI’s transmission was sent in the direction of GJ 273, also known as Luyten’s Star, just over 12 light-years away, on three successive days in October from the Eiscat transmitter in Tromsø, Norway. It was embedded with a tutorial in basic math and science that also builds upon those fundamentals to explain concepts from physics like radio frequencies as well as our conception of time. This could help E.T.s not only to understand a little about us, but also about the communication process, including making clear when we’ll be listening for a response.

METI made its first public announcement about the transmission on Wednesday.


Eiscat Tromsø site with the Eiscat3D test facility in the foreground.

Eiscat/Craig Heinselman

“In a reply message, I would first want to know that the extraterrestrials understood what we said in our first message,” METI said. “The easiest way to do this is to repeat our message, but in expanded form. We tell them that ‘1 + 1 = 2.’ They could let us know that they understand that ’10 + 10 = 20.'”

The message was repeated over three consecutive days to give any alien astronomers on GJ 273b, the potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting Luyten’s Star, a chance to confirm the detection of an intentional signal. 

“This sort of confirmation is essential to having a credible SETI signal,” Vakoch explained. “The last thing we want to do is send the aliens a Wow! Signal that’s seen only once, but never replicated.”

Because it will take a little more than 12 years for a message to travel between Earth and GJ273b, it would take a minimum of about 25 years for our message to reach its target and for a response from there to then reach Earth.  

Luyten’s star was chosen because it’s visible from the northern hemisphere, where the transmitter is located, unlike the closest known potentially habitable exoplanet, Proxima b, which is just 4 light years away. 

So what are the odds that anyone or anything beyond Earth ever actually picks up the signal and gets the message? Vakoch is measured in his expectations.

“Practically speaking, if we get a signal from Luyten’s Star, it will mean the Milky Way is teeming with life. It’s certainly possible,” Vakoch said,  before hedging a bit. “It seems more likely that we’ll need to target not just one star, but hundreds, thousands, or even millions before we get a reply back.”

There have been a few other, similar signals sent into space, such as the Arecibo message. But Vakoch says this is the first signal he knows of that has targeted a nearby star system that is potentially inhabited.

The channel of communication will open up again next year, with a second transmission planned for April. 

This follow-up message will include an expanded tutorial that will attempt to “turn the the Eiscat antenna into a musical instrument transmitting pulses at several different frequencies, mimicking the tones of a musical scale,” explains a release. “By sending basic melodies at multiple radio frequencies, METI will expand its tutorial for Sónar Calling to describe the physics and psychology of music.”   

Sónar — Barcelona’s festival of music, creativity and technology — commissioned 33 musical pieces of 10 seconds each from a diverse set of musicians including Jean-Michel Jarre, Autechre, Daito Manabe, Kate Tempest and Matmos for the musical message.

This second round of transmissions ends with a clock time marking the date that humanity will be listening for a reply 25 years from now.

“A wonderful reply would be to hear extraterrestrials develop these melodies into something more complex. I would love to hear what an interstellar symphony created by extraterrestrials sounds like,” Vakoch says.

But what if the aliens aren’t interested in making music with us? What if they’re more interested in, say, making mince meat pies out of us? Not to fear, explains Vakoch:

“Any civilization that is capable of an alien invasion is already privy to our existence. Earth’s atmosphere has been giving off evidence of the existence of life for two and a half billion years, by virtue of the oxygen in our atmosphere, so any paranoid aliens have had plenty of time to do us harm. There’s no sign they’ve been here.”

Oh, OK then. Let’s begin composition of our interstellar, multi-species magnum opus.

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Massive new Lego Star Wars kit rolls BB-8 your way

bb8lego2Enlarge Image



Adorable droid BB-8, who first won the hearts of fans in “Star  Wars: The Force Awakens,” returns in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” opening worldwide on Dec. 15.

If you like the idea of counting down to the film with your own BB-8 by your side, you can do it with a massive new Star Wars Lego kit that contains more than 1,106 pieces. 

The Lego BB-8 has a wheel-activated rotating head and opening hatch with non-functioning (whew!) welding torch. While the completed Lego BB-8 model doesn’t roll, it does include a display stand and decorative fact plaque about the droid. 

Without the stand, the completed Lego BB-8 model measures 9×5 inches (25×15 centimeters).

This Lego BB-8 kit retails for $80 (£61, AU$105). 

Lego also has other Star Wars mega-kits for the Millennium Falcon (7,500 pieces) and the Death Star (4,016 pieces). 


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Duolingo adds Mandarin course to its language library

Online language learning company Duolingo has finally added a Mandarin course to its offerings. With more than one billion speakers, Mandarin is the most popular language on the planet, but it’s also on one of the hardest to learn, which is why the course will prove a little beefier than its European language counterparts. English speakers will learn the language’s characters as well as the four tones of Mandarin, with lessons structured by themes such as greetings, food, health and sports.

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Google Docs just ate your homework

I was going to write this post using Google Docs, but all I got was a “Trying to connect” alert.

I was not alone in being shut out. Twitter lit up Wednesday afternoon with tweets from various frustrated word slingers pulling their hair out over the outage.

Website said Docs had been having issues since about 9 a.m. PT, and the site’s live outage map showed that a number of major metropolitan areas in the US had been affected.


And like Twitter, DownDetector’s comment section was rife with complaints.

“Well this is pissing me off,” read one. “I can see what’s in my drive, but it won’t open any of the documents, unless i have a Chrome offline version.”

“502. That’s an error,” read another. “‘The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request. Please try again in 30 seconds.’ That’s all we know.”

Google confirmed the situation at 12:48 p.m. PT with a post on its G Suite status dashboard and said it would provide more info shortly:

“We’re aware of a problem with Google Docs affecting a significant subset of users. The affected users are unable to access Google Docs.

At 1:55 p.m. PT, it said some folks had regained access and that a larger fix would be in place soon: “Google Docs service has already been restored for some users, and we expect a resolution for all users in the near future.”

And at 2:10 p.m. PT, Google said the issue was resolved: “We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience and continued support. Please rest assured that system reliability is a top priority at Google, and we are making continuous improvements to make our systems better.”

It’s not the first time an outage has jeopardized your chance of achieving immortality with a prize-winning essay. September and January also saw issues.

Not all the tweets were stress-inducing. A few offered a smile to help you get past the pain. Here’s one:

First published Nov. 15 at 2:12 p.m. PT.
Updated at 2:22 p.m. PT: Adds Google’s update that the issue with Docs has been resolved. 

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Even Morton Salt has a freakin’ Alexa skill

‘Tis the season for trying your hand at cooking turkey, and if you aren’t terribly experienced, then you might want to seek out some assistance before the entire family takes a seat around your table. Sure, a cookbook would probably do the trick, and you’ve probably got plenty of loved ones who would love to offer guidance — but why not just ask Alexa?


Alexa’s “Morton Brine Time” skill can teach you everything you’d ever want to know about brining a turkey.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Now, thanks to Morton Salt’s new “Morton Brine Time” skill for the popular virtual assistant, you can.

To enable it, search for Morton Brine Time in the skills section of the Alexa app, or just say, “Alexa, enable Morton Brine Time,” which is a perfectly normal and reasonable thing to say out loud when you’re alone in your kitchen. With the skill enabled, Alexa will be able to answer common brining questions, or even walk you through a recipe step by step, including recipes from celebrity chef Richard Blais.

“Brining a turkey with kosher salt helps ensure a juicy, flavor-packed bird,” Blais says in the press release before going on to lavish praise on how well Morton salt dissolves in water.

Examples of commands you can give include, “Alexa, ask Morton Brine Time why I should brine,” and “Alexa, ask Morton Brine Time for a wet brine recipe,” though I started just by saying, “Alexa, open Morton Brine Time.” From there, Alexa was off to the races, asking me how big my turkey was and whether I wanted to try a wet or a dry brine. I told her I had no idea, and she explained the virtues of each method. Immediately more informed, I told her I wanted to try a wet brine.

From there, she offered me a choice between a basic brine and a more involved brine from Chef Blais that adds in some Chinese flavor. I threw caution to the wind and told Alexa that my imaginary turkey deserved the fanciest of Chinese brines. “Ah, a budding gourmet,” she replied before sending the recipe to my Alexa app and offering to read through the steps with me.

It was a surprisingly smooth experience, and actually one of the more robust conversations I’ve had with Alexa in recent memory, despite it being largely one-sided. If you’re a clueless cook who just wants someone to tell you what to do, I could see the appeal. Morton clearly wants to sell a bunch of salt next week, but hey, kudos for picking a promotion that’s actually somewhat useful.

And honestly, I’m just shocked that Morton beat Butterball to the punch.

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Rumor Central: Mavs looking at making a roster move?

The Dallas Mavericks have a terrible 2-13 record after 15 games, and they are expected to be at the bottom of the NBA league standings when the 2017-18 NBA regular season ends in April.

Rumor CentralMavericks head coach Rick Carlisle has already been asked several times about potential changes to his playing lineup, and that is something he’s considering with his struggling team. Making changes to the roster is also a possibility the Mavericks’ front office will look at as an option.

“I think we’re pursuing anything and everything out there,” Carlisle told The Dallas Morning News. “At 2-13, pretty sure we’re not standing pat. But my focus is the guys we have right now and helping them fight through this and get better.”

The Mavericks currently have Seth Curry (left tibia stress reaction), Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis), Devin Harris (bruised ribs) and Josh McRoberts (lower extremity injury) dealing with injuries, which has also impacted Carlisle’s playing rotation.

On Dec. 15, over 90 players who were free agents last summer become trade-eligible, and Dallas might look to make a deal around that time.

One player who could be shopped is center Nerlens Noel. Noel re-signed with the Mavericks as no other suitable offers in the summer came his way, and he’s struggling so far this season. In 14 appearances, Noel is averaging just 15.2 minutes, 4.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.

Noel’s deal is just for the 2017-18 season, so he can’t be traded without his consent. If Noel is traded, he will lose his full Bird free-agent rights, which is why he has full veto power.

Others who might be put on the trade block include Harris, Wesley Matthews, McRoberts and Jeff Withey.

Dallas is currently operating as an “over-the-cap” team due to all the exceptions it owns, but just counting payroll, it is $12.5 million below the cap. The cap room does give the Mavericks a lot of flexibility in the trade market.

— Nick Silva

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