The biggest pumpkin ever grown in North America weighs more than a ton

Sometimes a week is so upsetting you just have to find joy in the unexpected. Take this huge-ass pumpkin, for example.

Steve Geddes of Boscawen, New Hampshire just made U.S. history by growing a pumpkin so large it surpassed the record for largest pumpkin in America.

Congrats, sir!

As The Boston Globe reported, Geddes presented his 2,528-pound pumpkin at the Deerfield Fair this week, where he wound up taking first place in a contest for heaviest pumpkin and winning $6,000 in prize money.

Here are some photos of the very large pumpkin for your enjoyment.

Woody Lancaster, the northeast representative for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, confirmed to The Boston Globe that not only did Geddes have the largest pumpkin at the fair this year, but he’s officially grown the largest pumpkin ever grown in North America.

Geddes now holds the U.S. record for heaviest pumpkin, beating the previous record of 2,363 pounds, but he also came remarkably close to the record for heaviest pumpkin in THE WORLD.

Mathias Willemijns of Belgium set the current world record for heaviest pumpkin back in Oct. 2016 with one that weighed a whopping 2,624 pounds, according to the Guinness World Records. But don’t worry Geddes, the world’s second largest pumpkin is still hella impressive and you’ve set the bar even higher for pumpkins in the United States.

If you want to see the pumpkin for yourself, head on over to the fair — which runs until Sept. 30 — and make your way to the fruit and vegetable building.

Long live autumn and long live pumpkins so ridiculously large they’d make Charlie Brown and the people of Halloweentown jealous.

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Why Gmail’s app developer policy could mean a security risk for you

The terms of service we hurriedly agreed to keep coming back to haunt us.

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google confirmed previous reports about the far-reaching access third-party apps can have to Gmail users’ accounts and personal emails.

When you download an app, it might request access to your Gmail account. But what you might not realize when you grant access is that these apps may analyze your Gmail data — including the content of your emails — for their product, and potentially for targeting ads. Apps are also allowed to share your information with third parties, as long as Google determines that it adequately discloses that to users. The Journal previously reported that “hundreds” of apps can scan the email of “millions” of users.

Google says it reviews apps to make sure they are clearly communicating what they have access to. But unless Gmail users are diligent, security experts that Mashable spoke with say the policy potentially exposes people in ways they may have not consented to or understood. 

Several experts said that app developers’ access to user data is more than just potentially creepy or invasive, though. Giving an app access to your Gmail can expose received emails as well as sent emails. So, because the policy could expose both your and your friends’ data, app access to Gmail could create a security risk similar to the mechanism that allowed for Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal

In that instance, a researcher used a third-party app, downloaded by 270,000 people, to gather data on all 87 million Facebook users in their friend networks, and then sold the data to a company (Cambridge Analytica) that used it to engage in political advertising. So, similarly, if you happen to send an email to a Gmail user who has given an app permission to read their emails, not only can that app see your correspondence and information — but a further removed third party can also see your emails, without you having ever given consent to either party.

“I do not see what is to prevent this type of access to be abused and misused in a similar way to Cambridge Analytica,” Brian Honan, a cybersecurity consultant for major banking companies who used to work with Europol, said. “Third-party apps with access to peoples’ accounts can expose a lot of personal data about those persons which could be used to target subsequent adverts or messages to them.”

The policy

In a letter, Google reportedly told Congress that when Gmail users grant apps access to their accounts, they may — perhaps inadvertently, if they do not read the terms closely enough — allow these apps to harvest their personal information. Apps can then use what people talk about in their emails, along with demographic and other information, to target their advertising. Google lays out the policy here.

Further, under Gmail’s rules, developers are then allowed to share Gmail users’ data with still other external parties. Google says that it vets the apps, and allows this data sharing as long as it determines that the developers are adequately disclosing the activity. 

Gmail itself ended the practice of using the content of people’s emails for ad targeting in July 2017. But it has apparently kept the ability in place for outside parties — so long as users “consent.”

“From a cybersecurity aspect, you don’t know how well those third-party apps have been vetted by Google”

Google stresses that it carefully reviews apps and employs sophisticated malware-detecting filtering technology. And, if you’re downloading an app from Google Play or the App Store, the chances of encountering a malicious app are low (though still possible). But people can and do download apps outside of these ecosystems. 

In those cases, Google’s data-collecting policy could allow for malicious apps to gain access to and undermine people’s accounts — especially on Android. Herold noted that some of the app policies allow for apps to “inject information, edit, and upload” in your account, which could lead to malware sending spam emails on your behalf. And access to personal emails could enable bad actors to craft more convincing and targeted phishing emails. 

“Google claims to have processes and systems in place to identify and remove malicious apps from its store, but despite these measures, malicious apps still are found regularly in the store,” Honan said.

“From a cybersecurity aspect, you don’t know how well those third-party apps have been vetted by Google,” said Herold.

The privacy onus

While malicious apps may pose a security risk, legitimate apps that simply want to use your data for advertising may actually be the larger issue.

Currently, the technology industry is undergoing a shift in who bears the responsibility for securing a user’s privacy. Up until this point, the onus to protect one’s privacy has been on users — which reflects Gmail’s current policy with app developers.

But thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, the practice of making people consent to giving away their data by burying consent in terms and conditions is coming under scrutiny. Gmail’s own policy change about not parsing emails for the sake of advertising data reflects this sea change. And Google recently prompted its users to more proactively review security settings.

But the company’s stance toward apps that have access to email reflects an outdated, and vulnerable, approach to privacy.

“It seems like a lazy way for them to address this,” Herold said. “They’re trying to push off responsibility to those who use Gmail instead of Google taking active steps to actually secure Gmail and limit what third-party apps can actually do.”

Currently, when people download an app, they may consent to giving that app access to their Gmail accounts — and inadvertently allow apps to read their emails, and provide their data to other companies. The way that people grant permission may be clear and forthright, especially if it takes place in a Google ecosystem. But the ways that people give consent vary from device to device, and from app to app. That means that Gmail is technically covered, from a legal standpoint. But hasty app-downloaders who rush through permissions might not be.

Currently, Gmail users can review and revoke access to apps at myaccount.google.com. But McAfee’s Davis says that Google should make it easier for users to control who has access to their data within Gmail.

“The most significant part of this really boils down to individual preference,” Davis said. “In our busy lives many people value the ability to have ads served up that align with their individual needs. However, there are also many people who feel this is a breach of their privacy. Allowing Gmail users to opt in or out in a more visible way could help support the needs of consumers from both ends of the spectrum.”

Cambridge Analytica: Gmail edition?

What made Cambridge Analytica such a large-scale disaster was the ripple effect. Only about 270,000 people downloaded the app. But those people gave researcher Aleksandr Kogan access to data about all of their Facebook friends, which means he ultimately had data on 87 million people. 

Similarly, apps that have received permission to access a person’s inbox see their whole inbox — not just the emails written by the one person who gave consent for access. That means these apps could have access to the emails and contact information of whoever an individual corresponds with. They might not get access to all the profile data, as with Cambridge Analytica, but they would still be able to learn people’s names, emails, and other personal information.

Herold thinks that building in specific controls to safeguard people’s informations should fall to Gmail, rather than just relegating privacy policy to dense legal agreements.

“Internet companies need to have preventive security controls built into their platform so they can block access to specific areas of their users accounts,” Herold said. “Facebook didn’t do that. Their contract left their infrastructure wide open, and it sounds like Google’s doing that too.”

And with Cambridge Analytica, Kogan was technically not allowed to share his data with additional parties. But with Gmail, this is acceptable — as long as apps disclose what they’re doing.

“The biggest distinction is transparency,” Davis said. “Gmail developers are required to be transparent with how they use Gmail data, whereas the issue with the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a lack of understanding of who had access to what data.”

That monitoring and transparency process should protect Gmail users. But only if they have actually taken the time to read what they’ve consented to. 

And, as long as nothing goes wrong.

“The problem with depending on contractual requirements is that they’re not information security controls in and of themselves,” Herold said. “From a privacy standpoint, you have no idea what those apps might be accessing, taking, and using elsewhere. The unknown is the biggest risk.”

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A tribute to the persistently grim tweets from the Norway Ice Service

Monday through Friday of each week, the Norwegian Ice Service, a government agency within the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, tweets out rather dismal news about the state of the thawing Arctic.

But these tweets aren’t intended to be grim. They’re simply an objective account of the modern Arctic reality. Each morning, the agency puts the current sea ice cover over a large swath of ocean between Norway and the North Pole into an emotionless, historical perspective. 

Take, for instance, a post from August 22, 2018:

The happenings in this 600,000-square kilometer area monitored by the Ice Service are consistent with what’s occurring in the greater Arctic: Of the nearly 40 years of satellite records observed by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, each of the last 12 years have seen the 12 lowest ice extents on record.

“It’s certainly really enforcing that we are on a declining trend — and we can expect it to go lower,” Nick Hughes, head of the Norwegian Ice Service, said in an interview. 

Arctic sea ice is now vanishingly at an accelerating rate. As more ice melts, there are significantly fewer bright, white surfaces to reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Instead, the ocean absorbs the heat, further boosting the warming over the expansive Arctic.  

“Sea ice cover at the end of Arctic summers has dropped precipitously since the 1980s,” Yarrow Axford, a climate and Arctic scientist at Northwestern University, said over email. “It’s one of the most profound changes we’ve witnessed in terms of climate change so far.”

In the Norwegian corner of the Arctic, the Ice Service is in a particularly good position to put the present ice cover into a greater historical perspective.

“We have about 50 years of records,” said Hughes.  “We’re one of the first users of satellite imaging technology.”  

But the Ice Service doesn’t just exist to send daily Twitter updates. 

The agency came into being half a century ago to provide navigation support for Norwegian mariners on the high seas. Today, with less ice cover, more vessels are able to use the waters, which makes the Ice Service increasingly relevant.

“There’s more hazards to be aware of,” said Hughes. “Even though there’s this decline in cover, there’s a need to stay vigilant for changing ice conditions.”

Hughes and his team, then, keep quite busy as all types of fishing, transportation, and natural gas vessels navigate through the precarious, frigid waters. 

And this a primary reason why the daily tweets are so stark, emotionless, and similar. Lacking time to always type and send out the tweets, a bot — not a human — gathers the day’s ice updates, uses the prewritten text, and then sends it out to the account’s waiting followers.

The tweets actually arrive each morning in pairs: One with a stark statement, and the other with raw numbers illustrating just how many square kilometers below the historical average the ice presently sits.

For perspective, 1 square kilometer is about the same total area as 187 football fields. So the ice cover on August 23, 2018 was 19.6 million football fields below the historical average. 

That sounds like a lot. And it sounds grim. But it’s reality.

“Unfortunately, grim is the state of change in the Arctic, and really globally at this point,” Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said in an interview. “We’ve fundamentally changed some of the dominant features of the surface of the Arctic.” 

Naysayers might say that the Earth is billions of years old, and the Arctic has melted before. That’s true, said Moon, who researches long-term environmental changes. But the Arctic — like the world — is warming at an unprecedented rate.

“The Earth has seen much higher and lower temperatures, but they happened through very slowly moving processes,” said Moon. “We’ve created a system in which we’re really quickly creating carbon.”

The year's sea ice is well below the historical average.

The year’s sea ice is well below the historical average.

Image: national snow and ice data center

The levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere are now the highest they’ve been in at least 800,000 years.

In last 100 years, these carbon dioxide numbers, following in tandem with the burning of ancient fuels, have skyrocketed.

Both the Norwegian seas and the greater Arctic may seem far-off. And for many of us, it’s thousands of miles away. But there’s a reason why scientists are watching it so intently.

“The Arctic is like a canary in a coal mine, and it’s warning us that our planet’s climate is undergoing a really profound change,” said Axford.

It’s a reality that’s difficult to ignore, as NASA and European Space Agency satellites now track the dwindling ice each day. 

Accordingly, tweets from the Norway Ice Service will continue to arrive each morning, a bearer of straight, unfettered reality.

“It’s only once a day, so hopefully that’s not too much of a nuisance,” said Hughes.

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A look back at Elektro, the smoking robot that stole America’s heart

Robots are a pretty normal part of modern life. We buy them as toys for kids, get some to help clean our homes, and sometimes see them on the big screen. Back in 1939, robots were a lot rarer, and if you did see one, it was probably some human inside a costume, sweating bullets. But not Elektro. He was his own cigarette-smoking, seven-foot-tall self. He wowed crowds across the U.S. and can rightly claim the title of being the first robot celebrity. Sorry, R2-D2. 

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The 17 Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals are announced

Jayathma Wickramanayake, the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, introduces the 17 Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals. The winners of this year’s award include an environmental scientist protecting coral reefs, a doctor using technology to improve Nigeria’s health sector, and an activist exploring human-computer interactions to improve the lives of people with disabilities, among others. 

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