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Microsoft’s Xbox Series X Review: The Living Room Gaming PC I’ve (Mostly) Always Wanted

Last year, not long after Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X, I declared that the upcoming console would “end” — I specifically did not say “win” — the PC/console war, not by beating the PC, but by effectively becoming a PC. At the hardware level, that’s more-or-less what has happened, and it’s particularly true in Microsoft’s case because the Xbox runs an OS based on Windows 10. Does it do what an HTPC/gaming PC does in a living room? I thought it would.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to put my theory to the test by evaluating the $ 499 Xbox Series X as an HTPC and downstairs gaming system replacement for the hardware I currently use for that task. Because I’ve never reviewed a console before and don’t have a handy PlayStation 5 to compare against, I’m going to evaluate the XSX explicitly from the viewpoint of a lifetime PC gamer considering the value and utility of the system. I’ll also have more to say about the system and some more direct comparisons at a later date when I am not responsible for two completely different reviews simultaneously.

This review does not focus on absolute image quality between Xbox and PC versions of a game. This is partly because virtually all of the truly next-generation games for Xbox Series X is still locked away, and partly because I just bought a 4K OLED and have only had a week with the Xbox Series X, which isn’t enough time for comparative analysis. Rendering a verdict without proper comparison risks mistaking improvements to the display with improvements to the image quality.

Specifically, I bought this OLED. LG CX 55-inch. It’s only been a week, but we’re very happy together.

Defining ‘PC’ in This Context

Conceptually, the Xbox Series X challenges the utility of a Home Theater PC, or HTPC, as well as a living room gaming PC (these are sometimes the same thing). HTPCs are pretty common in the enthusiast community, going all the way back to ATI and the days of their All-in-Wonder video capture card. An HTPC is typically (but not always) a secondary system attached to a TV rather than someone’s primary rig. They can be optimized for low power consumption and high storage capacity or kitted out more like gaming systems for simultaneous HTPC and high-end big-screen gaming capabilities. Content playback and gaming are the two markets where an HTPC would typically compete with a console and I’m comparing them on that basis.

What I Thought of Consoles Going In

Before starting this review, I thought of game consoles as a perfectly valid method of gaming, especially if you already had a lot of cash invested in the Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo ecosystems, but certainly not a preferable one. Console developers, in my opinion, were far too willing to tolerate low frame rates. The few times I picked up an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller, I felt like I was gaming on a mid-to-low-end PC.

Unlike some PC gamers, I do not and have never hated consoles, but I’ve rarely been impressed by them.

The Hardware

My first thought, when I saw the Xbox Series X, was “Awww. It’s cute.”

The Xbox Series X is an unusually shaped small form factor PC. It uses a single 130mm ventilation fan to cool the system and it’s very quiet. I never heard the machine while gaming or watching content, even with the TV volume low. The PlayStation 5 may yet prove to be a truly chonky boy, but the XSX is smaller than I expected it to be. If you’ve spent a few decades with an ATX tower of one sort or another cluttering up the living room, the Xbox Series X is a delightful step towards smaller solutions, not larger ones.

The Xbox Series X’s ventilation diagram. The invasive pool noodles shove their way through the console until they are transformed into a cooling mint tornado. Or something. Seriously though, this thing is whisper-quiet.

As far as backward compatibility goes, the Xbox Series X had no problem identifying and enabling an Xbox One controller. The two controllers feel identical, at least to my hand, but I’m not exactly a connoisseur of the art form. My significant other, who is also a PC gamer, commented that the rumble didn’t make her rings vibrate, which she appreciated.

It’s not directly germane since I’m not comparing against a PS5, but the 3,328 RDNA2 GPU cores are worthy of a desktop PC card — and will be mounted in them soon enough.

As far as technical specs, we’ve discussed both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 on more than one occasion. Microsoft went for an AMD Zen 3-based CPU, RDNA2 GPU, and fixed clock speeds for both, in direct opposition to Sony’s emphasis on variable clocking. There’ve also been some interesting remarks recently that confirm something we’d heard privately a few months ago: The Xbox Series X supports the full RDNA2 feature set, while the PlayStation 5 is supposedly based on RDNA (but with ray tracing still enabled). We don’t know enough yet to suss out the differences here, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Services and Gaming: Microsoft Makes a Hell of a Case

The Xbox Series X cold boots from an unplugged state in 20.58 seconds on average when measured from the moment the button was pressed, not when the screen activated. The total time to load a saved game and begin playing Fallout New Vegas was 47.48 seconds when completely unplugged. When I merely turned the console off at the switch (depressing the button until the light turned off completely), the resume time was 4.5 seconds. We can’t compare the Xbox initialization process exactly to the boot time of a PC, but those figures are solidly within the range of high-end desktops, depending on how many applications you load at boot.

Setting the console up with a Microsoft account is arguably less annoying than installing Windows 10 (this is not a high bar), and once you’ve got it configured, things happen fast. I saw Fallout New Vegas available via Xbox Game Pass and was jaunting through the Mojave within 15 minutes of creating my account. I’m not going to say a high-end PC couldn’t match the same time from OS installation to game creation, but you’d need to be using the latest version of Windows 10 with pre-loaded GPU drivers or willing to run unpatched to score equivalently.

When it comes to outfitting the console with a suite of common apps like YouTube, Netflix, and such, Microsoft lands firmly in “just works” territory. Netflix image quality is much higher on the Xbox Series X, even though my HTPC streams using Microsoft Edge. An apples-to-apples comparison of the exact same stream always favors the Xbox Series X. Given a choice between streaming a service over Xbox Series X or my own HTPC, I’d take the XSX, ten times out of ten.

On the whole, the Xbox Series X is a very effective advertisement for Microsoft’s entire gaming ecosystem. Xbox Game Pass gives a new player an instant library of titles to choose from, with multiple entries in popular genres. Setting up apps like Netflix to run on the console is trivial. Game load times seem equal to or better than what we’d expect from an equivalent PC.

This is the sort of feature Microsoft promised to deliver when it began marketing the Xbox Series X. It wasn’t a feature I was certain we’d get. As I said earlier, I don’t — or at least I didn’t — associate consoles with high-end performance.

How does it feel to play the Xbox Series X? It feels like playing a game on a high-end PC, with a heavy-duty CPU core backing it up. The caveat here is that the titles we had available to play for Nov. 5 reflect current-generation titles and don’t feature capabilities like ray tracing, but then again, you can’t run DXR on any other AMD GPU currently in-market, either. As next-generation games unlock we’ll be able to compare more effectively on that front.

Every common title that I’ve played on both console and PC felt as equivalently good to play on this console as on any PC, at least as far as the underlying hardware’s performance. Microsoft is still working out the kinks in its Quick Resume feature, but it’s incredibly quick in action: tap, tap, and boom — you’re in a different game. Alt-tabbing between different games on PC is a risky proposition at best unless you already know both applications behave nicely when loaded simultaneously. The fact that you can even try alt-tabbing between games without instantly crashing the system is itself an achievement — GPUs didn’t used to tolerate being used for multiple workloads simultaneously under any circumstances.

From where I sit, this is no small thing. Unless you consider the PS5 — and I don’t have one to consider — there’s no way to get this kind of performance at the $ 500 price point in the PC universe. If you have an otherwise high-end system you could certainly upgrade your GPU to equal or better performance for less than $ 500, but the Xbox Series X is quite aggressively priced for its hardware specs.

What I Didn’t Like

There are some distinct things I do not like about the XSX. First, there’s the controller. While I have absolutely no complaint about the Xbox Series X controller as a controller, I would like to point out to whatever god or gods might be listening that using analog sticks to control a first-person shooter is like taking away a person’s hands and giving them a pair of stupid meat flippers instead. Nothing makes a sniper kill more satisfying than trying to simultaneously maneuver the world’s least-precise instrument over a head that’s four pixels wide without standing up / opening your Pip Boy / accidentally shooting Sunny Smiles in the back of the head.

Controllers vex me, is what I’m saying. They vex me enough that the learning curve, at least in some games, feels more like a learning cliff. If you’re a lifelong PC gamer like myself, you should expect some transition pains. After a week, I’m still not comfortable in a lot of titles, and full mouse and keyboard support would go a long way to making the Xbox Series S / X feel like a welcoming home for PC gamers.

Another negative? No modding support on the XSX, at least not yet. Modding on consoles is still in its infancy, so a big support boost from Microsoft would probably help the idea take off. Mods are a very important part of gaming to me and I’d always keep a foot in the PC gaming ecosystem for this reason alone, even if I switched primarily to console gaming.

The last thing about the Xbox Series X that I didn’t like is its overall network usage. While this could be the result of a disagreeable interaction between the XSX and my router, it’s a terrible bandwidth pig. Some applications “share” bandwidth more easily than others, which is to say that some of them will tank your entire internet connection as they hoover data out of the internet, while some are better behaved.

The Xbox Series X is not well-behaved. I actually had to shut the console down at multiple points during simultaneous Zen 3 / Xbox Series X testing, in order to download benchmarks at any kind of speed. Eighteen minutes on a 12MB download doesn’t cut it. I’m open to the idea that this is a conflict with my router, but the situation is untenable regardless.

There currently seems to be no method of controlling the Xbox Series X’s bandwidth usage while downloading without doing it externally at the router.

Is the Xbox Series X a Better Living Room PC Than a Typical PC?

The question of whether the Xbox Series X is a better living room PC than a regular HTPC depends, I think, on what your needs are. If you’re into video editing, content remastering, or upscaling, you know there are a lot of players and plugins you can use to improve baseline image quality in various ways. If you have content in unusual or esoteric video formats, there’s almost certainly a codec available on PC to play it. Consoles are dicier in that regard, though both Microsoft and Sony support the most common video and audio codecs.

If Microsoft supported keyboard and mouse configurations out of the box across the entire Xbox product line, I’d be 100 percent sold on the idea of the XSX as a media playback and gaming machine. Seeing as I’m still on Team Meat Flipper, I’m a little more circumspect in my evaluation. Is the Xbox Series X better than the [Insert $ 1,000+ gaming PC] you can buy at [insert OEM / boutique builder]? Very possibly not. Is it better than any $ 500 gaming PC you’re going to find in-market any time soon? I’m comfortable saying yes.

I’m not going to try to predict how the Xbox Series X will perform against the PS5 or which console players will prefer, but as far as comparisons to an equivalently-priced PC are concerned, the Xbox Series X more than holds its own. I’m downright impressed by the overall value proposition of the console and its capabilities. Obviously, you won’t be running DaVinci Studio Resolve on an Xbox any time soon, but when evaluated in terms of streaming fidelity, the Xbox Series X wins. Evaluated against the gaming capabilities of a $ 500 PC build, the Xbox Series X wins.

Gaming on the Xbox Series X may not feel much like gaming on the PC, thanks to the difference in interfaces, but it offers all of the PC’s greatest strengths in terms of load times and frame rates. The platform overperforms its price point, and it’s impressed me as far as the overall ecosystem value. There are no weak points here, and no Kinect-style screwups to muddy the value of the system. It’s a much stronger offering than Microsoft launched in 2013, and I’m really curious to see if the company will manage to convert PlayStation 4 owners to its own ecosystem, or if it’ll mostly appeal to existing Xbox, Switch, and PC gamers.

I’ll have more to say in upcoming articles. As a newcomer to the Xbox Series X ecosystem, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen thus far.

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Happy 35th, NES: The Console I Always Wanted and Am Glad I Never Got

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Yesterday marked the 35th birthday of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s launch in North America. On October 18, 1985, the NES went on sale in limited markets across America (a broad launch would follow in September 1986). To say that initial expectations were low might be an understatement. The North American market was still reeling after the video game collapse of 1983, and plenty of pundits had limited expectations for Japan’s first game console.

Nintendo was sensitive to the risk of introducing a new video game console just two years after the market’s implosion, and it took specific steps to make the NES look more like a VHS player than a then-traditional top-loading console like the Atari 2600. Large, bulky cartridges and a front-loading device were intended to distance Nintendo from Atari and earlier competitors, while devices like ROB (Robotic Operated Buddy) positioned the NES as a unique toy rather than just a video game player.

A 1985 CES brochure, uploaded as fair use to Wikipedia. ROB is remembered for being a brilliant marketing fakeout much more than for its actual contributions to gaming.

In terms of technical specs, the NES is powered by a 1.79MHz (NTSC) or 1.66MHz (PAL) Ricoh 2A03 CPU with a second-source MOS 6502 inside and a whopping 2KB of onboard RAM. Most NES games are between 8KB and 1MB, with 128KB to 384KB being most common. The system also contains an onboard Picture Processing Unit (PPU), again developed by Ricoh. The PPU offered 2KB of dedicated video RAM and a color palette of 48 colors and six shades of gray. The machine can display up to 64 sprites on-screen at a time and displayed images at a standard 256×240 pixels. The actual guts of the NES were quite similar across the world, though the console’s loading mechanism, shape, and game controllers varied by region.

Image by Bololabich, CC BY-SA 4.0

All of this, I learned later. When I actually encountered the NES in real life, my reaction was immediate: I wanted one. Unfortunately, or so I thought at the time, my parents did not.

PC Gaming in the Mid-to-Late 1980s Kinda Sucked

Now, before anyone takes my head off, let me be clear: I love the computer games of the mid-to-late 1980s: Space Quest, Hero’s Quest Quest for Glory, King’s Quest, Zork, and Ultima IV would be just a few examples. There were some all-time great games produced in this era — but none of them realistically compared with what Nintendo could achieve.

Today, PC gamers pride themselves on having access to hardware consoles can’t match. Thirty-five years ago, it was the other way around. Nintendo shipped seven million NES systems in 1988, nearly matching the number of Commodore 64s that had been sold in its first five years. By 1990, 30 percent of American households owned an NES, compared with 23 percent with a PC.

Playing on the NES was fluid in a way that no IBM PC or clone equivalent of the time could deliver. Characters could move quickly across screens, and games transitioned nearly instantly from one area to another. Compared with the slow, disk- or hard-drive-based games that ran on PCs, the NES felt positively zippy. In a game like The Legend of Zelda, you could theoretically move continuously through each area, dodging enemies in real-time. Games like Commander Keen would finally begin to close the gap with Super Mario Bros. (Captain Comic doesn’t count), but SMB was a much faster platformer than CK, and it had shipped five years earlier. Super Mario World on the SNES actually came out the same year as the Commander Keen series and was clearly the better, more complex game.

There were a few years where I was pretty unhappy about not being allowed to own a console. My parents were not fond of gaming of any kind, but PCs at least held the potential for educational uses. Consoles, at least in my parents’ eyes, did not.

I doubt they realized the long-term impact of their own decision. I learned to tinker with MS-DOS because being a gamer required it. I learned to upgrade my own hardware and eventually build my own systems for the same reason. My love of gaming drove my interest in hardware, and my interest in hardware drove my career. Even my desire to game on better hardware was once driven by wanting a way to match or exceed console performance as opposed to forever playing second fiddle.

Happy birthday to the console that changed my life, even though I never got to own one.

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COC’s early action helped get IOC to result it ultimately wanted, Canada’s Dick Pound says

The International Olympic Committee may have set into motion a series of events to help convince Japanese organizers it would be best to delay the Tokyo Games by one year.

“Given the subtleties and the coy nature of the IOC, I wouldn’t put it past them to have planted some seeds in order to create this wave,” Michael Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University’s department of sport management, said Tuesday.

On Sunday morning the IOC said postponing the 2020 Olympics was a realistic possibility due to health concerns due to COVID-19. In a statement, IOC president Thomas Bach said a final decision would come in four weeks but cancellation “is not on our agenda.”

By Sunday evening the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) said say they wouldn’t send athletes in Tokyo unless the Games were postponed for a year. On Monday Australia became the second nation to formally announce its athletes would stay home.

WATCH | Canadian IOC member discusses Tokyo 2020 postponement:

Canadian IOC member Dick Pound tells the CBC the Tokyo 2020 postponement will have a big impact on the international sports calendar. 8:50

Dick Pound, a Canadian member of the IOC, said reading between the lines Bach was sending a message.

“In IOC speak, if you’ve been around long enough to know what that is,” he said. “They leave all options open like most politicians. But basically, you’re not going to cancel . . . so the P word is suddenly out there.

“By the time the COC, to take that as an example, made their decision they already knew the IOC had effectively pulled the trigger. So, it was easier for them than it would have been if that hadn’t happened.”

A Canadian Olympic Committee spokesman said in an email the COC did not know in advance of releasing its statement the IOC was postponing the Games.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Jamie Strashin explains postponement:

IOC says Tokyo Olympics must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021. 3:16

Pound said the IOC was concerned over the growing infection rates of the coronavirus. The IOC had been working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to convince Japanese organizers delaying the Games was the right decision.

“What was important was to build a relationship between the WHO and the Japanese,” Pound said. “It has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. It (was) important to get the Japanese to understand this was a realistic possibility.”

Naraine said having the Tokyo organizing committee on board with the decision was important so the IOC couldn’t be accused of breaching its contract.

“At the end of the day, this was a decision about money, about the IOC making sure that they will not be liable for damage to the organizing committee,” he said. “And that they were able to maintain the relationship they have with their broadcasters and their top sponsors.”

WATCH | Canadian athletes weigh in on postponement:

Now that the IOC has pushed the start of the Games, athletes took to social media to respond 1:00

The decision by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) to follow Canada’s lead was interesting, said Naraine.

John Coates is the AOC president. He is also the head of the IOC’s Coordination Commission for the Tokyo Games and a close ally of Bach.

“John Coates would not let the Australian Olympic Committee come out with a statement like that if they didn’t already know that this was the directive coming from the IOC,” Naraine said.

Not having countries compete at the Games made Japanese organizers realize they would have an inferior product.

“So now the IOC is able to go back and negotiate with the organizing committee and say, ‘let’s mutually agree to postpone, therefore no one is liable for damages,'” he said.

Pound said it was a difficult decision for the Tokyo organizers.

“I think they had more skin in the game,” he said. “They’ve been preparing for a decade and investing heavily in all this. I think they are more concerned with the matter of face than perhaps other cultures would be.

“That said, they’re not stupid and they’re not unmindful of what’s going on all around.”

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Magic Johnson Celebrates Kobe Bryant’s Inspiring Legacy and Spirit: He ‘Would’ve Wanted Us to Carry On’

Magic Johnson Celebrates Kobe Bryant’s Inspiring Legacy and Spirit: He ‘Would’ve Wanted Us to Carry On’ | Entertainment Tonight

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Ex-Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn, wanted by Interpol, denies family helped him flee to Lebanon

Interpol issued a wanted notice Thursday for former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn, who jumped bail in Japan and fled to Lebanon rather than face trial on financial misconduct charges, in a dramatic escape that has confounded and embarrassed authorities.

Lebanese Justice Minister Albert Serhan told The Associated Press in an interview that the Red Notice for the ex-automotive titan was received earlier in the day by the prosecution. Red Notices are requests to law enforcement agencies worldwide that they locate and provisionally arrest a wanted fugitive.

Serhan said the Lebanese prosecution “will carry out its duties,” suggesting for the first time that Ghosn may be brought in for questioning, but also said Lebanon and Japan don’t have an extradition treaty, ruling out the possibility that Beirut would hand Ghosn over to Japan.

The Interpol notice is the latest twist in Ghosn’s daring escape, which spanned three continents and involved private planes, multiple passports and international intrigue. Turkey made several arrests Thursday as part of an investigation into how he passed through the country.

Ghosn skipped bail and fled before his trial on financial misconduct charges. He issued a statement Thursday that said his family didn’t play a role in his escape.

“There has been speculation in the media that my wife Carole and other members of my family played a role in my departure from Japan. All such speculation is inaccurate and false,” the statement read.

“I alone arranged for my departure. My family had no role whatsoever.”

Ghosn, who is Lebanese and also holds French and Brazilian passports, was set to go on trial in Japan in April. He arrived in Lebanon on Monday via Turkey and hasn’t been seen in public since.

In a statement released Tuesday, Ghosn said he left for Lebanon because he thought the Japanese judicial system was unjust, and he wanted to avoid “political persecution.” He said he would talk to reporters next week.

A Japanese court had granted him bail — despite prosecutors fighting against it — with conditions he be monitored and could not meet with his wife, who is currently in Lebanon, according to media reports. The court previously allowed them to speak by video calls.

Ghosn’s $ 14-million US bail, which he posted on two separate instances to get out of detention, is being revoked.

A hero in Lebanon

Ghosn, who grew up in Beirut and frequently visited, is a national hero to many in this Mediterranean country. He has close ties to senior politicians and business stakes in a number of companies. People take special pride in the auto industry executive, who is credited with leading a spectacular turnaround at Nissan beginning in the late 1990s and rescuing the automaker from near-bankruptcy.

Even as he fell from grace internationally, politicians across the board mobilized in his defence after his arrest in Japan in November 2018, with some suggesting his detention may be part of a political or business-motivated conspiracy. Lebanon’s foreign minister repeatedly called for his release.

Serhan said prosecutors will summon Ghosn and listen to him, and “at a later stage if there are any measures to be taken, then the precautionary measures will be taken.”

“We are a country of law and respect the law and … I can confirm that the Lebanese state will implement the law,” the justice minister said.

At the same time, Serhan said that Lebanon has not received an official extradition request from Japan, and he noted that the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

“Mr. Ghosn arrived to Lebanon as any ordinary citizen.… Lebanese authorities have no security or judiciary charges against him. He entered the border like any other Lebanese using a legal passport,” he added.

Turkey detains 7 as part of investigation

Earlier Thursday, Turkish police detained seven people — including four pilots — in an investigation into how Ghosn transited through Istanbul en route to Lebanon after fleeing Japan, a police spokesperson told Reuters.

The spokesperson said the other detainees were two airport ground workers and one cargo worker and all seven were expected to give statements before a court on Thursday.

Media reports said Turkey’s Interior Ministry had begun an investigation into Ghosn’s transit.

It is unclear how Ghosn avoided the tight surveillance he was under in Japan and showed up in Lebanon. Ghosn’s lawyers in Japan said they had no knowledge of the escape, and they had all his passports. Ghosn has French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship.

However, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported Thursday that authorities allowed Ghosn to carry a spare French passport in a locked case while out on bail, shedding some light on how he managed his escape to Lebanon.

A plane carrying Ghosn arrived at 5:30 am local time Monday at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, Turkish news website Hurriyet reported, adding that prosecutors ordered the arrests after widening their investigation.

Flight tracking data from that time suggests that Ghosn used two different planes to fly into Istanbul and then on to Lebanon.

Hurriyet, citing an interior ministry official, said Turkish border police were not notified about Ghosn’s arrival, and neither his entry nor exit were registered.

The businessman was smuggled out of Tokyo by a private security company days ago, the culmination of a plan that was crafted over three months, Reuters has reported.

The Lebanese minister for presidential affairs, Selim Jreissati, told the An-Nahar newspaper that Ghosn entered legally at the airport with a French passport and Lebanese ID.

Japanese prosecutors raid Tokyo home

Japanese prosecutors on Thursday raided Ghosn’s Tokyo home, but prosecutors and police did not immediately comment as government offices in Japan are closed this week for the New Year’s holidays.

Japanese media showed investigators entering the home, which was Ghosn’s third residence in Tokyo since he was first arrested a year ago. Authorities have now searched each one.


Japanese prosecutors carry bags as they leave Ghosn’s Tokyo residence as part of a probe into his escape. (Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images)

Ghosn, who was charged in Japan with underreporting his future compensation and breach of trust, has repeatedly asserted his innocence, saying authorities trumped up charges to prevent a possible fuller merger between Nissan Motor Co. and alliance partner Renault SA.

In Beirut’s affluent residential neighbourhood of Ashrafieh, several security guards stood outside Ghosn’s rose-coloured mansion Thursday along with about two dozen journalists. Since news of his arrival, journalists, including many from the Japanese media, have flocked outside the building, trying to capture any proof of his presence.

At one point, a Lebanese lawyer who said he worked for Nissan appeared, claiming the building belonged to the auto company, not to Ghosn.

One of Ghosn’s neighbours, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they are “split as to whether they are with or against his return.”

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Facebook accuses ‘Putin’s chef,’ wanted in U.S., of targeting users in African countries

Facebook said on Wednesday it had suspended three networks of Russian accounts that attempted to interfere in the domestic politics of eight African countries and were tied to a Russian businessman accused of meddling in past U.S. elections.

The campaigns targeted people in Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya, Facebook said. They used almost 200 fake and compromised accounts to reach more than one million followers in the eight African countries.

All the networks were connected to “entities associated with Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Facebook said. Prigozhin has previously denied wrongdoing. His lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the latest Facebook accusations involving African countries.

Prigozhin has been indicted by U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller as a principal figure behind an alleged Russian “troll farm” accused of trying to sway elections in the United States with covert social media campaigns.

In some of the African countries, the Russian-run networks worked with local citizens to better disguise their origins and target Internet users, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber security policy.

“There’s sort of a joining of forces, if you will, between local actors and actors from Russia,” he told Reuters. “It appears that the local actors who are involved know who is behind the operation.”

Facebook declined to identify which local people or organizations had worked with the accounts or which companies it had connected to the activity and Prigozhin, a catering tycoon nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of banquets he has organized for the Russian leader.

Ties to Wagner Group alleged

But researchers at Stanford University who worked with Facebook on its investigation said the companies included the Wagner Group — a firm of military contractors that sources have previously told Reuters has carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine and Syria.

Reuters reported last year that the group had expanded into economic and diplomatic work in countries including the Central African Republic as part of a push by Russia to increase its influence in Africa.

Russian authorities deny that Wagner contractors carry out their orders and Moscow has repeatedly rejected Western allegations of election meddling. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Wagner has no public profile and has never commented about its activities. Prigozhin has denied links to Wagner.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have vowed to step up the fight against political manipulation of their platforms after facing fierce criticism for failing to counter alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Despite the increased scrutiny, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of the threat posed by Russia and other countries who they say may still attempt to sway the result of next year’s presidential contest.

The campaigns shut down for meddling in Africa had posted about local news and geopolitical issues, as well as sharing content from Russian and local state-controlled media, Facebook said.

Some of the accounts were active as far back as 2014.

They also spent money on advertising, although Facebook estimated the total at less than $ 90,000 US. The paid social media advertising markets in many African countries are still small.

Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, the research lab at Stanford University, said the networks used a variety of techniques across the different African countries.

Some accounts supported a specific party or candidate, they said, while others backed multiple figures. In other cases, the pages appeared geared towards building support for Wagner activities or Russian deals for natural resources.

In Sudan, said Observatory Research Scholar Shelby Grossman, “the tone has been generally supportive of the government, but not transparently so. It does suggest the strategy is very different across countries.”

The activity marks a shift from the previous alleged efforts by the Internet Research Agency to target U.S. voters, said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief and now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

The “franchise” model of working with local people in target countries makes the activity more difficult to detect, he said, and may have been developed to circumvent a move by Facebook to publish the locations of administrators of some political accounts.

The action over the African countries was Facebook’s second move against groups it linked to Prigozhin in a week. Last week, Facebook said it had suspended a network of 50 Instagram accounts it linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, an organization U.S. prosecutors say was funded by Prigozhin to attempt to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.

Putin has been looking to strengthen economic ties and increase exports of military equipment and weapons to the continent, last week hosting dozens of African leaders at a summit in Sochi.

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Trump wanted Ukraine dealings to go through Giuliani, ambassador to testify

The U.S. ambassador to the EU on Thursday planned to tell House impeachment investigators that he was disappointed Donald Trump directed him to work with the U.S. president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy, and he believes it’s wrong to invite a foreign government to conduct investigations for the purpose of influencing American elections.

Gordon Sondland is the latest in a series of witnesses to be interviewed behind closed doors by lawmakers. His appearance is especially anticipated, since text messages and other witness testimony place him at the centre of a foreign policy dialogue with Ukraine that officials feared circumvented normal channels and that is now at the centre of the House impeachment inquiry of Trump.

Part of that effort involved pushing Ukraine to commit to politically charged investigations sought by Trump, including into a gas company connected to the son of Democratic rival Joe Biden.

In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Sondland aimed to untether himself from any effort by the Republican president or Giuliani to have a political rival investigated, joining other current and former administration officials who have communicated to Congress misgivings about the Trump administration’s backchannel dealings with Ukraine.

Sondland’s pivotal role in the dialogue, including discussions about a quid pro quo in which Ukraine’s leader would get a coveted White House visit in exchange for satisfying Trump’s push for corruption-related investigations, may make those assertions tough for House Democrats to accept.

Sondland, when asked by reporters Thursday morning if he was trying to salvage his reputation, responded: “I don’t have a reputation to salvage.”


Rudy Giuliani, seen last month, has come under scrutiny for allegations he was part of a so-called shadow foreign policy team despite not being part of the U.S. State Department or the president’s national security team. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Sondland will say he was disappointed by a May 23 White House meeting with Trump, who spurned calls by the ambassador and others to arrange a phone call and White House visit for the new Ukraine leader, Volodymyr Zelensky. The president was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reform and anti-corruption, and instead of arranging the meeting his envoys wanted, Trump directed them to talk to Giuliani, Sondland will say.

“Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine.”

Read Sondland’s opening statement

The envoys, he will say, had a choice: They could abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Zelensky, something they saw as important in fostering U.S.-Ukraine relations, or they could do as Trump asked and work with Giuliani.

Though he will say the ambassadors chose the latter, he insists he did not know “until much later” that Giuliani intended to push for a probe of Biden “or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.”

When the phone call finally did occur, on July 25, Trump repeatedly prodded Zelensky to investigate Biden at the same time that the U.S. was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine. Sondland will stress he was not on the call, he did not receive a transcript until the White House released a rough version last month and none of the summaries he reviewed mentioned Biden.

“Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” Sondland will say. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings.”

‘The president was in a bad mood’

Sondland, whose name surfaced in a whistleblower complaint in August that helped spur the impeachment inquiry, is certain to be asked about text messages that show him working with two other diplomats to navigate the interests of Trump and Giuliani.

The messages show the diplomats discussing an arrangement in which Ukraine’s leader would be offered a White House visit in exchange for a public statement by Ukraine committing to undertake investigations into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma, the gas company. Sondland is expected to insist he did not know until recently that Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma, the gas company at issue.


President Donald Trump is shown in 2018 with Sondland in Brussels. Sondland, in a text message to another U.S. official, denied there was a quid pro quo in the administration’s dealings with Ukraine. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

One text exchange that has attracted particular attention involves diplomat William Taylor telling Sondland he thought it was “crazy” to withhold military aid from Ukraine “for help with a political campaign.” Sondland replied that Trump had been clear about his intentions and there was no quid pro quo.

Now, Sondland is prepared to tell lawmakers Trump told him by phone before he sent the text that there was no quid pro quo and he was simply parroting those reassurances to Taylor.

“I asked the president: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?”‘ Sondland will say. “The president responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.’ The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”

Sondland will be testify three days after Fiona Hill, a former White House aide, said his actions so unnerved then national security adviser John Bolton that Bolton said he was not part of “whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up” — a reference to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. But Sondland will say neither Hill nor Bolton personally raised concerns about the Ukraine work directly with him.

House lawmakers have been hearing over the last two weeks from other diplomats and administration officials, including from the State Department. The most recent was Michael McKinley, a career service officer and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff, who testified the Trump administration’s politicization of foreign policy contributed to his resignation.

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