Monday, December 22, 2008

New Post is Snowed In

Sorry guys, but the snow and ice has totally screwed with my schedule. I'm flying out to Houston on Wednesday (hopefully), and I have a ton to do before then (I may not even sleep tomorrow night).

I'll do my best to get something up this weekend while I'm in Houston. Until then, check out my pictures from the first Snow Days in Seattle (before it got annoying and dangerous).

From Let It Snow

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dark Knight on Blu-ray

The Dark Knight Goes Blu

Sorry, that was kind of a lame heading, but this movie definitely is not. If you're one of the five people who haven't seen it, I wrote a pretty detailed review when it came out so I won't go into too much detail about it here, but I will give a brief rundown of my thoughts on second viewing before I talk about the Blu-ray set specifically.

I'm convinced that The Dark Knight is my second favorite movie of all time, beat only by Kill Bill and probably followed by Pulp Fiction. By the way, I rank my movies on how much I enjoy them and enjoy watching them again and again. I may have seen better movies, but that doesn't mean they entertained me as much. Anyway, Batman is back to take on the Joker, who is equally as meticulous as Batman but for crime, and hopes to hand the reigns of Gotham City to ambitious District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham's white knight. While it doesn't sound like much, the story is liable to keep you on the edge of your seat once it gets going, and the acting and writing are pretty much spot-on. Despite being as long as it is and having seen it before, I had no problem staying interested for the whole thing the second time around and was actually ready to watch it again later this week. The cinematography is not to be overlooked either with gorgeous city shots and plenty of mayhem shot in both IMAX and on standard film. It's pretty hard not to love this movie when it does so much right. I know people hate the comparisons to Heat, but I think that the on screen dynamics between Batman and The Joker are even better than between Pacino and DeNiro. Anyway, enough about the movie itself: it's superb.

Does it look every bit as good on Blu-ray as it did on the big screen? For the most part, yes. I think that when you watch a movie with as dark as palette as this one the scenes with a lot of black don't look as good as you may remember on the big screen. The IMAX scenes are pretty much breathtaking. I was a little disappointed with how they enforced the IMAX aspect ratio: the IMAX shots will take up your whole screen whereas the rest of the movie will have black bars at the top and bottom. Since my other Blu-ray movies don't do that, it makes me feel a little cheated. Still, they're fairly thin bars and the quality is pretty amazing for the rest of the movie also. The only flaws you're really going to find in the other scenes in the movie are just noise in the backgrounds occasionally, but you pretty much have to walk right up to your TV (which I hope is HD if you buy this on Blu-ray) to notice this noise. The edges are razor sharp all around and I can't recall seeing any artifacts. I think it doesn't look as good as Wall-E simply because the colors in the movie itself aren't as vivid, but they're definitely crystal clear and ensure that you won't miss a single detail in a single frame. So don't buy too much into what some critics are saying, I still think it's worth your money video quality-wise (I can't speak for the DVD version though because I haven't seen it). The sound is even better though. Even on my simulated surround sound, it never comes close to disappointing. It gives you that true movie theater experience with explosions you can almost smell and gunfire that's almost too realistic. The score shines pretty well also.

Now for the weakest part of this set, if you can even call it that: the extras. I didn't try out the digital copy, but I did try out BD Live and perused the other extras on both discs. The BD Live content is nothing particularly exciting. You can create and watch video commentary, which I think is kind of a gimmicky. You can also do live chats, and there's actually a live video chat with Christopher Nolan this Thursday that I'm going to see if I can join. The other main feature is the ability to watch movie trailers and other video content that should've been on the disc but wasn't because it wasn't good enough. There were a couple of videos that I was kind of peeved didn't make it on the Blu-ray because they were actually interesting, but the others were animated shorts that added audio to frames of a comic book that was created for the movies. I only watched a couple, and they were terrible. The artwork was just fine, but the dialogue did not sound like Batman at all (I mean the writing, not the voice acting). What's worse about this stuff is that the video size is only a quarter of your screen, are lacking in quality, and buffer terribly. It's best to start playing one, pause it immediately, and then go make yourself hot cocoa while it buffers the video so that you can actually watch it continuously. My cable Internet isn't the bad, but I can stream videos just fine on my laptop. I would've liked to have seen a trivia game or something else on BD Live.

The other features are pretty good though. There's no commentary track, which I didn't mind because I rarely listen to those, but you can trigger featurettes at various parts of the movie when you see the appropriate icon, or watch them all entirely outside of the movie. There's about 90 minutes worth of that stuff, and they're pretty fascinating overall. I had never seen an IMAX camera before watching the featurette on it, and it's incredible to imagine how they filmed any action on that thing. On disc 2 you'll find a couple of documentaries that no one has seemed to point out originally aired on the History Channel in the weeks leading up to the release of The Dark Knight: Batman Tech and Batman Unmasked. So when you read reviewers talk about how strange it was that neither of these documentaries include non-trailer scenes from The Dark Knight and only scenes from Batman Begins, you can be a smartass and correct them. I thought that they were pretty well-done and great ways to lend another level of realism to this character and world on top of what the movie has to blot out the abominations of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. I especially liked the Unmasked one, a psychological analysis of Batman, because part of what I always liked about him was how dark and gritty and real he would always feel and that he was even thrown into Arkham himself once. There are also some episodes of a Gotham news program that were movie cheesy, but still useful addition in that they help ground the film in what feels like reality. They're almost like deleted scenes, in a way. The other features you have is a smattering of photographs and concept art, and all the trailers and TV spots, which I always love to have to watch long after a movie was released and I'm always bothered when DVDs don't include them. The concept art is pretty awesome, and I really wish that had taken the initiative to let you view them picture-in-picture with the film as an optional layer.

Overall, this is definitely something worth buying. Even though it's not a monstrous amalgamation of special features, it's a pretty healthy amount that will take even longer than the movie itself to go through, and the quality of everything (besides the BD Live content) was excellent.

The Security Scoop

Was there always this much security news? I don't know why they've been appearing so much lately. Anyhow, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which is a really ambiguous name for a center, in my opinion) is proposing that Obama appoint a special office for a czar of cybersecurity. Rather than be a part of Homeland Security, which is already ripe with bureaucracy, they feel that cybersecurity is critical enough to warrant a direct line to the president. While I would agree with them, I think that this office should lie underneath the CTO he's already going to appoint, who would have the direct line to the president to talk about issues like Internet penetration and security. I think that having a Chief Cyber Security Officer would be too long of an acronym and be overkill. Still, it's a good debate to have. We are entering a world where technology can be as much a weapon as guns or nuclear physics or biology or chemistry. Except for guns, all of those have genuinely good purposes, but we have to be vigilant of when they're in the wrong hands. I'm not dissing guns, but I don't think you can use guns to cure cancer or power a city.

A random security firm called Bit9 has released a list of what it believes are the top applications with the most vulnerabilities, which I believe are ranked by popularity and number of security holes in unpatched and patched versions. The fact that Firefox and Adobe Flash top the list may be a little scary, but that's because of how many new versions they have. The lesson here is not to use a whitelist, it's to keep your systems patched and use a firewall.

One of the most creative viruses I have seen in a long while is probably one that you've now heard about: Koobface. Yeah, it's a pretty dumb name for a virus (shouldn't it be koobecaf?). Anyway, infected users post comments and send users messages that are super convincing that they're in some random video, and since you generally are interested in what your friends send you and don't think it's spam since you haven't gotten spam on Facebook, you gladly click through. It takes you to a Yuotube video that requires you to upgrade your Flash player, and this is exactly why you should always go straight to vendors' websites to get new versions of their software. Anyhow, if you agree then congratulations: you just got screwed. Your prize is a flurry of click fraud (to generate false ad revenue), phishing attacks (trying to steal your personal information), and search results will take you to shady sites. Best of all, it's the gift that keeps on giving, so you have a good shot of infecting one of your friends, as well. As much as I think these guys are pricks, I have to give props for taking social engineering to a scary and innovative new level. That being said, this is terrible. Experts would always tell people to never open e-mail from people they didn't know, but they didn't warn about opening social networking messages from your real friends with convincing text. Of course, when you click through it should be fairly obvious that the site isn't legitimate, and you shouldn't be installing random software on the Internet anyhow. How do you protect yourself? Well, Facebook has added pages that will warn you before you click a link going to an external site showing you the URL, so make sure the URL makes sense. Google the domain name if you're concerned and do a whois on the domain. More importantly, install NoScript and SpyBot, which would prevent something like this from getting very far unless you're naive enough to ignore all the warnings they give you. If something looks shady, it probably is. Just stay alert. By the way, this has also been sighted on other social networking sites.

This last one is not all that interesting, but still noteworthy. Microsoft has uncovered what almost sounds like a buffer overflow vulnerability via function pointer that allows an attacker to execute arbitrary code when you close any version of Internet Explorer. Given that they don't have a fix out yet, you may want to keep with Firefox if you're an avid IE user, at least for a while (who know, you might even stick around).

Software as a Service

Before I get into the article, I should define this terribly worded term. Software as a service refers to software that provides a service to you remotely as opposed to living on your computer. In a general sense, you could consider the Internet itself as software as a service since you send URLs to your ISP (I'm abstracting a lot out here) and they provide you the service of streaming you what's on that page. More specifically though, it refers to sites like Gmail and Twitter that live in the clouds rather than your machine and provide some sort of service to you: like e-mail service or microblogging or word processing. Generally, they're "freemium" services (I know, really stupid term), so they're free unless you pay extra for the premium version, which often doesn't work out too well unless you really have a killer application or you provide ads on the free version of your site.

Anyway, there are obvious pros and cons to this. Not having to maintain the application locally means that you can use it from where ever and you can wipe your hard drive without losing it. The biggest con is the lack of control: the idea that one day the site could disappear and you'd lose everything on it. The article argues that this makes it terrible for businesses, but I have to disagree. Sorry to pimp Amazon Web Services, but I think it's a great example of well-established software to help you run your websites without having to buy and maintain your own hardware. If the price is right and the company is reputable, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. If it's like a photo sharing site though, then there's obviously no telling what will happen, but something like Google Docs isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and they're not likely to pack up without an easy way for you to get your stuff back. It's better to use software as a service rather than reinvent the wheel, you just have to be smart about it.

Frostwire Promotes Artist

Frostwire is the spiritual successor to Limewire as a P2P application that's surprisingly still around and working well, and it's trying to take a stab at proving its legitimacy by promoting artists with free downloads of their music. I'm glad that someone is finally trying this out because I really want to find out how it turns out. I personally have high hopes for it. It may seem like a shot in the dark, but I think it's always a leap of faith to buy an album without hearing all of it so this is a venue that would be excellent for independent artists.

The iPhone Comes to Wal-mart

I never talked about this when it was a rumor, but it's a real story now: the iPhone is coming to Wal-mart as early as this week for $199 and $299 (8GB and 16GB, respectively), probably with an AT&T contract. I'm pretty shocked by this and wrote off the rumors as rubbish since Apple is so protective of its brand. I don't get the logic behind this. They're already selling ridiculous numbers of this thing online and through AT&T and Apple stores, so they're going to cheapen the brand by offering it at a retailer like Wal-mart? I'm not opposed to cheap Apple products, but why not sell a cheaper laptop then? Do they want the iPhone to be an everyman kind of product?

Google News Galore

I'm not sure why there was so much Google news last week, but let's see how fast I can run through it all. They've decided to start selling $400 developer G1 phones, which are unlocked and make testing easier, but man is that expensive. Still, it's a nice option to offer to those who can afford it. Also in G1 news: they've started AdWords for Android and the iPhone, which basically means that when you advertise with them you're more likely to be properly viewed on those platforms. Isn't that kind of a small subsection of the overall market? Yahoo really needs to strike in mobile ads.

You may start seeing AdWords serve up advertisements for alcohol. I guess that Google figures the best way for you to go through a recession is wasted? I wonder how we'll they'll fine tune serving these ads because it would suck if a kid searching for barbie was treated to an ad selling the Jack Daniels brand.

In case you care: their zeitgeist with the top terms of 2008 is up.

I think it's pretty cool that you can now send SMS messages straight from Google Talk in Gmail. Just enabled it in Google Labs. Just be sensitive to your friends' text messaging plans.

Google Chrome is no longer in beta, but is anyone really still using it? Other than bug fixes and supposed stability improvements, it doesn't look like there's much else separating it from the beta. I'm not saying it's a bad browser, but I'm still not convinced that it's better than Firefox.

Lastly, Google Book Search now includes magazines. I know you've been on that for a long time, so try to contain your excitement.

The Rest

I'm sick and tired, time to sum up the rest of the news in a lightning round.

Rather than release mobile applications to help you read books on your phone (albeit, in big text) or engage in book groups online, book publishers have decided to release an iPhone application to inundate you with marketing. Awesome. Why don't they just hand over more market share to Audible on a silver platter?

If you want to develop Internet applications in Java that feel like Flash or Silverlight without the cruddy aftertaste of Java applets, you may want to invest some time investigating JavaFX. It sounds like a cool framework I wish I could go into more deeply, but it's aiming to really be an integral part of not only your online experience via computer, but also via embedded platforms (like your cell phone).

Sandia has determined that 16 cores (2 to the power of 4 is where that comes from, by the way; think binary: 10000) is the maximum to which you're going to see performance improvements. Past that point, these cores on your processor die don't have the memory bandwidth to give you much of a gain, which is like having the world's strongest man help you carry your groceries rather than lift a car for someone who was in an accident. The solution: stack your chips. Didn't Texas already think of this?

You're running out of time for holiday shopping! Amazon free super saver shipping ends in a couple of days, but you can still get two-day shipping from Amazon and many other sites to suit your shopping needs. You really only need Amazon though ;)

Lastly, Gizmodo has an awesome article explaining everything you ever wanted to know about hard drives and how they work. If you were ever curious about how terrible they are, you should really ready this and watch the fun videos. The lesson to be learned from it is to backup your data constantly. You should count yourself lucky if your hard drive hasn't crashed yet, but keep in mind that it's like a ticking time bomb: there's a 99% chance that it will eventually.

Time for some TheraFlu and sack time. Seattle really knows how to bring the cold, and I'll try to snap some shots of the snow to share next week, but here's a couple of shots to remember the fall by:

Monday, December 08, 2008

Wall-E on Blu-ray

Wall-E Makes Blu Look Good

Surprisingly enough, I got my Black Friday goodies from Amazon on Thursday but I won't be getting Prince of Persia until Wednesday. Go figure. I'm not complaining though because I was more excited about getting Wall-E on Blu-ray, to be honest. It's actually the first movie I've bought, other than Kill Bill, for as long as I can remember that I couldn't wait until a price drop to pick up (I'm cheap so I typically only buy movies I like once they go on sale). I don't regret the $25 purchase one bit.

In case you didn't have the good fortune of catching this movie when it was in theaters, it's the story of the last robot left on Earth after the humans fled the planet on a resort spaceship while the planet was being cleaned up by robots like Wall-E that compact trash and incinerate it since we we produced way too much trash for the planet to handle. I don't want to talk too much to the story, particularly because of spoilers (I hate spoiling things, even months after a movie is out), but it's really quite impressive. After watching it again I'm convinced that it's my favorite animated movie of all time. Part of what I love about it is that it doesn't have to compromise by having something for the kids and something for adults to enjoy like a lot of animated movies tend to do, it's just a wonderful experience for everyone. It really is unique, in my opinion, in this way. Even the physical humor really isn't childishly silly, it's clever. I kind of feel like it's a modern-day geek movie on par with Tron or Real Genius. Could it be the first one since The Matrix? I think it's the best robot movie ever. Suffice to say, the always stellar folks at Pixar really outdid themselves with this movie. It's fun, beautiful, heart-warming, fascinating, nerdy, and probably much more that I'm forgetting to say here. It's just really one of those rare A+ movies, which is confirmed when 5 months later I'm chomping at the bit to see it again and feel every bit as good about it as I did when I originally saw it.

Now let's get into the Blu-ray set here. The visuals are every bit as stunning on Blu-ray as they were in the movie theater. The problem with DVDs was that the quality was always inconsistent between movies. My Stranger Than Fiction disc looks almost like 1080i, but not my Batman Begins. Not so with Blu-ray, as far as I can tell. The bigger the screen you have at your disposal the more impressed you're likely to be. I was trying to finish up my laundry as I started the movie but I could not pull my eyes away from the movie because of how jaw-dropping the visuals were. And as if that wasn't enough, the audio is equally impressive. My TV only has simulated surround sound, but it felt pretty real to me. It's funny how a movie with so little dialogue can have such powerful audio through its score and robot noises and such. I can't even imagine how incredible this set will be for those with a true Dolby setup at home.

I should really step back for a second and remark at how impressed I am by the all around presentation from Disney. They really know how to brand themselves and their intellectual property. The first thing I encountered was BD Live stuff, and so I gladly went to the Disney site to setup my account and had no troubles at all. I'm 99% sure you could go right past all of this, but I just chose not to because I was excited about BD Live. There was only 4 features available, 2 of which I couldn't use. One was movie chat, where you and other friends with the movie can watch the move at the same time while text chatting. Yes, it will synchronize your movies, so I guess this would be good for cousins in different cities or when dad is on a business trip or something. They made the smart move of only allowing this between trusted friends, not just random strangers. Another one is movie mail, in which you can splice together scenes from the movie to make messages to send to trusted friends, and also add in video of yourself (no idea how, maybe through an EyeToy for PS3 owners?). I did use the movie challenge feature though, where you can join in live trivia challenges with strangers online in 10 minute rounds of 8-15 questions. I could choose from easy or medium, and I chose easy. They were fairly simple questions and what I loved was how it would just be at the bottom of the screen while you watch the movie. So you can pause the movie, open this up, and play while resuming playback. It's actually pretty fun and you get points depending on how fast you answer. The last feature is reward points, which is confusing to me but I think you earn them through the trivia and other stuff on the Disney site and you can redeem them for avatars and other bonus features and stuff, but I think that this is still in the process of being fleshed out more.

I liked the BD Live features because I felt like they were easy to get to and integrated well, but the other stuff was even better. First of all, there are 3 ways to watch the movie, or two in addition to just watching the normal movie. One is called Cin-experience, where you get insightful director's commentary in addition to picture-in-picture pop-ups of artwork and (silent) videos of animation from the pre-visualization and design stages of the film. I usually never listen to these commentary tracks, but in a movie with as little dialogue as Wall-E, I gave it a shot and loved it. The artwork really does add a surprising amount to the experience, and I learned a lot of cool random things about the movie, like that it took them over 3 years to put it together (it sounds like they started thinking about it in the late 90s). You could also turn off the artwork from the pop-up menu, which is a standard thing with Blu-ray discs. If you watch the movie normally, you can pop-up stuff from the main menu without having to pause the movie, like choosing a scene via screen shot rather than having to do the guesswork of skipping ahead or backwards on your remote. The other way to watch the movie is kind of like Science Mystery Theater where a group of four people who helped with the film and are generally kind of geeky point out random trivia and scientific inconsistencies and such, with a silhouetted couch occasionally popping up. It really was them on the couch, or else they put an undue amount of effort into animating their arms and hands as they talked. It was a really fun spin on a commentary track and I enjoyed the little of it that I tried out (I will watch the whole movie with it eventually). The only gripe I had with these was that you couldn't just turn them off in the middle of the movie. You could fairly easily stop the movie and go back to the main movie to choose the chapter and then resume playing in normal mode, but it should've been an easy on/off switch. Despite that odd pitfall, it really does help show why Blu-ray really is better than DVD.

There's more extras than that, and what's more exciting is that they're pretty much all in high-definition, even the promotional "sneak peeks"! While I appreciate the throwback to the video cassette Disney movies where they start out with "Coming soon to video" and all that (they had the same style and everything), I still don't think I like them starting out when you put in the disc the second time. I forgive it because there were a couple of really cool ones that looked gorgeous in HD, including one for the Disney documentary Earth. That's probably going to be in every big box electronics store as a demo once it's out on Blu-ray a year from now. It was simply the most incredible thing I've seen on my TV, including Wall-E. Anyway, there are real extras here, so let me stop teasing you with these psuedo-extras. The Axiom Arcade has 4 8-bit games that look like they would've been on your NES, and I thought that they were nifty, though maybe too advanced for kids not on the tail end of elementary school. There was also an interactive storybook for kids and "Trinkets and Treasures", which seems like it was animators playing with Wall-E and Eve to do random things, like Wall-E breaking a vacuum (which was one of the early teasers for the film). For the adults there's a documentary that's over an hour long, 3-D fly throughs of the virtual sets, Buy and Large shorts, a short Geek-o-rama featurette, profiles of all the robots in the film, and deleted scenes (spliced together frames to form a rough cut) with video commentary from the director before and after the scenes. There's also the Presto short from when the movie was in theaters and a short called Burn-E, which is a deleted scene that more or less evolved into a short (there's also an option to view it with story boards). I'm probably leaving something out, but you get the idea: there's a lot here. Not counting the 3 possible viewings of the film, there's well over 2 hours of high-definition content here. Disney has no intention of douple dipping with this film because this set is packed with stuff. If you enjoyed the film, I highly recommend picking it up.

I also have Iron Man, but it'll have to wait in line. I just got Prince of Persia tonight so I'll be giving first impressions of that next week and Amazon just shipped me my copy of The Dark Knight so I'll definitely have watched that by next post. Thus far though, color me impressed with Blu-ray, which I was very skeptical about going in to the format.

Windows 7 Beats Vista on Power

The Windows 7 news of last week was that it has better power consumption than Vista. Some of the additions are opt-in, like a low power mode for hardware that supports it where Windows won't bug it if it's in idle, but others are more impressive like optimizations for spinning the hard disk, powering down applications when in idle, and buffering DVDs better. Since the power consumption of your computer is truly based on how much stuff you're running on it and what stuff you're running, they're going to collect "anonymous" usage statistics to figure out which applications are hogging power and bug the manufacturers to optimize. Whether they follow up on this promise is yet to be seen, but I'm just happy that they've been taking the time to optimize for battery life.

They plan on opening up a public beta on January 13 so count on seeing a lot more stories after that happens.

Songbird Finally 1.0

After what feels like a decade, Songbird 1.0 is finally out. It's the first absolutely free cross-platform media jukebox with an open-platform empowering it to integrate very well with social media. Besides just being a media library though, you can use it to browse the Internet to play audio online and store it to your library. It's like if you smashed together iTunes with Firefox in that it's extremely customizable through plug-ins and skins. Oh, and the user interface is actually cool. Firefox is actually directly integrated with it, other than the hobbled browser you get with Winamp, and so there are a lot of extensions for it, as well. It's feature list also includes drag-and-drop album art support, a mashTape bar to give you artist information and pictures and such, keyboard shortcuts, re-usable smart playlists, Shoutcast radio support, impressive concert information integration, and a lot more through the plug-ins available.

I played with it more now than when I first downloaded it, and it's pretty impressive. The UI is just so snappy and intuitive overall that it's hard not to love. The concert integration is really awesome in how you can add a column for artists on tour in your area, and it even has a playlist for music you have for artists that are on tour. I really like how the mash tape enhances the experience with artist news and pictures and stuff, and the browser has real use in helping you find add-ons and let you scrape audio to stream from webpages (or sites like Skreemr and The Hype Machine). In my opinion, it kind of breaks the mold for music library software in its tight integration with the community and the Web and how it really aims to make the user experience better and better. How long was it since iTunes did anything good without introducing bloat? There's a fine line between feature bloat and added value, and I think Songbird is ready to walk it. I can't jump ship to it for 3 simple reasons. One is that it doesn't do what Media Monkey does in auto-tagging from Amazon. That's really important to me since it tags album art properly for my Clix in just a few clicks (that sentence totally juts fell in my lap). The second reason is that it doesn't have advanced list manipulation features like randomization, removing duplicates, and removing songs that are inaccessible. The third reason is that I can't browse my media by location, and I have my audio in certain folders to make it easier to manage. I can see myself continuing to use it though alongside Media Monkey though. Others' gripes are that it can't watch folders for changes, it doesn't support the iPod (duh), it can't rip CDs, and the lack of better integration with music stores (although the browser has it somewhat where you stream audio from a webpage). It has a long and lustrous road map though, so I'm not overly concerned.

Scary Security News

The security news I read seems to get worse and worse every week, and last week was no exception. A scientist at an IT security firm has revealed that only 40$ of anti-virus software can identify a problematic binary within 3 days of its release in the wild, which is bad because at that point it has spread to a point at which it infects very few new machines. The reasoning makes sense: anti-virus software can only protect you from issues it knows about, and so new viruses slip right by and are even more problematic when they're polymorphic by nature (i.e. they change themselves dynamically) to avoid detection. By the time an anti-virus company has an update for you, it's already to late. The solution? I've talked about what else you can do ad nauseum, but the fix for programs is to move to the clouds so that you have accurate virus definitions in real-time.

The field of biometrics to me was a mystery because using your body to identify yourself seems so easily spoofable. The best known biometric is your eye because that's actually fairly hard to forge (for now), but using your fingerprint is not secure at all. A more recent advancement is facial recognition, but now a Vietnamese firm has proven that even that is easy to fool using just a well-crafted picture of someone's face. That's not really a shocking discovery, but I think it just proves something I wrote about a while ago: there's always a tradeoff between tradeoff and security. True security is based on information that an attacker cannot reasonably forge, and if that incorporates a truly random combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that exist only in your brain and changes regularly then they're really screwed. Of course, remembering it is then difficult. Too bad. If it's really important information, then it should be worth that tradeoff. If you're just trying to protect your music library though, there's nothing wrong with something like facial recognition, just don't expect it too keep anyone too cunning out of your business.

Trojans are nasty little buggers in that they hide away secretly waiting to do damage. A new one that masquerades as a Firefox extension leverages itself to log your personal information as you enter it in at a selection of sites it knows to look for. The lesson here is to only download Firefox extensions, and anything really, from trusted sites. Understand what you're getting before opening up Pandora's box, and scan it with an anti-virus checker just to be safe. Another terrible Trojan that has recently come to light where an infected computer's presence on a WiFi network allows it to act as a router for website requests to go to a malicious DNS server. In English, this means that if you and the infected were on the same wireless network, you could be visiting a hacker's site rather than your banking site being none the wiser of the issue because the URL looks valid. Firefox probably wouldn't give you valid identity information so that would be a red flag, but how else would you know? What's really scary here is that it affects unpatched machines and patched machines alike, so the only way to be safe is to either not be on such a dangerous wireless network or constantly check your DNS settings (use ipconfig in DOS in Windows) when on an outside network. The better bet is to just not go to sites in public that involve financial information or any other sensitive data.

Lastly, some non-scary security news. A company called Pramana is developing a captcha solution to determine if you're a human without the annoying, barely-readable images that have become commonplace now. The fix is to base your humanity on your browsing behavior. It's a good idea, but I think it's going to be easy to forge. It's going to be relying on client-side data, and how hard is that to forge? Additionally, doesn't it seem a bit intrusive to spy on what a user does simply to determine if they're human? And what use case can afford the luxury of waiting on user behavior to determine whether or not they're a bot. Then there's the people in third world countries being paid pennies to get around these sorts of things. I'm just not buying it. The image captchas are imperfect, but they're the best we have right now.

Amazon Secures the Clouds and Enters the iPhone

I covered Amazon CloudFront last week, a service to distribute online content efficiently and affordable, and O'Reilly has taken the guesswork out of how secure it is. Inherently, there are no big holes with the service, but it really all depends on how you're using it. You have to encrypt your network traffic and encrypt your traffic and all that on your end, but Amazon has its bases covered.

Amazon has finally put out an application to iTunes that gives a better browsing interface for the retail website. The real kicker is an experimental feature where you can take pictures in real life, and then Mechanical Turk (where people are paid to solve problems that computers can't solve) will give you the product page in Amazon for it within 24 hours. That obviously doesn't make sense for a copy of a video game, but what if you love a TV that you see at a sports bar and want to check it out later? Or maybe you're too shy to ask about something your friend has at a dinner party?

I do not spead for, its employees, or its partners. I cannot emphasize that enough before what I'm about to say.

There's one more Amazon-related item I have to briefly cover. Some students in Amsterdam created a Firefox extension that allows you to browse with links for pirated versions of certain content on The Pirate Bay, a well-known aggregator for pirated content on bit torrent. Of course, Amazon stepped in and had it shut down. It astonishes me how many people defending this dumb thing as a parody. Really? The people who work at Amazon work really hard on the site and margins are quite slim, so why steal from them and Amazon's suppliers? I don't get the "humor and absurdity" of this plug-in at all. I was almost outraged to read their teacher say that his students are now scared away from pursuing their art and research. Good! It's one thing in a security class to teach kids how to hack in simulated scenarios to give them an appreciate for how to design secure systems and another thing to tell them to steal money from someone's online banking site. Anyone who sees the distinction in that example should see where these kids went terribly wrong.

Terrorists Used Google Earth

When I saw this article on PC World claiming that the terrorists behind the terrible attacks in Mumbia used Google Earth to aid them, I knew I had to fire back. The Indian president has warned that Google Earth reveals location of defense installations and the like, but I don't recall Google Earth ever denying requests to hide such places before. I can't imagine that these terrorists didn't buy atlases and scout out these locations in advance, so I don't know how much help Google Earth really would've been, and they didn't hit any military bases anyway. What makes these claims more ridiculous is that India itself is rolling out a competitor for Google's Earth satellite imagery that contends to be even higher resolution. So if it's not a service from an American company then it must be alright, right?

The stance that I always support is that we cannot shirk technological advances simply because they may indirectly cause harm. Granted, you have to weigh the bad with the good, like if its use for good is very rare compared to its utility for malicious purposes, but we can't live in the past in the interest of self-preservation. There's so many exciting things going on in technology all at once right now that to write off services like Google Earth with half-baked accusations would be a terrible waset.

Yahoo Reaches a Deal With Virgin

Yahoo, fortunately, has not come to a grinding halt in the midst of all the press regarding Yang stepping down and romancing Microsoft to make another offer. They have signed an agreement with Virgin to be the exclusive pre-installed search for all of Virgin's mobile subscribers. This is exactly the kind of stuff they need if they ever want to be a true competitor to Google. The way to hurt them is to start out by stealing share from them in markets that Google isn't well-established in, like mobile search in Europe.

By the way, I was probably wrong about Google possibly planning to withdraw from its deal with Yahoo all along, a theory that I realized seemed far-fetched from the start. A prosecutor from the Justice Department warned Google that they were going to file charges before they made the announcement that they were calling off the deal, and they would've ended up filing charges just a few hours after that announcement ended up happening. So much for that mystery.

Yeah, There's More News

I think I'm done with this post, effectively. And yet, I still have more news! Ack! Ok, let's see if I can spit it out in less than 5 minutes so I can go to bed.

Apple's claim against lawsuits that its iPhone 3G ads are misleading is that "no reasonable person" would take the speeds in the ads at face value. Some argue that this is true because of the fine print in the ad, but the subtext is only that network speeds vary and not that things were sped up as they obviously were. Unless they can prove there's a network somewhere on which you can browse the web at those speeds, I don't see how they can use that defense and most people don't know what's reasonable for mobile phone speeds.

Firefox has surpassed 20% market share for the first time since 2004.

The LA Times has a good editorial urging the FCC to let parents filter content on the free wireless network Kevin Martin is proposing rolling out nationwide, but it's a really sticky issue. On one hand, parents can't be everywhere free wireless Internet is and anyone who wants unfettered Internet can afford to buy it, but, on the other hand, censorship software is often flawed in being too restrictive.

Facebook has unveiled embeddable videos that you can put up that only your friends can see, but I really don't understand it. Why post videos for only your friends to see anywhere but Facebook?

There's a new social networking gadget that I thing is only available in Europe called Poken where you can exchange social networking site links with another person by touching each other's Pokens together. It sounds weird, but I think it's a clever substitute for business cards. The only flaw here is that it requires widespread usage to be effective.

This is a really good article on recovering data from a bad hard drive. It's a more common problem than you think, so reading it would be a good investment of time.

Did you know that you can send e-mail to phones to text them?

I really regret not being able to talk about this article, but it's a look at why Google's strategy of creating services that don't appear to create revenue on the surface really isn't so crazy. I don't know if I'm convinced that they have the master plan that this article seems to believe they do, but it's still an interesting read.

Whew. That was a long one! That should last you guys at least 6 days. Enjoy the rest of your week!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Facebook Past its Prime

Random Musings

It seems like every week there's more and more stuff to talk about, even on a holiday week like last week! I hope you all survived shopping this weekend as I bought more DVD/Blu-ray discs than you can shake a stick at, but also got some useful stuff: like a small Christmas tree with decor with some new jeans (finally!). By the way, any other Seattlites notice all the cool Holiday decor around the city? I love the giant star on the Macy's that's on Pike Street. Anyway, I think I'll be getting Prince of Persia this week though, so hopefully I can post some impressions of it next week. I think I'm also going to be getting Iron Man and Wall-E on Blu-ray, my 3rd and 4th Blu-ray purchases ever, but I may delay that to two weeks from now depending on how much time I get to watch them. Without further ado though, let's get to the news.

Oh, and for the record, I really hate the BCS system. I also hate the Big 12 for subscribing to the BCS's nonsense in breaking ties. I can't believe that OU is going to play Mizzou in the Big 12 Championship Game when UT has beaten both teams before in the regular season! It's really sad that we obliterated A&M last week whereas OU struggled against Oklahoma State but we drop a spot in the rankings and they go up one. I know that Texas Tech beat us and OU beat Tech, but Texas Tech also almost lost to Baylor, a team that we beat 45-21. We only lost to Tech because we were exhausted from having to play so many ranked teams in a row, we had a much harder schedule than OU! Anyway, as great as OU is this season I still hold that Texas is a better team and would do much better in the national championship game against Alabama. Oh well, hopefully we'll get a good consolation bowl and whoop whoever we have to play with a vengeance.

Facebook Fails to Acquire Twitter

Last week, Facebook offered $500 million of stock in itself in exchange for ownership of Twitter, but Twitter's board wisely refused. First of all, this offer is probably more like $150 million given Facebook's valuation, but it would be crazy for Twitter to accept strictly stock from a company with an uncertain future that has had trouble trying to monetize its own business, let alone Twitter's. More importantly, Twitter is fairly young. I think it made sense for them to hold out for a while and try to improve and figure out a good business model.

I think that the move made Twitter look stronger and Facebook look weaker since they could not muster up a cash offer, something that Twitter supposedly inquired about and could only get $100 million. The reason I think that Facebook is a little past its expiration date though is not because of this, but because they're still experimenting with ad revenue models and not getting a lot of traction. We're in an economy where business are cutting their advertising budgets, and while they're not cutting so much from their online budgets they haven't been excited about Facebook so far. Big media companies, likes of Fox, Comedy Central, NBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and MTV, have done little more than dabble in Facebook and haven't really shown an interest to do much more. The whole "digg" concept of Facebook's right sidebar of ads is not that impressive, in my opinion. It just exposes their customers to the fact that they're not sure what advertising works, so they want to crowdsource that responsibility. Sometimes their ads are downright insulting, with divorce ads for people who are listed as being married on their profile.

Then there's the fiasco of their decision to offer the option of having your application "verified" by Facebook for an annual fee of $375 that it is trustworthy and useful. This has the effect of giving an advantage to developers with deep pockets, not those with great applications. This is on par with the concept of net neutrality: it sidles out innovation in favor of greed. I don't think that this is the way to address having a sea of applications, many of which are crappy. Of course, developers could start charging people to use their applications to help subsidize this fee, but why would anyone pay for a Facebook application anyway? Which leads to my next point: a lot of them are irritating at this point (less so than before, albeit, thanks to the UI re-design), so what was the point of creating that platform? To create an app store like the iPhone one? The only real use I could see is just keeping people on the site as their main portal for the Internet so that they garner more eyeballs for advertisers, but I can't see them realistically doing that. I only use Facebook maybe once a week nowadays whereas I used to use it all the time in college. It has started to lose its appeal to me, and if that's a trend for people who graduate from college (I've personally seen it a lot just anecdotally) then they lose the buying power of an audience with real disposable income as opposed to college students who scrounge for money to pay tuition.

I'm not saying that Facebook is done for, but I think that they're past their heyday and really need to innovate and be smart if they intend to really make money. Winning a lawsuit against a spammer is a great way to help start a war against spammers, and maybe that'll make people feel better about using Facebook if it has less spam, but that doesn't stop frightening social engineering scams involving names of someone's actual friends for a dash of false legitimacy. This economic downturn is a great time for them to step back from being the Web 2.0 darling and really figure out a game plan because what they've been doing over the past couple of years really hasn't been cutting it.

UK Doesn't Fancy the iPhone 3G Ad

Remember a while ago when I railed on the iPhone's 3G ad for being misleading regarding the speed of the actual iPhone 3G? No? Ok, well I promise I wrote it. Anyway, the Brits have also taken notice by banning the ad. A California resident noticed also and slapped a verbose $5 million lawsuit on Apple and AT&T for the misleading advertising, including the fact that 3G is only available a fraction of the time. The cornerstone of Apple is its marketing machine, so it should be no surprise that people get frustrated when they release ads fraught with lies. I don't think that anyone will sue for the "I'm a Mac" ads because they don't result in products that don't deliver, but I think it's a real concern. Apple is no longer the little guy in the corner. It's time for them to answer for these claims they continue to make to ship units quicker. I know that it may not be as unfair as some of the anti-competitive practices that Microsoft has engaged in, but they got heavily burned for that so I think it's definitely Apple's turn now.

Joost on the iPhone

While YouTube quietly rolled out a widescreen player for its content, semi-competitor Joost had something else in mind. They released a free application for the iPhone to enjoy Joost content on your iPhone as long as you're on WiFi. I know, it sucks that you can't do it on 3G but that's the fault of AT&T's rules and not of Joost, so don't blame them for it. I talked about Joost a long time ago when it was in beta and how I was excited about what it could do to marry old media and new media by providing an easy way to watch streaming TV on your own time without compromising on video quality, but the standalone application you had to use was really clunky and though they're now running out of your browser they still lacking in quality content. I think a great move is to be able to have this mobile application (and hopefully an Android one, eventually) to make their content more ubiquitous and put itself in better competition with YouTube. In an ideal situation (i.e. a city blanketed in free or cheap WiFi), I'd love to be able to start watching a movie or TV show on the bus with Joost and then come home to resume it from where I left off on my computer or home media PC. I hope that Joost continues to survive, I really am pulling for them.

Shaky Security

It looks like there's never a lack of interesting security news! This week I want to start out with airport WiFi, which is even less secure than you may have previously thought. A white hat hacker (i.e. a hacker who hacks to test the security of systems for further improvement) has visited some of the nation's biggest airports and discovered glaring flaws. For one thing, the networks on which vital airport functions were open and poorly secure. So I can't bring hair gel on my carry-on but I can log on to an airport wireless network and compromise their systems? He also logged into an American Airlines flight's WiFi and could access the data of other passengers. Then there's the fake hot spots set up in these airports by phishers hoping to find a patsy. How about the Department of Homeland Security does something useful and get cracking on this?

Another strange prospect to me is that Lenovo has a service that will allow you to disable your laptop with a single text message. My first hunch was that someone could send the message maliciously just to screw with you, but I think that more harmful is the false sense of security. While it may successfully lock down the computer, couldn't a hacker either wipe it clean for re-use or steal un-encrypted data from the hard drive if this security feature is in the BIOS (software installed directly on the processor)?

The last article I have to scare you is that anti-virus software is ineffectual against botnets. I guess this isn't really surprising, but it's still noteworthy. A botnet, as I've mentioned before, is a network of machines infected with the same worm that gives a third-party the ability to force them to execute certain commands, as in spamming or helping bring down a web server for extortion. Apparently, only 40% of current security software can detect the problem by the time it peaks in danger to the host machine and other computers. If its discovered after that point then what does it matter? The machine will be discarded and the hacker will already have moved on to new infected bots. So how can you stay safe? Anti-spyware solutions like SpyBot and Ad-Aware will help keep you clean (especially with SpyBot's immunizations), but having a hardware firewall (a router with WPA2 security enabled) and a software one (like ZoneAlarm) will really go a long way for attacks that just scan ports on random IPs to look for a way in.

The Exploding Offer

Joel Spolsky has a great post about the infamous exploding offer, and since I've come in contact with it (and fallen for it), I feel obligated to speak to it. This offer is named as such because much like the messages in the Mission: Impossible movies they are purported to disappear if you don't act fast enough. This is just like those stupid infomercials on TV except that you're playing with your career instead of Grandma's cash birthday gift. I took an offer with Texas Instruments my sophomore year of college in January because I was afraid I wasn't going to get any better offers since I had no previous technical experience, which won't get you in the door at a lot of companies and they were a big name. I didn't push them on their time line (that I remember) so I fell for the trap.

I don't think it's unethical for a company to tell you when they'd like to know your response on an offer by, but it's worse when they refuse to budge on it. Read this again and again: any company that tries to strongarm you into an offer does not truly value you. It's important to be humble while in the interviewing process with an air of confidence for selling yourself, but it's also important to realize that your career is worth much more than the commission they get for recruiting you or the feeling that you didn't disappoint them. They may sound pissed when you turn them down, or ask them for more time, but they're not your hiring manager. If they are your hiring manager, then you don't want to work for anyone who doesn't value you enough to let you make an educated decision and it shows that they're not confident that they're better than their competitors. That's a really bad sign. That means that they either can't afford you or they're just cheap and want to pay as little as possible for you.

I'm not saying you should be crazy and turn down companies left and right because they won't extend their decision deadlines, but it's not terribly unethical to turn the tables and use their weapon against them. Accept verbally and then just renege later if a better deal comes along. Yes, it does suck and you may be burning a bridge with them, but it's not a particularly good bridge if they can't give you a reasonable amount of time to explore your options. If they really had something good to offer, they'd be ethical about it and they wouldn't have to worry about other companies being better workplaces.

Holiday Shopping

I know that Black Friday is over but that only means that Holiday shopping has just begun! Read Write web has a great roundup of gift ideas for nerdy kids, and I think even nerdy adults, to be honest. I wouldn't care about brewing my own root beer or perfume, but who wouldn't want this programmable robot?

Some people may need new computers and consider buying one in the midst of deals trying to clear out inventory for next year's hottest models, but there's an important distinction to be made between notebooks and netbooks. A netbook is a small (like 8 or 10-inch small) computer designed for quick and easy Internet and e-mail usage and is not very powerful. So other than sites like YouTube, you won't be watching a whole lot of video on it. Plus, the computer will struggle to render Flash-heavy sites. However, they handle word-processing quite well with cheap or free alternatives to Microsoft Office and can be a great way to get work done without your work computer. And while you can't really edit video on a netbook, you can do your day-to-day photo editing just fine. It's a great and exciting new sector of the computer market for when you're on-the-go (maybe to a Cafe or a book store or something) or for when you're in the kitchen waiting on some water to boil, but it definitely doesn't supplement a standard notebook or desktop computer. What it lacks in processing power it makes up for in portability and price, but it probably won't meet all your needs. So keep around your normal computer if you decide to buy one and realize its shortcomings before you impulsively offer up your credit card.

Gizmodo has a really great article about gadgets you shouldn't skimp on that may be a bit pricey, but how you can save money elsewhere. For example, don't fall for crazy price cuts on third-rate GPS devices when the best ones on the market belong to the Garmin nuvi series. My nĂ¼vi 660 has its shortcomings, but it navigates like a pro even optimizing well around traffic. They also have a really excellent article explaining what the different types of HD TVs are all about and what to look for when buying one of your own. By the way, don't skimp on buying your HD TV. If you're going to buy one, go for quality and realize that its cost should be amortized over the 10+ years you use it for. I love my 40" Samsung and don't regret buying it in the face of Black Friday deals because it serves me so well. The quality is only bested by larger Samsung LCD TVs, in my opinion.

The Rest

Per usual, there's a number of articles I don't have time to talk to in depth, so I'm just going to spit them all out here real quick.

Tech Crunch questions eBay's acquisition of BillMeLater in the face of an economy reduced to shambles from a credit crisis, and I agree. The company seems to only supplant credit cards for people who have terrible credit, so this is like giving a slot machine to a gambler rather than getting him into rehab.

Virgin now has WiFi on its flights without censorship, though there is traffic shaping so that you can't hog bandwidth unless no one else is using it on your flight.

If you buy The Dark Knight from Amazon, you can watch it at Amazon Video on Demand for free! This means that you have an online streaming version of the movie that you can watch whenever, wherever. The digital copy on the 3-disc edition isn't really necessary since Video on Demand videos are hosted by Amazon and just associated with your account. This is really cool and I could totally see it being a trend with movie studios promoting pre-orders of movies with codes for free digital copies.

Computer World has a cute editorial about a Firefox man and his fling with Chrome. It's a funny read if you're like me and tried Chrome only to come running back to Firefox with arms wide open.

I usually don't post about lists of cool images, but I really enjoyed this one of optical illusions via street art and strange architecture. I mean how unbelievably cool is this one?

Time for bed (finally)! Have a great week everyone and Happy December!