SciTechBlog
January 30, 2009

DTV: What's all the fuss about?

Posted: 02:21 PM ET
ALT TEXT

If your TV looks like this, pay attention!

So, February 17 is looming. You know, the date when our boring old analog signals are supposed to turn into 1s and 0s and go digital. You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve seen the commercials all over the TV, I know you have. Right?

Still clueless? You’re not alone.

Digital basically means that: digital vs. an analog signal. Think cassette vs. CD. It doesn’t mean HD. Also, it’s over the air only, so if you have cable you don't have to worry about it. (Don't listen if some undereducated or shifty customer-service rep uses the digital TV switchover as an excuse to badger you into buying an HD set-top box.)

If you have cable or satellite TV or already have a set-top box (unfortunately, Tivo’s don’t always count – check here for more info), you’re covered. There's no need to go out and get anything. Also, if your TV is relatively new it's digital-ready, so you’re automatically covered.

So who needs to worry? People who get their TV signals off any sort of antenna, bunny ears or aerial, should pay attention. You’re the folks this switchover is aimed at. If your TV isn’t equipped with a digital tuner (ATSC), you'll need a converter box.

Here’s the next problem: The program that was giving out coupons for these boxes? They’re out of money. I suspect this is because people had no clue whether they needed a box or not and got one, “just in case.” (I know some people out there who claim to be tech-savvy and did exactly that.)

All this confusion has lead President Obama to ask Congress to delay the switchover until June, which some say will lead to even more confusion. The House disagreed, saying the switchover should take place in February as scheduled. Just to muddy the waters even more, there are plans for another House vote on the matter next week.

Still confused?? If so, you’re not alone. And if this didn’t help, here are some handy tools to help you figure it out:

FCC’s fact page on DTV
DTV.gov – FCC's tranisition Web site
CNET explains the switchover

If you've found a handy widget you think explains all this better, please feel free to post it in the comments.

- Cody McCloy, CNN.com

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Filed under: television


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January 26, 2009

Banana hammer cold

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

From the West, to Midwest, the Northeast to parts of the South it's cold. I mean banana hammer cold. Never seen that measurement on the thermostat? Well, you've obviously never been to Minnesota in the winter.

How cold is it? Cold enough to turn a banana into a hammer. Photo: Getty Images

Meteorologist Jonathan Yuhas from Minneapolis affiliate KARE showed CNN's Heidi Collins what last week's subzero temperatures could do to everyday items.

According to KARE, on January 15 it was negative 21 degrees Fahrenheit, factoring in the windchill. That's just 17 degrees warmer than the freezing point for liquid mercury. And one more reason I will not visit Minnesota in the winter.

Now, bubbles don't shatter and hot water doesn't turn to a frozen cloud in normal weather conditions. It has to be cold. Very cold. Cold enough to pass those items' freezing limit.

Generally defined, a freezing point is the temperature where the liquid state of a particular compound freezes to form a solid. For freshwater, this temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. For a banana or other foods, it depends.

A work by Dr. Richard W. Hartel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison states that "foods are mixtures of various ingredients, some of which affect phase behavior of water.." Meaning, since foods contain sugars, salts, proteins, fats, flavors, etc., there is no one broadly defined freezing point for food. For fruits, Hartel gave a general freezing point between 30.4 – 27.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hartel also gave the average freezing points of some other food categories:

Vegetables: 30.6 – 26.7 F
Meat: 28.9 – 28.0 F
Egg: 31 F
Milk: 31 F

Ice, snow, banana hammers, frozen bubbles–at 21 below, they're all the same. Frozen.

According to bubblemania.com, which is my authority on everything bubble-related, it is possible to freeze bubbles. Our iReporters also proved us that. But once the bubble freezes, it's only a matter of time before they shatter.

This is because when a bubble is blown into subzero temperatures, the warm air inside the bubble quickly contracts. The volume of air becomes lower, and the bubble crumples under its own weight.

CNN iReporters also got in on the action, freezing everything from food to flash-freezing hot water. Others are using the freezing weather to go green. iReporter Kyle Aevermann shared his use of a "natural freezer" in Chicago's subzero temperatures.

The Food and Safety Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, recommends against doing that, however. The agency's Web site Fact Sheet states: "When it is freezing outside and there is snow on the ground, it seems like a good place to keep food until the power comes on; however, frozen food can thaw if it is exposed to the sun's rays even when the temperature is very cold. Refrigerated food may become too warm and foodborne bacteria could grow. The outside temperature could vary hour by hour and the temperature outside will not protect refrigerated and frozen food."

So besides food, what else have you found freezing point for? Wet laundry? An umbrella? We want to know. Send in your iReports. Leave a comment.

- Brandon Ancil, CNN.com

Filed under: science • Weather


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January 19, 2009

CNN unveils another new toy

Posted: 10:31 PM ET

CNN is doing it again. We're using a new technology for a new day - Inauguration Day that is.

From the network that brought you the first holographic reporter comes: 'The Moment.'

"The Moment" is a call to cameras for CNN viewers, readers, and iReporters in Washington this Inauguration Day. John King, chief national correspondent, explains how CNN viewers can contribute to a 3-D experience in the inauguration of Barack Obama.

So, how is CNN doing it? Well in short, it's not. A newly released program from Microsoft called Photosynth will do the legwork. It's a program that creates amazing 3-D spaces from 2-D photos.

Photosynth is a behemoth. Released in the summer of 2008, this monster program uses a combination algorithms and interest point detection to match similar images from a series of pictures.

For those of you who don't speak geek, Photosynth matches specific features in photos like columns or windows to orient the image. After the images are oriented and merged together, Photosynth creates a stunning free-moving 3-D space with which observers can interact.

So, will you help capture "The Moment"? If you are attending the inauguration, why not make it a memorable one for those of us who aren't? Follow this link to find more details on how to get involved.

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Filed under: computers • Internet


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January 16, 2009

Would you eat a sea kitten?

Posted: 12:46 PM ET
You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.
You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.

You don't have to look at the page views of Web sites like cutelittlekittens.com to know that a lot of people adore kittens. Conversely, not as many people adore fish - in fact, cutefish.com has only the number 0.

The animal rights campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, has decided to play off of our awe of kittens by re-branding fish as "sea kittens" in order to discourage people from killing and eating them.

"Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called Sea Kitten sticks? Help us save fish by changing their names!" PETA writes on its Web site.

The new sea kitten Web portal is complete with a petition, cute little stories about sea kittens - some attend Clamster University! - and a tool to design your own sea kitten. The petition has more than 4,544 signatures as of this writing.

"Given the drastic situation for this country's sea kittens - who are often the victims of many major threats to their welfare and ways of life - it's high time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stop allowing our little sea kitten friends to be tortured and killed. Who'd want to hurt a sea kitten anyway?!" the Web site says.

How far will this "sea kitten" label extend? Will people find themselves ordering the "Chilean striped sea kitten with mashed potatoes"?

Certainly there are already vegetarians out there who do not consume fish for ethical reasons. Princeton professor Peter Singer, famous for his arguments about why not to consume meat, similarly advocates avoiding eating fish in Animal Liberation, although notes that things do get fuzzier when considering simpler forms of marine life, such as mollusks and oysters.

Of course, besides being a favorite delicacy at restaurants and family dinners, fish also form part of specific eating rituals in certain cultures. For example, in China, the fish is served whole - with the head and tail intact - to represent prosperity, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve. In Slovakia, it is traditional to let a carp swim in the family bathtub in the days before the feisty critter becomes part of the Christmas meal. And, it is a Jewish custom eat fish on the Sabbath, one reason being that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for fish, "dag," adds up to 7, and the Sabbath is the 7th day.

So what do you think: Is it ethically acceptable to eat fish? Will the sea kitten campaign be effective? Would your goldfish mind being called a sea kitten?

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Filed under: Animals • Oceans


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January 14, 2009

Window Opens to Arabic Web

Posted: 10:42 AM ET
Yamli.com allows users to search for any Arabic phrase they want.
Yamli.com allows users to search for any Arabic phrase they want.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently called Arabic, “the language of the future, of science and of modernity,” according to the Brussels Journal.  His comments coincide with the French government’s urging of Arabic language and civilization courses in French schools.
 
If you do speak Arabic or if you’re trying to learn like I am, then you know that it is an incredibly challenging language.  Those challenges extend to the Web where the possibility of finding news and information in standard Arabic script is overwhelming and often incomplete.
 
Enter Yamli.com.  It is an Arabic transliteration search engine that allows visitors to use their Latin keyboards to search for any Arabic phrase they want.  Professors at major universities, including UC Berkeley and Stanford, use Yamli in their Arabic language classes.
 
“We created the site to solve the everyday problem of typing Arabic,” says Yamli co-founder, Habib Haddad.  “A lot of the content on the Web today exists in two forms: standard Arabic script or messy Latin variations.”
 
Haddad says most Arab newspapers and professional blogs write in Arabic script.  But he adds that a majority of user-generated content and comments on social networking sites are written in ad-hoc Latin script, which he dubs “Arabizi” or “Arabish” (a portmanteau word).
 
For example, here is the name of the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum written in Arabic:
أم كلثوم
 
Here are a few possible variations in Latin text:

Umm, Om, Oum, Im, Um, Em
Kulthoum, Koltoum, Kalthoum, Kolthom, Kalthoom, Kalthom, Kolthoum

 

Since there is no proper or exact phonetic match from Arabic to English (Latin text), it creates a widespread problem on the Web because multiple variations exist for a single word.
 
“It creates a vicious cycle in the Arabic search space,” explains Haddad.  “It starts with the difficulty of typing Arabic, which leads to less people searching for it, and less money for Arabic publishers.”
 
Yamli offers a solution in that it allows users to spell the Arabic word the way they think it would be spelled in English.  It automatically provides matches from that spelling and other relevant matches from alternate spellings.
 
Along with text, Yamli offers image search powered through Microsoft’s Live Search API and video search from YouTube.  The search results are instantly presented in two columns: one side in English, the other in Arabic.
 
"We think we've solved some of the fundamental problems in Arabic search that have not been addressed by the big guys such as Google or Microsoft,” says Haddad.  “We are really excited to already see its positive impact on users and believe it will set a new standard for Arabic search.”

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Filed under: computers • Internet • technology


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January 9, 2009

Nipples in your Face(book)!

Posted: 11:15 AM ET
iReporter Phil Hansen protested Facebook with this image of himself made up of his own nipples.
iReporter Phil Hansen protested Facebook with this image of himself made up of his own nipples.

By now, you've probably heard about the latest controversy on Facebook.  It's not the war on terror or the war on scantily-clad profile pics of barely legal "18-year-olds."  It's the war on nipples.

The social networking site is under fire for its policy of removing photographs on the site that show mothers nursing their babies.  The company claims breastfeeding photos violate its decency code.

The controversy perked interest on December 27th, when 11,000 people worldwide held a virtual protest on Facebook by posting breastfeeding profile pictures and updating their status lines to "Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!"  A nurse-in was also held at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, California.   Now a Facebook group called "Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!(Official petition to Facebook)" has ballooned to more than 154,000 members and counting.

iReporter Phil Hansen is among the lactivists against Facebook.  "I was surprised at the whole idea of removing breastfeeding photos, as a baby breastfeeding would totally cover the nipple and most the breast," says Hansen.

Hansen is a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based multimedia artist known for his viral Web videos.  You may remember "Bruce," in which he dips his hands in black paint and karate chops the canvas, forming an image of martial arts film legend Bruce Lee.

Now Hansen is busting Facebook's chops with the first video in his new series called Art Happening.  In "Facebook's War on Nipples," Hansen documents his creation of a self portrait made entirely from pictures of his own nipples.  He posts the final product to his profile on Facebook and waits to see if it would be taken down.

We find out what happens in Hansen's cheeky follow-up video in which he declares defeat in the nipple war.  It turns out that Hansen's profile picture is removed after only two days, and he is notified that he had violated the company's terms of use.

"I was expecting it to get removed," says Hansen.  "Because if it stayed up, that would mean my face made with nipples was more appropriate than a mother breastfeeding her child, which would just be weird."

I don't want to give away the nipple, er plot twist at the end of the video, but I'll just say that Facebook suffers a slip of its own.

CNN did ask Facebook for an official comment about the controversy. A representative e-mailed the following statement:

We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re very glad to know that it is so important to some mothers to share this experience with others on Facebook. We take no action on the vast majority of breastfeeding photos because they follow the site’s Terms of Use. Photos containing a fully exposed breast (as defined by showing the nipple or areola) do violate those Terms and may be removed. These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children (over the age of 13) who use the site. The photos we act upon are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain.

Read more about the controversy on iReport.com.

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Filed under: computers • Internet • technology


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January 7, 2009

Free your music

Posted: 05:11 PM ET

One of the most exciting tidbits from Tuesday’s MacWorld keynote for me was the announcement of the move toward DRM-free (digital rights managed) music on the iTunes store –- and, more interestingly, the ability to upgrade your current purchased music to a DRM-free format.

itunes

If you want to remove the DRM from your iTunes purchases, it's all or nothing.

As I’ve admitted before, I'm a fully entrenched Apple fanboy.  Thus my music player is an iPod and the music I've purchased online is from the iTunes store.  That is a very limited amount of my music –- as I never liked the prospect of “renting” my music, having it locked into a particular format –- especially when I could get the CD and rip it into the quality and format of my choice for my digital devices -– and have the ability to re-encode it if necessary.

So, how do I upgrade my music?  On Wednesday a link appeared on the iTunes store (in the "Quick Links" area in the upper left corner) that says just that: "Upgrade My Library." Clicking on it takes you to a screen that shows you how many songs are eligible for the upgrade.

In my case, it’s 233 songs (more than I thought), which includes about 15 albums, for a charge of $56.70.

Am I gonna do it?  Maybe, maybe not.  First off – it's an all or nothing deal — you can’t just pick your favorites and leave all the junk you bought to rot in the DRM wasteland.  Also, I have to agree with friends, colleagues and Internet commenters who think this should be free –- or at the very least cheaper -– with a bigger discount for larger libraries.  On the other hand, as one of my good friends pointed out, 30 cents is much cheaper than if you had to buy the whole thing again, like many of us did when updating our libraries from cassette or vinyl to CD.

So in the end, “Yay!” to the death of DRM on iTunes, and a resounding “meh” on the paying more to get my music in the way it should have been to begin with.  What are you guys gonna do?

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Filed under: Apple • DRM • Music


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January 6, 2009

Your photo library just got smarter

Posted: 04:23 PM ET

Apple just unveiled its latest round of toys today before an excited crowd at the Macworld Conference & Expo -  personally, I think the update with the biggest "cool" factor is the new iPhoto.

The photo library app is introducing face-recognition software called "Faces." Once you identify your friends and family, iPhoto will be able to sort the rest of your photos according to who is in them.

In addition to Faces, "Places" will sort your photos according to where they were taken. This will be particularly handy for users with an iPhone 3G - which adds geographical data to your photos using the integrated GPS. Some new cameras also have the ability to "geo-tag" photos, which can then be used to sort pictures in iPhoto.

Don't have a fancy camera with geo-tagging abilities? That's fine - iPhoto uses Google Maps, allowing users to tag old photos with location data.

iMovie also got an update - a big one. "We decided to completely rewrite iMovie and come up with a whole new version," Apple Vice President Philip Schiller said Tuesday during the keynote.

The new features will focus on ease of use, with enhanced audio editing features, smoother transitions and new video stabilization.

iPhoto and iMovie will be included in the new iLife '09 - set to ship later this month.

Of course, it wasn't just iLife '09 - a new iWork, a new MacBook Pro, and a new iTunes price structure were all announced.

What new Apple product are you excited about? Was there something you wanted to see, but didn't? Sound off in the comments.

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Filed under: Apple • computers


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January 5, 2009

A letter from Steve Jobs

Posted: 09:57 AM ET

Apple CEO Steve Jobs released this letter about his weight loss to the "Apple Community" as the Macworld conference for Apple developers was getting underway in San Francisco, California:

Steve Jobs

"Dear Apple Community,

For the first time in a decade, I'm getting to spend the holiday season with my family, rather than intensely preparing for a Macworld keynote. Unfortunately, my decision to have Phil deliver the Macworld keynote set off another flurry of rumors about my health, with some even publishing stories of me on my deathbed.

I've decided to share something very personal with the Apple community so that we can all relax and enjoy the show tomorrow. As many of you know, I have been losing weight throughout 2008. The reason has been a mystery to me and my doctors. A few weeks ago, I decided that getting to the root cause of this and reversing it needed to become my #1 priority.

Fortunately, after further testing, my doctors think they have found the cause - a hormone imbalance that has been "robbing" me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy. Sophisticated blood tests have confirmed this diagnosis.

The remedy for this nutritional problem is relatively simple and straightforward, and I've already begun treatment. But, just like I didn't lose this much weight and body mass in a week or a month, my doctors expect it will take me until late this Spring to regain it. I will continue as Apple's CEO during my recovery.

I have given more than my all to Apple for the past 11 years now. I will be the first one to step up and tell our Board of Directors if I can no longer continue to fulfill my duties as Apple's CEO. I hope the Apple community will support me in my recovery and know that I will always put what is best for Apple first.

So now I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this.

Steve"

Read CNNMoney's story on Jobs' letter here.

Filed under: Apple • computers


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January 2, 2009

Is Saturn losing its rings?

Posted: 01:30 PM ET

The sixth planet from the sun, Saturn, is perhaps best known for its many rings, which consist of billions of particles of ice and rock. But throughout the next several months, if you look at Saturn with a telescope, you’ll see something strange – the rings seem to be disappearing.

The Hubble Space Telescope took this image of Saturn, seen titled edge-on, in 1995.

That’s because about every 14 to 15 years, the tilt of the planet is such that we on Earth see the rings edge-on. In reality the rings are still there, but they appear nearly invisible from Earth.

The phenomenon, which stumped Galileo in the 1600s, is called a “ring plane crossing.” While the Earth has an equinox every six months, Saturn's are more spaced out - in fact, it orbits the sun once every 29.5 years.

The rings will appear thinner and thinner until September 4, 2009, when they will seem to have vanished. On that day, we will see the sun and Saturn only 11 degrees apart in the sky, says Linda Spilker at NASA, deputy project scientist and co-investigator on the Cassini Mission to Saturn. But beware – Saturn will be in the daytime sky, making it difficult to see so close to the sun.

Unlike a solar eclipse, the Saturn-with-thin-rings phenomenon will be visible from essentially the whole Earth, because it is so far away, Spilker says. But it will be difficult to actually see this around the exact time of the ring plane crossing in September.

The bottom line is that, while the actual ring crossing doesn’t happen until the fall, if you want to see Saturn appear to have thin rings, act fast!

According to the Sky and Telescope star-gazing guide for this week, Saturn’s rings are only 0.8° or 0.9° from edge-on. The planet rises around 10 p.m.

Read more about the ring crossing from NASA.

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Filed under: Astronomy • Saturn


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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