SciTechBlog
May 21, 2009

Google Chrome browser gets 'V8' engine

Posted: 05:17 PM ET

Google today announced some upgrades to its Web browser, Chrome, which originally was released about 8 months ago.

You could argue the search-engine powerhouse takes the car metaphors a little bit far with this post about the update: Google says the upgrades mostly focus on speed, which comes from a new browser "engine," which Google calls "V8."

For those interested the under-the-hood mechanics of Chrome, Google says the browser tops others because it is able to handle complex Web pages with lots of Java Script very quickly. From another post to the Chrome blog:

Web applications are becoming more complex. With the increased complexity comes more JavaScript code and more objects. An increased number of objects puts additional stress on the memory management system of the JavaScript engine, which has to scale to deal efficiently with object allocation and reclamation. If engines do not scale to handle large object heaps, performance will suffer when running large web applications.

I installed the Chrome update (you can download the new version here) this afternoon, and it definitely is speedy - noticeably faster than Firefox, which I often use. On the downside, the new version still doesn't seem to automatically spellcheck as you write. I'm using Chrome now, so please forgive any typos.

I thought this point from TechCrunch was useful, too: if you use Gmail, Google Reader, etc., Chrome seems extra-fast:

JavaScript-heavy webpages (such as Gmail), will now run 30% faster on Chrome, according to Google. Given how fast they were already running, that’s fairly insane.

What do you all think? Is this browser worth using? There's always that ol' anti-trust issue floating around, and some have questioned why Google would get in the browser and mobile phone businesses when they don't seem likely to be profitable. Is it scary for Google to creep into yet another facet of our online lives, or is this just expected at this point?

And, while we're on the subject of browsers, do any of you use the Firefox add-on that lets you skip Web ads? Slate raises an interesting point: is it ethical for a writer who makes money from an ad-driven Web site to block Internet ads with his or her browser? I tried out the ad blocker, and it's kind of shocking. All of the news Web sites look like ghost towns without ads blinking and yelling for your attention. But I think that's something I could get used to.

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Filed under: Google • Google Chrome


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Study: Photos stay online after you delete them

Posted: 09:20 AM ET

The buzz online this morning is about a Cambridge University project that found photos posted to some social networks, blog and photo-sharing sites stick around after they're deleted by users.

Researchers tested several photo-sharing sites to see if photos still existed on the Internet 30 days after they were supposedly deleted by users. Seven of the 16 sites, including Facebook, failed the test. From a researcher's blog post:

Facebook alone hosts over 40 billion photos, over 200 per user, and receives over 25 million new photos each day. Hosting such a huge number of photos is an interesting engineering challenge. The dominant paradigm which has emerged is to host the main website from one server which handles user log-in and navigation, and host the images on separate special-purpose photo servers, usually on an external content-delivery network.

Sound confusing? Basically that means Facebook and other sites store photos in one place and their main Web page in another place. That makes it difficult to know where your photos actually live. And it apparently means there can be some major lag time between when you delete a photo and when it actually goes away.

The BBC says the problem comes from "shaky" business models for social networks:

What the Cambridge experiment has shown is that networks like Facebook and MySpace have decided that they just can't afford to give users as much privacy as they might like. And that means that entrusting your photos to the cloud can mean relinquishing control of the way you appear online.

A Facebook spokesman reportedly denies the study's findings: “When a user deletes a photograph from Facebook it is removed from our servers immediately."

The BBC repeats a familiar mantra: don't put anything up that you wouldn't want the world to see:

you're bonkers to put anything online that you don't want a future employer, partner or aged relative to see – because, if the experiment is to be believed, that embarrasing shot of you in fancy dress at a stag night will remain online even after you've deleted it.

Check out the list of which sites passed and failed the test, and also follow the conversation on Twitter. It's happening under a search for "Are you sure those."

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Filed under: Facebook • Flickr • social-networking sites


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May 20, 2009

Streamline your commute, power your walk

Posted: 04:29 PM ET

If you're in the tech world, you're probably on the move. Here are a few sites and apps to keep you going at top speed - or to help you conserve energy, depending on  your mood.

Waze: You've gotta love it anytime masses of people come together to make something cool. That seems to be what's happening with Waze, a phone application that takes traffic and road-condition info from its users and makes traffic maps that update in real-time. That could help you trim down your commute.

VentureBeat writes that Waze could be the Wikipedia of maps; but, like the user-edited encyclopedia, the program needs lots of input to work well:

The company also uses the data to build the maps themselves, which can be edited by users, becoming a Wikipedia of maps. The more data a user provides, and the more reliable they turn out to be, the more power they have in editing.

Of course, there are drawbacks: First and foremost, you need a decent user base for the data to be meaningful. Also, if those users are constantly turning Waze off to use other applications, that also stops the flow of data.

Put a spark in your step: PopularScience has a recent post on how you can charge batteries to power your iPod (or, er, Walkman?) while you walk. It seems a little tricky, but they won me over with some comedy and cool illustrations:

You're halfway through listening to "Layla" when it happens: Your MP3 player's battery dies. Normally you'd have to wait until you were at your computer to finish rocking out, but there is an easy and eco-friendly way to do it on the go.

Finally, few things on the Web move faster than Twitter, so here are a couple of new posts that will help you make more sense of the real-time micro-blogging site: Wired's GeekDad has a post of 100 fellow geeks you should follow on Twitter. And check out Twitmatic, which Wired says helps turn Twitter into a television station.

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Filed under: Internet


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Oh iPhone rumors, how I love thee

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

We’re just a little more than two weeks away from the rumored release/announcement of the new version of the iPhone.

It's expected that the Apple will release the 3.0 software at the World Wide Developers Conference on June 8th (no Jobs, but Phil Schiller will be doing the keynote). Having a few friends and colleagues who have started developing for the iPhone - I've actually got to play with the beta a bit. I must say, as nice as cut and paste is, the search is my favorite new feature. Being able to search through emails, contacts and anything else on my phone is way nice (and one of the main features I missed when I first got the phone last year).

The real question is - will new hardware be announced at the same time? Some of the big rumors surrounding video recording (that it will only work on new hardware) point to it coming soon - and has sparked a flurry of rumors to go with it.

Some say you will be able to edit video on the phone. If this comes true, I suspect it will be more about trimming to make the video shorter than making it theater-worthy.

There’s also a host of rumors surrounding Apple developing custom innards for the phone – custom processor, OLED screen, a specially designed battery – although those seem more likely for a further away iteration than anything we're likely to see this year.

I'm hoping for increased capacity (really a no brainer, but how big will it be? ... 80GB iPhone please?) and a better camera. Three megapixels would be acceptable, 4 would be grand and 5 would actually be worth using.

What do you think Apple should provide with a hardware update to the phone? And which of these rumors sound too good to be true? OHH and just to bait the water a little – what are the chances Apple will finally come through with the long rumored netbook/tablet?

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Filed under: Apple • iPhone • online video • technology


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Gameplay: In stores this week

Posted: 10:17 AM ET

It's up to you to save the human race in "Terminator Salvation," out this week for Playstation and X-box 360. Also hitting stores are "Punch Out" and "UFC 209 Undisputed."

Plus "Rock Band: Classic Rock" introduces more music from The Police, The Who, Lenny Kravitz and the Steve Miller band. CNN's Doug Hyde has more in this week's gameplay:

Filed under: video games


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After 10 years of alien searches, no results

Posted: 10:08 AM ET

For a decade, the computer program has searched the skies for extraterrestrial voices. Hundreds of thousands of volunteer home computers have analyzed the data, according to a news release.

But no alien signals have been heard in the 10 years SETI@Home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been operating.

SETI uses the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico to record radio signals from the sky. Those signals are broken down and sent to home computers, which help analyze the data.

Here's more on how the project works, from the SETI@Home Web site:

One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver's electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power.

In the 10 years that SETI has been active not a single extraterrestrial signal has been heard.

This could lead us to believe that maybe we are truly alone in this vast universe. No one knows for sure, of course. The debate has intensified since the Roswell incident of 1947.

Arguments can be made against spending money and time in search of other life in the universe. The money spent on funding the SETI project that could have been put towards fighting hunger or doing cancer research, for example.

On the flip side, our universe is extremely large and the time it takes radio signals to travel can take many years for them to make it to Earth if they are coming from another planet or spaceship. Ten years just isn’t enough for us to examine what could be out there.

What are your thoughts on SETI?

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Filed under: Space


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DJ releases blank CD-R

Posted: 09:32 AM ET

Music producer Danger Mouse wants you to download his album illegally. He is even going to sell you the blank CD-R to burn your ill-gotten tracks.

The "Dark Night of the Soul" book with blank CD-R ships May 29th, and the album again raises questions about how Internet technology can be used to distribute music - and what is or isn't ethical about the process.

DJ Danger Mouse, who is half of the pop group Gnarles Barkley, began stepping on record label EMI's toes in 2004 when he utilized internet outlets to distribute his self-published "Gray Album," which mixed songs from Jay-Z and The Beatles.

EMI, who owned rights to The Beatles' content, attempted to block the album, but people online responded by creating "Gray Tuesday," an organized protest where participating Web sites posted the unlicensed songs for public download. Now EMI is again attempting to prevent Danger Mouse from releasing "Dark Night of the Soul," but he's not one to let a legal dispute keep music from his fans.

A spokesperson for the DJ said: "Danger Mouse remains hugely proud of 'Dark Night of the Soul' and hopes that people lucky enough to hear the music, by whatever means, are as excited by it as he is."

Danger Mouse is still releasing "Dark Night of the Soul," but instead of a 13-track album the case will include a 100-page book of David Lynch photographs and a blank CD-R that is labeled: 'For Legal Reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.'

Legally, fans can hear music from "Dark Night of the Soul" streamed on NPR Music. I listened to it last night and was impressed, but will anyone buy this new album when the music is already freely available?

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Filed under: file sharing • Music • piracy


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Easter Eggs sneak apps past iPhone gatekeepers

Posted: 08:37 AM ET

Apple is no stranger to criticism over its iPhone App Store approval process. Developers must subject their programs to policies that are vague and often inconsistently enforced before gaining access to the iPhone App Store.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone software developers kit, March 6, 2008.

While opinions about which programs are appropriate may vary, Apple has the final say in what you can install on your phone (unless you jailbreak your phone, but that tactic can void your warranty).

However, Wired illustrates one method developers are using to sneak contraband code past the Apple censors and on to iPhones everywhere:

Despite Apple’s reputation for being a notorious gatekeeper with its iPhone App Store, there’s a way to sneak in content such as porn, profanity or potentially malicious code, with no hacking required: Easter eggs.

A virtual Easter egg is content that is hidden by the developer within a program. Easter eggs often take the form of secret messages or jokes, but they can also alter the way a program behaves.

Wired spotlights one developer's struggle to gain app approval:

Apple initially rejected Jelle Prins’ iPhone app Lyrics, which displays lyrics for the songs in your music library, including the profanity contained in some song lyrics. Apple cited that fact as the reason for turning Prins down. So Prins installed a profanity filter and Lyrics got approved.

But he also secretly planted an Easter egg (programmer parlance for a secret feature) into the app for users to unlock the dirty words if they so pleased. All users have to do to unlock the filth is go to the About page, swipe downward three times and select the option to turn off the filter.

Since Apple seemingly doesn't have the manpower to test every application that is submitted for approval, Easter Eggs have a pretty good chance of slipping past the censors.

What do you think? Should more developers take advantage of Easter Eggs to add functionality to iPhone Apps, or is Apple's iron curtain a necessary nuisance that should be respected?

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Filed under: Apple • consumer tech • iPhone


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May 19, 2009

App lets online friends send martinis across the U.S.

Posted: 05:00 PM ET

As social networks continue to search for viable business models, "virtual currencies" are becoming more important.

See today's CNN story for more on the subject. On a slight tangent, I thought I'd toss out a link to a cool site I encountered during my research (If you can call looking for neat Web sites research).

It's called Give Real, and you can use the site's applications in social networks to buy real-world drinks for your friends - no matter if you're at a sports bar in Cleveland and your friend's at a techno club in California.

Functionally, it seems a little clunky. You select a drink, determine its price and write a note for your friend - like a proposed toast or something along those lines. Then you pay for it with a credit card and the drink goes to your friend's e-mail, where they must enter credit card information in order to get a credit that will let the friend redeem the drink wherever he or she would like.

Here's a how-to guide from the site for a bit more of an explanation.

And more from TechCrunch on that point:

Once your friends already have cards in the system the process is much easier, but I question if my friends would readily enter their credit card numbers to redeem their gifts in the first place (then again, people will go through a lot for a free drink).

Still, it seems like it could be a fun tool if, say, your friend is getting married or graduating from school and you can't be there. The idea is also interesting conceptually: many social network apps create currencies so you can buy virtual gifts (pixel T-shirts and the like), but this app lets you give your online friends something tangible. The drinks exist in the real world, not just as pictures online - which, if you're a drinker, is probably important.

What do you think? If you try the site, let me know how it goes in the comments section.

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Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites


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May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha search to launch today

Posted: 12:00 PM ET

Wolfram Alpha, the much-anticipated online calculator and search engine, is set to launch for the public today at 4 p.m. ET.

The site looks like a search engine but acts more like a giant calculator. It can crunch mathematical formulas, compare statistics and build charts based on online data that's curated by a team of scientists and mathematicians.

Some see Alpha as a major advancement in the search world, primarily because it does something Google doesn't: it creates new information, rather than just searching for what's already available online.

Check out this previous post for more information and for a CNN review of the site's pre-launch version.

And here's a recent CNN story about how this news fits into changes in the world of the search more generally. Several search engines are trying to supplement Google, rather than compete with the search king, which captures more than 60 percent of the market.

Of course, Google has some search news of its own, too, which appeared to be timed with news media buzz about Alpha.

Here's more from Alpha's creator, Stephen Wolfram. He writes in a blog that Alpha is a big advance for how well computers can think. But it's been a long and difficult process:

I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.

Pulling all of this together to create a true computational knowledge engine is a very difficult task.

I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.

When Alpha launches, take a look and let me know what you think. Which searches worked? Which didn't? Do you think the site is a useful supplement to major search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Ask? Is it being hyped?

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Filed under: search engines


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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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