SciTechBlog
May 15, 2009

Remedies for RSS stress

Posted: 06:21 PM ET

Thanks to those of you who offered remedies to my RSS stress, which I wrote about in a recent post.

I think I've come to a solution that works for me. I pull up some sites I really love with tabs, just so I can see them and take in the feel of the site. Then I get a hearty dose of my online stories through an RSS reader. I took your advice and pared down some of the feeds (turns out, I had dozens too many). And - just to make it feel like less of a chore - I click "mark all as read" more frequently, so I don't have  to feel guilty about not getting to some stuff.

Here are a few of the comments I found useful.

John D. says RSS reader and Twitter overload are symptoms of our over-busy society:

RSS may have become cumbersome . . . but that is mostly because many of us are simply trying to follow too many things. I have two Twitter news services set up and some days they drive me nuts. Do I really want my mobile phone buzzing constantly because of news updates? No thanks! It buzzes enough with just my friends and their text messages. I will keep my RSS reader.

Justin B. says people need to decide what they really do and don't want to read

They haven’t become a chore at all. I have the few that I really want to follow, and that’s it. Sounds like the problem isn’t that RSS is ‘artless’, more that people drown themselves in it and don’t know how to delete the ones they don’t really want or need.

Nick M. says the speed of the RSS reader is important:

it’s not a chore to use Google Reader because i work hard to optimize my experience and weed out the feeds that don’t deliver over time. saying that RSS feeds are dying is like saying that email’s dying. yeah, there’s an unglamorous side to reading everything as minimal text, but the content takes precedence in that format, and i get access to greater amounts of information and knowledge at a greater speed.

And, on the subject of Twitter replacing the RSS reader, Sean has this quip:

Personally I believe the Twitter backlash started the moment they started talking about it on the Today show. Soon a clever developer will come up with a new spin on the RSS feed. Maybe it will be something that collects your RSS, Tweets, Facebook updates, calendar, e-mail, online bookmarks, diggs, etc. and puts them into an interface that doesn’t drive you nuts because of all the junk flooding in all the time. I know some developers have already tried, but I’m still waiting for the killer app that will make filtering all of this noise much easier.

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Filed under: online news • RSS reader


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The Pirate Bay fights back

Posted: 10:22 AM ET

Gottfrid Svartholm, founder of the popular file sharing site The Pirate Bay, may have been found guilty of collaborating to violate copyright law in April, but he is not giving up the fight.

Supporters of the web site 'The Pirate Bay' demonstrate in Stockholm, on April 18, 2009.

Supporters of the web site 'The Pirate Bay' demonstrate in Stockholm, on April 18, 2009.

Svartholm and his three co-defendants, who were sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay 30 million kronor ($3.6 million) to media companies, immediately appealed the court's decision and vowed never to pay up, declaring, "Even if we had the money I would rather burn everything I owned and not even give them the final dust from the burning. Not even the ashes."

However, last week Svartholm may have reversed his decision regarding the fine and launched a Swedish site internet-avgift, 'internet-fee' in English. Though the site's actual creator is unknown, the domain name internetavgift.se was registered by "svarth3024-00001."

The new site encourages Pirate Bay supporters to send extremely small sums of money to Peter Danowsky’s law firm, which represented the music companies in the trial. The idea behind the "fundraiser" is to inundate the law firm with such a high volume of insignificant payments that processing all the donations actually would cost them money.

The Blog Pirate calls the plan a Distributed Denial of Dollars attack (DDo$) and compares it to the common, and illegal, hacker practice of using DDoS attacks to knock websites offline:

The plan is an away-from-keyboard DDoS attack. DDoS attacks involve hordes of users overloading a victim with Internet traffic, damaging their ability to provide services. Money, instead of Internet traffic is used in this case.

CNET investigates the viability of DDo$ and interviews lawyer Peter Danowsky about the attack:

The scheme may turn out to be expensive for Danowsky's firm–or at least that's what the tricksters hope. According to the bank's rules (PDF in Swedish) companies can receive up to 1,000 payments a year for free... However, according to the law, each transaction, free or not, has to be entered in the law firm's books, which implies a lot of manpower.

Can the Pirate Bay defendants actually use their supporters to overcome a court order, or is this just a revenge attack initiated by Internet dissidents who support online piracy?

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Filed under: file sharing • Internet • online news


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May 14, 2009

Wi-Fi for the skies: who's ahead and how it works

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

AirTran made a bunch of news yesterday for announcing that it will have Wi-Fi on all of its planes by summer.

The airline claims to be the first to do this. But saying which airline is ahead of another in terms of mile-high Internet offerings is a bit dizzying. Virgin tells the Dallas Morning News that it will actually be the first to have an entire fleet of planes equipped for Wi-Fi. Virgin's fleet is much smaller than AirTran's, though. And Delta, which has more planes than either, may actually have more planes fitted with wireless Internet than AirTran by summer, but it's not the whole Delta fleet. American also jumped into the mix, according to engadget.

So that race is messy and tough to call. What's clear is that Wi-Fi is becoming a mainstream thing - and airlines are using the technology as a way to one-up each other. This wasn't always the case. A few years ago, the common thinking was that customers weren't willing pay extra for the service, according to news reports.

On the cultural side of this change, the NYT blog says airplane Wi-Fi means there's one less place you can go to disconnect from the Web:

So the actual service is uneventful; the real news here is the cultural ramifications. Used to be that the plane ride was the last remaining chunk of incommunicado time, the last place on earth where no BlackBerry buzzes and no e-mail comes in.

But not anymore.

Let’s just look at the bright side: you still can’t make cellphone calls on planes. Yet.

My big question while reading all of this was technological: Why does Wi-Fi work in a plane when flight attendants still ask passengers to turn off their iPods?

Thank you, Slate, for having the answer:

It [wi-fi] operates on a totally different frequency. Cell phones transmit signals at roughly the same frequencies as aircraft communications—pilot radios and radar range from below 100 to 2,000 MHz, and many phones operate at 850 MHz or 1,900 MHz. Your cell could therefore—at least theoretically—interfere with navigation. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, signals at a higher frequency—anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 MHz—and thus won't get mixed up with the plane's transmissions.

In-flight Wi-Fi works like a moving Starbucks hot spot. The plane is rigged with three antennae—two on its belly and one on top—that receive signals from towers across the country. The frequency of those transmissions, 849 MHz, is within the range of airline communications. But they don't interfere with the plane's navigation, since 849 MHz is a dedicated frequency that was auctioned off and bought in 2006 by Aircell, which services American, Delta, and Virgin. (It's the same frequency once used by Airfone.)

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Filed under: Internet • Uncategorized


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May 13, 2009

Bloggers: Twitter clamps down on open conversation

Posted: 09:29 AM ET

Twitter is all abuzz this morning with re-posts of this ReadWriteWeb blog, which says the micro-blogging site is clamping down on the way people converse.

A piece of the blog's title - "Goodbye people I never knew" - has become one of the top 10 topics on Twitter today.

From Twitter's blog:

Based on usage patterns and feedback, we've learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow—it's a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don't follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today's update removes this undesirable and confusing option.

Twitter calls the change a "small settings update," but Twitter users seem upset about the move, saying that it cuts down on a common way to find new, interesting people on the site. More from ReadWriteWeb:

In what the company called a small settings update, users no longer see public replies sent by friends to people they themselves are not following. (Fragmented conversations, they are called.) This isn't a small change at all, it's big and it's bad. The new setting eliminates serendipitous social discovery.

Follow the live conversation here and here.

Also in Twitter news today, the site will shut down for an hour of maintenance at 2 p.m. ET. On the site this morning, people are also complaining of glitches.

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Filed under: Twitter


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May 12, 2009

Facebook suspends two Holocaust-denial groups

Posted: 04:52 PM ET

Under pressure from activists, Facebook has disabled two of five pages dedicated to Holocaust-denial groups.

Barry Schnitt, a spokesman for the social-networking site, confirmed the removal in an e-mail to CNET's Technically Incorrect.

"Two of the groups have been disabled, but the other three remain," Schnitt wrote. "We are monitoring these groups and if the discussion among members degrades to the point of promoting hate or violence, despite whatever disclaimer the group description provides, we will take them down. This has happened in the past, especially when controversial groups are publicized."

One of the most vocal supporters for the pages' removal has been Brian Cuban, a Texas attorney and brother of Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban.

Brian Cuban and others have argued that the Holocaust-denial pages violate Facebook's terms of service, which prohibits content that is hateful.

While Cuban said it's great that two of the pages have been suspended, he said Facebook's actions do not go far enough. "It misses the crux of the dispute, which is a fundamental difference in the belief of what Holocasut Denial represents," he said.

"Facebook sees Holocaust Denial as an unpopular, even rupugnant history theory," Cuban wrote in an e-mail to CNN. "I see Holocaust Denial as a mantra of hate against Jews, and therefore no group should be tolerated. Facebook should not be picking and choosing who they think hates Jews and who does not. All the groups should go."
- Lisa Respers France, CNN.com writer

Filed under: Facebook


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Bill could mean jail for Internet flamers

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

A cyberbullying bill introduced last month has the potential to put half the Internet behind bars.

The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act is Congress' response to the 2006 suicide of a 13-year-old girl who was harassed on MySpace. The bill makes electronic communication a felony if “the intent is to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person.”

Congressmen probably aren't the most Web-savvy bunch, but anyone familiar with trolling, flaming, and various other forms of online bullying could see a problem with this bill.

Network World examines the bill and explains this new breed of Internet criminal:

Given the freewheeling exchanges that characterize everything from SMS text messages and instant messaging to blogs and Web site comments, the broadly written bill potentially could turn a lot of flamers and bloggers into felons.

Amid growing online criticism, bill sponsor Rep. Linda Sanchez defended the Cyberbullying Prevention Act in a Huffington Post article this month:

Congress has no interest in censoring speech and it will not do so if it passes this bill. Put simply, this legislation would be used as a tool for a judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that a person "cyberbullied" another... So - bloggers, emailers, texters, spiteful exes, and those who have blogged against this bill have no fear - your words are still protected under the same American values.

While Rep. Sanchez's assurances may be comforting, judges tend to follow the wording of a law rather than its sponsor's intent. So before you text your cheating ex, slam those Apple forum fanboys, or call me a 'moron' in the comments, consider the possible consequences of this new bill, or at least put your lawyer's number on speed dial.

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Filed under: Internet • Politics


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May 11, 2009

The future for netbooks

Posted: 11:28 AM ET

I don't own a netbook, but I do own a 5-year-old Dell Inspiron laptop. I like to think of my Inspiron as an "oversized netbook" simply because it makes me appear more trendy.

According to an April survey by Changewave Research, one out of every four computers purchased in the next three months will be a netbook. These small, inexpensive laptop computers are quickly becoming the latest hip accessory. Unfortunately, their bare-bones computing abilities make them about as useful as a chihuahua in a handbag.

In a TECH.BLORGE interview, Lenovo analyst Matt Kohut admits that netbooks may not live up to the expectations of some consumers.

Initially people weren’t sure what to do with them. Retailers were saying, "here’s this new netbook PC," and the average person picked one up and said, "oh wow, that’s small, maybe I can run Photoshop." So, as an industry, we ended up with a lot of returns, because the functionality of what netbooks could do was not well communicated.

However, Kohut is upbeat about the future of netbooks. Second-generation netbooks are expected to have beefier computing power, run Windows 7 and offer 3G wireless capabilities, all while price points continue to drop.

So where is Apple's sleek, user-friendly netbook alternative? Apple CFO Timothy Cook told investors not to hold their breath at the company's quarterly-earnings call:

When I look at what is being sold in the netbook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience, and not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly.

However, Ars Technica isn't quite buying Cook's skepticism and points out that Apple always trashes an idea before doing it.

Even though they can't play games or edit video and often strain when loading YouTube, netbooks continue to sell. Do these low-priced Internet browsers fulfill an actual need, or are customers simply blinded by impossibly low prices?

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Filed under: Apple • computers • consumer tech • Internet • online video • technology


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May 8, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha: a new way to find data online?

Posted: 12:21 PM ET

There's been lots of buzz in the tech community about a site called Wolfram|Alpha, which is set to launch in about a week - likely on May 18, according to a spokesman.

On first glance, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine: it has a box where you type in a question or query terms. That's about where the similarities end, though, because, unlike Google or Ask, Wolfram|Alpha is kind of like an enormous calculator. It takes your question and crunches out an entirely new answer, even if the answer isn't something that's been posted on the Web before.

Confused? You're not alone. An example should help.

Say you're an investor and you want to see how two companies are faring against each other on the market. You could type in "IBM versus Apple" and Wolfram|Alpha will generate graphs and tables to compare the stocks over time. It also give you the Web-based sources used to generate the data, so you know where the numbers are coming from.

The site also solves equations and shows the steps it took to do so, which will be of interest to high school students and math majors. Not into number crunching? If you live near the coast, you could type in "tides in ____" and find charts of tidal and lunar information. You could also graph that against other cities, which would be cool if you're a surfer.

The site is also interesting for academic queries. Type in "Internet users in Africa" and you'll get the total number of Web users there - 51 million - as well as lists of the number of users by country plus graphs of this information. If you're in the fisheries business, or if you're an environmentalist, you could type in "fish produced in Italy versus France" to get an idea of how that sector is faring. The answer includes specifics, like how much of the fish crop was farmed versus what was captured. Such data could be used to argue policy points or to debate whether or not certain industries are sustainable.

Sound magical? Many people seem to think so. CNET and the New York Times have informative posts about the site and what it means for the way we generate and digest information in the Internet age.

But it's worth noting that all of the above searches were pulled out as examples in a press video released by the site's founder, Stephen Wolfram, who also was the creator of Mathematica. CNN obtained a test version of the site before its official release, and other searches that seem like they would work often didn't when I tried them.

I recently wrote a story about people who travel to dangerous parts of the world, so I searched for "countries with highest crime rates" and got no answer from the site. I tried a few variations and nothing seemed to work. "Country homicide rates" provided me to a link for the definition of a homicide, but that was about it.

CNET, a CNN partner site, experienced similar troubles when it tested Wolfram|Alpha. In a video, CNET says about two-thirds of its test searches didn't turn up useful information.

A writer for Harvardbusiness.org says Google is easier to use and Wikipedia is more powerful in the sense that it allows users to improve upon the site:

Think of Google as the Sears Roebuck of search — there are many "specialty" stores yet to be launched to meet different tastes and needs. But I don't think that Wolfram Alpha will be as widely used as Google is because it does not tap into a well-distributed, universal meme or structure as Google did; nor has the brilliant scientist figured out the architecture of participation — an easy to understand method for anyone with the desire and skill to help make Wolfram Alpha a better tool and knowledge base. If I want to help build Wolfram Alpha, I don't know how to begin; I do with Wikipedia.

In a recent blog post, Google also says it has added a public-data search function.

Still, it sounds like people are mostly excited about Wolfram|Alpha - in part because the project's aim is just so lofty. In a press-release video, Wolfram says the site aims to "compute whatever can be computed about the world."

Read more from the site's blog.

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Filed under: computers • Internet • Scientists • search engines


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NYT: New Kindle can't say 'Barack Obama'

Posted: 10:06 AM ET

The New York Times has a tech story today that's too interesting not to share.

The paper says that the new, larger Amazon Kindle - which has been talked up as a savior for books and newspapers - has "a ways to go" when it comes to pronouncing some newsworthy words.

Chief among them: Barack  and Obama.

From what the paper says, the Kindle gives the president's name a sort of hard-vowel, Midwestern flair:

In particular, the voice of the Kindle mispronounces two important words that show up often in the pages of newspapers: “Barack” (the device rhymes it with “black”) and “Obama” (sounds like “Alabama”).

The science behind computerized voice features has come a long way, but apparently still has a ways to go.

This CNN story has more on how the voice technology works, and points out that a debate over rights for audiobooks has sprung up with the technology:

Today's synthetic voices can't match human talent (such as an actor hired to read audio books). But they do enable some interesting options.

For instance instead of having just one narrator, you can switch between voices, including male and female, as on the Kindle 2. You might not use this option, but it's there, and it will likely get better over time. Hemingway with a feminine touch, anyone?

The Kindle uses voice technology from Nuance Communications, which can create all kinds of voices. The Kindle gives users limited selection, but it's easy to imagine future reading devices offering a wide variety. Each voice lends its own effect.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • books • Internet


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May 7, 2009

Twitter to beef up search

Posted: 12:27 PM ET

Twitter is beefing up its search function - and in doing so the micro-blogging site is positioning itself as an alternative to Google.

The newest update soon will allow Twitter Search to troll into the links people post and make that material searchable. This should mean better search results, which means Twitter becomes a more useful search alternative: you can see, in real time, what people are talking about, and which articles they're reading.

Currently the search only looks at word in the 140-character micro-blog, which somewhat limits the content it can pull up. A message that says "Cool article: LINK" wouldn't be very useful in the current search, for example.

As TechCrunch writes, the move doesn't mean Twitter wants to take Google down:

Of course there is no way Twitter Search will index as many pages as Google, but that's not the point. Twitter Search isn't meant to replace Google, that'd be dumb. At this point, no one is going to beat Google at its own game (you hear that Microsoft?). Twitter Search is meant to be a different kind of powerful search engine in its own right. A smaller, potentially curated, real-time search engine.

The speed of the search is part of what makes it so valuable, writes the UK's Telegraph:

Twitter plans to index the pages too, which is what Google does ...

This is expected to make it faster than Google, mainly thanks to the nature of tweets being speedy to send, as opposed to web pages, which are slow to build.

NYT breaks down the basics of the Twitter Search, for the uninitiated:

To find the Advanced Search, scroll to the bottom of any page at twitter.com and look for the link “Search” hiding there. Click it and you’ll be taken to search.twitter.com. Click the Advanced Search link. I suggest bookmarking the Advanced page on your browser. There’s another link there that lists all search operators, like “within:10mi.”

If you're a big Twitter user you likely have noticed some changes to the interface. "Trending topics," the discussions that are getting the most buzz on Twitter, now appear on the site's right-hand rail, instead of only on the separate Search Page. You can click through the trending links to get a feel for what people are chatting about online. Twitter says these links "are a compelling if rudimentary way to explore a collective global consciousness."

Twitter now allows users to save searches, which can be useful for people who are interested in particular subject: coffee, environment, Atlanta, swine flu, free chicken - just for a few examples. To save a search: first search the term you're interested in, then click the "Save This Search" button just above the results, on the right.

What do you think of the Twitter Search? Is this big, or is it hype? It seems like the developments indicate another shift in the site, which, as TechCrunch says, may become more useful as an information aggregator than as way to connect to celebrities, etc. [Also worth noting, Twitter says it's not for sale - at least not right now. Scott Rosenberg makes an interesting point on his blog, Wordyard: he says innovation ends when cool tech companies go completely corporate].

Find more about the search directly from Twitter's blog.

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Filed under: Internet • technology • Twitter


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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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