SciTechBlog
February 16, 2010

Hotmail back up after Tuesday outage

Posted: 06:03 PM ET

Access to Hotmail and several other Microsoft services was restored Tuesday afternoon after a server outage made it impossible for many users to sign in and access their e-mail.

The Windows Live ID service, which includes the free Hotmail service, instant messaging and new Xbox Live accounts, went down at about 12:30 p.m. ET, according to a Microsoft statement.

The problem was fixed in about an hour, Microsoft said, although customers were locked out for a while afterward.

Arthur De Haan, a Windows Live spokesman, said a server failed, increasing the load on other servers. A new server was brought into rotation, but it took a while to resolve the logjam of attempted sign-ins and to redistribute that load among the working servers, he said.

“As with all incidents like this, we will fully investigate the cause and will take steps to prevent this from happening again,” De Haan wrote on the official Inside Windows Live blog. “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused you, our customers and partners.”

Hotmail is one of the two most popular e-mail services in the world, along with Yahoo! Google’s Gmail is third.

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Filed under: computers • consumer tech • e-mail • Microsoft Corp. • technology


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Report: Steve Jobs to cooperate on biography

Posted: 12:19 PM ET

Reclusive Apple CEO Steve Jobs will lend his approval, and cooperation, to a book about his life, according to a report in The New York Times.

The authorized biography will be written by Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine, says the Times, referencing two unnamed people briefed on the project. "The book, which is in the early planning stages, would cover the entire life of Mr. Jobs, from his youth in the area now known as Silicon Valley through his years at Apple, these people said."

Isaacson is the author of bestselling biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Neither he nor Apple (big surprise) would comment to the Times about the rumors.

"The news will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with Isaacson," writes Fortune's Philip Elmer DeWitt, who spotted Isaacson in the audience at last month's iPad launch event in San Francisco.

"If there is one thread that runs through his [Isaacson's] long career in journalism and public service, it's his talent for spotting the most influential people in any room and finding a way to get close to them," wrote DeWitt in a post today on Fortune's site.

There's no doubt that Jobs' life story would make a compelling read. From his role in helping to pioneer the personal computer in the late 1970s to his contentious departure from Apple and triumphant 1997 return to his more recent appearances as iconic pitchman for such revolutionary products as the iPod and iPhone, Jobs has had a remarkable career.

Throw in last year's health scare - Jobs had a liver transplant after losing an alarming amount of weight - and his reputation as a brilliant but secretive tech visionary, and you have a larger-than-life character with enough drama for several books.

The question is whether Jobs will allow Isaacson to write candidly about Jobs' demanding managment style and king-sized ego. According to the Times, Jobs has reacted angrily to some of the unauthorized biographies of him that have appeared in recent years and has even directed Apple stores to temporarily stop selling other books from the same publishers.

"Cooperation with Mr. Isaacson could be a sign that Mr. Jobs has emerged from his recent health battles with more of an interest in shaping his legacy," the Times wrote.

What do you think? Will an authorized biography of Steve Jobs shed meaningful new light on a fascinating figure, or will it be a self-serving homage to someone who doesn't need more hype?

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Filed under: Apple • books


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February 12, 2010

Bing wows crowd with live-video maps

Posted: 04:50 PM ET

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday unveiled updates to its Bing search engine - and they seemed to wow the crowds here at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

First, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, architect of Bing Maps, demonstrated a live-video add-in to to the search engine's mapping feature. He zoomed into 3-dimensional images of streets in Seattle, Washington, and showed off a feature that integrates live video feeds into those images. Microsoft says this might be useful, for instance, if you wanted to see how long a line outside a restaurant was on Valentine's Day.

Check out a video demo here. It's pretty impressive.

Next, Microsoft's research lab announced a maps app that lets people, virtually, stand on the street and look up at the sky to see constellations.

And finally, Microsoft says it's zooming back from page links to give people pages of image results that can be categorized and sorted like index cards. In a demo, a company representative shuffled through TED Conference presenters, organizing their digital cards by field of study, year of their speech and other categories.

Check out some of the demos here.

Let me know what you think. Is Bing's "decision engine" making headway on Google - which is still the powerhouse in that market? Google also won some fans here with a Nexus One smartphone demo in which a rep spoke into his phone in English and asked the phone to translate his voice into Spanish. Then the phone spoke for him.

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Filed under: Google • Microsoft Corp. • TED2010


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4chan founder: Anonymous speech is 'endangered'

Posted: 04:10 PM ET

I just met one of the Internet's most mysterious people: Christopher Poole, the founder of the site 4chan. Online he goes by "moot."

Poole's image-board site, which he started at age 15, is known as one of the seedier dens of the Internet. Many posts on 4chan are pornographic. All are anonymous. And his 7-million-person community, which he called a "meme factory," has been blamed (or credited, depending on your perspective) for starting the LOLcats and Rickrolling crazes, rallying 7,000 people to protest Scientology, spreading child pornography and taking down social networking pages with floods of hateful comments.

"The site has gotten kind of notorious over the years for being a hotbed for memes and viral kind of activity - and exploits and whatnot," he said.

According to Poole, it's also becoming endangered, like a dinosaur of the Web.

Its predator? The Facebooks and Googles of the world, which are pushing people to reveal more about their real identities online.

"At this point, I really do stand behind anonymous communities," Poole said in an interview after a speech here at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

"I think they are certainly endangered because we've just moved more and more towards persistent user identity. Your online identity lives in like all of like one or three places now. You've got a Twitter, you've got a Facebook. I guess you used to have a MySpace, So people are just putting loads of information about themselves in these places and we're becoming very comfortable with sharing very intimate details about our life. It's just everything."

That scares Poole, who is now 22 and a college student in New York - although he wouldn’t say where. He is a private person who says he mostly spends his free time online on 4chan and on news sites.

"If someone called you up on the phone and asked you all of these things [people post online] you'd say 'hell no' and hang up," he said. "But now we're flooding the Internet with information about ourselves and I think that's scary. So I would like to see people push back."

Poole fell into anonymous posting somewhat out of necessity. When he founded 4chan, he was younger than 18, and he didn't want to get in trouble for spreading pornography, which he wouldn't legally be allowed to access.

Over time he's become a sort of advocate for anonymous speech, even though he's been outed in the media (He said his dad didn’t know what he was doing with all of the time he was spending on 4chan until reporters called to talk to him about the site in 2008; his parents still don't really get it, he said).

Despite the filth that's somewhat prevalent on his site, Poole maintains anonymous speech promotes rational discourse that's more thoughtful than speech that's attached to a name.

"When you've got a community with identity, the discussion is mostly revolving around who is saying what and not what they're saying. And so those discussions become a criticizing thing. They become a bandwagon sort of thing," he said.

"And with the anonymous system you've got a place where people are uninhibited … You're getting very truthful conversation. And you judge somebody by the content of what they're saying and not their username, not their registration date."

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Filed under: 4chan • memes • TED2010


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Author: Web is among world's 'destructive' technologies

Posted: 03:58 PM ET

In the face of constant news about how the Internet connects people and empowers them, Sam Harris provided an interesting and contrarian perspective here at the brainy TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

The eternal skeptic and author of "The End of Faith" responded in this way when I asked him what the most destructive technology on the planet is:

"Increasingly the Internet itself, given our reliance on it, is a source of destructive technology. I think we really have to worry about cyber terrorism and cyber crime increasingly. But there's obviously nuclear proliferation and bio-weapons and chemical weapons."

But the Web isn't completely bad, he said:

"I think it's had two diametrically opposed effects. One effect has been really good. It's created transformation and empowered people and allowed us to debunk bad ideas in a very ... decisive way. It's almost created a cognitive immune system for the planet."

He continued: "It's also empowered pranks and pseudoscience and bad information because every person on the Internet can sort of find the people like them and everyone can find an audience so there are certain forms of ignorance that would more or less be unthinkable without the Internet. Global jihad has been massively empowered by the Internet. Even things like the 911 truth conspiracy. That, to my mind, is an Internet phenomenon. No one would publish those books. This is something that is born of Web sites and Internet commentary."

It's yet to be seen whether technology's overall effect on humanity has been good or bad, he said.

"The final chapter is not written on that. It's made it much better and yet it's given us the power to make it worse. It's conceivable that if we fail to build a truly viable global civilization we could use technology to immiserate ourselves more deeply than we would have had we not invented the technology."

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Filed under: Internet • technology • TED2010


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To fix the real world, play games online

Posted: 12:28 PM ET

People today are addictively entertained by video games.

Jane McGonigal says that's a good thing.

McGonigal, a game designer with the Institute for the Future, and a speaker at this year's TED Conference here in Long Beach, California, says people today spend a collective 3 billion hours per week playing online games. She wants us to play more. To solve all of the world's problems, she says, we must spend seven times that much time with games - a whopping 21 billion hours per week among us all.

And, no, she's not joking. By playing online games like World of Warcraft, gamers build up "superpowers" that will help them solve real world problems, McGonigal says.

"My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games," she said in a presentation here.

Think about that for a minute. Can searching for troll spells and conquering digital alien worlds really help us combat climate change, end poverty and reduce global conflict? Yes, McGonigal says, because in online games people tend to behave better than in the real world. In the digital space, people tend to collaborate to help each other solve problems. They don’t give up as easily. And they almost always feel they have a chance of winning. Their skills are well matched to the challenges set out before them.

Such situations have developed gamers as "super-empowered, hopeful individuals," she said. She sees it as a new branch of human evolution.

"Gamers are willing to work hard all the time if they're given the right work," she said.

But how does this translate to change in the real world? Well, McGonigal builds social online games that straddle the virtual and real worlds. One of her projects, called World Without Oil, put gamers in a scenario where they had to come up with inventive ways to exist on a planet that had run out of fossil fuels. Players had to make changes to their real lives and then post about them online to advance in the game. Most of the 1,700 people who participated in that game have kept up with the changes they've made to their lives since the game was launched in 2007, she said.

Her next project, called "Evoke: a crash course in changing the world," which debuted here at TED on Thursday and will kick off on March 3, is produced by the World Bank Institute. It pairs up mentors in the developed world with players in Africa. The goal: inspire a generation of young, African entrepreneurs to chase their dreams - by making them think they're playing a game that's fun and collaborative, and where the chance of success is realistic.

"We can make any future we imagine and we can play any games we want," she said. "So I say let the world-changing games begin."

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Filed under: Gaming • TED2010


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February 11, 2010

TED 2010: How cell phones will change the world

Posted: 03:38 PM ET
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Sometimes simple and cheap technologies are best.

That was my take-away from a chat with Tero Ojanpera, a senior vice-president at Nokia. I caught up with him on Wednesday evening at the TED Conference here in Long Beach, California.

Ojanpera does a lot of work these days with mobile phones in the developing world. In places like rural India or sub-Saharan Africa, phones that cost $20 are better than those that cost $200. That's partly because they're more affordable, but it's also because mobile phone developers in those places there don't create complicated, high-power smartphone apps. They make applications with what they've got: text messages.

Those text messages are able to do some pretty amazing things.

With cheap mobile phone, farmers in Africa can get crop prices, so they don't get ripped off when middlmen buyers come to their villages and offer low rates for their goods. Kids in India can learn English through text-message-based applications. People and rural places can communicate with doctors in bigger cities. They can access info about diseases through text message apps, too.

Mobile phones are connecting some villages to the outside world for the first time, Ojanpera said. Landline phones and the Internet require more infrastructure and haven't made it everywhere.

In bigger cities, mobile phones are being employed for new kinds of storytelling. Ojanpera said Nokia is collaborating on a new show with Tim Kring, the creator of the TV series "Heroes." The new show won't be on TV - it will be played out in the real world. People will use their phones to take pictures of posters or other branded objects. Then video clips will play for them. Sounds funky, and I'm a bit hazy on the details. He wouldn't say what the name of the program would be or when exactly it would debut. But it sounds like it could be part of a techie shift for the TV industry.

"It's completely new," he said. "It's going to blow your mind."

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Filed under: cell phones • TED2010


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February 10, 2010

Four worthy ideas from TED2010

Posted: 07:13 PM ET

Hi there from the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. This is one of the brainiest and most eclectic gatherings around - a chance for the world's big thinkers to swap ideas about how to make all of our lives better.

The conference format is simple: 30 or so people give presentations, each only 18 minutes long. Then those talks - which are far better than most corporate PowerPoints - are posted online at TED's Web site.

Outside the main stage, about a half-dozen conference sponsors have set up exhibits. I took a quick tour on Wednesday, the first day of the conference. Here's my take on some of the best ideas I heard floating around the halls here:

Data makes you healthy: It's no secret that many of us are collecting unprecedented amounts of digital data about our lives. We post to social networks, track our finances and, increasingly, upload information about where we are and what we're doing.

That data has the power to improve our health, said Paul Tarini, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit supporting digital health initiatives.

Tarini said acts as simple as stepping on the scale each morning and recording the results can help people better understand their health and wellbeing. He said such data knowledge is only in the "first generation" for now, but he expects health data collection to become standardized. And we'll likely share all of our vital signs with doctors, so we can spot problems before they start nagging at our health.

Two sites he said are worth checking out: Patients Like Me and dLife. Let me know what you think of those.

Entrepreneurs will rebuild Haiti: Carl Schramm, CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, said the best way for the West to help rebuild Haiti is to encourage Haitian entrepreneurship.

Haitian people need to realize their own potential to start and own businesses, he said, in order to rebound from the earthquake and build a more stable nation.

Business development should be encouraged, and we shouldn't all expect magical results overnight, he said.

"The Ford Motor Company did not drop with 400,000 employees out of space," he said.

Pocket ultrasounds: Medical technology that once filled rooms at hospitals now can fit in a doctor's pocket, said Linda Boff, spokeswoman for GE. Her company is coming out with a smartphone-sized ultrasound device called V-Scan, which will be available within two weeks. She expects that device - and a forthcoming mobile EKG device - to change rural medicine in the U.S. and in developing countries.

She didn't offer details on the price of the V-Scan but said the ability to diagnose and treat illnesses at a remote clinic rather than only in major cities will save money.

$3 coffee: If people were willing to pay $3 for a cup of coffee instead of $2, coffee growers' lives in the developing world would be forever changed, said Doug Zell, CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee.

That may seem self-serving, but Zell said coffee consumers should ask questions about where their brew originates, and how much of their money is actually going back to the developing world.

He believes this kind of consumer consciousness - and our desire to root out coffee stories, from source to store - will help make the world a better place.

"I don't think a lot of people know where coffee comes from," he said.

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Filed under: health • TED2010


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Gaming with the flu is not much fun

Posted: 01:07 PM ET
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Getting laid out with the flu didn’t really fill me with a desire for gaming even though I had plenty of time off. However, there were moments of lucidity where I grabbed a controller just to see what was out there.

A demo released this past weekend for “Battlefield: Bad Company 2” gave me just enough adrenaline and held my interest long enough before the flu meds kicked in. It is a simple enough “sight target over weapon and shoot” game that was fun to try.

But the really cool element is the destructible environment that makes any cover you might find disappears under withering enemy fire. In the demo scenario, my team was tasked to destroy two objectives, but we were blocked by armored vehicles at a choke point in the road.

Armed with my rocket-propelled launcher, I rushed behind a cement barricade for cover and got off my first shot for a hit. Ducking down, I figured I had plenty of time to reload, but the tanks began hammering away at the barricade and destroyed it – leaving me completely in the open.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in other scenarios, but it is a fun element for the game.

I also found out that there is a new Legos game on the horizon. “Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars” is centered around the animated series and will feature many of the same characters, but in typical blocky form. There will be some new features added to the game and the release is expected to follow the “Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4”, which is due out in May.

There is also word that Electronic Arts may be benching its college basketball game. When EA released its fiscal year 2011 schedule, there were some notable omissions including the lack of the NCAA Basketball series. There were also no Rock Band titles on the list, but “Green Day: Rock Band” was recently featured at the VGAs so it will be intriguing to see where this comes from.

Finally, did you see there was a video game commercial in the Super Bowl? “Dante’s Inferno” took the big commercial stage with a relatively tame (for a game that has gotten a lot of hype about nudity and violence) ad featuring the protagonist during a fall into Hell.

I can’t remember the last time a single video game got one of the coveted spots during the Super Bowl. A smart play or a Hail Mary pass?

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • video games


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February 9, 2010

When Google Chat makes for a good interview

Posted: 01:13 PM ET

I love moments when technology enables you to do something you couldn't otherwise.

I was reminded of this last week when Google's video chat helped me interview Ken Harrenstien, a Google software engineer who has been deaf since childhood.

I first met Ken at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. There, we talked through a sign interpreter, which was fine. But I found myself getting confused. Ken speaks clearly, so his words and the sign language translator's interpretations of them got jumbled up in my mind. They spoke in a sort of syncopation.

I found myself concentrating more on how things were being said - "Did they say that in the same way?" - than the substance of the interview. Plus, I always think questions make more sense if they come directly from their source, rather than passed through a translator.

Cue the video chat.

When I got back to Atlanta, I had several follow-up questions I wasn't able to get to in our face-to-face interview, so I contacted Ken through Google's chat program. He had told me that the text part of the Internet was very liberating for him. With e-mail and chat, he could communicate with anyone. No need for translation. That's primarily how he communicates with co-workers at Google, he said.

Ken  set up a Web cam so that I could see how he reacted to my questions. I tried to do the same, but had technical trouble that prevented my image from going through. I was worried about how things would go, but it turned out to be better than I could have expected. The video feed let me see Ken's face as he reacted to my questions. His face scrunched up in surprised, for instance, when I asked about how he became deaf, or whether he saw deafness as an empowering quality (he does). I could also hear him typing, so I knew not to keep pestering him with questions.

The format gave him time to think through his answers. And both of us were sure what the other had meant to say.

He told me that deafness acts as "social filter" at times. He appreciates it when people take the effort to learn sign language, or to communicate through writing.

The Internet just makes it easier for someone to make that effort.

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About this blog

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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