SciTechBlog
March 26, 2010

Geek Out!: An old friend (or foe) in 'How to Train Your Dragon'

Posted: 03:39 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

“Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup!” - slithery twist on a "Lord of the Rings" quotation

Through the years, we’ve come to know dragons as both friend and foe in literature and movies.

From Smaug, the riddle-spouting dragon who terrorized Lake Town in "The Hobbit," to Elliott, the overgrown, grinning dragon in “Pete’s Dragon" - and now Toothless, the lead dragon in "How to Train Your Dragon," the animated, 3-D movie released Friday - we love to geek out over our dragons.

We collect miniatures of them, play games with "dragon" in the name, read books about dragons and even have an entire convention with dragon in the name [Atlanta's DragonCon].

Fearsome, but often misunderstood, dragons always have played an important role in geek culture, working their way into our collective psyche. So, how do the dragons of today stack up to dragons of the past?

Let’s examine a few of the “top dragons.”

Draco in “Dragonheart” only wants to be left alone and not forced to become part of the evil boy-king’s life, literally. It turns out that the smooth-talking, last remaining dragon isn’t so bad after all.

In "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Eustace Scrubb, a boy-turned-dragon, becomes a good guy [dragon] instead of the bully he was when he was human.

The dragons in the Harry Potter series are probably the fiercest of the modern dragons - the Chinese Firebolt, the Hungarian Horntail and the Norwegian Ridgeback. They are bred for fighting with very few redeeming qualities. [The obvious exception, of course, being Norbert, the dragon that Hagrid hatched from an egg.]

There is Saphira, the main dragon in the Inheritance cycle ["Eragon," "Eldest" and "Brisingr"] a kindly, loyal dragon that will fight to the death to keep her rider safe.

The newest dragon on the scene is Toothless from “How To Train Your Dragon”.

He’s feared by the Vikings until a young boy manages to show them that not only is Toothless a good dragon, but that all the others are as well.

The nice thing about seeing a movie on opening day, early in the morning, is that you get the theater all to yourself. In this case that was a good thing, since I found myself gasping and laughing out loud at the antics of the dragons in “How To Train Your Dragon”. Toothless has definitely become a top dragon on my list.

The dragons of today may be getting slightly cute and cuddly. But I’m still hiding all the bottles of ketchup just to be safe.

What do you think? Who are your favorite dragons of the past and today?

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Movies • pop culture


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A new look at spam, by the numbers

Posted: 12:35 PM ET

Some news from Twitter this week could leave you with the impression that spam is becoming a dinosaur of the Web.

As of February, slightly less than 1 percent of posts on the micro-blogging site were unwanted spam, according to a blog written by Twitter's chief scientist, Abdur Chowdhury.

Not too long ago, spam was more rampant on the site, according to an info-graphic published by Twitter. In August of 2009, for example, nearly 11 percent of all Twitter posts were spam.

So, maybe this means we're getting past the era of computer-generated messages and malicious and trickster ads?

A look at the broader picture reveals we're not even close.

A whopping 9 out of 10 e-mail messages are still unsolicited, according to this helpful chart (.pdf) published by New Scientist.

The chart shows a number of fluctuations over the years, but an overall increase in spam since late 2006, when hackers started developing "botnets" of "zombie computers" that can send spam and malicious software out for them.

In June 2009, the average e-mail account received more than 100 spam messages per day, according to the chart.

A recent 3,000-person e-mail survey found nearly half of people continue to click on these messages, even if they know spam is a problem, The Toronto Sun reports.

And there's some evidence that social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, are "easy targets" for spammers. Sophos' "Security Threat Report: 2010," released in January, says online social networks are becoming a bigger part of Internet users' lives, so it's only natural that they would be big targets for spammers, too. (via CNET)

"Spam is now common on social networking sites, and social engineering—trying to trick users to reveal vital data, or persuading people to visit dangerous web links—is on the rise," the report says. (full report: PDF)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a Web page with tips for how people can reduce and avoid spam, but the agency acknowledges that "you will probably not be able to eliminate it." Among its more-helpful tips: Create an extra e-mail account that you use to sign up for mailing lists and register for Web sites; and don't let your e-mail account automatically download image attachments for you, since those can identify your account to spammers.

Security experts also recommend people create new passwords for all of the Web sites they register with.

Twitter has posted a number of tips for reducing spam on its site, too. Among them: Report spam messages by sending a note to the Twitter's @spam account; or select the "report for spam" option from a drop-down menu on a problematic Twitter account's page (the menu is hidden behind an icon that looks like a gear wheel).

Do you get more spam than you used to? What's the funniest spam message you've ever gotten?

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Filed under: Security • spam • technology • Twitter


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Man suspected of cracking Twitter accounts: 'I'm a nice hacker'

Posted: 10:42 AM ET

The man accused of cracking a Twitter database and peeking at the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama and Britney Spears said this week that he didn't mean harm, according to a French TV station.

He aimed to prove Twitter is vulnerable to attack.

"I'm not a hacker, or rather, I'm a nice hacker," he said, according to the France 3 station. (via AP)

The man, who is known by the nickname "Hacker Croll," is accused of stealing confidential documents from Twitter employees, and of looking in on the Twitter accounts of the U.S. president and celebrities, according to news reports. He was arrested on Tuesday by French police in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. If convicted of hacking into a database, he could face up to two years in jail, according to the Agence-France Presse news agency.

The ordeal caught the public's attention in July, when a man calling himself Hacker Croll sent confidential documents from Twitter employees to the technology blog TechCrunch, which decided to publish some of the stolen documents.

What do you think about Hacker Croll's statement? Is there anything laudable about breaking into a system to uncover its faults? Can a person actually be a "good hacker?" Let us know in the comments section.

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Filed under: hacking • piracy • Security • technology • Twitter


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Geek Out!: New Nintendo handheld goes for bigger, better

Posted: 10:02 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's Marquee and SciTech blogs

Is bigger better?  Or is it just bigger?  Nintendo is banking that their latest handheld console – the DSi XL – will be both.

The Nintendo DSi XL is similar in many ways to its little brother, the DSi.  The configuration of the buttons and screens are the same as are the camera tools, Internet connections and available software.

 What sets the two apart is the size.  The XL version is 93 percent larger than the regular handhelds.  The new screens measure 4.2 inches diagonally and the closed unit grew to 6.3 inches wide by 3.6 inches tall.

 Nintendo is counting on the increased size to promote family fun.  With the smaller DSi, gamers hunched over their consoles to focus in on the action on little screens. 

With larger screens and an improved wider viewing angle, Nintendo hopes to make it easier for friends and family to watch and join in on the game.

 “For some people, good things come in big packages,” Nintendo executive vice president Cammie Dunaway said. “This new portable system really lets players enjoy the fun together.”

 The XL comes pre-loaded with three titles: "Brain Age Express: Math," "Brain Age Express: Arts & Letters," and "Photo Clock."  Nintendo is also releasing 2 new titles at the same time, "America’s Test Kitchen: Let’s Get Cooking" and "WarioWare: D.I.Y.," which it hopes will highlight the advantages of the larger screen.

 I got my hands on the new XL and it definitely felt better than the smaller version.  It felt solid and didn’t feel like it was going to snap apart in my hands [not that I’m a strong guy, but I am destructive].

 There are no new features other than size.  But the size difference makes itself felt when you power up the device and load some software. 

 The new screens made it easier on the eyes to enjoy my games.  "Flipnote Studio," a program that allows you to draw and animate, became easier to work on finer details in my art.  Gameplay jumps out of the screen and finesse seems more manageable.

 Nintendo said the DS handheld (Lite and DSi combined) sold 11.2 million systems in 2009 in the U.S. alone.  It said they sold 30 million DS units in Japan during their last fiscal year, so they have a large market to entice with their latest device.

 However, Nintendo just announced that they would be launching a 3-D version of their DS handheld sometime before April 2011.  Will gamers go big or go 3-D? 

 The Nintendo DSi XL will be available on March 28.

UPDATE (Tuesday): Nintendo announced that games on older handheld consoles cannot transfer over to the new DSi XL. The company said DSiWare games and points would have to be repurchased on the new XL console.

Nintendo of America released this statement: "The games and applications are specific to each system, not each user. We’re looking into that specific topic, but we don’t have anything to announce at this time."

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Nintendo • video games


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March 25, 2010

Facebook causes syphilis? The Web smirks

Posted: 03:50 PM ET

Do you think risky behavior and a lack of proper medical attention caused that unfortunate case of syphilis?

Not so fast – a health official in England says it might have been Facebook.

A public health director recently told London’s The Telegraph that a rise in sexually transmitted diseases in his area could be linked to the fact that sites such as Facebook are popular there.

"Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex,” Peter Kelly, director of public health in Teesside, said according to a Wednesday article in the paper.

The story, which appeared in numerous British tabloids, was met with smirks online. Social-networking site Mashable called the report “stretched at best.”

Blog TechCrunch called the story “dubious” in a post titled, “Calm down. Facebook doesn’t cause syphilis.”

Meanwhile, Facebook called the reports ludicrous.

“While it makes for interesting headlines, the assertions made in newspaper reports that Facebook is responsible for the transmission of STDs are ridiculous, exaggerate the comments made by the professor, and ignore the difference between correlation and causation,” said Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes in a written statement.

“As Facebook’s more than 400 million users know, our Web site is not a place to meet people for casual sex – it’s a place for friends, family and coworkers to connect and share.”

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Filed under: Facebook • Internet • social-networking sites


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Polaroid instant film is back ... sort of

Posted: 02:44 PM ET

Fans of tech nostalgia, it's time to rejoice.

Film for Polaroid's old-school instant cameras went out of production in 2008, but a European company has started reproducing certain types of the film again.

A company called "the IMPOSSIBLE project" started selling the instant film on its Web site today. The price is steep, though: $21 for a 8-photo pack that develops in black-and-white.

The black-and-white film works with SX 70 Polaroid cameras from the 1970s.

Color film will be released this summer, according to news reports.

The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog has details on the difficulties of producing the film:

The Impossible Project acquired its namesake because of the complexity of the film, which has six distinct layers, (mask, receiving sheet, developer, negative, rail and mash), with each of those layers comprising of six to 10 components. Additionally, many of the key ingredients and chemicals were no longer available once Kaps and Bosman got working in the factory.

The Associated Press notes that Fujifilm produces other varieties of Polaroid-compatible film, but not this type.

By some accounts, Polaroid is making a bit of a comeback these days. Lada Gaga, the singer and fashion maven, is part of the company's publicity campaign. And Polaroid has come out with digital cameras that print photos on-the-spot, but they haven't taken off the way its vintage instant cameras did.

Even if you don't have an instant camera, there's still plenty of Polaroid entertainment to be had on the Internet these days. Flickr has a robust Polaroid-sharing community, with more than 14,000 members. There's a popular iPhone app that gives mobile-phone photos a Polaroid look (you even get to shake your camera to "develop" the prints).

And, of course, there's always that OutKast video.

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Filed under: photography • Polaroid


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Geek Out!: Happy Tolkien Reading Day!

Posted: 09:50 AM ET
The Fellowship Festival 2004
The Fellowship Festival 2004

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's Marquee and SciTech blogs

Every year since 2003, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tales have gathered on March 25 for meetups at local libraries, schools, universities and elsewhere to celebrate the works of one of the original geek icons.

March 25 is the date that Sauron, the evil overlord, is overthrown in Tolkien's "Return of the King."

It all started when the Tolkien Society, a group dedicated to the "Lord of the Rings" author, were approached by a journalist who asked why there was no day of celebration for Tolkien to match the one for James Joyce.

Thus, Tolkien Reading Day was born.

Each year, there is a different theme for the day (this year it's "Tolkien's Seafarers"). Fans - encouraged to attend in costume, of course - read aloud some of their favorite sections for about ten minutes or less, and participate in "musical interludes." Some people even bring recordings of Tolkien himself giving a reading.

Since the final Oscar-winning film of the "Lord of the Rings" series was released, Tolkien Reading Day has been the main event to bring Tolkien fans back to basics.

One of the most popular forums at Tolkien fansite TheOneRing.net, is "The Reading Room."

Patricia Dawson, a senior staff member with the site, said that the original purpose of the site 11 years ago was to post the latest news about Peter Jackson's films (Jackson, and subsquently, Guillermo Del Toro, have a close relationship with the site). Since then, she said, the site, with its 4,500 message board members, has been even more "grounded in (Tolkien's) works and readings." The aforementioned "Reading Room" is a place for scholarly discussion.

Fans, young and old, flock to Tolkien Reading Day, according to Dawson. Some of them were fans long before the idea of having an online community first came about.

Young children, she said, "do some of the best readings I’ve ever seen." She has even heard of 24-hour reading marathons taking place.

To be sure, the long-awaited "Hobbit" movie is still a big topic among fans online. Del Toro keeps TheOneRing.net visitors aware of the latest developments, including recent "enquires from above" about releasing it in 3-D, in the aftermath of "Avatar."

Until "The Hobbit" hits theaters, however, fans will continue to pay tribute every year to the man who first wrote that book over 70 years ago.

If you stop by your local library today, you might just be get the opportunity to join them.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • pop culture


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March 24, 2010

Digg adds iPhone app, Android on the way

Posted: 04:12 PM ET

Fresh off an announcment that they'll be revamping their popular news-sharing site, Digg on Wednesday went live with a new iPhone app.

The free app is designed to give users a look at the most popular stories on the Web, as chosen by Digg's millions of monthly users.

It lets users browse lists of recent content, rate stories, search for specific topics and save stories to read later.

The app was available Wednesday afternoon in Apple's European store and was expected any time in the U.S., according to a Digg spokeswoman.

Digg will be releasing a similar app for the  Android platform soon and plans updates to the iPhone version based on user feedback, said the spokeswoman.

At the South by Southwest Interactive festival earlier this month, Digg CEO Jay Adelson announced an invitation-only beta of a new version of the site which creators say will be faster, more personalized and allow anyone, not just Digg users, to suggest stories to the site.

Founded in 2004, Digg and similar sites like Reddit [which already has an iPhone app] and Mixx have taken a hit as more people use sites like Facebook and Twitter to share links. But Adelson said Digg still has about 40 million monthly users.

What do you think? Is Digg an app worth picking up?

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Filed under: Digg • iPhone • online news • smartphones


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Wikipedia back up after server meltdown

Posted: 03:07 PM ET

[UPDATE: It appeared that Wikipedia was back online as of about 4:30 p.m. ET.]

Wikipedia was offline Wednesday afternoon after an overheating problem at the online encyclopedia's European data center.

Wikipedia's technical blog said the site's servers shut themselves down to avoid damage from the heat.

Administrators tried to shift traffic to a cluster of servers in Florida, but "it turned out that this failover mechanism was now broken, causing the DNS resolution of Wikimedia sites to stop working globally," according to the blog.

"This problem was quickly resolved, but unfortunately it may take up to an hour before access is restored for everyone, due to caching effects," the blog said.

Trying to access wikipedia.com and wikipedia.org at about 2:45 p.m. ET produced a navigation error message.

One post to Wikipedia's technical blog, by a user named Jimmy, found some humor in the situation: "And so we remember Thursday, March 25, 2010 as the day every English speaking student failed their research papers."

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Filed under: Internet


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Tech 101: What you need to know about Google vs. China

Posted: 12:39 PM ET

Tech news is complicated enough. But throw in some international relations and a heavy dose of spying allegations, and you've got yourself a news story that plenty of people talk about, but few people really understand.

That's the Google vs. China story in a nutshell. But don't check out just yet. This blog is here to help, with answers to several important (and easy-to-digest) questions about the Google-China situation.

Let me know if there are further confusions you'd like to have cleared up. And, if you decide to whip some of these facts out at your next cocktail party, report back on how it goes.

When did Google go into China, and why?

On January 27, 2006, some eight years after Google first incorporated, the San Francisco, California-based search engine decided to launch Google.cn, a Chinese version of its Web site. Google's global Web site - Google.com - had been available in China before that, but it was censored and at times shut down by the Chinese government. It didn't work very well.

China's communist leadership restricts Internet content and political speech, so Google had to agree to censor some of its Internet search results in order to do business in China.

Still, the company argued that its presence in China would help open up the system over time. And the company said its search engine would work better if Google, rather than China, did the filtering.

"Our decision was based on a judgment that Google.cn will make a meaningful - though imperfect - contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China," Elliot Schrage, Google's then-VP of communications, testified in 2006.

Are there financial reasons for Google to be in China, too?

Of course. China has more Web users than any other country in the world - nearly 400 million of them, according to the latest reports. So there is definitely money to be made in China. Google made $300 million in China last year alone, according to CNNMoney. And the Chinese Internet market is expected to grow considerably as the Asian country continues to industrialize.

What happened this week? Did Google pull out of China?

Not exactly. Google said it would stop filtering search results in China. It accomplished this with a logistical change: Search results from mainland China now are directed to Google.hk, a Hong Kong site that isn't filtered, instead of Google.cn, which Google stopped filtering on Monday.

Many people assume China will block Google's unfiltered site. But Google's move put that decision in the Chinese government's hands. The search engine posted a chart, which has been dubbed the "evil meter," where people can see which Google services are currently blocked in China.

As of Wednesday morning, the chart said Web searches remained active in China.

What changed to make Google stop going along with Chinese censorship laws?

Google says Chinese hackers tapped into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and conducted a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure." China denies these claims, but the situation caused Google to promise to stop censoring its results in China unless some kind of new agreement could be arranged between Google and China.

Here's what the company said in a blog post this January:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered - combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web - have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Why would it be a big deal for Google not to be in China?

Some say it could sour U.S.-China relations, although a spokesman for China's foreign ministry says this will not be the case. Others say it could reduce access to information and Web services in China. But one caveat there: Google is not the dominant search engine in China. A site called Baidu is.

There are obvious implications for Google's financial future if it, indeed, does not have a strong foothold in the largest market of Internet searchers in the world. And some analysts says the move could cause China to withdraw further from the Internet and from the globalizing world.

Do regular people in China care about whether Google is there or not?

Academics and business types have complained that their work will become more difficult without Google's search site around. National Public Radio reports that Chinese citizens are referring to Monday, the day Google stopped censoring in China, as "G Day," an apparent reference to the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.

One professor told NPR that Google has "overestimated its importance" in China. "As a researcher and an English-speaking person, I use Google English a lot. But for most Chinese netizens, they don't care about Google Chinese version," Deng Jianguo, an associate professor at Fudan University, told the news organization.

Does Google censor Web content in other countries?

In a word: Yes. Google caters its search site to censorship and privacy laws of countries where it operates. CNNMoney has a good round-up of some of these rules. Among them: In Germany, France and Poland, it's illegal to publish material that denies the Holocaust. So Google filters search results that do so. And in Turkey, videos that the government says mock "Turkishness," are filtered by Google for its Google.com.tr Web site.

That story also provides an important detail about why Google's censorship policies are important:

Google controls nearly two-thirds of the world's search results, making it the Internet gateway for most people. As a result of that clout, Google's censorship policies are closely watched.

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Filed under: China • Google


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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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