SciTechBlog
April 22, 2010

Dear Facebook: What about 'dislike' and 'go away?'

Posted: 08:28 AM ET

Is my writing that bad?

When I wrote about the fact that Facebook is scattering "like" buttons all over the Internet, several of you commented that you wish there was a "dislike" button.

Zing!

But I don't take it personally. In fact, that's a really good point.

Maybe Facebook is being too sunny in thinking the only information a person would want to share with friends is the fact that he or she "likes" something.

In a speech in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the "like" button is simple and convenient. That's one reason he's making a push to get it all over the Internet, not just on Facebook.com.

But to like or not to like? Maybe it's reductive not to give users that choice, as some of you pointed out.

Here's a look at some of my favorite "don't like" (and otherwise negative) comments on the story about Facebook's quest to sprinkle the web with cheer:

**FB has to come w/ something new, things are getting old out there. How about an " annoying" "Go away" " leave me alone" "not interested" "dislike" "no thanks" buttons. That would help... So all over the web will have this annoying feature.

**All of a sudden the drive to add a "dislike" button has become much more important.

**I just dropped facebook this morning. this is the definition of 'TMI'

**Only a 10-year-old or a complete fool would ever use Facebook again.

**The internet default will be social? And what if I don't want to socialize?

Others have had similar thoughts. If you use the web browser Firefox, you can  download a plug-in that gives you access to a "dislike" button.

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Filed under: Facebook • social-networking sites


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April 21, 2010

Geek Out!: Considering the lost iPhone

Posted: 03:14 PM ET
Gizmodo got the iPhone
Gizmodo got the iPhone

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.

When it comes to shiny gadgets, there are some constants that geeks should all be aware of:

1. Your new thing will be outdated in months when the next new thing comes out, and it will be faster, sexier and cheaper than your current thing.

2. There will always be rumors of the next new thing from Apple.

The rumors begin months, sometimes years, before Apple announces an actual device. There were rumors of an Apple phone years before it came out. An Apple tablet device like the iPad is a similarly old rumor.

With each announcement, speculation about the next version begins before the freshly removed cellophane on the current model has had time to float to the floor.

Some prognosticators are better than others, because they have a better idea of what is most likely - usually not because of any real secret insight from within Apple. Apple is notorious for their tight security (the KGB and CIA could take lessons).

So it was utterly unbelievable that not only had a new Apple device been spotted in the wild, but that a site as well known as Gizmodo had their hands all over it.

It was amazing that Gizmodo was talking about it and had even torn the thing apart for the morbid amusement of many a fanboy.

In the meantime, the revelations about the device weren't too shocking for those already speculating about the device:

  • A flash for the camera on the back of the phone was an obvious inclusion (it's lack has been a major oversight in many opinions).
  • A larger battery is a surprise to almost no one. And it'll probably last even longer than its increase in size would imply.
  • A higher resolution display would also be an obvious addition. And might foretell HD video capture for the camera (putting the iPhone as a stronger competitor for devices like the Flip Cam).
  • But the overall design was somewhat surprising. The iconic iPhone has evolved into a sleek, less curved, device with a metal band around the perimeter. Solid metal buttons for volume. The SIM card slot has been moved to the side, and now apparently uses the same micro-SIM used in the iPad 3G being released at the end of this month.

    Will the micro-SIMs be swappable between the iPad and the new iPhone? The iPad offers 250MB or unlimited data monthly plans with no contract from AT&T. I suspect it will be locked down somehow.

    The back of the device seems to be different as well. Speculation seems to point to an Apple patent for a ceramic case, which is transparent to electromagnetic waves used by WiFi and cellular devices.

    Probably the biggest surprise is a forward-facing camera in addition to the standard rear camera. The only obvious purpose for this will be for video chatting. but just as the accelerometer was applied to unforeseen applications, don't be surprised at the uses some developers may put the new camera (control apps with the wave of your hand).

    Apple requested, and received, the device back, which all but proves that it is a legitimate Apple produced device. But is it a final design? Many companies produce several different designs for new products. Is this the final configuration for the device?

    The iPad has a space for a forward facing camera, but one wasn't included in the released product. Will this delay the release of the new product? Doubtful as Apple likes to keep to their timetables.

    And more importantly, will the poor engineer who lost the phone in the first place ever be released from Apple purgatory? Will his career ever advance beyond mop-pusher? Will he be re-located to Apple’s secret research facility at the South Pole?

    What do you think, fellow Apple geeks?

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    Filed under: Geek Out!


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    Hey, is that avatar lying to me?

    Posted: 11:34 AM ET

    Consider this scenario, which a researcher at Stanford's Virtual-Human Interaction Lab proposed to me this week:

    You're a college student. You have a class in a big lecture hall. And, 90 percent of the time, your professor looks right at you - gazes straight into your eyes.

    How would you feel? Engaged? Creeped out? Like you had to pay attention because you weren't just part of the masses anymore?

    Then, what if you also knew that the professor wasn't just looking at you -  that, because you're in virtual reality, your avatar professor can look at every student at the same time?

    Would you care that this spider-eye capability means your professor's attention towards you isn't truly genuine?

    Maybe not, says Kathryn Segovia, lab manager at this futuristic research office.

    "If you're in a one-on-one context, it's harder to fade into the crowd," she said.

    This scenario underscores what Segovia says is a big debate in virtual-reality research: Is it OK for avatars (digital representations of people) to be deceptive?

    Consider some more examples.

    On a tour of her cramped lab at Stanford on Monday, Segovia showed me a face-recognition program that turns you into someone else in the digital world.

    I'm a white guy, but with a few clicks, a 3-D version of my face became a white woman, and then a black man.

    And it's easy to take virtual-reality deception further than gender and race.

    Segovia also demoed a feature that put the virtual version of me on auto-pilot, based on my past movements. So, say I was in a virtual meeting and wanted a cup of coffee. The digital me could act as a moving, note-taking placeholder while I went away.

    But tying avatars to our real-world movement may make them less deceptive.

    Will Steptoe at University College London conducted a study that showed avatars with human-like eye movements - which were tied to a real person's eye movements with eye-tracking technology - were easier to catch in a lie.

    Those with stationary, mannequin eyes could lie to people more easily.

    (Check out this New Scientist video on the subject).

    But there's still plenty of room for deception.

    "It's very hard to tell when someone is portraying a genuine version of themselves [in a virtual world]," Segovia said.

    The question is: Does that matter? Is it OK, or even powerful, to become another person online? Or is all this mask-wearing bad for us in the long run?

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    Filed under: avatars • Stanford University • virtual reality


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    In defense of supercomputing

    Posted: 11:00 AM ET

    I visited the seventh-fastest computer in the world today, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, about an hour east of San Francisco, California.

    At first, I thought the idea of "supercomputing" seemed pretty 1990s. Supercomputers fill enormous rooms, suck down gobs of power and don't seem quite as sexy these days as tech that can fit in your hand.

    And seventh-fastest? I mean, it's not first.

    But, on a tour of the federally funded lab, Brian Carnes, one of the managers of this supercomputer, taught me a thing or two.

    First of all, the stats were impressive:

    _ One computer network here can do more than 700 trillion math problems in a second
    _ The computer sits on an area that's nearly the size of a football field

    More important, perhaps, are the applications the supercomputer supports.

    [Side note: I can't vouch for all that's going on on these whirring machines because much of it is classified and signs all around the computer area remind employees not to tell visitors too much: "Unclassified discussions only," one sign read].

    Some scientists at this lab use huge equations and mounds of data to try to predict what our warming climate will look like in the future. The computer crunches those. Others are trying to predict what will happen to the country's nuclear weapons stockpiles as they age - which is a safety issue, Carnes says, regardless of your stance on nukes.

    The lab here is in an arms race of its own these days.

    By 2012, it plans to add a new computer to the system, called "Sequoia."

    Then, Carnes and others hope, the lab will have the world's fastest computer.

    That means more math problems per second. More scientific research.

    And another point for bragging rights.

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    Filed under: climate change • computers • data centers


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    What will Facebook announce today?

    Posted: 10:48 AM ET
    World Record holder
    World Record holder

    CNN.com will be reporting today from Facebook's annual f8 conference in San Francisco, California, where the social network is expected to announce changes to its site.

    The changes may integrate Facebook further into the Web at large, and make mobile phone applications for Facebook more useful.

    Here's what bloggers and tech writers are looking for:

    Universal "like" button: Facebook's "like" feature lets users show their interest in Facebook photos and status updates. The site may push that feature all over the Web, helping it aggregate data about its users' preferences outside Facebook.

    "Place" feature: Right now, you can tell Facebook friends what you're doing, but there's no easy way to tell them where you are, based on our phone's GPS location. That may change if Facebook adds a "place" feature. It might look like Foursquare, the app that lets users "check in" to bars, restaurants and the like, alerting friends to their whereabouts.

    Competition with Google, others: On Monday, Facebook announced a new feature called "Community Pages," which, as CNET writes, is part Google and part Wikipedia. These pages let Facebookers congregate around certain interests, like cooking, for example, instead of only around brands and products, as is currently possible. The Community Pages are editable, kind of like Wikipedia, and they could become hubs for topic-specific info, kind of like Google.

    I'll be at the Facebook event today, which begins at 10 a.m. PT. Check our Twitter feed, @cnntech, for the latest, and watch CNN.com/tech for all of the details.

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    Filed under: Facebook


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    April 20, 2010

    'Geek Out!:' Technology and the supernatural on 'Lost' island

    Posted: 02:17 PM ET
    Miles can hear dead people
    Miles can hear dead people

    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.

    When "Lost" began, Charlie, after encountering just a few of the many strange things about the island where the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 crash-landed, asked one of the series' central questions: "Where are we?"

    Now, with just a few episodes to go, we're a lot closer to figuring out the answer and getting explanations for some of the bizarre occurrences on the island.

    So let's talk bizarre occurrences. "Lost" characters experience walking, talking dead people in a few different ways - they can see them, feel their presence, hear them in a flurry of whispers and sometimes have long conversations with them.

    At this point, we know that a lot of that can be attributed to the Smoke Monster, or the Man in Black... but not all of it.

    One character often visited by friends who are no longer living is Hurley. Whether on or off the island, deceased people from his past visit and usually have very strong opinions on what he should do next.

    Then there's Miles, who in a flashback from Season Four, was seen working as a medium for hire, exorcising spirits or getting them in touch with dead loved ones. He even uses a strange vacuum-like device at one point, though his abilities have more to do with getting information from dead bodies.

    How do these portrayals of ghosts compare to the beliefs of those with interest in the supernatural - and who are using high-tech means to try to prove (or disprove) its existence?

    "Lost" fan Dan Bernstein of Roswell, Georgia Paranormal Investigations (a "family member" of The Atlantic Paranormal Society or TAPS, made famous by the TV series "Ghost Hunters"), said the two are different kinds of mediums: "Hurley has what would be described as having a 'clairvoyance' ability – which allows him to see and communicate directly with the spirit as if they were there with him."

    As for Miles, he has a "clairsentience" ability, according to Bernstein, meaning he can sense them, instead of communicate with them directly.

    "You often see him touching something belonging to or close to the body of the deceased and he then senses their last thoughts before death."

    Their cases would certainly be seen as out of the ordinary to the real-world paranormal investigations community. Bernstein says that most people don't have such abilities.

    He does maintain, though, that ghosts can be observed as sounds, disembodied voices or, on rare occasions, as full-body apparitions or "shadow people."

    Paranormal investigators often use electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors to look for evidence of ghosts.

    "With EMFs, the thought is that in order for paranormal activity to occur, the entity needs to draw energy in order to manifest itself," said Bernstein.

    He said sensors are normalized in an area and that their readings spike when there's paranormal activity.

    Skeptics say there is no evidence that such instruments can be used to detect supernatural phenomena.

    Bernstein's response: "Our team never relies solely on EMF readings as evidence of the paranormal," instead taking other occurences into account as well.

    Electromagnetic phenomena should be very familiar to fans of “Lost.” The island’s special electromagnetic qualities are the main reason for the Dharma Initiative that Charles Widmore and others are so interested in it.

    In the scientific community, however, real studies of electromagnetism are not fraught with peril, danger and mystery as portrayed on the show.

    Gregory Durgin, an associate professor at the School of Electrical Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, researches electromagnetism, often using an electromagnetic spectrum analyzer to chart activity.

    "It has a lot of interesting applications: is the area safe for people to be in? Every company that has an electronic device has to look at that," he said.

    "Lost's" island has extremely high levels of electromagnetism, which must be contained - the Dharma Initiative worked tirelessly to do so when they were there performing experiments.

    When it was unleashed, the magnetism was so strong it caused a plane to crash.

    How dangerous can electromagnetism actually be?

    “The government regulations are pretty conservative... some frequencies are more dangerous than others," said Durgin. "You would be a lot more concerned about a watt of ultraviolet light coming down on you than a watt of radio frequency… once you surpass those exposure limits you still need some pretty prolonged exposure to get into a danger zone."

    What about when unusually high levels are found somewhere? Is this seen as something unexplained - supernatural or otherwise?

    “Usually when you see a lot of electromagnetic strength, you’ve gotta find out what piece of equipment is causing it and fix what is causing it. If it’s more of a mysterious source, you have to grab your equipment and drive around and ferret out that source," he said.

    He said the "unexplained" sources often end up being unlicensed radiators used for pirate radio stations and the like. Then, the FCC gets contacted instead of, say, entering a set of numbers into a computer every 108 minutes.

    As for electromagnetism behaving the way it does on "Lost?" "Magnetism in nature has a diverse and complicated physics, but there is always one universal property that we observe: it’s extremely weak," Durgin said.

    He does, however, hold out the possibility of the existence of "magnetic charges," a purely hypothetical particle in physics: "If magnetic charges existed, many of the island phenomena would be plausible."

    So why is electromagnetism portrayed in such a way on "Lost" and other movies and TV shows? According to Durgin, “If people can't see it in their mind it takes on a more mysterious or dangerous quality."

    Whether you choose to believe or not, it certainly seems that “Lost” executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have done their homework when it comes to modern day thought about the paranormal.

    As for scientific studies into electromagnetism, however, a lot of what we see on the show still exists only in the realm of theory.

    Join us every Tuesday as “Geek Out!” dwells on the geekiest aspects of one of our favorite television shows. In the meantime, we invite you to sound off on ghosts and the supernatural on “Lost” in the comments below, and share your wish list for the series finale on video.

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    Filed under: Geek Out!


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    3G iPad goes on sale April 30

    Posted: 11:23 AM ET

    The 3G version of the iPad, which connects to the Internet over AT&T's wireless network, will go on sale in the U.S. on April 30, Apple announced Tuesday.

    The suggested retail price is $629 for 16GB, $729 for 32GB and $829 for 64GB.

    The Wi-Fi + 3G model is priced higher than the Wi-Fi-only model released in the U.S. on April 3 because its 3G capability will allow users to surf the Web without a Wi-Fi connection.

    Customers who have not pre-ordered a 3G iPad will have to wait until 5 p.m. on April 30 to get their hands on the new model.

    “Apple retail stores will offer a free Personal Setup service to every customer who buys an iPad at the store,” according to the company's press release.

    All versions of the iPad will go on sale at the end of May in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the UK, Apple said.

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    Filed under: Apple • iPad


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    Real fear in a virtual world

    Posted: 09:41 AM ET

    So, I walked up to a virtual pit.

    It was maybe 30 feet deep. With a wood plank crossing it.

    Somewhere deep down in my rational brain, I knew the hole wasn't real - that it was a virtual reality scenario in a cramped office at Stanford University, where the floor seemed completely pit-free until I put on a clunky piece of hardware called a "headmount."

    But that headmount changed everything.

    Using a system of cameras, ultraviolet lights and an "inertia cube," the headmount - which looks sort of like a cross between sunglasses and a hard hat - knew right where I was and where I was looking. It fed that info to a computer, which put a realistic virtual display in front of my eyes.

    The result looked like a video game version of the room I had just been standing in.

    Only with a big - and really believable - hole in the center.

    Kathryn Segovia, a PhD student and manager of the Virtual-Human Interaction Lab here, asked me to walk towards the pit and then cross it on the plank.

    My pulse quickened. I felt the kind of nerves you do before a big drop on a roller coaster, or that tingle in your stomach you get when walking on the roof of a building.

    Segovia says people have real, emotional reactions to virtual reality. Some become ill. Others fall. And, increasingly, it's becoming apparent that virtual experiences can impact who we are out here in real life. Researchers in her lab, for instance, have shown that people who watch themselves exercise in virtual reality are more likely to do so in real life, she said. And those who watch lifelike avatars eat healthy virtual foods are more likely to make healthy eating choices later.

    This leads to all kinds of possible scenarios, where virtual environments could be used to help with a person's fear of heights, or help someone with an eating disorder. The real world informs how we design virtual reality, and how we act in virtual realms, she says, but the virtual can also change the real.

    And it seems the two are becoming less distinct.

    Back in front of the gaping hole, I walked across the plank without much problem. But I was surprised by how real it felt, how I used my arms to steady my balance and actually worried a bit about falling.

    Then things got even weirder.

    In round two of this virtual gut-check, Segovia put other "virtual humans" in the scenario with me - a bunch of concerned-looking men in blue shirts.

    As they entered through a virtual door, I felt their eyes on me. I started to wave "hello" to them (yeah, I'm that lame), but, much to my real dismay, they started running. Then, one by one, just like lemmings, they jumped into the pit - to their virtual deaths.

    I actually wanted to try to stop them. But it happened so fast.

    Segovia, who was controlling this scenario from the outside, and seemed much less concerned about these pixel people than me, asked me to walk out on the plank and look down at the digital wreckage.

    I steadied myself and walked to the center of the plank, over the virtual hole. I saw a tangle of those "agents," as researchers call computer-controlled virtual people, at the bottom of the pit - splayed out like virtual stew.

    There was no gore to it, but it was actually disturbing. I wanted to get away, so I scurried off the plank.

    So fast, in fact, that Segovia had to put out a hand to stop me.

    I was about to run into a real wall.

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    Filed under: CNN Labs • emerging tech • Stanford University • virtual reality


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    April 19, 2010

    Next-generation iPhone found in a bar, blog says

    Posted: 03:11 PM ET

    It looks like Apple employees should be keeping their top-secret, next-generation iPhones out of bars.

    In a post simply titled "This is Apple's next iPhone," tech blog Gizmodo on Monday showed video of a phone they say is almost certainly a version of the smartphone due to be released this summer.

    The phone was found in a bar in Redwood City, California, about 20 miles from Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, according to the post by Gizmodo's Jason Chen with reporting help from several other staffers.

    "We're as skeptical - if not more - than all of you. We get false tips all the time," the post read. "But after playing with it for about a week - the overall quality feels exactly like a finished final Apple phone - and disassembling this unit, there is so much evidence stacked in its favor, that there's very little possibility that it's a fake."

    According to the post, the phone had been camouflaged to look like a currently available iPhone.

    The Gizmodo post says the phone they found has the following features:

    _ flash for its camera
    _ a front-facing camera for video chatting
    _ higher-resolution display
    _ a metallic band wrapping around the outside, with metallic volume buttons
    _ a flat back, with a glass-like clear panel and thinner body than the current iPhone
    _ a bigger battery

    Gizmodo obviously wasn't offering too many details about how they got their hands on the phone.

    But in the post, Chen wrote that the person who found it was able to run Apple's new iPhone 4.0 operating system before that system was officially announced last week.

    Apple remotely killed the phone's operating system before Gizmodo got their hands on it, he wrote.

    The find was being widely considered the real deal in the tech world.

    "At this point we’re pretty much certain it is this summer’s new model," wrote Wired magazine. "Somebody at Apple is in big trouble."

    Tech blog Engadget posted photos Saturday from a tipster showing a phone similar to the one Gizmodo displayed.

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    Filed under: iPhone • smartphones


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    Facebook 'likes' the whole Web

    Posted: 12:29 PM ET
    World Record holder
    World Record holder

    Facebook's "like" button is about to get more prevalent on the Web, according to news reports.

    The Financial Times and The New York Times report that the social networking giant - with 400 million users worldwide - will push its "like" feature onto other Web sites, enabling users to share preferences for news stories, Web sites and products more easily.

    Currently, Facebook users click the "like" button on Facebook.com to alert their online friends that they find a certain status update, photo or other Facebook item interesting. The reported change would put that functionality on many other Web sites, too, linking a person's preferences for all kinds of things into the Facebook social network.

    That's similar to another branch-out feature called Facebook Connect, which lets people sign into other Web sites by using their Facebook name and password.

    The announcement is expected to come at Facebook's annual developer conference, called f8, which will be held in San Francisco on Wednesday.

    The Financial Times wrote that the "like" functionality would let Facebook "use data from these interactions to target them with related adverts once they return to Facebook.com." In a response sent to the newspaper, Facebook says it will make no changes to its ad policies at f8.

    “All the products we are launching at f8 are focused on giving developers and entrepreneurs ways to make the Web more social,” the Facebook spokesperson told The Financial Times. “We have no announcements or changes planned to our ad offering and policies.”

    Nytimes.com says Facebook's "like" feature will compete with a social media toolbar promoted by a group of Web companies, including Google and Meebo.

    The move is part of an effort by Facebook to dominate the social Web by being everywhere - kind of like Starbucks - instead of just in one place, writes the tech blog Mashable, in a post titled "Facebook 'likes' world domination."

    The discussion comes amid controversy about Facebook's proposed changes to its privacy settings. Sophos, a security company, says 95 percent of Facebook users are dissatisfied with the proposed changes, according to a 680-person survey of the company's online readers.

    Sophos describes the proposed privacy-setting changes in this way:

    … if you're logged into Facebook and then visit a third party website, that site will be able to access the following:
    • your name
    • your profile picture
    • your gender
    • your friends and connections
    • your user ID
    • any content shared using the "Everyone" privacy setting

    Other observers expect Facebook to release details on a new feature called "place," which could let Facebook users tell their online friends where they are in addition to what they're doing. Such "location-based" features have been popularized by other sites, like Gowalla and Foursquare.

    You can find all the details about Facebook's proposed changes here. Take a read and let us know what you think. Also, check back on this site and on our Twitter feed for updates from the f8 conference on Wednesday.

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    Filed under: Facebook


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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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