SciTechBlog
April 29, 2010

Geek Out!: Dreaming of interplanetary water stations

Posted: 05:32 PM ET
Fueling stations?
Fueling stations?

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.

"This research indicates that not only could asteroids be possible sources of raw materials, but they could be the fueling stations and watering holes for future interplanetary exploration."

That's Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, talking about this morning's news in Nature that signs of water ice and organic compounds have been discovered on an asteroid. See Yeomans' full comments.

This is big news for the scientific community. Previously, scientists believed that asteroids within a certain distance of the sun are too close to the energy of our home star to maintain any water ice. That the asteroid 24 Themis, a mere 297 million miles from the sun, boasts the infrared signatures of both organic compounds and water ice lends credibility to theories that say that Earth's water and other organic compounds were delivered to the planet after its initial geological formation.

But what about the space exploration communities? The other parts of NASA, the people concerned with human spaceflight, don't seem to be reacting to 24 Themis' water news. As Yeomans indicates, the discovery of water ice on a near-Earth object could open up some possibilities for human exploration of the solar system. So why the relative silence?

Maybe it's because lately, it doesn't seem like the United States will ever get to a point where interplanetary exploration is a reality. Right now, the space shuttle is set to retire at the end of 2010 with Endeavour's last mission. President Obama's budget, which allocates more money to NASA for the types of research that could reveal other asteroids and near-Earth objects with watering hole capabilities, scraps the still-in-progress Constellation program. Constellation was supposed to be the shuttle's successor: a reusable, modular heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle that would put the moon and probably Mars back within the reach of U.S. astronauts.

The loss of both the shuttle and Constellation puts the United States astronaut corps completely at the mercy of Russian and other international space agencies. Put another way: The U.S. won't be able to put a person on orbit, on the international space station or otherwise, without paying a significant cost.

Which means that assuming all remaining shuttle flights launch as planned, by 2011, for the first time in 49 years, the United States will no longer be the No. 1 country capable of manned space flight. Instead, we'll cede orbital supremacy to Russia, Japan, China - all countries that either have capabilities at the moment or are on track to have them in the foreseeable future. And we will literally pay them for the privilege of being second-best.

To be fair, Obama's NASA budget allocates funds to the development of private spacecraft for human flight. There's a chance that the United States won't give up that No. 1 slot. But there's also a good deal of skepticism as to whether the private sector will be able to develop the crafts needed to restore U.S. manned spaceflight capability in a timely fashion. As David Waters, reporter for SpaceflightNow.com and former public affairs officer for United Space Alliance, points out, "NASA may have set the ball in motion for commercial companies to start flying astronauts, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we're years away from that happening."

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) and Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) have all also expressed their thoughts about scrapping Constellation, saying that the U.S.' loss of the ability to get to low-Earth orbit is going to cost this country a lot more than the $50 million to $60 million per seat on a Russian Soyuz. It's also going to cost knowledge, training and experience that space personnel, both NASA and private-sector, gain as machinery is developed and built and as astronauts train and fly.

It's also probably going to cost human space exploration public favor and attention. It's no secret that the general public pays far less attention to spaceflight than it did during Apollo's heyday in the '60s and '70s. So what will happen if the U.S. doesn't launch a person for 10, 20, 30 years? How long will it take before the American public regains its enthusiasm for the costly, risky challenge that is spacefaring? How many potential young scientists, engineers, pilots, astronauts and space geeks will turn their attentions and energies elsewhere without NASA flying?

Someone somewhere is imagining the day that a craft emblazoned with the familiar NASA logo reaches orbit around an asteroid, refills its water tanks and continues on through the solar system. The knowledge humanity would gain from such a flight is the stuff of dreams. But right now, such a day exists only in science fiction. While the data gleaned from 24 Themis will probably continue to inform theories of the Earth's origin and formation, with Obama's new budget and NASA's new plans for the future, it seems unlikely that NASA spacecraft will ever use Yeomans' asteroid pit stops.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • NASA • Uncategorized


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April 28, 2010

Geek Out!: Violin + Wii Remotes = Rock

Posted: 12:48 PM ET
Karyn and the Wiitles
Karyn and the Wiitles

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.

Remember the moment Arnold Poindexter made jaws drop in the 1984 hit "Revenge of the Nerds," when he picked up his electric violin and brought the rock at the Lambda Lambda Lambda/Omega Mu talent show? It was an impressive transformation from "zero" to "hero." Was it possible geeks could be rock stars too?

The answer is yes (of course!), and this Thursday through Saturday, there will be plenty of geeking out over music and technology. Some of the best electronic musicians from all over the country will be converging in Atlanta, Georgia for the Third Annual City Skies Electronic Music Festival, where musical styles will range from “ambient to downtempo chillout to Berlin school to IDM to space music to experimental.” (Full disclosure: I'm one of those musicians getting ready to rock out.)

I’m a classically trained violin player, and I’ll be collaborating on a performance at the festival with The Wiitles, “the world's first and only Wii remote rock band.” It's going to be symphonic, discordant, alternately familiar yet alien, and yes, uber geeky. In fact, every time I plug in my (yep, electric) violin and my collaborators pick up their Wii remotes, I feel like we’re kind of creating a new language.

As a string player, some of my heroes include artists like Andrew Bird, Owen Pallett and Zoe Keating, who hook their instruments up to an array of electronics like loop pedals in order to create layer upon layer of rich, complex patterns in real time. Check out this great Radiolab podcast where Keating describes how she marries cello + laptop + electronics. On the more experimental/performance art side, Laurie Anderson famously invented, in the late 70s, a tape-bow violin using recorded magnetic tape on the bow and a magnetic tape head in the bridge.

The Wiitles sort of take all this to another level by turning Wii remotes into instruments and programming the buttons to trigger samples, loops, scenes and effects in a live setting (check out this animated video intro). They capitalize on the accelerometer and Bluetooth technology that come with every Wii remote, which allow the device to sense acceleration along three axes to detect pitch and roll.

The data obtained from the accelerometers and the different buttons are transmitted via Bluetooth and picked up by a Macbook Pro, where the data is converted for use by software that manipulates audio. Like Pallett and Keating, the Wiitles use Max/MSP (which can convert incoming data to MIDI), and also Osculator to make MIDI conversions and use that data to manipulate Ableton Live, a music sequencing program. Using Ableton Live, the potential for audio manipulation is limitless.

What this means for me is that I can take the familiar sound of my violin to some really strange, ethereal and warped places. For example, knocking against the side of the instrument near the pickup creates a hollow percussive sound. Running my fingers repeatedly over the strings sounds hauntingly like someone sighing. Playing fiddlesticks (adopted from a Cajun fiddle tradition where another band member strikes the strings on the upper fingerboard with thin sticks while I play) triggers a sound like marbles scattering across linoleum. All of this can be manipulated and incorporated into the music in real time during the performance.

Innovative technological appropriations have allowed us to marry classical and experimental music in surprising and wonderful ways. What are some of your favorite examples in this realm? Share your feedback in the comment section – we'd love to hear from you.

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Filed under: gadgets • Geek Out! • technology • Uncategorized


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April 5, 2010

Geek Out!: The inside scoop on more Easter eggs

Posted: 04:45 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.

We reached out to some of our gaming contacts, who provided us some great stops on a gaming Easter egg hunt. Have you gotten any of these?

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii, 2007) - Press buttons inside Samus’ ship and hear secret voice messages from Nintendo executives, Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Iwata. Also, if your Wii saved files for other games and you got a certain bonus, the ship would be outfitted with cool bumper stickers

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii, 2009) - If a player has 99 lives the map-running Mario will lose his hat

Wii Sports (Wii, 2006) - Players have the ability to throw the bowling ball backwards, surprising the crowd

Wii Sports Resort (Wii, 2009) - Hold down any direction on the D-Pad while the bowling game is loading and you can change the colors of the bowling balls

Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996) - Fully complete the game, getting all 120 stars, and you can unlock a cannon in the castle's front courtyard. The cannon can get you onto the roof of the castle to meet Yoshi (who will provide plenty of extra lives)

Metroid (NES, 1986) - Enter the code "JUSTIN BAILEY" to start the game will full power-ups.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1992) – Find the hidden room that contains 45 blue rupees and a plaque from the ‘creator’ of the Easter Egg

Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985/1986) - Hit hidden blocks to get a ‘vine,’ which lifts you above the clouds to a series of coins and warp pipes

Halo 3: ODST – Buck and Monkeyman: When Vergil lights Avery Johnson's cigar during the interrogation, push the right thumbstick to the left and the scene will pan over to the left, revealing Edward Buck picking something off of a Caveman eating it
Siege of Madrigal: A song from Bungie’s game, “Myth,” can be heard in the Kikowani Station in several Halo games, including ODST. On Legendary, when standing on top of the small roof above the door on top of the bridge, you can see Marty O'Donnell dancing along to a musical beat with winged hearts flying around him.

Fable II – The Dingly Egg: Find The Grumpy Rabbit book and follow the instructions to the Dingly Egg, an Easter egg that lets you access the rabbit hole and a commemorative mug which is decorated with three of the Lionhead development team's faces

Gears of War II - Find the cowboy hats that your character and allies can wear during the game. There’s also toast and a toaster that provides funny banter between the COGs.

Halo 3 - A gorilla face can be found on the mountains in the Valhalla multiplayer map. Also find Bungie’s Valhalla graffiti on certain holidays, like one that says “BBQ at Bob’s Place” on the Fourth of July

Halo Wars – Forcing the marines to continuously march will make them break out into song. They sing many marching songs that are quite humorous

Sim Copter - There was the code that made all the male residents wear swimsuits and kiss one another… That one got someone fired

iPad app for Paramount Digital Entertainment’s “Top Gun” - Want to turn your jet in to a stock car from Days of Thunder? Change your pilot's name to "COLE TRICKLE". After the name change, you will be wearing a snazzy racing suit during cut scenes! What if you wanted to turn your jet in to a space ship? Just change your pilot's name to "LASERFACE JONES". To unlock the secret volleyball mini game between Iceman and Maverick, change your pilot's name to "VOLLEYBALL.”

Filed under: Geek Out! • Uncategorized • video games


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Geek Out!: Our favorite 'Easter eggs'

Posted: 04:10 PM ET
God of War 3
God of War 3

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.

Need a break from this past weekend’s Peep-induced sugar coma? Here’s something else that’s pretty sweet for Easter Monday: some of our favorite Easter eggs! Easter eggs are those fun extra features in games, DVDs and even in some software that play out with a magic code, or some deftly-pressed combination of left-right-left-right-up-down-down. These are the ones that really bring out our inner geek:

My favorites are from the extended editions of the "Lord of The Rings" DVDs. They’re on each one of the films. The first 2 are a little racy as Jack Black is at the council of Elrond in “Fellowship,” and Gollum/Smeagol is accepting an MTV award (with some colorful language) in “Two Towers.” The tamest and possibly funniest are on "Return of the King," where Elijah Wood gets prank interviewed by Dominic Monahagn and Peter Jackson gets asked about making more LoTR-themed movies.
– Nikki Rau-Baker

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was a 1993 Williams Electronics pinball game based on the popular TV show. When you shoot your pinball into the Holodeck you are presented with a choice of either 25 million points or a “shuttle simulation.” Instead of choosing one over the other, hold in the trigger and press the right flipper button. Once you do that, you will be sent to a hidden video mode where you play a hand of poker with Commander William Riker (voiced by Jonathan Frakes).
– James Dinan

A couple of years ago, when you clicked on the moon in Google Earth and zoomed way in, the moon became a chunk of cheese. It was a super cute easter egg.
– Karyn Lu

The Disc 1 commentary track of “Freaks and Geeks - The Complete Series" shows anime photos of the characters Lindsay and Sam.

“Lost Season 2: Everybody Hates Hugo” - Jorge Garcia talks about sweating.

“Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” - Yoda dances to The Roots, as seen in the photograph above.

"Spider-Man 2" DVD – Willem DaFoe and Sam Raimi prank Alfred Molina.

"Star Wars Trilogy" - hidden blooper reel

"Firefly: The Complete Series" - Adam Baldwin sings "Hero of Canton"
– Henry Hanks

At the end of the video game "God of War," Kratos is left in a room with two huge statues. One is Ares, the former god of war and the last boss of the game, the other is of a giant Minotaur.

If you steer Kratos to the statues and spend close to 5 minutes just wailing on the statues they will eventually shatter. There is nothing to give you a clue that they will break: no crunching sound or debris falling from the statues.

You will doubt yourself, thinking this is not going to work - but it will.

Once they're gone, a special phone number pops up on the screen. When you call it, an automated message from Kratos kicks in telling you that you might think you've got the video game goods because you beat his game, but he will still kick your butt, because *he* is still the God of War.

This was really fun and gave me a good laugh after finishing a great game. This also guaranteed that I would waste a lot of time trying to bust unbreakable statues in both of the sequel video games.
– Gustavo Castaneda

My all-time favorite is the "Fight Club" DVD. David Fincher inserted several subliminal frames of Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden in the film – long before you find out he’s a mental projection of the narrator.
– Valerie Streit

By far the best set of Easter eggs I have found has been for the 2002 Best of Bowie DVD video collection.

They added nine cool extras that are completely hidden and have unique ways of getting to them such as leaving the page alone for 5 minutes or having a different version play every 2nd time you select a clip.
– Will Etkin

So what are your favorite Easter eggs? And how did you find them? In the mean time, check out a few more tips for hunting Easter eggs here.

Filed under: Geek Out! • pop culture • Uncategorized • video games


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March 30, 2010

Geek Out!: Thoughts on PAX East – a gamer's dream

Posted: 04:05 PM ET

Everyone remembers the first time.

Whether it’s the first time you drove a car or the first time you kissed a girl, it was probably important.

That was how it felt at the first East Coast Penny Arcade Expo or as it’s better known, PAX East, which wrapped up Sunday. The annual west-coast gathering of gamers, started in 2004, had become so popular that, finally, it made the jump across the country country.

For gamers, this was an important event - not just because we got to go out with our "geek flags" flying high, but also because we felt the camaraderie and shared love of gaming that we can't always find without an Internet connection.

The Hynes Convention Center in Boston was packed with people carrying gaming PCs, consoles, and even pouches full of dice. No style of gaming or gamer was excluded. Everyone was accepted and most likely, found a ton of people that were into the same type of games.

It was definitely the place where you got to pick your poison. If you were into "Dungeons & Dragons" there was a room for you. If you wanted to play "Magic: The Gathering," not only were there rooms filled with people eagerly shuffling their decks, but games spilled out into the halls.

Retro arcade gaming was represented in full force, taking everyone back to the quarter-hoarding mindset or our youth - or, for younger gamers, of legend.

There were even rooms set up with dozens of PS3s, Xbox 360s, and Nintendo Wiis ready for action. All you needed was a game and the courage to play it in front of other people.

Once you were done getting your butt kicked by a 13 year-old, there were plenty of panels discussing new trends in gaming and the evolution of today’s games.

Actor, blogger and geek superstar Wil Wheaton kicked off the convention with a keynote address about growing up as a gamer and how relationships forged in the crucible of imagination have become some of his strongest friendships.

Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the founders of PAX and creators of the "Penny Arcade" webcomic, took questions from the audience and even showed people how they make a strip.

No gaming topic was overlooked. Panels discussed every aspect of the gaming community, from game development, criticism, marketing and even creation. New games were demoed, "Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands" and "Split Second" were playable and they haven’t been released yet.

This convention was a gamer's dream.

Back in 2004, when Holkins and Krahulik started the convention in Washington, they wanted to bring gamers together. And they've succeeded.

If the reaction in Boston is any indication of the future, Mike Krahulik may get his wish of one day starting a Euro PAX.

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • Geek Out! • pop culture • Uncategorized


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February 25, 2010

Lighthearted @shamu Twitter feed disbanded

Posted: 03:55 PM ET

A day after a SeaWorld trainer died from being dragged underwater by a killer whale, the park has stopped posts on its lighthearted @shamu Twitter account.

Shamu is the famous name under which SeaWorld Orando’s trained killer whales perform in popular shows, doing tricks for audiences at the Florida park.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, had just finished a training session Wednesday when Tillikum, a 12,000-pound whale, grabbed her ponytail and dragged her into a 35-foot tank.

“At this difficult time, @Shamu will not be active. For Twitter updates follow @SeaWorld_Parks. http://bit.ly/b0oU3l” – read a post tweeted Thursday afternoon.

A post on Sea World’s blog said followers had been asking about the account’s silence since the accident.

“At this difficult time, @Shamu will not be active on Twitter, as users who follow @Shamu have come to expect posts that are light-hearted and perhaps a bit quirky,” the blog said. “SeaWorld’s other accounts, including @SeaWorld_Parks, will remain active and regular updates will be communicated through Twitter and other social networking platforms.”

The account, created about a year ago, had more than 9,900 followers as of Thursday afternoon.

Whale shows at the park also were canceled on Thursday.

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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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December 10, 2009

AT&T rethinks unlimited iPhone data plans

Posted: 02:37 PM ET

Unlimited iPhone data plans and popular high-bandwidth video offerings are causing headaches for AT&T. In some saturated markets, such as New York City and San Francisco, the company's wireless network is unable to keep up with demand and transfers slow to a crawl.

AT&T President and CEO of Mobility and Consumer Markets Ralph de la Vega
AT&T President and CEO of Mobility and Consumer Markets Ralph de la Vega

According to the Wall Street Journal, AT&T's head of consumer services Ralph de la Vega blames high-bandwidth users for these network shortages, and, in a recent meeting with investors, hinted at the end of unlimited data packages.

“This is going to get fixed,” Mr. de la Vega said. “In both of those markets, I am very confident that you’re going to see significant progress.”

With about 3 percent of smartphone customers driving 40 percent of data traffic, AT&T is considering incentives to keep those subscribers from hampering the experience for everyone else, he said.

De la Vega did not elaborate on what "incentives" AT&T plans to enact, but you can bet the agenda will have more in common with data caps and speed limits than free toasters.

Bandwidth-hungry iPhones may be the cause of AT&T's network problems, but they are hardly to blame. iPhone users are forced into unlimited data packages costing at least $30 a month. I don't think AT&T has any right to complain when a few of those users fully utilize their purchase.

Who do you feel is responsible for the struggling wireless networks? AT&T, high-bandwidth users, or both?

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Filed under: Apple • cell phones • consumer tech • iPhone • Uncategorized


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October 7, 2009

AT&T approves VoIP for iPhone

Posted: 09:44 AM ET

In a press release Tuesday AT&T announced it will now allow iPhone VoIP apps, like Skype, to run on the cellular network.

AT&T previously restricted all VoIP apps, which transmit voice calls over a data network, for use only when an iPhone was on a Wi-Fi network. With these restrictions dropped, iPhone customers can now use AT&T's 3G data network to make calls without using their wireless minutes.

AT&T claims this change was due to customer demand:

In late summer, AT&T said it was taking a fresh look at VoIP capabilities on iPhone for use on AT&T’s 3G network, consistent with its regular review of device features and capabilities to ensure attractive options for consumers.

“iPhone is an innovative device that dramatically changed the game in wireless when it was introduced just two years ago,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility & Consumer Markets. “Today’s decision was made after evaluating our customers’ expectations and use of the device compared to dozens of others we offer.”

Recent FCC scrutiny over Apple's rejection of the Google Voice app, as well as a congressional push for net neutrality are likely also responsible for AT&T's change of heart.

New VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps that take advantage of 3G capabilities should be available soon. However, AT&T's 3G network where I live in Atlanta is about as reliable as the Detroit Lions, so I doubt I will be dropping my traditional voice service any time soon.

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Filed under: Apple • consumer tech • iPhone • online news • Uncategorized


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September 4, 2009

Google News launches Arabic editions

Posted: 12:43 PM ET

Google News this week launched Arabic editions of its popular news aggregator for Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Currently the service allows users to access news from 25,000 sources around the world and is available in more than two dozen languages and more than 50 countries.

Google Middle East and North Africa Product Manager William Kanaan wrote in a blog post, “With more than 40 million Arabic-speaking internet users across multiple countries, we understand the need to provide our users with the most relevant news for their region.”

Technology companies are rushing to become more involved in Arab media. Last week Yahoo! acquired Maktoob.com, the largest online media company in the Arab world. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that its parent company, News Corporation, is in talks to invest in Rotana Media, a Saudi TV broadcaster.

“There are 300 million Arabic people and virtually no Arabic content online,” Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, told CNN. “It is a relatively open field. There is no content. You can duplicate what has already been done and put it in the Arabic language.”

Walker is discussing this online language gap with Arab governments and has received positive feedback from officials who are eager to build out the Internet in their nations and diversify their economy.

Google would not disclose specific numbers on how many people currently use Google in Arabic-speaking nations.

But CNN's senior editor of Middle East affairs Octavia Nasr notes, “The Internet has been playing a major role in bringing important issues to the surface throughout the Arab world. Having the Google and Yahoo services in Arabic will undoubtedly enhance the flow of information from and to the Arab world.”

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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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