There's been some positive news in the last year (and the last few) for American cellphone customers: certainly there's more visible competition for their business among the largest players in the market. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal reports that while more competition may translate into some more attractive service bundles, flexibility in phone options, or smoother customer service, it doesn't actually mean that the customers are on average reaping one of the benefits that competition might be expected to provide: lower price. Instead, the bills for customers on the major wireless providers have actually gone up, if not dramatically, in recent months — which means U.S. cell service remains much more expensive than it is in many other countries. The article could stand a sidebar on MVNOs and other low-cost options, though -- I switched to one of these from AT&T, and now pay just under $40 for one version of the new normal of unlimited talk and text, plus quite limited (1GB) data, but still using AT&T towers. Has your own cost to talk gone up or down?
As reported by the Washington Post, Edward Snowden denies in no uncertain terms the idea that he failed to go through proper channels to expose what he thought were troubling privacy violations being committed by the NSA, and that he observed as a contractor employed by the agency. The article begins: "[Snowden] said he repeatedly tried to go through official channels to raise concerns about government snooping programs but that his warnings fell on the deaf ears. In testimony to the European Parliament released Friday morning, Snowden wrote that he reported policy or legal issues related to spying programs to more than 10 officials, but as a contractor he had no legal avenue to pursue further whistleblowing." Further, "Elsewhere in his testimony, Snowden described the reaction he received when relating his concerns to co-workers and superiors. The responses, he said, fell into two camps. 'The first were well-meaning but hushed warnings not to "rock the boat," for fear of the sort of retaliation that befell former NSA whistleblowers like Wiebe, Binney, and Drake.' All three of those men, he notes, were subject to intense scrutiny and the threat of criminal prosecution."
sciencehabit writes "New data show that after remaining more or less steady for a decade, the number of investigators with National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding dropped sharply last year by at least 500 researchers and as many as 1000. Although not a big surprise—it came the same year that NIH's budget took a 5% cut—the decline suggests that a long-anticipated contraction in the number of labs supported by NIH may have finally begun."
Georgetown researcher (and executive dean of Georgetown's medical school) Howard Federoff has taken a "systems" approach to diagnostics for certain chronic diseases. By comparing blood samples taken from patients who subsequently developed Alzheimer's to blood samples after the disease has manifested, Federoff has identified markers and created a blood test that is described as "90 percent accurate" (the BBC article does not delve into the ratio of false positives to false negatives) in predicting whether a currently healthy patient is likely to develop Alzheimer's in the following three years. Understandably, this raises some ethical and practical questions. What would you do differently if this test came back positive for yourself? Or for a parent? Here's the (paywalled) paper, at Nature Medicine.
An anonymous reader writes with an excerpt from an intriguing article at TechDirt about the sometimes very low-tech methods of the East German Stasi. They may have been using more pencils than computers, but they were gathering information on their targets using the same kind of metadata whose significance the U.S. government has lately been downplaying: "They amassed dossiers on about one quarter of the population of the country during the Communist regime. But their spycraft — while incredibly invasive — was also technologically primitive by today's standards. While researching my book Dragnet Nation, I obtained the above hand drawn social network graph and other files from the Stasi Archive in Berlin, where German citizens can see files kept about them and media can access some files, with the names of the people who were monitored removed. The graphic shows forty-six connections, linking a target to various people (an 'aunt,' 'Operational Case Jentzsch,' presumably Bernd Jentzsch, an East German poet who defected to the West in 1976), places ('church'), and meetings ('by post, by phone, meeting in Hungary')."
The Chicago Tribune reports that Yik Yak, a mobile app that can (among other things) be used for anonymous communications, has drawn complaints from several local schools, who are unhappy that students can use it to bully or pester others. "'The problem, as you might imagine, is that the anonymity is empowering certain individuals to post comments about others that are hurtful, harassing and sometimes quite disturbing,' Joseph Ruggiero, head of the Upper School at Francis W. Parker School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, wrote in an email to parents last week. ... In light of the controversy, Yik Yak's co-founder said the company was disabling the app in the Chicago area and will attempt to specifically prevent it from being used on high school or middle school grounds."
An anonymous reader writes "I am a middle school math teacher and I also run a programming club. I recent completed my M.Ed in math education and was inspired to try to do the new GT online MS in Computer Science in a couple of years. I have some background in programming: two intro to comp sci courses, Java, C++, Python, the main scripting languages, and a bunch of math background. I also read through this great article on getting these pre-requisites completed through Coursera but unfortunately you need to wait for courses to enroll. I would like to just learn these on my own time, no credit necessary. Suggestions?"
Lasrick writes "Tuesday, March 11 is the 3rd anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. In this article, a worker at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station gives his eyewitness account of what happened there in the immediate wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami that caused three of the station's reactor cores to melt." The witness, says the story, "was promised anonymity as a condition of providing his account."
An anonymous reader writes "Google is facing investigation by the Competition Commission of India and potentially faces fines up to 10% of its three-year average turnover. While Google has settled anti-trust cases in the U.S. and the European Union, India's competition regime does not have provisions for settlement process." From the Times of India article linked: "The complaint against Google, also one of the world's most valued company, was first filed by advocacy group CUTS International way back in late 2011. Later, matrimonial website matrimony.com also filed a complaint. Referring to Google's settlement with the European Commission, matrimony.com counsel Ferida Satarawala said: 'Google's unfair use of trademarks as well as its retaliatory conduct are not specifically addressed in the European settlement and are distinct theories of harm being pursued by the CCI. Therefore, this settlement is unlikely to address CCI's concerns in our case.'"
An anonymous reader writes to this article about a series of visualizations built from London bike rental data. "My favourite is the second map, it shows the main routes that exist between rental areas, coloured according to the local communities that exist in the network. So you can see the major flows of bike traffic within the city, which are mostly between major railway stations and work destinations. You can also see how the different local networks relate to each other — Hyde Park is its own little world, for example, while the networks around Kings Cross, Waterloo, and Liverpool Street are far more interconnected." (Several more just-as-interesting maps here, too. Wish every city had an interface to this kind of data, would make interesting reading for visitors as well as for locals.)
First time accepted submitter DTentilhao writes "On Friday, Glenn Greenwald's new website The Intercept published a number of internal NSA documents that didn't necessarily reveal any great state secrets, but instead cast some light on the NSA's office culture. Those documents, leaked by former security contractor Edward Snowden, were actually from an advice column series, written by a 20-year veteran of NSA management under the pen name 'Zelda.'" Here's the Intercept report.
theodp writes "Android is free and open," reiterated Google Android Chief Andy Rubin in 2010 as Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7. Rubin added, 'Competition is good for the consumer and if somebody has an idea for a feature or a piece of functionality in their platform and Android doesn't do it, great. I think it's good to have the benefit of choice, but in the end I don't think the world needs another platform.' But now, CNET and Digitimes report that Google is holding up the Asus Transformer Book Duet TD300 (specs), a laptop-tablet hybrid that can instantly switch between Android and Windows 8.1. A source familiar with the Asus Duet told CNET that Google is the one that has not favored the idea, while Microsoft has not, to date, been actively opposed to the idea. 'If true,' reports Apple Insider, 'it may not be the first time Google has helped to quash such a product.' South Korean electronics giant Samsung quietly canceled plans for its hybrid Ativ Q tablet last year, and Digitimes notes that Asus may not be the only company to bow to Google's wishes."
Movie robots often look like (and are portrayed by) people in bulky, bipedal suits. Why aren't more robots built along these lines? It's not just the problem of balance. Reader concertina226 writes "'Building a robot that has legs and walks around is a very expensive proposition. Mother Nature has created many wonderful things but one thing we do have that nature doesn't is the wheel, a continuous rotating joint, and tracks, so we need to make use of inventions to make things simpler,' [iRobot CEO Colin] Angle tells IBTimes UK. 'The reason it has taken so long for the robotics industry to move forward is because people keep trying to make something that is cool but difficult to achieve, rather than trying to find solutions to actual human problems. Technology can be extremely expensive if you don't focus.'" [Beware the autoplaying video.]
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones report on Bloomberg that as federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail. Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane and while there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out gases before shipping the oil. The worry is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids and purposefully selling their crude "fluffed up" with propane to maximize their profits." (Read more, below.)
Daniel_Stuckey writes with an excerpt from his story at Motherboard: "Yesterday, I got as close as any media physically can to Barrett Brown, the American journalist that was locked up in late 2012 for pasting a hyperlink in a chatroom, which federal prosecutors alleged contained leaked credit card data from the Statfor hacks. Due to a media gag order upheld by the US District Court in the Northern District of Texas, Brown isn't allowed to make "any statement to members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine, internet (included, but not limited to bloggers)," with the exception of Kevin M. Gallagher, who heads his defense fund. ... Earlier this week, US Attorney Sarah Saldaña filed a motion to dismiss 11 of Brown's charges, namely those related to the pasted hyperlink (including trafficking in stolen authentication features, aggravated identity theft, and access device fraud). The motion came as both a victory for Brown's case, and a sigh of relief to supporters who have continuously cited the absurdity of his charges related to hyperlinking."
First time accepted submitter paddysteed writes "I go to secondary school in the UK. I went digging around the computers there and found that on the schools machines, there was a root CA from the school. I then suspected that the software they instruct windows users to install on their own hardware to gain access to the BYOD network installed the same certificate. I created a windows virtual machine and connected to the network the way that was recommended. Immediately afterwards I checked the list of root CA's, and found my school's. I thought the story posted a few days ago was bad, but what my school has done is install their certificate on people's own machines — which I think is far worse. This basically allows them to intercept and modify any HTTPS traffic on their network. Considering this is a boarding school, and our only method of communicating to the outside world is over their network, I feel this is particularly bad. We were not told about this policy and we have not signed anything which would excuse it. I confronted the IT department and they initially denied everything. I left and within five minutes, the WiFi network was down then as quickly as it had gone down, it was back up. I went back and they confirmed that there was a mistake and they had 'fixed' it. They also told me that the risk was very low and the head of networks told me he was willing to bet his job on it. I asked them to instruct people to remove the bad certificate from their own machines, but they claimed this was unnecessary due to the very low risk. I want to take this further but to get the school's management interested I will need to explain what has happened and why it is bad to non-technical people and provide evidence that what has been done is potentially illegal."
NeverVotedBush writes with news reported by CNN that a passenger manifest for the flight that went missing on its way from Malaysia to China indicates that "Twenty of the passengers aboard the flight work with Freescale Semiconductor, a company based in Austin, Texas. The company said that 12 of the employees are from Malaysia and eight are from China," and writes "Apparently, at least two passengers used stolen passports to board."