thomst writes: Kim Zetter of Wired's Threat Level reports that Kaspersky Labs discovered a Spanish-language spyware application that employs "uses techniques and code that surpass any nation-state spyware previously spotted in the wild." The malware, dubbed "The Mask" by Kaspersky's researchers, targeted targeted government agencies, diplomatic offices, embassies, companies in the oil, gas and energy industries, and research organizations and activists had been loose on the Internet since at least 2007, before it was shut down last month. It infected its targets via a malicious website that contained exploits — among which were the Adobe Flash player vulnerability CVE-2012-0773 — that affected both Windows and Linux machines. Users were directed to the site via spearphishing emails.
thomst writes: Robert Barnes of the Washington Post reports that the US Supreme Court has declined to hear petitions from Amazon.com and Overstock.com requesting that a decision by the New York State Supreme Court permitting that state's 2008 law requiring sales taxes be collected on Internet sales, even if the seller has no "business presence" in New York. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that Amazon’s relationship with third-party affiliates in the state that receive commissions for sending Web traffic its way satisfied the “substantial nexus” necessary to force the company to collect taxes, and New York's Supreme Court had affirmed the ruling. The Federal high court's refusal to hear the petitions leaves the state law in effect, even though it appears to conflict with the Court's 1993 decision in Quill v. North Dakota.
thomst writes: The Washington Post's Jerry Markon and Alice Crites report "The lead contractor on the dysfunctional Web site for the Affordable Care Act is filled with executives from a company that mishandled at least 20 other government IT projects, including a flawed effort to automate retirement benefits for millions of federal workers, documents and interviews show.
CGI Federal, the main Web site developer, entered the U.S. government market a decade ago when its parent company purchased American Management Systems, a Fairfax County contractor that was coming off a series of troubled projects. CGI moved into AMS’s custom-made building off Interstate 66, changed the sign outside and kept the core of employees, who now populate the upper ranks of CGI Federal.
thomst writes: Science Magazines's Tim Wogan reports that chemical engineer Zhenan Bao of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and her team have increased the conductivity of a self-healing polymer by incorporating nickel atoms. The polymer they have produced is sensitive to applied forces like pressure and torsion (twisting) because such forces alter the distance between the nickel atoms, changing the electrical resistance of the polymer. Their work is published online in the November 1 issue of Nature Nanotechnology (abstract here, full article paywalled). Now Bao and her team are working on making the polymer more flexible.
thomst writes: Reuters is reporting that French scientist Serge Haroche and American David Wineland will share the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on measuring quantum particles. (The article is VERY skimpy on details.)
thomst writes: David Kravets of Wired's Threat Level blog reports that Google has clarified its change in policy on automatic takedowns of YouTube videos for copyright infringement. On Wednesday, Thabet Alfishawi, rights management product manager for YouTube, said in a blog post that Google had "improved the algorithms that identify potentially invalid claims. We stop these claims from automatically affecting user videos and place them in a queue to be manually reviewed.” In its clarification, Google now says that videos flagged by its Content ID algorithm will be placed in a queue for "content owners" to review, if they decide to do so. In other words, the "manual review" is entirely optional, and the review, if any, will be done by the "content owner", rather than by Google itself — all of which begs the classic question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"
thomst writes: Geeta Dayal of Wired's Threat Level blog posts an interesting report about bot-mediated automatic takedowns of streaming video. He mentions the interruption of Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC, and the blocking of NASA's coverage of Mars rover Curiosity's landing by a Scripps News Service bot, but the story really drills down on the abrupt disappearance of the Hugo Award's live stream of Neil Gaiman's acceptance speech for his Doctor Who script. (Apparently the trigger was a brief clip from the Doctor Who episode itself, despite the fact that it was clearly a case of fair use.) Dayal points the finger at Vobile, whose content-blocking technology was used by Ustream, which hosted the derailed coverage of the Hugos. The good news — such as it is — is that Ustream has apparently suspended their use of Vobile's software. Vobile isn't the only player in the content-cop software space, and Dayal's article includes links to Vobile, Attributor, Audible Magic, and Gracenote (but ALL the links in the article go through contextly.com, so you'll need to enable scripts from contextly to get to the actual web sites in question — boo, Wired).
thomst writes: Ryan Singel of Wired's Threat Level blog reports that the livestream of Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention was blocked by Youtube after a bogus claim of copyright infringement was lodged — almost undoubtedly by Youtube's own copyright bot, acting pre-emptively on behalf of its big-media advertising clients.
thomst writes: What’s Wrong with American Ninja Warrior
by Thom Stark
I’ve been a fan of the program the G4 channel calls “Ninja Warrior” since I first encountered it in mid-2005. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it’s a re-edited-for-American-TV version of a Japanese show called “Sasuke”, with often-snarky English commentary and graphics overlaid on the Japanese original. “Ninja Warrior” is a fast-paced, wildly-entertaining program in which 100 contestants of varying skill levels pit themselves against a 4-stage obstacle course that grows ever more fiendishly difficult with each passing season. There’ve been 27 such seasons to date, and the most current incarnation is has become so incredibly taxing that Batman himself would have trouble completing it.
Now G4 has teamed up with its corporate parent, NBCUniversal to bring the world’s toughest obstacle course to America, and the resulting show, “American Ninja Warrior” turns out to be distinctly inferior to its Japanese progenitor. Tonight, July 9, 2012, is the final broadcast in a series that has run for six previous weekly installments, with segments on both G4 and NBC; and I thought it was fitting that I mark the occasion with a critique of what I believe to be “American Ninja Warrior”’s fatal philosophical and production missteps, and contrast them with the original pitch-perfect product.
First, it’s important to understand that the Japanese program’s name has nothing to do with either ninjas or warriors. “Sasuke” means something like “excellence” in Japanese. It has much the same flavor as the Greek concept of arete, the pursuit of excellence as a defining life goal. G4's marketeers clearly decided that their ADHD-addled core audience of video gamers was unlikely to find a show called “Excellence” compelling enough to warrant paying attention, so they decided to jazz it up by invoking ninjas, instead. Oh, and warriors, too, to make it more appealing to the World of Warcraft fanatics. And that was fine, as far as it went, because G4 had the good sense not to mess with the program content itself (other than poorly to translate much of the Japanese-language commentary, again in an apparent attempt to inject some good ol’ American zazz).
As a side note, commentary is not the only translational sin of which G4 is guilty. The competition takes place at Midoriyama, a Japanese place name that G4 insists on referring to as “Mount Midoriyama”. The problem with that is that “yama” is a Japanese suffix meaning “mountain”. Thus, “Fujiyama” means “Mount Fuji” and “Midoriyama” means “Mount Midori” — which, in turn, means that G4's translation is not only redundant, with its repeating of the word “mountain” in both English and Japanese, it’s wildly inaccurate, because the Japanese word means “Mount Midori”.
But I digress.
“American Ninja Warrior” — the strictly-domestic production — suffers badly from human interest bloat. The Japanese program (at least as it is presented on G4) frequently features mini-portraits of the competitors, but these segments are very short — typically under 20 seconds — and they help to put a human face on the often-superhuman efforts of the program’s contenders. In “American Ninja Warrior”, the corresponding segments too often are near-epic mini-documentaries that run a minute or longer, and they seriously impair the program’s flow — especially because there are so flinkin’ many of them. The producers badly need to rein in their out-of-control bathos machinery and reduce both the number and the running time of their athlete portraiture.
But the worst mistake that the brainiacs behind “American Ninja Warrior” have made is to Americanize the competition. The most endearing philosophical quality of “Sasuke” is that the participants compete, not against each other, but individually against the course itself. There is no zero-sum in the game of Sasuke. Should more than one contestant complete the nigh-impossible series of obstacles (an outcome that has never yet occurred on “Sasuke”), both would be equally celebrated, both would be equally entitled to claim the title of “winner”, and the accomplishment of one would in no way diminish the glory of the other. To the contrary, such an event would be cause for national celebration, since winners of “Sasuke” are considered national heroes in Japan.
By contrast, not only have the American producers chosen to have the participants compete against each other in regional qualifying events for a spot in the “finals” competition in Las Vegas (not an unreasonable choice, given that they needed to whittle the field down to a managable number of contestants for the trials at the actual Mount Midori course), but they’ve made it a zero-sum game. Like the Highlander, there can be only one American Ninja Warrior — which reduces the exalted pursuit of excellence to just another athletic competition, with the top prize of half-a-million dollars going to the one contestant who not only completes the course, but does so in the fastest time. Anyone else who makes it to the top of Mount Midori is, basically, just another chump. An also-ran. A footnote.
And that’s what’s really wrong with “American Ninja Warrior”.
thomst writes: "With just less than a week to go, it seems inevitable that the Kickstarter project for my post-nuclear-terrorism disaster novel American Sulla will fall well short of its funding goal. That's disappointing, because I thought I'd covered all the promotional bases: I created a web page that offers free, downloadable copies of a 38,000-word preview of the novel, I put the Kickstarter pitch video on Youtube, I uploaded a torrent to The Pirate Bay with the pitch video and the preview version of the novel in a variety of ebook formats, I set up a Facebook group, and, of course, I sent out an email announcing the project to all my friends and acquaintances. I even published the preview version of my novel as a $0.99 Kindle ebook on Amazon.com (where, thus far, two people have purchased copies, despite the fact that it's available directly from both my web site and The Pirate Bay for free).
So the question arises, "Can this project be rescued?" Or, to put it another way, "What have I overlooked?" Or even, "What did I do wrong — and is there any way for me to correct the error in time to save the project?"
This novel is important to me. I immodestly think it's decently well-written, and in it, I attempt to come to grips with some pretty important issues the events that followed the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center raised for me: the willingness (hell, the eagerness) of U.S. lawmakers to abdicate Constitutional protections in the name of national security, the metastatic growth of Executive Branch power, the ovine complacency of the American people, the legitimacy of resistence to these trends, and the influence of galloping conspiracy theorism, to name a few of the most prominent. At the same time, I'm doing my best to wrap my presentation of those issues in a tense, fast-paced, and (I hope) entertaining narrative.
So, I put it to you: can this project be rescued? And, if so, how?"
thomst writes: Rob Coppinger of Space.com reports that UK-based private company Excalibur Almaz plans to offer commercial lunar-orbital tourist missions based on recycled Soviet-era Soyuz vehicle and Salyut space stations, using Hall Effect thrusters to power the ensemble from Earth orbit to the Moon and back. The company estimates ticket prices at $150 million per seat (with a 50% profit margin), and expects to sell about 30 of them. Excalibur Almaz has other big plans, too, including ISS crew transport, LaGrange Point scientific missions, and Lunar surface payload deliveries. It expects to launch its first tourist trip to the Moon in 2014.