Nerval's Lobster writes: “Flappy Bird” might be kaput, but its hilariously awkward hero is serving another useful purpose in its afterlife: teaching people how to code. “Flappy Bird,” a free mobile game for Android and iOS that asks the player to guide the titular avian through an obstacle course of vertical pipes, became a sensation earlier this year, seizing the top spots on the Apple and Google Play app stores. Its creator, Dong Nguyen, said the game earned him an average of $50,000 a day through in-app advertising—but that didn’t stop him from yanking the game offline in early February. Now Code.org has resurrected “Flappy Bird,” Phoenix-style, from the smoking wreckage, with a free tutorial that allows anyone with a bit of time to code his or her very own version of the game. There’s no actual code to learn, thanks to a visual interface that allows budding developers to drag “blocks” of commands into place. “Flappy Bird recently met its untimely death. We might’ve been tempted to cry all day and give up on spreading computer science (not really, but R.I.P Flappy Bird),” read a note on Code.org’s blog. “Instead, we built a new drag-and-drop tutorial that lets you build your own Flappy game—whether it’s Flappy Bird, or Flappy Easter Bunny, Flappy Santa, Flappy Shark with Lasers, Flappy Fairy or Flappy Underwater Unicorn.” Childish? Maybe. But it could help draw people into coding for fun or profit.
Nerval's Lobster writes: It hasn't been a great week for Bitcoin. Cruise the Web, and you'll find stories from people who lost thousands (even millions, in some cases) of paper value when the Mt.Gox exchange went offline for still-mysterious reasons. (Rumors have circulated for days about the shutdown, ranging from an epic heist of the Bitcoins under its stewardship, to financial improprieties leading the exchange to the edge of bankruptcy.) But as one Slashdotter pointed out in a previous posting, Mt.Gox isn't Bitcoin (and vice versa), and it's likely that other exchanges will take up the burden of helping manage the currency. Even so, all currencies depend on a certain amount of stability and trust in order to survive, and Bitcoin faces something of a confidence crisis in the wake of this event. So here's the question: do you still trust Bitcoin?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Researchers have demonstrated it’s possible to create a computer virus that can infect wireless access points rather than computers, and use wireless networks to spread through the air like a human epidemic, from access point to access point, anywhere WiFi zones overlap. Wanting to test the possibility that a virus could attack wireless access points and use them to infect other computers on the same WLAN as well as other WLANs, Researchers at the University of Liverpool wrote and tested a virus dubbed “Chameleon” that replaces the firmware of an existing access point, takes it over, and uses its existing credentials to show itself as still functioning and secure to other devices on the network. “When Chameleon attacked an AP it didn’t affect how it worked, but was able to collect and report the credentials of all other WiFi users who connected to it. The virus then sought out other WiFi APs that it could connect to and infect,” according to Alan Marshall, professor of network security at the university and senior author on the paper, which stemmed largely from thesis research done by lead author Jonny Milliken of Queen’s University in Belfast.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Our lives online come with perils, whether from the NSA checking up on our digital communications, or the possibility of the wrong e-message going viral. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, and other social networks have collected all sorts of personal data about us, where we’ve been, what we’re saying, what we like, and our friends. No wonder the idea of ephemeral messages—such as those sent via Snapchat and other services—is beginning to resonate, attracting lots of startups who want to service that very need. These creators of self-destructing message apps claim they don't care about monetization, and that their products are secure — but as so many apps from other startups have demonstrated, security is often a very porous thing, and government agencies are more than happy to fire off a warrant to see unread messages stored on a server. Lots of developers want to become the Snapchat (if it means they can take a multi-billion-dollar buyout), but in the case of vaporizing messages, they're tiptoeing into tricky territory.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Ray Kurzweil, the technologist who’s spent his career advocating the Singularity, discussed his current work as a director of engineering at Google with The Guardian. Google has big plans in the artificial-intelligence arena. It recently acquired DeepMind, self-billed “cutting edge artificial intelligence company” for $400 million; that’s in addition to snatching up all sorts of startups and research scientists devoted to everything from robotics to machine learning. Thanks to the massive datasets generated by the world’s largest online search engine (and the infrastructure allowing that engine to run), those scientists could have enough information and computing power at their disposal to create networked devices capable of human-like thought. Kurzweil, having studied artificial intelligence for decades, is at the forefront of this in-house effort. In his interview with The Guardian, he couldn't resist throwing some jabs at other nascent artificial intelligence systems on the market, most notably IBM's Watson: “IBM’s Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale. Which is to say to have the computer read tens of billions of pages. Watson doesn’t understand the implications of what it’s reading." That sounds very practical, but at a certain point Kurzweil’s predictions veer into what most people would consider science fiction. He believes, for example, that a significant portion of people alive today could end up living forever, thanks to the ministrations of ultra-intelligent computers and beyond-cutting-edge medical technology.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Dropbox has renewed access to the Chinese market for the first time in four years. But why? The Chinese government first blocked access to Dropbox in 2010, most likely to prevent people within China from sharing data via the cloud. Now Dropbox is back online in China, albeit at slower speeds. Despite repeated queries from Slashdot, however, Dropbox has declined to comment on why China may have dropped the in-country restrictions to its services. “We still have nothing to share,” the company responded after the third email. Dropbox isn’t the only foreign cloud service available on the Chinese market (although Google Drive remains blocked): in late 2013, Amazon announced it would open an Amazon Web Services (AWS) region in the country; at the time, the Amazon Web Services Blog alluded to the “legal and regulatory requirements” that this new AWS region will obey. So questions remain: Did Dropbox know it would regain entry to the Chinese market? If so, did it need to agree to certain conditions before the Chinese government would “flip the switch,” as it were?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group is working on a new initiative, Project Tango, which could allow developers to quickly map objects and interiors in 3D. At the heart of Project Tango is a prototype smartphone with a 5-inch screen, packed with hardware and software optimized to take 3D measurements of the surrounding environment. The associated development APIs can feed tons of positioning and orientation data to Android applications written in Java, C/C++, and the Unity Game Engine. In addition to a “standard” 4-megapixel camera, the device features a motion-tracking camera and an aperture for integrated depth sensing; integrated into the circuitry are two computer-vision processors. Google claims it only has 200 developer units in stock, and it’s willing to give them to independent developers who can submit a detailed idea for a project involving 3D mapping of some sort. The deadline for unit distribution is March 14, 2014. In theory, developers could use ultra-portable 3D mapping to create better maps, visualizations, and games. (“What if you could search for a product and see where the exact shelf is located in a super-store?” Google’s Website asks at one point.) The bigger question is what Google intends to do with the technology if it proves effective. Google Maps with super-detailed interiors, anyone?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to drop a cool $16 billion on WhatsApp, a messaging service with 450 million users. It was a mind-boggling sum, even if you buy into Facebook’s argument that WhatsApp (which will continue to operate as an independent subsidiary, at least for the moment) will soon connect a billion people around the world. But it wasn’t the biggest tech acquisition of all time: that honor belongs to Hewlett-Packard, which bought Compaq for a (inflation-adjusted) $33.4 billion in 2001. Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp comes in second on the list, followed by Hewlett-Packard’s purchase of Electronic Data Systems for $15.4 billion; Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility for $13 billion, and Oracle snatching up Peoplesoft for $12.7 billion. In sixth comes Hewlett-Packard again, with its Autonomy buy in 2011 (for $11.7 billion), followed by Oracle’s BEA Systems acquisition ($9.4 billion) and Microsoft seizing Skype ($9.0 billion). What do many of these highest-cost purchases have in common? Many of them didn’t pan out. Hewlett-Packard’s Compaq, Autonomy, and EDS acquisitions, for example, made all the sense in the world on paper, the tech giant eventually took significant write-downs on all three (Autonomy in particular was an outright disaster, resulting in a $8.8 billion write-off and widespread allegations of financial and management impropriety). So it remains to be seen whether Facebook can use WhatsApp in a way that justifies that monster investment. History suggests that things might not work out as intended.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted in a Bloomberg interview that he had engaged in “conversations” with Apple, but refused to disclose the content of those talks. Rumors have circulated for several days that Apple executives met with Musk last spring about a possible acquisition. An anonymous source with knowledge of those discussions told SFGate.com that discussions included Adrian Perica, who heads up Apple’s M&A division, and possibly Apple CEO Tim Cook. “Both [Tesla and Apple] have built brands based on advanced engineering and stylish user-friendly design,” the newspaper noted. “And each company has become a symbol of Silicon Valley innovation—even among people who don’t own their products.” But in the interview, Musk framed an acquisition as “very unlikely,” mostly because it would distract Tesla from its goal of building an affordable electric car. “I don’t see any scenario,” he added, in which Tesla could juggle the issues associated with a takeover while producing vehicles that met his perfectionist standards. He did suggest, however, that Apple’s iOS and Google Android could find their respective ways into Tesla’s in-vehicle software. Tesla executives once considered integrating an early version of Android into the company’s first electric cars, but the software ultimately wasn’t ready to serve as an automotive application. Nonetheless, Musk could see iOS or Android within the context of a “projected mode or emulator” that would allow someone to use applications while driving, although “that’s peripheral to the goal of Tesla.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Amazon has expanded support for its Amazon Coins from Kindle Fire tablets to Google Android mobile devices.In its press release, Amazon positioned its e-currency as the ultimate in convenience for customers who don’t want their credit-card statements riddled with lots of micro-purchases from Amazon’s App Store. Expanding the currency’s reach is also a potential win for Amazon, which wants to create an end-to-end ecosystem for app developers. But Amazon Coins' existence could alienate the same demographic that made Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies such a hit. The company tethers the Coins to a user identity, and likely keeps significant records on its crypto-currency ecosystem: who buys what when. That concept is anathema to those online denizens who embraced Bitcoin as a way to make purchases without needing to reveal a real-world identity, or deal with a currency tethered to a central repository; genuine crypto-currency can be used to purchase pretty much anything from a purveyor willing to take it, including—in the case of Silk Road and other online bazaars—drugs and weapons. Indeed, Amazon Coins has more to do with a corporate “currency” like the now-defunct Microsoft Points than an actual crypto-currency like Bitcoin. But that hasn't stopped some people from getting confused about it.
Nerval's Lobster writes: The remote-access management flaw that allowed TheMoon worm to thrive on Linksys routers is far from the only vulnerability in that particular brand of hardware, though it might be simpler to call all home-based wireless routers gaping holes of insecurity than to list all the flaws in those of just one vendor. An even longer list of Linksys (and Cisco and Netgear) routers were identified in January as having a backdoor built into the original versions of their firmware in 2005 and never taken out. Serious as those flaws are, they don’t compare to the list of vulnerabilities resulting from an impossibly complex mesh of sophisticated network services that make nearly every router aimed at homes or small offices an easy target for attack, according to network-security penetration- and testing services. For example, wireless routers (especially home routers owned by technically challenged consumers) are riddled with security holes stemming from design goals that emphasize usability over security, which often puts consumers at risk from malware or attacks on devices they don’t know how to monitor, but through which flow all their personal and financial information via links to online banking, entertainment, credit cards and even direct connections to their work networks, according to a condemnation of the Home Network Administration Protocol (HNAP) from Tenable Network Security. Meanwhile, a January 2013 study from Rapid7 found 40 million to 50 million network-enabled devices, including nearly all home routers, were vulnerable to exploits using UPnP. Is there any way to fix this target-rich environment?
Nerval's Lobster writes: A recent article on Reactive Programming, which suggested that five lines of Reactive could solve a problem that required 500 lines using Java or 200 lines using triggers, led many readers to question (passionately) whether Reactive enables you to address not just typical problems, but complex ones as well. In a follow-up column, Espresso Logic CTO Val Huber argues that, while it certainly can’t solve all use cases, Reactive Programming is very capable of addressing many complex problems, and can address all other scenarios via a transparent integration with procedural languages. He shows how Reactive can handle complexity using two different scenarios: a classically complicated database application (a bill of materials price rollup) and procedural integration (to address external systems such as email and transactions not limited by a database update). Take a look at his work; do you agree?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Earlier in February, Tribune Company completed the $170 million acquisition of Gracenote, a deal originally set in motion in late 2013. The merger is an unusual one: Gracenote owns a massive library of media metadata, and the Tribune Company is best known as the publisher of print newspapers and tabloids, most notably its flagship paper in Chicago. Regardless of the Tribune Company’s specific plans for Gracenote’s datasets and technical infrastructure, it spent a hefty amount of cash on an entity devoted solely to compiling metadata about copyrightable works owned by third parties: In other words, Gracenote still commands a nine-figure price tag when its primary product, to put it bluntly, amounts to footnotes and annotations to media for which it doesn’t have licenses or rights. But here's where it potentially gets a little spooky: while the titles of the songs in your playlists shouldn’t be conflated with records of your phone calls, services such as Gracenote's upcoming Rhythm Internet-radio service (which leans heavily on user preferences and behavior) may help Gracenote partially convert its library of media metadata into a library of user data. “We do have big hopes for that part of our business going forward,” Gracenote president Stephen White confirmed to Slashdot. That makes privacy advocates a little nervous. “We’re seeing, especially with the ad space, that companies are trying to get user information from all different sources, and it’s not just what brands are looking for anymore,” Ari Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Slashdot. “They’re trying to get location data, financial data, habits, family so I’m not surprised that audio data could be one of the big facets." (For his part, White insists that Gracenote is careful with data collection.) The Gracenote saga suggests that metadata — even the type that doesn't come from phones or social networks — is more valuable than ever, which is liable to get some companies really excited... and make a whole lot of people very, very nervous.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Most Americans don't have solid knowledge of scientific concepts, but most of them admire scientists, according to a new survey conducted by the National Science Foundation. More than 90 percent of Americans agree that scientists “are helping to solve challenging problems,” and are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity,” according to the survey, released Feb. 14 by Michigan State University, faculty members of which reviewed the data and wrote the analysis. A third of the 2,200 Americans surveyed by the NSF think science and technology research should get more funding, and 90 percent thought the benefits outweighed the potential dangers. Respect is one thing, however; understanding is another. Only 74 percent of Americans surveyed knew the Earth revolves around the Sun. Only 48 percent know humans evolved from earlier species of animal. The biennial study does more than measure the relative ignorance of ordinary Americans, however. It also analyzes the type and amount of scientific and technical research being done by the United States in order to compare the performance of the U.S. with that of the rest of the world. R&D funding is also highest in the U.S. , with total spending of $429 billion during 2011 compared to $208 billion for China and $147 billion for Japan. R&D in the U.S. amounted to 30 percent of the world total during 2011 compared to 15 percent for China, 10 percent for Japan and 22 percent for all of the European Union. The amount of R&D being done in smaller countries is rising so quickly, however, that the overall percentage of global R&D accounted for by the U.S. dropped from 37 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2011, despite continuing increases in the actual number of dollars spent.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Nearly 30 years after Super Mario Bros., video game graphics have advanced to heights that once seemed impossible. Modern sports games are fueled by motion capture of actual athletes, and narrative-driven adventures can seem more like interactive movies than games. But gaming’s increasing realism brings a side effect—a game can now fall into the “uncanny valley,” a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1970. John Brodkin talked to game developers, engineers, motion scientists and a variety of other folks about the "uncanny valley problem," in which (some) people feel revolted when confronted by a robot or digital character that doesn't quite look real. In games where human-like characters are necessary, the uncanny valley can be an even bigger problem than in animated movies; gamers control characters rather than just watching them, creating more opportunities for the illusion of realism to falter. New and better tools can help developers and animators deal with some of these issues, but crossing the "valley" successfully still remains a challenge. Or is crossing it even possible at all?