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Mobile Technology News, April 3, 2014

As developers for tablets and smartphones we like to keep abreast of the latest mobile technology developments . This is a daily digest of mobile development and related technology news gathered from the BBC, the New York Times, New Scientist and the Globe and Mail to name a few. We scour the web for articles concerning, iPhone, iPad and android development, iOS and android operating systems as well as general articles on advances in mobile technology. We hope you find this useful and that it helps to keep you up to date with the latest technology developments.

  • U.S. Secretly Created 'Cuban Twitter' To Undermine Communist Government
    WASHINGTON (AP) — In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.

    McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government. McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.

    According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo — slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.

    Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content”: news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

    At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes.

    “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”

    The program’s legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. McSpedon, the most senior official named in the documents obtained by the AP, is a mid-level manager who declined to comment.

    USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said the agency is proud of its Cuba programs and noted that congressional investigators reviewed them last year and found them to be consistent with U.S. law.

    “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world,” he said.

    “In the implementation,” he added, “has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”

    But the ZunZuneo program muddies those claims, a sensitive issue for its mission to promote democracy and deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — which requires the trust of foreign governments.

    “On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee.

    “There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.”

    The Associated Press obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development. The AP independently verified the project’s scope and details in the documents — such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates — through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those directly involved in ZunZuneo.

    Taken together, they tell the story of how agents of the U.S. government, working in deep secrecy, became tech entrepreneurs — in Cuba. And it all began with a half a million cellphone numbers obtained from a communist government.


    ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from the Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.

    It is unclear whether the plan got its start with USAID or Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., for-profit company that has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts. But a “key contact” at Cubacel, the state-owned cellphone provider, slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer living in Spain. The engineer provided the numbers to USAID and Creative Associates “free of charge,” documents show.

    In mid-2009, Noy Villalobos, a manager with Creative Associates who had worked with USAID in the 1990s on a program to eradicate drug crops, started an IM chat with her little brother in Nicaragua, according to a Creative Associates email that captured the conversation. Mario Bernheim, in his mid-20s, was an up-and-coming techie who had made a name for himself as a computer whiz.

    “This is very confidential of course,” Villalobos cautioned her brother. But what could you do if you had all the cellphone numbers of a particular country? Could you send bulk text messages without the government knowing?

    “Can you encrypt it or something?” she texted.

    She was looking for a direct line to regular Cubans through text messaging. Most had precious little access to news from the outside world. The government viewed the Internet as an Achilles’ heel and controlled it accordingly. A communications minister had even referred to it as a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.”

    Yet in the years since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, Cuba had sought to jumpstart the long stagnant economy. Raul Castro began encouraging cellphone use, and hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly using mobile phones for the first time, though smartphones with access to the Internet remained restricted.

    Cubans could text message, though at a high cost in a country where the average wage was a mere $20 a month.

    Bernheim told his sister that he could figure out a way to send instant texts to hundreds of thousands of Cubans— for cheap. It could not be encrypted though, because that would be too complicated. They wouldn’t be able to hide the messages from the Cuban government, which owned Cubacel. But they could disguise who was sending the texts by constantly switching the countries the messages came from.

    “We could rotate it from different countries?” Villalobos asked. “Say one message from Nica, another from Spain, another from Mexico”?

    Bernheim could do that. “But I would need mirrors set up around the world, mirrors, meaning the same computer, running with the same platform, with the same phone.”

    “No hay problema,” he signed off. No problem.


    After the chat, Creative hired Bernheim as a subcontractor, reporting to his sister. (Villalobos and Bernheim would later confirm their involvement with the ZunZuneo project to AP, but decline further comment.) Bernheim, in turn, signed up the Cuban engineer who had gotten the phone list. The team figured out how to message the masses without detection, but their ambitions were bigger.

    Creative Associates envisioned using the list to create a social networking system that would be called “Proyecto ZZ,” or “Project ZZ.” The service would start cautiously and be marketed chiefly to young Cubans, who USAID saw as the most open to political change.

    “We should gradually increase the risk,” USAID proposed in a document. It advocated using “smart mobs” only in “critical/opportunistic situations and not at the detriment of our core platform-based network.”

    USAID’s team of contractors and subcontractors built a companion website to its text service so Cubans could subscribe, give feedback and send their own text messages for free. They talked about how to make the website look like a real business. “Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” a proposal suggested.

    In multiple documents, USAID staff pointed out that text messaging had mobilized smart mobs and political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines, among others. In Iran, the USAID noted social media’s role following the disputed election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 — and saw it as an important foreign policy tool.

    USAID documents say their strategic objective in Cuba was to “push it out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again towards democratic change.” Democratic change in authoritarian Cuba meant breaking the Castros’ grip on power.

    USAID divided Cuban society into five segments depending on loyalty to the government. On one side sat the “democratic movement,” called “still (largely) irrelevant,” and at the other end were the “hard-core system supporters,” dubbed “Talibanes” in a derogatory comparison to Afghan and Pakistani extremists.

    A key question was how to move more people toward the democratic activist camp without detection. Bernheim assured the team that wouldn’t be a problem.

    “The Cuban government, like other regimes committed to information control, currently lacks the capacity to effectively monitor and control such a service,” Bernheim wrote in a proposal for USAID marked “Sensitive Information.”

    ZunZuneo would use the list of phone numbers to break Cuba’s Internet embargo and not only deliver information to Cubans but also let them interact with each other in a way the government could not control. Eventually it would build a system that would let Cubans send messages anonymously among themselves.

    At a strategy meeting, the company discussed building “user volume as a cover … for organization,” according to meeting notes. It also suggested that the “Landscape needs to be large enough to hide full opposition members who may sign up for service.”

    In a play on the telecommunication minister’s quote, the team dubbed their network the “untamed colt.”


    At first, the ZunZuneo team operated out of Central America. Bernheim, the techie brother, worked from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, while McSpedon supervised Creative’s work on ZunZuneo from an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, though separate from the U.S. embassy. It was an unusual arrangement that raised eyebrows in Washington, according to U.S. officials.

    McSpedon worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments — without the usual red tape.

    In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work “often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” Staffers on oversight committees complained that USAID was running secret programs and would not provide details.

    “We were told we couldn’t even be told in broad terms what was happening because ‘people will die,'” said Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Before that, he was the US intelligence community’s most senior analyst on Latin America, advising the Clinton White House.

    The money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show. But there is no indication of where the funds were actually spent.

    Tensions with Congress spiked just as the ZunZuneo project was gearing up in December 2009, when another USAID program ended in the arrest of the U.S. contractor, Alan Gross. Gross had traveled repeatedly to Cuba on a secret mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, a mission first revealed in February 2012 by AP.

    At some point, Armstrong says, the foreign relations committee became aware of OTI’s secret operations in Costa Rica. U.S. government officials acknowledged them privately to Armstrong, but USAID refused to provide operational details.

    At an event in Washington, Armstrong says he confronted McSpedon, asking him if he was aware that by operating secret programs from a third country, it might appear like he worked for an intelligence agency.

    McSpedon, through USAID, said the story is not true. He declined to comment otherwise.


    On Sept. 20, 2009, thousands of Cubans gathered at Revolution Plaza in Havana for Colombian rocker Juanes’ “Peace without Borders” concert. It was the largest public gathering in Cuba since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998. Under the watchful gaze of a giant sculpture of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Miami-based Juanes promised music aimed at “turning hate into love.”

    But for the ZunZuneo team, the concert was a perfect opportunity to test the political power of their budding social network. In the weeks before, Bernheim’s firm, using the phone list, sent out a half a million text messages in what it called “blasts,” to test what the Cuban government would do.

    The team hired Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in Chile, to write Cuban-style messages. Some were mildly political and comical, others more pointed. One asked respondents whether they thought two popular local music acts out of favor with the government should join the stage with Juanes. Some 100,000 people responded — not realizing the poll was used to gather critical intelligence.

    Paula Cambronero, a researcher for Mobile Accord, began building a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”

    Cambronero concluded that the team had to be careful. “Messages with a humorous connotation should not contain a strong political tendency, so as not to create animosity in the recipients,” she wrote in a report.

    Falcon, in an interview, said he was never told that he was composing messages for a U.S. government program, but he had no regrets about his involvement.

    “They didn’t tell me anything, and if they had, I would have done it anyway,” he said. “In Cuba they don’t have freedom. While a government forces me to pay in order to visit my country, makes me ask permission, and limits my communications, I will be against it, whether it’s Fidel Castro, (Cuban exile leader) Jorge Mas Canosa or Gloria Estefan,” the Cuban American singer.

    Carlos Sanchez Almeida, a lawyer specializing in European data protection law, said it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team had illegally gathered personal data from the phone list and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish platform. “The illegal release of information is a crime, and using information to create a list of people by political affiliation is totally prohibited by Spanish law,” Almeida said. It would violate a U.S-European data protection agreement, he said.

    USAID saw evidence from server records that Havana had tried to trace the texts, to break into ZunZuneo’s servers, and had occasionally blocked messages. But USAID called the response “timid” and concluded that ZunZuneo would be viable — if its origins stayed secret.

    Even though Cuba has one of the most sophisticated counter-intelligence operations in the world, the ZunZuneo team thought that as long as the message service looked benign, Cubacel would leave it alone.

    Once the network had critical mass, Creative and USAID documents argued, it would be harder for the Cuban government to shut it down, both because of popular demand and because Cubacel would be addicted to the revenues from the text messages.

    In February 2010, the company introduced Cubans to ZunZuneo and began marketing. Within six months, it had almost 25,000 subscribers, growing faster and drawing more attention than the USAID team could control.


    Saimi Reyes Carmona was a journalism student at the University of Havana when she stumbled onto ZunZuneo. She was intrigued by the service’s novelty, and the price. The advertisement said “free messages” so she signed up using her nickname, Saimita.

    At first, ZunZuneo was a very tiny platform, Reyes said during a recent interview in Havana, but one day she went to its website and saw its services had expanded.

    “I began sending one message every day,” she said, the maximum allowed at the start. “I didn’t have practically any followers.” She was thrilled every time she got a new one.

    And then ZunZuneo exploded in popularity.

    “The whole world wanted in, and in a question of months I had 2,000 followers who I have no idea who they are, nor where they came from.”

    She let her followers know the day of her birthday, and was surprised when she got some 15 personal messages. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” she told her boyfriend, Ernesto Guerra Valdes, also a journalism student.

    Before long, Reyes learned she had the second highest number of followers on the island, after a user called UCI, which the students figured was Havana’s University of Computer Sciences. Her boyfriend had 1,000. The two were amazed at the reach it gave them.

    “It was such a marvelous thing,” Guerra said. “So noble.” He and Reyes tried to figure out who was behind ZunZuneo, since the technology to run it had to be expensive, but they found nothing. They were grateful though.

    “We always found it strange, that generosity and kindness,” he said. ZunZuneo was “the fairy godmother of cellphones.”


    By early 2010, Creative decided that ZunZuneo was so popular Bernheim’s company wasn’t sophisticated enough to build, in effect, “a scaled down version of Twitter.”

    It turned to another young techie, James Eberhard, CEO of Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc. Eberhard had pioneered the use of text messaging for donations during disasters and had raised tens of millions of dollars after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

    Eberhard earned millions in his mid-20s when he sold a company that developed cellphone ring tones and games. His company’s website describes him as “a visionary within the global mobile community.”

    In July, he flew to Barcelona to join McSpedon, Bernheim, and others to work out what they called a “below the radar strategy.”

    “If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever was, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel, but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people,” Mobile Accord noted in a memo.

    To cover their tracks, they decided to have a company based in the United Kingdom set up a corporation in Spain to run ZunZuneo. A separate company called MovilChat was created in the Cayman Islands, a well-known offshore tax haven, with an account at the island’s Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Ltd. to pay the bills.

    A memo of the meeting in Barcelona says that the front companies would distance ZunZuneo from any U.S. ownership so that the “money trail will not trace back to America.”

    But it wasn’t just the money they were worried about. They had to hide the origins of the texts, according to documents and interviews with team members.

    Brad Blanken, the former chief operating officer of Mobile Accord, left the project early on, but noted that there were two main criteria for success.

    “The biggest challenge with creating something like this is getting the phone numbers,” Blanken said. “And then the ability to spoof the network.”

    The team of contractors set up servers in Spain and Ireland to process texts, contracting an independent Spanish company called Lleida.net to send the text messages back to Cuba, while stripping off identifying data.

    Mobile Accord also sought intelligence from engineers at the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, which organizers said would “have knowledge of Cubacel’s network.”

    “Understanding the security and monitoring protocols of Cubacel will be an invaluable asset to avoid unnecessary detection by the carrier,” one Mobile Accord memo read.

    Officials at USAID realized however, that they could not conceal their involvement forever — unless they left the stage. The predicament was summarized bluntly when Eberhard was in Washington for a strategy session in early February 2011, where his company noted the “inherent contradiction” of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.

    They turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on social media projects, and others. Dorsey declined to comment.

    The State Department under then-Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton thought social media was an important tool in diplomacy. At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, Clinton said the U.S. helped people in “oppressive Internet environments get around filters.” In Tunisia, she said people used technology to “organize and share grievances, which, as we know, helped fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change.”

    Ultimately, the solution was new management that could separate ZunZuneo from its U.S. origins and raise enough revenue for it to go “independent,” even as it kept its long-term strategy to bring about “democratic change.”

    Eberhard led the recruitment efforts, a sensitive operation because he intended to keep the management of the Spanish company in the dark.

    “The ZZ management team will have no knowledge of the true origin of the operation; as far as they know, the platform was established by Mobile Accord,” the memo said. “There should be zero doubt in management’s mind and no insecurities or concerns about United States Government involvement.”

    The memo went on to say that the CEO’s clean conscience would be “particularly critical when dealing with Cubacel.” Sensitive to the high cost of text messages for average Cubans, ZunZuneo negotiated a bulk rate for texts at 4 cents a pop through a Spanish intermediary. Documents show there was hope that an earnest, clueless CEO might be able to persuade Cubacel to back the project.

    Mobile Accord considered a dozen candidates from five countries to head the Spanish front company. One of them was Francoise de Valera, a CEO who was vacationing in Dubai when she was approached for an interview. She flew to Barcelona. At the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, she met with Nim Patel, who at the time was Mobile Accord’s president. Eberhard had also flown in for the interviews. But she said she couldn’t get a straight answer about what they were looking for.

    “They talked to me about instant messaging but nothing about Cuba, or the United States,” she told the AP in an interview from London.

    “If I had been offered and accepted the role, I believe that sooner or later it would have become apparent to me that something wasn’t right,” she said.


    By early 2011, Creative Associates grew exasperated with Mobile Accord’s failure to make ZunZuneo self-sustaining and independent of the U.S. government. The operation had run into an unsolvable problem. USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.

    In a searing evaluation, Creative Associates said Mobile Accord had ignored sustainability because “it has felt comfortable receiving USG financing to move the venture forward.”

    Out of 60 points awarded for performance, Mobile Accord scored 34 points. Creative Associates complained that Mobile Accord’s understanding of the social mission of the project was weak, and gave it 3 out of 10 points for “commitment to our Program goals.”

    Mobile Accord declined to comment on the program.

    In increasingly impatient tones, Creative Associates pressed Mobile Accord to find new revenue that would pay the bills. Mobile Accord suggested selling targeted advertisements in Cuba, but even with projections of up to a million ZunZuneo subscribers, advertising in a state-run economy would amount to a pittance.

    By March 2011, ZunZuneo had about 40,000 subscribers. To keep a lower profile, it abandoned previous hopes of reaching 200,000 and instead capped the number of subscribers at a lower number. It limited ZunZuneo’s text messages to less than one percent of the total in Cuba, so as to avoid the notice of Cuban authorities. Though one former ZunZuneo worker — who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about his work — said the Cubans were catching on and had tried to block the site.


    Toward the middle of 2012, Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all.

    ZunZuneo vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.

    By June 2012, users who had access to Facebook and Twitter were wondering what had happened.

    “Where can you pick up messages from ZunZuneo?” one woman asked on Facebook in November 2012. “Why aren’t I receiving them anymore?”

    Users who went to ZunZuneo’s website were sent to a children’s website with a similar name.

    Reyner Aguero, a 25-year-old blogger, said he and fellow students at Havana’s University of Computer Sciences tried to track it down. Someone had rerouted the website through DNS blocking, a censorship technique initially developed back in the 1990s. Intelligence officers later told the students that ZunZuneo was blacklisted, he said.

    “ZunZuneo, like everything else they did not control, was a threat,” Aguero said. “Period.”

    In incorrect Spanish, ZunZuneo posted a note on its Facebook page saying it was aware of problems accessing the website and that it was trying to resolve them.

    ” ¡Que viva el ZunZuneo!” the message said. Long live ZunZuneo!

    In February, when Saimi Reyes, and her boyfriend, Ernesto Guerra, learned the origins of ZunZuneo, they were stunned.

    “How was I supposed to realize that?” Guerra asked. “It’s not like there was a sign saying ‘Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.”

    “Besides, there was nothing wrong. If I had started getting subversive messages or death threats or ‘Everyone into the streets,'” he laughed, “I would have said, ‘OK,’ there’s something fishy about this. But nothing like that happened.”

    USAID says the program ended when the money ran out. The Cuban government declined to comment.

    The former web domain is now a placeholder, for sale for $299. The registration for MovilChat, the Cayman Islands front company, was set to expire on March 31.

    In Cuba, nothing has come close to replacing it. Internet service still is restricted.

    “The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared was like a vacuum,” Guerra said. “People texted my phone, ‘What is happening with ZunZuneo?’

    “In the end, we never learned what happened,” he said. “We never learned where it came from.”


    Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, and AP writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Arce reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.


    Contact the AP’s Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. Follow on Twitter: Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler; Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum; Arce at http://twitter.com/alberarce.

  • The Coupons App Updated with 1000s of New Local Coupons

    The Coupons App LLC announced today that its pioneering no-cost app The Coupons App now features thousands of new local coupons and Groupons to help people around the world save big at their favorite stores, restaurants, gas stations and more.
    Since launching in 2008, The Coupons App has become the […]

    The post The Coupons App Updated with 1000s of New Local Coupons appeared first on AlliOSNews.

  • Bioshock and Bioshock 2 for Mac 50% off – $9.99 Each

    Feral Interactive have a great sale going on in the Mac App Store on Bioshock and Bioshock 2.  Both games are on sale for a limited time for $9.99, a full 50% off the regular price.  The alternate universal games have been a huge hit on consoles and PCs for many years and now we Mac users get to […]

    The post Bioshock and Bioshock 2 for Mac 50% off – $9.99 Each appeared first on AlliOSNews.

  • ‘Revenge porn’ increasing in the UK
    Women’s charities and one of the UK’s leading online support groups have told Newsbeat they’re dealing with a rise in complaints about “revenge porn”.
  • VIDEO: Revenge porn victim: I trusted him
    Anisha explains how having explicit pictures of her online has affected her life.
  • Briefly: Bolt portable USB wall charger, BBC iPlayer apps add Chromeca
    Reign23 has released its combination USB wall charger and rechargeable portable battery, Bolt. Its portable battery has a 3000mAh capacity, large enough for two full charges of an iPhone or other mobile device. Initially launched as a Kickstarter project in 2013, Bolt is small, at 2.75-inches by 1.33-inches by 1.10-inches. Its smart charge technology automatically bypasses the battery when fully charged, and is available in blue and black color options. Priced at $60, the Bolt USB Wall Charger and Battery can be purchased online.


  • Yahoo adds more data security
    Internet giant Yahoo says in a blog post that all of the traffic to its data centres is now encrypted and that it plans to add additional security services.
  • Those Tech Busses Impact Silicon Valley As Well As San Francisco
    I have mixed feelings when I see those mostly double-deck buses on Highway 101 shuttling tech workers between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Based on a recent survey, so do San Francisco voters. On one hand, I’d much rather see the buses than the thousands of cars they replace. The shuttles, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, transport more than 35,000 people a day and eliminate at least “45 million vehicle miles traveled and 761,000 metric tons of carbon every year from the region’s roads and air.”

    As a fellow driver on 101, I also feel safer sharing the road with a relatively small number of professional bus drivers versus thousands of tired and distracted tech workers. And while it might not benefit me or the public, I am glad to know that the workers in these companies have the option of being more relaxed or productive during their commute.

    Impact on communities

    But like many in the Bay Area, I also worry about their impact on local communities.

    The concern among some San Franciscans is well known. There are vocal critics who say that the demands of well-heeled Silicon Valley tech workers are pricing lower and even middle-income San Franciscans out of the housing market. There is also concern about the impact they’re having on the culture of the city.

    A sour note for some musicians

    Inexpensive food joints are being replaced by upscale restaurants that many locals can’t afford and might not even enjoy. Artists and musicians are leaving the city. My professional musician son, Will Magid, who left San Francisco last year for other reasons, told me that the low-cost apartment he rented in the Mission district is now much more expensive than it was when he left about a year ago. The reasons people are leaving, he said “are both economic and cultural.” It’s not just increased rent, it’s also changes to the fabric of the community.

    Yet, a recent survey conducted by EMC Research and commissioned by the Bay Area Council, a business organization, shows that most San Franciscans have a positive attitude about tech workers. The survey of 500 likely San Francisco voters conducted earlier this month found that 72 percent have a favorable opinion of tech workers, while 56 percent were strongly or somewhat favorable to employee shuttle buses. Nearly 80 percent feel that recent growth in the tech sector has been good for San Francisco.

    But the survey also found that less than half of respondents (45 percent) said that their household has “benefited from the recent growth in the technology sector,” with 26 percent strongly disagreeing with that assertion. And nearly 6 in 10 (59 percent) said that “preventing eviction and neighborhood gentrification” is important or very important.

    Affects Silicon Valley too

    While I empathize with our neighbors in San Francisco, I also worry about what this northerly migration is doing to Silicon Valley. Just as cities started to suffer in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s as workers moved to the suburbs, I worry that Silicon Valley is not taking full advantage of the energy and cultural and economic benefits we might otherwise enjoy if more of these workers were living in Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, Sunnyvale and Redwood City and other parts of Silicon Valley.

    While Silicon Valley is far from a ghost town on weekends, it’s not nearly as vibrant as San Francisco. Much of that is inevitable considering the uniqueness of San Francisco, but I can’t help wonder what the night life and music scene would be like in the valley if more young and well-paid tech workers lived here.

    I also wonder whether the tech industry is having as much impact on local business as it could. I frequently patronize restaurants not far from Google and Facebook and don’t see large crowds at lunch time. Why should workers spend the time and money to eat off-campus when they have great free food right at work? Sure, those companies are employing cooks and other service workers, but it would be nice to share a bit more of the wealth with local businesses.

    Of course, wherever tech workers live, they’ll need things like clothing, toothpaste, shoes and other necessities that once helped local businesses thrive. But, thanks to Amazon and other online merchants, even that trickle-down effect is severely diminished.

    But I must admit I’m a bit jealous. No one offered me a free ride during the years I commuted between my home in Silicon Valley and my office in San Francisco. For that matter, no one offered me free meals, free laundry service, subsidized day care or many of the other perks some Silicon Valley tech workers enjoy.

    This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

  • Amazon May Have Just Fixed One Of The Worst Features In Tech
    If I were to assemble a list of cool technologies that are more annoying than useful, speech recognition would rank pretty high. In my experience, it’s mostly been a gimmick: Using the dictation feature on my smartphone to compose text messages or emails while walking makes me feel like I should seek professional help. I have never actually found Siri useful. And talking to a robotic customer service rep on the phone usually drives me to repeat “operator” over and over.

    Then I tried the voice search function on Amazon’s Fire TV, the $99 media streaming box Amazon announced on Wednesday. It’s no gimmick.

    Amazon’s Fire TV, like Apple TV and Roku, are streaming boxes that connect to your TV and allow you to watch Web programming like Netflix and Hulu Plus on the biggest screen in your home.

    But streaming boxes have long drawn the ire of consumers because using remotes to search for what you want to watch can be a long and painful process. Finding a TV show or movie can require moving a cursor along a grid of letters, sometimes arranged A-Z rather than like a typical keyboard.

    But with Amazon’s Fire TV, all it takes to find what you want to watch is the touch of a button and your voice. I’ve been playing with this feature since I set up a review version of the Fire TV on Wednesday afternoon. I’m impressed.

    Here’s how it works: Hold down the microphone button on the remote, and speak your query into the top of the remote, like it’s a microphone. When you’re done speaking, lift the button, and the text of your search appears on the screen. When you click it, you’re quickly taken to whatever you asked for. Since the remote uses Bluetooth to communicate with the Fire TV, you don’t need to point it at the device. (Looking at you, Apple TV.)

    Unlike speech recognition on other devices, Fire TV doesn’t need to get to know you and learn your voice, so anyone at your home watching TV can use the search function. And you can search for pretty much anything — the name of a TV show, a movie, an actor, or a genre of movies. You can also search for apps and games. I made dozens of queries, including “comedies,” “Kevin Spacey,” “American Hustle,” “Netflix,” “action films,” “Tunein,” “mysteries,” and, for good measure, “Gary Busey.”

    I did manage to stump Fire TV’s voice search a couple of times. It never returned accurate results when I searched for Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year for her performance in “12 Years a Slave.” (I even played a YouTube video of the actress herself pronouncing her own name, and it still didn’t work.) Nor did it work the first time I searched for “kids movies.” It thought I said “it’s movies.” Despite these hiccups, voice search works incredibly well.

    So, as one of my colleagues asked me Wednesday afternoon: Is it time to throw the Roku out the window? To her, and everyone else who may have that question, the answer is not yet.

    Although the voice control feature is great, I’m hard-pressed to say that alone makes Fire TV worth $99. After all, as they say, content is king, and as Dan Rayburn, the executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com pointed out, Amazon still lags behind longtime streaming player maker Roku, and even Apple TV, when it comes to important content. Missing from its lineup of apps is HBO Go, one of the most popular apps on Roku. Amazon says it’s working with HBO to get the app, but it doesn’t have a timeline for when that will be.

    (When I did voice searches for “True Detective,” the hugely popular HBO show that crashed HBO Go a few weeks ago, Fire TV returned what it thought are similar titles — movies about serial killers and titles starring Matthew McConaughey, one of True Detective’s leads. A search for “Veep,” another HBO show, returned the option to buy the first season for $22.99)

    Also missing, as Rayburn pointed out, are sports apps from the NHL, MLB and NBA that are available on Apple TV and Roku.

    Amazon may counter by saying — “Wait! This is also a great game console.” Sure, it has games, and for an additional $39, you can buy a gaming controller. But let’s face it. You’re probably not going to buy Fire TV just to play games — you’re going to buy it to watch Netflix, Hulu and other services on your TV.

    Amazon would also point to the speed of the device. It has 2 gigabytes of memory, compared with 512 megabytes for Apple TV and Roku 3. And yes, it’s fast. But I’ve used both an Apple TV and Roku 3 regularly, and I’ve never found myself frustrated that they weren’t faster.

    Fire TV also lacks one of the best features of Roku 2 and Roku 3: A headphone jack on the remote that allows for private viewing, without disturbing others in your home.

    So if you’re in the market for a streaming player, ask yourself what’s important. If you just want to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go on your TV, consider a less expensive option, like a Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast. If voice search and games are important, and you can, at least for now, live without HBO Go and everything else that’s not available on Fire TV, then you’ll be happy with Amazon’s latest gadget.

    That is, until Apple releases its next generation Apple TV …

    The original version of this article has been edited to change the term “voice recognition” to “speech recognition.”

  • Jaron Lanier Interview: Maximum Openness = Maximum Closedness

    Hopefully — and it’s hard for man to make that jump — hopefully at the end [of Insect Gods] you don’t care about the fate of the few. You don’t care about the fate of man. You see that civilization has advanced in another way. That it’s the roaches that have inherited the Earth. That have become the gods. ( Saturday Night Live comic Michael O’Donoghue in conversation with me in 1979)

    Great minds think alike — at least the minds of late Saturday Night Live comedic genius Michael O’Donoghue and Jaron Lanier, the “father of virtual reality” and the author of the book Who Owns the Future?

    In the late ’70s O’Donoghue was in pre-production on an end-of-the-world film about the ascendancy of the New York cockroach into a diaphanous creature that would replace humans. The film was an homage to Roger Corman, and O’Donoghue told me it had to be shot in black-and-white and had rejected funding for a color production. Sadly, we lost Michael, and Insect Gods never got made.

    Two decades later futurist Jaron Lanier et al. wrote to The New York Times that they had a way to preserve archives for 1,000 years that would survive various disaster scenarios, claiming that with a budget of $75,000 they could implant the robust New York cockroach with a “time capsule” of back copies of the New York Times Magazine and then release a certain volume of the archival insects (eight cubic feet) to breed all over Manhattan. Unlike O’Donoghue’s scheme, Lanier’s was not intended as black humor.

    However, more recent experimenters have demonstrated that commands can be successfully sent from a mobile phone or a PC to live cockroaches. So descendants of the Lanier-implanted roaches could have been sabotaged, posing an even greater challenge to New York City and beyond, possibly unleashing O’Donoghue’s vision.

    The rest is history. Lanier, a vulnerable man with a Hitchcock-like profile, Rasta hair and generous eyes, has become an international media darling as virtual-reality pioneer, musician and visual artist. Once a goatherd, and with no formal college education, only honorary Ph.D.s, he is cited as one of the most interesting thinkers alive. He is not a physicist, yet his is the lead endorsement on physicist Lee Smolin‘s recent, provocative book, Time Reborn. (Curiously, the other lead endorsement on the book is not from a physicist either. Brockman-book-agent common thread here?)

    In Who Owns the Future? Lanier describes himself as a “humanist softie,” and he seems to really enjoy being a father. As we spoke by phone, for instance, Lanier playfully cautioned his young daughter, just back from outdoors, that the pollen in her hair might sprout. In fact, Lanier has dedicated the book to his daughter, and “[t]o everyone my daughter will know as she grows up,” saying further, “I hope she will be able to invent her place in a world in which it’s normal to find success and fulfillment.”

    Indeed, Lanier’s concerns and pronouncements in Who Owns the Future?, now in paperback, are chilling regarding the consolidation of power enabled by the digital world. In our recent phone conversation he told me that “maximum openness actually turns out to be maximum closedness,” referring to the five big tightly controlled platforms.

    We also discussed my interest in who owns the origin of life, touching on the secretive, privately funded world of protocell development.

    I find the most compelling part of Lanier’s book his hopeful exploration of the idea of people being financially compensated for their online contribution instead of being “exploited” (the caveat being ramped-up tracking):

    The existence of advanced networking creates the option of directly compensating people for the value they bring to the information space instead of having a giant bureaucracy in the middle, which could only implement an extremely crude and distorting approximation of fairness.

    I also adore Lanier’s attention to the real nitty-gritty, “the end of laundry and never having to wear the same dress twice” — something I once discussed with fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Lanier predicts a countertrend to this technology, as well (i.e., greater reverence for vintage and handmade clothing). Bill Blass would have agreed.

    Excerpts of my conversation with Jaron Lanier about the future and who owns it follow:

    Suzan Mazur: You’ve written a book titled Who Owns the Future?. Do you have concerns about a few people, privately funded, acting as intelligent designers of more or less a second genesis on Earth? Also, do you have concerns about what they will create?

    Jaron Lanier: I have what I hope is a somewhat nuanced position on that. I know some of the people in the protocell world and think for the most part they’re good eggs. That world is somewhat more ethically aware than the computer-science world, for instance, which is spying on people, taking advantage of people, doing damage to the economy.

    I am, of course, concerned — as you are — with the small number of people making protocells, the extreme control, and that it’s being facilitated by a few rich people instead of being publicly funded.

    Suzan Mazur: Have you been inside some of the protocell labs?

    Jaron Lanier: Sure.

    Suzan Mazur: Of these half-dozen protocell labs, you’ve been to one or two of them? You’ve been to Szostak’s lab and to Gerry Joyce’s?

    Jaron Lanier: I’ve been to three labs.

    Suzan Mazur: Did you have to sign a confidentiality agreement?

    Jaron Lanier: I have not signed confidentiality agreements. There might be some that are implied. I’m of the tech and science world.

    Suzan Mazur: They trust you.

    Jaron Lanier: This notion of very tight control and a very narrow super-elite at work is not exclusive to the protocell labs. The whole world is like that right now. The computer cloud that works with artificial intelligence and works with machine learning with giant databases is also restricted to the five big platforms, which are pretty tightly controlled, ultimately. The whole world has become one of tiny elites and the rest who are kind of left out. It’s a negative trend all around, with this being one good example.

    It blows my mind that, in a very twisted way, what seems to people like maximum openness actually turns out to be maximum closedness.

    Suzan Mazur: How soon do you think we’ll have a protocell?

    Jaron Lanier: I don’t really know. I’m kind of more interested in trying to figure out some way to develop a better empirical technique so we can really know what we’ve done. I think there’s a tremendous fallacy in the field to think that you can see finality, like in computer programming, that you think you know what can happen.

    Suzan Mazur: Thinking that computer chemistry can replace bench chemistry, for instance?

    Jaron Lanier: Using simulations for virtual possibilities is perfectly worthwhile … [b]ut we can’t pretend that the simulation is reliable before really doing the very, very hard work.

    We’re all familiar with weather prediction. It has gotten better over time. And biology’s surely going to be harder than weather to predict. But because it’s so much harder to gather data on microbiology, we’re free to fantasize that we have more predictive power than we really do. That illusion is the one that really scares me.

    Suzan Mazur: Do you see life as algorithmic or nonalgorithmic?

    Jaron Lanier: I think it’s a misleading question because it depends on
    what you mean by algorithmic. In terms of formal algorithms we study in computer science or mathematics, these things do not ever really exist in physical reality at all. The very idea of a computer that can be described by an algorithm is a bit of a fantasy. What we do is we create an artificial zone where entropy [information] is suspended, and where there’s this perfect determinism for a period of time.

    It can’t last forever. That’s what we think of as a computer. And algorithms very quickly correspond to what we can achieve if we do that, but even then it’s not perfect. Things will always break down, after a while a cosmic ray will zap them, etc.

    Suzan Mazur: And so you don’t see life as algorithmic.

    Jaron Lanier: If by “algorithmic” you mean the thing that we study in computer science, it doesn’t even exist in reality. … If by “algorithmic” you just mean causal, then of course everything is algorithmic. The problem is you’re caught between two extreme definitions of “algorithmic,” and I don’t think there’s any middle one.

    Suzan Mazur: You describe yourself in your book as a “humanist softie” and have also said that we humans may have taken a wrong turn — implying our turn into the digital world — but that we did it for the right reasons. Other thinkers — Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, for instance — have said that we may have taken a wrong turn to the objective pole with our very focus on science, which Hut thinks can’t be purely objective anyway. Hut says there are other ways of knowing, that science has been only 1 percent of our human history, and that the other 99 percent — the subjective pole — needs further exploration. Would you comment?

    Jaron Lanier: I don’t think you can really do experiments with consciousness unless you do experiments with aspects of reality. I mean, I understand where Piet Hut’s coming from, certainly. I’m sympathetic with it, but as a practical matter, I don’t know what more you do with consciousness other than enjoy it.

    Suzan Mazur: David Orban, founder and director of Singularity’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence Europe, told me at a robotics conference in Bergamo a few months ago that people who don’t embrace robotics in the future will not be able to survive. Do you agree?

    Jaron Lanier: First of all, I think it’s the stupidest institute ever. It’s purely about this religious fantasy of superiority. The whole basis of it is repulsive. Yet the people there are great friends of mine. I admire them. We have fun together. And I tell them all this to their faces. I’ve also given talks at Singularity about how ridiculous I think it is.

    Here’s the problem. They say people won’t be able to survive if we don’t have robotics. Well, how is that different from saying, “Oh, if we don’t like the way people are, we’ll kill them.” What is the difference, ultimately?

    There’s a way in which the new sort of vaguely Asperger-like digital technocrat is absolutely lacking in any self-awareness of ethics or morality. It astounds me, again and again. They’re my friends, and we like each other, but I do think it’s astonishing.

    Suzan Mazur: The European Union is heavily investing in industrial robotics and will retrain workers for jobs lost to robotics. But can it work in the U.S., which is not a social democracy, where job retraining will be left to the unemployed to shoulder the cost?

    Jaron Lanier: I don’t even know if it can work in Europe. It can work in the early phase in Europe, perhaps, but you can’t have a situation where you pretend that all the people aren’t needed for anything and robots do the work. This gets to the illusion of Big Data. The truth is the only way to make machine learning algorithms work is robotics or autonomous systems. And it all depends on what we call Big Data, which means massive contributions from massive numbers of people. Without people creating examples, modifying them and reacting to them and all that, the machines can’t work. We’re pretending that people are less needed.

    Now, in the early phase you can train people to work with the robots. If you adhere to the artificial intelligence ideology, then gradually you’ll find a way to convince yourself that people aren’t needed. But you can’t have a 100-percent welfare state. So even Europe will break eventually. But the U.S. will break first certainly, as we’ll find out.

    Suzan Mazur: Is job application via computer one of the reasons so many people in the U.S. are unemployed? Do we need to go back to more human human-resources departments? Are the robots looking for catch phrases in CVs and failing to recognize human ability and capability at the other end of the computer? Do we need to return to a more human system of hiring?

    Jaron Lanier: It’s absolutely true that mechanization of human resources has been cruel and ridiculous. That’s very, very true. A lot of that was driven by liability avoidance, where if the machine did it, then a company couldn’t be sued for discrimination. We’re pretending that we’re doing things that are really needed but aren’t actually needed. It’s a giant illusion. I think the reason there are so few jobs for qualified people is that we’re exploiting those people online.

    Suzan Mazur: How far along are we in the digital world with the concept of rewarding people for their real contribution?

    Jaron Lanier: The problem still is that online there’s a way for you to pay for stuff but no way for you to earn your real value. People are adding value to all the cloud algorithms that allow artificial intelligence to operate, but there is as yet no way for those same people to benefit.

  • VIDEO: Magnetic implants boost hearing
    Midlands hospitals have become amongst the first in the country to fit new “magnetic implants” to help people with hearing loss.
  • NASA Cuts Most Ties With Russia's Space Agency Over Ukraine Crisis
    By Irene Klotz
    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 2 (Reuters) – NASA has been added to the list of U.S government agencies prohibited from contacting Russian government representatives, though operation of the International Space Station is exempt from the ban, officials said on Wednesday.
    “This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or video conferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted,” NASA Associate Administrator Michael O’Brien wrote in a memo to employees that was posted on the NASAWatch.com website.
    The gesture may be largely symbolic. The only major space project under direct U.S.-Russia control is the space station, a $100 billion research laboratory, owned by 15 nations, which flies about 250 miles (about 400 km) above Earth.
    Three Russian cosmonauts, two U.S. astronauts and one Japanese astronaut currently are living aboard the orbital outpost.
    “It’s not a major deal – and that’s appropriate because space cooperation is one of the few things that actually has gone relatively well with the Russians,” said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
    “If we want to express our opposition to their actions I hope that we would choose other instruments,” he added.
    The sanctions stem from Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. (Editing by Eric Walsh)
  • It's Not the End of the Internet as We Know It — Five Myths About the Recent U.S. Internet Announcement
    For more than two billion people around the world, the Internet is an indispensable part of daily life. Over the last five years, information created and shared online has increased nine-fold.i By 2015, the Internet will connect one trillion devices.ii

    One, open Internet offers enormous value — social networks now reach 80 percent of global users, for example, and the Internet economy will reach $4.2 trillion worldwide by 2016.iii But it also raises challenges. As the Internet expands, we must ensure that it continues to be a platform for choice and competition, drives innovation and infuses development across the globe.

    On Friday, March 14, 2014 the U.S. Government reinforced those ideals, announcing its intention to transition stewardship over some vital technical functions of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) to the global community — functions which ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has managed for more than 15 years.

    Unfortunately, some critics of the announcement have begun to speculate and report a number of inaccuracies as fact. Let me set the record straight.

    1. The announcement does NOT mean the United States is surrendering control of the Internet to Russia, China nor to any other country or government-led organization.

    The U.S. Government asked ICANN to initiate an inclusive, global discussion with clear caveats — the United States will “not accept a proposal that replaces the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”

    Governments will have a voice in determining the mechanism by which ICANN will be held accountable as it continues to perform these technical functions, but so will numerous other stakeholders.

    In the U.S. alone, these “others” will include familiar names such as Microsoft, AT&T, Cisco, Verizon, Facebook and Google; business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and Motion Picture Association of America; civil society groups such as Public Knowledge, and scholars at The Brookings Institute, Hudson Institute and American University. All of these organizations vocally support the move to a multistakeholder model, and are wholeheartedly committed to ensuring it advances Internet freedom.

    Neither the United States nor the global community will allow authoritarian control of the global Internet.

    2. The announcement will NOT allow any one authority to dictate how the Internet functions in America.

    The U.S. Government has envisioned the transfer of its stewardship over “unique identifiers” in the DNS since 1998. Meanwhile, ICANN has helped protect the open Internet as it has grown from 147 million users to more than 2.7 billion since ICANN’s inception.iv

    ICANN has performed its technical coordination functions with increasing independence and operational excellence while subject to global multistakeholder accountability. During its stewardship, the U.S. Government itself has never interfered with this model, or “controlled” the Internet. It certainly will not permit others to do so.

    ICANN cannot enact global Internet censorship and, under no scenario, will it have the ability or authority to do so in the future.

    3. The announcement will NOT limit the free access enjoyed by the billions who use the Internet every day.

    Every day users of the Internet will not be at all affected by the transition. ICANN has performed flawlessly and autonomously in its technical coordination mandate through a multistakeholder process and will continue to do so going forward.

    In reality, the transition of stewardship to a global multistakeholder mechanism is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process — one that will only advance the Internet’s value.

    4. The announcement will NOT lead to a division of the Internet into smaller, splintered, less technically resilient pieces.

    The March 14 announcement is an important step towards preventing the Internet’s fragmentation — and provides a clear path for protecting its openness. ICANN is experienced and well positioned to maintain the stability, security and openness of the domain name system at the heart of the Internet.

    5. The announcement is NOT the final decision. Without an acceptable proposal, the U.S. will NOT transition stewardship.

    The U.S. Government has made clear that it will “not accept” a plan that does not maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet Domain Name System and one that is defined by the openness of the Internet. If necessary, the U.S. can maintain its current stewardship role by extending its contract with ICANN, until the global multistakeholder community creates a proposal that meets America’s conditions.

    The U.S. Government and ICANN are confident that a global, multistakeholder-based solution will be reached. ICANN has operated under such a model for more than fifteen years and is prepared to lead an inclusive and productive dialogue to ensure a transition informed by one clear objective: keeping the Internet open and unified.

    I encourage everyone who’s interested to get involved, to participate in this global multistakeholder community — and crucially to understand the facts — not the myths — about this transition.

    Fadi Chehadé is President and CEO of ICANN. His career has been defined by building consensus and promoting collaborative technologies and practices. He has more than 25 years of experience in building and leading progressive Internet enterprises, leveraging relationships with senior executives and government officials across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

    Chehadé is a graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a master’s degree in Engineering Management, and Polytechnic University in New York, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.



  • Amazon's Fire TV Already Has A Porn Problem
    Amazon announced it will begin selling a new Fire TV streaming set-top box on Wednesday. But whatever you do, do not go to firetv.com to find out more information about it, especially if you are at work.

    This is just part of what awaits you:


    The rest of the page is filled with, you guessed it, pornography. Amazon’s new service unfortunately shares a name with a different type of online service: the porn site named Fyre TV, which also just happens to own the firetv.com domain as well.

    A name isn’t all they share. Apparently, the illicit site is also interested in letting you stream content to your television, although it’s hardly of the “fun-for-the-whole-family” variety promised by Amazon in its launch today.

    Instead, Fyre TV lets subscribers stream porn on-demand to their television sets through Amazon’s competitor, Roku, and other third-party boxes.

    Looks like you didn’t think of everything, Bezos.

    For those interested in more information on Amazon’s Fire TV streaming, check out the company’s website. Those wanting to know more about Fyre TV will have to do the searching themselves.

    (h/t NBC News)

  • 'Silicon Valley' on HBO: Tech Culture Gets The Comedy It Deserves
    Viewed as a body of work, HBO’s half-hour shows have felt kind of meandering and unfocused in the last few years. Some gems have emerged from the churn (“Looking,” “Girls” and “Enlightened,” for example), but the network has aired a lot of comedies that haven’t run for very long or simply haven’t made much of an impression. Recent offerings like “Doll and Em” and “Hello Ladies” were somewhat typical of this inconsistent, frequently tentative era. Those shows didn’t feel like worthy, low-budget experiments that didn’t quite make it, they came off as wispy, uninspired retreads of ideas executed better elsewhere.

    So it’s a relief that the fine new comedy “Silicon Valley” (10 p.m. ET Sunday, HBO) doesn’t have substantial problems of conception or execution (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a minute). It arrives fully formed and packed with smart observations that will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest technology, modern capitalism and geek culture.

    Even if you don’t care about those things, “Silicon Valley” works as a well-crafted ensemble comedy about a particularly eccentric workplace (we’d expect no less from Mike Judge, the creator of “Office Space“). It made me belly laugh more than once. As a fan of “Louie” and “Enlightened” and the like, I’m the last person to take a swipe at the more cerebral or experimental half-hour offerings on TV, but if you’ve longed for an HBO comedy that would actually make you laugh out loud, there’s a good chance this show is it.

    “Silicon Valley” mercilessly satirizes the excesses of a world it knows well, yet most of its characters aren’t caricatures, and as any number of failures on various networks have demonstrated, that combination is very difficult to pull off. Yet this show does a capable job of skewering entire subcultures while quietly getting the viewer to invest in the alternately mundane and surreal lives of a motley bunch of aspiring tech dudes trying to scramble up the greasy Silicon Valley ladder.

    The center of the show is a classic straight man: Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is a shy, introverted computer nerd who doesn’t even know how valuable his compression algorithm could be. A lot of other people in Silicon Valley figure that out, and before long, they’re swarming the panic-prone Richard like so many Vibram-shod sharks. At every step of Richard’s journey from worker bee to potential titan, he is forced to ask himself how much of an asshole he wants (or needs) to be. This question makes him sick — literally. Vomiting is one of the Richard’s only coping strategies; clad in his unassuming hoodie, he’s often bent over, about to hurl.

    Erlich, the semi-rich guy who runs the tech-incubator/crash pad where Richard and his friends live, wants Richard to go full asshole, of course. He reminds Richard that lots of Mark Zuckerberg’s friends have sued him along the way.

    “How awesome is that!” Erlich enthuses.

    Richard doesn’t find it awesome, but he has to acquire a spine if he wants to negotiate the dangerous world of venture capitalists and casually cruel brogrammers. Erlich sees it as his mission to stiffen Richard’s resolve and make their posse a ton of money, but the fact that Erlich thinks that peyote is a valuable problem-solver makes him a less than ideal business partner.

    Like Michael Scott before him, Erlich often has half of a good idea but then it all goes terribly wrong (a sequence involving the company logo in Episode 5 is masterful in this regard). How one acquires or displays status — one of the obsessions Erlich shares with the Valley’s tech billionaires, real and fictional — is a continuous source of barbs for “Silicon Valley.” Richard’s first employer in the Valley has a spiritual guru, a mansion in Jackson Hole and a hologram machine that cost him $20 million. He is also, despite his stated focus on New Age values and charitable goals, a total douchecanoe.

    Richard’s journey embodies the questions that animate much of “Silicon Valley”: Do you want to become that guy? Or does getting rich slowly turn you into that kind of tin-eared, narcissistic jackass, no matter how much you resist the process?

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that some rich people were insane before they ever made a dime. That seems to be the case with Peter Gregory, a wealthy investor who is played with sublime timing and creepy charisma by the brilliant Christopher Evan Welch. It’s hard to tell if it’s simply painful for Peter to be alive, or if it’s agonizing for him to visit the crude intellectual plane on which most of us live. Peter Gregory is my favorite new character on television, thanks not only to the show’s nimble writing but to Welch’s admirable commitment to making the guy not just a one-note joke but a uniquely intense, painfully uncomfortable enigma.*

    There are two other performances that deserve special note: I’ve been waiting for actor and comic T.J. Miller to find the right vehicle for some time now, and he’s sensational as Erlich, the doofy ringleader of one very dorky frat house. A show willing to go the easy route would have made Erlich an unlikable clown, and “Silicon Valley” goes close to the edge with the character without going over. A series of incisive discussions of his unconscious racism is like a subreddit or Popehat message board come to life — those scenes have the same acid wit and defensiveness, but they’re much more rigorous and concise.

    (Another way in which “Silicon Valley” resembles certain online hangouts: The characters who get the most focus and screen time are male. That the show chooses to buy into the lazy stereotype that women aren’t involved in tech — or are only involved in tangential ways — is one of the tangible letdowns of this eight-episode season).

    Though Richard is the most innocent, almost everyone on the show is naive, blinkered or unable to negotiate some basic aspect of life. As the show’s press kit puts it, sometimes “the most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success.” The ways in which the dreams of Richard, Erlich and their friends Gilfoyle, Big Head and Dinesh come into collision with the brutal realities of commerce are played for laughs, but they also ground the show in a weird kind of idealism. Leaving Ehrlich’s odd crash pad for some chilly tech-titan mansion, you realize, would probably be the worst possible outcome for Richard. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that gaining the tech dream probably involves losing his soul and selling out his friends, but he also knows that if he gets off the Valley’s caffeinated escalator, he might never get a chance to ride it again.

    Completely detached from all this aspiration and angst is Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle, who also gives a terrifically entertaining performance. I choose to believe Gilfoyle is Starr’s “Party Down” character, Roman DeBeers, living under an assumed identity; he is basically Roman but with more tattoos and a pretentious devotion to Satanism (only Starr could say “Hail the Dark Lord” in a way that cracked me up so hard I had to pause the DVD player). Gilfoyle doesn’t care about money: If the group struck pay dirt, he’d probably give most of his money to Anonymous (using Bitcoin, of course). Gilfoyle is just one of those people who likes living on the margins of the system, doing his own thing in his own way, and the attempts to make Richard’s new venture succeed frighten him. “This is starting to seem like a job,” he intones at one point. It’s both a fact and a warning.

    Starr’s brilliant deadpan delivery is just the icing on a dense layer cake of satire, absurdity and cultural commentary. Like an app or a game that takes over your life, “Silicon Valley” ends up being pretty addictive.

    “Silicon Valley” debuts 10 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO, after the Season 4 premiere of “Game of Thrones” at 9 p.m. ET and followed by the Season 3 premiere of “Veep” at 10:30 p.m. ET.

    * Note: This information may constitute a spoiler for a potential second season of “Silicon Valley,” so don’t read on if you don’t want to know. Welch passed away in December, which is enormously sad for any number of reasons.

    Ryan McGee and I talk “Silicon Valley,” “Turn,” “Veep,” “Game of Thrones,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” the Peabody Awards and the “How I Met Your Mother” finale on this week’s Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

  • Internet Crimes
    Hacker Hymn from Jasmina Tesanovic on Vimeo.

    Recently I saw a movie on the life and death of Aaron Swartz, who is nowadays often called a martyr for the freedom of the Internet.

    People, nations and governments like martyrs. They love them; they need them. Martyrs are part of our bipolar, black and white society constructed from good and bad guys, who always do good and bad deeds. Martyrs are those who have escaped our human condition, of being judged by people as people. Martyrs are beyond judgement; they become the scapegoats for our biggest failures, for the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt phrased it.

    I don’t believe Aaron Swartz ever wanted to become a martyr. He just wanted to live within a world that he believed he could fix, a world that was technically malleable and hackable, where he could be active and ingenious, even if that reform effort might involve a few false steps.

    I find it unjust, unfair, maybe even outrageous to treat his suicide as a martyrdom. The legal machinery that crushed Aaron Swartz could have crushed any of us, at least if we happened to get apprehended and charged within the USA. We need to pay due heed to the fates of those who get singled out as examples. The system by its nature represses hackers, freelance thinkers or Internet activists. Some will die of that mistreatment, especially if they are neglected, or shunned, or met with public indifference and numb stupidity. The exaggerated honor we pay to “martyrs” is a guilty, posthumous reparation for our failure to keep them alive.

    More “Internet martyrs” are clearly on the way for a host of nations. Aaron Swartz was a particularly brilliant MIT “burglar” and was therefore repressed with particular vigor by an ambitious American prosecutor. But America has a huge prison system with millions of people behind bars — everyone but bankers, basically. If Aaron Swartz was still alive today, having pled guilty and gone to American prison for a felony, how much effort would we spend to get him out of jail, or to help him once he was free?

    Prosecutors of all nations will always play fast and loose with computer crime laws, if they think that nobody is watching or cares. Recently, three bloggers in Serbia were condemned to one year of prison with a particular ingenious prosecutorial scheme. These bloggers, who were writing under their online nickname pseudonyms, made some sarcastic wisecracks about a right-wing filmmaker who is a darling of violent right-wing Serbian nationalist goons. The bloggers were promptly charged and convicted with hate crime and death threats of this author.

    This is the exact sort of behavior that the EU would most like to see out of Serbia: vigorous defense of an imperiled author. They probably didn’t expect to see this kind of hate law applied in a vigorous defense of the government’s own apologists and some street-fighting right-wing extremists. However, the current Serbian government demonstrates a true genius for stealing the opposition’s clothes. So here is a case of online dissidents and university teachers being promptly condemned and sentenced as hooligans.

    Most anything said or written can become a verbal crime, if the rule of law doesn’t mean much. Back in the Yugoslavian Communist regime, a poet could go to prison for a single word, if it was the wrong one; singing politically non correct song could land a private in court. No Communist ever wrote laws or doctrine to make that situation entirely clear. Legality would have defeated the entire purpose of a totalitarian atmosphere.

    You just had to know what was sayable or unsayable, sense it, feel it. If you did not feel it, then you were either hopelessly stupid, or an enemy of the state. Both the stupid and the enemy were entirely expendable. They provided good practical examples for the others, to learn the everyday behavior for a society devoid of rules.

    The modern Internet jungle quite reminds me of those lost days. Much like the victims of the Communist regime, the victims of the modern Internet can be pretty much anybody who somehow demands too much, in some awkward, embarrassing or disruptive way. The modern Internet is overrun with spies, hacker thieves, intrusive databanks, filters and censors. This is no longer a free and pristine electronic wonderland — any more than late-period Communism was all about being genuinely communal.

    Of course, Communist societies relentlessly described themselves as liberated and avant-garde, and they even claimed that everything was freely shared even when shops were empty. It took real struggle to realize that this blizzard of official rhetoric just didn’t coincide with people’s lived reality. Today’s Internet users haven’t gotten this far as yet; they still talk about their “free services,” as if not paying for commercial big-data spyware was somehow utopian.

    Computer communication systems were not born free. The original freedom of the Internet came as a second-hand unplanned consequence, as the work of brave activists and hackers, and as a glitch.

    It’s only when you transgress that you can fully feel and understand the borders, the limits. Aaron Swartz’s big mistake was to believe in the limitless possibilities of a media system, just because he was good at coding for it.

    Serbian computer users also thought they could permanently outsmart the technically illiterate police and blinkered Communist court system. That worked, too, for about a generation’s time. However, the current Serbian government isn’t by no means a tottering Communist nomenklatura. Today’s Serbian state system and its enthusiastic majority voters do not consider the Internet any obstacle to their nationalist and Orthodox religious ambitions. If anything, the Internet helps to reveal who their enemies are, not that they had many doubts. The new state needs new enemies, and new martyrs, too.

    The Internet was once an oasis for those who thought and spoke differently, a global arena of public opinion in which to demonstrate the power of the powerless. That’s not how it works in this decade. But maybe that is good news of a kind: as we lose our anonymity, that old Internet in which no one knew you were a dog, the chains of the dog’s masters also become more visible to everyone.

    Serbia is so small and poor that the NSA could scarcely be bothered to spy on it, the NSA being busy spying on its major NATO allies in the EU. However, living out of the imperial limelight has both upsides and downsides for Serbia. The downside is that the modern Serbian state has all kinds of unaccountable power over virtual Serbian life, but the upshot is that the repressed Serbian bloggers are still alive. Their quarrel was too small to get them liquidated, for there just wasn’t all that much at stake.

    Serbia lacks the public conscience of a major third-world player like Brazil, which fought for years for its own, national, internet civil rights constitution.

    However, Serbia does have one good thing: genuine activism in the streets. Recently, Women in Black from Serbia had a lynch threat on Facebook. The porte parole of the serbian antiterror police on Facebook, addressing his usual audience of right-wing Facebook hooligans, advised them to beat up Women in Black in the streets instead of uselessly brawling with each other. Women in Black have always been the target of hate and violence and foul language, due to their persistent street presence. However, to have this customary behavior blatantly revealed to everyone on Facebook changed the situation, and the Serbian porte parole will be suspended from duty for his indiscretion. He might even be charged and convicted of something or other,since Women in Black are presssing charges.

    There must be some difference between the three Serbian bloggers, who were convicted of death threats and hate speech while meaning no real harm other than sarcasm, and this policeman, an agent of the state who would rather like the state’s opponents to come to some extralegal harm at the hand of thugs. That difference is called “justice.” The more of that you have, the less need you have to loudly exult about all of your martyrs.

  • We See Every Hair, Wrinkle And Pore On The Faces In These Absurdly High-Def Photos
    We hope you’re ready for your closeup, because this camera is going to get really, really close up.

    Swiss photographer Daniel Boschung uses an industrial robot with a mounted camera to take hundreds of macro photos of subjects for his series “Face Cartography.” He then combines them to form a single-shot composite containing 900 million pixels. The resulting images are beautifully detailed, often emotionless and fascinating to behold, mostly because viewers can zoom in to see every pore or wrinkle in excruciating detail.

    “The result is hyper realistic,” Boschung writes in a statement on his website. “A stubble turns into a trunk, a wrinkle into a canyon, the nostril into a cavern.”

    View some of his shots (below), then check out the video to see how his process works. Head over to his website to see his complete collection and process.



    Les B.



    All images courtesy Daniel Bochsung / www.robophot.com.

  • Women in STEM: It's Time to Redesign the Pipeline
    Apparently, a key reason that young women aren’t choosing careers in STEM is dating. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, found concern that their ‘geeky’ male classmates will present poor social prospects is genuinely one of three key barriers to young women entering STEM (along with concerns that it would be boring, and that they wouldn’t be any good at it). This information depressed me for the rest of the day.

    Klawe reported her intriguing finding at the Future Tense Women in STEM event in Washington DC last week. She is a role model for college leaders who seek to attract young women to study STEM subjects — by which I mean science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects where men still outnumber women by three to one. Harvey Mudd College has impressively redesigned their teaching methods to even out the gender ratio in their STEM programs. But the main message of the day was that attracting women into STEM is just the first step

    Nobel prize winner Carol Greider explained that the issue is not just a deficit of women entering the STEM pipeline; rather, the key challenge is that the pipe is leaky. Once women have entered STEM, at every subsequent stage of their career, they run a gauntlet of subtle practical, psychological and social holes in the way of their promotions, appointment to boards, and other indicators of seniority. While slapping patches on the pipe may help stop some of the leaks and help women get ahead, it is often a simplistic fix because the root of the problem isn’t just practical.

    Implementing flexible working doesn’t fix the leak if women decline it for fear of incurring subtle career penalties. Gender-blind evaluation of candidates for senior jobs doesn’t fix the leak if women are tending to minimize their skills compared to men. Ensuring women are shortlisted for STEM vacancies don’t fix the leak if hirers still subconsciously choose men over women with the same qualifications anyway. The ways in which things are set up in STEM overwhelmingly seem to favor men in all sorts of obvious and unexpected ways, and the Future Tense event called for reform at the heart of the system: in other words, a redesign of the pipe.

    While the event showcased many inspiring role models, I worried that they still seem to be the exception rather than the rule. But then I got chatting to the brilliant women in STEM sitting around my table. Over chocolate cake, they told me about the cool things they are doing in STEM, their start ups, their achievements, and I felt excited — women leading in STEM isn’t so much an aspiration as something that is already happening right now. It just needs to be scaled up.

    The following day I was coincidentally a panelist myself, at a Women in STEM event at Georgetown University. I was inspired to hear stories from the other faculty panelists about how far gender equality in STEM had come in their career lifetimes. I was even more inspired by the incredulity with which the students in the audience responded to panelists’ stories of past sexism in the workplace. While such stories are sadly still a fact in many places, the students were not willing to accept it today. As they described their own career plans, and asked pertinent questions (not one of them mentioning the trials of finding a boyfriend), it was clear that these smart and inspiring women in STEM have no intention of leaking out of the pipe; rather, they plan to run the distance, have impact, lead and speak on future STEM panels which will no longer need to be labeled for gender.

    Women in STEM seem to be reaching a critical mass, and hopefully we’ll soon be done with token patches along the STEM career gauntlet. The future in STEM is gender equality. Women are asserting their right to succeed, and that means the leaky pipe is set for a sophisticated and inclusive redesign in this generation. Exciting times.

  • 'The Wolf Of BuzzFeed' Will Restore Your Faith In Parodies
    The Internet — the only place any smart, ambitious 20-something should go. There, dreams come true and the roads are paved with millions and millions of hits.

    “The Wolf Of Buzzfeed” is a spot-on parody of our friends who love lists and quizzes almost as much as they love restoring faith in humanity. Kudos to Half Day Today for creating this masterpiece.

    “We got lists here. We’re makin’ lists.”

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