Let’s Talk Tech: News in Review - Dec, 2011

What a month in tech it’s been! Here are some of the top stories…

Tech News Stories of the Month

Occupy Everything on the Web
There's a "digital land grab underway” thanks to Occupy Wall Steer, said Suzanne Woolley in Bloomberg Businessweek, Internet domain registrar Go Daddy.com has sold 5,200 domain names with “Occupy” in them from September to early Novemeber, compared with 80 from January throught August.” People have snatch up everything from Occupy Boston to Occupy KStreet. There are sites dedicated to White House hopefuls (Occupy Herman Cain) the holidays (Occupy Hanukkah), and various locales (Occupy The Sea, Occupy the Universe), There’s Occupy This and Occupy That, Occupy You and Occupy and Occupy Me. Jordan Fainberg wants people in Occupy Bethesda in a conventional sense: by buying one of the Bethsesda, MA, houses the real estate agent has listed on ihns site. “It’s getting a bunch of hits.”

Privacy Dies with a Whimper
It may sound Orwellian, but GPS tracking is just the next step in the rapid erosion of privacy that followed 9/11, said Jonathan Turley at The Washington Post. How much privacy should Americans expect? asked Jonathan Turley. The answer to that question may determine whether the government will soon have the right to track you 24 hours a day, without a warrant. Under current law, the government needs a warrant to conduct any kind of surveillance that intrudes on a citizen’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But in a new case before the Supreme Court, the Obama administration last week argued that police should not be required to get a warrant to affix a GPS tracker to your car, to see if you’re involved in crimes; when driving, you really can’t expect any privacy, can you? It may sound Orwellian, but GPS tracking is just the next step in the rapid erosion of privacy that followed 9/11. Out of its fear of terrorism, the public has accepted airport pat-downs, surveillance of phone calls and emails, and constant monitoring by TV cameras in public places and offices. In this brave new world, we think Big Brother makes us safer. So don’t be surprised when privacy disappears altogether. “The problem is not with the government but with us.” Marking that shot “friends only” won’t prevent an online buddy from copying the picture and distributing it, said Farhad Manjoo at Slate.com. “Mark Zuckerberg wants you to know that Facebook has reformed,” said Farhad Manjoo. After a series of privacy violations and a Federal Trade Commission investigation, the social-media boss last week admitted that his site had “made a bunch of mistakes,” and he promised to give users greater control over how they share information. But Facebook’s privacy issues are as much our fault as Zuckerberg’s. Too many users seem to believe they can control who gets to see the private thoughts and photos they post to a site with 800 million users throughout the world. Facebook was designed to be “one of the most intrusive technologies ever built,” a vehicle for sharing personal information. Upload a photo of your drunken antics, and it’s on the Internet, stored on dozens of servers around the world. Marking that shot “friends only” won’t prevent an online buddy from copying the picture and distributing it. So next time you’re wondering about whether you should post something on Facebook, remember this simple rule: “The only sure way to keep something private on Facebook is not to post it to Facebook.”

Just 4.74 Degrees of Separation
Popular wisdom says that only “six degrees of separation” stand between you and anyone else. Now, a new Facebook study says we’re getting more closely linked than that. University of Milan researchers analyzed the “friend” links among Facebook’s 721 million members. On average, only 4.74 hops from friend to friend were needed to bring any two members together, as opposed to 5.28 three years ago. That means “when considering even the most distant Facebook user in the Siberian tundra or the Peruvian rain forest, a friend of your friend probably knows a friend of their friend,” Facebook says. The data highlight how useful social-networking sites can be to researchers studying the behavior of extremely large groups of people. But the new networks created by social media may not be as strong as friendships made the old-fashioned way. Facebook, Cornell computer scientist Jon Kleinberg tells The New York Times, allows us to be “close, in a sense, to people who don’t necessarily like us, sympathize with us, or have anything in common with us.” What Teens Don’t Know about Google Other studies have also shown that students really don’t bother trying to assess the credibility of information found online, said Clive Thompson at Wired.com. Young people are supposedly our most Web-literate citizens, said Clive Thompson. “But just how savvy are they?” Not very: They simply swallow whatever they find on Google. To study kids’ online-search skills, scientific researchers asked a group of students to look up answers to a series of questions. Not surprisingly, the kids relied on Web pages at the top of Google’s results list. When researchers switched the order of results, most students were easily tricked, and relied on the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Other studies have also shown that students really don’t bother trying to assess the credibility of information found online. Is an “article” a disguised advertisement? Was that profile of Martin Luther King Jr. actually posted by white supremacists? The average high school and college student is unable to discern the hidden agendas. This naivete is largely the fault of schools, which rarely teach critical thinking. And mastering “crap detection 101” isn’t easy; you need to be savvy about the world and how it works. Ultimately, a broad-based education is the only “true key to effective search.”

Here’s One Way New Terms are Created…
Union officials are not just complaining about “normal outsourcing”—their beef is with “Asianization,” said Chris Berg at the Sydney Morning Herald. The union dispute that grounded the entire Qantas fleet for two days last month has a nasty racial component, said Chris Berg. Union members are furious that Qantas is considering locating some of its operations abroad. But they’re not just complaining about “normal outsourcing”—their beef is with “Asianization.” That’s a clear “dog whistle” to racists. Google the term, and you’re buried in pages offering “manic claims about the Yellow Peril and warning about our national suicide.” This is no accident. Protectionism in Australia has often been linked to xenophobia. The “White Australia” immigration policy of the first half of the 20th century was led by a union movement that wanted to squelch labor competition. It explicitly encouraged employers to fire “colored” workers and replace them with white union members. Use of the term “Asianization” should have brought a chorus of outraged denunciation from our pro-multicultural, liberal media—and it would have, if a conservative had uttered it. But because it was a union leader calling for protection of Australian jobs, we didn’t hear a peep. So let me say it: “Warnings that Qantas will be ‘Asianized’ are ugly, xenophobic, and just plain wrong.”

Censorship, no matter where you are, is Never a Good Thing
Pakistan is having a bad month, and to top it all off, they've notified phone companies it would ban 1,109 "obscene" English words from text messages, including "quickie," "condom," "flatulence," and "periord." Really? I wondered what Siri will do! Who’s Siri, see next update…

Siri: Artificial Intelligence Becomes more Human
Apple’s voice-activated “virtual assistant” for the new iPhone 4S can talk in clear, conversational English. She can text your kids with words you dictate aloud. She can book you an appointment online. She knows precisely where you are, and can find the nearest Chinese restaurant, call a cab for you, and tell you what the traffic will be like on the way. Her name is Siri, said Brandon Griggs in CNN.com, and she’s Apple’s voice-activated “virtual assistant” for the new iPhone 4S. Simply by speaking to your phone, you can tell Siri to perform any number of tasks—and she can talk back, in clear, conversational English. Not incidentally, this dutiful assistant has a female name and “distinctly female” voice. Does that mean Apple is relying on—and reinforcing—gender stereotypes? It’s a fair question, said Rebecca J. Rosen in TheAtlantic.com. Like most disembodied computer voices, Siri evokes the pleasantly compliant and submissive female assistant, as she goes about “classic personal secretary tasks.” Chauvinists might enjoy the idea of having a female secretary in their pocket, said Michael Agger in Slate.com. But Siri is no doormat. Apple wisely has given Siri a tart and witty personality. Curse at her, and she’ll tut: “Now, now.” Ask her to “talk dirty,” and she’ll say, “Compost. Pumice. Silt. Gravel.” Call her a bitch, and she will make you feel ridiculous: “Why do you hate me?” she’ll say. “I don’t even exist.” As a result, she comes across less as a sexy secretary than as a “second-grade teacher,” quick with a sarcastic response but also “willing to patiently explain.” It makes Siri so life-like, you almost forget that “the intelligence we’re dealing with is artificial.” That’s the plan, said Jon Stokes in Wired.com. Siri is a “cloud” application, meaning that Apple’s developers can update her “canned responses” in real time based on user inquiries. Over time, she’ll be able to draw on the questions of tens of millions of users and the responses by hundreds of Apple employees. As she gets smarter and smarter, you’ll be able to talk with Siri in a way that is almost indistinguishable from “intelligent conversation.” Hello, future, said Alexis Madrigal in TheAtlantic.com. Humans have always dreamed of creating a “talking automaton” that speaks “in the natural language that defines being human.” Siri is a big step in that direction. As she listens and learns from us, and helps organize our lives, she will transform “how we interact with our computers.”

Health Scare of the Month: Does Wi-Fi damage sperm?
An experiment by researchers in Argentina suggests that radiation from a Wi-Fi–enabled laptop may be strong enough to cause cell damage in sperm. If you’re worried about infertility, don’t try to Google the term with a computer on your lap, says the London Telegraph. A new experiment suggests that radiation from a single Wi-Fi–enabled laptop may be strong enough to cause cell damage in sperm. Argentine researchers took samples of ejaculated semen and left them directly under a computer—simulating holding a laptop directly above male genitals. Within just four hours, 25 percent of the sperm stopped swimming, and 9 percent showed signs of DNA damage. A control group of sperm stored at the same temperature, but away from a computer, showed much less degradation. Researcher Conrado Avendano says his team suspects that electromagnetic radiation in wireless devices “positioned near the male reproductive organs may decrease human sperm quality.” Scientists who specialize in fertility, however, say that sperm isolated outside the body are more vulnerable, and that further research is needed.

In Business Moves of the Month

War Video Game Sets Sales Record
The video game Modern Warfare 3 has set a sales record for the entertainment industry by grossing $775 million in global sales during its first five days on the market. The game, which retails for about $60, sold 6.5 million copies in North America and the United Kingdom on its first day alone.

Spotlight on Reid Hoffman
If you are a budding Internet entrepreneur, there’s really only one man you need to see for money, advice, and connections, said Evelyn M. Rusli in The New York Times. That’s Reid Hoffman, “the startup whisperer of Silicon Valley.” The co-founder of business-networking site LinkedIn, Hoffman is considered “something of a Yoda” in the social-media universe. “He’s the first stop for every hot deal,” says tech investor David Siminoff. A “nerd’s nerd” who likes to wax philosophical about the future of technology, Hoffman got his first job at age 12 when he “thrust a manual, marked with his suggestions in red ink,” into the hands of a fantasy-game developer. It was the beginning of his fascination with the way multiplayer games, and later social networks, come together. Hoffman “created the original social network, a dating service called SocialNet, in 1997,” said Nicole Perlroth in Forbes.com. It flopped, but Hoffman learned from his mistakes and has helped “create nearly every significant social network since.” He’s also moonlighted as a tech investor for more than a decade, seeding early money in companies like Facebook, Zynga, and Flickr. Today he has a second full-time job, at venture capital firm Greylock Partners, where he invests in the “next generation of promising tech startups.”

Spotlight on Drew Houston

Drew Houston, the CEO of digital-storage service Dropbox, didn’t merely refuse to sell his company to the famously determined Steve Jobs in 2009, said Victoria Barret in Forbes. He refused Jobs’s nine-figure offer. Even then, Houston knew he had one of Silicon Valley’s most closely watched companies, and it’s only gotten better in the two years since. Dropbox, which gives people access to their files from any device, has had a “stunning ascent.” Its users have tripled in the last year, to 50 million, with “another joining every second.” Revenue is projected to hit $240 million this year even though 19 out of 20 users pay nothing. Little wonder, then, that the company recently became a verb (“Dropbox me”) and landed $250 million in venture funding to expand. Houston, 28, came up with the idea for Dropbox when he forgot to bring a USB stick on a long bus trip, said Jennifer Saba in Reuters.com. He is determined to stay independent and isn’t concerned about competition from Apple’s iCloud. “We were not the first or the 10th or the 100th company to have this idea,” says Houston. But “if it were easy to build, someone would have built it already.”

Tech: Yelp Hopes to Raise $100 million in IPO
Yelp, the website of user reviews of businesses and restaurants, wants to become “the latest unprofitable Internet company to go public,” said Douglas MacMillan in Bloomberg.com. The San Francisco–based company, founded in 2004, has filed for an initial public offering next year that could raise as much as $100 million. The announcement seems timed to build on the success of online coupon site Groupon, whose IPO last month generated $700 million despite the company’s lack of profits. “Investors are open to taking bets on companies that are generating losses” right now, said IPO analyst Tom Taulli.

Crowdfunding your Start-Up
“Need start-up capital—and fast?” asked Sarah E. Needleman in The Wall Street Journal. An increasing number of start-up entrepreneurs are turning to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.com and IndieGoGo.com, which allow contributors to pledge money to developing businesses. The funds are gifts, not loans, and the campaigns must be completed in a set time frame and reach preset goals; otherwise funds won’t be released or the sites will take a bigger commission. But many campaigns bear fruit, says Slava Rubin of IndieGoGo.com. For the best results, he says, “have a good pitch, be proactive, and find an audience that cares.”

And In Tech Gossip…
Charlie Sheen: A Tweet meant for Justin Bieber went to Sheen's 5.5 million followers instead. Charlie Sheen could use a Twitter tutorial, said the London Daily Mail. The actor, 46, was overwhelmed by phone calls and text messages last week after he tried to send a private Twitter message to Justin Bieber, but instead tweeted it to his 5.5 million followers. “310-954-7277 Call me bro. C,” wrote Sheen. “Charlie’s phone immediately went into meltdown,” said a friend. “It was ringing wildly, and he got 1,800 text messages in minutes.” Sheen later changed his number.

- As seen in The Week
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