Episode 40 News: Robocops and Robbers

Hate unauthorized robocalls on your cellphone that eat into your monthly minutes? The Federal Communications Commission has issued citations to two big political robocall companies accused of spewing audio spam to mobile numbers in 2011 and 2012. The firms could face up to $4.8 million in fines for this particular investigation. FCC rules and the Communications Act ban robocalls to mobile phones unless the recipient has given permission to be contacted by the company doing the calling or unless the call is part of an emergency information system. (Dirty tricks are an unfortunate part of politics and it appears there was even a cyberattack on the online election system last fall. )

picardSamsung finally whipped the veil off its Galaxy S4 smartphone last week and the fancy new model should be on sale by the end of April. The Android-based Galaxy S4 is bringing Samsung a lot of attention for its hardware design, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that some Google executives are getting worried about that because it may mean Samsung wants to horn in on mobile-search revenue. Samsung has been tinkering around with its own mobile operating system as well.

Google itself it keeping busy and is said to be working on a new note-taking app called Google Keep that works a bit like the popular Evernote service and uses its own Google Drive cloud storage system. Some sources are also saying the company will soon be unifying its multiple messaging services — which include Google Talk, Hangout, Voice, Messenger, Chat for Drive collaboration, and the Google Talk for G+ — into one fresh new service called Babble that can go up against Apple’s iMessage service and BlackBerry Messenger. Google’s recent decision to kill off Google Reader has proven to be good news for the Feedly RSS service. The Los Angeles Times and others have reported that Feedly gained half-a-million users after Google announced it was dumping Reader and robbing the faithful of their favorite RSS software.

Electronic Arts says that customers who buy and register SimCity 5 before March 26 can choose a free game from a selection of EA digital downloads including Mass Effect 3, Plants vs Zombies and Bejeweled 3. Since SimCity 5 arrived in early March, many players have blamed the “always online” requirement for causing bugs, in-game glitches, crashes and long waits to even get on to play the game. Electronic Arts is also investigating a security issue with Origin, its online distribution system. Security researchers have experimented with exploiting a loophole in the way Origin handles links to games users have downloaded and installed, and they’ve been able to make it run code that compromised a target machine. (On a happier note, visitors to New York’s Museum of Modern Art can now see SimCity 2000 on display, along with several other classic games in the Applied Design exhibit.)

Microsoft would like you to update your Windows 7 machine to Windows 7 Service Pack 1 if you haven’t already done so. If not, Microsoft will start doing it for you this week as part of Windows Update. Microsoft has also stamped an end of mainstream-support date of July 8th, 2014 for its Windows Phone 8 software, which has started speculation that Windows Phone 9 may be on the way soon. And over in Cupertino, Apple released iOS 6.1.3 this week to fix a pesky flaw that knowledgeable intruders can use to blow by the lock screen.

And finally, Verizon could be to changing up the way it charges its customers for channel subscriptions on its FiOS TV service. The company would like to charge subscribers just for the channels they actually watch. This move could potentially weed out little-watched channels from the lineup, change how Verizon pays networks for their shows and make for more stable pricing. It could also make room for newer, more interesting channels. (Yo, Disney, how about a 24-hour Star Wars channel?)

Episode 40: Robocalls and Broken Hearts

J.D. clues us in on some useful websites that help you navigate other websites to easily update complicated privacy settings, cancel subscriptions and lots more. El Kaiser’s heart is shattered by Google as they pull the plug on Reader, their Web-based RSS feed aggregator, but he pulls it together long enough to talk to Aaron Bernstein of the Texas-based SerialKickers about their new ArchMount iPad tripod mount and how online crowdfunding sites and 3D printing could give small startups an edge. In the news: Google frets over Samsung’s Android hardware dominance as the Korean electronics giant debuts a new flagship smartphone; the FCC takes on political robocallers; hackers target Florida’s online election system; and Verizon looks to pare down their FIOS channel offerings by tracking viewing habits.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Time-Saving Sites

The Web is a vast place, full of information, but sometimes it takes longer to dig up the answer you need than you’d like. You do have other things to do, after all.

Take, for example, canceling services and subscriptions. Who wants to wade around in the customer-service section of a company’s site or be stuck in a caller queue for half an hour? Instead, stroll over to the WikiCancel site, which claims to be “the most current subscription, contract, and account cancellation guide.” Here, you can find links and information about canceling all sorts of things in one convenient location — it’s like one-stop stopping. Not all services are covered – for example, the page for quitting your TiVo service still needs to be written – but the site invites volunteers to contribute and write up a few cancelation instructions themselves.


Privacy on social media Web sites is another multi-layered topic that can vary based on what social media sites you actually use and take time to suss out. If you want to quickly see your privacy settings for a bunch of common social-media sites, visit the MyPermissions page. This free service basically creates a giant visual bookmark right in your browser that lets click through to the privacy and permissions settings for sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Instagram, Flickr and more. Once you click into your privacy settings for each page, you can make sure they’re set to the level you want for your accounts. There’s also a mobile app version for the iPhone.


(On a side note, Lifehacker also has a page called The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy that’s worth a read just to keep up with the ever-changing world of how much of your information Facebook gets to share with advertisers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has its own guide to protecting your privacy from Facebook’s new Graph Search feature as well.)

Having trouble getting Facebook — or any other online service — to load in your browser and wondering it it’s you or them? If that’s the case, visit the Is It Down Right Now? site, which keeps a running tab on the uptime of many popular Net sites and services. You can also check the status of other Websites by entering enter its URL into a box on the page and a fresh site-status test will be performed.


If all goes well, you save a few minutes here and there, get some quick answers and move on to more exciting ways to spend your time on the Web.


Episode 39 News: You Want Curly Fries With That?

“Is this a game or is it real?” WarGames, may have been a 1983 Cold War-era teen movie, but computer-assisted attacks 30 years later are certainly very real. James R. Clapper Jr., the US director of national intelligence, made his annual presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee this week and listed “cyberattacks” at the top of his threat list for the first time. Recent hack attacks attributed to the Chinese are a sore point in the relations between China and the US, and the White House demanded earlier this week that the Chinese government stop its local hackers from breaking into American networks and stealing data. The Chinese government has denied involvement is such activity but said it is open to discussions about international cybersecurity.

Down in Austin at the interactive part of the South By Southwest festival, 3D printing and intelligent devices got good exposure, as did Leap Motion’s $80 3D motion sensor device for controlling the computer through hand and finger gestures. At least one reporter attending the show noted that the live appearance of the famous Internet meme, Grumpy Cat, overshadowed many of the actual technology announcements. Still, this year’s show had speeches by Bill Gates and others and there were a few items of note. Marvel Comics announced new and expanded mobile and online offerings and Google also had some revelations about its Project Glass augmented reality spectacles, which are expected to arrive later this year for about $1500 a pair. (The Google glasses can take pictures and record video, which has caused some people to have privacy concerns already, and a bar in Seattle has already banned the high-tech headsets from the establishment.)

In Mars news, NASA held a press conference this week to discuss findings from the Curiosity rover’s recent rock-drilling adventure. According to scientists, ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Life! On Mars! (But not Life on Mars, alas.)

TiVo has released the TiVo Mini, launched a $100 miniature version of its set-top box, designed to let users watch content stored on the home’s main TiVo DVR. You also need to have one of the four-tuner TiVo DVR models in the house and pay a subscription fee.

The launch of SimCity 5 last week was highly anticipated – but ultimately frustrating for many world builders who rushed online to play but couldn’t do anything thanks to crashing games and overloaded servers. SimCity 5, which has no offline mode, has seen disgruntled fans posting message of unhappiness on the game’s Amazon page, online forums and other places, lamenting the lost of their time, fun and $60. But in happier gaming news, Mike Mika, a game-developer dad, made his three-year-old daughter a very happy girl by hacking the old Donkey Kong ROM and changing it so she could play as Pauline and save Mario. The mod took just a few days and Mr. Mika tells his story on Wired.com, which is definitely worth a read for anybody who admires insanely cool dads.

The past week saw several new developments around the techsphere. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology say they’ve created self-healing processors that can repair themselves, even after being blasted by lasers. (Did they name the processor the “T-1000?”) International Data Corp analysts predict shipments of Apple’s iPad this year will fall behind those running Google’s Android system for the first time. And Facebook showed off a revamped look for its News Feed last week, featuring bigger photos and a cleaner design that reminded some of Google+.


And finally, also in Facebook news, researchers at Cambridge University have created algorithms that use a person’s Facebook “Likes” to predict that person’s religion, politics, race and sexual orientation. The results of the study were published on the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) journal. According to a story on the BBC’s Web site, the researchers found some strange results as well: “Curly fries correlated with high intelligence and people who liked the Dark Knight tended to have fewer Facebook friends,” said research author David Stillwell. And yes, privacy advocates have something to say on the topic, too!

Episode 39: ‘Scuse Us While We Kiss The Sky

J.D. fills us in on apps to get you through the madness of March basketball and Pedro calls Shenanigans on on ICANN. In the news, cyber-attacks top the threat list in Washington; updates from SxSW; Marvel Comics expand their online and mobile offerings; and Tivo gets into the miniaturization game.

Hoop Streams

The month of March is halfway over, and for college basketball fans, the insanity really begins. Yes, we speak of March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tourney. Both women and men’s teams participate in a winner-take-all contest that starts with 64 or 68 schools and comes down to one national winner. Selection Sunday, when the teams are picked for the tournament, looms this weekend. And then, the games begin.

marchmadnessFor those who can’t bear to miss a minute of the action of the men’s tournament (even when away from the actual television set), there’s the NCAA March Madness Live app for Android and iOS. The app, due out within the next week, features game live video and audio, real-time scoring updates, dynamic brackets, stats and social media for the serious fan. The NCAA also has Android and iOS apps in the wings for both the men’s and women’s Final Four, and a mobile site for people who want tournament news but don’t have an Android handset or iPhone.

If tracking your brackets brings you great joy, check out the ESPN Bracket Bound 2013 app for Android or iOS. Designed for the men’s tourney, you can create up to 10 brackets to compete against family and friends. The app also provides scores, news and highlights as the tournament progresses, and pulls in Twitter streams devoted to team discussions.

For more personalized news about your favorite team, check your app store for official (or unofficial) software from your alma mater or university of choice; several third-party bracket apps are also available for most platforms.

And if college basketball isn’t your thing, enjoy a geekier form of March madness: new episodes of Doctor Who start arriving on March 30.

Episode 38: All Killer, No Filler

J.D. takes a look at some inspirations and tools that will help you make fun new music playlists and Pedro tells us what full-sized headphones he uses with his mobile devices. In  the news this week, note taking and digital clipping service Evernote is the latest cloud service to be hacked; Apple’s rumored iWatch could be a huge success; and Twitter pulls the plug on Tweetdeck.

Episode 38 News: Days of Future Past

Another week, another major corporate hack job: Evernote reset the passwords of all of its estimated 50 million users last week after it revealed that user passwords and encrypted e-mails had leaked in a hacking attack. And Java’s woes continue, as Oracle has patched two more zero-day holes in the software this week. This is the fifth Java update of 2013 and it’s only the first week of March. These patches probably won’t be the last as Polish researchers claim to have found five more security issues with Java SE 7.

Even though the company hasn’t announced anything so far, at least one analyst has told the Bloomberg News service that Apple’s rumored iWatch could be a $6 billion dollar opportunity for the company. (Not bad for a product that doesn’t officially exist, eh?)

Although the TV advertising campaign has wrapped up, Microsoft says it isn’t backing off of its “Scroogled” mission to publicly point out privacy flaws and other issues in Google’s products. Microsoft’s Scroogled Web site and anti ad-bot petition to Google CEO Eric Schmidt will remain. Google, for its part, points out that advertising keeps Gmail and other services free and besides, robots do all the work.

trUbisoft’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes place in the Caribbean in 1715 during the “golden age of piracy” and will be released on October 29, 2013, for the Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 3 and 4, and “all other relevant consoles.”  If you want a game to play in the meantime, the reboot of Tomb Raider hit the scene this week and some reviewers are calling it “arguably one of the best games of the year thus far.” The $60 game is out for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 now. There’s also a $3 iPad app called The Final Hours of Tomb Raider, which includes behind-the-scenes features, concept art, video, photos and other goodies for fans of the game.

This just in — teenagers are bored with Facebook.  The Verge site also theorizes that “the age of the brag” is over and teens have moved on to other sites for expressing their identities and sharing.

In mobile news, Twitter is discontinuing its support for the standalone TweetDeck app for Adobe AIR, Android and iOS and Opera Software has released a beta version of its mobile browser for the Android platform. A report from The New York Times says that the new Samsung Galaxy S4 phone will have a new feature called “eye scrolling.” Will it feel like someone’s watching you as you read?

The future will be here before you know it, and Microsoft’s Strategic Prototyping team already has a video of what a possible future full of giant touch screens looks like. As the eWeek site reports, “PCs are out—or at least artfully obscured—while tablets and video walls are in.”

While Microsoft envisions the future of computing, NASA was keeping busy this week with things that were futuristic not too long ago. The Mars Curiosity had a memory glitch last week that caused the rover’s main computer to switch to a safe mode and a backup computer, but scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say the rolling robot is on the road to recovery. (The astronomy journalist Stuart Clark reports that disruption caused cosmic rays may be one explanation for the rover’s little brain burp.) NASA also released news last week of a third radiation belt around the Earth.

Mars Curiosity was not the only star vehicle having issues lately. The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule aimed at the International Space Station had a little problem with three out of its four thruster pods not working after it launched last Friday.

Thankfully, everything worked out for the SpaceX mission and the cargo arrived at the ISS last weekend, but not every air and space adventure is so lucky. But after 76 years, experts think they have solved the mystery of why the Hindenburg airship caught fire and crashed 200 feet over New Jersey’s Lakehurst Naval Air Station back in in 1937. The culprit? Static electricity.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Playlist Inspirations

Are your playlist powers in a rut? Your music mojo feeling a little weak as you keep coming up with unexciting variations on the same old cardio workout theme or commuter mix? (Seriously, that’s enough with the “Call Me Maybe” on everything. Yes, you.) So if you want to perk up your playlists and get new ideas for songs and mixes, here a few suggestions:

  1. Many people like to publish their work as inspiration for others. You can find many a sample playlist online on Pinterest or sites devote to the art of the mix, like 8tracks, mixtaple.me and playlist.com. (Mashable has tips for using many of these sites here.)
  2. If you’re looking for workout mixes, check out fitness Web sites for ideas — FitBottomedGirls.com and Shape magazine’s online site are just two places that have some playlists to inspire.
  3. On-Demand Music services, which you can join and explore also give you access to music you may not be familiar with and knock you out of your slump with fresh tracks. Grooveshark, Hypster, Spotify, Last.fm, Pandora, Slacker Radio — they’re all out there.
  4. If you use iTunes and you’re feeling lazy, you can also use Apple’s Genius feature for making playlists automatically by algorithm. You basically click a song in your iTunes library that you want to use as a foundation for the playlist, click the Genius icon and let Apple do the mixing work for you. You can also edit or redo the results if you don’t like what you get.
  5. autoplaylistIf you like the idea of automation, but want more control over what tracks go into the mix, you can use the Auto Playlist feature in Windows Media Player or the Smart Playlists option in iTunes to tell the software what you want to hear. Once you make a new auto/smart playlist, you can tell the program what you want on it with a series of pop-up menus or text fields. You can pick tracks you have rated 3 starts or higher, use songs from a specific time period, factor in beat-per-minute and have your music program search your library for songs that meet all or some of your pre-defined criteria. The SmartPlaylists.com site, which is geared toward iTunes users, has more ideas and we’ll have links on how to use the Auto Playlists and Smart Playlists features on your show page. And remember, for this to work, you need to have really good tags in your music files.

You can also find playlist-making advice over on Lifehacker and Yahoo has a roundup of free online playlist sites. And if you just can’t think of a good name for your poppin’ fresh new mix of tracks, you can get help with that part, too, over at the Playlist Name generator site. The titles may be a bit on the goofy side — Warm Popcorn, Accidental Design, Whimsical Flesh and Insidious Sweater are just a few samples — but hey, you saved some brain cells not having to think too hard about it.