PTJ 95 News: Catching Fire

Amazon, which has been locked in a heated battle over e-book prices for weeks with book publisher Hachette, is hoping customers warm up to its new Fire TV box with a little taste of the action. The company’s website is currently running an offer for selected (and interested) users  can sign up for a free 30-day test drive with the Fire TV box .

The Oculus Rift technology may have a bigger future than just creating a virtual world for Facebook users. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, (club name: DARPA), has been experimenting for the past few years with using the virtual reality headsets for cyberwar training. The project is called Plan X and Wired has a detailed look at it.

Speaking of games, a new PlayStation 4 system update from Sony allows customers to download pre-ordered games in advance so you don’t have to sit there and wait for it to crawl down your wires on release day before you can play. Destiny, a first person shooter due out for the PS4 in September, is the first game to support pre-loading.

Spotify is telling its Android users of a security breach concerning user data and is advising people using its Android app to upgrade to a new version. Those using the Windows Phone or iOS apps are not affected.

Malware is everywhere, including on the Mac, and Google has just released an OS X upload client for its VirusTotal meta scanner. Elsewhere in the Googleverse, the company has added its Google Now-style Voice Search to its Chrome desktop browser. To get rolling with it, you just need to do a bit of setup, then point Chrome to Google.com. From your desktop, you can ask Google the same sort of questions you may ask your mobile device running the Google Search app.

checkbookThe spring shopping trend in the tech world continues. Intuit, maker of the personal finance mainstay Quicken has dropped $360 million for the mobile bill-paying app Check. (And yes, after weeks of rampant whispers, Apple sealed the deal with Beats this week.)

Rumors about Apple’s forthcoming announcements at next week’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco have already started to fly, and the Financial Times says its sources point to a new software platform for the “smart home.”  Apple does plan to livestream the keynote address next Monday at 10 a.m. Pacific.

The Internet of Things has raised all kinds of discussion, including excitement about the remote control of one’s home to security fears about appliance rebellion. For deep thoughts, consider the upcoming philosophy conference devoted to The Internet of Things. It starts July 3rd at York St. John University in England.

The audio software Pro Tools is partly responsible for a new compilation of unreleased songs by the rock band Queen. The album is mixed from unreleleased vocals by Freddie Mercury, the group’s late lead singer, and new instrumental tracks by living members of the band. Dr. Brian May, a guitarist, songwriter and backing vocalist for the group, as well as an astrophysicist at Imperial College London, recently confirmed the plans to The Guardian of London. The new album, tentatively titled Queen Forever, is due out by the end of the year.

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And finally, if you like antique computers, want to feel old or like to see the kids confused by technology for once, check out The Fine Brother’s “Kids React to Old Computers” video that’s been lighting up YouTube the past few days. The 8-minute clip shows a variety of pre-teens trying to figure out how to use an Apple II-like PC. Kids, back in the Olden Days, we had green-on-black VDTs and 300 baud modems to connect to our BBS’s, uphill both ways. And, not to get philosophical about it or anything, we liked it.

PTJ 95: Another Rootin’ Tootin’ Good Time

The Pop Tech Jam crew couldn’t help getting their geek on over this past U.S. holiday weekend.

J.D. spent her time off digging up online Cultural goodies from the British Library and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while El Kaiser tried valiantly to install customized versions of the Android mobile operating system onto his Samsung and Google branded devices.

In the news Amazon offers selected users the opportunity to sign up for a free 30-day test drive of the Fire TV set-top box ;  Oculus Rift technology may become an integral tool in the training of cyberwarriors;  Sony will allow customers to download pre-ordered games in advance for the PlayStation 4 game console; Intuit, makers of Quicken, goes shopping; technology paves the way for a new album from Queen with Freddie Mercury on vocals; and the Fine Brother’s “Kids React to Old Computers” video lights up YouTube.

Words and Pictures

The barbecue grills have been rolled out across North America and summer is unofficially here. Those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” are not as carefree for some as they used to be, but if you find yourself with more time here and there, check out these new online features from two of our big repositories of Western civilization.

First up, the website of the British Library recently added a Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians section. This electronic collection has more than 1,200 literary goodies, mostly from the 19th century, accompanied by essays from experts and 25 documentary videos.

Items include some digitized manuscripts of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Austen, Dickens and Wilde, plus the childhood writings of the Brontë sisters. Other historical tidbits can be found as well, like exceprts from a slang dictionary dating back to 1809 (shown below). And remember, since many of these works are in the public domain, you can get free ebook copies of many classic 19th century works from places like Project Gutenberg or the Free section of your preferred online bookstore for some really old-school summer reading.

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Visual stimulation more your thing? The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City just announced a few weeks ago that it was making more than 400,000 of its high-resolution digital images of public domain works free for download. The files, including some very famous works of art, are available for non-commercial use — including in scholarly publications in any media — without the need for permission from (and money to) the Museum.

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It’s all part of the new Open Access for Scholarly Content initiative. To download a file, click its thumbnail from the Met’s Online Collection page and look for the little OASC tag and download arrow underneath it; not every work is in the public domain and available. In addition to providing impromptu art-history lessons and high-rez images for your various personal projects, the images also make really classy desktop wallpaper when you need to take a break from your X-Men collection.

PTJ 94: How Soon Is (Google) Now, Fellow Netizen?

El Kaiser looks at the Tech Term “netizen” and explains how the once innocuous mashup of “Internet” and “citizen” has come to represent a responsibility all of us should not take lightly.

In her (Hopefully) Helpful Hint segment J.D. takes a look at Google Now, the interactive virtual assistant from the “Big G” and tells us how it is slowly evolving and trying to stand out when compared to Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

In the news  AT&T has sealed the deal to buy DirectTV;  YouTube rumored to be buying the videogame-streaming company Twitch;  FBI arrests over 90 suspected cyber-criminals;  Verizon continued rolling out its zippier XLTE service across the country;   and Facebook is testing an Ask button on user profiles allowing a user to inquire about  the relationship status of your online acquaintance.

PTJ 94 News: The Urge to Merge

Spring is in the air and plenty of companies seem to be in a spending mood. For starters, AT&T has sealed the deal to buy DirectTV for close to $49 billion dollars. (AT&T can walk away from the agreement the National Football League decides to take its NFL Sunday Ticket package elsewhere.) Yes, opponents of the pending Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal and telecom mergers in general are also speaking out about this one, too.

Although neither party is talking yet, Variety reports that YouTube, owned by Google, has crafted a deal to buy the videogame-streaming company Twitch for one billion dollars. While it had the checkbook out, Google also bought a company called Divide for an undisclosed purchase price. And while it’s not a done deal, the Re/Code site reports that Twitter may be considering an acquisition of SoundCloud.

On to fighting crime: Manhattan US Attorney and the FBI Assistant Director-in–Charge announced more than 90 arrests and law-enforcement actions in a massive global cyber-law enforcement operation. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Justice has unsealed an indictment of five members of Unit 61398 of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on hacking charges.  (In a probably unrelated incident, China has banned the use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system on its own government computers.)

Although the Asian market may have just gotten a bit smaller with the news, Microsoft announced some new hardware this week. Going against the trend of smaller tablets, the company unveiled a bigger version of its Windows-based Surface Pro tablet. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch diagonal high-def screen and a bunch of other laptop-like features.

In happier news back home, Verizon is revving up the 4G LTE networks for some of its customers down south in Alabama. The new technology, called XLTE offers more wireless capacity and improved performance for wireless data customers; Verizon has been steadily adding XLTE service in many other markets around the country, including New York City. (If you’re burning your battery down uploading all those photos on the superfast network here in the Big Apple, be sure to visit one of AT&T’s mobile charging stations around town — all five boroughs get some love.)

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In addition to thinking up new rules for Net Neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission does enforce other laws relating to telecommunications. The FCC Enforcement Bureau has come down on Sprint with a $7.5 million spanking for its failure to respect the Do Not Call List.

And finally, in case you were wondering if a certain friend is single or in a relationship, Facebook is testing an Ask button on user profiles that lets you send a gentle inquiry as to the relationship status of your acquaintance. So let’s see if Facebook’s statistics for blocks and unfriending go up in the next few weeks — or perhaps the arrival of the Step Off reply button.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Operator, Give Me Information

Technology is suposed to make life easier — robots will clean our homes, hyperdrive will get us to distant galaxies and we’ll have the science to whip up a cup of Earl Grey, hot, out of thin air.  While we’re not quite there yet, Apple, Microsoft and Google are at least trying to get the helpful interactive virtual  assistant thing sorted out.

As you may recall, Apple’s Siri got a lot of press a few years ago with her splashy debut on the iPhone 4S. Microsoft’s Cortana arrived this spring for Windows Phone 8.1. Then there’s Google Now, which has been lurking since around 2012 and has been adding features since. Each system uses a form of natural language user interface to accept questions and commands asked in an informal manner.

Of the three, Google Now may be the most subdued. While it can speak up on some occasions, it mostly mines your data quietly from Google services and then tries to present data nuggets it thinks you’ll need, like traffic and weather for your location. With Siri, you press a button, ask the software for information and it responds back, usually with what you wanted. Siri can also address messages, make appointments and set reminders when you command it. Cortana tries to utilize both approaches, by responding to voice-activated commands, while also gathering more factoids about you so it can better predict your needs.

Google Now can do some voice-activated activities, like search, but it’s a less splashy service. If you have an Android device — especially one from Google — or use the Google Search app on your iOS device, computer’s Chrome browser or Windows 8 hardware with your Google account, you have probably run into Google Now.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the service, but if you don’t mind it poking around in your other Google services accounts like Gmail and YouTube, it can be useful. For example, once Google Now pulls info from your current location, search history, its own queries to you and your Gmail account, it can:

  • Give you the score of your favorite team’s game last night
  • Alert you to any traffic problems for your morning commute
  • Display the current price for selected stocks
  • Show when your latest Amazon order shipped
  • Tell you when your favorite blog updated
  • Round up headlines about your favorite movies and TV shows
  • Remind you to pay your bills.

In other examples of real-world use, Google Now can also show you the emailed digital boarding pass for your flight tomorrow night, tell you what time to leave for the airport (to catch that very flight) and thoughtfully show you the weather forecast for both home and your destination city.

This can all be very helpful and very creepy at the same time.

To get the most out of Google Now, let it use information from your search history. Unless of course, you often search for stuff, (without an incognito window) you’d rather not have popping up on screen.

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To customize your screen, open the Google Search app to the Google Now screen, flick down and tap the little magic wand icon at the bottom of the screen. Here, you can pick the sports teams and stocks you want to follow, choose the places you love and work for traffic and weather reports and get local TV listings. If you search for a particular TV show on Google and get a Set a Reminder link for that show in your results, Google Now shows that reminder on your screen the day of the show.

Using Google Now is pretty straightforward. When you tap open the Google Now widget from your Android screen or open the Google Search app, you see all the little bits of information displayed as “cards” that you can scroll through. If you don’t care about one of the info card, you can flick it off the screen for the time being, or tap the menu icon to stop further updates.

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Google Now also has Google Voice Search built in, so just say “OK, Google” to your device and then announce what you want to search for. Depending on what you ask, you may even get an audio response, like the current temperature. If you are using Google Chrome on your desktop and are logged into your Google account there, you can get Google Now notifications on the computer for alerts you set up on your mobile device.

Once again, like Siri and Cortana, Google Now does mine your personal information to do its job. If this gives you the wiggins, don’t use it. But if you figure Google, Facebook, Apple and the rest of them are all up in your business anyway and you don’t mind getting extra information about the things affecting your life each day, virtual assistants can save you time — and maybe make a few of those secret JARVIS fantasies come true.