The are only two type of people on this big blue marble we call Earth: those who love Star Wars and those who don’t. I think you all know which camp J.D. and El Kaiser spend their time in. This week J.D. fills us in on the goodies you’ll get in the various and sundry versions of the digital and DVD/Blu-Ray releases of the latest chapter in the space opera, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. In tech headlines, the FBI doesn’t need Apple’s help hacking into an iPhone, Instagram gives users more time, and now you can build your own Amazon Echo with help from another fruit-themed toymaker.
Well, after all that legal grandstanding and trying to force Apple to build a back door in its mobile operating system, the Justice Department went back to court this week to say: Never mind. Thanks to help from a third-party volunteer hacking specialist, the FBI says it is now rolling through the encrypted data that was harvested from the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist.
So now that the whole incident is over, what was it about? Some argue that corporate compliance is mandatory in this dangerous era of terror. Others, including famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, have gone on record saying the FBI could have gotten into the phone on its own and the whole thing was about establishing a legal precedent. So, until next time…
Speaking of Apple’s iOS software, the company has acknowledged bugs in its recent 9.3 update. Patch on the way!
Instagram’s previously announced move to using algorithms in feeds has caused a bit of a panic in the Insta-community, so that’s why you’ve been inundated by people asking you to turn on notifications so that their posts will not get buried. No word on when that change to the system going live, but Instagram did announce this week that it was increasing the maximum running time of posted video from 15 seconds to 60 seconds.
Twitter celebrated its 10th-anniversary last week and this week, the company’s Periscope app for live-streaming video celebrated its one-year anniversary from its official launch date. Periscope has reportedly been used for 200 million live video broadcasts and not all of them were Game of Thrones or House of Cards bootlegs.
People poking around in Facebook Messenger code say they’ve found evidence that points to the potential to make purchases in retail stores and fund them with Apple Pay, all without leaving the Messenger app. Facebook has made no announcements yet, nor on reports that it’s also working on Snapchat-like self-destructing messages called Secret Conversations. (But, while we’re talking bout Snapchat, that company has just released what it calls Chat 2.0, which lets users easily tap between text, audio and video chat.)
In gaming news, reviews of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset are starting to pop up around the web, including one from Brian X. Chen at The New York Times who called it a well-built hardware system brimming with potential. However, the first wave of apps and software will probably only appeal to hard-core gamers.
Sony is also stepping up the graphics in its console games and said it plans to release an updated version of its PlayStation 4 machine later this year. The current PlayStation 4 model would stick around, but it would add a newer version with enough mojo to handle virtual reality and other visually intense gaming experiences.
Vimeo announced this week that it’s made some updates to its channel on the Roku set-top box. As explained in a blog post on the company site, you can now you can rent or buy films and video series directly from their creators right there on your Roku TV.
Audio-sharing site SoundCloud is also stepping things up with a new subscription service here in the States called SoundCloud Go.
Oracle is not happy with Google over a little matter of copyright and is suing the Big G for use of Java in the Android operating system. Oracle seeking 9.3 billion dollars in damages. Google, for its part, has other things on its mind this week, like its new Fiber Phone service, which brings unlimited and nationwide phone calls to homes with Google Fiber broadband service for $10 a month.
Yahoo’s financial woes have not gotten any better this year and the company announced it’ll be accepting bids for its web business and Asian assets. The Wall Street Journal reports the company has set an April 11th deadline for preliminary bids from interested buyers. Perhaps Yahoo can throw a few departments up on eBay.
And finally, if you don’t live in the States or you’re too broke to buy one of those handy Amazon Echo speakers that does your bidding when you give it verbal commands, you can build your own with an inexpensive Raspberry Pi barebones computers and a little time. Novaspirit Tech has a demo video:
Lest you think this is an unauthorized adventure, Amazon itself has posted its own instructions on GitHub for getting the hardware working with its Alexa Voice Service. So, if you need a summer project this year when you’re not picking up Yahoo properties at a weekend tag sale, consider the DIY Raspberry Echo.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens landed in movie houses last December and like clockwork four months later, the film is just about to roll out on home video. For fans of the franchise, the digital ‘n’ disc release to the masses means we can see The Force wake up all over again — but now with the power to fast-forward/rewind/obsess over all those little tidbits that whizzed by on the original big-screen viewing(s).
And of course, home video traditionally means: BONUS FEATURES.
Disney is not holding back with this one. Not only do most versions of The Force Awakens have extra video treats, you can also choose between delivery formats — and even the packaging for your copy.
And you don’t have long to wait. Digital high-def downloads from various legitimate sources will be available this Friday, April 1st, while physical discs — Blu-ray and DVD — hit stores Tuesday, April 5th.
So, what do you get if you buy the film? Deleted scenes, of course! These snippets from the editing-room bin have already been officially teased by Disney, spoiled here and there and leaked in various places online. There are said to be six official deleted scenes for disc buyers, and a seventh clip for the digital-only releases.
And what would a home-video release be without a few behind-the-scenes minidocs? Sure, the offerings may vary by retailer, but here are the ones most retailers are advertising (complete with original breathless blurbs from Disney):
• Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey – For the first time, discover the complete story behind the making of The Force Awakens, revealed through in-depth footage and exclusive interviews with the actors and filmmakers in this feature documentary.
• The Story Awakens: The Table Read – Cast members familiar and new reflect on the memorable day they all first came together to read the movie’s script.
• Building BB-8 – See how the filmmakers brought the newest droid to the screen, creating an instant fan favorite in the Star Wars universe.
• Crafting Creatures – Watch movie magic as the filmmakers bring a cast of new creatures to life.
• Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight – Go deeper into the epic, climactic lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren.
• John Williams: The Seventh Symphony – The legendary composer shares personal insights of his work on Star Wars and The Force Awakens.
• ILM: The Visual Magic of The Force – An insider’s look into the remarkable digital artistry of the movie’s visual effects.
• Force For Change – Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. See how the Star Wars: Force for Change initiative has united Star Wars fans all over the globe to help others.
Can’t wait four days for a disc and going for the digital downloads? You can get it from all the usual suspects on Friday.
You can find the film on the Google Play store, Apple’s iTunes Store, the Microsoft Store and Walmart’s Vudu service. Most are charging $19.99 for an HD download of the film with bonus content included, and $14.99 for a standard-definition widescreen edition with no extra features. Amazon of course, likes to undercut everyone in price, and is charging $17.99 for the HD download with bonus material and $14.99 for the standard. (You be you, Amazon.)
Want a hard copy of the film on a good ol’ shiny disc? You can get one of those next Tuesday — and you have some options there as well. Film buffs will probably go for the Blu-ray/DVD combo back that also gives you a digital copy for your devices. The combo pack has a list price of $29.99 but you can find it cheaper if you look around. The straight-up DVD will cost around $18.99.
Four big retailers are doing their own packaging as well. These include:
• BEST BUY. The Best Buy Blu-ray Combo pack features sturdy SteelBook packaging for $29.99.
• DISNEY STORE. The Disney Store Blu-ray Combo comes with an exclusive lithograph set. That’s all while supplies last, and the package rings in at $24.99.
• TARGET. The $24.99 Target Blu-ray Combo pack comes with its own special packaging and an added 20 minutes of bonus content. Target claims to have never-before-seen interviews with new stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, plus a deep dive into at the movie’s costumes and weaponry.
• WALMART. Wallyworld’s own Blu-ray Combo pack comes with spunky BB-8 packaging and a Star Wars Galactic Connexions trading disc. List price is $39.99, but it’s on sale for $19.98.
And all these are just for the 2D editions — a 3D version of Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be available later this year. Finally! Something to keep us busy until Rogue One arrives on December 16th.
Ebooks are hot and romance-novel ebooks are even hotter, as the genre pulling in huge sales every year. On this week’s episode, journalist Laura M. Holson discusses how the ebook industry has created the need for more male models to grace the digital covers of these romantic reads. Meanwhile, El Kaiser and J.D. ponder the headlines, including Apple’s week of new products and pitfalls, Amazon’s urgent warning to Kindle owners, the rolling robot that delivers pizza and the hazards of letting Internet users suggest names for large important government research ships.
It seems the FBI and the Department of Justice have set their sights on Facebook’s hugely popular WhatsApp communication platform in their ongoing battle with tech giants.
Also on the episode, J.D. fills us in on phone applications that handle the job of communicating life-saving medical information when you can’t while El Kaiser breaks down the tech term “cryptography”.
Don’t fret! We have tons more tech news, shenanigans and general silliness…exactly what you’ve expect from us here at POP | TECH | JAM.
What’s up, WhatsApp? As The New York Times reported last weekend, government officials are said to be privately debating about what to do in their similar ongoing squabble with WhatsApp. The program’s encryption is mucking up the Justice Department’s ability to peek at messages, even though it has a judge’s wiretap order to investigate. In a related story, The Guardian of London reports that Facebook, Google and Snapchat plan to step up their encryption to protect the data of their customers.
Apple is due to appear in a federal court in Riverside, California, on March 22 to fight the order that started this most recent squabble over privacy vs. security. Perhaps not so incidentally, the company has confirmed its next Apple Event to Reveal New Products to be on March 21st, just as the Apple-watching blogs predicted. But as the legal battles rage, Adam Segal and Alex Grigsby of the Council on Foreign Relations have an essay in The Los Angeles Times that lays out what they call three realistic solutions to prevent further fights over encryption. Will anybody try them out?
The South By Southwest festival has been going on the past week, but some outlets like CNBC are reporting a diminished interest in the interactive side of the event, which could explain the relatively low-key media coverage. Or perhaps the media is just preoccupied with a certain 2016 Presidential election.
In happier news, Microsoft announced this week that the Xbox One will soon support cross-network gameplay, meaning people using Xbox Live with their Xboxes or Windows 10 hardware could, in theory, be able to frag players using other hardware like the Sony PlayStation 4. Microsoft has also just updated the web version of Skype. and if you’re not paying attention, the company will update your Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 computer to Windows 10.
Adobe’s Experience Design CC is now out in preview for Mac users. The program was specifically created for user-experience designers who make mock-ups for interfaces and whatnot. The preview has that nice price of free.
Google is inviting interested parties to hack its Chromebooks. Few have shown interest in doing so, but to sweeten the pot, they’ve upped the top reward for major bug discovery to $100,000.
Could robots replace salespeople in retail stores? Researchers as Osaka University in Japan have been studying and testing real-life jobs for robots and found that people react well when the robots are used for things like foreign-language practice, or as retail associates because they don’t nag the human to do more — or buy more .
And finally, speaking of artificial intelligence, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo computer, which we mentioned a few weeks ago on the show, has defeated the Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol in a best-of-five series of the ancient game of Go. Artificial intelligence has already kicked human butt in chess and on Jeopardy, but how will AI do at Cards Against Humanity?
If you were in an accident or had a health situation, do you have a way for first responders to find your emergency contact or know important particulars about your medical history? If you don’t wear a medical-alert bracelet, you can have your phone handle the job of communicating life-saving information when you can’t do it, thanks to the category of “ICE” apps — ICE, short for In Case of Emergency.
The Health app, first introduced in in iOS 8, let you record and track your personal and health and fitness data. But even if you never look at the built-in step counter or share your calorie intake privately with your phone, you can use the handy Medical ID screen.
You can get to Medical ID by opening the Health app and tapping the Medical ID tab. The screen is sort of like an electronic medical-alert bracelet. You can list any major health conditions, medications you’re allergic to, your blood type and the phone number for your emergency-contact person.
Even if you have a passcode on your phone, someone can see your Medical ID info by tapping the Lock Screen, tapping Emergency and then tapping Medical ID. Granted, if you have privacy issues with any of this, don’t use it, but it can be helpful if you are unable to respond to an EMT or police officer.
While pure Android currently doesn’t have a built-in health app, you can find similar free or inexpensive medical ID apps in the Google Play store, like the $4 ICE for Android or the free iMedAlert app (which can even issue a GPS-based distress call). Android apps have a woolier reputation for security and privacy, however, so check the specifications to make sure any app you’re looking at doesn’t get grabby with permissions or store your data on their servers.
If you don’t want to fiddle around with a separate app, there’s a basic hack you can do with just about any modern smartphone. Simply call up the Notes app that came with your phone (or any other word-processing app) and type out any emergency information you would want any first responder to know. Next, take a screenshot of that completed text and set the image as your phone’s lock screen image. Anybody who finds you (and your phone) can see the information — and as a bonus, the person would not have to know how to get to the iPhone’s Medical ID screen.
Again, if you have privacy reservations wth any of this, don’t use an app and get a medical-alert bracelet if you do have any conditions you need to identify. But if you just want to add the information to your phone where you already have so much of your life recorded anyway, it could just save your life.
Could the digital divide in America be closing just a bit? The Federal Communications Commission has tweaked its plan for low-cost broadband Internet access and presented a proposal to its members this week that brings broadband service for $9.25 a month. The new broadband plan is an update to its 1985 Lifeline program to subsidize landline service for qualifying low-income consumers and the 2008 enhancement to the plan to include mobile-phone help. Lifeline has gotten the usual government-program charges of fraud, waste and abuse (and other gripes) from its detractors, like what counts as average broadband speed. The FCC countered by saying it does have some fraud-prevention measures. Some providers like Sprint don’t care for the proposed reforms to the Lifeline program, but a vote on the new system by FCC members is expected on March 31st.
Facebook is making its Instant Articles feature easier to use for people who aren’t even major media organizations. The company said a few weeks ago that it was opening up the Instant Articles feature to all publishers and this week, Facebook announced a new open-source plug-in for WordPress. The opening of Instant Articles For All is expected to happen in time for the company’s annual F8 Conference in San Francisco next month. In an even more reassuring development, Facebook also awarded $15,000 to a hacker who demonstrated how he could use basic software to crack open the account of any user on the service. Yes, Facebook has since fixed the flaw in its system.
Mozilla, which recently bailed out, er, pivoted, on its Firefox OS for smartphones, is moving into the Internet of Things, where appliances rule the 802.11 airwaves. In a post on the Mozilla blog, the company outlined four new projects designed to integrate Firefox technologies into connected devices and asked for volunteers to help test out the new stuff. If you are a developer and are interested in working on any of it, check out Project Link, Project Sensor Web, Project Smart Home or Project Vaani.
In gaming news, Capcom is spanking players who rage-quit its Street Fighter V game by docking their League Points for bad behavior. So there! And Microsoft it just announced it was canceling development of its Fable Legends game for Xbox and closing Lionhead Studios in the United Kingdom and Press Play Studios in Denmark.
Also over in the House of Microsoft, the company has now enabled Skype chat right from OneDrive when you are collaborating on an Office Online document and just have to talk it out with your co-authors. And whispers around Redmond say Microsoft has pushed back the next big upfate to Windows 10, codenamed Redstone 2 from later this year to until spring of 2017 to better align with new device hardware on the way. No comment from Microsoft so far.
There’s a reportedly nasty piece of OS X ransomware out there, looking to lock up your Mac until you pay up. The malware, called KeRanger, only affects the Transmission BitTorrent client installer. If you use the program, here’s a link to more information. If you don’t use the program, you can skip the freak-out.
In other Apple-related news, the Department of Justice is appealing last week’s federal court ruling in Brooklyn that said the government could not use the centuries-old All Writs Act force Apple to unlock a user’s iPhone. And Craig Federighi (shown here), Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering and fabulous hair, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post explaining Apple’s stance in its ongoing fight with the FBI. Security experts have also weighed in on the matter in a recent Bloomberg News article that says the FBI should just hack the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone themselves since it would be faster. There’s also some worry that if the US government forces Apple to start unlocking iPhones left and right for security reasons, the European Union privacy regulators will delay their verdict on the EU-US privacy shield agreement. (In other not-so-good legal news for Apple, the Supreme Court has declined to listen to the company’s appeal for the e-book price fixing case. Cue the sound of a very large check being written.)
Also in Europe, Google, Indexer of the Past, is expanding the European court-ordered Right to Be Forgotten. However, Americans mortified by their pasts lurking online still have nowhere to complain, even though a consumer advocacy group petitioned the Federal Trade Commission last year to make Google allow us Yanks to forget our documented-and- digitized discretions as well.
Verizon Wireless is having its own issues with the concept of privacy. The Federal Communications Commission (clearly having a busy year so far) has slapped the telecom giant with a $1.35 million dollar fine and a a three-year consent decree to settle the case of the privacy-chomping supercookies that first surfaced in 2014.
When it comes to Internet service providing, Google is mainly known for its Google Fiber broadband, but the company also has a lesser-known cellphone service that piggybacks on Sprint and T-Mobile networks. It’s called Project Fi and the reason you may have not heard of it before is that it was invitation-only since it launched last year. But as of this week, anybody with a Nexus 6, 6P or 5X can get Project Fi service. You just need to go to (where else?) the Sign Up page to get started.
Amazon, keeping an eye on Apple’s legal punch-up with the DOJ, has now weighed in and said it was going to restore the device encryption capabilities it just yanked out of its Fire OS 5 software. Amazon said it originally took out the feature because no one was using it, but has now decided to re-enable the feature in an update to the system this spring.
And finally, we here at Pop Tech Jam offer out condolences to the family of Ray Tomlinson, the programmer credited with the modern invention of electronic mail with the groovy little @ sign back in 1971. Mr. Tomlinson passed away last week at the age of 74. He was a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and said he picked the @ sign because it just “made sense.” Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for setting the standard.
Is social media totally hacking the 2016 elections? Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump is well known for his rather pointed Twitter feed, but does he show another side of himself on Instagram and Facebook? Journalist Laura M. Holson stops by Pop Tech Jam HQ to discuss how Mr. Trump and other candidates are making the most out of the Internet this election season. And as always, El Kaiser and J.D. discuss the technology news of the week — including the Federal Communication Commission’s proposed update to its Lifeline plan and Apple’s continuing ups and downs with the United States court system.