As Pop Tech Jam hits the canonical 300-episode mark, El Kaiser and J.D. ponder the skill (or lack thereof) needed to create a good grilled-cheese sandwich — before discussing the week’s technology news and a roundup of public-safety and information apps. Cook yourself up a toastie and have a listen!
The winter temperatures in the American Midwest may have plummeted, but in the technology world, it’s Apple and Facebook bouncing off the floor — and into each other over user privacy. El Kaiser and J.D. chew through the events of the past week, and also pause to ponder another question: How many streaming services can one actually have until it feels like paying the same old big bucks for a cable subscription? Click up Episode 299 to hear it all!
Links to News Stories
Discussed on This Week’s Show
The annual Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up in Las Vegas last week, leaving El Kaiser and J.D. plenty of new gadgets to mull, from “intelligent” toilets to high-concept “social-empathy robots.” But other stuff happened outside of Vegas, too — Facebook changed up its News Feed, Spectre and Meltdown patches rolled out, and half of California seems to be suing Apple over that iPhone slowdown move. Spin up Episode 258 to hear it all!
It seems like everybody’s got something on the way this week: Samsung’s new phone waits in the wings, Amazon’s Alexa is calling in for a six pack, robots are rolling out with restaurant orders and Apple even quietly slipped a few new products into the retail channel. El Kaiser and J.D. discuss it all — including that very special package sent down from the International Space Station.
Spyware isn’t just for hackers and sleazy software makers these days. Oppressive governments are also using it to crack down on dissidents, according to a recent story in The New York Times. In other ominous privacy news, a report from Reuters and other sources report that Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace has decreed that “Foreign messaging companies active in the country are required to transfer all data and activity linked to Iranian citizens into the country in order to ensure their continued activity.” The council has given companies one year to make the move. The Telegram messenger app, which was created by the Durov brothers, has a huge user base in Iran and could be a target here.
Facebook could also be stepping up its secure-texting game. The Guardian reports that The Social Network is working on an optional encryption setting for its Messenger app.
The Internet and politics can be a volatile mix, but the European Commission announced this week that it had worked with Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to come up with a code of conduct and policies designed to stop the spread of illegal hate speech online in Europe. Meanwhile, over here in the States, enthusiasm seems to have fizzled out for new legislation that would require technology companies like Apple to provide handy back doors into their products for law-enforcement officials.
Not long after it snapped up AOL, Verizon is still shopping and in contention to buy up the crumbling Yahoo empire. If you’re wondering why, the Fast Company site has a big story out about how it all adds up to Verizon’s quest to complete with Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix with content and services.
Despite dips in PC sales, people are still making laptops and ASUS is going after Apple’s MacBook Air for the thinnest ‘n’ lightest ultrabook prize. The ASUS ZenBook 3, which has a body made of aerospace-grade aluminum alloy, was announced this week at the Computex show in Taipei. Like the newer MacBooks, the ZenBook 3 only has a USB-C port for peripheral connectivity, but the Windows-based device sports a 12.5-inch screen and weighs in around two pounds — just a few ounces lighter than the 12-inch MacBook Air.
ASUS announced new smartphones and a few other products, but the one that most people were talking about was its Zenbo Robot. The Zenbo is billed as “your smart little companion” can roll around the house at will doing all kinds of things. The Zenbo has a list price of $599 and will be available this year. Here’s a video of it:
One firm that seems to be getting out of the moving household robot business, however, is Google. The company bought Boston Dynamics in 2013, but now Google has put it up for sale. Some relationships just don’t work out.
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.
Despite the postponement of the FBI hearing, Apple’s court calendar is still filling up, though. On Monday this week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Samsung’s appeal of that patent infringement case a few years back that it lost to Apple over copying the iPhone’s design. Samsung would like to talk more and pay less in this case.
Amazon has added a new product to its inventory: package deals for Comcast’s Xfinity television and Internet service. The goods can be found in the new Amazon Cable Store, where special offers for Amazon customers are also touted. On the down side, you have to use Comcast is you sign up.
One of Amazon’s other products popped up — and piped up — earlier this month during the broadcast of a National Public Radio story about the Amazon Echo speaker and its Alexa virtual assistant. As the story unfolded on the radio, with typical NPR sound clips of people on the radio taking to Alexa on their Amazon Echos, one NPR listener said his Alexa reset the home thermostat based on a command it heard on the radio. Another Alexa in the wild began playing an NPR Hourly Summary. (Just so you know, this was just a test. Once they get the signal from headquarters, all the Alexas will rise up together to overthrow their human oppressors.) Incidentally, Amazon Tap, which looks like it’s basically an Echo you have to touch first, will be available next week.
Twitter celebrated its 10th birthday this week. The service stuck up a blog post thanking its users for the first decade and saying “Throughout the years, you’ve made Twitter what it is today and you’re shaping what it will be in the future.” (Let us please not speak of trolls and politicians.)
And finally, also over in England, let us turn to a jolly seafaring tale. If you are unaware of this unfolding story, here it is: The British Natural Environment Research Council thought it would be a good idea to ask the public for help in naming a brand new £200 million ocean-research ship, so it invited the public to participate and began to take online suggestions. While some well-meaning participants put forth the names of scientists or explorers, one gentleman suggested the moniker RSS Boaty McBoatface. Needless to say, that name quickly shot to the top of the polls and the NERC site even crashed from excitement at one point. A spokeswoman for the council said, “We are very much enjoying hearing everyone’s ideas,” but the agency ultimately has the final say in christening the vessel. The contest ends April 16th, so in the meantime, raise a glass of rum and let’s all sing a good shanty for the RSS Boaty McBoatface while it lasts.
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.
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 .
Like tarting up images and then sharing them online? Adobe, maker of Photoshop, has a new free iOS app called Adobe Post. It’s described in detail on an Adobe blog, and yes, the company says an Android version is in the works. As Macworld points out, though, you have to share the app with a friend to get rid of an watermark Post puts on your pictures. Also in picture news, Facebook is adding support for the Live Photos created by Apple’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus models. While the new feature is slowly rolling out, only users with the iOS version of Facebook’s app will be able to see the mini moving pictures. Oh, well.
The Consumer Electronics Show is still about three weeks away, but the advance press releases are already starting to trickle out. Cleaning fans take note, LG plans to reveal what it calls “the world’s first augmented reality vacuum cleaner” at CES next month. The company’s HOM-BOT Turbo+ uses three camera sensors to record its surroundings to keep track of where it has already cleaned — and to transmit a real-time feed to its owner’s smartphone. The human just needs to tap an area of the room displayed on the screen to have the HOM-BOT go over there and clean it. Because the vacuum has motion sensors along with its cameras, it can also be used to keep an eye on the place, but the HOM-BOT doesn’t quite sound like its up to a Terminator level of protection . . . yet.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear the oral arguments in the lawsuits that sprang up from telecom providers over the new Net Neutrality rules later this year. Mark your calendar for December 4.
Sony has just announced two new Xperia smartphones, the C5 Ultra and the M5, and these are aimed at connoisseurs of the digital self portrait. The phones are part of Sony’s PROselfie line of handsets. The Xperia C5 Ultra has a 6-inch display with twin 13-megapixel cameras front and back, while the Xperia M5 has a 5-inch display, a 13-megapixel camera in the front, a 21-megapixel camera on the back, and is said to be waterproof. Both phones run the Android operating system and are expected to arrive in stores this month.
And finally, the fall Hammacher Schlemmer catalog is out now and the company’s exclusive $70 Selfie Toaster is still available — in case you want to start your holiday shopping before Labor Day. After all, a toaster that “uses custom heating inserts crafted from a submitted headshot photograph” to burn someone’s likeness into a piece of bread just may be the perfect gift for the person who has everything.
The independent audio magazine devoted to mashing up pop culture, technology and more. J.D. Biersdorfer and Pedro Rafael Rosado are your hosts. It's an Internet Radio revolution!