Virtual Reality: Visible From Here


If you follow my random jottings, you may recall that I’m very bullish about Virtual Reality. As a lifetime science fiction geek, VR has always been the Holy Grail. It never seemed achievable (for the average user at least), but it’s getting increasingly closer.

There are three monsters driving this development. A couple of years back, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, the company who managed to hack the human optic nerve and has been working on a ground-breaking headset ever since. I tried an early version, and it’s amazing.

Where Facebook is, can Google be far behind? In their recent I/O conference, Google announced improvements to its Android operating system to allow developers to essentially stitch together video sources from multiple cameras to produce a true VR result. It also has another larger version of its Android-based cardboard headset, which does VR on a shoestring. I have one; it’s clunky but cool, and only cost $40.

The last (much smaller) monster is GoPro. They have just announced a rig which puts six GoPro cameras on a circular rig, allowing users to collect images from multiple cameras simultaneously and then send them on to the Kolor VR platform they acquired recently.

All this stuff is super geeky for right now, but the moment the Oculus Rift headset is launched (hopefully in association with XBox or Sony PlayStation), it will be game on. Gamers will be the first customers, followed rapidly by the porn industry and sports. I’d expect Hollywood to be a year or so behind. What’s especially encouraging is that these players are working on a ‘wide and cheap’ approach, where VR will be readily available to pretty much anyone with modest income.

I realize I’m in the minority in my wildly excitement about this development, in the same way I was wildly underwhelmed by 3D TV. It’s coming folks, and sooner than we thought.

So, Texas. Climate Change. Still Not a thing?


Perhaps I should stay away from politics and stick to technology, but this past year or two, especially the past weeks, have made it almost impossible not to get just a tiny bit infuriated with Texas. As you will have noted, the state’s had a horrible month or so. Many areas have reported five times their average rainfall and thousands have been displaced by biblical flooding. Meanwhile, next door in SoCal, we are going into our third year of severe drought.

I was looking at some stats recently, and a couple of interesting things jumped out at me. In the last elections, Texas went overwhelmingly Republican. There are a few blue corners, but it typically votes over 75% republican. In most cases, it’s not educated republicans but the God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Wahoo! kind. Fair enough. It’s a free country.

In some other research, I found stats on opinions around climate change. Only about 25% of self-declared Republicans said they though climate change was a real thing, and in the Tea Party section, that drops even lower. By the way, as an aside, I saw the exhausting Mad Max Fury Road yesterday and the bad guys in that epic are how I picture the Tea Party would be if they ever got to power. But I digress.

So most of Texas votes Republican; thus, most Texans probably think that man-made climate change is a concoction of those lefty scientists. As another aside, a decade or two ago, I found myself doing a tech install in a news room at the Lakeland Ledger in mid Florida. One of the very nice young editors I was working with was complaining that she had to edit and then run a story about some new kind of dinosaur which had been recently discovered. As a guy with a B.S. in Genetics and Molecular Biology, evolution is close to my heart. I questioned her and her colleagues and discovered that not a single person on the team (all educated nice young people) believed that evolution was real. The firmly held consensus was that it was a scientific conspiracy. When I pointed out that scientists are unable to conspire to order coffee without massive and very public disagreements, they weren’t buying it.

It seems that there is a streak running through many Americans who would rather believe in angels than gravity. On that point, why don’t these nitwits go after chemistry or physics? Why only question ‘softer science’ like biology and meteorology? Is it because they don’t have the math?

In any event, we have just had both the hottest year and the coldest winter on record in many places. There is, at the very least, something weird and/or worrying going on. As millions of gallons bring the reality of climate change to Texans first hand, you have to wonder if anyone there is reconsidering their beliefs, even very slightly.

Good Old Fashioned Graft


We are so inured to corruption of all kinds that I really think most of us just take it for granted nowadays. In the same way that we always expected the Duck Dynasty idiots to be racist homophobes and the Duggar Family to be child molesters, we expect big business to buy and sell our politicians at every level. Beyond the loss of a few reality TV show sponsors, we also expect the perpetrators to go unpunished. So it was with something close to incredulity that I watched FBI agents and Swiss police people raiding the offices of FIFA today.

As a card-carrying Brit, I’m supposed to love the beautiful game of football, or soccer if you insist. In fact, as a card-carrying asthmatic incapable of running for more than a few seconds as a kid, I stayed back in the classroom and did needle point with the girls. Simpler times, I guess. I’ve always loathed soccer; I hate the macho hooligans who play it and watch it and I hate the constant spitting. I hate the endless statistics and ridiculous jingoism it generates. The antics of its governing board, FIFA, always struck me as perfectly matching the boring, boorish nature of the sport. Much like the MLB and the NFL, the sport got the governing body it deserves.

A few weeks back, the hilarious John Oliver (one of three reasons to keep HBO) did an amazing piece on the comic opera level of corruption which pervades FIFA. He brilliantly mocked the absurd level of old fashioned graft hidden in plain sight. Corruption so extreme that it could land the 2022 World Cup in the despotic regime of Qatar, a country where it’s 110 degrees in the shade most of the year and they are building luxury hotels for the games with what is essentially slave labor. I’m pretty sure most of us laughed and mentally shrugged our shoulders. Business as usual, what ya gonna do? Then this morning’s events.

It would be fantastic if the FBI and the Swiss Gendarmerie follow through and actually jail the greedy, arrogant idiots who have treated FIFA as their private ATM for many years. Perhaps next, they can go after the greedy arrogant idiots at AIG and BofA who crashed the world’s economy back in 2009, but I’m not holding my breath for that one. Anyway, Vive Le Sport!

In the Name of “Digital Sovereignty”


Russia’s cyber world has grown in recent years, and now has more than 80 million users, or about 60% of the population. But in the name of digital sovereignty, Russian authorities are stepping up efforts to corral it, part of a worldwide race between running online technology and the desires of law enforcement to keep tabs on all that activity. The battle lines are forming around the challenge of encryption, which companies are increasingly upgrading in the post-Edward Snowden era to satisfy the privacy concerns of customers.

Russian authorities are fighting back with a law that comes into effect in September, requiring all global Internet platforms, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple to store data of Russian users on Russian servers. Furthermore, it directly warned that due to the encryption employed, Russian servers may be forced to take down entire platforms in order to block one piece of objectionable content.

The idea is that data stored on Russian servers will be protected from the prying eyes of the US National Security Agency. Experts say it may also rope off Russian cyberspace and make it easier for Russian authorities to control what their own citizens are posting and reading on the Internet. The main way Russian authorities have been doing that so far is through a complex register of banned websites that Russia-based ISP’s are required to block.

The list currently contains over 10,000 websites, mostly for content even an ardent civil libertarian might have trouble defending, such as child pornography, pro-terrorist agitation, and sites that glamorize suicide. Last week, the Russian communication supervising entity Roskomnadzor sent out warning letters to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, reminding them that they are required by Russian law to hand over data about any Russian blogger who has more than 3,000 readers daily. Any user of the services who posts items calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest” must be blocked, and due to the companies’ use of https encryption, that could force Russian ISPs to block the entire site.

In barely three months, the new law requiring all companies that operate in Russian cyberspace to store the data of all Russian users on local servers will come into effect. Experts say the law is a sweeping declaration of “digital sovereignty,” but it’s also impossible to guess how it may be enforced. And while Russia may be using its own unique mixture of threats and ill-focused laws to try to address the encryption challenge, it is a global issue.

The NSA is Hacking Your Games


That sounds crazy right? Even given how unscrupulous the NSA has been revealed of late, surely they aren’t using app stores to track us? Wrong. That’s exactly what they are doing.

In the latest of docs leaked by Edward Snowden, it is revealed that the NSA and the spy organizations of the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia (yes folks, the good guys) were working together to exploit the kinds of weaknesses in mobile apps which criminal hackers usually use to steal identities for their own espionage purposes. The technical details are super boring, so I won’t waste your time with them. But essentially, they were combing through popular apps to find their own exploits, then planning to use those exploits to collect data and track individuals. Mobile devices are ideally equipped to let spies track us; all they have to do is match the SIM to the individual and it’s game on.

The project was called ‘Irritant Horn’ (who comes up with these names?) and it’s not 100% clear to what extent it was fully deployed. Of course, if it was done well enough, we wouldn’t be able to tell. The agencies were particularly interested in African countries and Asia. Almost hilariously, the most popular mobile browser in China was characterized as leaking like a sieve. Leaving users open to a wide range of tracking and interception, they were even able to send fake messages from one identified user to another once those users had been infected by the spyware the actual spies were using.

Naturally, the responsible agencies are claiming ‘appropriate oversight’ and self-defense. Google, Apple and Samsung have no comment and I’m sure that this story will be buried as quickly as possible. But next time you are noodling on Candy Crush, just remember that Big Brother is watching you.

Seeing the World Change Through Time-lapse

sdf_2Time-lapse images have taken us on beautiful journeys in the past, and the best ones have likely found their way to your Facebook or Twitter feed. However, a standard time-lapse requires a photographer to park themselves in the same spot for quite some time, recording slow changes in the landscape. Needless to say, it’s a task that requires patience.

However, researchers from Google and the University of Washington found a way to sidestep that requirement, managing to create breathtaking time-lapses without leaving the comfort of their own lab – and the result is pretty awesome.

“Time-lapse mining,” as it has been called, has resulted in a sort of patchwork quilt of images taken by people all across the globe. The memories of strangers were stitched together with one another to make a whole story, resulting in an artistic and educational documentation of the ever-changing world around us.

The team analyzed 86 million photos from social sites, including Flickr and Picasa, and grouped them into landmarks. Then they sorted them by date and “warped” individual photos onto one viewpoint, retouched them a little, and created a stop-motion video showing how a particular landmark has changed over time.

The end product was more than 10,000 time-lapse sequences of 2,942 landmarks, each consisting of more than 300 images. From California to Croatia, they include some of the most photographed landscapes and landmarks in the world. They show seasonal patterns in San Francisco, building renovations in Germany and monument excavations in Cambodia – and that’s just the beginning.

Check out the amazing project:

Leaving Hell: Our Long National Samsung Nightmare is Over


It is finished. Father, into thy hands I commend my fridge. I’ll probably get more time in the real Hell for that line, but at least our Samsung version of Hell is over. If you are a follower of my Samsung adventure, here are the final short strokes:

When I left you last, my postings about this fiasco on Twitter got me the attention of an actual human in the executive customer support team, and that’s when things came together. Instead of me having to go back to the same 1-800-SAMSUNG number and fight each day anew, I had someone on the inside who stuck with me and held my electronic hand through the next stages. Those stages weren’t without twists and turns. For example (and almost hilariously), they require that you strip the tags off the dead machine and send them a picture of the cut power cable as evidence that the machine will not be resold or go on to cause them more corporate pain. I felt a bit like a colonel in the French Foreign Legion cutting the epaulets and breaking the sword of a disgraced soldier. You are dead to me, now go!

The very nice lady at Samsung fought the good fight, got the refund processed and approved, and finally — a mere three weeks after the service tech confirmed that our stupid fridge could not be repaired — got the refund into my account. The weird thing is that my experience divided into two completely different halves: the part where, every day, I battled my way through various third world call centers, each day explaining from the start, and the half where my social media ranting got me an advocate inside the Samsung Empire who stuck with me through the rest of the process. Good job, Samsung lady.

The other weird thing is that it turns out nobody likes their fridge freezer. When I looked on Amazon for a counter depth, three-door fridge freezer scoring four stars or above, there were exactly zero to choose from. Zero. Every model has fans and every model has enough hate reviews to take the average below four stars. I don’t recall any other major product category which has these characteristics. The most common complaints are that the ice makers are horrible (as was ours), and a shockingly high number of them break catastrophically (like ours did), which leads to a prolonged fight to refund or replace. Good to see that we are not alone. But really, what is going on here guys?

Kiss the Internet Goodbye?


I have already commented on the announcement earlier this week that Facebook has set up an index for over a billion Facebook content posts broadly categorized as news, but it prompts an interesting (and perhaps worrying) end game for us to consider. What if the web as we know it is in fact an artifact of the accidental way the web got started? What if it’s going away, and soon? Here’s why:

The web evolved as a bunch of separate web sites loosely linked together. Some of those sites got huge and became their own empires. Many are small and millions are pretty much moribund. As bandwidth availability grew and broadband speeds over cellular traffic became more common, the web developed a class system. Some sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon load super-fast all the time. In the case of Google and Facebook, the sites they link to don’t; they may be slow and clunky or not load at all if the load is too high.

That leads to a very spotty end user experience. Some links load, some don’t. Google has had their own content presented as part of search results for a good while now. It shows up as the “Knowledge Graph” to the right side of the results set for questions with a clear answer. These might be general topics, but they are often time sensitive.

For example, search for Al Capone and the knowledge graph takes you to where he is buried, among other things. If you click that link, it takes you to a results page and Knowledge Graph for Mount Carmel Cemetery. Not only can you find out about that place, but you can also find the opening hours and get directions all without leaving Google hosted pages. Now search for Red Sox. The results set gives you the basic facts: tonight’s game time and where to find tickets, all without leaving Google.

The Facebook announcement that they will be offering what amounts to a news/content search on their site means that very soon, everyone on Facebook (and for some, Facebook is most of the Internet) will be able to search and view a vast amount of content exclusively on Facebook. If I were a news publisher, I’d want to load content onto Facebook before any other place.

The third major factor is the app. Partly in response to the horribly clunky, ad-loaded and hard-to-navigate websites which make up much of the net, we now use apps for almost everything. In many cases the apps may duplicate content available on sites, but they typically load faster and are easier to navigate.

In a world where we can get most of what we need — certainly all the news and shopping we need — on Apps, Google direct or Facebook, why would we want to click away from what we know to be safe, fast-loading and easy to navigate areas to the residual, perhaps vestigial, site-based Internet? The Internet as we know it is dead; it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

Self-Flying Drone Lily Will Provide Your Selfies


A newly released self-flying camera drone called Lily, described as the “world’s first throw-and-shoot camera,” uses GPS and a tracking device to follow and record your every move. Remote controlled quadcopters require someone to pilot them, which is why Lily, made with sports enthusiasts in mind, can be as intuitive to direction as you program it to be. Simply toss it into the air and let it self-stabilize, and it will trail behind you, shoot from the side, or fly overhead while it captures all the action in 1080p video, or 720p up to 120 frames per second. It also has the capability to shoot 12 megapixel photos.

Lily follows a small tracking device that users can carry or wear on their hand, and it is capable of staying as close as 5 feet away for as far as 100 feet. The camera also tracks users with computer vision to make sure they are focused and in frame.

Makers of the Lily are looking to compete with action cameras like GoPro, however it can only fly up to 25mph, which means it may not be able to keep up in every situation. But this is only the first consumer iteration of Lily, and the builders have big plans for the future of robotic cameras. Lily is currently taking pre-orders at $500 and will begin shipping in February 2016.

Facebook Looking to Keep Users from Google

FacebookFacebook has been testing its own in-app search engine that will allow users to post links in a status update without having to visit Google.

Some U.S. users of the Facebook app will see an “add a link” option next to buttons to add photos or a location to a status post. A user will type in a search term and then a drop down list of links will appear. The user will be able to preview what is on that website and then share the link on the social networking site.

Typically, a user would have to search on Google (or any other search engine) or go directly to a website and copy and paste the link into. Facebook has been working on cutting out that process and keeping people inside the Facebook app for as long as possible.

Facebook has indexed one trillion posts that have been shared on users’ feeds. This will allow the in-app search engine to suggest the most shared links. This data will allow Facebook to steal a march on Google. This, coupled with advertising opportunities could worry Google, given the stiff competition for mobile ad dollars. Over 70% of Facebook’s total advertising revenue comes from mobile and the company has been working hard to keep people in the app for longer.

Another attempt by Facebook to keep its users away from search engines is news. A report in the New York Times this year suggested Facebook was in talk with news publishers to host content on the social networking site rather than linking back to the publisher’s website. The aim would be to share ad revenues.