Latest StoriesWeb
    The Strange Origins of Familiar Sounds

    There comes a point in every human’s life when they realize that almost everything around them was created by someone. Every word was written by human hands, every special effect painstakingly assembled by teams of artists, and every sound recorded and played. Today, we’ll trace down the beginnings of ten sounds that you’ve probably heard over and over in your life and tell you how they came to be.

    Google's Vision for Android Wear UI

    Google I/O is this week, and we expect lots of details relating to the Android Wear initiative, including possibly some early hardware. Ahead of the developer conference, Google has released this developer preview video giving an overview of how the company wants developers to adapt their apps for the new smartwatch platform. Like with the Pebble system, Android Wear will ideally display the glanceable information from apps, like notifications. But users will also be able to send information back to their phones over the watch's microphone, activating services like Google Now or even voice recording. LG and Motorola's take on Android Wear hardware will be interesting, but it's really the software interface that will make or break Google's smartwatch. (h/t Wired)

    In Brief: Amazon Launches Prime Music Service

    Late last night, Amazon stealthily launched Prime Music, the rumored free streaming service for Prime members. Over 1 million songs are touted for free streaming, though those don't include songs from the Universal Music Group's library, nor many new hits. The launch of the service is accompanied by new streaming apps for iOS and Android (Cloud Player renamed to Amazon Music), which promise offline playback as well. As of right now, only the iOS version of the app is available. Prime subscriptions stay at $100 (for now), but it's easy to see Amazon using these value-adds (including Prime video and Kindle Prime Eligible) as a way to eventually raise the price of its Prime service. It's about changing the mindset of what of "Prime" entails, and using the costly two-day free shipping as a way to move into Netflix and Spotify's business. This likely won't get people to quit Spotify or Rdio (or even Beats Music) just yet, though it's likely that many of the 20 million+ existing Prime subscribers aren't already subscribed to a separate music streaming service.

    Norman 1
    In Brief: Project Naptha OCRs Web Images

    If you're using Chrome, try this new web demo out right now. Project Naptha is a browser extension that taps into open-source OCR (optical character recognition) algorithms to let you copy and paste text from web images straight from your browser. It works very much like OCR software did a decade ago, except instead of processing text from a scanned document, it can do it from a webcomic, screenshot, or even Advice Animal image macro. The secret sauce isn't just OCR transcription, but using a technique called Stroke Width Transform to detect that there's text embedded in an image in the first place. The extension uses several tricks to hide computation--it tracks cursor movement and predicts where you might highlight over an image before scanning ahead and running processor-intensive character recognition algorithms. Its creators are also experimenting with the ability to translate highlighted text (much like the WordLens app) and even use "inpainting" algorithms to erase text from an image (similar to Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill feature).

    Norman 2
    In Brief: Amazon Lands HBO Streaming Video Deal

    Netflix can't be happy about this. Amazon and HBO today announced that they've struck a multi-year deal for Amazon to stream content from HBO's back catalog of shows and cable television specials to Amazon Prime subscribers. Beginning May 21st, Prime Instant Streaming will feature the "HBO Collection", which includes shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, among others. HBO original movies, documentaries, and comedy specials are also part of the deal, but not HBO's current breadwinners like Game of Thrones and True Detective (or past hits like Sex and the City). Some newer shows like Veep and Girls will eventually make it to Amazon, but only three years after they were originally released. The licensing deal is exclusive to Amazon, so Netflix won't have a similar offering. HBO has maintained that it's exploring options for a standalone HBO Go subscription option, and this doesn't preclude that.

    Norman 1
    10 Ways To Browse The Internet Anonymously

    Electronic privacy is one of the most contentious issues of the modern age, with both private corporations and the government having an excessive interest in what we do online. If you’re starting to get paranoid, there’s hope. Here are ten methods to get on the Internet without disclosing personal info.

    Why Facebook Buying Oculus VR Is Probably a Good Thing

    Earlier today, Facebook announced that it was buying virtual reality startup Oculus for $2 billion, and as is the usual, the Internet erupted in panic. Despite actively disliking what Facebook has become and avoiding the service wherever possible, I actually think Facebook buying Oculus is probably a good thing for Oculus, the virtual reality community, VR enthusiasts, and even gamers.

    If you take Mark Zuckerberg's post regarding the Oculus acquisition at face value, it seems clear that Facebook's impetus for buying Oculus is to accelerate Oculus's potential as a communications medium, taking it beyond games and turning it into a technology that becomes part of the fabric of our lives, just like computers, the Internet, and smartphones have been integrated in our lives.

    Reading between the lines, I'm pretty sure Zuckerberg wants to build Neal Stephenson's Metaverse. I'm actually OK with that.

    Dear Comcast, re: Throttling Netflix and the Relative Value of Your Services

    This is the letter I sent to Neil Smit, CEO of Comcast Cable, and Brian L Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corporation this morning in response to my experience streaming video on Netflix at lower than SD bitrates last night on my 50Mbit/sec Comcast connection at home. I've been a Comcast subscriber for 8 years and have been reasonably happy with the service, despite the high price and some availability hiccups, because of the high performance of my Internet connection. If Comcast is going to take that advantage away, I'll happily drop them for a more user-friendly local provider.

    Photo credit: Flickr user alykat via Creative Commons.

    Mr. Smit and Mr Roberts,

    Over the last few weeks, I've seen reports that your company was throttling traffic from Netflix when it traversed your network. The complaints seemed like the kind of hyperbole that permeates the Internet, but after watching a movie on Netflix last night, I can assure you, there was no hyperbole. Judging by the bitrates I saw on my Comcast connection, if anything, the complaints were measured and reserved.

    I realize that issues related to backbone peering are likely more complex than a person like myself can understand, but I do understand that your service is degrading the quality of another service I pay for and enjoy. Video I stream from Netflix today looks worse on your service than it would have on the 6Mbit/sec DSL connection I had in 2005 before I became a Comcast customer.

    I realize that you're worried because your customers have indicated that they get comparable value from services like Netflix as they do from Comcast's TV service. This would worry me too, if I were you. However, the problem isn't Netflix's offering, it's yours.

    The Lasting Legacy of the DIVX Disc

    Do you remember the DIVX disc? DIVX, not to be confused with the video codec DivX, was a movie rental scheme that Circuit City and some law firm cooked up to try and disrupt the video rental market five years before Netflix existed.

    For $4 or $5, you could buy a movie on a DIVX disc at Circuit City, Good Guys, Futureshop, or another retailer, then take it home to watch it in a special DIVX player. The player would connect to the Internet using a dial-up phone line and authorize your player to watch that movie for a short period of time. You could watch the movie as many times as you wanted during that window, but once your time was up, you'd have to "rent" the movie again for a few more bucks.

    Photo credit: Flickr user weirdo513 via Creative Commons, from PAX East 2011.

    Sound familiar?

    DIVX ultimately failed, likely because of the upfront cost and quality issues with the actual films. To play the discs, you had to buy a player that cost $100-150 more than a DVD-only player, and you had to run a dedicated phone line to the box. Most DIVX versions of movies were lower quality than their DVD counterparts. The DIVX discs usually contained cropped pan-and-scan version of the film, rather than the anamorphic widescreen that was becoming common on DVDs. The discs also lacked extra features--they didn't contain making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, or audio commentaries.

    People also had privacy and ecological concerns with the format. We feared that the DIVX player would spy on their behavior, uploading their disc viewing activities during its regular calls into the DIVX mothership. There were also concerns about the wastefulness of a disc-based format designed for single viewing. After the rental period expired, the discs were essentially worthless, and people were concerned that if DIVX succeeded, our landfills would end up filled with one-use plastic discs with copies of Speed 2: Cruise Control and Enemy of the State.

    Photo courtesy eBay user imodify.

    So if DIVX was such a bad idea, why am I talking about it today? It started with this Twitter post, from Dave Pell. Dave, who is responsible for the excellent Next Draft newsletter, is one of many people who have complained about the hidden catch of the 24-hour time limit. His complaint is that when he starts watching a film on a weeknight evening, if he doesn't finish it during that sitting, he won't have a chance to come back to it until the 24-hour rental period has expired. Unless he pays another $6, he'll never see the nail-biting conclusion to The Adjustment Bureau. I wanted to find the origin of the 24-hour rental window, as it exists on iTunes, Amazon's Instant Video, the Google Play store, Microsoft's Xbox Video, and pretty much every other on-demand video rental service I've seen*.

    In Brief: Our Favorite Animated GIF Maker

    Everything old is new again. The animated GIF, which was the Oxford English Dictionary's 2012 word of the year, is more relevant than ever. Even Pinterest may have plans to integrate GIF support. And creating your own animated GIF is super easy. We showed you how last summer using a small (and free!) piece of software called GifCam, and just this month, it's been updated with a bunch of new features in version 3.0. For example, you can use its frame-editing tool to draw "green screen" areas to create cinemagraphs, and output in five different color reduction profiles to conserve file size. It's a 1.5MB exe that every Windows user should keep on their desktop. And if you're using OS X, here's a decent alternative. In fact, here are three other free GIF creation tools if you want to experiment. I would love to see your best creations--share them in the comments below!

    Norman 4
    What You Should Know About PlayStation Now

    Sony PlayStation Now sounds like a schmaltzy documentary, but it's actually the implementation of Gaikai we've been anticipating since Sony bought the game streaming company. Beginning this summer (or in late January if you're a beta tester), PlayStation Now users will be able to stream PlayStation 3 games from vast server arrays to their PlayStation 3s or PlayStations 4s or PlayStation Vitas or 2014 Bravia TVs.

    Support for all of those platforms won't happen at once; Sony's blog explains streaming will begin with PS3/PS4 consoles, come to the Vita next, and then Bravia TVs. After that, PlayStation Now will expand beyond the land of Sony hardware, which means tablets and smartphones. Android's almost certainly a given, but iOS and PC/Mac web browsers could be targets, too. Gaikai's original demo made Mass Effect 2 playable in a browser.

    Photo credit: Sony Electronics Flickr.

    Sony purchased Gaikai in July 2012. In 2013, Sony announced that the PS4's x86 architecture, which was a major departure from the PS3's PowerPC Cell processor, ruled out backwards compatibility. The solution was streaming old games from the cloud via Gaikai, but the technology wouldn't be ready for launch, and that was about all we heard about the streaming for the rest of the year.

    Theoretically, PlayStation Now could allow gamers to stream thousands of PlayStation games, from the PS1, PS2, and PS3 to modern hardware. But there are a lot of variables we don't know about. For a good gaming experience, PlayStation Now will need to be low latency, and that will be affected by how big the data centers are, where they're located, and the speed of the end user's broadband connection. With low bandwidth, games are going to be laggy and artifacted.

    Even with a blazing 50 or 100 megabit connection, the pressure will be on Sony to deliver a high bitrate stream at as low a latency as possible. Sony recommends at least a 5 megabit connection, but the specifics will likely evolve a bit after PlayStation Now goes into beta in late January.

    PlayStation Now leads off with PS3 games, and we don't know if that library will just include first-party titles or a wider selection of games. Likewise, PS1 and PS2 games aren't announced for streaming, but seem likely for the future. Sony's blog states games will be rentable individually, but a subscription option will also be available. PlayStation Now will likely tie into Sony's PlayStation Plus service in some way, but that all-you-can-eat subscription won't be a free giveaway.

    Early reports about Now from CES 2014 are positive. Polygon writes "Performance in games like The Last of Us and God of War: Ascension was impressive. Lag input was noticeable, seemingly more so on Vita when moving The Last of Us' Joel and waiting a beat for him to respond, but more than playable. Even the higher frame rate, faster paced action of Ascension was playable, though compression artifacts and more muted colors were present."

    A couple more tidbits: Now users will be able to play multiplayer games as normal, against or with players playing games with a disc or download version of a game. The Vita's back touch panel will compensate for its missing trigger and clickable stick buttons. The DualShock 3 will sync with 2014 Bravia TVs over USB or Bluetooth.

    If you want to be among the first to get "exclusive information" about PlayStation Now--like how to sign up for the beta, perhaps--Sony's got an email form for you to fill out.

    Spotify Launches Free Plans for Smartphones and Tablets

    Spotify announced a new way to listen to its garishly obnoxious advertising on Wednesday--free Spotify is coming to Android and iOS! The good news, of course, is that millions of songs are now free on tablets and smartphones, which have previously been limited to paid versions of the Spotify service. Spotify users who don't mind listening to radio ads can download the Spotify apps on iOS and Android to get at the vast musical library, which now contains Led Zeppelin's discography.

    The new free versions of Spotify on tablets and smartphones are not identical, however. Tablet users get the same features as the desktop app, because Spotify says "tablets are becoming the new desktops." That means searching through entire artist libraries, building playlists, yada yada.

    Mobile smartphone users who download Spotify for free receive a more limited interface. Spotify calls it shuffle play. You can play any music saved to your playlists, or the playlists of people you follow using Spotify's social features. You can also shuffle the libraries of artists and listen to their entire discographies that way. But there's no selective playing or searching for specific albums or songs. If you're listening on mobile, you'll do it in shuffle mode.

    The premium version of Spotify costs $10 per month. Premium subscribers ditch the audio ads and can download songs for offline listening, which is especially handy for mobile users who don't always have enough bandwidth for steady streaming.

    The Woman Who Recorded 35 Years of News on 140,000 Tapes

    It's weird to think of television being permanently lost. Today we can access modern television broadcasts and movies in so many formats, on so many devices, that video feels eternal. But for decades, television broadcasts, particularly news broadcasts, weren't recorded or preserved. Many of them are gone forever, unless they were preserved by private citizens like Marion Stokes. Fastco has the story of Marion Stokes, who began recording news broadcasts onto VHS tapes in 1977. Once she started, she never stopped.

    Stokes died in late 2012, but she left behind a staggering archive of 140,000 VHS tapes packed into four shipping containers. Her legacy is a vast archive of television news, potentially totaling somewhere in the vicinity of 800,000 hours. Before she began religiously archiving the news, Stokes was a librarian and co-produced a television show. Recording the news eventually became the cornerstone of her life--she would run as many as 8 television and VCRs in her home at once, feeding in new tapes every six hours.

    Photo credit: Flickr user comedynose via Creative Commons

    It's the kind of obsession that could have easily gone to waste after Stokes passed away; those tapes could've been trashed or left to rot away in storage. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Roger Macdonald, who oversees the television branch of the Internet Archive, found out about the collection and reached out to Stokes' son. Now the Stokes estate is shipping the 140,000 VHS tapes to the Archive in Richmond, California, where it will take years to digitize them all. Hopefully, that will eventually lead to the entire collection being available online.

    Photo credit: FastCo

    John Lynch, the director of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, explained why Stokes' collection is such an important slice of history. Fastco writes: "Early broadcast news isn’t easy to find, Lynch says, because while networks often did a good job of archiving the footage they used to make the show, they were less meticulous about saving the show itself--a pattern he attributes to 'a sense of modesty on their part.' More recent news reports are more likely to be available from stations themselves, but stations typically charge an access fee."

    When cable news became popular, Stokes recorded CNN, Fox, CSPAN, MSNBC and CNBC, catching as much of the 24-hour news cycle as she could. As the Internet Archive digitizes her collection, hopefully we'll be able to see more than the news about any given historical event--we'll be able to see how many different news organizations covered that event, and potentially trace the impact those broadcasts had on public perception and popular culture.

    How Oxford English Dictionary Chooses Its Word of the Year

    In 2012, it was GIF. In 2009, unfriend. In 2005, podcast. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year often represents an important or ubiquitous piece of Internet culture, usually at the point it has grown out of Internet slang and into everyday life. Oxford Dictionaries continued that trend this week by unanimously picking "selfie" as the 2013 Word of the Year. Time to get your phone out and snap a pic for Instagram--selfies are officially recognized, now.

    This isn't Oxford Dictionaries' way of recognizing selfie as a word for the first time. The word is already in Oxford Dictionaries Online, and got a few days in the spotlight last year in a Words on the Radar feature. The Word of the Year award recognizes that selfie is now a prominent word.

    "By [Oxford Dictionaries'] data, 'selfie'—which they define as 'a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media'—saw a 17,000 increase in usage over the past year," writes Vice. Katherine Martin, the head of dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told Vice "this is a word that’s been around for a decade, but it’s suddenly become a mainstream word. That’s something that happens a lot. To take another word that everyone’s been talking about this year, 'twerk,' that goes back to the 1990s, but there’s barely a whisper of evidence for it until the past couple of years.”

    Photo credit: Flickr user vladdythephotogeek via Creative Commons.

    Oxford Dictionaries traced the first known usage of selfie back to a 2002 Internet post made on an Australian forum:

    2002 ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept. “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

    Apparently we all have Australia to thank for popularizing the ie abbreviation, in this case. Some people have tried out selfy, but it's never stuck.

    The lexigraophical science (and data) behind the Word of the Year competition is more intense than you'd expect when the end result is picking a word that's plastered all over social media. Vice writes that "researchers start with something called the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus, a programme that collects some 150 million words in use every month by scanning new web content. In addition to tracking how often a word is used, it analyzes how it’s being employed—in what context, register, and so on."

    That scan keeps track of what words are in popular use and has the ability to spot up-and-comers like selfie. But beyond those 150 million, Oxford Dictionaries maintains a corpus of two billion words, which is, well, a lot.

    Chrome 32 Beta Lets You Find Noisy Tabs

    Stable. Beta. Dev. Canary. Google uses the many different flavors of its Chrome browser to roll out and test features to users, and an update to the Beta channel yesterday brings the ability to track down tabs that are generating audio with a speaker icon next to the site name. Beta 32 also calls out which tabs are using your webcam and which one is being piped to a Chromecast. You can download the beta here. And even if you're not one to experiment with beta builds for your web browser, this is a feature to look forward to in a future stable version of Chrome.

    Gifpop Kickstarter Turns GIFs into Animated Lenticular Cards

    Physical animation has taken many forms over the past 200 years. The Phenakistoscope, a disc showing several frames of animation that blended together when it was spinning, was invented in the early 1800s. Flipbooks gave bored students ways to make use of their 200 page spiral bound notebooks, and we loved the mechanical counterpart we picked up at Maker Faire. Today, the most popular forms of animation are digital--high-tech computer generated films and low-tech animated GIFs. Physical animation is cool, digital animation is cool, but when the two cross over? Even better.

    For example, the Richard Balzer collection has turned 180-year-old Phenakistoscopes into animated GIFs. On the other side of the equation there's Gifpop, a Kickstarter that has already hit its funding goal with 25 days to go. The Atlantic explains that Gifpop is using lenticular plastic to make GIFs physical.

    "You’re likely familiar with lenticular film: It’s the pitted, prismatic plastic pictures often on postcards or packaging," The Atlantic writes. "A lenticular image appears to move as the viewer moves, its animation looping within a short number of frames. Lenticular film has been around for generations: According to a 1999 New York Times story, the technology dates back to World War II, 'when developments in plastics made it possible to create the ribbed sheet that sits on top of every motion-image card and autostereo image.' "

    So lenticular technology isn't new. Gifpop's plan to use it is, however. They plan to set up a set up a website to convert GIFs to usable animations, which will be applied to lenticular plastic printed onto a variety of card options: 3x3 inches, 5x5, business card, and postcard. Unfortunately, the animations can only be about 10 frames to fit on the cards, but the Gifpop site will let you upload a gif and choose which frames you want to use.

    The GIF has always been a medium of limitations, but recently tools and faster broadband connections have allowed for longer animations and larger GIFs. The simplest memes, however, will be perfectly translatable to physical form. And Gifpop is a good reminder of how cool lenticular printing is, though it's most often used for simple kids toys. To print a 10 frame GIF, Gifpop will have to slice an image into strips, which are printed on paper or a plastic backing.

    LenticularBlog offers a good description of how those slices are transformed into an animated image:

    Books and Youtube Are Supplying Password Crackers with Billions of Passphrases

    Nothing, it seems, can guarantee a password is uncrackable these days. In fact, now even the word of God is working against us. More specifically, the Bible, which some hackers have turned to as a source of phrases used as long, seemingly secure passwords. Turns out they're not so secure after all.

    In a feature titled "How the Bible and Youtube are fueling the next frontier of password cracking," Ars Technica writes that hackers are now turning to vast resources of phrases to crack passwords that were previously untouchable by password dictionaries. And those dictionaries are already quite powerful, these days. They can contain up to a billion entries consisting of real words, popular combinations, and millions of passwords gathered from compromised websites.

    Cracking augmentation software is also sophisticated enough to use these dictionaries in various combinations. Augmentation software will modify dictionary entries by removing spaces from words, replacing letters for numbers, and appending random digits to words.

    Photo via Etsy user BookishCharm.

    Ars writes "One such rule, known as a 'combinator' attack, runs two or more words together and either strips out all the spaces or leaves them intact. Other 'mangling' and 'hybrid' rules account for variations in capitalization, character substitutions, and other tweaks. As a result, cracking programs not only try the word 'house' as included in a cracking dictionary, but also 'House,' 'housE,' 'hou$e,' and 'house1997.' With each successful match, crackers gain increasing insight into the words people pick to secure their digital assets. In that way, the collective corpus of passwords grows larger each day."

    And now crackers have discovered that resources like the Bible, Wikipedia, and the Gutenberg archive provide millions of phrases that people may use for passwords, believing that they're long enough to be secure or unknown enough to be unguessable. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn1" from H.P. Lovecraft is a prime example. No computer could bruteforce such a complex password string, but no computer will have to--once that phrase is in a dictionary, it's easy to crack.

    Wikipedia and books provide a limitless supply of lengthy phrases. Youtube and social media, meanwhile, provide slang and popular phrases. Ultimately, the biggest risk to password security is human psychology. We use passwords or passphrases that we can remember, and the more memorable it is, the easier it's going to be to crack. Ars Technica has some great quotes from white hat hackers in the full feature, and their efforts prove how quickly passphrase cracking is advancing. And, as these guys point out, they're working with simple hardware--basic desktop computers with 1TB hard drives.

    To quote one of the white hats Ars spoke with: " 'I live in Utah, and from the break room window I can see the NSA facility,' [security researcher Kevin] Young said. Then, referring to his 1TB disk filled with phrases from all over the Internet, he added: 'That's probably nothing compared to what those guys have.' "