I Don’t See The Point In This Gadget

Credit Card Sized Phone

BoingBoing has a post on The Light Phone–a credit card sized phone which strips away all the smart phone functions and it only makes phone calls.

I don’t see the point. It removes all the good stuff which I use the most and keeps the most obnoxious, time-wasting function.

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The Interview Available At Limited Theaters And On Video On Demand

The Interview

Sony has gone well beyond the plan under consideration over the weekend to release The Interview on Crackle, which would mean distributing it for free. They subsequently arranged for its release at about three hundred independent movie theaters across the country as well as on paid video on demand. As of this morning, the movie has been available on You Tube and Google Play. It can be rented for $5.99 or purchased for $14.99. Movies rented or purchased on Google Play can be viewed on a television with gadgets including a Roku box and Chromcast. Purchasing a movie through the streaming services means that it can be viewed at any time, while rental movies can only be seen for a limited time.

This will most likely bring in far less revenue that the original full theatrical release planned, but it will bring in more revenue than distributing it for free on Crackle. The unprecedented publicity for the movie should  help increase paid video on demand viewing and subsequent Blue Ray and DVD sales. If nothing else, it feels a lot better than to give in to demands not to show the movie.

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Big Hype For Apple Today

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There was certainly a lot of ridiculous hype today. Apple had their big announcement that their phone and watch can now do what Android devices could do for months, if not years, as long as you don’t want the freedom to configure things the way you want them to work, as opposed to how Apple thinks your devices should work. They were even doing their own live tweeting of the event, showing what control freaks they are.

There might have been a time when Apple was on the leading edge. Now they are just charging more for old tech which has an Apple logo on it. The Apple watch will start at $349–well more than the cost of my Sony Smartwatch II, even with the more expensive metal wrist band. The only real surprise was that the watch will be called the Apple Watch and not iWatch.

When I first responded to the event on Facebook and Twitter as the news came in, I did get a comment questioning the value of a smartwatch. I’ve been using a smartwatch for over two years and do find it to be of value, but I suspect that the majority of people do have little real need for one.

For me, the smartwatch essentially replaces my beeper. I receive many messages a day on my phone, including Facebook notifications, personal text messages, news bulletins, along with messages from the hospital or answering service which previously went over a pager. I need to both make sure I don’t miss any important messages, and know when an incoming message is important enough to respond to immediately versus letting it sit on the phone.

The smartwatch allows me to very quickly see whether an incoming message is urgent, and is far more discreet to check than pulling out a phone every time it vibrates. In some situations this is especially important, such as in a dark movie theater where it would be awkward to turn on the phone every time a message comes in. It also comes in handy if at the pool. I can put my phone safely in a nearby bag, and pick up messages on my waterproof smartwatch. In the event anyone does see me checking messages, people tend to think it is cool to see a message come in over a watch due to the novelty factor, while it often looks tacky to look at a phone when with other people.

Under some situations I just want to use the watch to monitor for important messages. At other times I can read more. This includes text messages, email, RSS feeds, and any notifications which a smartphone app can make.

Plus my smartwatch has an advantage which the Apple Watch does not–it is connected by blue tooth to an Android phone.

Of course there are many other things it can do. Some try to respond to tweets on their smart watch, but personally I think that if you are actually following an ongoing discussion, and especially if you want to type responses, at that point it makes more sense to just use your watch. (I also prefer to use a blue tooth keyboard if doing very much typing). Fitness apps are popular on Android smartwatches and I’m sure that many will use them on the Apple Watch. Some use their watch for fitness apps which track their foot steps every day but I found a limitation to this. I sometimes take the phone out of my pocket to charge during the day, preventing a complete count. While my LG G3 will generally last all day, I hear bigger fears that the iPhones will not do so, and changing the battery during the day is not an option as on many Android phones.

While certainly not essential, my smartwatch will also tell me the weather and remotely control my phone. I haven’t yet used the apps to remotely see the view screen of the camera or take pictures, but I can see situations where this might come in handy. I do use it to remotely control music sent from my phone to a blue tooth speaker. I have impressed friends over for football games when, after a score, I tap my watch and a speaker across the room starts playing Hail to the Victors. Sadly, for the first time since 1984, there was no opportunity to do this last Saturday.

Update: Reading more about the Apple Phone, it does look like some of the fitness/health capabilities are beyond what is currently available for Android. Of course, by the time the Apple Watch makes it to market, there are likely to be even more advanced Android apps. Plus, trusting your private health information with Apple sounds as sensible as sharing your nude selfies with them. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence.

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SciFi Weekend: Her; Harry Potter and Hermione; Sleepy Hollow; Hannibal; Orphan Black; Arrow; Doctor Who; The Americans; Lex Luthor; How I Met Your Mother/Dad;

Her

This has been a very good year for science fiction movies. Her is very likely the science fiction movie which is receiving the most mainstream critical acclaim ever. Last night it won the award for best original screenplay from the Writer’s Guild of America. It ties with another science fiction movie, Gravity, for Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards (intentionally ignoring the debate as to whether Gravity is science fiction). Her was also a big winner at the National Board of Review Awards. Both Her and Gravity are nominated for Best Picture. There was controversy when various organizations declined to consider Scarlett Johansson for acting awards when she was not seen in the movie.

The important aspect of the movie is how people relate to the technology, along with their other limitations in dealing with other humans to the point where people pay others to write “personal” letters to their lovers. It still becomes impossible to ignore the technological aspects of the movie, primarily the question as to whether artificial intelligence could really be developed to the point seen in the movie. The co-creator of Siri looked at some of the abilities of Samantha which are well beyond what can currently be accomplished:

To get the “That’s incredible!” technology ball rolling, Samantha never made a mistake, never misunderstood nor misheard a word Theodore said. That’s tough to do in a loud, raucous world. Especially in loud places such as the circus scene, where you can barely hear the person next to you, let alone get the exact nuance of every word as you share the pandemonium through an earpiece.

And what about the scene where Samantha is literally spun around, viewing, understanding and commenting on the world she sees only through a jostling cameraphone lens bouncing around in Theodore’s pocket?

That would entail massively scaled real-time image recognition, spatial understanding, facial and mood recognition — as well as understanding the subtleties of thousands of social scenarios in order to predict that the couple sitting at the table were on a first date.

And such a conversationalist! Samantha not only discussed an amazing range of topics with Theodore, but was also incredibly adept at reflecting his mood in her own, varying the subtle tones and verbal inflections that indicate emotion. She even demonstrated an evocative handle on pop-culture terminology when he said in one scene, “No waaay.” And she replied, “Waaay.” Now that is some cool software.

Finally, I don’t even need to mention the complexities of building a program that’s adept at verbal phone sex, including all of the relevant and perfectly timed Meg Ryan-ish sound effects in perfect harmony with the partner on the other end of the line.

NPR’s Science Friday also discussed these topics recently. The podcast can be heard here.

Hermione

Reading the Harry Potter books, I thought that it was unusual that Ron and not Harry wound up with Hermione. Harry was the hero who defeated Voldemort. Typically he is the one who would wind up with the girl. J.K. Rowlings now admits she did get it wrong:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment,” she says. “That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

Rowling also said that Ron and Hermione would have needed “relationship counseling.”

John Noble Sleepy Hollow

John Noble had a notable role as a recurring character in Sleepy Hollow. His role (spoilers) became even more important in the season finale when he was revealed to not only be Jeremy Crane, the son of Ichabod and Karina, but also War, the second horseman of the apocalypse. After seeing how he played both Walter and Walternate on Fringe, he was clearly underused as a supporting character, and there is no doubt he can handle an entirely different type of role in the second season. He has been promoted to a series regular. Lyndie Greenwood, who plays Jennie Mills, will also be a series regular, which does spoil one of the many cliff hangers in the season finale which left Jenni unconscious on the road.

Hannibal-season-2-poster-570x760

NBC is trying to build the audience for the second season of Hannibal in a way similar to how the audience for Breaking Bad increased after many people (including myself) caught up with previous seasons by watching on Netflix. They have entered into an exclusive agreement with Amazon Prime to carry Hannibal and some other series. I hope they are successful, but I wonder if Netflix has as much impact as Amazon. There is also some casting news for the second season, including Mason Pitt joining the series late in the season as Mason Verger:

Pitt, best known for his work as Jimmy Darmody on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, will play Mason Verger, “an unstable wealthy patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter who begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the deadly serial killer.”

Hannibal’s version of Mason Verger – which will likely be quite different from the character Gary Oldman played in the 2001 film – was compared to Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock in a casting description for the role. Knowing that, it will be interesting to see Pitt bring the same explosive energy he brought to Jimmy Darmody to Verger; a character who’s more cunning and therefor more dangerous.

Joining Pitt is Katharine Isabelle (Being Human), cast as Verger’s sister, Margot. She will first be introduced as a patient of Dr. Lector’s who is dealing with trauma related to her brother’s abuse. But again, this won’t be until later in the season.

Episode titles on Orphan Black came from Darwin’s Origin of Species during the first season. Second season titles will come from the work of Sir Francis Bacon. The title of the first episode of the season will be Nature Under Constraint and Vexed.

Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) became a popular character during the first season of Arrow and in response the role of her character was greatly expanded. We know very little about her beyond moving from the IT Department to become Oliver Queen’s executive assistant to cover for all the time they spend together. Each season also has had a scene establishing that she is Jewish. She is finally going to get a back story this season.

doctor-who-peter-capaldi-costume

The first pictures have been released of Peter Capaldi in the outfit he will wear as the Doctor. There have been some complains on line ranging from his hair being cut too short (following Matt Smith) to the top button being buttoned despite lack of a tie. Obviously none of these complaints have any real relevance to how successful Capaldi will be in the role. There is a minor spoiler about a surprise voice-only cameo upcoming on Doctor Who:

Clara emerges from the TARDIS on her mobile phone, looking intense and emotional. She’s not speaking to anyone, rather she seems to be just listening. In fact, whatever she is listening to hits her hard, and she slumps into the wall of a nearby store. The message, it turns out, is from the previous incarnation of the Doctor, played by Matt Smith. Hanging up the phone, the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi exits the TARDIS, and starts an exchange with Clara. He asks if that was the Doctor on the phone. More on that in a minute.

Emotionally, he insists to Clara; he is the Doctor, he’s 2000 years old, and he’s standing right there, in front of her. Cautiously, Clara walks straight up to this strange, older man in front of her.

Inquisitively, she looks up straight into the Doctor’s eyes, inspecting them, looking for the man she knows. The Doctor looks down into his companions eyes curiously, like an owl bemused. Suddenly, Clara throws her arms around the Doctor. For his part, the Doctor awkwardly holds his arms out around her, fingers splayed and startled and uncomfortable.

Clara immediately then clicks back into her normal, bouncy self, asking the Doctor where they are. He replied Glasgow (although we were definitely in Cardiff, I double checked), and they continue to chat before the scene ends.

New promo for The Americans above. The show returns February 26.

Jesse Eisenberg will play Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie. I don’t really see Eisenberg in the role, but we will see.

So far the former stars of Friends have not been very successful with network sitcoms. David Schwimmer is attempting a return to network television in a pilot named Irreversible.

Irreversible, which is partially improvised in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm, centers on Andy (Schwimmer) and Sarah, a somewhat eccentric, self-absorbed couple, and their trials and tribulations — most of which they bring upon themselves.

cristin-milioti-rachel-bilson-how-your-mother-met-me

How I Met Your Mother had a fantastic 200th episode last week, going back over the time frame of the series from the perspective of the mother, played by Cristin Milioti. Characters have been outlined for the planned spin-off, How I Met Your Dad:

Sally: In her 20s but still not very grown-up and a little bit aimless, Sally has been married for a year to Gavin and is realizing they’re not meant for each other.

Danny: Sally’s older brother and opposite personality, he’s a driven lawyer who’s less than pleased when Sally moves in after splitting with Gavin. Danny is married to …

Todd: One of Sally’s best friends from college, who’s significantly more welcoming to having Sally as a roommate. Danny and Todd fill the Lily-and-Marshall/committed couple portion of the group.

Juliet: Sally’s “party-girl” best friend and the Barney of the group. She runs a fashion blog and has been telling Sally for some time that Gavin isn’t the right guy for her.

Frank: A “hot nerd” who heads up IT for Juliet’s site and has an unrequited (for the moment) crush on Sally. If Sally is the female Ted, Frank would be the male Robin (albeit with what sounds like a rather different personality).

Narrator: Future Sally.

 Philip Seymour Hoffman was found of an apparent overdose. His genre appearances include the Hunger Games movies and Red Dragon, based upon one of the Hannibal Lecter books.

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In Defense Of Online Reviews

The Daily Mail warns us: Don’t trust online reviews! A fifth are left by people who have NEVER tried the product.

In general, on topics far beyond this one, I’d warn against trusting The Daily Mail.

I do almost all of my shopping online as I simply do not have the time to go to stores, and rarely even make it out of the office before most stores are closed. Other than quickly running into a grocery store, I can’t recall the last time I was in a retail store. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I’ll even order items under $10 online, knowing that I will receive them in two days without any shipping costs. Amazon shows that I have placed 83 orders in the past six months, including orders for both home and office, but not including additional orders placed by others in my family.

Reviews are not needed for many items, but in other cases they are extremely valuable, especially when buying items which I have not seen. Sure, some are fake, but the article exaggerates the problem. The survey cited shows that over a fifth of responders have at some time reviewed an item they have not tried, not that a fifth of reviews posted are fake. Many are intentionally left as spoofs, and are easy to spot.

With a little common sense, it is not hard to go through the reviews and determine if they are worth considering. Many are a quick couple of sentences which may or may not provide useful information, but quite often there are reviews from users which are as detailed as a professionally published review. As they are reviews from someone actually using a product on a regular basis, as opposed to a brief time by a professional reviewer, they often do a better job of giving me the information I want to decide upon a purchase. Someone providing such detail is unlikely to be able to fake the review, and any attempts would be contradicted by other reviewers should they provide inaccurate information. In addition, reviews on sites such as Amazon often include updates as someone has used a product longer, and often include comments and questions to elaborate on the information. Having the reviews from many users provides further information, increasing the chances that the overall reviews are providing an accurate assessment. Plus I can quickly pull up additional reviews from additional sites, such as checking the comments on New Egg when buying electronics.

Amazon also indicates whether someone has actually purchased a product from them, and other sites do the same. Of course it is possible for someone to still write a good review if they purchased the product elsewhere. There are additional warning signs. I have sometimes seen products start out only receiving good reviews, often with similar comments. In such cases they are often followed by a comment from someone else pointing out that the reviewers do not have a history of leaving other reviews, raising suspicion. Unfortunately this also sometimes leads to arguments in comments with someone insisting their review is real and readers will have to decide for themselves whether to trust the review.

This doesn’t mean that there might not be problems with online reviews. Reports that many of the reviews on Yelp are fake is of greater concern as it wouldn’t be difficult to write a review which sounds legitimate for a restaurant which one has not actually gone to. Restaurant review sites also have the opportunity these days to provide some confirmation of legitimacy to their ads by having reviewers sign in at a restaurant on their cell phone to show they were there, even if the review is completed later.  Similarly, sites such as Trip Adviser might indicate whether a person had checked in at a hotel they review. Online reviews are a useful item on the internet, and technology can help make them more reliable.

Update: In the discussion of this post on Facebook, someone brought up reputation management firms which offer to scrub unfavorable reviews from the internet and write favorable ones. This could definitely throw off the value of online reviews, but not to the point where it would be necessary to stop using them.

These companies primarily “remove” unfavorable reviews by flooding the internet with favorable mention of a client so that these come up at the top of a Google search rather than unfavorable sites. This would not remove unfavorable reviews which someone writes at a site such as Amazon or Yelp. By working with information supplied by the company (and perhaps buying their own product) they could conceivalbly get away with posting favorable reviews listed as from verified purchasers with enough detail to sound real. This could tilt ratings, but if a product has problems which the planted reviews leave out, or if the planted review is unrealistically favorable, there could still be red flags when compared to other reviews from real users.

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Arthur C. Clarke Made Bold, Yet Accurate, Predictions About Computers in 1974

It might be hard for younger readers to imagine how life was before personal computers and the internet. Communication was by telephone or mail. We either waited for the daily newspaper for news (beyond brief radio headlines) or watched the evening news on television. Many people waited for the weekly news magazine for the bulk of their in depth reporting. There were telephone numbers to call if you wanted the correct time or weather–and phones were a boring wired device. We waited until the bank statement or credit card statements came in the mail without a convenient way to check on them in between. Needless to say, there was no easy way to get the answer to virtually any question we had on any topic.

Back in 1974 computers were massive things which would fill rooms, not something which we would buy for our home (or now carry in our pockets). Considering how much things have changed, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke got things amazingly correct in his predictions seen on this video.

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Bad Free Deals–Temporary Cloud Storage

Lots of companies give away things which are free or discounted as part of a marketing ploy to actually entice consumers to spend more. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but buyer beware. An offer from Microsoft shows the type of deal I find among the most worthless–temporary free cloud storage. Microsoft has a promotion offering 20 GB of extra SkyDrive storage for one year.

Extra cloud storage is always welcome. (Anyone want to pick up a Dropbox account from my referral  so we both get extra storage?) But what do you do with extra storage which is good for only one year? If you were already going to pay for the extra storage, then it does save you one year’s payment. Otherwise people aren’t very likely to store a lot of material in the cloud and then let it all be deleted a year later.

I don’t mean to pick on Microsoft here. This is a common type of promotion. It just happened that I ran across a post on this offer from Microsoft today.

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Republican Nanny State Policies?

Two Republicans have introduced legislation to maintain a ban on the use of cell phones on airplanes:

Political momentum to keep a ban on cellphone calls during flights gained momentum Monday as lawmakers said it would be crazy to allow them.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) became the second lawmaker after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to offer legislation to keep the ban in place.

“Let’s face it, airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined,” said Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

Actually I understand that some liberals go along with this idea. I’m in a unique situation, being in solo medical practice, where being able to handle calls even if on a long flight would be a considerable convenience to me. I’ll just wear ear plugs during the rest of the flight.

On a related topic, I was really happy when I flew recently that I could keep a tablet on the entire flight. As it was only a brief flight I didn’t bother to pay for internet access, but I would have if it was longer. Previously I would typically bring along a paperback to read during the period when electronic devices were banned and I couldn’t read off a tablet.

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Classmate Who Took Nude Pictures Of Miss Teen USA Caught By FBI

Handout photo of Miss Teen USA 2013 Cassidy Wolf posing for photos at ATLANTIS, Paradise Island, Bahamas

In August I reported on a sextortion plot against Miss Teen USA. Rather than give into  extortion, with threats to release nude photos taken through her webcam,  Cassidy Wolf went on several television shows to warn people about this threat from hackers who take control of  webcams on laptops. In the previous post I noted that the FBI was investigating. The FBI has found the webcam spy, who turned out to be a classmate of the victim. Ars Technica described how he was caught and Reuters reported on her reaction.

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Fighting Gag Orders On NSA & FBI Surveillance

One aspect of post 9/11 surveillance which civil libertarians have objected to is the prohibition against disclosing requests for information, adding to the secrecy of these programs.  Cory Doctorow has discussed a possible way to get out information when the NSA or other government agencies  seek information, going back to an idea a librarian had in reaction to the portions of the Patriot Act which prohibited librarians from telling the subject about an information request:

In 2004, American librarians recoiled at the FBI’s demands to rummage through their patrons’ reading habits and use them to infer terroristic intent, and at the FBI’s gag orders preventing librarians from telling their patrons when the police had come snooping.

Jessamyn West, a radical librarian, conceived of a brilliant solution, a sign on the wall of her library reading “THE FBI HAS NOT BEEN HERE (watch very closely for the removal of this sign).” After all, she reasoned, if the law prohibited her from telling people that the FBI had been in, that wasn’t the same as her not not telling people the FBI hadn’t been in, right?

I was reminded of this last week on a call with Nico Sell, one of the organisers of the annual security conference Defcon (whose founder, Jeff Moss, told the NSA that it would not be welcome at this year’s event). Nico wanted me to act as an adviser to her company Wickr, which provides a platform for private messaging. I asked her what she would do in the event that she got a Lavabit-style order to pervert her software’s security.

She explained that her company had committed to publishing regular transparency reports, modelled on those used by companies like Google, with one important difference. Google’s reports do not give the tally of secret orders served on it by governments, because doing so would be illegal. Sell has yet to receive a secret order, so she can legally report in each transparency report: “Wickr has received zero secret orders from law enforcement and spy agencies. Watch closely for this notice to disappear.” When the day came that her service had been served by the NSA, she could provide an alert to attentive users (and, more realistically, journalists) who would spread the word. Wickr is designed so that it knows nothing about its users’ communications, so an NSA order would presumably leave its utility intact, but notice that the service had been subjected to an order would be a useful signal to users of other, related services.

This gave me an idea for a more general service: a dead man’s switch to help fight back in the war on security. This service would allow you to register a URL by requesting a message from it, appending your own public key to it and posting it to that URL.

Once you’re registered, you tell the dead man’s switch how often you plan on notifying it that you have not received a secret order, expressed in hours. Thereafter, the service sits there, quietly sending a random number to you at your specified interval, which you sign and send back as a “No secret orders yet” message. If you miss an update, it publishes that fact to an RSS feed.

Such a service would lend itself to lots of interesting applications. Muck-raking journalists could subscribe to the raw feed, looking for the names of prominent services that had missed their nothing-to-see-here deadlines. Security-minded toolsmiths could provide programmes that looked through your browser history and compared it with the URLs registered with the service and alert you if any of the sites you visit ever show up in the list of possibly-compromised sites.

This won’t help for another type of snooping which has been discovered recently–accessing smart phone data. The NSA can discover the data on the smartphones of suspected terrorists, and perhaps also view the nude pictures on celebrities’ smart phones before they leak to the press.

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