Analyzing the top news stories across the web

Dec. 30 2014 12:25 PM

Russians Are Posting Pictures of Caviar On Instagram, Asking “What Crisis?”

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

The Russian economy took a serious beating following the Western sanctions and the oil crash. The ruble plunged and inflation is way above target in the double digits. On Monday, the Economy Ministry announced that the economy contracted for the first time since October 2009. And last week even Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed concerns that Russia might slide into a deep recession.

But despite the onslaught of economic problems, it looks like not everyone's worried. Some Russians have started hashtagging Instagram posts featuring large quantities of caviar with "#какойкризис"—aka #whatcrisis. Several photos also include the hashtag #падениерубля—aka "the fall of the ruble"—as well as colorful commentary on the Western sanctions. 

(Note: these instagrams are not necessarily representative of how the average Russian feels. Many are currently struggling as a result of the currency crisis.)

(Translation: #crisis #whatcrisis #haventheardofit #caviar #wellthisisadeliveryfromthenorth #caviar #yum #yummi #food)

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Dec. 29 2014 2:06 PM

Drinking Hallucinogenic Ayahuasca in the Amazon

This video originally appeared on Business Insider.

Often funded by pharmaceutical or cosmetic companies, Chris Kilham scours far-off cultures for exotic plants and remedies that could potentially enhance products. Kilham also hunts psychoactive plants, which cause hallucinations and other psychedelic effects. His new book details the psychoactive drink known as ayahuasca in the Amazon rainforest. The video above shows what it’s like to drink the bitter brew.

Dec. 29 2014 1:10 PM

Samsung Might Kill Its First Metal Smartphone Months After Its Release

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Samsung is reportedly discontinuing its first metal smartphone, the Galaxy Alpha, just a few short months after it was introduced, according to a new report from the Korean news source ET News (via The Verge). The Galaxy Alpha, which was officially unveiled in August, comes with brushed aluminum metal edges that look similar to those on the iPhone 5 and 5s.

It's one of Samsung's best-looking phones yet, but the company will supposedly axe the Alpha in favor of its recently announced Galaxy A5.

The A5 looks a lot like the Galaxy Alpha but is a bit thinner. In fact, Samsung says the Galaxy A5 is the company's slimmest phone yet at 6.7 millimeters. That's also thinner than the iPhone 6, which is 6.9 millimeters.

Samsung's Galaxy A5 launched in China in November, but it will supposedly be coming to South Korea in January. There's no word on whether the Galaxy A5 will be released in the US or any other markets just yet.

AT&T is the only carrier in the US offering the Galaxy Alpha, but it is unclear exactly when and if it will stop selling it if ET News' report proves to be true. 

We've reached out to Samsung for confirmation and will update this story accordingly. 

Dec. 29 2014 12:52 PM

The Interview Was Pirated About As Much As It Was Purchased

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Sony announced Sunday that The Interview was purchased or rented online over 2 million times since it premiered Dec. 24. It also generated over $15 million in revenue from those online sales. But while Sony trumpeted the release as its most successful online movie ever, The Interview has also been pirated a lot. According to Torrent Freak, which tracks downloads from file-sharing sites, The Interview was pirated about 1.5 million times in the first two days.

Part of the reason could be because Sony made it way too easy to download a version of the movie that didn't have any piracy safeguards. As The Verge and others reported, if you rented The Interview for $5.99 from Sony's site, you could share the URL and anyone could stream it without paying extra.

And viewers could simply right-click on the video to save a version without privacy safeguards called DRM. Those files were quickly added to file-sharing sites.

The Interview was also shown in a little over 300 independent theaters in the US, and brought in about $3 million in box office sales. All together, The Interview generated about $18 million in sales in its first weekend.

That doesn't make the movie a success, though. The major theater chains still refuse to show The Interview following threats from a hacker group called Guardians of Peace (GOP), which the FBI says has ties to North Korea. (The Interview portrays the assassination of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.)

The movie cost about $45 million to make, and some have estimated the total cost to Sony was about $100 million if you factor in marketing and other expenses.

Dec. 24 2014 12:24 PM

Facebook's Deal with the NFL Is Its Next Step to Destroy TV Advertising

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Facebook just sliced off another piece of TV's advertising pie. It has signed a deal with the NFL to let advertisers sponsor highlight clips from games that will run in your news feed, according to the Wall Street Journal. The deal looks a little bit like Twitter's Amplify programme, which does pretty much the same thing. Both platforms let the media producers of sports (or any other video highlight content) put clips into your news feed, and they share revenue with the advertisers who sponsor them.

The news should send a chill through TV ad sales departments this Christmas. For the past two years, Facebook has been rolling out more and more video products, and comparing its reach directly to that of primetime TV. Facebook's ad revenues are in the billions of dollars, so it needs to gain ad budgets on that scale—and that means competing directly with TV, the most expensive media in which to buy ads.

In the new NFL deal, the initial sponsor will be Verizon Wireless. A Facebook spokesperson described the deal as a test.

Video "tests" have gone well at Facebook, of late. More people on Facebook upload video directly to Facebook than they did via sharing from YouTube. Facebook is displacing YouTube on one of the web's major platforms, in other words. There is also anecdotal evidence that advertisers are cutting their TV budgets in order to spend more online and with Facebook.

With NFL highlights now available on Facebook in a revenue generating format, that's one more reason for viewers to skip the live games and just catch up later on their phones.

Dec. 24 2014 11:41 AM

Cheese Is Becoming a Black Market Good in Russia

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Russia's economy is in free fall. Last night the government took emergency measures to stop the bleeding by hiking interest rates, but it didn't work. Problems run too deep. Part of Russia's pain is due to dramatically declining oil prices. And part of it is due to international sanctions against the country. This cheese story is about the latter part.

Back when the EU, Australia, Norway, Canada, and the US placed economic sanctions on Russia, Russia responded by banning a bunch of imports from all of them. That ban included a lot of food—meat, dairy, vegetables, and so on. Unfortunately, people really like food—especially cheese. So in Russia, they've devised ways to circumvent this inconvenient ban when it comes to the good stuff.

Corner stores have become black-market cheese dealers.

"A sort of speakeasy scene for French and Italian cheeses evolved which was akin to buying drugs from 1980s bodegas in Brooklyn," one Moscow banker told Business Insider. "First, you walk into the bodega slowly, trying to wipe any suspicious look from your face. Then you pretend to look around the shelves for a while until the clerk recognizes you, at which point you and the clerk make eye contact and establish that metaphysical connection that signifies to both of you 'I'm here to cop an ounce.' You wait until there are no customers around, approach the clerk. He takes you to the back room, shows you the goods, you haggle over the price, shove the bag in your pocket, hand over the cash and bounce. Except here you're leaving the store with a ball of fresh Italian mozzarella..."

Or some amazing camembert, or brie ... You get the picture.

All this suffering, however, isn't necessarily making Russians dislike Putin. On the contrary, says our source, they're buying Putin's message that the country's economic woes can be blamed on a Western plot to hurt Russia.

"If you look at the way the elite that emerged from the '90s made their money, you'll realize that they essentially capitalized on ignorance by cheaply scooping up newly-privatized equity from an uneducated public," the banker said. "Physical certificates of stock were often exchanged on the street for bottles of vodka and that's not an exaggeration. In that sense, Russians are much less inclined to side with financial logic and more inclined to buy Mr. Putin's emotional message."

As long as that message remains, Russians will stay on Putin's side.

Dec. 24 2014 8:00 AM

An LG Exec Might Miss the Consumer Electronics Show for His Alleged Sabotage of a  Washing Machine

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

The head of LG's home appliance division may be forced to miss the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2015 because of a bizarre incident in which he was accused of sabotaging a rival's washing machine. CNET reports that LG executive Jo Seong-jin has been banned by Korean prosecutors from travelling to Las Vegas to attend the important CES trade show. 

It's all down to an incident that occurred in Berlin back in September. Jo Seong-jin was attending the IFA trade show, where tech companies go to show off their latest gadgets. Employees at an electronics store in central Berlin allegedly discovered the LG executive damaging the door hinges of a Samsung washing machine. Samsung is LG's biggest rival, and the two companies have accused each other of spying on each other in the past. 

Samsung filed a lawsuit and a complaint with the police against Jo, accusing him of property damage and defamation. LG denied the claims, countersuing Samsung for defamation and tampering with evidence. LG claims that the machine was already damaged when Jo touched it, and that a Samsung employee did it on purpose. 

LG has asked prosecutors—who are conducting a criminal investigation, according to CNET—for a temporary lift on the travel ban so that Jo can travel to CES. But so far, its request hasn't been met.

Dec. 23 2014 12:55 PM

Larry Flynt Is Making a Porn Version of The Interview

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Sony may not yet have a way to mass distribute The Interview, but Hustler head Larry Flynt wants to bring a version of the movie to the public. A porn version, that is, titled This Ain’t the Interview XXX. Hustler Video—which has also produced porn parodies of Game of Thrones, The Simpsons, and Glee—will begin shooting an adult-video spoof of the Seth Rogen and James Franco North Korea-based comedy in early 2015.

Just as in The Interview, the story line will revolve around two civilians recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. 

When Sony pulled The Interview from theaters last week after threats from hackers, Flynt—who fought for his own creative freedom in the Supreme Court—was especially bothered.

"I've spent a lifetime fighting for the First Amendment, and no foreign dictator is going to take away my right to free speech. If Kim Jong Un and his henchmen were upset before, wait till they see the movie we're going to make."

Flynt is no stranger to the issues surrounding creative expression. As explained by CinemaBlend:

The case, Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell was brought to the Supreme Court in 1988. The suit was in response to a parody of Jerry Falwell’s first sexual encounter, and the unanimous court decision was that the parody was in grounds of the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee and that Jerry Falwell was not entitled to any compensation for "intentionally inflicted emotional distress." This case is now taught in law schools in regards to freedom of expression. 

Sony has said that it was forced to pull The Interview after major theater chains backed out of showing the film, but the studio's CEO Michael Lynton assures that Sony is looking into "alternatives to enable us to release the movie on a different platform." 

The studio added in a statement: "It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so." On Tuesday a tweet from Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League said Sony had authorized screenings on Dec. 25, as originally planned.

Dec. 23 2014 11:00 AM

Nintendo’s Next Console Needs an Awesome Controller

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

I purchased a Wii U late last month mainly so I could play it with my brother. We both grew up playing Nintendo games, and I wanted to be able to play the latest Super Smash Bros. with him when he came home this past weekend. To me, the Wii U is what the Wii should have always been: Great graphics playing at a high frame rate, resulting in superior gameplay. And yet, I wish Nintendo focused on simplicity instead of gimmicks.

Like the Wii, the Wii U will be remembered not for its games, but for its controller: The Wii had the Wiimote, and the Wii U has the GamePad, a tablet-like controller with a massive 6.2-inch screen smack dab in the middle of your hands. Extra buttons, joysticks and triggers line the outside of the screen. Nintendo’s heart was in the right place with the GamePad: The idea was if your parents or loved ones wanted to watch TV at the same time you wanted to play Wii U, the entire Wii U library could be played directly on the GamePad, thus freeing up the TV screen for others.

But in the month I’ve owned this console, I’ve never used this feature. If I’m playing a game, I want to play it on the biggest screen possible. Sure, everything looks really crisp on the GamePad, but I can’t imagine playing a full game on that thing while people around me are watching or doing something else. (Frankly, I think that focuses on the wrong thing: If other people around you want to do something else, you should probably put down the controller for awhile and join them.)

But here’s why I’m focusing on the controller, instead of the games: Nintendo’s chief game designer Shigeru Miyamoto—the creator of Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and countless other iconic mascots—says Nintendo “has groups working on ideas for new hardware systems.”

“While we’re busy working on software for the Wii U, we have production lines that are working on ideas for what the next system should be,” Miyamoto told the Associated Press.

In other words, Nintendo’s next system is not set in stone. And that’s a good thing.

For the first time in four years, Nintendo is on track to see full-year profit. But that’s only because in the last six months, Nintendo has released a new Mario Kart game, two new Pokemon games and two new Super Smash Bros. games. And with teases for new Legend of Zelda and Star Fox games on the horizon, Nintendo has given fans plenty of incentive to buy a Wii U right now.

It’s never been a secret that Nintendo’s special sauce is its first-party titles: Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Donkey Kong. In other words, Nintendo’s main source of income is nostalgia. Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox consoles continue to eclipse the Wii U, in terms of sales. The main reason? Some of the biggest games don’t come to the Wii U, simply because it would mean development teams would have to completely rewrite most of their games to fit Nintendo’s ultra-specific ecosystem, which is not only lower tech, but completely different in terms of controls.

So, it seems controls are the main sticking points with third-party developers, as well as longtime fans.


Gadget Love

Check out this GIF from GadgetLove, which shows how Nintendo’s controllers have evolved over the years. What started as simple rectangles and a few buttons quickly evolved into all sorts of interesting shapes and styles. The last two designs—the Wiimote and the GamePad—are clearly the most outlandish.

Outlandish game controllers can sometimes result in interesting gameplay experiences for fans—emphasis on “sometimes”—but not enough games take advantage of this uniqueness. And in the end, it’s kind of a lose-lose: Developers have to work extra hard to port their games to the Wii U, and gamers will probably need to buy another console if they want to enjoy all the best games (PlayStation and Xbox usually get the same titles due to their similar architectures and control schemes).

Nintendo is more or less a silo. It prefers to think of itself as the Apple of gaming: Innovative, fully integrated hardware and software, with little outside help.

But by rejecting smartphone platforms and designing its consoles and controllers to be incompatible with most others out there, Nintendo relies heavily on its first-party titles like Pokemon and Mario.

Those franchises may never get old, but what if they do? What if those games receive poor reviews? At that point, what would Nintendo do without its bread and butter?

It’s fine Nintendo wants to distance itself from the pack, but it shouldn’t do so at gamers’ expense. Motion controls and tablet interfaces are fun in a few instances, but they’re mostly gimmicks. I would be perfectly happy if Nintendo decided to return to the GameCube controller, for instance. It still allowed me to enjoy all of Nintendo’s games (and plenty of other third-party titles), it was unique, and boy was it comfortable. My brother and I could play that console for hours.

Dec. 23 2014 10:00 AM

This Vulnerability Could Let People Read Your Direct Messages on Twitter—And Send New Ones, Too

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

The mechanism that lets you use your Twitter account to log in to websites and mobile apps allows those third parties read your private direct messages and send them too, according to Rishi Lakhani, a search marketing consultant. Although the login is designed that way by Twitter—it's not a flaw, it's a feature!—most Twitter users have no idea that their private direct messages are readable by apps and websites when they use that login to sign in to other apps and sites.

Lakhani demonstrated the phenom on a Twitter account created by Business Insider. Even though Lakhani did not have the password to the account, Lakhani was able to gain control of it within seconds, alter the profile description on the account, and send and receive direct messages.

Twitter declined to comment.

It is not clear how many users are affected. Twitter has 284 million users, and thousands of other companies let users log in to their sites and apps via Twitter. Business Insider is one of them.

The login appears to be designed deliberately for apps that use Twitter, such as Tweetdeck or Hootesuite, which are dashboards that make it easier to control your Twitter account. Obviously, those apps need to be able to handle DMs when you use and receive them through the app. Users are asked for their permission when they first login.

What Lakhani is saying, however, is that there are sites out there that have no business reading or sending DMs—yet they nonetheless have the power to do so. And while most users will realize that the app needs permission to handle DMs, they don't realize that developers at the app company itself can now control the account, inclusing sending and reading those DMs.

Lakhani discovered the hole when he tried to use his Twitter account to sign up to Inbound, a forum for digital marketers. He discovered that the login disclosure warned him that the site would be able to read his DMs. Inbound apparently did not realise it had that power over Twitter users on the site. Inbound was doing the same thing that thousands of other companies do: Letting people use their Twitter accounts to login to the site in order to make the registration process go more quickly.

After poking around, Lakhani realised that the API (application programming interface) that Twitter was letting developers use as a login tool let those developers choose one of three options:

  • Read Only
  • Read Write
  • Read Write DM

In other words, a developer who wants to stick one of those login boxes on their site could choose the third option and it would mean that any user who logs in is exposing their direct messages to the site or app. This is what the login choice menu looks like:


Rishi Lakhani

Needless to say, the login access is open to abuse, Lakhani says, writing on the Refugeeks website:

A clever spammer could use this tool to their advantage, as it allows some real control over an account's actions. For example, by time noting user activity, it could be possible to use the account to tweet links for traffic etc when the user is least likely to be using the account, and then delete them. the same goes for DMs.