Could Staring at Your Smartphone Give You Unsightly "Techneck"?
Pity the aging worker in Silicon Valley. She has to worry not only about not being hired in favor of less experienced and cheaper colleagues barely out of teendom, but also, some are warning, the rise of “techneck.”
While the experts regularly chastise us about the ill effects of our technology-imposed sedentary lifestyles and bad posture, CACI international, a U.K manufacturer and supplier of nonsurgical facelift systems, also wants to inform you that all those hours spent looking down at your Instagram feed are causing extra neck wrinkles.
Dean Nathanson, managing director of CACI international, felt compelled to go public with this information after the company noticed a surge in inquiries about their product’s effectiveness on lines around the neck area. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons also documented a 6 percent increase in neck lifts last year from 2012.
What if Computers Know You Better Than You Know Yourself?
I recently read about the launches of both an “ultrasecure” mobile phone for protecting privacy and a clip-on camera that takes a picture of everything you do at 30-second intervals. Our cultural relationship with data is more complicated and contradictory than it has ever been, and our debates on the subject almost always center on privacy. But privacy, the notion that only you should be able to control information about yourself, cloaks a deeper tension between information and meaning, between databases and insights.
Our digital breadcrumbs now tell stories about us that are deeply secret, moving, surprising—and often things we don’t even know about ourselves. These days when a computer crunches the numbers and tells you “this is who you are,” it’s hard to contradict because there’s more data about you in the machine than there is in your head. Algorithms are most effective at curating the information that’s hardest for us to hold in our heads: how long we talk to mom or what day of the week we splurge on an extra cookie.
Sprint Let the Government Spy on You, and Now It's Getting Sued ... by the Government
Sitting around worrying about privacy rights and the implications of government surveillance has clearly been distracting us from the issue of how much all of this snooping costs. Even spying is paid for by taxpayer dollars, so we should all want a good bargain. And the federal government is after fair pricing.
On Monday the government filed suit against Sprint and accused the company of overcharging federal agencies for wiretapping services. Under the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act of 1994, telecommunications companies have to comply with government requests like those for wiretapping, but the companies are allowed to request reimbursement for “reasonable costs of compliance.”
Though a Sprint spokesperson said that the company denies the allegations, the government lawsuit asserts that Sprint overcharged for $21 million worth of services. “Sprint knowingly presented, or caused to be presented, false or fraudulent claims for payment or approval to the United States for reimbursement of its expenses in furnishing facilities and assistance in carrying out intercepts.” The suit suggests that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others were all over charged.
U.S. attorneys filed the suit in the Northern California District Court detailing some $10.5 million paid by the FBI, $21 million paid by the DEA, and more between January 2007 and July 2010. After that period Sprint apparently began requesting lower reimbursements.
Sprint told Ars Technica, “Under the law, the government is required to reimburse Sprint for its reasonable costs incurred when assisting law enforcement agencies with electronic surveillance. The invoices Sprint has submitted to the government fully comply with the law. We have fully cooperated with this investigation and intend to defend this matter vigorously.” It remains to be seen whether Sprint was actually overcharging government agencies, or whether the government simply had the gall to sue for a better deal while privacy discussions and disputes rage nationwide.
Twitter's New Office Has Log Cabins from the 1800s for Lunchrooms
There's a big westward expansion component to corporate lunch, don't you think? You pack provisions, pull together some money to get help, or scrounge in the wilds of the kitchen for any yogurt or packet of pretzels that you can steal without raising suspicion. And Twitter apparently agrees that eating a made-to-order chopped kale salad is a fitting tribute to the pioneers of the 1800s, because the company is using relocated Montana pioneer cabins as lunchrooms in its new San Francisco headquarters.
The Marin Independent Journal reports that Lundberg Design, the San Francisco-based architectural firm that's working on the special elements of the headquarters, found the cabins on Craigslist (though the firm won't disclose how much they cost). The Craigslist ad was from contractor Karl Beckmann, who had personally salvaged the cabins in Montana.
Architect Olle Lundberg told the Marin Independent, "We've used the notion of the forest as a nice tie-in with Twitter and its bird logo. To me, the log cabins fit into that since, obviously, they're made from logs that come from the forest." Obviously.
The 20-by-20-foot cabins will have booths installed in them so Twitter employees can enjoy a meal or a break with colleagues. Beckmann told the Marin Independent, "When you think about it, buying a 100-year-old log cabin that has been exposed to the elements is not a very practical idea unless you're doing something exactly like what is being done here." Well maybe it's not the least practical, but it's also not the most practical. Should be cool looking, though.
The Nation's Most Privileged Interns Aren't on Wall Street Anymore. They're in Silicon Valley.
If you feel that you are fairly compensated at your job, are proud of your recent raise, and make less than $84,000 a year, be warned: You are about to feel really annoyed. That's because interns at the top-paying companies in the country are making no less than $4,600 a month (that would be $55,200 per year) and as much as $7,000 a month. Interns. And 18 of the top 25 companies are in the tech sector.
In contrast to the media and arts industries, where interns are notoriously underpaid or just go without compensation altogether, those at tech, finance, and consulting companies can get a hefty sum for their summer or semester of work. According to a survey by Glassdoor, Twitter (No. 3 on the list) pays $6,791 per month, Facebook (No. 4) pays $6,213 per month, and Google (No. 9) pays $5,969 per month. See below for the full list.
The company that pays interns the most, Palantir, is a software development group known for providing government agencies with data crunching software used in intelligence operations and military planning. The company is valued at $9 billion and had $450 million in revenue in 2013. So Palantir probably can afford to pay interns $7,012 a month.
Even within the context of this extreme end of the spectrum, the pay scales don't always make sense. In a similar study conducted in 2012, Glassdoor reported that JPMorgan Chase paid $3,573 per month and GE paid around $3,000 per month. Do they value their interns less? And State Farm only paid $2,377. Come on, these people have to eat! The study doesn't report on how the companies decide on intern wages, but the huge numbers seem arbitrary, plus arbitrarily huge.
Perhaps companies feel it's worth it to pay interns at this level so candidates will compete heavily for the jobs, do real work once they're at the internship, and potentially be hireable at the end of their stint. But it's worth noting that the U.S. Census Bureau is currently reporting median U.S. household income at $53,046.
The Smartphone Wars Are Coming to Your Car
What kind of car do you drive—Android or iOS?
We’re not quite there yet, but it’s looking increasingly likely that your ride will be among the next big battlegrounds in the smartphone wars. Apple announced Monday that it’s rolling out CarPlay—formerly known as “iOS in the Car”—for three manufacturers this week: Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. Thirteen other manufacturers, including some less hoity-toity ones like Honda and Kia, are slated to follow suit eventually.
Plenty of drivers already connect their smartphones to their cars in various ways, of course, such as Bluetooth pairings that let you play music or take a call through your car-stereo speakers. CarPlay will go further, letting you control your phone directly from a screen on your dashboard. Here's a video of what it will look like in your tasteful Volvo:
And here are some of the music options, which feature Apple’s iTunes Radio but also support certain third-party apps, including Spotify and iHeartRadio. So far, Pandora is not among them, though the company told the Mercury News’ Jeremy Owens it isn’t ruling out the possibility of a partnership at some point in the future.
Oh, and I hope you like Apple Maps, because that other company’s maps are not an option in your iCar.
Speaking of that other company, Google has its own designs on your dashboard. Last month it announced the formation of a consortium called the Open Automotive Alliance, which includes GM, Honda, Audi,* Hyundai, and Nvidia. The Verge reported in January that the first Android cars are expected to launch by year’s end.
Ford, meanwhile, had been working with Microsoft in a marriage of industry old-timers. But rumors are that it got fed up and dropped the Redmond giant in favor of—wait for it—BlackBerry! However, Ford is also listed among the likely future partners for Apple's CarPlay software, so perhaps it is hedging its bets. Electric-car pioneer Tesla has gone a different route, developing its own, Linux-based in-car operating system, which is already in use in the company’s Model S sedans.
It will be interesting to see whether the in-car tech market mirrors the smartphone market, with Apple dominating the high end and Android controlling the middle. One big difference is that, short of buying its own car company, Apple has no choice but to work with third-party hardware in the automotive realm. Still, similar dynamics could emerge if Apple turns out to be more bent on controlling the in-car software experience than Google is. That would limit the quantity of its partnerships while theoretically assuring their quality.
On the other hand, Google has a chance to tilt the tables by building superior software in the realms most relevant to drivers, including maps and voice-activated search and personal-assistant tools. Google Maps vs. Apple Maps and Siri vs. Google Now were already important battles in the mobile software world, but they might be even more crucial when you have two hands on the wheel.
In not entirely unrelated news, Microsoft today announced its own Siri rival, called Cortana.
*Correction, March 4: This article originally misspelled the name of the automaker Audi.
Jurassic Park Simulation Lets You Do Some Early '90s Hacking
It might seem like a normal Monday. Just the start to another week. But what you didn't realize when your alarm went off this morning was that you were going to be called on to try to take on Dennis Nedry's Jurassic Systems today. Time to get hacking.
Don't Mock Speed-Reading Apps. They Are Life-Changing.
Last week, Spritz, a reading application that displays one word at a time, made a big splash on the Internet, inspiring dozens of blog posts and blowing up on social media. I'm guessing these sites were awed (or amused) by the flashy rhetoric of “reading reimagined,” which likely helped spark this flurry of attention, but the thing is that this technology, known as “rapid serial visual presentation” or RSVP, has been around for decades.
I've been using a similar app, Spreeder, for 211 days now. The reason I know the precise number? I've been incrementally increasing the WPM rate each day from my starting place of 300 to my rate of 511 as of this morning. (You can try this out for the rest of the post by clicking this link, copying all the text below, pasting it into the box, and hitting the “spreed” button. Then click on “settings,” change the “chunk size” to 2, and on the “advanced” tab, check the first and third boxes, and hit “save.” OK, now hit the play button.)
Colbert Speaks at Controversial Security Conference Fans Wanted Him to Boycott
Stephen Colbert's satire usually springs forth from his desk at Comedy Central. But he was on location for the RSA conference last week even though some of his fans had asked him to boycott. It seemed like the makings of some solid drama.
But Colbert defused the situation by using his right-wing persona to poke fun at cryptographers, the NSA, and RSA itself. Last year RSA was accused of being paid $10 million by the NSA to intentionally weaken one of its encryption algorithms. And Colbert brought it up. He said, “The elephant in the room is that I was asked not to come speak here. That came as something of a shock to me. Normally I'm asked not to be somewhere only after I've spoken.”
In the speech Colbert said that he decided not to boycott RSA Conference because of the money he had been promised in his contract for speaking. He said, “My conscience was clear, as long as the check clears. Well, it’s not actually a check. They gave me a bitcoin voucher from Mt. Gox and I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”
Colbert joked about an encrypted cloud service he had started called Cloud Fog and said that his company uses a 20-sided die as its random number generator. And then he returned to the controversy over his decision to attend the conference, saying, “A lot of people, maybe some in this room, were upset to learn that I'd be speaking here today. Many of you see me as a champion of privacy. Which I know because I read your emails ... As a freedom lover I do not engage in boycotts.”
Other than some ribbing, the speech stayed pretty safe in terms of actually making assertions about privacy expectations, or coming down against the NSA or RSA. Mainly Colbert just made it clear that something strange has been going on, and that everyone should feel uncomfortable about how undefined the topic of privacy rights is right now. And here and there Colbert gave some choice advice to audience members or anyone hearing his speech. “Remember the first rule of RSA conference: While you're quoting Fight Club someone is hacking you.”
The Hangouts iOS Update Is a Major Quality of Life Improvement
Almost 10 months after its original release in May 2013, the iOS Hangouts app is finally good. Google released an update last Thursday that adds new features, but also just makes the app generally reliable and pleasant to use. I spent the weekend happily chatting with friends on my phone and I never felt like I wanted to throw the device out a window. That's progress!
In October the iOS Hangouts app got Google Voice integration and voice calling, but that didn't change how frustrating it was for basic chat functions. Chats wouldn't update, messages wouldn't send, there were weird lags, and sometimes things got out of sync. The app wasn't impossible to use and generally worked all right, but there was just this underlying feeling of unease, or a sense that something might go wrong. That's not a vibe users should get, especially when the company releasing the app has the resources Google does.
But the update solidifies everything. The chats sync quickly and easily. There's no delay. And there are new features like a redesign for iOS 7, better iPad optimization, location sharing (a nice feature from the Android app that lets you send a Google Map of your location to a Hangout), 10-second video messages that you can even send to someone who is offline, and animated stickers. Because why the heck not?
From Google's perspective, it's pretty important that Hangouts reach its baseline potential for all users. During the transition from Gchat to Hangouts, some people were mad. As David Gewirtz wrote on ZDNet during the mid-May transition, "Let me be clear: I use Google Chat for work. I talk to many of my colleagues about work-related activities. ... I don't hang out."
But the unrest didn't only stem from the change of attitude underlying Hangouts. It came from the fact that the Hangouts rollout meant big changes to how a ubiquitous service was used everyday. And with the iOS app acting like a distracted toddler, some people may have defected or taken awhile to get used to the new situation.
Now with Facebook's aquisition of WhatsApp, Google wants to bring everyone back and show that Hangouts is a reliable chat service for everything. Work, social, mobile, whatever. I powered through the Gchat to Hangouts transition because the service is so central to my daily life, but I didn't like how bumpy the ride was. Now I'm starting to feel better.