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.
Using Art to Cross Borders Into the Future
There are three places where I unite my time: Austin, Texas; Torino, Italy; and Beograd, Serbia. So I cross a lot of national borders.
At a border, life gets intensely personal. Will these uniformed officials accept my passport, my name, my face? This identity document exists to prove to national authorities that I am me, me, me, and nobody else.
It's an efficient system, although Austin, Belgrade, and Turin are all well known for illegal immigrants. Those people are just as foreign as I am, but they have identity issues. Maybe no legal identities at all.
I generally succeed at passing through these dizzy moments of legal limbo, to experience foreign soil. The legally marginalized migrants also want a future for their individual selves. They generally work for that future a lot harder than I do. But their identity is not legitimized.
Bitcoin Is as Good as Gold. That’s Bad.
The collapse of the Mt. Gox currency exchange has called into question the future of bitcoin, the digital currency and peer-to-peer payment system that arrived on the world financial stage in 2009. Bitcoin bears argue that the failure highlights the currency’s inherent weakness and explains why it will soon disappear. Bulls argue that despite the failure, bitcoin will rebound and eventually secure its rightful place as the world’s sole currency, sweeping aside the dollar, euro, yen, and other major currencies.
The bulls maintain that bitcoin is as good as gold. And they are right. Universal adoption of bitcoin would be very similar to adopting the gold standard. And that would be a disaster.
One of the great attractions of bitcoin for its boosters is that it prevents central banks from creating money. Like gold, there is a limit on the overall number of bitcoins that can be created, so an inflationary over-issue of money is not possible. Bitcoin terminology plays up its similarity with gold: New bitcoins are not created, they are “mined.”
This comparison with gold also serves to highlight the shortcomings of bitcoin as an alternative currency.
Apple TV Isn't Waiting for Its Moment. It Did $1 Billion in Sales Last Year
Like individual cup coffee makers and the WWE, set-top boxes are more ubiquitous than we may think. Even if you have a Roku, it probably doesn't feel like a mainstream thing. But other people apparently have them, because in fiscal year 2013 Apple did $1 billion in Apple TV sales. Holy crap.
There are always rumors about how the next Apple TV is going to be the "real" one, meaning that Apple is going to manufacture a smart TV—sometimes called iTV in the press—that does everything right, with iCloud baked in in magical ways. But even if it's coming, the real deal is already here and has been for years.
If the Apple TV can do $1 billion in sales, which includes units and media sold for the Apple TV, then there are already a ton of people using this service. It's certainly not everyone, and the cable industry grosses way more than a solitary billion, but it's also not no one. That's a serious number.
Last week Apple announced a promotion, good through March 5, that includes a $25 iTunes giftcard with the purchase of an Apple TV. It could be a sign that Apple wants to clear out stock of the current generation ahead of a product update or the debut of something new. Or it could be that the company just wants to get Apple TVs into even more homes.
Tim Cook used to call Apple TV a "hobby," but Reuters reports that at a shareholder meeting about the Apple TV today, Cook said, "It's a little more difficult to call it a hobby these days." The rise of Apple TV isn't exactly an underdog story given that it's made by ... Apple. But the sales show that media streaming from a set-top box isn't on the way in anymore. It's here.
Ellen Flogs Samsung All Night, Switches to iPhone Backstage
Samsung paid Ellen DeGeneres enough to turn Sunday night's Oscars telecast into an extended commercial for its Galaxy phone, which she used to take a selfie that succeeded in breaking a Twitter retweets record:
But apparently they couldn’t pay her enough to use it backstage. Like so many celebrity smartphone shills before her, DeGeneres apparently switched to her iPhone when she thought no one was looking. She sent this tweet 12 minutes earlier—note the “via Twitter for iPhone” stamp:
And this one a little before that:
To recap, Samsung shelled out big money to sponsor the Oscars and still managed to come out of the event looking like the brand that people only use when they're forced to. The only question now is whether DeGeneres will stay mum about the switcheroo, like Oprah did after she tweeted her love for the Microsoft Surface from an iPad, or blame it on a Drake-obsessed hacker, like BlackBerry “creative director” Alicia Keys did when people noticed she seemed to prefer tweeting from her iPhone. Sorry, I mean former BlackBerry creative director Alicia Keys.
Previously in Slate:
March Comes In Like a Rabid Lion, Bringing More Snow to a Winter-Weary East
In a winter of extreme weather, here’s a storm that’s getting coast-to-coast notoriety.
The same storm that brought the heaviest rains to drought-stricken southern California in more than three years is now set to wallop the east with another huge snowstorm beginning Sunday night.
The rains were welcome, of course, but many people around southern California also got more than they bargained for: A viral video showed a massive wave crashing through a Santa Barbara restaurant on Saturday morning.
Finally, a Real Reason to Use Wearable Technology
Let us rejoice: Programmers have finally discovered a legitimate reason to use wearable technology.
At Netflix's Hack Day last week, one intrepid group of programmers built a system that would link your FitBit (or, presumably, any fitness tracker) to your Netflix account. Why would this be useful? Because, using the tracker's sensors, Netflix can automatically pause whatever you're watching if the FitBit detects you're asleep. (Though, as Seth Stevenson observed in his Slate column on fitness trackers, they are not always reliable at detecting if you're asleep or just resting.) Whenever you wake up and resume your American Horror Story binge, you can choose to start at your last bookmark or your "sleep bookmark."
"As a FitBit user falls asleep, the FitBit registers data to its API that can be collected by any connected device," the video explains. "By using this prompt, Netflix can smoothly fade back audio and offer on-screen prompts for when the user may awaken." Unfortunately, since this was part of an internal hackathon, it's unlikely to come to fruition.
Though I wouldn't go so far as to call it the most nightmarish facet of human existence, as PC magazine and Popular Science do, falling asleep while watching Netflix and then trying to find your place in Breaking Bad the next day can be mildly inconvenient. And what is wearable computing for if not to quell the mild inconveniences of the well-to-do?