Where has Google's logo disappeared to? The search engine giant swapped out its regular banner Wednesday for a Google doodle in honor of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. The German physicist – whose work is crucial to television, radio, and Wi-Fi – would have turned 155 today.
Like many of Google's best doodles, this wave logo holds a double meaning. Sure, it winks at Hertz's history in electromagnetism (we'll explain all of that in a moment). But the undulating curves also hide a message, one you may never notice unless you take the time to look.
The waves form a repeating pattern: There's a large blue curve, followed by a shallow red, shallow yellow, deep blue, skinny green, and one final red curve. Those lines match the general shape of Google's traditional logo: Uppercase blue G, small Os, a lowercase g, a skinny green L, and a red E. It's not the most difficult code to decipher, but Google's doodle serves as a lovely metaphor for Hertz's work.
Namely, Hertz earned his fame by discovering what had always been there.
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Our story starts in 1873, when a Scottish physicist named James Maxwell tried to convince people that light, electricity, and magnetism were all versions of the same phenomenon. It was a weird idea at the time. How could the invisible power of magnets go hand-in-hand with the radiant glow of candlelight? They're obviously different to the human eye, but actually quite similar in hidden ways.
Maxwell was the first to figure out that light moves like a wave, just as magnetism and electricity move through the "electromagnetic field." This was a huge breakthrough – it made sense of the invisible world in the same way that Isaac Newton and his falling apple unified the visible world. Maxwell's math checked out, yet he couldn't prove that his ideas were true. He challenged other scientists to come up with experiments that could demonstrate this invisible science to the naked eye.
A decade later, Hertz found a way.
In his lab, the German scientist rigged up two tiny brass spheres, placed very close to one another. When he electrified them, sparks leaped from one ball to the other. If Maxwell was correct, these sparks should send invisible waves radiating through the air. To test the theory, he needed to build a receiver. This second instrument consisted of a curved wire that almost made a full circle, except for a tiny gap at the top. He placed the transmitter and the receiver several yards apart and made sure that nothing connected the two. Sure enough, when sparks shot through the transmitter, invisible waves traveled through the air, lighting up new sparks on the receiver.
Hertz went on to prove that these waves move at the speed of light, that they can be reflected by some materials, and could pass through others.
While this research eventually led to radio, radar, and broadcast TV, Hertz did not initially understand the magnitude of his discovery.
"It’s of no use whatsoever," he once told a student. "This is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right, we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there."
By allowing the world to finally see these invisible forces, Hertz became famous. The International Electrotechnical Commission decided in 1930 that his name would become a unit of frequency. The hertz (or Hz) measures "cycles per second." For example, a 60 Hz TV runs at up to 60 frames per second.
Despite this global fame, the Nazis tried to expunge Hertz's name from history. While Hertz identified as a Lutheran, his father grew up as a Jew.
"Hertz’s reputation was actively denigrated by the Nazis, who forced his wife and daughters to flee Germany because, despite strong Lutheran roots, they were considered Jews," writes the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in its profile of Hertz. "One Nazi functionary attempted to overturn the use of the term 'Hertz,'... He suggested to the Physical Society of Berlin that instead they use the term 'Helmholtz,' [after Hertz's teacher Hermann von Helmholtz] which would cleverly maintain the abbreviation 'Hz' for the benefit of foreign colleagues. Despite the climate of anti-Semitism, German scientists refused to go along with this plan. 'Hertz' remained and remains in use both in Germany and around the world."
For more on how technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.
[Editor's note: The original version of this post mistakenly said that the final curve in Wednesday's Google doodle was yellow. Both it and the corresponding E in Google's name are red.]
Google spent much of last week dodging criticism from Apple users about its online privacy practices. But when Microsoft got involved this week, that's when things got really interesting.
Users of Apple's Safari browser recently claimed that Google was violating their privacy by circumventing a mechanism the browser uses to disable tracking. Here's what's (apparently) going on under the hood: by default, Safari disables third-party cookies, nuggets of code that companies can use to identify users returning to a site they've visited before, or to track what other sites they visit. Safari can accept cookies if a user explicitly gives permission, but Google's ad platform reportedly used a workaround to mimic approval of its cookies.
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Google responded by dismissing P3P as out of date and "widely non-operational," pointing to a 2010 Carnegie Mellon study identifying more than 11,000 websites -- including some of Microsoft's own -- that bypass it. The study showed that lots of websites ignore P3P accidentally, while others, including Google and Facebook, do it to avoid Microsoft's scrutiny of their privacy practices. Google senior vice president Rachel Whetstone wrote that it is "impractical to comply with Microsoft's request while providing modern Web functionality." No web browser aside from Internet Explorer supports P3P.
The same day Google and Microsoft began squaring off, Matthew Soble, an Apple customer upset about Google's behavior on Safari, sued the search-engine giant in the US District Court for Delaware. Bloomberg reports that Soble's attorneys want a class-action suit asserting that Google knowingly circumvented Safari's privacy measures in order to track users -- violating federal laws in the process. For its part, Google says that its code is being misrepresented, and that it's only using regular Safari functionality to provide services to signed-in Google users. In the meantime, though, it has disabled the behavior.
If you're concerned about how these showdowns affect your own online privacy, you're not alone. More often than not, tools designed to defend users from being tracked have to be circumvented for services such as Gmail and Facebook's "Like" button to work properly. Browsers introduce new privacy features, and companies introduce new workarounds.
Like it or not, the privacy wars are probably going to continue as long as data on users' online behavior remains a valuable commodity to advertisers.
Readers, how do you feel about all this? Should Google and other advertising companies do more to respect users' privacy, or are consumers fighting a losing battle here? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Back in November, Barnes and Noble unveiled the Nook Tablet, a $249 machine that one reviewer described as "the best looking 7-inch slate on the market." The Nook Tablet sold well, but its launch was partially obscured by the buzz-heavy arrival of the Amazon Kindle Fire. Now Barnes and Noble is wading back into the fray with a new Nook Tablet, which matches the Kindle Fire at the $199 price point.
The latest Nook Tablet includes 8GB of memory, as opposed to the first Nook Tablet, which shipped with 16GB. Less memory, in other words, and a lower point-of-entry. Otherwise, the stats are the same: a 7-inch screen, 512MB of RAM, 11.5 hours of reading time, and access to approximately 2.5 million books. In a press release, Barnes and Noble also added that it would drop the price of the Nook Color to $169, down from $199.
So why all the price slashing? Well, as Roger Cheng of CNET notes, Barnes and Noble "badly needs a success in the tablet arena."
Profit in the traditional book-selling arena is down, and Barnes and Noble must be careful not to lose too much ground to the Amazon Kindle Fire, which has been credited for helping boost tablet sales nationwide. (According a recent Pew report, between mid-December and early January, tablet ownership in the US jumped from 10 percent to 19 percent of adults, in large part thanks to the success of the Kindle Fire.)
"The Nook Tablet promises to figure prominently in Barnes & Noble's business," Cheng writes. "While the Kindle Fire has captured much of the buzz that isn't already surrounding the iPad, the 16GB Nook Tablet at $249 has seen fewer takers. Still, Barnes & Noble could become a stronger competitor with its new 8GB tablet and the large distribution capabilities of its stores."
Last year, RIM released the BlackBerry PlayBook, a tablet computer designed to compete with the Apple iPad. But reviews were tepid, sales were lackluster, and RIM was forced to repeatedly slash the price on the device, in a (mostly) unsuccessful effort to gin up consumer interest. Now RIM has announced the arrival of PlayBook 2.0, a software upgrade that addresses some of the complaints voiced by critics of the RIM tablet.
Among the niceties on the PlayBook 2.0 software: more social networking integration, more apps, and the ability to check your email without tethering the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone.
"It's what the first Playbook software should have been from a company which stakes its brand on messaging strength, with tightly integrated calendar, email, and contacts," Frost and Sullivan analyst Craig Cartier told Reuters today.
The software goes live this week. So hey, is it worth picking up a RIM PlayBook? The software is an improvement, and prices on the tablet have hit rock bottom – you can now get your hands on a PlayBook for $200, a price tag three hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest Apple iPad. The short answer, writes Roger Cheng of CNET: save your cash.
"I've spent a bit of time with PlayBook 2.0, and the upgrades are neat. But the changes all represent minor improvements to a tablet that needed to take massive steps forward to compete with its ever-progressing competitors," Cheng writes. "The PlayBook launched nearly a year ago in April, and despite the new software, the hardware remains the same."
Windows 8, the latest version of the popular Microsoft OS, is set to launch later this month as a "consumer preview." As we've noted in the past, Windows 8 is meant to be a multi-platform OS, compatible with tablets and laptops, that incorporates a tiled interface called Metro. One of the first steps in transitioning to Windows 8 was to get rid of the Start button, that mainstay of so many generations of Windows operating systems.
Now Microsoft has announced that it will rejigger its logo, as well, tossing out the multicolored flag in favor of a blocky, blue window, designed by the firm Pentagram. In a blog post, Microsoft's Sam Moreau said the new logo is a better fit for the "Metro style design principles" – and a "beautiful metaphor" for modern computing, to boot.
"[W]ith the new logo we wanted to celebrate the idea of a window, in perspective. Microsoft and Windows are all about putting technology in people's hands to empower them to find their own perspectives," Moreau writes. "And that is what the new logo was meant to be. We did less of a re-design and more to return it to its original meaning and bringing Windows back to its roots – reimagining the Windows logo as just that – a window."
So what is the tech world saying about the design? Well, reactions have been mixed. "OK, I get that the logo should match the Windows 8 Metro format. Microsoft is tile happy," writes Larry Dignan of ZD Net. "I also get that the previous Windows logos looked more like flags than Windows. Unfortunately for me the Windows 8 logo gives me a window, but I want to jump out of it. It. Is. Just. Too. Much. Metro. Design. For. Me. To. Handle."
Fair enough. What do you think? Drop us a line in the comments section below.
Late last year, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, a tablet computer with a Web browser and plenty of multimedia capability – not to mention a price that undercut the cheapest Apple iPad 2 by a couple hundred bucks. Unsurprisingly, the Fire sold well. According to a recent report by Pew, between mid-December and early January, tablet ownership in the US jumped from 10 percent to 19 percent of American adults.
Much of that growth was attributed to the Fire, which attracted a whole new set of budget-minded consumers. Now comes a report, from the China Times, that Amazon is already preparing a sequel to the Fire, possibly called the Kindle Fire 2. The China Times alleges that Foxconn – one of the chief manufacturers of Apple iPads, Sony PlayStation 3s, and many other gadgets – has been tapped to build the product; launch date could arrive as soon as April.
Obviously, Amazon has not yet responded to the scuttlebutt. And yet the China Times dispatch does sync with earlier reports from outlets such as the Taiwanese paper DigiTimes, which also predicted the launch of a new Kindle Fire tablet – or possibly two, with screen sizes of 8.9- and 10-inches – sometime this year.
Of course, if Amazon does release a Fire 2 in April, the device will almost certainly be up against the Apple iPad 3. Most analysts expect the iPad 3 to be unveiled early next month, and officially launch shortly thereafter. Among the niceties on the new Apple tablet?
Over the past few years, Motorola has introduced a small army of Android phones, including the Droid Pro, the Droid 2, Droid Bionic, and the Droid RAZR. This week, the company took the wraps off the Droid 4, a handset with a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor, a 4-inch HD screen, and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The Droid 4 sells for $200 with a two-year contract; Verizon Wireless has the device for sale starting this week.
And for the most part, reviewers have been kind. "[I]f you are married to the physical keyboard, the Droid 4 is still without a doubt the most compelling phone on the market, as the keyboard is amazing. If you type a lot of emails, texts, or chat a lot, the keyboard simply can't be beat," writes the team at Wired. ZDNet was plainer still, proclaiming that the Droid 4 has "the best keyboard on any phone" out today.
Of course, the Droid 4 isn't the only Droid phone launching this month. Motorola also introduced the Droid Razr Maxx, a handset with a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen and a really, really big battery. According to some reports, the Droid Razr Maxx can handle 21.5 hours of talk time and more than two weeks of standby time without a recharge.
So hey, what if you're in the market for a new phone, but you can't decide between the Droid 4 and the Droid Razr Maxx? Well, over at CNET, Maggie Reardon breaks it down. "For me, I'd say that battery life is more important to me than the full physical keypad," she writes. "I made the transition from a full keypad on an old Samsung Blackjack to the iPhone 3G more than two years ago, and I haven't looked back to the physical keyboard since."
On the other hand, as Reardon points out, the Droid 4 is a hundred bucks cheaper than the Droid Razr Maxx, which is priced at $300 with a two-year contract. They comes with a two-year contract, either way.
Twitter has acknowledged that it stores user data – including info from contact lists and address books – on its servers, sometimes for months at a time.
At issue is a mobile feature called Find Friends, which allows smartphone users to locate real-life friends on Twitter. Results are produced by giving Twitter permission to churn through the contacts on your phone. So far, so good.
But after critics raised questions about the functionality, Twitter confirmed that the data was not immediately erased – instead, all of it, including phone numbers and email addresses, remained on Twitter servers for up to 18 months.
In a statement, Twitter has promised more clarity on existing privacy policies.
"We want to be clear and transparent in our communications with users," a Twitter spokesperson told the LA Times. "Along those lines, in our next app updates, which are coming soon, we are updating the language associated with Find Friends – to be more explicit. In place of 'Scan your contacts,' we will use 'Upload your contacts' and 'Import your contacts' (in Twitter for iPhone and Twitter for Android, respectively)."
But that promise wasn't quite enough for Privacy International, a non-profit based in the UK.
According to the Register, Privacy International has encouraged Twitter users to obtain copies of all the data Twitter has collected about them. "We hope that by raising awareness we can also gain clarity on what information Twitter collects and stores about its users," the group said, "especially after the recent news that Twitter has been storing the full iPhone contact lists of users who choose to 'Find Friends'."
In related news, back in January, Twitter announced that it would invoke the right to censor messages on a country-by-country basis. In the past, Twitter was forced to strike clean objectionable tweets on a "global" scale – the offending message, in other words, would disappear across the board. Twitter reps claimed it changed its policy to abide by the laws of "countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression."
Critics have said the move amounted to censorship.
Last week, a bunch of protesters stormed the Apple store at Grand Central Station, in midtown Manhattan. They were there to present a pair of petitions collected on SumOfUs and Change.org, both demanding that Apple change the way workers are treated in overseas factories.
It was only the latest attack on Apple for contracting companies with dubious workers' rights records. Apple has been under heavy fire since the publication, earlier this year, of a Times expose on the Apple supply chain.
Today brings another critical report, this one from the Korea Daily. According to the newspaper, the Chinese factory workers that assemble the iPad 2 earn approximately $8, collectively, for every Apple tablet that rolls off the supply line. Eight bucks, as a point of reference, is less than two percent of the price of the cheapest iPad.
It's also far less than the $34 per iPad 2 reportedly paid to factory workers in Korea.
Assuming the report is correct, Chinese workers are getting shortchanged. And Apple is making out big: The Register calculates that Apple rakes in a hefty $150 – 30 percent of the retail price – on every iPad 2 sold. So will Apple, which currently dominates the tablet market in the US, be affected by growing concern over the way its products are built?
Hard to say.
But Apple is certainly concerned enough to have begun hitting back at critics. "Our commitment is very, very simple," Apple CEO Tim Cook said recently at the Goldman Sachs' Technology Conference. "We believe every worker has the right to a fair and safe work environment free of discrimination where they can earn competitive wages and where they can voice their concerns freely."
Twisted Metal, the rip-and-roar driving franchise published by Sony, first hit shelves back in 1995, as an exclusive for the PlayStation console. Since then, a veritable traffic jam of sequels have appeared, including Twisted Metal 2, 3, 4, and Twisted Metal: Black. The latest in the series is titled simply Twisted Metal, and it arrives this week on the PlayStation 3, in high-gloss HD.
The game features the recurring characters Sweet Tooth and Calypso, along with the usual litany of armored trucks, explosives, and Really Big Guns. (Seat belts suggested.) So how does Twisted Metal stack up? Let's go to the scorecards.
The plot (so to speak)
"The story is told through the perspectives of three characters – Sweet Tooth, Grimm and Doll Face – entered in the Twisted Metal tournament run by mastermind Calypso," writes Brett Molina of USA Today. "If they win, they're granted any prize they choose. In the case of clown-faced serial killer Sweet Tooth, for example, it's to find the one victim that escaped his grasp. Although the story elements are very loosely tied to the game overall, they do offer this sinister backdrop with short tales that play out like an episode of The Twilight Zone."
"The game is all about the cars, which are no longer locked to a specific driver," writes Jason D'Aprile of G4 TV. "Players can choose three different vehicles in most matches, which can be swapped out in the garage found on each map. Since cars don’t automatically regenerate health, the game can become a race to either find health power-ups or get to the garage before exploding. Each vehicle has its own signature move, which recharges after use, and a pre-selected main gun. Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all to pick up weapon power-ups."
"While there are some unique additions [to previous Twisted Metal games], the core controls are still as slippery and loose as ever," writes Sebastian Haley of VentureBeat. "You can even turn 360 degrees without hitting the gas, so don’t expect any level of realism here. At the same time, the gameplay was in need of tune-up and could really have used some tightening up, especially in terms of weight distribution. Even the heaviest vehicles can be flung into the air with little effort…and sometimes with no effort at all; Twisted Metal sports some of the worst game physics to date, and at times it’s downright game-breaking."
"Maps are large and expansive, there's a ton of destruction, and there's just a lot more to see and do in each area than ever before," writes Al McCarthy of Attack of the Fanboy. "Environments range from rural settings, suburban locales, and even a stadium that changes landscapes on the fly with traps at every turn. With each map being quite large there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, giving you ample opportunity to find those perfect getaway spots or places to corner your competition."
"Competitors act less like opponents and more like the Illuminati, a cadre of conspirators who seem to have had a huddle before every match, deciding that the player needs to die in the most annoying and unfair way possible," writes David Hinkle of Joystiq. "Being the target of everything becomes taxing far too early in the game. It's hard to find the constitution to keep playing when you're constantly being frozen and bombarded with rockets. You have no idea how many times I dropped the controller in frustration and had to walk away just to cool down, something I never do."
"The multiplayer is pure Twisted Metal," writes Game Informer's Dan Ryckert. "Deathmatch modes place you in one of the game’s numerous massive maps, and it doesn’t take long for things to turn into an all-out warzone. Nuke mode is chaotic and entertaining, with two teams capturing their enemy’s leader and launching him or her at a massive effigy of the opposing team. Hunted and Last Man Standing are also fun, but can’t compete with the insanity of Nuke. Gamers irked by the 'die five seconds after you spawn' experience from titles like Call of Duty should enjoy the longer lifespans of Twisted Metal’s online play."
The parting shot
"I think that the game could have been truly superb had less effort gone into the failed aspects and more been poured into the type of Twisted Metal that fans know and love," writes Jim Sterling of Destructoid. "For all its shortcomings and lack of depth, however, there really is no other car combat game that has the goods quite like Twisted Metal. It's a solid entry in a series that's difficult to hate, and hardcore destruction fans would do well to pick it up."