Well, it's not quite doomsday, but for plenty of Wiki-trawlers worldwide, it's lights out.
Today, Wikipedia – that vast, crowd-sourced online encyclopedia – has gone dark, in a protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two bills currently under consideration in the US House of Representatives and Senate, respectively. In a press release, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales railed against the legislation, which he said threatened the "free and open internet."
"Today Wikipedians from around the world have spoken about their opposition to this destructive legislation," Wales wrote. "This is an extraordinary action for our community to take – and while we regret having to prevent the world from having access to Wikipedia for even a second, we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world."
SOPA, which was first introduced in October, and PIPA, first introduced last May, are both aimed at stopping Internet piracy and copyright infringement. But both bills have drawn the ire of a range of tech companies, including Yahoo, Twitter, and Google, who have argued – like Wales – that the legislation would be unnecessarily restrictive.
Debate on SOPA is technically on hold until next month, but a vote on PIPA is scheduled for Jan. 24, ABC reports.
Hence the blackout.
Of course, as Jared Newman writes over at Time, there are plenty of ways to survive the Wikipedia blackout. Among them: Download the entire database from Pirate Bay (not advisable), access an online mirror site, or log onto one of the Wikipedia alternatives, such as Encyclopedia.com.
We didn't think so.
On Sunday, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh acknowledged that his company – a subsidiary of Amazon – had been hit by hackers, who managed to gain access to personal records for approximately 24 million shoppers. "We were recently the victim of a cyber attack by a criminal who gained access to parts of our internal network and systems through one of our servers in Kentucky," Hseih wrote.
He stressed that Zappos was cooperating with law enforcement; exact details on the nature of the breach have not yet been disclosed.
So what have we learned from the Zappos fiasco? Well, for one thing, we're reminded yet again that even big companies are vulnerable to attacks. "It’s disturbing," tech analyst – and recent online fraud victim – Barbara Scott told the New York Times today. "Companies have to do a better job protecting our privacy. You would think companies like eBay and Amazon have the financial backing and wherewithal to take the proper security measures."
Of course, as Scott hints, Zappos isn't the only major company to be hit by hackers – only the most recent. And with e-commerce occupying an ever-larger part of our daily lives, it's safe to say that we'll see at least a few more high-profile hacks in coming months. Which brings us to our second question: How did Zappos handle the breach?
Actually, pretty handily, according to most analysts. Over at Information Week, Matthew J. Schwartz runs down the eight lessons learned from the Zappos breach, including the importance of a detailed response plan. Schwartz quotes Tomer Teller, a security researcher at Check Point Software Technologies, who says Zappos "should be commended for alerting their customers in a timely fashion."
Not that everyone is completely enamored with the reaction from Team Zappos. "Disappointingly, there is no mention of the security breach on the front page of the Zappos website – one platform you would imagine they would use to inform their customers that there was a security problem of which they should be made aware," writes Graham Cluley, an analyst at Sophos.
As for lessons, there are plenty to be learned, but perhaps chief among them is this: Change your passwords. A lot. "Typically people use one password to get into a number of systems," notes ABC analyst Brad Garrett. "And so as a result if you have someone’s password, you could easily compromise other accounts they have at other locations."
Most of the coverage coming out of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show has centered on thin, Web-savvy TVs -- especially super-crisp OLED displays from LG and Samsung. But if the small screen is more your speed, don't worry: we've also gotten glimpses of lots of exciting new laptops and tablets on the floor this year.
Last year's CES was all about tablets, as manufacturers tended to employ the "throw things at the wall and see what sticks" method in offering alternatives to Apple's iPad. Things are a little more muted this year, and that's probably a net positive: while there are fewer tablet models on display, companies like Acer, Lenovo, and Samsung have put more effort into polishing what's available. There's less danger of drowning in a sea of "me-too" Android tablets this year.
Noteworthy tablets from CES 2012 include the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 LTE, a new model in Samsung's venerable Galaxy Tab line with a 7.7-inch screen, running on Verizon's 4G network. Acer also introduced the Iconia Tab A200, a 10.1-inch tablet with widescreen dimensions. If you're interested in portable web surfing and video chatting but need a little more horsepower than what's in lower-end Amazon and Barnes and Noble tablets, the Galaxy Tab line is probably worth checking out. If you're in the market for a screen that's sized for movies and TV shows, the Iconia Tab might be more your speed.
We've also got to shine a spotlight on what's undoubtedly the most innovative tablet design of CES: the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. Technically, it's a laptop -- but in keeping with the machine's name, the screen actually flips all the way around to lie flat against the chassis, disabling the keyboard and transforming into a touchscreen tablet. The screen is 13.3 inches, and the whole rig weighs only 3.1 pounds, putting the laptop firmly in the ultrabook category.
Ultrabooks -- thin, light, high-powered Windows laptops modeled to a large degree on Apple's MacBook Air -- were everywhere at CES this year, and several machines are getting pretty positive early buzz. In addition to the IdeaPad Yoga, the HP Envy 14 Spectre is turning heads for having high-end Beats Audio built in, as well as a Gorilla Glass-covered lid and palmrest. Cnet editors named it the best computer of the show, saying, "At a CES devoid of many eye-popping laptops, the Spectre could be the most stylish of the bunch."
Samsung also showed off a redesigned 13-inch version of its Series 9 laptop, which sports a high-res 1600x900 display and a black aluminum design. And in the sub-$1,000 range, the Dell XPS 13 offers a solid aluminum construction and backlit keyboard. (All the ultrabooks we've mentioned here are powered by second-gen Intel Core chips, and most have pretty similar internals, although the pricier Samsung and HP models step things up a bit.)
Even if 55-inch displays aren't your thing, there's still plenty to draw your eye at CES this year. Readers, what's your take? Are you smitten with a tablet or ultrabook that we missed in this roundup? Let us know in the comments. In the meantime, for more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut. And don’t forget to sign up for the weekly BizTech newsletter.
Earlier this month, Nokia took the wraps off the Lumia 900, a smartphone equipped with a 4.3-inch high-resolution display, 512MB of RAM, an 8-megapixel camera, and the Windows Phone Mango operating system. The new Windows Phone OS has been a hit among reviewers, but the phones that it runs on have so far been rather lukewarm. Nokia hopes to change that with this Lumia line, which has performed consistently well in Europe.
And according to tech reporter Paul Thurrott, the Lumia 900 could be arriving as soon as March – earlier than many tech insiders had suspected. Thurrott, who runs the SuperSite for Windows blog, made the comments during a video interview from the floor of CES, the annual electronics show in Las Vegas.
The timing would be propitious for Nokia, which could get out in front of the crushing press blitz sure to surround the next iPhone, while sustaining the already high level of Lumia buzz. The Lumia 900, after all, has been called "one of the hottest phones" at CES – a svelte, a high-powered piece of eye-candy.
"The Lumia 900 beautifully showcases the Windows Phone OS," Ginny Mies of PC World wrote in a hands-on test of the Lumia this week. "The body is made from a single injectable polyurethane matte plastic build, as is the Lumia 800, which gives it a sturdy feel. The material is soft to touch, but resistant to scratches (although not necessarily fingerprints). And it doesn't feel like it will completely shatter if you drop it."
"In our eyes, the biggest red flag, relatively speaking, on the Lumia 900's spec sheet is the battery life: Nokia estimates the phone's 1830mAh battery (a generous size for a smartphone) will get up to 7 hours of 3G talk time and 6.5 hours of video," Johnston notes. "While the phone is undoubtedly faster than other Windows Phone devices we've tried, this suggests that it's operating at too high a level for a decent battery life."
In July of 2005, News Corp acquired MySpace for a whole lot of cash. ($580 million, to be exact.) And why not? The deal looked like a good one: At the time, MySpace was the most popular social networking site in the US, with a robust membership, and domination of rival network Facebook. Fast forward six years, and Facebook is now in the top slot, while MySpace – beset by corporate shake-ups, lay-offs, and general discontent – is struggling to survive.
None of which has been lost on Rupert Murdoch, chief of News Corp. In a tweet today from the floor of CES, in Las Vegas, Murdoch acknowledged that his company had taken some major missteps when it came to MySpace. "Many questions and jokes about MySpace. Simple answer – we screwed up in every way possible, learned lots of valuable expensive lessons," Murdoch wrote.
So is Murdoch right to be chagrined? Well, over at Wired, John C. Abell says the News Corp acquisition of MySpace certainly belongs on "tech investment Wall of Shame." Still, Abell adds, in "fairness to Murdoch... there is no shame in putting down big money for a company which, at the time, seems like the Big Dog as a way of accelerating your way into a fast-moving market which only seems to be going up."
In related news, this week at CES, Justin Timberlake introduced a new venture between MySpace TV and Panasonic, the electronics manufacturer. Timberlake said the initiative would blend social media and TV watching – CBS described it as "Hulu and Netflix with social networking." Timberlake, Horizons readers may remember, owns a minority share in MySpace, which was sold last year to an ad firm called Specific Media.
"We're ready to take television and entertainment to the next step by upgrading it to the social networking experience," Timberlake said. "Why text or email your friends to talk about your favorite programs after they've aired when you could be sharing the experience with real-time interactivity from anywhere across the globe?"
This week, Google introduced an initiative called Search Plus Your World, which will combine standard search results with items culled from Google+ and photo-sharing sites such as Picasa. The idea, generally speaking, is to expand the reach of Google, from regular ol' websites to the "social web" – where most Internet users operate today.
Search Plus Your World, expected to hit many computers today, is controlled via a toggle switch. Turn it on and search results will change based on your friend's tastes. Switch it off to return to the standard Google view. But that's not quite enough for Twitter, which today issued a strongly-worded statement about Search Plus Your World, expressing concern that Twitter results would be harder to find under the new system.
"As we've seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results," the statement read. "We're concerned that as a result of Google's changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that's bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users."
So is Twitter right to be worried? Hard to say – we haven't yet had a chance to try out the new search feature.
Google, Shankland writes, "can change how it presents search results derived from social services. It can change what services it chooses to listen to. It can offer different actions that people can take when seeing social information. It can give people different controls over how exactly their own social content is indexed for later inclusion in search."
Still, Shankland adds, "Google can't simply ignore social information. Because – perhaps you may have noticed – social connections are a force that's rebuilding the Internet." He's right, in the humble opinion of this blogger. Google will undoubtedly weather some complaints about the security, privacy, of practicality of the new Search Plus Your World feature, and the tech giant may even be forced to make a few corrections.
But as the social Web continues to grow, Google must find a way to incorporate social media results. And for the time being, Search Plus Your World is it.
Back in June, Nintendo took the wraps off the Wii U, the successor to the aging Wii console. The device, expected to hit shelves towards the end of this year, included a motion-sensing controller, which Nintendo said could be operated independently – or in concert with – the television set. This week, at the CES show in Las Vegas, Nintendo again trotted out the Wii U, and offered a few journalists the chance to give it a brief test run.
So what does this new system offer over the original Wii? Well, as the Associated Press points out, the Wii U system will sync not only with the new touchscreen controller, but also older Wii-style controllers.
"For example, in one of Nintendo’s demonstration games, four players with Wii remotes chase a fifth, who uses the touch controller," writes the team at the AP. "The fifth player uses the screen on the controller to guide his movements, which are thus kept secret from the other players. The other players keep track of their own movements on the TV screen."
Which syncs up pretty well with what Nintendo had stressed last year – that the Wii is meant to be, at least in part, a family device, for use in group settings.
"The new controller is an impressive thing to hold in your hands. It feels solid and comfortable, and nothing about it marks it as a weak link," Kuchera writes. "The screen itself is bright and beautiful, much clearer than the screen on an iPad, and even small details of the games are able to be seen clearly. The controller's speakers also do a good job of delivering information to the player via audio clues."
Writing at IGN, Richard George points that, regardless of the feel of the controller or the build of the console, Nintendo faces an uphill battle with the Wii U. The original Wii was popular among casual gamers, but many casual gamers have turned to cheap, downloadable content on their smartphones or tablets. Meanwhile, Nintendo must stave off an assault from Sony and Microsoft, which are expected to release new consoles in the near feature.
The Wii U, George writes, "must not only lure in casual and hardcore fans while still appeasing Nintendo fans, but somehow find software, hardware and pricing solutions for all of them. There's little doubt a Nintendo fan would pay a significant premium for new hardware, but would a casual fan? And while a killer Mario title might impress many, the hardcore fan will likely be more interested if exclusive Call of Duty content is coming to the system."
Thoughts? Drop us a line.
As the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show gets underway in Las Vegas on Tuesday, one trend is already apparent: TV shopping isn't just about looks anymore. This year's top televisions will need inner beauty.
Samsung, LG, Lenovo, and other electronics companies have introduced new smart TVs with Web applications, voice and gesture commands, and scads of other features. If you're in the market for a new, cutting-edge TV, this is going to be a very good year.
Let's take a quick tour of what's on offer, with the caveat that the prototype models on the floor at CES likely won't be available in stores for a few months still. The trend is toward thinner, brighter TVs with greater Web connectivity (think social networking in addition to YouTube, Netflix, and the like). Of course, there are Wi-Fi-enabled smart TVs on the market already – but CES shows us what's around the corner.
First, there's a push to ditch the remote. LG and Lenovo both introduced TVs that allow users to search for content with voice commands, and Samsung is taking it a step further with motion control similar to what's found in the Xbox 360 Kinect. Turn on the TV with a word, flip through channels with a gesture. Some Samsung TVs will even incorporate facial recognition to log users into applications such as Skype. Is it superfluous? Maybe. Will it make you feel like you're living in the future? Absolutely.
TV picture quality is getting a bump this year, as well. A lot of the buzz at CES revolves around OLED displays, which are famous for their deep colors and sharp picture. Several high-end smart phones have them, but until recently the screens have been too expensive to manufacture at large sizes. On Tuesday both LG and Samsung unveiled 55-inch OLED displays with super-crisp picture quality. (Lest you think we're making too big a deal out of this, CNN's Brandon Griggs noted that "there was an audible gasp in the room when it [the LG model] was unveiled, and a throng of photographers crowded around the set afterward like paparazzi around a starlet.") It's worth noting that these expansive sets will also be expensive -- they're expected to sell for upward of $6,000 at first, although the prices will inevitably come within reach of the average consumer.
Finally, CES brings us TVs with deeper Web connectivity than ever before. If you watch TV with a laptop or tablet nearby to chat with friends during commercials, you're not alone – and TV makers are hoping to obviate the need for that external device. Panasonic, for example, introduced a line of TVs that will funnel social-media updates directly to your screen, as well as enable split-screen Skype chatting while you're watching your shows. And the Google TV platform, which garnered mostly disappointed reactions at its debut last year, is getting a refresh. CEO Eric Schmidt even talked about how the platform will eventually enable TVs and home appliances to talk to each other.
These TVs may only be prototypes, and many will be priced far out of the reach of ordinary consumers at first. But CES offers us the first glimpse of a future filled with expansive, svelte, drool-worthy screens. Why not enjoy a peek into tech's crystal ball?
Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Nicolas Steno. Even though the 17th century Danish anatomist and geologist made a number of discoveries that are now seen as self-evident – namely, that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood, that tears are formed in the eye, that fossils are the remains of living organisms from previous geologic eras, and that older rocks tend to lie deeper in the earth than younger ones – his legacy, like the mysterious stones that he examined, have since been obscured by layers of historical sediment.
Perhaps some of Steno's obscurity arises from his failure to fit into a narrative that science and religion are adversaries. Unlike Galileo, whom the Catholic church famously threatened to torture if he did not recant, Steno was embraced by the Vatican. Yet his discoveries set in motion a revolution that would ultimately unseat the Bible as the authority on the age of the earth.
Steno's geological breakthrough came in 1666, when, serving as a researcher for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence, he was given the opportunity to examine the head of a great white shark. The young anatomist was struck by the similarity of the shark's teeth to curious objects found embedded in rocks throughout Europe. Steno concluded that those objects actually were the teeth of ancient sharks, deposited there when the continent lay beneath the ocean.
Published in 1669, the principles in Steno's 78-page text, "On Solids," are still taught in geology classes today. Science writer Alan Cutler sums up the thesis in his 2003 biography of the scientist, "The Seashell on the Mountaintop,"
The backbone of his system was a simple but tremendously powerful idea. Recognizing that the layers of rock that entombed fossil shells were made by the gradual accumulation of sediment, he realized that each layer embodied a span of time in the past. He saw no way to measure the number of years or centuries involved, and was loathe to speculate, but it was clear that the layers, one on top of the other, formed an unambiguous sequence: The lowest layer had been formed first, the highest last. Depending on their fossils and their sediments, the layers recorded the succession of seas, rivers, lakes, and soils that once covered the land. Geologists call Steno’s insight the "Principle of Superposition." It means that, layer by layer, the history of the world is written in stone.
A decade earlier, James Ussher, an Anglican archbishop in Ireland, published his Biblical chronology of the world. By adding up the reigns of the kings and lifespans of the patriarchs and comparing them with the dates of known historical events, Ussher concluded that the world came into existence on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.
Ussher's proposed date of creation was close to that calculated by his contemporaries, including such luminaries as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Some pointed to 2 Peter 3:8, which states that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." This ratio was tied to the six days of creation in the book of Genesis, leading them to conclude that the total lifespan of the world was 6,000 years. When Ussher published his chronology, he convinced a significant portion of Europe's leading scholars to conclude that the universe had just 342 years to go.
Steno never publicly renounced this Biblical time frame, but his geological investigations clearly challenged it. How could an honest person looking at, say, the Alps, explain the immense movement of rock, the folding, faulting, and erosion of land, the depositing of sedimentary strata, in the span of just 56 centuries? Alternatively if God created the earth's surface in its present form and then created plants and animals, how, exactly, did their remains wind up embedded inside solid rock?
It would be a long time before fundamental questions about our planet would be satisfactorily answered. It was only in 1956 that geochemist Clair Patterson, using lead isotopic data from a meteorite, concluded that the earth was about 4.5 billion years old. As Bill Bryson noted in "A Short History of Nearly Everything," Human beings would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet."
Just as the findings of Copernicus and the astronomers that followed him revealed that the earth is not the hub of the universe, Steno's revolution dislodged humanity from the center of our planet's history. As Bryson notes, if you imagine the past 4.5 billion years compressed into a single 24-hour period, the dinosaurs don't arrive on the scene until about 11 p.m. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens would emerge at one minute and 17 seconds before midnight. All of recorded history, from the Bronze Age to the Digital Age, would span a few seconds at the most.
Some might find this notion of an ancient earth profoundly alienating, but Steno's observations only served to deepen his religious convictions. Raised as a Lutheran, he converted to Catholicism in 1667, later becoming a priest, and ultimately a bishop who renounced the world and embraced poverty, ministering to Catholic minorities in northern Europe. The scientist who had been hosted by Europe's most opulent courts had transformed into an emaciated ascetic with few possessions other than a cloak, tattered habit, and two sackcloth shirts.
Three centuries after his birth, a group of Danish pilgrims appealed to the Vatican to have Steno canonized. On October 23, 1988, exactly 5,992 years after Archbishop Ussher's proposed date of creation, Pope John Paul II held mass of beatification for Steno, who is now known to Catholics as Blessed Nicolas Steno. Beatification is the final step before becoming a saint.
Steno was by no means the only Catholic cleric whose observations created models that counter literal Biblical accounts of creation. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, developed a model of inheritance that made Darwin's theory of evolution intelligible. In the 20th century, it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang theory.
As for Steno, his legacy extends well beyond his contributions to anatomy and geoscience. His refusal to accept the authority of books, not even established science texts, not even sacred texts, lay at the heart of the then-emerging scientific method and its commitment to empirical observation and experimentation.
For Steno, this commitment was suffused with piety. As he wrote in 1659: "One sins against the majesty of God by being unwilling to look into nature's own works."
For more on how science and technology intersect daily life, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.
In 1669, Nicolas Steno rewrote the way people thought about the earth. And today, more than 300 years later, Google excavated his name from the history books for a special Google doodle tribute to the late (and perhaps first) geologist.
Steno was a true Renaissance man. He lived back when scientists didn't stick to a single discipline. He dabbled in medicine, shark dentistry, ancient beasts, and ultimately kick-started the study of geology. Steno simply followed his curiosity, no matter where it led.
Our story starts in Florence, Italy, where Steno, then a budding physician, settled down after years of studying throughout western Europe. He had already challenged several long-held scientific assumptions, researched the changing shapes of muscles, and discovered an unknown body part in the heads of mammals. (He named it after himself, the "ductus stenonianus.")
He moved to Florence in 1665 to join the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and collect for him a "cabinet of curiosity" – basically a room filled with natural wonders. Such collections fell somewhere between a carnival freak show and the basement of a university science department. Men such as Steno gathered, labeled, and displayed animals, vegetables, and minerals of all kinds.
So, when fishermen caught a massive great white shark in 1666, guess who got to dissect its head?
"While examining the teeth of the shark, Steno was struck by their resemblance to certain stony objects, called glossopetrae – literally 'tongue stones' – that were found in certain rocks," writes the University of California Museum of Paleontology in its biography of Steno. (See image above.) "Ancient authorities, such as the Roman author Pliny the Elder, had suggested that these stones fell from the sky or from the moon. Others were of the opinion, also going back to ancient times, that fossils naturally grew in the rocks."
These theories didn't make much sense to Steno. What if fossils came from ancient animals, he wondered. What if glossopetrae looked like shark teeth because they were shark teeth, deposited there when the rocks were covered with oceans?
This sounds pretty obvious to people today. But at the time, some scientists pooh-poohed the idea. If fossils were once bones, then how could they possibly have wound up lodged in rock? How could a solid, like stone, wrap around a solid, like teeth? Those are good questions, ones that bothered Steno as well. He decided that this required further research.
Three years after they caught the shark, Steno concluded that all rocks must have once been fluid and then solidified around and on top of fossils, veins of metal – or even older layers of rock. Since new rock keeps burying and sealing off old rock, then there must be horizontal layers, or strata, throughout the earth.
This idea helped explain a fundamental part of geology: the deeper you dig, the older the stone. "This was the first use of geology to try to distinguish different time periods in the Earth's history – an approach that would develop spectacularly in the work of later scientists," writes the UC museum. This allows modern geologists to make conclusions about the past, based on the depth of the rocks they study. The breakthrough is essential to the study of ancient human societies, dinosaurs, and historical climate change.
It also explains Wednesday's Google doodle. The colorful layers in each letter signify Steno's strata.
But there's another lesson in Steno's work: Never feel constrained by your current job or previous accomplishments. Who would have thought that the son of a Danish goldsmith could make major contributions to multiple, diverse fields? Curiosity has an interesting way of leading people to great, unexpected things.
For more on how science and technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.