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New spyware legislation a mixed bag

A comprehensive spyware bill recently cleared the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection (it flows trippingly from the tongue, no?) and is busy stirring up controversy. Dubbed the "Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act" (the SPY ACT Act), H.R. 964 would limit all sorts of spyware, but it also contains several important exceptions that lead the EFF to say that "the bill would actually make things worse." HangZhou Night Net

The legislation prevents a broad array of activities: spambots, botnets, adware, home page hijacking, keystroke logging, disabling antispyware or antivirus technology, and grabbing a person's modem and dialing numbers in Antigua. The bill also requires increased notice and consent from software vendors who collect personal information.

This sounds like a big step forward, but the FTC already has much of this authority and in fact has been prosecuting spyware vendors for several years. The new bill does give the agency the early Christmas present that it wanted—civil penalties against spyware operators—but it doesn't really allow them to prosecute new kinds of cases.

Worries arise

It does do some things that are new, however. First, it preempts many state laws about "unfair or deceptive conduct with respect to computers" and says that only a state Attorney General or the FTC can bring cases under the SPY ACT. The law does not affect state laws about trespass, contract law, tort law, fraud, or consumer protection statutes as they relate to spyware.

Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the EFF, said in a statement that "this is a terrible move" because "software and adware vendors are trying to quietly block consumer class actions that could target their misbehavior." The EFF believes, for instance, that it could not have brought suit against Sony BMG for the rootkit that was installed on many of the company's CDs if this law had been in place at the time. "If Congress is serious about enacting tough anti-spyware laws," von Lohmann continued, "it should create incentives that would encourage private citizens to pursue the bad guys."

The Center for Democracy and Technology, which testified before Congress on the bill last month, doesn't believe the bill is as bad as the EFF makes out, and in fact is "generally supportive" of the legislation. The CDT representative told Congress that "all of the state spyware cases have invoked state consumer protection laws," and noted that these laws would be left intact. What would change, though, is that state Attorneys General could not bring actions under specific state statutes against spyware; these would instead be replaced by the uniform federal standard. The CDT also notes that the FTC has been busy busting some of the biggest spyware vendors, but it has been unable to secure much in the way of financial penalties. The new civil penalty authority should give the agency the power to seek fines against companies, not just "disgorgements" of improperly earned revenue.

There is also some disappointment that a proposed "Good Samaritan" section doesn't go far enough in safeguarding legitimate anti-spyware vendors who attempt to remove software that consumers don't want. Forcompanies likeZanga, a one-time spyware purveyor who has now gone straight, this provision is particularly irritating. Speaking before the subcommittee considering the bill, a company representative worried that "some companies selling scanning applications to consumers compete with each other by issuing inflammatory warnings designed to frighten consumers about software 'lurking' on their computers." In other words, anti-spyware programs might remove our software.

The bill also includes an "exception relating to security" that provides a safe harbor for companies that conduct diagnostics, technical support, repair, or network security. It also provides a loophole for software used "solely to determine whether the user of the computer is authorized to use such software." Essentially, it's allowing for DRM that needs to communicate with a server; think Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage, for instance. While this provision has been upsetting to some pundits who don't like DRM, it hardly guts the spyware provisions in the first part of the bill. Even Sony BMG's rootkit would have been in trouble for collecting consumer data without clear notice and consent, and because it was not simple to uninstall.

The Direct Marketing Association worries that the bill might impact "legitimate advertisers" who also collect user data in ways that might appear surreptitious (cookies, web bugs, etc).

Should the bill pass, spyware vendors could be fined up to $3 million per violation.

Friday afternoon Apple links

"Generation Y" has a hard time trusting a lot of traditional brands, but apparently Apple is at the top of the list of the brands that they (we?) do trust. Also among the top trusted brands in a recent survey were Trader Joe's, In-N-Out, Whole Foods, Adidas, H&M, and Volkswagen (to name a few). "Apple's computers and iPods are so clean and simple and easy to use. No excess."

There's a new "Get a Mac" ad in the UK called Office Posse. It features the British Mac and PC guys bickering about Microsoft Office, who appears to be on Apple's side (and not wanting to leave).

Apple's getting all of its ducks in a row regarding the iPhone, and one of those ducks is iPhone support. The company is recruiting college grads for Senior iPhone Support positions, asking for applications no later than May of this year. If you're in Austin, need a job, and don't mind being asked "where's the keypad?" 743 times a day, then this job could be for you.

If you're planning to attend WWDC and are a coder (which I would assume that you are if you're going to WWDC), check out the Coding Headstarts that Apple has posted up for WWDC attendees. "Coding Headstarts provide you with step-by-step guidance on how to
create new and compelling features in your application using the
essential development languages, APIs and frameworks of
MacOSXLeopard."HangZhou Night Net

Apple may have conveniently chosen not to tell us how well the Apple TV is selling at their recent financial conference call, but resellers in Toronto, Canada report that the device is "flying off the shelves." Apparently, retailers can't keep them in stock, and it doesn't even matter that Canadians can't buy TV content from iTunes. What?Interested in a few tips for what you can do with Panic's new web dev app, Coda? Upstart Blogger has 30 tips and tricks for use with Coda—some of which are fairly obvious and some of which are not. Check it out, though, cuz there were a few things in there that even I didn't know.Insanely Great Tees is holding a contest for the funniest spoof iPhone commercial. The prize of the contest is, you guessed it, an iPhone. The commercial must be under 30 seconds and must contain the phrase "I'm an iPhone." I uh, can't wait to see the results.

I hope you all have a fantastic weekend. The weather is supposed to be gorgeous here in Chicago and other parts of the country (and world?), so maybe we'll all be forced to go out and enjoy a rare encounter with the daystar. Or not.

Apple acknowledges MacBook battery problems

Apple has come out and acknowledged that there are some problems with MacBook and MacBook Pro battery performance this Friday afternoon. The batteries pose no safety risk, according to Apple. The affected batteries come from MacBooks and MacBook Pros sold between February 2006 and April 2007. HangZhou Night Net

In response to this problem, Apple has released a firmware update for those Intel-based Mac laptops. According to Apple's website describing the battery update (available both via the web and Software Update), you can identify an affected battery because it will have "one or more of the following symptoms":

    Battery is not recognized causing an “X” to appear in the battery icon in the Finder menu bar.Battery will not charge when computer is plugged into AC power.Battery exhibits low charge capacity/runtime when using a fully charged battery with a battery cycle count (as shown in System Profiler) of less than 300.Battery pack is visibly deformed.

    That whole "visibly deformed" thing makes me think that not all batteries can be fixed by a software update. That suspicion appears to be confirmed by the fact that Apple's website specifies that the next step after running the update—if you are still experiencing these problems—is to immediately take it into an Apple Store for battery replacement. If your battery is not showing any of the above symptoms, you do not need a replacement.

    One thing to note is that if you've got an older MacBook or MacBook Pro, this program extends warranty coverage on the battery for another two years:

    For MacBook and MacBook Pro systems with Intel Core Duo processors, this program extends repair coverage on the battery for up to two years from the date of purchase of the computer.

    Good to know. So how many of you think you've been affected? I wish I could say that I was, but I think I just messed up my MacBook's battery life on my own. C'est la vie.

Behind the OLPC price bump: better hardware

After many years of prototypes, design changes, production delays, and a recent price increase, the final specifications for the "One Laptop Per Child" PC (OLPC) are starting to take shape. In fact, the most recent specs help explain the price jump, in part, for the system has gained a bit more muscle as the project pushes on. HangZhou Night Net

The final OLPC will cost $175 and have the following specs and characteristics:

433 MHz AMD Geode LX-700 x86 Processor256 MB RAM1GB NAND Flash storage3 USB Ports2w power usage during nominal load802.11b/g-based WiFi Mesh networkingDual Mode Display (Color, high-contrast for outdoors)

Astute observers will recall that at one time the XO laptop was slated to sport a 366MHz AMD Geode processor, 128MB of RAM, and 512 MB of NAND flash storage. As you can see, the machine has received a bit of a lift over time, and it's probably no coincidence that the specs are much closer to Intel's Classmate PC, at least in terms of RAM and storage.

Also worth nothing is the battery: the nickel-metal hydride battery selected will allow the XO to operate for between four and eight hours depending on what features are in use. And when power sockets aren't available, users can recharge the battery with a built-in pull-string charger.

Power usage will be at its highest when the device is in "e-book mode." The XO laptop's unique 7-1/2 inch dual-mode LCD supports a resolution of 800×600 in color mode, but it jumps to 1200×900 in monochrome mode for reading and ease of use outdoors. In that mode, power usage will be closer to 4-8 watts.

As far as software, the OLPC will run a suite based around Linux, X-Windows, the lightweight Matchbox window manager, and the Sugar desktop environment. A FORTH interpreter is provided to teach programming skills.

The machines will act somewhat differently from regular laptops, in that everything created on them will automatically get backed up to the child's Google account, using a mesh networking infrastructure. This networking protocol is a form of Internet connection sharing that allows a single connection to be shared by many nearby laptops. There is also shared school software that sits on a common server accessible by all students.

The laptops can also run some form of Windows, most likely the $3 Starter Edition bundle, although this hasn't been finalized yet and stories claiming otherwise are simply inaccurate. We're looking into whether or not the bump in specs has anything to do with Microsoft. We doubt it, if only because the Classmate PC's storage jumps to 2GB with a Windows configuration, which suggests that the XO couldn't manage Windows with only 1GB of NAND storage.

Virtual Console Monday: Nintendo’s new offerings for 4-30-07

Another Monday, another set of three Virtual Console games from Nintendo. We have some great stuff to play today, so let's jump right in. HangZhou Night Net

Castlevania (NES, 500 points or $5)

Before there were the endless re-imaginings, before the stumbles into 3D, before Symphony of the Night rebooted the franchise, there was the original Castlevania. A whip as a main weapon? Killing classic monsters? This was the stuff back in the day. This is a great way to look back and see how far the Castlevania name has come, and to realize just how well the original stands up. This is a very linear, six-level game; it's hard to remember how big a deal things like the sub-weapons were for the time.

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (SNES, 800 points or $8)

Minigames, 2D and 3D gameplay, and some great sprite work make this an underappreciated gem. While the hardcore gamers are going to go crazy after hearing it's available, some people may not know what the fuss is about. Give it a download and see for yourself that this is a great title that will be well worth your time. The piggy-backing of characters wasn't really helpful in the game, but it was a fun way to practice team work. The game does a good job of mixing things up to keep you on your toes, too. This is a good title to rediscover, or to play for the first time.

Shockman (Turbografx 16, 600 points or $6)

This is an attractive 2D shooter with a few interesting teamwork elements in it as well. The Virtual Console has many shooters and Shockman is one that most of us will be seeing for the first time, but it's going to be find for this one to find a home with the other two choices available this week.

So what do you think? Excited? Let down? Any of these games going to find a home with you?

JVC’s networked home theater falls short

I'm somewhat closely watching the world of networked home theaters, because I'd like to keep all my movies and songs in one place and then just wire devices to that once I buy a house. Up until yesterday, I had been eyeing the JVC DD-3. It features a spiffy design and the 3.1 speakers seemed like a good idea for smaller space or people trying to keep wires to a minimum. The problem is that the item doesn't seem to be worth a second look. I hate to be brutal, but Gizmodo very efficiently killed any interest I had in the unit. With no other reviews available yet, this is pretty damning stuff. Here is their list of gripes: HangZhou Night Net

The DD-3 only supports "up to" HDMI 1.0, and video resolutions of
480i, 480p and 720p only. Also, it will only play DivX files up to
720×480 at 30 fps or 720×576 at 25 fps. So, nothing high-def at all in
that department.In my mind, the main event was the CyberLink Media Server software.
Like Windows Media Connect, it serves up files for you to listen to,
look at or watch at the receiver end. As you can see in the gallery,
CyberLink's interface couldn't be simpler: just check the folders—My
Music, My Videos, My Photos, etc.—that you want to access, then leave
the app running. On the DD-3's screen, I could navigate to my PC, but
when I clicked on the CyberLink option, all I got was a single folder
of music. As I scrolled slowly through all of the artists, I found that
it ended in the letter D. So not only did I not get all of the
designated files, it even truncated the list of files that it would let
me access.

The other issue that killed it for me was the problem with USB devices: the system won't recognize anything over 2GB. So this USB 2.0 500GB drive I have sitting here is useless for storage with this unit. That's very, very lame. I also don't get why switching to another source would make the DVD start over. That's the sort of dumb error in use-friendliness that's almost a deal breaker by itself.

Gizmodo's customer service experience wasn't very hot either. I think there is a larger than expected market for a product like this, but interface and usability is everything. It's a shame that JVC couldn't bring it together; my search continues.

Has anyone used this product? What would be the better alternative?

40W from your desktop: wireless power gets more powerful

Imagine charging all of your devices simply by dropping them onto your desk, powering small items in out-of-the-way locations without needing an electric socket, or having a robot that can power itself just by finding the right spot on the floor. Efforts to develop wireless power technology have so far been hampered by complexity and low efficiency, but Nature Materials has now published the description of a system that appears to solve a number of these problems. HangZhou Night Net

The basic technique used in the newly-described device, induction, is no different from many prior efforts aimed at developing this technology. Electricity in the transmitter powers the generation of a field that a receiver can convert back into a useful electric current. The differences reside in the manufacturing techniques involved and some tricks the researchers use to increase the efficiency.

The functional part of the transmitting device (details of its fabrication are available without a subscription) is composed of three layers, made using a combination of traditional metal conductors and organic semiconductors (OSCs). Although OSCs have higher resistance and lower performance than other materials, they work well enough for low-powered devices and have a number of advantages. These include flexibility in the final product and ease of manufacture: while copper wiring in one layer was patterned using a screen-printing technique, the wiring in an OSC layer was produced using an inkjet printer.

The three layers of the power transmitter, although only one millimeter thick, are the key to its efficiency. An array of copper coils in the top layer is used to transmit power, but is normally kept separate from a source of current. Each coil within this layer can be activated individually. The bottom layer, composed of an OSC, carries a current and acts as a sensor for possible receivers. When a receiver is sufficiently close, the OSC layer is pulled towards it. The middle layer acts as a switch: when the OSC layer is pulled upwards by a nearby receiver, the switch is activated, allowing current to flow from the OSC to the closest transmitter coil.

The net result is that the transmitter coils are only active in the immediate location of a receiver. When no receivers are nearby, the system is essentially shut down, saving energy. Even when active, only those coils in the immediate vicinity of a receiver wind up pulling current. The end result is a coupling efficiency of over 80 percent.

There are a couple of clear limitations to this technique. As noted above, OSCs can't carry high levels of power; attempting to push much more than 40W through the system was enough to destroy it. The attraction between transmitter and receiver that provides much of the power efficiency also limits the range at which the device is effective—receivers will have to be very close (possibly less than a centimeter) to the charger.

So, a room bathed in a power source is out. But lots of other possibilities remain in. The authors point out that, as "all of the components are manufactured on plastic films, it is easy to place the wireless power-transmission sheet over desks, floors, walls, and any other location imaginable." They may be underestimating my imagination, but I can certainly see applications beyond the demonstrations shown in the paper, which included lighting LEDs on a plastic Christmas tree and in a waterproof ball on the bottom of a fish tank.

Given that the first generation of products based on wireless power are currently being demonstrated, this new technology won't be available to the companies attempting to pioneer the wireless power market. But it does have the potential to be put to use in the next generation of products, which should appear long before that market matures.

Google AdWords hijacked to install spyware

It looks like we can add Google AdWords to the list of things on the Internet to be cautious of. Last week, the text-based, paid links were infiltrated by malicious ads that attempted to install spyware on some users' computers. Google admitted the problem on Thursday in a statement seen by the Times Online: "This is an issue we've taken very seriously and will continue to monitor. We are evaluating our systems to ensure that the appropriate measures are in place to block future attempts." HangZhou Night Net

The exploit was originally discovered by Internet security company Exploit Prevention Labs. According to the company, one of their users had searched for "how to start a business," which generated a number of legitimate-looking AdWords links. However, several of the top links in the AdWords led through a site—smarttracker.org—that attempted to install a keylogger and a backdoor onto the user's computer with a "modified MDAC exploit." It then redirected the user to the "correct" site, and unless the user was paying attention, he or she would be none the wiser.

Exploit's researchers then verified that a "known-bad organization" had registered smarttracker.org and opened an AdWords account to purchase ad campaigns for certain keywords, such as "Better Business Bureau" and "Florida Business Opportunity Law."

Google has since shut down the account and is not releasing data on which other keywords or how many users were affected by the exploit, although Exploit Prevention Labs wrote that about 20 AdWords items had been exploited. The spyware only affected users of Windows XP who were not running up-to-date antivirus or antispyware software—and we know that everyone here keeps everything up-to-date at all times, right? Right.

But the exploit shows that there are still relatively simple ways for hackers to target Internet users, this time through otherwise-trusted names, like Google. "The Google attack signals an escalation in the tactics used by the bad guys to take advantage of unpatched vulnerabilities in common software programs," Exploit Prevention Labs' CTO Roger Thompson said in a statement. "Exploits are threatening to undermine users' trust in even the most widely used web sites like Google, Yahoo and MSN."

A video example of the exploit is available on the Exploit Prevention Labs website.

FiOS a drag on earnings for Verizon, but adoption strong

Verizon has reported its first quarter earnings and has provided more insight into how its FiOS rollout is moving along. The company reported earnings per share of 51¢ on revenues of $1.5 billion, down from last year's 56¢ on $1.6 billion. Almost all of the decline can be traced to assets and businesses that Verizon had sold in the previous year. HangZhou Night Net

Of particular interest was the performance of its wireless and broadband businesses. Verizon Wireless added 1.7 million subscribers during the quarter, bringing its total to 60.7 million customers. (Verizon owns 55 percent of Verizon Wireless; the remainder is owned by Vodafone Group).

FiOS continues to be a drag on Verizon's earnings—to the tune of about 11¢ per share—but the upside is continued growth for both the television and fiber broadband services. During the past quarter, Verizon added 141,000 FiOS TV subscribers, bringing its total to 348,000—an impressive increase of almost 68 percent.

The high cost of deploying an FTTP (fiber to the premises) network scared AT&T into going with fiber to the node (FTTN) with its U-Verse service, and it's likely that Qwest will follow AT&T's example if and when it decides to make a fiber play. The downside for AT&T is that U-Verse is bandwidth constrained, meaning that broadband customers see download download speeds capped at 6Mbps. AT&T's U-Verse deployment has seen more than a few bumps in the road, leading it to scale back expectations. So far, AT&T has signed up 18,000 TV and Internet subscribers, and is adding up to 2,000 customers per week.

FiOS broadband continues to be solid performer for Verizon. During the first quarter, Verizon added a total of 416,000 new broadband connections, marking the sixth consecutive quarter that the company has topped the 400,000 figure. Of that number, 177,000 are new FiOS subscribers. The telco now has over 7.4 million wired broadband customers, a figure that incudes 864,000 FiOS subscribers.

So far, Verizon has passed over 6.7 million homes with its fiber network, and is confident that it will meet its year-end goal of 9 million homes. In the short term, FiOS is a drag on Verizon's earnings, as the estimated price tag to build out the network will total $18 billion. In the long term, the company believes the investment will pay off as demand for high speed connections continues to grow and it is able to steal video customers away from the cable and satellite TV providers.

Game Review: Bust-A-Move Bash! (Wii)

When it comes to light-hearted and easy-to-enjoy puzzle games, Bust-A-Move is the king of the hill. For years I've enjoyed the bubble-popping madness. Having bought my fair share of Bust-A-Move titles, though, I really wasn't looking to buy another, and nothing that the new Wii title Bash! did convinced me otherwise. HangZhou Night Net

You have to know the setup: a bunch of colored bubbles build up at the top of the screen, and you use a gun at the bottom of the screen to shoot other bubbles at the batch of bubbles above. Connect three or more like-colored bubbles and the batch will pop. Occasionally, you'll need to make tricky bank shots to reach seemingly unreachable bubbles as you attempt to clear the screen before the bubbles o' death crash down on your turret. The formula has been tried and tested.

Bash!, the Wii's new title, is seemingly very solid if you're following the bullet points on the back of the box. The game offers a healthy collection of modes, including the classic Puzzle mode (which includes 500 levels), Endurance mode (neverending bubbles) and two different multiplayer modes: Versus and Shooting. Most of the modes meet the series' norm, though the previously split-screen Versus mode has been changed to a free-for-all on one long screen.

There's little to complain about with the content that the game offers; if you like one of the previous games, you'll like them all, this one included. Despite having played tons of BAM games over the years, the puzzles remain fresh and fun. However, everything goes downhill once you actually start playing the game.

As with most games for the Wii, the true value of the title for the player derivesfrom thecontrol scheme. Bash offers two, both of which fail to create any type of unrivaled experience. "Gun" is perhaps the more expected scheme: you use the pointer to aim a little reticule that indicates where the bubble will go when it's fired from the gun. The second scheme, "Baton," involves rotating the controller from left to right to turn the gun in a wayakin to the menus on Super Monkey Ball.

Each control scheme has its own problems. Gun proves to be overly sensitive and nonadjustable, leading you totake more time toaim your shot—a process which never becomes any easier. As for Baton, I found myself needing to put the controller down on my knee and tilt it from there after a while, as the rotating of my wrist back and forthdidn't bodewell for the future functionality of my hand. Neither control scheme workswell, so the ability to plug in the classic controller and play normally was a godsend. At that point, though, I had to ask myself whether or not it was worth buying a Wii game that didn't take advantage of the console in any way.

Of course, it doesn't help that the presentation remains true to the series, which means that there's very little to fawn about here. Most of the sprites have been reused from past games, and the remedial graphical effects for the bubble-pops and chain-explosions are fairly blasé. Bust-A-Move games have neverbeenshowcase titles, but that doesn't mean an extra layer of polish wouldn't have hurt. As they stand, the graphics convey the gameplay, but that's it.

The biggest problem Bust-a-move: Bash! has is that it really doesn't need to be on the Wii. There's nothing that distinguishes the game from any other game in the series besides the tacked-on and ultimately non-enjoyable Wii control. However, the game still retains a $40 price tag.Gamers would be better served picking up a cheap bargain-bin predecessor to Bash rather than getting the Wii game—heck, you could grab the old Gamecube version for half the price and be just as entertained on your Wii. As much as I enjoy the series, I just can't stomach the price. Steer clear.

Verdict: Skip
Price: $39.99
System: Wii
Developer: Majesco
Publisher: Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Other recent minireviews:

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