Thursday, November 25, 2010

Virtual Thanksgiving

Well the holidays are upon us and Computers As Humans has gone north to where it's cold and the cafes' serve pumpkin lattes and spice cake muffins. Yahoo has run an updated version of Ben Patterson' blog on how we check our email to escape from our relatives during Thanksgiving. According to Ben's very entertaining piece more than half of us are momentarily ducking out of the family conversation by checking up on our work emails.

Now far be it for Computers As Humans to deny that ducking out for an hour to meet that blog deadline has its benefits. A couple hours on your own away from the hustle and bustle of holiday prep and family banter. But it's a finely balanced act to stay plugged in during the holidays. You certainly don't want to do it anymore than you have to. But the fact is these days many of us are required to stay almost constantly connected. Our computers can be like the Ebenezer Scrooge to our Bob Cratchit. They are demanding taskmasters that command a great majority of our working hours.

So go ahead and check that email, make that Twitter update, and send that text. But get it done in time to let yourself go from all of that, for a few hours anyway. Give yourself the afternoon and evening off. Shut your browser, power down, disconnect and enjoy yourself with your people. But before you have a look at Google's extremely appetizing Thanksgiving doodle.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another Serious Flu Season For Industrial Computers

Computer security experts around the world are deeply concerned about a new strain of malware called the Stuxnet worm. Testifying to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Dean Turner, the director of Global Intelligence Network at Symantech Corp., said that there were as many as 44,000 new infections of the Stuxnet virus just last week.

About 60% of Stuxnet virus infections have occurred in Iran where the virus has appears to target nuclear power facilities. However of those 44,000 from last week, about 1,600 infections occurred in the United States.

So just what is it about Stuxnet that has security experts so concerned? In Turner's words the Stuxnet virus has "real world implications," that are, "beyond any threat we have seen in the past." Capable of targeting a wide range of industries, Stuxnet can penetrate a system, steal formulas or other intellectual property, alter those formulas on the infected database and completely blinder most existing antivirus software.

The virus is not presently a direct threat to most consumers as it specifically targets computers that use a combination of Windows and a control system that was developed by Siemens AG. However that combination of Windows and the Siemens control system is widely used in everything from automobile production to mixing chemicals.

Thankfully the people in charge are taking this new threat seriously. Senator Joe Lieberman has indicated that legislation designed to combat such threats will be made high priority upon lawmakers returning from the holidays in January.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beatlemania Goes Digital. . . Finally!

If indeed it was 20 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play than for about half that time the band have been in negotiations with Apple Computer about releasing their songs on iTunes. Well today the two parties were finally able to reach an agreement and Computers As Humans is only sorry that we didn't report on this story before all the obvious Beatles song title puns had been used up by other writers.

So let's just take a deep breath and quickly say that yes, after many hard days nights and long and winding roads, the two parties have indeed been able to come together and that 13 original Beatles albums, the two-disc "Past Masters" set and two greatest hit collections are now available to be legally downloaded through iTunes. The Beatles never do anything halfway and just as they took television and radio by storm 50 years ago, the Fab Four are currently burning up the Internet with eight albums occupying spots in the iTunes 25 top selling albums.

The reasons for the Beatles long hold out on making their catalog available online are many and varied but generally stem from the group's longstanding dispute with Apple Computer over the company's name and logo image both of which were admittedly derived from the Beatles' own record company back when the idea of a computer company and a record company with the same name conflicting with one another was hard to fathom.

The two parties resolved this dispute back in 2007 and reached a legal agreement to jointly use the Apple name and logo. Since that time the band had held out partially due to the fear that selling their songs online would make them too readily available and diminish the impact of new releases for box sets, video games and remastered reissue. However sources close to the band have hinted that ultimately there was just too much money at stake to continue to ignore online downloads as a revenue stream.

Whether this deal will cause teenage girls to scream at their computers of course remains to be seen . . .

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Zombie Outbreak in China

Of all the viruses Computers As Humans has reported on there have certainly been none as coolly-named as the Zombie virus. Like a hangover from last weeks Halloween, the Zombie Virus has been on the rampage in China infecting some one million cell phones. However despite it's almost comically ghoulish name, the Zombie virus is no laughing matter.

The virus takes over a user's cell phone and begins sending out text messages to all the contacts on that person's SIM card. Those texts all contain links which when clicked on infect other phones with the virus. Often the texts will also be sent to pay-to-text numbers that will directly profit the hackers. It is estimated that the Zombie virus is costing Chinese citizens around $300,000 a day.

So how do you kill a zombie virus? We all know from the movies that when it comes to zombies the golden rule is "kill the head and the body will die." But Chinese authorities are having a difficult time cutting this virus off at the head as copycat viruses have already began to spring up.

The Zombie Virus infiltrates a user's phone as part of a fake anti-virus app. Viruses intended for smart phones have also previously been discovered bundled into a series of Android wallpaper apps. It is believed that viruses designed to target mobile phones represent an increasing threat in the years to come. Hopefully security firms in the United States will take notice of the threat in China and begin enacting measures to protect smart phone users around the world from the Zombie virus and others like it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

iPad and the Chinese Connection

Those Chinese are over there getting better at stuff all the time. Last week they unveiled the fastest computer in the world and this week word is out that they're about to drop a host of affordable new tablet computers that could give the iPad some competition.

Now China gets a bad rap for a lot of things these days, some of it deserved some of it not so much. Speaking at a conference this week in Hong Kong, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg told Americans to "stop blaming the Chinese and blaming everybody else" for all of its problems. I think the mayor may be on to something.

People tend to have knee-jerk reactions to anything made in China and usually those reactions are not positive. But if we really want to put our money where our mouths are on the whole free-trade thing, low-priced tablet computers that do the job could inspire Apple to innovate and provide more affordable iPad options while encouraging the availability of quality, affordably priced tablet computers in general.

The iPad commands an impressive 95% of the tablet computer market. That makes its dominance more pervasive than even that of the Toyota Prius, which commands a mere 50% of the hybrid car market. Apple Computer's Steve Jobs has proclaimed that the first generation of competitors for the iPad will be "dead on arrival." And you know what? He's probably right, with the possible exception of the Samsung Galaxy.

Adding a Chinese connection might be just what we need to liven up the tablet market. In our present financial situation lower prices are more likely to encourage consumer spending and that's going to help bolster the economy as a whole.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The First Racist Computer?

Okay, not really but who could resist a headline like that? The Microsoft Kinect is in fact not even really a computer but a peripheral motion-sensing component meant to be used in conjunction with the X-Box. The Kinect uses a combination of facial recognition, gesture capture and skeletal tracking, which according to the X-Box website, "brings games and entertainment to life in extraordinary new ways without using a controller."

The idea behind the Kinect is essentially to take the interactive aspects of the Wii one step further, eliminating the need for any kind of handheld device. Sounds pretty cool. However there have been a few problems being reported since the Kinect was released at 12:01 am this morning. Mainly that the Kinect's facial recognition feature apparently has trouble recognizing darker skinned gamers. Now obviously racism is based on malicious intention of some kind and noone is suggesting there is anything like that behind the Kinect.

And the Kinect seems to be getting good marks otherwise. Which is good news for Microsoft since they have reportedly spent $500 million on advertisements for the Kinect alone. The good people at Microsoft will doubtlessly introduce some kind of "ethnic facial recognition fix" for the Kinect and everything will be peachy.

However it does cause you to wonder just how the thing got developed, tested, approved and released without ever having had to recognize a person of darker skin tone? Perhaps in the future Microsoft would do well to practice a bit more diversity in the workplace when it comes to their game testing and development department.

The Kinect is available for $150 on its own or as part of an X-Box bundle.