Semantic Labs Tech Blog


Posts tagged with "research"

Sony patent could see games interrupted by compulsory ads

It is a generally accepted, though reviled, practice to insert non sequitur commercials into television programs that air on pay-TV. In other words — as far as broadcasters are concerned anyway — we pay for the clear reception; the content is generally paid for by the time we spend trying to ignore those aforementioned non sequitur disruptions to the flow of the program we were watching.

There are even commercials in the movie theaters now. Actually there are two kinds: the ones that play on the screen when the lights are on and you need to find a seat and the ones that play on the screen when the lights have been extinguished or are in the process of being extinguished. These commercials are more annoying than the TV versions since you have paid a pretty penny to see a film…showing you a commercial smacks of betrayal. Still, the commercials air before the film starts so their interruption factor is minimal.

A video game is a different beast from either TV or a film. As expensive as a film generally is, the per-person up front cost is generally much lower than what you pay for a video game. Also, a film makes you part of an audience…you watch what happens. A video game allows you to make things happen (or sometimes strenuously attempt to prevent something from happening), so your participation is far more visceral and immediate. Sony appears to be on the path to not only charging you for purchasing their games but forcing you to watch a commercial (that will most likely have zero to do with what you are playing) and it appears that the format they want to follow is that of broadcast TV rather than films.

The patent, filed July and granted November of last year, goes into more detail about how this would affect the user experience. The filing suggests that gamers could be warned of an impending advertisement by a warning message, or by slowing down gameplay. The filing also suggests that game content could effectively be rewound at or prior to the end of the ad, presumably in an attempt to ready up the player in case the gameplay broke off at a critical point.

Even the game play of Mario Bros. would suffer from an interruption of this sort. A game of chess could suffer from an interruption like this. IMHO, this is a response to the Gamefly’s of the world. Their idea is that they will get you to pay one way or another…even if you only rent the game and don’t pay the full price of a title back to Sony. This way, all those people who don’t purchase the special one-time-use code for some functionality in the video game (that comes “free” in the new purchase) still get charged.

The biggest problem with this approach, IMHO, is the fact that they would be “forcefully engaging in reproductive behavior with” their audience who actually did pay full retail price for a new copy of their game. They would be punishing their loyal customers for being loyal…thus marginalizing the primary purpose of being loyal in the first place. Why buy a game full of commercials you can’t avoid for $60 when you can rent it for a flat fee? And get rid of it without having to worry about recouping your investment?

I understand that places like Gamefly hurt revenue of video game manufacturers. However I also believe that the implementation of a system like this will only result in higher prices for the games and even fewer people buying fresh copies. I don’t see how any good will come from this.


Report: Android Malware Growing Exponentially

Robbing a person used to be a difficult thing that required the availability of an exit route, a victim, timing, and a place to calm down. Now, many thieves don’t even see their victims…and the game is far more lucrative. The only odd thing is that the requirements have changed yet again: in the 50’s you needed brawn, at the turn of the century you needed craftiness, now you need a familiarity with computer code. They used to get victims to open payloads with catchy titles; now that people have become wary it has been necessary to change tactics. One thing they have been doing lately is using the bootleg route: give you a “free” copy of a popular app with an inconspicuous payload attached.

“These are called wrappers,” explained George Usi, president of Sacramento Technology Group, a northern California-based channel partner, to CRN. “The malware authors embed their code into popular applications and start capturing passwords and messages across the mobile devices. We haven’t seen people start taking control of the target’s accounts, but that’s probably the next step. When we see them start scraping keystrokes off the systems, they can gain all kinds of access.”

What many people seem to forget is that our smartphones now have more in common with our desktops (or laptops) than with the phones from even five years ago. Smartphones are portable computers that can make calls via the cell system. We really tend not to notice how important they are to us until we lose them; then there is generally a lot of hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing. If the phone happens to be a business phone as well then the direct owner won’t be the only one with no hair and flat teeth.

It sucks that we have to be so careful with our phones. It also sucks that we have to lock our homes and our cars and we have to take our shoes off to get onto a bloody airplane flight that’s going two states away. The best we can do is back up our data in a good, trusted place and do it often…and don’t expect something for nothing. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.


Judge denies Oracle’s motion to throw out Google’s fair use claim

Once again the case moves away from being swallowed by the abyss. All of the attempts by the lawyers from Oracle to make a case definitively against the idea of fair use have not worked. Considering the odd direction of the case (not copying the code but copying the “structure, sequence, and organization” of Java APIs.) it is probably a good thing that they cannot lock their case down. Unlike many persons in power making policies on technology they do not understand, Judge Alsup actually seems to know what he’s seeing.

But Alsup continued to demonstrate his understanding of the makeup of the Java packages, remarking that along with names, methods in APIs are not copyrightable because if a developer wants a particular function, there is only one possibility.

“Oracle doesn’t have a monopoly on that,” Alsup continued. “If you want to have a function, that is the only way to write it.”

I am probably wrong, but I cannot seem to shake the feeling that only the judge cares about what is right…the others seem to care only about winning. It seems that each side is doing what it can to swing the ball in its favor…whether or not that is a good thing is immaterial. What do they say, “Win, or go home?” Or perhaps the other, more negative saying “Second place is the first loser?” This case is worth it for us as users and developers…but is it really worth it to Oracle? If they win, they could effectively kneecap Java by making the idea of really using it not a good thing for fear of being sued. They can say all they want that they won’t but if they’ll sue one entity there’s no real guarantee they won’t sue another.


May 7

Google guilty of infringement in Oracle trial; future legal headaches loom

So, the verdict is in: Google infringed on Java. Google picked on the wrong company this time. Bullies never prosper: they should only pick on other companies their own size. Now, it’s just a matter of deciding what compensation the giant will be giving to…the other giant? No, not so fast.

What did Google infringe? Well, according to the jury there are some nine lines of code which Google copied. Is a single function copyright infringement? Google admitted that it copied it. Under ordinary circumstances, something like this would have been laughed out of court. The other shoe, though, is the important one:

Even though Google’s code in Android was original or borrowed from other open source code, the jury found that the Android APIs copied the “structure, sequence, and organization” of Java APIs.

So the code itself is seen as original, but the structure, sequence, and organization are seen as infringement. Perhaps I am missing something but it seems that constructions in cyberspace have to be functionally different but reach the same conclusions in order to co-exist and compete. This sounds to me like they would have judged the Airbus 320 to be an infringement on the Boeing 737 because  the Airbus has a cylindrical body, two wings, two horizontal stabilizers, two wing-mounted engines, and a single vertical stabilizer just like the Boeing…which was created first.

If the verdict that Android infringed copyrights stands, it could put programmers in a difficult situation. Java is an open source language, but now it’s not clear how free programmers are to use it, since Oracle has said that anyone following the Java APIs—which are basically sets of instructions about how to use Java—needs a license.

The effects beyond Android and Java are unclear.

This has an unfortunate sound to it. It very much sounds like “you can use it so long as you don’t make lots of money at it. If you do make a lot of money, we will be coming after you for a cut.” I have always felt that there was some peculiar wording in the EULA of Java but it is one of those instances where you can decline to use it if you wish…but unless you shut it off completely any bug fixes (which are the main point of Java updates) will not be applied to your machine. In other words, agree or take the considerable chance that a virus will bypass all of your security and take up residence within your machine.

The case is still in court. Hopefully, clarity of our position will also be a part of the conclusion. I have my doubts.

(Source: Ars Technica)

May 3

Consumerization trend driving IT shops ‘crazy,’ Gartner analyst says

Phones are not what they used to be. Now, even the most basic phone can do more than make a mobile call. What we call smartphones are basically small computers that can make calls rather than phones that can do a little calculating. What we call tablets are basically an intermediate step between our always-with-us phones and our more-powerful-but-restricted-mobility primary computer systems.

Our smartphones are great for quick Internet searches or getting directions and accessing documents but not so much for reading or creating documents or viewing videos. Tablets are great for reading documents and watching videos but without an alternate means of data entry are not so good for creating documents…hence the need for the primary computing system. Still, both the smartphone and the tablet are much better in their niches than the primary computer is and once you experience them it’s difficult to go back to being without them…IMHO it’s like having electricity.

Amusingly enough, while the world around us is moving faster and faster towards a technological revolution many humans are a little unrealistic in their expectations. Most people seem to feel that if their work computer can be accessed from their home computer then there should be no problem with accessing their work computer from their hand-held computer. The difficulty is that while the home computer has pretty decent security and the laptop has reasonable security (its size would tend to be noticed when missing…but not always) the smaller devices do not. There are also a very limited number of OSes that primary computer systems use, unlike the myriad incompatible OSes that smartphones use. Additionally since the input system of the smaller devices (touchscreen) can be awkward, the tendency is for passwords to be stored on the device itself…and unlike a laptop it is rare for someone to put a password on their tablet or smartphone…that defeats the instant use ability of the device.

"The number of devices coming in the next few years will outstrip IT’s ability to keep the enterprise secure," he said. "IT can’t handle all these devices. They’re going crazy. They get into fights on whether users should get upgrades or not."

And because IT shops won’t be able to keep up, software vendors will be forced to innovate and create what Dulaney called “beneficial viruses” — software that will be embedded in sensitive corporate data, such as financial or patient information, that’s carried on a smartphone or other mobile device. These beneficial viruses would work like Digital Rights Management (DRM) software seen on music and video files, which require a license to play the file, Dulaney explained.

Yes, the idea DRM leaves a bad taste in most peoples’ mouths. Had it been done properly instead of attempting to usurp control of your entire machine I feel it would have been accepted. Still, as far as company data goes, there needs to be some sort of DRM or you might as well project your company internals on the side of a building and hope no one who can see it has a high-res camera handy.

I think the poison pill idea is a pretty good one, but they have to be careful with it. I can see a potential scenario where a phone is lost and the owner makes a request to IT to wipe the whole thing: company data and personal data. This sounds like a good idea until you think about “what happens if I leave this place?” They will have to remove their poison pill information without compromising your personal stuff. If you happen to get fired or leave under less than friendly circumstances, they might not be so careful when they scrub their data from your device…and the backup you make of your phone data might still include a copy of their pill which will erase data when it’s activated.

Another thing about the poison pill: just like physical poison, it needs to be digested (processed) for it to work. I presume that the idea is for the pill to erase the data to which it’s assigned and then erase itself; if this is not the case then purloined devices will have intact copies of the executable on them for study. Casual criminals will be dissuaded by this tactic but authentic information brokers are patient…and allowing them to study processes is allowing them ways to get around the processes. Remember, in real-space a fence is still a fence when you are not looking at it. In cyberspace a fence has to be processed before it can be identified as a fence…just like the data that the fence is supposed to protect, and the thief trying to bypass the fence to get to the data. They’re all 1’s and 0’s until they get processed…but there are a lot of ways that 1’s and 0’s can be arranged and a lot of ways they can be read. The trick IT needs to accomplish is allowing the right person to read without the wrong person gaining access if they steal an authorized device…a tall order with many different devices with varying levels of security on them.


Java creator James Gosling: ‘Google totally slimed Sun’

IMHO, the whole idea behind Java was to be able to write a program once that would work on any system that could understand it. Basically, each OS was supposed to have a virtual machine (VM) that understood how it was laid out functionally, and could also understand Java. In this virtual manner, Java would be able to use a machine’s resources to run; there would no longer be a need to write different code for different machines to do the same thing.

Android was supposed to be the Java implementation on phones; basically a VM that understood the internal functions of a smartphone and allowed full and efficient use of the smartphone resources. After all, a smartphone is no longer just a phone; in reality it is simply a small form-factor computer with limited internal resources. A Java VM should be perfect for a smartphone; on the primary side it understands Java and on the secondary side it understands the vagaries between different manufacturer’s products. Unfortunately, that is not how it played out.

"It’s really hard to tell what their intentions are with Android. They put this thing out there, and you’ve got lots of people picking it up. The big attraction seems to be the zero on the price tag. But everybody I’ve talked to who is building an Android phone or whatever, they’re all going in and they’re just hacking on it. And so all these Android phones are going to be incompatible.

To say that Android is fractured is like saying the Challenger Deep is under water. Many brand-new Android smartphones today cannot even run the latest version of Android because they are like the space shuttle; at the time the design was finalized, the latest data did not exist so none of the new findings could be applied. However, unlike the space shuttle, it is not in manufacturers’ best (aka. immediate) interests to update technology already out of the door. They want you to buy their latest technology; by the time they test the new software on the old hardware the new hardware is about ready to produce. If consumers can use the new software on their old technology what’s the incentive to buy the new hardware?

I believe that they are trying to emulate Apple’s ability to make people want the new iPhone when it comes out; people go nuts when a new one comes out. What manufacturers do not seem to understand is that the reason people clamor for iPhones is because they bloody well work: consumers can go to iTunes and know — without a shadow of a doubt — that they will run the apps that they find there. People know that when a fix to the OS comes out that it will be implemented. People know that their phones will handle at least one full OS upgrade and its associated bug fixes before they will need to get a new iPhone if they want the latest and greatest.

Are there drawbacks to being forced to use iTunes? Sure…but being able to purchase a phone from a manufacturer and knowing that it’ll run that cool app your friend had takes some of the wallet pain away. Being a closed ecosystem limits some things that are good but also makes sure that what’s there actually does what it’s supposed to do. If Android had been a little more locked or at least had some rules that demanded compliance to a standard it would have far fewer problems. Live and learn.

(Source: CNET)

Your Next Phone May Be Able to See Through Walls

There was a time not too long ago when mobile phones only made phone calls. They were big and somewhat bulky, but they allowed you to leave your house and still be reachable with a single phone number as long as you were within range of a broadcast tower. Increasing computing power has led to smaller devices which can do much more. There are very few phones which cannot text, surf the Internet, take pictures, organize information, and in general be a hand-held communication device; they are out there for now, but you have to look for them.

In keeping with the intent of turning our smartphones into the proverbial “devices without which we cannot live,” there is a new use for the camera which used to be a snapshot device but is rapidly becoming a real photographic device: looking through minor obstacles. We used to be able to take pictures of things we could see…now we’ll be able to take those same pictures but of things we can’t actually see.

The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and receiver on the back of a cellphone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects.”

In developing their chip, the researchers, who are concerned about privacy, are focusing on a range of less than four inches. Once the chip hits the mainstream, though, there are plenty of folks, many of them wearing uniforms, who have fewer qualms than the researchers about boosting the range of the chip.

The new chip sees in Terahertz radiation which is basically between infrared and microwaves. Do you remember that big scare about Pass Filter lenses a few years back where it was discovered that certain wavelengths of infrared light made many articles of clothing basically transparent? Well Terahertz light penetrates even further than infrared…but not as far as microwaves so there is really no danger of being irradiated. Theoretically, Terahertz radiation could be used as the first iteration of the almost mythical tricorder device that could look through clothing and dirt and blood to see the real wound, among other things.

If they manage to make these chips cost-effectively I gather that they will either be standard equipment for the higher-end phones or at least an add-on; Apple will probably patent it to keep others from doing so. I also have no doubt whatsoever that someone will mess with the focal range to allow for greater scope. Not just pervs will want the ability to quickly scan another person; paranoid people would find something like this invaluable. I wonder if there will be a niche line of underwear labeled as “opaque to T-Rays?” It’ll probably be a great seller…it doesn’t take much to make ordinary people self-conscious.


Futuristic cars are coming faster than you think

Not too long ago, the greatest desire of a teenager was to have a driver’s license so they could borrow the family car (actually the preference was usually for Dad’s car) and go out with their friends. A significant drawback to this was that going out with friends usually meant drinking…which while familiarly paired with “driving” was and still is a heavily frowned upon combination. Being delivered to and picked up from a destination would be an acceptable alternative…provided that the chauffeur was neither Mom nor Dad.

Up until now, a chauffeur was an expensive proposition since a genuine chauffeur would be an employee and thus entitled to being paid for their services. Making the vehicles drive themselves brings the benefits of a chauffeur to more people without the additional expense…but IMHO there will always be people who want to have a living person drive them around.

"I was surprised by how well it worked," said Muharemovic, who made adjustments during testing. Also in the car were software and algorithm engineers from Continental in Germany.

The test Passat has a stereo camera in the windshield that monitors the ground for speed bumps or potholes, long-range radar in the front grille that looks out about 220 yards and short-range radar sensors on corners of the car to capture details of the surroundings and command the car to steer, brake and accelerate accordingly.

These vehicles are not KITT; they are closer to the vehicles from I, Robot or Demolition Man. However, even though they can’t debate philosophy with you they will take the mind-numbing part of driving long-distance out of the equation. Instead of needing both hands, both eyes, and both ears to drive (at least if you want to drive safely) these vehicles may require an occasional glance and perhaps one ear to keep them purring along smoothly. They will be like autopilots for vehicles.

A little further into the future, I expect self-driving capabilities to be standard like airbags or seat belts. You won’t have to use them, but they’ll be there. A really good thing is that you will probably have a “learner’s setting” as a parent; when your teenager asks to learn how to drive you’ll switch your vehicle to Nanny mode which will substitute for the lack of an auxiliary brake on the passenger side of the vehicle for you. It will save wear and tear on the passenger wheel well. When they get better, you can set the vehicle to “probation mode” which will prevent foolish things like drag-racing (again, most likely only Dad’s car) and in the event of too much imbibing of alcohol will self-drive back home.

One potential downside to vehicles that can self-drive instead of those that always self-drive: I have no doubt that insurance companies and law enforcement will find some way to get black-box information from your vehicle. It will probably be introduced as a means to increase road safety, but I think we will have to think about how much information or vehicles broadcast or store about us.


Apr 9

Smarter Infrastructure Is What Will Drive Electric Vehicle Adoption

Using gasoline, or diesel, or for that much matter even liquid natural gas to propel a vehicle is an enormous problem looming on the horizon. Strangely, the problem isn’t the pollution but rather the convenience; there’s a lot of power in a gallon of gasoline/diesel or a pound of LNG and transferring that amount to your vehicle is relatively simple…and quick. Even when your vehicle is sucking the last few molecules from your fuel tank, if you find a refueling station you can fully refuel in a matter of minutes. There are gas stations everywhere and diesel stations are almost as prevalent.

Even though the gas and diesel stations are not physically connected, gas from any station will suffice to power your gas-powered car; diesel from any diesel station that serves vehicles will suffice to power your diesel-powered car. Other fuels are not so easily found and that is only one of their problems. For instance, hydrogen is a great fuel since it is so abundant on Earth (H2O) and it burns very cleanly…however storing hydrogen at a useful density is presently difficult at best. It also requires power to split it from the water to which it is so intimately attached. Since there are so few hydrogen-powered vehicles there are very few refueling stations…which means that hydrogen-powered vehicles are expensive to buy and use. Electric Vehicles (EV), contrary to what proponents would like you to believe, have the same problem.

Charger-maker Ecotality has estimated that, near term, each EV will need roughly 1.5 chargers: one for the home garage, and access to half a charger, on average, in public. Thus, while there are tens of thousands of public chargers on the grid or being built today, hundreds of thousands of chargers will be needed if the U.S.’s fleet of EVs is going to exceed 1 million in the coming years.

I am not a head-in-the-sand type person who denies that fueling our vehicles with a non-renewable fuel is a very bad thing; I actually think that EVs are a good thing…even if they have to waste power making “I AM HERE!!!" sounds. My fear is that even though the addition of the charging infrastructure is a very good thing (what will actually power them is up for debate), the basic problem of time remains. It takes a long time to recharge batteries for any safely useful range; even a quick, high-power charge is about 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes may not seem to be a long time, but add it to the fact that the drawbridge you need to cross is 5 minutes away and in 10 minutes it will open and stop traffic for 90 minutes, that 20 minutes becomes a problem. Using a fossil fuel would enable a quick refueling stop and then a dash across the bridge to another station for a full refuel.

Electric vehicles are, IMHO, the way to go.They can satisfy the “need for speed,” they are beginning to satisfy the “need for space,” and having charging stations all over will drive the prices down since more people will buy the vehicles once they know that power won’t be a problem. They still need to find a way around that lengthy recharge time, though.


U.S. Nukes Face Up to 10 Million Cyber Attacks Daily

The Internet is an odd beast. On the one hand, it is a window through which you can see the whole world, interact with people nowhere even remotely close to you, and even order and receive deliveries…when you’re done you simply close the window and go about your business. On the other hand, it is an always-open portal through which people can watch you, steal your money, or steal your company’s information.

In the old days (dial-up) when you were done you disconnected; roughly equivalent to replacing the wall that had a window with one that did not. Broadband has changed this action to “pulling the blinds” so instead of the window being gone it is simply very inconvenient to peer through…but not impossible for those determined to do so. That said, there are people who would peer through a window whose blinds were not entirely closed just to see what you were doing; they are not necessarily bad, just unethically curious. These curious people could still cause you some grief, even unintentionally. This “not impossible to look through” aspect of the Internet is the main reason why things that could potentially cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people generally should not be Internet capable. Unfortunately, the fault-tolerant nature of the Internet seems to make it too good of a communication medium to pass up.

"The [nuclear] labs are under constant attack, the Department of Energy is under constant attack."

A spokesman for the agency says the Nuclear Security Enterprise experiences up to 10 million “security significant cyber security events” each day.

"Of the security significant events, less than one hundredth of a percent can be categorized as successful attacks against the Nuclear Security Enterprise computing infrastructure," the spokesman said—which puts the maximum number at about 1,000 daily.

The National Nuclear Security Administration which is in charge of the United States’ nuclear weapons is under attack from the Internet. At the numbers they’re talking about, that’s about 116 attacks per second every 24 hours. One good thing is that the weapons themselves do not have Internet access…but they probably do have USB ports. We know from Stuxnet that a USB port is a perfect way to unintentionally introduce a problem into an isolated system using a simple thumb drive. We also know from Wikileaks that there are other ways to get information out — thus bringing up the possibility of the reverse — of a system.

We know that people are going to poke and prod for kicks, or for money, or for idealism. That’s understood. What I don’t understand is the nonchalance about the approximately 1,000 successful attacks on the NNSA. To me, “successful” means they got in and either stole, left, or changed something…without getting caught. It doesn’t matter that 10 million tried…only that some were actually successful.

I think they need to beef up security a lot. Stuxnet destroyed centrifuges by over-speeding them; there is a simpler way to destroy a nuclear weapon if you get root access to one.