петак, 04. октобар 2013.

California bans 'revenge porn,' could punish offenders with fines and jail time


California governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that could punish distributors of "revenge porn" with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The bill, brought by Republican senator Anthony Cannella and passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature, makes California the second state to allow criminal prosecution of people who distribute photos or video of a lover or ex-lover online to humiliate them. While some lawsuits have been brought against sites whose policies — offering to take down photos for a fee — were arguably extortionate, this law would make the act of posting photos itself potentially illegal. The bill, SB 255, essentially expands California's "Peeping Tom" laws, which prohibit people from secretly recording or photographing people in a state of undress. Under the new law, the misdemeanor will apply to anyone who takes intimate photos or video of someone with the understanding that they will remain private, then distributes them "with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the depicted person suffers serious emotional distress." The only other state with a similar law, New Jersey, classifies the act as a felony. The ACLU initially objected to the bill under free speech concerns, but the group later said that it had not made a decision on whether to officially oppose it. Besides First Amendment questions, it's questionable how well the new law will address the problem. As written, it applies only to photos or videos taken by the offender, not any that are sent to them — which is, at least anecdotally, a much bigger problem. The "emotional distress" language also leaves a lot of room to object, and as with sexual assault or harassment cases, it's likely that plenty of accusations will end up being classified as "he said, she said." But for victims, there's now at least a legal framework to work within.

Windows 8.1 now available to pre-order for $119 ahead of October 18th debut


Microsoft is now taking pre-orders for Windows 8.1. While the update is free for Windows 8 users, those looking to upgrade or install the OS on old hardware will need to buy a copy. Microsoft is now accepting pre-orders on Windows 8.1 for $119 and Windows 8.1 Pro for $199. Both versions are DVD copies and will be released on October 18th. Both prices are identical to existing upgrade costs today. The software maker is taking a slightly different approach to Windows 8.1 upgrades. Although there's no promotional upgrade pricing, Microsoft is supplying users with a full copy of Windows 8.1 to use as an upgrade or clean install on hardware and virtual machines. Windows 8.1 will be available in stores on October 18th, and online as an upgrade for Windows 8 on October 17th. Microsoft plans to distribute it to existing users using the Windows Store.

'Grand Theft Auto V' players join forces to manipulate the stock market


There are plenty of diversions in Grand Theft Auto V's Los Santos, from playing golf to surfing the internet. But, as New York magazine reports, one that has really grabbed players' attentions is the in-game stock market. The feature lets players buy and sell stock on two different exchanges — Liberty City National and BAWSAQ — in order to earn extra in-game cash. Stock prices are often influenced by events of the missions you take on, and sometimes you'll even get a tip on whether a company will see a sudden rise or fall. Over at the GTA Market subreddit, some users have been speculating that the BAWSAQ is dynamic, and can be manipulated by players if they work together. Players are already thinking up new schemes To test this, users attempted a "pump and dump" scheme. The idea was to both buy, and then sell, a particular stock collectively in mass quantities: the theory was that the initial buy would drive up the price, while the sale would cause it to drop drastically. Players could then re-buy it at the reduced price and sell (and profit) when things went back to normal. Unfortunately for those involved, the get rich quick scheme doesn't appear to have worked, as the stock price wasn't obviously influenced by all of the activity. But while the first experiment wasn't a success, that hasn't deterred virtual insider traders from thinking up new schemes, turning their attention to the just-launched GTA Online. As one hopeful user wrote, "doing this with online will probably be a different story."

Jellyfish force shutdown of nuclear power plant


At noon this past Sunday, a Swedish power plant brought one of its reactors to a halt over an unlikely issue: a horde of jellyfish had begun clogging up its system. The Oskarshamn nuclear plant is set beside the Baltic Sea, from which it draws in water to cool down its turbines. After the mass of moon jellyfish made their way into some of the cooling pipes, the plant chose to shut down one of its three reactors so that it could clean and unclog the pipes, reports the Associated Press. Had it let the issue go, the plant says that the reactor would have ended up automatically shutting itself down because of its low coolant supply. The reactor is now up and running again and should return to full operation by tomorrow. But as odd as the story may be, the AP reports that other nuclear plants could soon be having the same issue. A plant in California already encountered a similar problem last year, when a jellyfish-like organism reportedly clogged its own intake pipes. And marine biologists expect that this could happen again. "There seems to be more and more of these extreme cases of blooming jellyfish," Lene Moller, a researcher at the Swedish Institute for the Marine Environment, tells the AP. It's not the first we've heard about the rise of jellyfish either — a recent book even suggests that they could be on their way to dominating the ocean.

Airbnb's chief mapmaker turns shady neighborhoods into boutique hot spots


With more than 500,000 rooms available to rent on any given night, Airbnb now ranks among the largest hospitality companies in the world. But the homes and apartments on Airbnb aren’t owned by employees, so it can be tough for the fast-growing startup to control the experience being delivered to customers. In an effort to help ensure travelers get a stay suited to their tastes, it rolled out the Neighborhood Project, which charts the character of its numerous locations. And that’s where Zach Walker, Airbnb’s lone cartographer, comes in. In little more than a year on the job, Walker has helped slice and dice more than 70 big cities into 4,500 distinct neighborhoods with their own personalities. "It used to be when you searched for places to stay in New York, the first thing that came up was a bunch of listings in Times Square, the most generic location, " explains Walker. "You could organize by price, but not much more. As we’ve rolled out neighborhoods, people are increasingly booking stays way off the beaten path. It’s opening up the whole city to them." "People are increasingly booking stays way off the beaten path." The impact on business, according to Airbnb, has been significant. Neighborhood listings are driving new visitors to the company’s properties through web searches for specific hot spots. And neighborhoods have become the number one criteria renters use when booking, as lesser know areas that once would have seemed unwelcoming or unsafe to travelers are transformed into hip locales in the process. "Neighborhoods are the layering of history and culture onto geography," says Timothy Crimmins, director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University. This identity can have great value as a brand, something Airbnb has leveraged through Webster's maps. "When you help people to connect with the character of a neighborhood, it can be a real catalyst for business and development, or in this case for tourism." Walker didn’t know much about map making when he first arrived in Manhattan as a newly minted college grad with degrees in physics and creative writing. But he responded to a Craigslist ad from a startup called Nabewise, a service that created detailed profiles of neighborhoods to help people decide where to move. He fell in love with charting the makeup of big cities. "Each city has its own personality, from the way it’s constructed and organized to the way people and goods flow through." In July of 2012, Airbnb acquired Nabewise and Walker became their resident map maker. "In a way it’s a tough job because you are trying to define something amorphous," he explains. There is rarely an official boundary for where one neighborhood begins and another ends. "I try to get into the mind of the city as if it were a living, breathing thing," says Walker. He reads up on the area’s history and cross references that with the information from Airbnb’s hosts, crafting data visualizations of keywords from the listings written by users. "Sometime they have a real argument about the dividing lines, but usually they just want to charge more." "In an ancient city like London, where the roads turn in on themselves, it can be mind boggling to try and figure out when you’re in Shortage and when you’ve crossed over to Brick Lane," says Walker. "But by studying the data from hundreds of users, the descriptions they use of their own homes, I can begin to see where the shifts occur." When Walker does his job right, a few people usually get angry. He takes neighborhood boundaries that are flexible and porous and replaces them with rigid lines. "People get upset, they write in to complain: ‘Hey my place should be in the East Village,’ when really it's not," says Walker. "Sometimes they have a real argument about the dividing lines, but usually they just want to charge more." But while a few renters are making less these days, overall Airbnb believes mapping the world is providing a big boost to its business.

Author Tom Clancy dead at age 66


Tom Clancy, the bestselling author whose works were the basis for countless film and video game adaptations, has died at age 66, The New York Times' Julie Boseman reports. Tom Clancy's publisher confirms to the NYT that he died last night in a hospital in Baltimore. — Julie Bosman (@juliebosman) October 2, 2013 Clancy's dozens of novels defined the techno-thriller genre, combining political intrigue and action with highly detailed explanations of ships, weapons, and military tactics. His best-known hero, Jack Ryan, foiled endless international plots and was immortalized in films like The Hunt for Red October. Rainbow Six, another Jack Ryan novel, became one of the top-selling game franchises of all time, and his Splinter Cell series saw the release of its latest installment in August. Little more is known about Clancy's death at this point, though it has been confirmed by his publisher.

One month after Nokia deal, Microsoft still faces unanswered questions


What does the Microsoft of the future really look like? It's been four weeks since the company announced its $7.2 billion plan to acquire Nokia's phone business, cementing CEO Steve Ballmer's plan to transform Microsoft from a software provider into a devices and services company, and the answer is getting fuzzier by the day. The main issue is that Ballmer himself is leaving Microsoft in the next 12 months — he offered a tearful goodbye to employees at last week's annual companywide meeting — and finding a new CEO to execute such a dramatic shift in the company's strategy while maintaining its existing 16 billion-dollar businesses will be no easy task. There are still a lot of tough decisions to be made That task has been made substantially more difficult in recent days by activist investors — reports surfaced last week that a group made up of "three of the top 20 investors" was pushing for Ford CEO Alan Mulally to take over the top spot, and yesterday news leaked that Microsoft's board was seriously considering him. At the same time, "three of the top 20 investors" were also credited yesterday with pushing to remove Bill Gates from the Microsoft board, which he currently chairs. That would include his removal from the CEO search committee, which is presumably moving forward on the Mulally recommendation at the same time. None of that feels particularly suited to a smooth transition. And there are substantial challenges beyond simply replacing Ballmer — as Microsoft begins the long process of reinventing itself, there are a lot of tough decisions to be made. Who's in charge? As of right now, the leading name floated as a potential Ballmer replacement is Mulally, who "categorically denied" his interest in the role to Kara Swisher after she said he was "amenable" to the idea several days ago. But things appear to be softening: Mulally simply declined to answer a question about his plans yesterday when asked. "I love serving Ford and have nothing new to add to [my] plans to continue serving Ford," he told USA Today. The other name in the spotlight is former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who stepped down to an executive vice presidential role when the deal was announced and will return to Microsoft as head of all devices when the acquisition is complete. Elop is the natural choice to run the device group, say sources familiar with the transition — he's been running Nokia's device business for five years outside Microsoft already, and that will form the bulk of his job within Microsoft as well. The CEO proposition seems... complicated But Elop's brief will be bigger than just phones: it will include oversight of the Xbox division, the Surface tablets, and the future of its phone business. That's a big responsibility, and managing and retaining the senior-level executives who've been building those products will require a deft touch for a new leader from outside the company. It will also make finding a new, non-Elop CEO harder: if Microsoft is now a devices and services company with Elop running devices and longtime VP Qi Lu running services, it's hard to see what would lure another strong CEO candidate to the company. Add in the current power play taking place at the board and investor level, and the proposition seems even more complicated. Ballmer's massive reorganization was designed to end the infighting within the many kingdoms that have long existed at Microsoft, and to unify the company — he literally named the plan "One Microsoft." But that vision is entirely dependent on strong leadership at the top — and right now, it's an empty space. How will Nokia's phone business and employees integrate into Microsoft? The purchase of Nokia's phone business and services division means that Microsoft will suddenly find itself with some 32,000 new employees. Many of those employees will come with skills and relationships Microsoft finds valuable, like supply-chain management and the ability to negotiate with mobile operators around the world. But others will almost certainly be let go, as their jobs will be made redundant. The 18,000 employees in manufacturing are also vulnerable, as their new managers seek to cut costs and make the Nokia deal pay for itself faster. Just look at Motorola, which endured two rounds of layoffs that cut 30 percent of its workforce — 5,200 people — after being acquired by Google. These are hard decisions, and they will fall squarely on the new CEO, as Ballmer will very likely be out by the time the Nokia deal closes. Managing the PC marketplace It is almost impossible to think of a company that's managed to build a successful platform while simultaneously competing with its own licensees. Apple failed with the original Mac and the Newton, Palm failed with Palm OS, and Nokia itself struggled with Symbian. The only recent example is Google, which has had to build a "firewall" around Motorola and even reportedly treats the company more harshly than its other partners in order to maintain the appearance of propriety and placate important OEMs like Samsung. Can Microsoft do the impossible with a licensed platform? But Microsoft is still trying to play it both ways, licensing Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone to other OEMs all while building its own products for those platforms. And sources say Microsoft remains committed to a model where it produces some devices itself while licensing the software. That combination of approaches will lead to inevitable complications. It's not a huge problem for Windows Phone and Windows RT, which are barely being licensed by others, but managing Microsoft's ongoing relationships with PC makers as more and more of the market shifts to mobile is a huge task. Company executives insist that there is currently no plan to get into the PC business and that the Nokia acquisition is simply about phones, but Microsoft already makes a Windows 8 PC. Just last week, the company held a launch event focused almost entirely on the Surface Pro 2, which is an extremely competitive entry in the convertible tablet / laptop market. Add in Nokia's manufacturing ability and distribution reach, and suddenly Microsoft is competing in the PC business worldwide almost by default. Is that the plan? And if not, what is? Can there be peace with Google? You can't sell a mobile operating system to consumers if it sucks at YouTube, and both Windows Phone and Windows RT suck at YouTube. That's a problem. Until Microsoft finds a way to reach détente with the search giant, its platforms will be marginalized as bit players from an alternate ecosystem with the wrong kind of lock-in. Google is as much to blame for this situation as anyone in Redmond, but the sad truth is that Google also has the upper hand when it comes to mobile market share. Whoever takes over at Microsoft will need to make the decision whether to keep fighting this war, or find peace in the service of moving forward. What's more important, devices or services? How Microsoft prioritizes devices and services will affect everything the company does in the foreseeable future. Does Microsoft want to be more like Apple, with a fully realized, vertically integrated device business that leverages lock-in services like iMessage and iCloud to drive hardware sales? Or does Microsoft want to be more like Google, with a fully realized horizontal services business that extends across platforms and vendors to drive scale? Right now the company's answer appears to be a mix of both — another strategic choice that's rarely been successful in the industry. More like Apple or more like Google? "A services strategy and a devices strategy are fundamentally opposed to each other," writes Ben Thompson, who has been eloquently picking apart Microsoft's new direction for weeks. "Your services will forever be paying a strategy tax to support your devices." That tension is an opportunity competitors are only too happy to exploit. Just look at Apple, which is now giving away its iWork suite to fill the void left by Microsoft's decision to ignore the iPad. Why? Because Office is a key differentiator for Windows 8 tablets. On the other hand, Skype continues to be ubiquitous because it's everywhere. Finding the balance between these two approaches will be the key challenge for Microsoft's new leadership. Few companies have ever embraced fundamental change the way Microsoft is doing now, and few CEOs have ever pursued that change as aggressively as Steve Ballmer. But Ballmer won't be around to execute on that change, and whoever steps in will have to make a number of tough decisions — all while making sure Microsoft's investors stay happy. But step one is finding the right person.