By James Cowan, Canadian Business - Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 0 Comments
Once seamless devices now frustrating
Yesterday Apple posted the largest quarterly profit in the company’s history, and still somehow managed to disappoint investors. The stock was down nearly 11% this morning, with analysts citing myriad reasons for disappointment: slowing growth, lower-than-expected iPhone sales and the launch of the iPad Mini, which offers slimmer profit margins than its full-size compatriot.
Now, let’s be clear: Apple is not a company in crisis. It sold 47.8 million iPhones in the last quarter, a 78% improvement over the previous year, and sold 7.5 million more iPads over this Christmas season than it did the previous one. But any expectation the company could maintain this kind of skyrocketing growth indefinitely is—and always was—unrealistic. If Apple’s growth for the next five years matched what it’s done in the past five, the company’s revenue would hit $1.2 trillion, according to a recent report by A.M. Sacconaghi, an analyst at Bernstein Research—roughly equal to the GDP of Australia. Unless investors expect Apple to start printing its own currency and opening embassies, they need to accept an inevitable slowdown in growth.
Apple cannot afford to simply stare at its balance sheet and assume everything is fine. Research in Motion made a similar mistake, assuming their customers would stay loyal and their profits would stay healthy, even as warning signs mounted around them. Indeed, Apple is banking on the same consumer devotion to its products as RIM once did. “At Apple, it’s important to us that we make products that customers not just like, but love,” CEO Tim Cook told analysts yesterday.
That love for Apple is increasingly fickle. Consumers once enraptured with the iPhone can now cast their eyes to Samsung, or a fleet of other phones running the Android operating system. Apple hasn’t done much to maintain consumer loyalty with a widely derided revamp of iTunes and the complete failure of its in-house map application. As people live with Apple products, they develop grievances and gripes about their idiosyncrasies. “For glassy-eyed fanboys like me, the seamlessly magical Apple experience has frayed a little at the edges lately,” Canadian Business columnist Bruce Philp recently wrote.
Part of that fraying is the fault of the company, no doubt. But it also has to do with a general shift in the digital world. Apple has always made beautiful objects, but consumers now expect their gadgets to play well together. The new expectation is that we can, say, download a song on your phone, and then stream it to your stereo. Or store our photos in the cloud and view them on our tablets or TVs. This is a great idea, in theory, and one that Apple is clearly chasing. The company’s iCloud service, which now has 250 million users, is intended to provide this seamless experience. Anyone who’s used it, however, knows that the reality is far from it, requiring plenty of fiddling with menus and network settings. For the company that built its reputation on “It just works,” this is a serious problem.
Apple garnered love by selling fuss-free products. That’s a considerable challenge even when you’re building a single device. The challenge becomes exponentially greater with each phone, tablet and laptop added to the equation. And further, Apple has long relied on a “Halo effect,” where consumers enamoured with their iPhone decide they might love an iMac as well. But if those two devices don’t communicate, it creates a temptation to look elsewhere instead.
Apple’s short-term health seems assured. But unless it can make cloud computing and networking as elegant as it once made the iPhone, it won’t be feeling the love forever.
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 9:38 AM - 0 Comments
They should have stuck with “no comment”.
By now you may have have heard about former Dawson College student Ahmed (Hamed) Al-Kahbaz. Just 20 years old, Ahmed proved his chops as a Computer Science student by discovering a shocking vulnerability on Dawson’s website that could allow any amateur hacker to gain access to every bit of information Dawson has on its 10,000 students. He then proved his decency by reporting the bug instead of exploiting it, and he proved his loyalty to his school by reporting it to Dawson privately, and not publicly announcing it online, which is how most white hat hackers would do it. He continued to act responsibly when he re-checked the Dawson site two days later to see if the hole had been plugged. That’s when the administration flipped from praising Ahmed to expelling him.
When this story broke in the National Post, Dawson’s initial response was to explain that they couldn’t respond without breaking their own code of ethics: their policy prevents them from discussing the personal details of any student, past or present. (Which is ironic, given that until Ahmed spoke up, they were potentially disclosing everything they knew about every one of their students.) In any event, Dawson said they were duty-bound to keep mum.
They stuck with that line for a matter of hours, then their director general, Richard Fillion, added this tid-bit in a CBC radio interview:
“The story that has been reported … was relying on an incomplete version of what had happened. The other side of the story is related to facts that we cannot divulge.”
So, a tantalizing insinuation that Ahmed was not telling the whole truth, but a steadfast dedication to hold firm to their ethical policy.
That lasted until the next morning, when Dawson faculty member Alex Simonelis’ letter to the Montreal Gazette was published. Simonelis tap-danced around Dawson’s policy by phrasing each accusation in the form of a question:
“Exactly how did the student “stumble upon” the flaw? Was it by running intrusion tests against Skytech’s website? If so, did he have Skytech’s permission to do so, given that it is unacceptable to do so otherwise? Was the student given a cease-and-desist warning regarding such actions by our college’s administration? I believe I know the answers to those questions…”
Later that day, Dawson tossed their ethical policy completely by issuing a press release titled “Setting the Record Straight” that begins like this:
“Dawson College will address some of the issues that have arisen due to the expulsion of Computer Science student Ahmed Al-Khabaz. In some areas, it is still bound by the terms of confidentiality of student files.”
Only in some areas? That’s nice. Why are they no longer bound in other areas? No reason is given. The inference, I guess, is that they tried their darndest to be nice, but they can only stay silent so long in the face of such wild tales. The whole truth must now be heard, ethical policy be damned!
And the truth, then? The shocking revelations that “set the record straight”?
“Ahmed Al-Khabaz was not expelled because he found a flaw in the student information systems. He was expelled for other reasons. Despite receiving clear directives not to, he attempted repeatedly to intrude into areas of College information systems that had no relation with student information systems.”
Wow. So, they weren’t mad that he saved their asses from a major data-leak. They were mad that he later tested their whole site to make sure the leak was plugged and that no other vulnerabilities existed, even after they told him not to.
Thanks for clearing that up.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown
By Sonya Bell - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 2:30 PM - 0 Comments
Two years in, One Laptop Per Child Canada eyes expansion
The kindergarten kids who attend Lloyd S. King Elementary School on a reserve near Brantford, Ont. know to pack something extra every Tuesday and Thursday morning: their laptops.
When it’s quiet time on those days, teacher Tammy Sault dims the lights, puts on instrumental music and turns them loose on the kid-friendly green and white machines known as XO laptops. Instantly, the five-year-olds are booting them up and loading programs, solving mazes and identifying patterns.
A girl who has marked her laptop with her name, Emma, points directly at its screen when asked what her favourite thing is about school.
The laptops are here on the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation courtesy of One Laptop per Child Canada, a core program of the Belinda Stronach Foundation. The organization partnered with the original One Laptop per Child Foundation in the United States, which has distributed 2.5 million XO laptops in the developing world, to roll out the same rugged, low-cost laptop to young aboriginal students.
Since the launch of OLPC Canada’s pilot phase in September 2010, students at 14 schools in seven provinces and two territories have been given their own XO computers.
“I was really excited about it because not all of the children have access to technology at home,” Sault said.
The kindergarten teacher marvels at how quickly her students have picked up both tech and social skills since they started using the laptops at the beginning of the school year. They instruct one another about how to use different programs and remind each other that the laptop isn’t broken, it just needs to be charged. It has built up their confidence and problem-solving skills, she said.
But not everyone is as excited about the laptop program. Some teachers, not tech-savvy themselves, have expressed no interest in integrating the laptops into their lesson plans. The chat and video functions in particular are labelled a distraction. The laptops sit underused, either at home or at school.
It is one of several reality checks noted by OLPC Canada Director Jennifer Martino. In March, a full outside evaluation of the pilot program will be released. But Martino already knows they need to boost teacher training in the future from her visits to the participating schools.
“In almost every case, I was asked to come back to do additional training.”
A short drive away, at Kawenni:io Elementary School on the Six Nations of the Grand River, students in a mix of running shoes and moccasins recite the Thanksgiving Address in Cayuga and Mohawk to begin the school day.
Here, the biggest controversy over the laptops has been around language. The private school was formed in 1985 as a institution where students could learn the languages of their ancestors. But the language of instruction on the laptops is English.
Kindergarten teacher Esenogwas Hill remembers the initial rollout period as “a frustration”: kids who dropped the laptops burst into tears, thinking they had broken them. They asked her questions about them that she couldn’t answer. Then there were the parents who wanted to know why the laptops used English. Her solution is enforcing a low-volume rule to limit the oral English.
OLPC Canada responded to the English-language concerns, which were heard at multiple schools, by creating a Cayuga and Inuktitut keyboard. Hill still hopes to get Cayuga recordings installed on the laptops for verbal instructions, but said she supports the laptops in any case.
“I try to use them because the kids love them.”
It takes teacher supervision to ensure the kids are using the XOs for their lessons, and not just for the Paint program. But it can be done. Down the hall from Hill’s classroom, Grade 2 teacher Tesha Emarthle is teaching her students about the different phases of moon, which determine when cultural ceremonies are held, using a program called Moon Activity. Earlier in the school year, she took the students outside with their laptops to photograph trees and label their different parts.
OLPC Canada’s pilot phase comes to end in June, and the organization is in the process of securing funding to go forward. With a growing list of communities asking to take part, Martino said she hopes to double outreach in the next two years.
“Some of the schools have five computers that were donated in 1995, and they were used at that time. Some of them are really, really struggling with just basic access to technology. So when they hear that they could have one laptop for every child in their school? I mean, there are some places that don’t even have a cell phone signal.”
Though the OLPC Foundation has struggled in recent years with the advent of tablets, one advantage the XO still offers is durability. Only a few laptops at each site require repairs during the school year. Nevertheless, OLPC Canada is keeping an open mind about future technology, another area that will be addressed in the March report.
“There are lots of great learning apps that have been developed since the XO laptop came out. We’re certainly free to make those decisions, and be flexible, depending on the needs of the communities,” Martino said.
Back at Lloyd S. King Elementary School, special education teacher Carla Miller is sure about one thing: the device itself doesn’t matter as much as the learning opportunities it provides in a changing world.
“It’s so important. It’s where everything’s heading,” she said. “May as well get them started now.”
By Rosemary Counter - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 3:00 PM - 0 Comments
The social network can help you lose weight, but are you willing to be honest with your followers?
If you’ve been lucky enough never to find yourself at a Weight Watchers meeting, it goes something like this: a dozen dieters, mostly women, sit in a circle. In turn, but only if they want to, they share their weekly progress. “I lost 0.4 lb.,” someone might say. The rest of the room claps.
To encourage an appearance the next week, peppy leaders reiterate one staple statistic of the 50-year-old program: people who attend meetings regularly lose three times the weight as those who do not. Nonetheless, just two years after its last relaunch, Weight Watchers is revamping again (with its online 360° program) in an effort to keep up with the times.
Some dieters are already a tweet ahead. “I love a good meeting, but there wasn’t always a meeting when I needed it,” says 43-year-old Rebecca Regnier, a television reporter from Ohio. For her—and 58 per cent of Canadians who Weight Watchers says tried to lose weight in the last year—Twitter is always there. “When it’s 2 a.m. and I’m fighting a snack craving, it’s not 2 a.m. in Australia. I have friends there to talk me out of it.”
To her ever-expanding network, Regnier’s tweets include healthy humblebrags (“An apple handled some pre-lunch cravings for me today. Yay apple!”), support for her followers (“Don’t quit! Restart”), and admissions of gluttony (“I had a candy-bar-in-the-car moment”).
Despite periodic transgressions, all documented on @LaughItOff to almost 9,000 followers, Regnier lost 20 lb. How she did it—in short, choose any diet that works for you, follow experts in the field, connect with followers for support—became the ebook Your Twitter Diet, one of many that marries dieting with social-media oversharing.
Web options include Tweet What You Eat and Tweet Your Weight. GQ correspondent Drew Magary, down 60 lb., tweets his weight every morning in what he calls the “public humiliation diet.” With just the push of a button, an endless series of websites (Lose It, FitDay, SparkPeople) and apps (My Diet Coach, Thin Cam, the Eatery) can broadcast every bite into cyberspace.
Doing so isn’t always as easy as it seems. Meegan Dowe, a 33-year-old education coordinator from Halifax, who used to blog about her weight struggles anonymously, used the MyFitnessPal app to track her 90-lb. loss. “It tweets both the food I eat and the calories I burn,” she explains.
Though she hates to admit it, Dowe doesn’t think she could have lost the weight without Twitter. “It gave me a community I didn’t have; people at a similar weight as me and with the same frustrations,” she says. While people are almost always positive, sometimes they’re nasty. “I’ve heard things like, ‘You only burned 300 calories in 60 minutes? I could do it in 20.’ ”
Unlike Weight Watchers, Twitter is far from a private place. For those who thrive on aggressive competition, like GQ’s Magary, this might be “its own incentive anyway,” he wrote.
Others, not so much, says Weight Watchers’ chief scientist, Karen Miller-Kovach. “Social dieting is probably great for some and terrible for others.” The research is mixed, she says. It’s generally accepted that obesity is socially contagious, and that more and better support is associated with long-term weight loss. If social media are part of your support system, reported the Archives of Internal Medicine in December, then they can certainly help your progress. But they can’t be your only trick. “You’re not going to tweet yourself to thinness, but if you’re following a program and also tweeting about it, you may see more success,” says Miller-Kovach.
If a public weigh-in feels akin to modern torture, the Twitter diet could be detrimental. “It can reinforce shame. It can be embarrassing, humiliating and not at all helpful,” she says.
Regnier admits to feeling the shame “just a little bit.” For binge eaters like her, food sessions are often solitary and shameful, and a midnight Twitter confession forces an accountability she might otherwise not have. “But seriously,” she asks, “if you’re not willing to share with someone what you’re eating, then why are you eating it?”
By Jessica Allen - Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 3:13 PM - 0 Comments
Astronomers how think our galaxy is filled with billions of planets. Kate Lunau on the Biggest Discovery Ever
Astronomers recently discovered that our galaxy is filled with billions of planets. Now the race is on to see how fast we can get there.
In this podcast, Maclean’s writer Kate Lunau talks with Jessica Allen about Maclean’s cover story this week: The Biggest Discovery Ever.
Hear them discuss the possibility of interstellar space travel. Find out about the search for life-sustaining planets and what scientists are doing right now to get us to another star. Listen to Lunau explain what the discovery of a Tatooine-like planet that revolves around more than one sun could mean for Stars Wars fans across the galaxy.
Lunau’s feature story is in the current issue of Maclean’s, now on newsstands. Watch for it on the site next week.
While you listen to the podcast, use your cursor to scroll over the planets below.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 1:46 PM - 0 Comments
Brazilian burger chain Bob’s recently got a lot of press for introducing edible wrappers made of rice paper. With the tagline of “there’s no need to control yourself” emblazoned on the wrappers, the chain said it was testing them for environmental reasons. Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 2:54 PM - 0 Comments
It’s not a phone, thank God.
Today’s surprise announcement from Facebook was the unveiling of a new kind of search engine. “Graph Search” (which will invariably be referred to by non-Facebook employees as “Facebook Search”) draws on the massive database we have all created just by being on Facebook. According to Zuck and the other execs at the press event, here’s what you might use it to find:
- “Friends of my friends who are single males in San Francisco, Calif..”
- “Restaurants in San Francisco liked by my friends from India.”
- “People named Chris who are friends of Lars wand went to Stanford University.”
- “Movies my friends like.” Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 4:38 PM - 0 Comments
It’s not much of a stretch to predict that we’re going to see some new video game consoles this year. It might be a little surprising, however, to suggest that Microsoft is going to jump to a commanding lead in this ongoing console war and that the battle may go from the current three players to four–at least for the time being.
The writing on the wall couldn’t be more obvious in regards to new consoles, at least from Microsoft and likely from Sony as well. Slowing console sales are one indicator, but perhaps the most telling hint is Microsoft’s first-party release schedule.
The company has typically rotated its two biggest franchises, Halo and Gears of War, over successive holiday periods, with the former coming one year and the latter the next. Yet this time around, Halo 4 saw its release this past September while Gears of War: Judgment is scheduled for a March, 2013 launch. The two biggest franchises released within months of each other? What’s going on?
By Jesse Brown - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 1:26 PM - 0 Comments
When I spoke to Aaron Swartz in 2009, he had just learned that he’d been investigated by the FBI for “stealing” public court documents from a library and sharing them on the Internet. They had a file on him. They had staked out his mom’s house. He thought it was hilarious.
“The whole thing strikes me as ridiculous,” he said of his FBI file, which he had obtained through a Freedom of Information request. “Suspect lives on a heavily wooded dead-end street,” he read in a super-serious Dragnet voice, “making continued surveillance difficult.”
“Who are you,” I asked, “Jason Bourne?”
It was no joke. His brilliant PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) hack put him on the FBI’s radar and likely contributed to the persecution he suffered when he struck again. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 10:16 AM - 0 Comments
Who’d have ever thought Knight Rider would almost be reality?
It’s unlikely that robot cars will become commercially available in 2013, but it’s a certainty that they will take big steps forward. So far, Google has been pushing forward with the development of self-driving vehicles, but the search company is not alone. Toyota is the latest to officially join the fray.
The Japanese car maker will be showing off its “active safety research vehicle, Intelligent Transport Systems and 2013 Lexus LS,” which is “equipped with the world’s most advanced pre-collision safety system,” at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. I’ll be checking it out and speaking with Toyota executives. Watch for more on this next week. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 7, 2013 at 9:37 AM - 0 Comments
With the start of a new year, there’s no better time to review and reflect on the federal government’s complete and utter failure in providing leadership on digital issues. The country has been waiting on a digital strategy–a comprehensive plan for how Canada intends to compete in the global information economy–for years. For example:
“More than one hundred representatives from libraries, museums, archives, publishers, copyright collectives, the education community and government gathered last week in snowy Montebello, Que. for a national summit on a Canadian digital information strategy. The by-invitation-only event marked the culmination of a year-long cross-country effort to ensure that Canada is not left behind as our trading partners race to develop their own 21st century digitization plans.” – Toronto Star, Dec. 11, 2006
“Free access to government data and equitable access to the Internet itself are key to a prosperous digital economy, say many of those who took part in recent federal consultations. For two months, the government has been seeking public input on its strategy for a digital economy… [Industry Minister Tony Clement] did not provide a specific timeline, but suggested Canada would take about the same time as other countries, who have typically developed strategies in six to 18 months.” – CBC, July 14, 2010
“For over a year Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have been talking about the need to create a digital economic strategy for the nation, with Industry Minister Tony Clement promising to reveal details this spring.” – IT Business, Mar. 23, 2011
“I will launch a Canadian-made digital economy strategy by the end of the year.” – Industry Minister Christian Paradis, Aug. 28, 2012
If the government’s latest broken promise is any indication, the wait is going to continue, despite numerous consultations and reports having already taken place. For those paying attention to other countries and their digital strategies (New Zealand had one in 2005, Japan in 2001), it’s exasperating at best, infuriating at worst.
Yet, the government could do worse. It could, as many fear, release a digital strategy that is low on specifics and without any real teeth. Such a plan would be a disservice. Canada is already behind in many ways, from web usage by businesses, to Internet access pricing, to research and development spending, to venture capital access. There are many problems to be fixed, so any digital strategy must take specific actions to get the country back on the right track.
The other danger with any sort of digital plan is the tendency to throw money at a problem in the hopes that it’ll fix itself. That’s also the wrong way to go, since government-provided funds are often squandered without any concrete results to show at the end.
Most importantly, a digital strategy must be bold. There is no sense in aiming for the future if you’re not aiming high. Timidity has no place in such a plan.
The government has already heard from a broad range of Canadians as to what the country’s strategy should contain. Here is a list of 10 suggestions, some of which are repeated from submissions and some of which are my own additions. The list–sort of a set of New Year’s resolution for government–is by no means comprehensive, but it would make for a good starting point.
Technology Minister: Creating a cabinet ministerial position that would deal with all things technological would go a long way to showing the public that the government does indeed take digital issues seriously. Which it currently doesn’t, obviously.
Merge Telecom and Broadcasting Acts: Telecom and broadcasting technologies have converged, as have their owners, so why are the laws governing them still separate? Indeed, the government should move to liberalize foreign ownership in broadcasting the same way it did last year with telecom. Maintaining the restrictions does much to counter any positives introduced by telecom ownership liberalization.
Infrastructure regulatory holiday: Any new company that wants to build a telecom network in Canada, whether wired or wireless, gets a 10-year exemption from any regulations affecting access to that network (in other words, they won’t have to give access to third-party independent internet service providers). The holiday could be even longer for northern Canada, where things are even more dire. Some might say this is unfair to the likes of Bell or Rogers or Northwestel, but those companies got to build their networks and customer bases with government-granted monopolies. Such an exemption might seem especially intriguing to certain search engine companies that are currently building fibre networks in the United States.
Broadband targets: Speaking of which, the government should institute pricing, speed and usage targets that ISPs must reach within three years. The targets would be set based on projections of what will be needed to measure among the top countries at that time. Failure by the ISPs to hit the targets would result in the government launching consultations on how to structurally separate network owners from retail operations, and/or the feasibility of building a nationally-owned fibre network. Is this de facto regulation? Yes indeed, but it’s market forces that have caused Canada to fall behind. When the carrot doesn’t do the trick, sometimes you need to turn to the stick.
Internet access subsidies: With broadband simply being too expensive for many poorer Canadians, a simple subsidy program is needed –- if your household income is under a certain amount, the government pays part of your monthly Internet bill. Not only would this connect the people who need Internet access the most, it would also saddle the government with a continually escalating tab. If that doesn’t cause politicians to spur better Internet service and prices, nothing will.
Computer programs: In that vein, there are also too many households that don’t have computers, wherein Internet access would obviously not make a lick of difference. The digital strategy should outline a specific plan to work with private-sector companies to provide such households not just with computers, but with the training required to use them effectively. Certain individuals have expressed a desire to help on this front; these people should be sought and hired to lead such projects.
Tech export credits: Canadian businesses aren’t using the Internet enough to reach global markets, so applying further tax rewards on sales specifically made using digital means might spur some to finally take online expansion seriously.
Foreign recruiting: Going the other way, the government should step up recruitment in countries that have large numbers of the sorts of skilled people needed here. Universities have tried various recruitment drives over the years, but they can only promise students so much. Government is much better positioned to deliver such workers jobs, not to mention a life in Canada.
Incubators, incubators, incubators: The venture capital problem might actually be one that can be helped with money. With early-stage investment identified as a real issue for Canadian startups, the government could accomplish much by funding lots of technology incubation projects, where entrepreneurs can cut their teeth until they get noticed by proper VCs.
R&D tax breaks: The federal government should take a cue from the provincial governments of Quebec, B.C. and Ontario, which created a vibrant video game industry through tax breaks. Those governments attracted large multinationals by giving them big discounts on labour costs, with the result being thousands of new jobs. More importantly, an ecosystem of very talented developers has formed, with Canada now becoming a leader in independent game design. The same model should be used to attract multinationals to set up research and development centres, with similar benefits likely to result.
By Jesse Brown - Friday, January 4, 2013 at 2:49 PM - 0 Comments
A. You can die.
It’s not the friendliest tactic to take in a negotiation, nor the most likely to succeed. But it’s probably the only honest reply software developers can offer the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which has extended a conditional, possibly symbolic, olive branch to the tech community.
Tech law blog Groklaw reports that the United States Patent and Trademark Office is inviting developers to attend a duo of roundtable discussions on the future of software patents, to be held in New York and in the Silicon Valley next month. They’re calling it the “Software Partnership,” and the intention is to get developers’ input on how their broken software patent system can be fixed. Continue…
By Emily Senger - Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 2:42 PM - 0 Comments
Keeping track of cattle and, perhaps one day, delivering the mail are emerging applications for UAVs
A fledgling company in southern Alberta is sending drone technology originally designed for the military into the sky to take pictures of sugar beets, potatoes and even cattle in an effort to help farmers better manage their crops and livestock. The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by Lethbridge-based Isis Geomatics can fit in a backpack when disassembled and, when launched, use cameras to tag each part of a field with an exact location. A farmer can then scan the images to determine where to apply water or fertilizer or keep track of cattle.
Agriculture is just one emerging commercial application for UAVs. Drones, such as those manufactured at Waterloo, Ont.-based Aeryon Labs, are becoming easy enough for anyone to operate; they’ve been used so far for wildlife surveys and to map shipping routes. Isis hopes to add oil- and gas-field surveying to its services. Other firms are planning to use drones as super-efficient couriers in remote areas. “People are recognizing the opportunities,” says Aeryon Labs’ vice-president of marketing, Ian McDonald.
By The Associated Press - Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 7:10 AM - 0 Comments
Incident highlights confusion around Facebook’s often changing and often confusing privacy settings
SEATTLE – Even Mark Zuckerberg’s family can get tripped up by Facebook’s privacy settings.
A picture that Zuckerberg’s sister posted on her personal Facebook profile was seen by a marketing director, who then posted the picture to Twitter and her more than 40,000 followers Wednesday.
That didn’t sit well with Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi, who tweeted at Callie Schweitzer that the picture was meant for friends only and that posting the private picture on Twitter was “way uncool.” Schweitzer replied by saying the picture popped up on her Facebook news feed.
The picture shows four people standing around a kitchen staring at their phones with their mouths open while Mark Zuckerberg is in the background.
By Kate Lunau - Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 4:43 PM - 0 Comments
Science writer Kate Lunau picks her favourite stories of the year
It was a big year for science.
Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first International Space Station commander, blasted off on the mission of a lifetime.
The line between human and machine became ever finer, as a paralyzed woman ate a chocolate bar with a prosthetic arm controlled by her own mind.
There was bombastic Canadian filmmaker James Cameron’s record plunge into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans; and the Curiosity rover’s nail-biter of a landing on Mars, where the one-ton robotic geologist is now seeking signs that our neighbouring planet could support life.
On the 35th anniversary of its launch, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft was set to break free of our solar system altogether, becoming humankind’s first interstellar emissary.
And SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first private vehicle to dock with the Space Station, marking the start of a powerful new shift in how humans live and work in space.
The year’s most jaw-dropping moment, though, was the discovery of the Higgs boson—the so-called “God particle”—by a team of literally thousands of scientists from around the world, working for decades on one of the largest experiments ever conceived. A tiny bit of the universe, the Higgs boson particle explains why we all exist.
But as 2012 comes to a close, there’s enough lists out there. Instead of revisiting these major moments, here’s some of my other favourite science stories of 2012—stories that stuck with me —and a few things I’ll be watching in 2013.
1. A planetary bounty
Not so long ago, we didn’t know for sure if there were any planets outside of our solar system. Now we’re starting to see that other worlds might be more common than stars, and their variation is incredible. This year we learned about a massive diamond planet, a lonely rogue planet floating freely in space, and a place that resembles Star Wars‘ fictional Tatooine, but even more elaborate than anything George Lucas dreamed up: the two-sunned planet is orbited by two more stars, the only solar system of its kind ever seen.
Closer to home, the star Tau Ceti, a mere 12 light years away, might even host a planet that can support life.
Worlds in our own solar system have their own surprises, too: NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence that water once flowed on freeze-dried Mars, and on Titan—one of Saturn’s many moons—a “mini Nile river” was spotted flowing into a large sea. (Unlike our Nile, Titan’s river is probably full of liquid hydrocarbons; it’s the only place we know of, other than Earth, with liquid at the surface.)
It’s tempting to want to pay these other places a visit, but current technology could never get us as far as another solar system. That might not be true forever. In September, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center revealed he’s working on a real-life warp drive.
2. Dinosaurs: fast and feathery
Remember when dinosaurs were fat, slow, and scaly? That’s how we used to depict them in movies, books and museums, but our understanding of these creatures has undergone some seismic changes, and continued to shift in 2012. Today, we know that carnivorous theropod dinosaurs like T. rex were often active, agile—and, at least in some cases, feathered.
This year, scientists unveiled the incredible Yutyrannus huali, or “beautiful feathered tyrant,” a massive cousin of T. rex covered in plumage, and by far the biggest feathered dinosaur we’ve found. And a Canadian team announced specimens of ornithomimids, 75 million years old, that also show evidence of feathers, making them the first feathered dinos ever seen in the Americas. (Until now, most have come from China.) Some palaeontologists now wonder if all dinosaurs had feathers—a striking idea. But traditionalists can rest easy for now, at least at the movies: next year, Jurassic Park is scheduled for re-release in 3D, and while its special effects look better than ever, the preview shows charging ornithomimids still scaly and featherless.
3. A personal factory, at home
Imagine being able to download whatever you like off the Internet, or even design it yourself—an electric guitar, maybe a full-size house—then print it off, in your own personal factory. That’s the promise of 3D printers, and this year, it seemed they were everywhere.
MakerBot, which sells a desktop 3D printer model for about $2,200, opened its first retail store in New York. Author Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers, spoke of a “new industrial revolution” as the DIY movement takes off, partly thanks to these devices. Beyond just metal and plastic, 3D printers are being dreamed up that could print everything from food, to human cells (maybe one day capable of turning out out a transplantable kidney) and body parts, too.
DNA pioneer Craig Venter talked about emailing downloadable vaccines around the world that could be produced on 3D biological printers. Washington State University scientists practised printing artificial lunar dust into various shapes, suggesting we could use 3D printers on the moon one day to make tools and other supplies instead of launching them from Earth. Of course, putting such a limitless technology in the hands of everyone, makes some people nervous. Defense Distributed, a Texas non-profit, wants to create a fully downloadable and printable gun, and this year they got very close to doing it, firing six rounds from a partially printed rifle before the gun broke apart.
4. Waking up to climate change (again and again and again)
This year, more than 62 per cent of the U.S. was plagued by widespread drought, decimating crops and causing food prices to soar. Arctic sea ice was reported shrinking to record-low levels yet again, reaching the smallest ever recorded, and covering less than half of the area that would have been typical just four decades ago.
Off the West Coast of Canada, a a massive geoengineering experiment came to light, igniting debate on a controversial idea—that we could deliberately tinker with the climate through manmade means, to slow global warming—which some say could save the planet, and others insist could doom us for good. After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in October, global warming briefly made an appearance in the U.S. presidential election: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, publicly backed President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election, saying he was a better choice to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, until then, climate change hadn’t come up once in the presidential debates.
5. Do animals qualify as non-human people?
In February I attended the annual meeting of the AAAS, the world’s biggest general scientific society, and got to hear talks on all sorts of fascinating stuff, like bizarre underwater creatures, and the science of superheroes.
One of the most well-attended was about “cetacean rights”—whether whales and dolphins should qualify as “non-human people.” By this point, we know that dolphins seem to understand numbers and abstract concepts. They’ve been observed using sponges as tools to find food. Whale species are said to have their own culture; I’ve previously written about the complexities of sperm whale language, and traditions passed down between generations.
As the movement to give cetaceans legal rights rolls on, we saw more news this year showing just how remarkably “humanlike” many animals can be: like an Asian male elephant, named Koshik, which can apparently speak in Korean. (Like dolphins and some other species, elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.) Or a beluga whale that mimics human sounds, and orangutans and gorillas that love playing with iPads. We increasingly understand animals as intelligent, even moral, creatures. It could have all sorts of implications, maybe first and foremost for the meat industry. How’s that test-tube hamburger coming along?
Thanks to everybody who submitted suggestions for this list over Twitter @katelunau and @MacleansMag.
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 12:24 PM - 0 Comments
Facebook users are ignorant. I should know, I am one.
I’m ignorant of who can see my status updates. I’m murky on the privacy settings of my photos. I don’t have a clue how many app developers I’ve let into my data. I’ve lost the plot, like everyone.
Events in recent months have revealed just how ignorant, and distrustful, we all are of Facebook. First we confused our own old promiscuous posts for a Facebook privacy leak (it wasn’t). Then we suddenly realized that maybe we weren’t OK with Facebook having control of all our content, so we spread around a magical incantation that we hoped would undo our TOS contracts (it didn’t). It’s often said that if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populated country in the world. It might also be the world’s dumbest country, with citizens who have no idea whether they exist in an anarchic utopia or a totalitarian surveillance state.
You might argue that Facebook benefits from our ignorance, that if we knew just how public our data is and how little control we have over the company’s ability to exploit it, we would have never signed up. But it’s too late. One billion of us did sign up, and now Facebook has rightly set out to educate us on just where we stand.
Today, Facebook introduces new, easier to use privacy settings, and an educational campaign to make us all less ignorant. This is a good thing. Continue…
By Kate Lunau - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 5:28 PM - 0 Comments
Hadfield will become the first Canadian to command the International Space Station
What’s Christmas like on the International Space Station? Not entirely different from here on Earth, says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who blasts off on Dec. 19, and will become the first Canadian to command the ISS in March. “It’s not like we can get a big roast turkey or a smoked ham,” but he and the others will be dining on turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread, “and we might have peach ambrosia for dessert.” Hadfield, who’s famous for his guitar-playing skills, will lead a Christmas carol singalong on the ISS’s own Larivvée guitar (built in Vancouver). And they’ll be able to talk with family at home.
After years of gruelling preparation, Hadfield is spending this last week in quarantine at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, gearing up to go. “I just checked my countdown app on my iPad, and I have a little over a week until we launch,” he said over the phone on Monday night, around 10 p.m. Kazakhstan time, the excitement clear in his voice. “It’s a pretty amazing time.” Hadfield has a lot to look forward to, like all the scientific experiments he’ll be running on the ship—about 130 are planned for the time he’s up there, researching everything from how the human heart adapts to microgravity, to totally different topics like dark matter and dark energy—and the views of Earth he’ll see. Hadfield hopes to photograph Sarnia, Ont., where he was born, and other scenes of Canada and the world from space. The view, he says, is incredible. “It’s like a present unwrapping itself the whole time you look out the window,” but what he’s most looking forward is being weightless. “It’s magic. The ISS is huge,” about the size of a football field, “and you can fly from end to end.”
Hadfield and his crew, including Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and American Tom Marshburn, will face plenty of challenges, both physical and psychological. If astronauts didn’t exercise and take other precautions, being up in space for a few months would do a lot of damage to the body, maybe the equivalent of 50 years of aging. To fend of bone and muscle loss, they spend two hours every day working out. Psychological challenges can be “harder to predict,” he says. The hardest difficulty the crew could face would be the illness or death of a family member back home, like what happened to American astronaut Daniel Tani, whose mother died in a car crash in 2007 while he was aboard the ISS. “That would be difficult to deal with psychologically, for the whole crew,” says Hadfield, who was the support astronaut for Tani’s family on Earth during that mission. The crew has talked through all these scenarios, and feels prepared for what comes their way. After all, the astronauts themselves are human experiments while they’re in space, as researchers track how they adapt to extreme physical and psychological challenges. It’s crucial information if we ever send humans to Mars or beyond; NASA recently announced plans to put a Russian and American on the ISS for an entire year.
Hadfield is spending his last week on Earth relaxing, taking a few refresher courses, and contemplating the incredible task before him. (Two days before the launch, he’ll also get a haircut.) His family—including his wife and three adult children—will come visit, although “a lot of it will be behind glass, so I don’t catch a cold before I launch,” he says. “We’ll share a traditional family Christmas in a very unusual set of circumstances.” When he flies, he’ll be taking small mementoes with him, including his wife’s wedding ring. Hadfield recalls nights in the old farmhouse in southern Ontario where he grew up. “When [my brother and I] were supposed to be sleeping, we’d pull our knees up like a control panel, and fly imaginary space missions all around the universe. For me it’s surreal that in just over a week, I’m going to climb into a Russian spaceship,” and not so long after that, he’ll be the one commanding the International Space Station.
For an inside look at how Hadfield trained at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, read Kate Lunau’s story.
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 5:03 PM - 0 Comments
Perhaps for the first time ever, Canadians will have first and exclusive access to a hot new piece of technology. On Dec. 7, the Nintendo Wii Mini will be on sale in Canada, and only in Canada.
Just what is going on here?
Wired breaks it down to two possible scenarios:
1) In the U.S., the original Wii is already on sale for as little as $130 with bundled games, and it still sells briskly. A $99 Wii Mini, which lacks Internet connectivity, presents no particular bargain to American consumers. But in Canada, you’ll have trouble finding an original Wii for less than $150, so the Mini is a good deal.
2) In the U.S., 25% of Netflix subscribers use their Wiis to stream video onto their TVs. There are tons of dedicated gadgets that’ll sling the Internet over to your TV screen, but most of them start at $100. Throwing this capability onto a console is a major value-add for Americans. Not so much for Canadians, because Netflix isn’t nearly as popular here. That’s because the Netflix library is much smaller in Canada and because our ISPs tax us with crazy fees when we burst through our miserly bandwidth caps, resulting in a true cost for HD Netflix that’s well over the $7.99 monthly subscription fee.
So: maybe we’re a good first market for a cheap-o Wii because we inexplicably pay higher prices than Americans for the same products with our more valuable dollars. Or, maybe we’re a good market because of our lousy Internet service. Either way, there’s nothing here to be proud of.
I’ll throw a third possibility into the mix, which is just as depressing:
Consumer electronics are settling down from a cycle of rapid innovation to one of global market exploitation. Tablets, smart phones and motion detecting game consoles will increasingly be offered in stripped down, bare-bones forms to 2nd world markets–places where people can’t afford the slickest new iPad, and where they lack the telecom infrastructure and content licensing to make full use of such gadgets if they did.
Maybe Nintendo is offering the Wii Mini to Canada first because we present a low-risk test-market for such releases. Instead of being, as we’ve dreamed, the testing ground for the world’s hottest new innovations, maybe Canadians will become the industry’s downmarket guinea pigs.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown
By Mika Rekai - Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 4:59 PM - 0 Comments
Technophobes, rest easy. When the machines rise, humans will be prepared.
A philosopher, an…
Technophobes, rest easy. When the machines rise, humans will be prepared.
A philosopher, an astrophysicist and a software engineer have joined forces at Cambridge University with hopes of creating a laboratory that will analyze the dangers that technology poses to the future of humankind. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), will study the potential dangers posed by rogue bio- and nanotechnology, extreme climate change, nuclear war and artificial intelligence.
“The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess,” the founders write on the centre’s website. “But that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake.”
The three founders, Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, cosmology and astrophysics professor Martin Rees and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, say that the centre is necessary to avoid opening a “Pandora’s box” where super-intelligent machines would be beyond human control. Reese, in particular, has long been a technology alarmist and is the author of the ominously titled Our Final Century. The book, published in 2003, is a detailed account of the threats posed by the unbridled rise of technology and rapidly improving artificial intelligence. While critics have dismissed the idea as a science fiction, the founders insist that just because a threat can be readily cited in pop culture, it does not mean it is not a present danger to the human race.
While CSER does not have an official opening date, the founders insist it will open sometime next year. Cambridge University, which in its 800 year history has withstood everything from the Blitz to the Bubonic plague, clearly does not intend to let the apocalyptic threat go unstudied.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 5:58 AM - 0 Comments
For the climate-change skeptics out there, who cling to their God-given right to ignore science and stoke debate with the fossil fuel of old-growth ideology, Chasing Ice should be required viewing. And for those of us who are already sufficiently alarmed, and don’t think we can bear to watch any more inconvenient truths, it’s still required viewing. This is an eye-opening documentary, full of epic beauty and astonishing revelations (of the non-Biblical kind).
Which is not to say it’s a truly great film. Too much of the narrative dwells on the trials and tribulations of its hero, National Geographic photographer James Balog, whose personal quest can’t possibly compete with what he’s capturing through his lens. This story did not need “humanizing.” We could care less about Balog’s crumbling knee and its multiple surgeries as he struggles to rappel down an ice face—not when we’re about to see a section of Greenland’s ice sheet the size of Lower Manhattan, and twice as tall, calve into the Arctic Ocean in real time. Besides, the Extreme Ice Survey, which this film documents seems very much a team effort, even if Balog’s sensitive eye endows it with an esthetic grandeur reminiscent of Manufactured Landscapes, another movie that looks over the shoulder of a celebrated photographer. Continue…