The number of genes in modern organisms range from a low of a few hundred in some parasitic bacteria to up to tens of thousands in higher vertebrates and plants. In the days prior to whole genome sequencing, it wasn't even clear how many genes there actually were, much less how they all arose. With the results of the last few years, it's clear that many of the genes are the results of two processes. Duplication of genes provides extra copies that can vary to take on different functions while leaving the original intact. Alternately, bits and pieces of existing genes can be swapped and merged to add new functions to a previously less complex protein.
Left unanswered was the question of how often new genes are formed out of DNA that previously did nothing, such as non-coding or junk DNA. The latest issue of PNAS has a paper that begins to address this question. The authors compared the genome of that old biological favorite, Drosophila melanogaster, to some of its neighboring species, and looked for genes that were present in this species, but absent in others. After a very rigorous screening process, they were left with five genes, all of which came from non-coding DNA within the last five million years. The newly established protein coding regions appear to be under selective pressure to pick up functional changes (which we know by looking at the Ka/Ks ratio). When the expression of these new genes was examined, it was found that they're all produced in the testes. Sex seems to be a primary motivator of yet one more aspect of biology.
A new gene every million years or so doesn't sound like much, but the authors note that this is likely to be a conservative, lower limit. After all, most of the genes in a genome are identified based on the fact that they look like something we're familiar with. Truly new genes don't look like anything we've seen before, and so are quite likely to slip through the identification process without being recognized. It's also worth pointing out that these genes are being used for a process, namely sex, that is a major contributor to the formation of new species. As such, their impact may be more significant than their numbers suggest.
After this post to his blog, it really seems as if all the pressure is starting to get to Major Nelson. I think he handled it the wrong way, when you have a lot of people clamoring for product—for things they'd like to spend their money on, calming them down isn't always the best thing. If the problem is that it takes a long time to get things on XBox Live, and so many people are complaining that he felt the need to remark on it, shouldn't they devote more worker-hours on speeding things up?
What Microsoft needs to do is make damn sure they have some great product coming down the pipe in the next few weeks, and then use Major Nelson to whip everyone into a frenzy waiting for it. It's only a safe play if they know for a fact they can deliver, but this is Microsoft we're talking about. These problems can be fixed with time and money, and sadly money can also be used to buy time. Speed up the process, add bonuses to get the work done quickly, and then meet the demands of the customer.
This blog post makes it sound as if Major Nelson thinks these customers will always be there, and that they'll always buy what Microsoft is selling. The more time they spend getting things ready, the more they calm the public down, the easier it gets to just blow the Marketplace off completely and start to wait for the Wii and the PS3.
Mr. Nelson, when a big group of people is waiving money at you—money they want to give you—telling them to calm down and stop asking about release dates is maddening. It was said best in Glengarry Glen Ross: They want to give you their money, are you man enough to take it?
The use of the term "casual gamer" is starting to become quickly outdated, and a study released by the Macrovision Corporation says that "casual" players spend more time on games than many hardcore gamers. At this point, how do we determine which is which?
…according to a recent worldwide survey, 37 percent of those who use casual games play nine or more two-hour 'sessions' each week.
In addition, the survey, of 789 worldwide participants, found that casual gameplay happens most often at night, as opposed to during commute hours or other 'quick break' times during the day, again indicating that the moniker 'casual' is a little anachronistic for the gameplay style.
So with that amount of time being spent on games, why are they still casual? Is it because they play games on their cellphones and flash titles on their computers instead of going to the gaming stores for the newest releases? Is it because they don't spend enough time researching games or arguing about them online? Casual gamers are spending some serious time playing, and their money goes just as far as ours. With findings like this, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to start seeing ads for casual games in more publications and during more mainstream programming.
So what do we call these people? Do we needa term that means hardcore-casual gamer? It seems as if more and more people are finding videogames an acceptable way to spend their time,and a lot of time at that. If they only playMahjong for ten-hour sittings,does that make them any less of a gamer than someone spending the same amount of time playing Battlefield 2?
Broadband competition has been problematic on both sides of the Atlantic, but European Union regulators are preparing to open up the market in Europe. Earlier today, the European Commission announced plans to change how broadband service is regulated. Taking an opposite approach to their counterparts in the US, the EC regulators will force incumbent providers to share their infrastructure with competitors.
Under previous EU directives, member countries are supposed to be taking the initiative in ensuring broadband competition exists within their borders. Movement has been slow, however, leaving phone companies such as France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom AG (better known as T-Mobile in the US) with over 80 percent of broadband connections in some countries.
"We must open the markets where they are dominated by dominant players," said EU commission Viviane Reding. "Where the markets are opened, investments are done and price go down for consumers."
The EU’s approach contrasts with that of the US, which is content to let the telecoms and cable companies keep their infrastructure all to themselves. The Federal Communications Commission’s position is that competition between broadband modes is all that is necessary, so if a market is served by both cable and DSL ISPs, adequate competition exists. It’s nice in theory, but not practical in many urban areas where the infrastructure isn’t up to the task of providing adequate DSL service or where consumers have the choice between two equally bad alternatives.
Last week, 34 European nations endorsed a new initiative that would, among other things, ensure that 90 percent of all Europeans have some form of broadband access by 2010. If this proposal to strengthen broadband competition is approved, some Europeans would go from having no broadband service at all to being able to choose from a number of different providers in just a few years.
The environmental impact of throwing away old computers continues to increase as more and more PCs are sold each year. Consumer concern over this impact is also increasing worldwide. In response, Dell has announced that they are increasing their global recycling programs.
“We have a responsibility to our customers to recycle the products we make and sell,” said Michael Dell, chairman of Dell. “Our direct relationships with consumers allow us to offer this easy and free service and we encourage others in our industry to do so as well.”
Dell’s old policy was no-charge recycling of any brand of used computer or printer with the purchase of a new Dell computer or printer. This service included free home pick-up of the used computer. Under the new policy, the company will also offer no-charge recycling of any Dell-branded product, whether or not a new product was purchased. Dell is also offering recycling of toner and ink cartridges for Dell printers. The new service is scheduled for launch in the US in September and worldwide by November of this year.
The new policy has earned praise from environmental groups. “Dell is setting the standard for the industry with this new policy,” said Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. “Recycling of used consumer electronics remains a challenge and Dell is taking concrete steps to remove the barriers of cost and inconvenience for consumers.”
In addition to the new recycling policy, Dell has partnered with the National Cristina Foundation (NCF) to donate used PCs to disabled and poor children. The company will still offer recycling options for computers, printers, and other electronic items from other companies for a US$10 fee, plus shipping costs.
According to the BBC, up to 70 percent of heavy metals such as lead and mercury found in landfills are a result of “e-waste.” In a recent survey, people all over the world indicated that they would be willing to pay more for an environmentally-friendly PC. Will Dell’s announcement help the company regain its edge, after falling behind the growth rate of the rest of the market? Or do Dell consumers only care about price, not environmentally-friendly policies?
Late last week, the New York Times dropped the not-so-surprising revelation that the US government has its nose deep into the world’s largest international financial database, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) database, looking for leads on terrorist activity. If you haven’t been following this story, then you’ll want to jump down to the last part of this post, because I’m first going to dive right into why I support this particular antiterror program.
Regular Ars readers who’re familiar with my previous, critical coverage of other invasive, electronic snooping programs—criticism that goes all the way back through the Carnivore/ECHELON days and extends right up to the NSA’s domestic surveillance program (formerly TIA)—might be surprised that I could support a program that taps into international financial records and looks for terrorist connections. Isn’t such activity just as invasive and scary as the NSA listening in on our phone calls and reading our email? In a word, no.
Working with the market vs. working against the market
Anonymity is the enemy of commerce. This has been true four millennia, and it’s even more true in our modern world of cashless commerce than it was in antiquity. Our entire modern financial system is built on the ability to verify the identity of all the parties involved in market transactions, either directly or by using a proxy like verifying that a particular credit card transaction fits the cardholder’s typical purchasing behavior.
My point here is that, when the US government dips into a large financial database in an attempt to trace money as it flows between parties, they know exactly who they’re spying on. The SWIFT snooping program works because the feds can start working their way through the network of transactions at a known node—a terrorist or terrorist financier. They then can look to see who that person is dealing with, and who their contacts are dealing with, and so on. This is the polar opposite of the NSA program, in which the government starts with a data flow and then tries to figure out identities of all the parties involved in the communication.
It is crucial that critics of the NSA program, and of other technologies of mass surveillance (TMS) efforts, keep these two types of programs separate. The SWIFT program makes sense, because you begin with a discrete and inherently finite collection of identities and try to trace the myriad connections between them. In contrast, the NSA program attempts to work in the opposite direction, from an overwhelming volume of connections to a very small pool of identities. If the former program works, it’s because the financial industry has gotten very good at identifying all the parties to a transaction; if the latter program works, it’s because we got lucky and happened to be snooping the right call at the right time.
Let me put this in market terms: there are massive, overwhelming incentives for the financial community to be able to verify the identity of each node in a network of financial transactions; as I just said, business is built on this knowledge and the trust that it engenders. This is not true for telecom networks, where the incentives are structured to reward transport capabilities—bandwidth, quality of service, access, on-time delivery, etc.—between nodes that may or may not be anonymous.
Thus the SWIFT snooping program exploits the strengths that the market has endowed financial databases with, while the NSA snooping program is fighting an uphill battle against the ever growing volume of communications data that the market demands from telecom networks.
Oversight is key
Although I think that the SWIFT snooping program is a good idea, I almost certainly wouldn’t support a similar program for snooping domestic transactions. Why? Because I’m one of those “give me liberty or give me death” fanatics, which means that I have two main criteria for any kind of government program that involves spying on innocent citizens:
- Operational effectivenessOversight
There’s so much international money tied up in the integrity of the SWIFT database that I have a fairly high degree of trust that the SWIFT snooping program is subject to strict controls and international oversight. We’re not talking about a domestic company that’s going to roll over for the feds, and a Congress that’s going to look the other way while the Executive branch does whatever it likes. There’s real money at stake here, and much of it belongs to foreigners who are going to be concerned about things like corporate espionage and the US using the data to give domestic businesses an unfair edge.
A very short intro to the SWIFT database story
One of the US government’s first priorities in the aftermath of 9/11 was to strike terrorism right in the pocketbook. It was in the context of their attempts to freeze terrorist assets and to trace the sources of funding for international terror organizations that the Bush administration first learned of the SWIFT database. They immediately moved to gain access to it, and at one point they allegedly wanted a copy of the entire thing for antiterror purposes.
Here’s the NYT’s description of the SWIFT international banking database:
Swift’s database provides a rich hunting ground for government investigators. Swift is a crucial gatekeeper, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money among 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. The cooperative is owned by more than 2,200 organizations, and virtually every major commercial bank, as well as brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges, uses its services. Swift routes more than 11 million transactions each day, most of them across borders.
The cooperative’s message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Starting with tips from intelligence reports about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a “24-7” operation. Customers’ names, bank account numbers and other identifying information can be retrieved, the officials said.
Immediately following the NYT’s story, the Republican outrage machine cranked into high gear over the revelations, with a chorus of right-wing bloggers, pundits, and even the President himself condemning the story as damaging to national security. In fact, by turning the outrage knob up to eleven, the administration and its surrogates have been able to turn the conversation about the program almost completely into one about freedom of the press vs. national security. (This is a move that the left has been wholly complicit in, by the way.)
For what it’s worth, I think it’s a tragedy, and probably even a threat to national security, that the NYT is our now our first line of defense against Executive overreach. That used to be the job of Congress.
Further readingSWIFT statement on compliance policyBank Data “Motherlode” in Feds’ HandsNYT reveals secret program to combat terrorist financingSWIFT: The Latest Victim of the War on Terror
Palm and Xerox have settled a nine-year-long patent battle over the handwriting-recognition technology used in the Palm handhelds. Palm will hand over US$22.5 million to Xerox, which will cover the nine years of alleged infringement and buy another seven years of patent peace for the handheld maker and copier/printer giant.
Xerox’s Unistrokes handwriting recognition was supposedly the basis for Graffiti, the text input method so familiar to millions of Palm users. After noticing the similarity between Graffiti and Unistrokes in 1997, Xerox filed suit against US Robotics, which owned Palm at the time. Back then, the Palm Pilot was in the midst of revitalizing the PDA market due in no small part to the easy-to-learn Graffiti data entry method.
Feeling the pressure from the lawsuit, Palm licensed another handwriting recognition technology, Jot, as the basis for Graffiti 2. The change to Graffiti 2 in 2003 was not welcomed by most Palm users. I remember getting a replacement Kyocera 7135 smartphone around that time that had the unfamiliar and unintuitive Graffiti 2 installed. Although Palm could go back to using Graffiti 1 if it chose to, it’s a bit late—consumers seem to have become accustomed to miniature QWERTY keyboards over the past couple of years.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the competitive landscape has changed markedly. Palm no longer rules the PDA market, and in fact, now makes devices that run Windows Mobile rather than Palm OS. Xerox, despite vigorously defending its patent, has never made an attempt to create or market its own PDA. Either way, a long patent battle is over; does the US$22.5 million Xerox settled for make the fight worthwhile?
Plenty of players in the entertainment biz have made it clear that there's not just one model for successful media distribution, but to find that perfect balance between content control and commercial success sometimes makes for very amusing results. MTV announced today that they are expanding their iTunes Music Store television offerings. This is definitely good (although not wildly exciting news) for iTunes fans. Still, after teaming up with Microsoft only a month ago to launch their own online music service, URGE, with great fanfare, it certainly raises some questions about MTV's long-term plans for online content.
New iTMS shows come from Spike TV, TV Land, Nick at Nite, Logo (okay, I've never even heard of this channel), MTV, and The N. Don't go looking for Lucy Ricardo or the whole DeGrassi gang, because offerings are more along the lines of "TNA: iMPACT" (billed as a "wrestling alternative" and I'm pretty sure they don't mean "sitting down to talk it out like civilized adults"), "Disorderly Conduct" (police out-takes?), "Viva La Bam" ("documenting the comical and chaotic life of skateboarding pro and 'Jackass' star, Bam Margera."—uhhh, thanks MTV!), and "Beyond the Break" (a teenage girl surfing drama). In other words, it's typical MTV Networks programming. One interesting nugget is the new Spike TV show "Blade: The Series." While it might be terrible, you can download the pilot for free from iTMS and judge for yourself.
What about URGE, you say? The optimist in me wants to say that URGE, unlike MTV (back in the days when it was a channel, not a network), will stay all about the music. Sounds nice, and MTV could be following Disney, who tested the video movie waters with High School Musical before making any long-term downloadable movie commitments. On the other hand, MTV's partner Microsoft has been heavily promoting URGE-rival Rhapsody. In that light, MTV strengthening their partnership with Apple is, as one Ars staffer observed, "like leaving your child in the woods to die." Time will tell, I suppose.
For now, there's nothing good on TV and the iTMS is giving away a 1 1/2 hour show about a half-vampire fighting against the forces of… other evil. You have no excuse for being bored.
This week has seen plenty of conjecture about that online payment service Google was about to launch. Well, now the service is here and it’s not the PayPal killer many expected. Our own Jeremy stood apart from the crowd by telling you so weeks ago.
The new service, called Google Checkout, is meant to give businesses an easy way to charge for their wares, and to relieve customers from the hassle of keeping track of multiple accounts with online merchants. As a shopper, you’ll need a Google account to use the Checkout service, and the signup asks for your address, phone number, and the usual details on a major credit card. You only have to do this once, and then you’re ready to check out online purchases from stores like Starbucks, Buy.com, and Tweeter with just a couple of clicks. The appeal of Google Checkout for us punters is its simplicity, along with having a single interface across multiple stores.
For the vendor, Google takes a smaller cut of payments than eBay’s PayPal does. PayPal starts at US$0.30 plus 2.9 percent of the total payment, but Google lowballs that with $0.20 and 2 percent, respectively. In addition, merchants that use AdWords get a break on these fees to the tune of ten times the amount spent on advertising. In other words, spend $100 on AdWords campaigns and get up to $1,000 of your Checkout fees refunded, making the service essentially free for some sellers.
If that wasn’t enough incentive for businesses to open a Checkout account, there’s one more perk: if you’re a registered Checkout merchant, your AdWords text ads will get a spiffy little shopping cart icon next to them, which makes your ads stand out a bit from cart-less competition. Of course, if this becomes common practice, it will work the other way around as most ads have little carts and the ones that don’t might attract more eyeballs.
But even then, the non-carted ads will be missing a badge of honor, or so Google hopes. When you can entrust your credit card information to Google—and who doesn’t trust Google?—with clearly defined refund policies and dispute resolution procedures, why would you want to use a payment system cobbled together in some dodgy e-tailer’s garage and hand over credit card information to companies you never heard of before clicking on a Google ad?
<!– Buy early, buy often. –>
Google may be trying to displace PayPal for small business use (and maybe even get into larger accounts than PayPal ever did) but let’s be clear: this is not going to be a person-to-person payment system anytime soon. There’s no simple way to send money to other individuals who aren’t running online businesses, and certainly nothing close to the convenience of PayPal’s payments to anybody with an e-mail address. The recipient must be running a website with the appropriate code to link into Checkout services, and you’re not going to get great-uncle Bert to set up a website just so you can send him cash to finance his
Viagra Lipitor habit.
And while Checkout is tightly integrated with AdWords and even Analytics, there are no ties at all to Google Base or Froogle at this point. Searches in those services that return listings from Checkout partner stores don’t have the little shopping cart icons anywhere in sight, though you can still checkout through the Google system if you entered the store from Froogle, or just typed in the store URL by hand.
All things considered, this is simply the Google Wallet that the company’s management has been discussing publicly for a very long time. The official word all along has been that there will be no person-to-person or micropayment solution, and that Google was not intending to compete directly with PayPal. The company has delivered on its promises, and still many popular news sources are hyping the future of Google Checkout as the definitive PayPal killer. Here at the Orbiting HQ, we think that this is pretty close to the final form of the service, and eBay can put down that nuclear warhead it had planned to deploy in its defense.
Should you feel like giving the Checkout process a look from the consumer side, several of the initial partner stores are running a $10 rebate on $20 minimum purchase promotion. So hurry up and get your eCost discount before that company goes out of business. 😛
Talk about getting your wires crossed. In the same week that Microsoft sounded the trumpets for the arrival of their online preview for Office 2007, they’re now announcing a shipping delay for the office suite.
"Based on internal testing and the beta 2 feedback around product performance, we are revising our development schedule to deliver the 2007 system release by the end of year 2006, with broad general availability in early 2007," a Microsoft spokesperson told Ars Technica.
The company had previously planned an October release, although speculation that Office 2007 would be delayed began shortly after Windows Vista’s own ship date slipped from the fourth quarter of 2006 into early 2007. Pragmatically speaking, this means that the company will launch its mainstream promotions for Office 2007 almost simultaneously with Windows Vista.
How much of a change this represents for Microsoft’s marketing plans is unclear. The October release was already low-key, aimed primarily at getting OEMs on board in advance of holiday sales. For the consumer market, the expectation has been that Microsoft’s marketing department would ride the Vista wave while trying to hawk Office. That’s unlikely to change now, unless Windows Vista slips again. Ballmer has hinted that Windows Vista could see another delay, but those hints are largely vacuous, and seem to be primarily centered on timing issues framed in terms of weeks, not months. We expect that Microsoft will shortly announce free upgrade programs for computers purchased this holiday season for both Windows Vista and Office 2007. At the very least, such a move would allow Microsoft to talk up their "units shipped" quickly after launch
According to Microsoft, over 2.5 million people have downloaded the Office 2007 beta. It marks a significant development for the company, insofar as they are abandoning many years of a largely consistent user interface in favor of an almost entirely redesigned system. Microsoft believes that the redesign will pay off in spades as customers find new productivity enhancements, but the marked difference from versions past could be considered a risk for the company, should the Office 2007 System meet mostly disinterested customers. IT buyers in particular have expressed concerns that the new user interface could end up costing companies more as they retrain users. Office developers, on the other hand, have said that the new user interface was originally conceived with to require little to no training to use effectively.