As our ability to study other stars has improved, the signs of planets orbiting them have increased. We can directly observe planet-forming disks and the indications of planets carried by the light of the star they're orbiting. But we have yet to take a look at one of the planets itself, and instead have to rely on computer models based on the average properties of the material that surrounds such stars. The limitations of this situation should be obvious. Not only are the models based on a single sample (our solar system), but the average properties of a system may hide important details. For example, the four rocky inner planets in our solar system can just about squeeze into Jupiter's Red Spot, so on average, planets in our solar system are a lot like Jupiter. Most of the planets we've detected elsewhere are pretty similar. Meanwhile, we're really hoping to identify things that look more like earth.
To do that, we're going to eventually have to start looking at the planets themselves. The problems with that are nicely laid out in an article that proposes a workaround. The biggest problems are of scale: at the distances of even nearby stars, the planets are nearly on top of them from our perspective, while the stars themselves would be expected to be 1010 times as bright as any nearby planets. This effectively rules out looking from earth, meaning any solution will have to involve an orbiting telescope. Two telescopes orbiting in concert might do the trick via interference patterns, but we seem to have enough trouble maintaining one such observatory, so that's less than ideal. A single telescope with a precisely shaped insert designed to block out the star's light (called a coronagraph) might do the trick, but the optics would have to be extremely precise, and we wouldn't be able to do any real-world testing on it until it was actually in space.
So, are we basically stuffed? Not entirely, according to the article. The workaround proposed is to make the coronagraph external to the telescope. Although this would also require two orbiting platforms, the second would have to do little more than deploy a 30-50 meter sheet, and then coordinate its position with the telescope. If the positioning can be worked out properly, then fine scale adjustments could be worked out based on actual experience. Even if it fails completely, the expensive part of the observatory—the telescope—should still be able to perform normal observations. Calculations in the article suggest that it could detect everything from the habitable zone of a star outward, and would work at distances of over 30 light years, making a significant number of stars accessible.
Everyone knows about the little rating symbols they see on their games, but very few people think about the process that puts them there. The fact is the ESRB rates games in a very passive way: by watching videos of what the developer considers to be the most graphic content of the title. If the developer or publisher doesn't put it on the video, the ESRB doesn't know it's there. The logistics of actually playing through every game and seeing everything there is to see would be impossible, so this is the only way games are going to get their ratings. Well, unless they secure a much larger budget and start paying people to play games and look for nudity—a job I'm all sorts of down for, if they decide to go that route. They know how to reach me.
Disclosing everything that's in your game has become very important after Hot Coffee and the re-rating of Oblivion. We've covered the need for full-disclosure on Ars before. Everyone's looking for the next big story, so I'm guessing there aren't a lot of developers out there who would be willing to try to sneak something by. The ESRB is also trying to make their point by fining people who don't play nice. Still, I don't think we've heard the last of this issue.
It's a tough situation. No one has the time or the money to play every game and look for all the instances of violence, language, sex, drug use, and everything else we have to keep from the minds of impressionable children. On the other hand, simply looking at videos of games being played by others and having your content be controlled by people who are obviously trying to go for a Teen rating to increase their sales is just begging for trouble.
Stephen Hawking is one of science's quintessential iconic figures. When he opens his mouth to speak the rest of us shut up and listen. Thus it was with great interest that I noted he had published a new article. It goes without saying that Hawking talks of nothing less than the origin of the universe, however, unlike other papers on the subject which I have tried to present here, I could actually understand some of this without too much effort. That is the sort of thing I really appreciate.
Theoretical cosmology usually works in the same way that everything else in physics works. Figure out the initial conditions, figure out the fundamental physics. Apply the initial conditions to the fundamental physics and out falls all the answers you could hope for. Unfortunately when this approach is applied to cosmology, one ends up with a finely tuned universe, where the initial conditions must be very precisely defined to get the universe we observe. The cause of this problem, according to Hawking, is that we are essentially in the middle of the experiment and are thus in no position to determine what the result from any initial conditions are. His solution has been to figure out how to solve the governing physics without initial conditions, but instead use what might be considered later conditions to help constrain the system. Combine this with the quantum nature of the universe and what you get is the wave function for the universe, which doesn't require a special state to get the way we observe it to be.
In some respects, this looks a lot like the anthropic principle at work and there is no problem with this, since we are not selecting boundary conditions that lead to what we observe. Better yet, the no boundary conditions approach naturally leads to inflationary periods such as that experienced by the early universe and the one we are currently experiencing. Not only that, this approach should lead to predictions on the structure of the cosmic microwave background, which should distinguish it from other competing approaches.
The following article was authored by Charles Jade.
After years of allying itself with third-party developers challenging the dominance of the iPod, Microsoft apparently has had enough. The failure of partners like Creative Technology, whose Zen players are a distant second to the iPod line, has spurred Microsoft into creating its own hardware.
While details are sparse—not even a name—the Microsoft player will be in the stores in time for Christmas. What is known is that it will boast a larger, "more advanced" screen than the current video iPod, and that it will have WiFi, presumably for downloading content directly to the player. There is also a pitch towards "Connected Entertainment" and social networking, possibly in conjunction with Xbox Live and/or Windows Mobile handsets. Adding web browser functionality would seem a more concrete feature and an obvious plus, but perhaps the biggest feature of this initial model isn't in the hardware.
To attract current iPod users, Microsoft is going to let you download for free any songs you've already bought from the iTunes Music Store. They'll actually scan iTunes for purchased tracks and then automatically add those to your account. Microsoft will still have to pay the rights-holders for the songs, but they believe it'll be worth it to acquire converts to their new player.
Considering the number of songs sold thus far through iTMS, that could literally be a billion dollar feature, and more than anything else shows how serious Microsoft is. Microsoft is also negotiating with music and television executives for content, though the latter have apparently not yet committed… but they will. As for Microsoft's current partners, such as Creative Technology, Samsung, Urge, Real Networks—who cares. They failed. The question is now whether Microsoft will fail. Probably. The iPod is entrenched and will be dominant for the immediate future regardless of what Microsoft does. However, Sony and Nintendo were entrenched in the game console market once too…
When a Community Technology Preview (CTP) build of Windows Vista was released to the public earlier this year, it contained a new tool called Windows Performance Rating, designed to analyze your computer’s various subsystems and return a performance rating between 1 and 5 that indicated how well Vista would run on that machine.
Feedback and criticism of the first iteration of this tool has caused Microsoft to implement changes in the way the utility works. Firstly, the app has been renamed “Windows Experience Index,” which for some reason makes me think of Jimmy Hendrix, but the name change is designed to make it clear that it is less of a benchmarking suite that tells you how fast your computer is, and more of an indicator of how well Vista will work.
The final result has also been renamed “Base Score” to clarify that it represents the lowest score of the series of benchmarks, rather than an average result. The base score is still a number from 1 to 5, but in theory, faster computers available in the future will be able to score a 6 or even a 7. In the first version of the tool, the final score was rounded to the nearest integer, but fans of decimal places will be pleased to know that the new version retains both significant figures.
Reaction to the new tool is mixed. Intel is apparently less than pleased with the utility, stating officially that they “continue to work closely with Microsoft to shape and influence [the tool], but have no further comment at this time.” Unofficially, however, an Intel source has complained that the WEI is “very heavily focused on graphics performance.” That’s bad news for the maker of integrated graphics chipsets, which typically score poorly on these sorts of benchmarks. The fact that the base score is the lowest of the bunch means that a beefier CPU or faster RAM won’t show up on the final tally. While Intel’s latest chipsets are perfectly capable of running Vista even in its most advanced graphics modes, nobody wants a computer that scores a 3 when your neighbor has a 5.
Computer manufacturers also have some reservations about the tool. According to one source, “one problem area makes an entire machine look like it has problems, which will have manufacturers confusing the issue by spec-listing sub-scores for each component or engineering computers to play well to this test.”
Companies like ATI, on the other hand, are pleased with the tool. “It should be very clear to everyone how important graphics are,” said Andrew Dodd, a software product manager at ATI Technologies. “As long as Microsoft makes it clear what each rating means and why they are getting that rating, it is a very good thing for end-users.”
So will the Windows Experience Index boost sales of graphics chips from companies like ATI and NVIDIA, while harming integrated graphics chips from vendors like Intel? It doesn’t seem terribly likely. The big selling point of integrated graphics is the lower price they bring to the computer, and price-conscious customers are not likely to care about whether Vista gets a 3 or a 4. Still, one wonders if the WEI rating might start showing up on retail displays as an additional selling point once Vista ships. The fact remains, however, that one low score in the series of benchmarks will still negatively influence the final rating number, which is a concern for manufacturers.
Well, at least we can't say that Apple's iPod branding hasn't managed to weave its way through all facets of the media. It appears as if a Colorado teenager was out wandering around during a storm, listening to his iPod when the (I guess) inevitable happened:
Jason Bunch was listening to Metallica on his iPod while mowing the lawn outside his Castle Rock home Sunday afternoon when lightning hit him.
Next thing he knew, he was in his bed, bleeding from his ears and vomiting. He was barefoot and had taken off his burned T-shirt and gym shorts. He doesn't know how he got back in the house.
Ride the Lightning, Jason. Ride the Lightning.
So, what exactly does the iPod really have anything to do with the whole thing? Well, the teen's ears, face, and neck were burned along where his iPod's cord was hanging, all the way down to his hip where the iPod was. The reasoning that Mr. Bunch and his mother are using to connect the iPod with the lightning strike is a little bit of a stretch, though. They claim that the iPod is what attracted the lightning to him, as there were taller things around him (such as trees) that were not struck. Experts, however, disagree with this reasoning:
"There is no scientific evidence to show that lightning is 'attracted' to items like an iPod. However, if someone wearing earbuds is struck, current may travel along the wires into the ears," said Gregory Stewart of the Denver-based Lightning Reference Center. "There are documented cases of lightning traveling through wired telephones and killing the users. "
Objects such as loose change in victims' pockets have left first- and second-degree burns after a lightning strike, Stewart said.
Rest assured, loyal iPod users, that listening to your iPod out in the middle of a lightning storm isn't going to increase your chances of being struck by lightning. We think.
So, aside from a dull hope that this media bubble around Mr. Bunch and his lightning-struck iPod doesn't turn into some crazy lawsuit against Apple for manufacturing electronic killing machines that play awesome music, the best part of the article comes from this little blurb:
Then, he called a girl he was supposed to meet for a date.
"I said, 'I did not stand you up. I was struck by lightning."'
Good show, Jason. You know, if that girl doesn't forgive you, maybe I could hook you up with a friend of mine…
College students and an all-you-can-listen-to music buffet. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? That’s what music services like Napster were hoping a few years ago when they began signing contracts with colleges and universities to make their services available to students. Unfortunately for schools and the download services, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Currently, over 120 schools have deals with the likes of Rhapsody and Napster under which students have access to the services’ music libraries, often for a fraction of the regular price, if not free. However, many undergrads are turning their noses up at the opportunity to use the legal download services. Cornell student Angelo Petrigh decided not to use Napster, which inked an agreement with the Ivy League school, because he won’t be able to take the music with him when he graduates. "After I read that, I decided I didn’t want to even try it," he said.
Petrigh’s experience is echoed on other campuses, to the point that Purdue University is joining Cornell in deciding not to renew their deals with Napster. One barrier is the subscription-based nature of the service. The reason Petrigh can’t take the music with him is that the DRM used in Napster’s subscription service renders the songs unplayable once the subscription lapses. The alternative is continuing to pay for a subscription after graduation, or forking over 99¢ for each track you want to keep.
The other big problem for the schools (and music download services) is the 800lb gorilla of the online music scene, Apple. The iPod rules the digital music player scene, and once students discover that their shiny white (or black) iPods they received as graduation presents don’t work with the school’s official download service, they don’t bother with them. And the roughly 19 percent of college students who own Macs are completely out of luck.
Despite the students’ lack of enthusiasm, the RIAA is pleased with the services. "Universities tend to move not all that quick [sic] to do things like this, so it’s really quite an achievement," says RIAA President Cary Sherman.
When we reported on the first of the deals back in September 2003, we noted that the schools were driven in no small part by fear of the RIAA and in particular, the possibility of lawsuits. We were also critical of how the services were funded. In many cases, the services’ fees are buried under the catch-all "activity fees" that many of us remember oh-so-fondly. In the case of students who use Linux, Macs, or iPods and are therefore unable to avail themselves of the college-approved music services, it forces them to pay for a service they cannot use.
Are the college-music service deals doomed? Maybe not, but they are definitely on the endangered list. The fact is, many students are unimpressed by the idea of free or reduced-cost access to university-approved music services. As a result, more colleges and universities will be cutting ties with the music services.
Apple is poised at the number 2 spot for marketshare from potential computer buyers, according to a recent survey conducted by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence. TechnoMetrica, which has been taking purchase-intent market data for over two years now, has observed that when being compared to all PC manufacturers, Apple takes the spot immediately after Dell (who currently holds 41 percent of the buyer preference) and tied with HP at number 2.
However, Apple's preference amongst consumers who plan to purchase a computer within the next six months has jumped significantly, even between May of this year to now (six percent to sixteen percent).
Among those saying it's likely they'll buy a new desktop PC in the next six months, Apple was the No. 2 preferred brand, with 16%. That's the highest number for Apple since TechnoMetrica began collecting purchase-intent data more than two years ago. In May, 6% of likely desktop PC buyers said they would choose Apple.
The Yahoo! article claims that the reason for this jump, poising Apple in a very good position compared to the past, is due to a number of factors, not the least of which being the "rub-off" effect that Apple's extremely popular iPod is having on other products from the company.
"The Apple brand — thanks to the iPod — has gotten far more exposure among average consumers, who are thus more likely to consider other Apple products," he said.
Additionally, the use of faster Intel chips, the availability of Boot Camp and/or Parallels to be able to dual boot or simultaneously run Windows with OS X, and positive word of mouth are all seen as reasons for Apple's positive positioning in consumers' minds, making Macs seem like a good all-in-one solution for many consumers.
Now, we may be preaching to the choir here, as most of our readers on Infinite Loop are probably very likely to purchase a Mac again as their next machine. However, do you think that amongst your PC-using friends, family, and co-workers there has been an increase in interest in purchasing a Mac? I can tell you that for me, personally, the answer to that is an unequivocal "yes." My otherwise Apple-hating boss was just telling me the other day that after he saw me dual booting Windows months ago, he's been seriously thinking about buying a MacBook Pro. If that's not a turnaround, I dunno what is.
With more than 56 million subscribers, Cingular has a popular thing going, but not everyone likes the service they get from the company. A group of disgruntled customers has now slapped the mobile phone giant with a class action lawsuit over claims that they’ve been ripped off.
The story goes like this: back when AT&T Wireless was still a going concern and its customers were still gruntled, everything was great. Then Cingular came along and bought out AT&T Wireless. AT&T customers thought that they would simply keep their current plans, phones, and quality of service, and everything would be hunky-dory. And then the disgruntlefication set in.
AT&T Wireless customers allege that after the acquisition, Cingular began to make their lives difficult. According to the lawsuit (PDF), Cingular pressed them to move to more expensive plans, began degrading their service, and often charged them an US$18 “transfer fee” to become Cingular customers. Those who were upset at the new arrangement found that quitting their contract early came with a hefty termination fee. The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights (FTCR) heard the cries of the suffering masses and got involved in the issue.
“Cingular promised AT&T customers it would ‘raise the bar’; instead, it lowered service quality, forced AT&T customers to move to Cingular, and then raised prices,” said Harvey Rosenfield, a lawyer for FTCR. Pam Pressley, FTCR’s Director of Litigation, said, “AT&T customers all over the country have complained about Cingular’s conduct. But Cingular gave people no choice: put up with the problems, pay to transfer to Cingular, or pay $175 to get out. Too bad it takes a lawsuit to protect people. Hey, Cingular: ‘can you hear us now?'”
Cingular recently lost another high-profile case against it, this one involving the claim that it intentionally signed up more customers than it could handle. The company is on the hook for millions in fines and refunds in that case, an example sure to comfort the newest round of litigants.
When I first played House of the Dead 4 I had a good time, but it's also pretty hard to screw up the House of the Dead franchise. You see zombies, you shoot them, and if you're willing to put in the quarters you'll see the end of the game. They're fun, but they've gotten so formulaic it's hard to get excited about each new game as it comes out. House of the Dead 4 introduces a few new things, like the automatic gun as standard and the shaking motion you use to reload instead of shooting off-screen. It just didn't feel like enough was done to set it apart from the other games.
Now, since Japan gets all the fun stuff, Sega is introducing House of the Dead 4 special in Japanese arcades. I haven't been able to find any pictures of the game cabinet yet, but the additions are crazy. There's now two screens, one in front and one in back, and you sit in a chair that moves with the game. You get blasted in the face with air whenever you get hit. You get graded on how well you play with the second player. While I doubt the game itself is going to go through a ton of revisions, this almost sounds like a ride instead of a game. I'm really hoping they bring this to the Gameworks where I live.
Increasingly we're seeing regular games with insane cabinets like this to try to lure people into arcades, and I have mixed feelings about it. No matter how much I'm spun around or get things blasted in my face (no comments from the peanut gallery, thanks), we're still basically playing the same arcade games we have been for the past ten years or so. Let's see something really new soon.
Of course, I still want to play this, so I'm probably a hypocrite.