After letting Internet Explorer 6 go for years without any significant updates, Microsoft has been trying to make up for lost time by releasing a series of previews and betas for IE 7. The first preview was released to the public in January, and Beta 2 followed on its heels in April. Now, Microsoft has unveiled a third and possibly final beta of its new web browser.
There are no significant changes to the rendering engine, as Microsoft promised web developers in March that the layout engine was “feature complete” and that they could start testing their sites with the new browser. However, the new beta does offer many bug fixes, performance enhancements and minor user interface tweaks.
As with Beta 2, the new version requires Windows XP with SP2 installed. Versions are also available for Windows XP Pro x86-64, and for both x86 and Itanium versions of Windows Server 2003. Microsoft recommends uninstalling Beta 2 or earlier if installed, although the release can be installed on top of Beta 2 if you feel like living dangerously. Installing IE 7 involves running Windows Genuine Advantage to check to see if you are running a “valid” copy of Windows twice: once before you download the installer, and a second time after the installation routine begins. While this may please people who really love to feel validated, it seems a tad overkill for installing a beta version of a free browser.
Improvements over Beta 2 are mostly bug fixes, although some welcome changes have been added to the user interface. Like most other tabbed browsers, Beta 3 now allows you to change the order of the tabs by dragging and dropping them into a new place. RSS feeds can now be updated all at once instead of one feed at a time, and there are more options for marking all feeds as read. For those people who missed their e-mail button on the main toolbar, the new beta allows it to be put back in. The crazy arrangement with the menu bar sandwiched in between the address bar and the toolbar is still there by default, and although it is possible to unlock these toolbars and drag them to more sensible places, you still can’t place the menu bar above the address bar, where most everone in the universe would expect it to be.
IE 7 Beta 3’s Toolbar, with the “Classic” menu bar disabled.
Microsoft continues to promote their new web site devoted to showcasing third-party plugins for IE 7, no doubt to compete with the many Firefox plugins available. Internet Explorer 7 does a good job of catching up to other browsers on the market, although Opera and Firefox users may not see anything new here that is compelling enough to get them to switch. However, IT managers will no doubt welcome the extra security features, including antiphishing tools that warn users when they are visiting spoofed sites.
Internet Explorer 7 is scheduled for a final release near the end of 2006, and although this is the last scheduled “beta,” there may be additional Release Candidate previews before that time.
On Tuesday, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s law school released the most comprehensive study to date on the state of electronic voting. The extensive report is a painful read for anyone concerned about the future of democracy, because it shows just how brain-dead easy it is to rig an election with three popular electronic voting systems: direct recording electronic (DRE), DRE with voter verified paper trail, and precinct count optical scan.
Among the more startling findings are the fact that voting machines with wireless components are very easily compromised by anyone with a little know-how and nearby wireless device—you don’t even need a laptop; a PDA will do nicely.
The report also found that voter verified paper trails that aren’t backed up by routine, random audits are good only for instilling a false sense of security in the voting process. You’d think it would be obvious to election officials that even if you get a paper receipt documenting the vote that you cast, any later meddling with that machine’s vote count can go completely undetected if a sample of those receipts are never compared to the final output. But apparently a lot of things that are obvious to tech people go over the heads of election officials (e.g. the idea that you would never want to give wireless access to voting machines.)
It’s worth noting that the Brennan Center task force isn’t just another group of activists:
The government and private sector scientists, voting machine experts, and security professionals on the Task Force worked together for more than a year. The members of the non-partisan panel were drawn from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (?NIST?), the Technical Guidelines Development Committee of the federal Election Assistance Commission (?EAC?), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, leading research universities, and include many of the nation?s foremost security experts.
The Task Force surveyed hundreds of election officials around the country; categorized over 120 security threats; and evaluated countermeasures for repelling attacks. The study examined each of the three most commonly purchased electronic voting systems: electronic machines (?DREs?) with ? and without ? a voter verified paper trail, and precinct-counted optical scan systems (?PCOS?). The report, The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World, is the first-ever systematic analysis of security vulnerabilities in each of these systems.
The task force concluded the report with a number of recommendations for making electronic voting more tamper-proof. But given the widespread, ongoing evidence of rampant insecurity in popular electronic voting systems (Google “Diebold,” for instance) and the mystifying nationwide failure to do anything about it, will another voice shouting that the house is on fire be enough?
I have this fantasy where I organize a group of computer science types who’ve been working for years on electronic voting problems and we write a book called, How To Steal a National Election: An Step-by-Step Handbook. The book would come complete with everything from discussions of the theory underlying how you could steal a presidential election by rigging a few key counties, to a nuts-and-bolts, “push this, pull here, type in this command” guide to how to rig specific machine models. We’d also include a CD with source code, applications, schematics, all the other tools the modern election fraudster needs. I feel that if there were some way to make clear just how real this threat is and just how easy it is to actually steal and election, maybe folks could get motivated to care. But maybe I’m just fantasizing.
Update: A lot of people were fired up about the book idea. If you’re interested in it, go here.
According to a post put up this morning on Ian Moulster’s (a Microsoft product manager in the UK) blog, Microsoft is providing only a limited number of copies (both physical and downloaded) of Vista Beta 2, and they are “fast approaching the cut-off point.”
Those still interested in becoming part of the beta program can go to Microsoft’s beta registration site and sign up for the program. The site requires a “Windows Live” ID, which is essentially the same as your Passport sign-in for Hotmail, and once signed-in you can obtain a beta product key and start downloading the massive 3.2GB file, which comes in the form of a DVD ISO image.
According to the site, as long as you start your download today, even if you get cut off you will still be able to resume the download at a later time, provided of course that you use a download manager that allows file resuming, or use Microsoft’s supplied ActiveX-powered Akamai download manager. However, after July 14th, even interrupted downloads will be cut off.
Beta testers are encouraged to activate their copy after installing. Moulster mentioned on his blog that activation may bring future benefits. “We may be able to provide people who have activated copies with future…stuff,” he said on his site. “I’m being vague because I need to be, just trust me and make sure you activate.”
A similar beta program is in process for Office 2007, the new version of Microsoft’s venerable suite sporting a radically redesigned user interface. According to Moulster, there is no cutoff point at present for the Office 2007 beta program, although this may be subject to change at a later date.
Windows Vista is scheduled to be released to the public in January 2007. Office 2007’s ship date was recently bumped forward to a similar date.
It's not hard to spot a Type-II supernova while it's happening; a star that suddenly shines brighter than its host galaxy is an easy give away. The immediate aftermath is pretty obvious as well, as immense clouds of gas that are glowing with energy can be tough to miss. But over time, the gas cools down, and what's left is gas that is indistinguishable (temperature-wise, at least) from the regular contents of the galaxy. This has made it tough to compare the number of supernovae in our galaxy with estimates derived from a variety of sources.
An article in The Astrophysical Journal states this problem clearly in its very first sentences: "Although some 20,000-30,000 supernova remnants (SNRs) are expected to exist in the Milky Way, only about 230 are currently known. This implies that most SNRs are 'missing.'" It then goes on to locate them. I can't access the original, but Nature provided a summary of it in its latest issue. Unfortunately, that summary doesn't even have an open access abstract. It does, however, have a figure that anyone can apparently take a look at, which shows the ancient remains of an area where roughly 100 stars went supernova over a relatively short time period.
Article access issues aside, how did the astronomers identify the old remnants? Once the gas from a supernova cools down, its key distinguishing feature from the rest of the galaxy is the momentum imparted by the initial explosion. That is expected to take nearly 100 million years to dissipate completely and, in the mean time, the speed of the gas will result in a doppler shift in the light it emits. The astronomers simply surveyed a band of the sky for structures that showed emissions from cool hydrogen that had notable doppler shifts, and came up with about 200 new candidate supernova remnants. With some more detailed surveys, it's expected that a clearer picture will emerge of how well reality corresponds with predictions.
In the good old days of 2001, Microsoft started an aggressive anti-piracy initiative that is still alive today. Called "Windows Product Activation," Microsoft’s early iterations attempted to verify copies of Windows online, going so far as to scan system components in an effort to individually identify machines. Some five years later Microsoft is still trying to keep an eye on piracy online, but they’re going about it in a way that angers many.
Los Angeles resident Brian Johnson has field suit against Microsoft in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, charging the company with failing to disclose the true nature of a similar anti-piracy tool that Microsoft has distributed. The tool in question is the now-notorious "Windows Genuine Advantage"—an descendant of sorts from the old WPA approach. Johnson’s complaint centers around the fact that previous versions of WGA constantly "called home" to Microsoft, which in his view constitutes a a violation of anti-spyware laws in both California and Washington State. Johnson’s suit seeks class-action status for the complaint, and it is being fronted by Scott Kamber of Kamber & Associates LLC in New York. Kamber recently served as plaintiff’s counsel in the rootkit fiasco centering on Sony.
According to the complaint, "Microsoft effectively installed the WGA software on consumers’ systems without providing consumers any opportunity to make an informed choice about that software." Furthermore, Microsoft was accused of "misleading and unlawful conduct in installing uninstallable licensing enforcement software under the guise and misrepresentation of a security update…" Microsoft has dismissed the complaint, calling it "baseless."
Of the many issues that surround the case, one that will be particularly important as it moves forward relates to the definition of spyware. In legislative debates over the matter, legislators, lobbyists, and software representatives couldn’t agree on the essential definition of spyware, and many software companies were concerned that a loose definition could result in frivolous lawsuits. Microsoft’s position on the matter seems to adopt this view. Jim Desler, a Microsoft spokesman, said that "spyware is deceptive software that is installed on a user’s computer without the user’s consent and has some malicious purpose." As such, he argued, WGA doesn’t fit the bill.
Technically speaking, WGA does require the "consent" of a computer’s operator to be installed, although that consent could be considered somewhat weak given that it is presented as a mandatory update. To Microsoft, however, the fact that the tool once called home daily is of little significance, inasmuch as what it is designed to do is singular in its purpose: to constantly monitor the licensed state of a Windows install. In their view, WGA would have to have some ulterior functionality to be true spyware. Nevertheless, the company changed the frequency of callbacks to something closer to every 90 days, although the company has not explicitly said what the periodicity is.
To be sure, while rumors relating to WGA’s supposedly nefarious capabilities are rampant (and include the possibility of it housing a kill switch), nothing has been "found in the wild" (so to speak) that rises to the level of Sony’s rootkit, which made demonstrably unsound changes to the Windows operating system. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which broke the story, quotes the co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility as saying that WGA doesn’t cause "anywhere near the kind of damage that is normally associated with spyware." Nevertheless, pervious versions of the tool did not disclose details of the "phone home" system, and questions remain regarding the propriety of distributing an anti-piracy tool as a security update.
As of yet, no court dates have been set.
Sony hasn’t had the best of luck so far with their plans for the successor to the PlayStation 2. First the launch was delayed from “Spring 2006” to some time in November, and then the company had a disappointing showing at E3, with most of the attention on the PS3 focused on the US$499 to US$599 price, rather than its features.
Now an additional patch of gloom has appeared on the horizon, coming in the form of a report from analyst P.J. McNealy of American Technology Research. McNealy told a group of marketing people at a luncheon that the PlayStation 3 was the “most complex box that’s ever been built in this industry” and that the number of pieces that go into its manufacture are “even more astounding” than the over 1,700 parts that comprise the Xbox 360.
So what does this mean for Sony’s latest game console effort? According to McNealy, despite Sony’s built-in manufacturing advantages, they are going to be limited in the initial yields of the new machine. Sony, for their part, remains committed to their target of 1 million PS3s manufactured each month, with a goal of 6 million shipped by March 2007. However, as with Microsoft, Sony has decided for a simultaneous launch in North America, Europe, and Japan, and this puts additional pressure on the manufacturing process to deliver adequate supplies of the new device.
Microsoft has been down this road before, with initial shipments of the Xbox 360 selling out quickly and shortages following thereafter. It wasn’t until many months had passed that Microsoft was able to resolve their manufacturing difficulties, by which point the early adopter rush had already worn off. However, according to Microsoft, the company has met its manufacturing goals and has now shipped 5 million units of their next-generation console worldwide.
There are some indications that Sony may be aware of possible shortages in the initial shipment. Some retail stores like EBGames and GameStop are reporting that they will be receiving only 20 PS3s per store to start off with, as opposed to the Xbox 360 launch where many stores received up to 50 systems. What could be causing the shortages? With so many advanced components going into the box, it could be many things: the Cell processor, the Blu-ray drive, or even the NVIDIA RSX graphics chip, which was late going into taping and is currently underclocked in the latest PS3 development kits.
Whatever the cause, if the shortage is real it could mean big problems for Sony in the battle to retain its console supremacy. In the all-important Christmas season, if people go to buy a new PS3 and find it sold out, they may just pick up an Xbox 360 instead. Clearly Microsoft is crossing their fingers hoping just such a thing happens.
Art imitates life, and life imitates art. Fans of ABC’s Boston Legal may recall a recent episode where a man sued a company over a dating website that was purportedly ruining his reputation. Now a similar complaint has been filed in the "real world." This time James Spader is nowhere to be found, however.
Todd J. Hollis, a Pennsylvania lawyer and "victim" of what he sees as malicious gossip, has sued both several users and the proprietor of dontdatehimgirl.com, which calls itself "a powerful online resource that lets women out the men who have cheated on or lied to them!" Founded by former Miami Herald columnist Tasha Joseph, the site provides women with the opportunity to create profiles of men and then populate those profiles with (usually) unflattering assessments of their once-suitors. A quick perusal of the site shows common themes ranging from attacks on men’s, um, fortitude to questions about their sexuality, intelligence, fidelity, and even their wives and families (in some cases fictitious, in other cases not).
Hollis was similarly "outed" on the site, where three women made various claims against him, including implying that he carries sexually transmitted diseases, is a failed professional wrestler, and a womanizer. While Hollis is named and identified, his accusers are free to remain anonymous and Hollis contends that not enough is done to verify their identify or the truth of their statements. The site’s only attempt to solicit truthful information is a "checkbox" that users check before submitting information. For Hollis, this is an unacceptable situation, and his suit charges that the proprietor "conspired with disingenuous people whose only agenda is to attack the character of those individuals who have been identified on her site."
Things don’t look so good for Hollis’ case, however. The 1996 Communications Decency Act has again and again been interpreted by the courts as absolving both ISP and website operators for complete responsibility of the materials posted by third parties to the site, although this does not mean that the third parties themselves are necessarily protected. According to Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, one of the lawyers representing Ms. Joseph, holding the site proprietor responsible for the comments of its users is akin to holding a coffee shop owner responsible for what their patrons say. Hollis and his representation see the matter differently, arguing on their website that the service could be considered "an aid to the promotion of hate literature or slanderous material."
Our cursory investigation of the site did turn up some questionable policies, including a prohibition against posting the names and pictures of women who are known to be cheating. "www.DontDateHimGirl.com is for women to post the pictures and profiles of men who have allegedly cheated on them, NOT vice versa," according to the site’s rules. The website also forbids accused men from fully participating in the discussion, instead only allow them to e-mail rebuttals to the site’s administrators, which they say they will post for the men in question.
Whether or not this or any other facet of the site could land the website in hot water remains to be seen. Those who post defamatory materials could be in trouble, however. Website or not, knowingly posting false information with the intent to harm the reputation of another person can be illegal. In this case of "He said/She said," it may take a real judge to settle matters.
Video game retailers are heading into a tough spot right now. Digital distribution is taking off there are more and more ways of selling and buying used games online. I have no doubt they're still making money, and will continue to do so for the next few years before digital distribution really hits its stride with the consoles, but are they looking to the future? Can the chain gaming stores change to meet the online demands of their customers, or will newer companies take over when Gamestop can't keep up?
They have a few years to get their strategy together, because right now there's no official console hard drive add-on that could support the storage of several full-length games. The options brought up in this Next-gen.biz article don't get me excited about their ideas though. Go to the store to buy point cards to spend online to buy games? Will anyone go for that? The only market I see for a service like that would be people without bank or credit cards, otherwise why add a middle-man to that sort of transaction? A Gamestop download service was also mentioned, but with more companies looking into selling their games direct to the consumer, why again would they go through a middle and lose some of the profit?
Used games will always be a good way to make money, but if the license for games you bought online is able to be transferred, that market could dry us as well. Do the brick and mortar stores have a chance, or is digital distribution so far out that worrying about it now is kind of silly? I think it's closer than we think, and the higher-ups are starting to get the sweats. They know it's coming; will they have a good business model when the time comes?
How big is your hard drive, exactly? This question has caused no small amount of consternation, not only to geeks, but to hard drive companies as well. Western Digital, one of the largest manufacturers of computer hard drives, has just announced a settlement in the class-action lawsuit filed against it in California.
The lawsuit charged that Western Digital sold hard drives, specifically their 80GB WD800VE drive and their 120GB WD1200B011 model, that had only 79,971,254,272 bytes (74.4GB) and 120,002,150,400 bytes (111GB) of usable storage. All this confusion comes from the binary definition of kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes, which are 210 (1024), 220 (1,048,576), and 230 (1,073,741,824) bytes respectively.
Apart from math geeks and fans of the binary counting system, does anyone really care about the differences between kilo- and mega- in their binary forms versus their metric forms? The lawsuit charges that consumers do care, because they have become familiar with binary amounts in two ways: from the typical amounts of memory received with every new computer (128, 256, 512 MB and so forth), and because the computer’s operating system itself reports free space in terms of binary megabytes and gigabytes. The suit even went on to reference the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and that organization’s proposed renaming of the binary standards to “kibibyte” and “mebibyte,” arguing that the world’s failure to adopt these new terms means that the old binary definitions for kilobytes and megabytes should still stand.
In the end, all this fibble and kibibble winds up with Western Digital offering to compensate customers with a US$30 refund, which the company will provide in the form of free backup and recovery software valued at the same amount. Customers wishing to take advantage of this offer need to visit WD’s site and sign up for the Claim Form, which must be completed by July 17.
Last night I finally made it out to my local IMAX theater to check out Superman in 3D. I'm not going to review the movie for you, there are a lot of places online for that, but the 3D effects bear mentioning in terms of movie-geekery. It was quite the experience. There are some very slight spoilers ahead, so be careful.
The first thing a lot of people don't know is that the entire movie isn't in 3D, only about 20 minutes or so give you the effect. A blinking glasses icon on the bottom of the screen warns you when something is going to happen, and then if the theater is packed you get to listen to hundred of people put their glasses on at the same time. It's quite the noise. The glasses themselves were large and comfortable, and fit easily over my prescription frames. The first 3D scene is kind of a fun look back at Supe's childhood, and the second one… well, it's worth the price of admission alone.
The plane crash scene, on the IMAX screen, in 3D, was more exciting than many rollercoasters I've been on. In my theater the sound was cranked, and many people had their hands over their ears. The 3D effect is intense, and does a good job of putting you in the movie. I felt battered by the time the scene was over. I actually heard people screaming in the audience in places. It didn't feel like a comic book movie during this scene, when people got hurt, it looked brutal. Some of the imagery was beautiful, some of it ugly, but everything together made your jaw drop. When the scene is over and you get the nice reveal shot of Superman, a lot of people stood up and cheered. You really did feel like you saw something, well, super.
The 3D effect was impressive in most cases, but there was some slight doubling in the image even with the glasses on in places. You can also catch some odd details when the effect glitched up. In one scene a hand seemed to be about a foot in front of the arm it was supposed to be attached to. Other than these slight nitpicks, it was a great way to watch the movie, and the flying scenes were all incredible.
The movie itself I found pretty blah, but the 3D experience more than made up for it. If you have an IMAX in your area, it's worth the drive and the extra money. I left impressed, and ready to sit down and see the whole thing again.