The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE Act) passed a House vote yesterday, but without the proposed ‘Net neutrality amendment. The amendment, introduced by Edward Markey (D-MA) and backed by various celebrities and online businesses, was slapped down by 269 votes to 152, and the bill then passed by landslide numbers: 321-101. From the voting coverage and support from groups like WIPP, it looks like this was a largely bipartisan affair with support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Despite support from campaigns by eBay and Google leaders, the proposed network neutrality legislation failed to overcome the combined lobbyist powers of telco and cable companies, both of which prefer to keep government regulation of their networks to a minimum. The heated arguments over this measure dominated the debate before votes were cast, and neutrality will likely be a hot topic again when the bill is introduced to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee later this month.
Without [the Markey] amendment, said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, “telecommunications and cable companies will be able to create toll lanes on the information superhighway. This strikes at the heart of the free and equal nature of the Internet.”
“This legislation can increase competition not only for cable services, but also unleash a race for who can supply the fastest, most sophisticated broadband connections that will provide video, voice and data services,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas.
Barton is talking about the watered-down version of ‘Net neutrality that did pass muster and is part of the bill put in front of the Senate committee. That version looks to protect consumer access to online services with an FCC mandate to hand out up to US$500,000 fines for restricting network access, but will not stop network operators from tiering up their services into preferred and less-privileged traffic. The bill also denies the FCC the right to write and enforce its own neutrality rules. I fail to see how that stimulates broadband adoption—in fact, it looks like this version of the amendment does the opposite.
The larger bill does sound like a good idea in general, though. Cable franchising rules will be simplified, with just a 30-day waiting period for new cable TV franchises and a central franchising administration, as opposed to negotiating new licenses with cities and municipalities over months or even years. It should make it easier for companies like BellSouth and Verizon to roll out fiber TV services, giving us consumers more choice in the TV market. Maybe then we’ll see some a la carte services or better video-on-demand packages, as there will be some incentive for cable and phone companies to compete with better offerings.
City governments and the like don’t approve of the change because they will have less control over the TV franchising process, cable companies like Comcast don’t want it because it means more competition for them, and in its current version, the bill faces opposition from online services and general proponents of individual freedom. As a result, some analysts think that the measure will be stuck in Senate proceedings for quite some time. For now, I’ll take the good with the bad, but would certainly prefer to see real network neutrality enforced. It’s time for Verizon and Time Warner Cable to get their hands out of our pockets.
Further reading:Mark Cuban wants tiered services……and so do the phone companies.Amazon prefers network neutrality protection, though……and there may be some Senate support, too.
The image on the right, courtesy of the Hubble, is the star V838 Monocerotis, which is undergoing a transformation to the red giant phase of its life cycle. The violent transformation is lighting up a shell of gas surrounding it in a rather dramatic fashion, but it's also creating a bit of an enigma. By following the process since 2002, astronomers have detected three distinct levels of light output, leading them to propose that the changes in energy came about as the expanding star swallowed nearby planets. But others claim that planets wouldn't provide enough energy, and suggest objects closer in size to a star would be needed. Yet another model proposes that a huge planet is being swallowed in stages. Hopefully, it'll be sorted out before our own star starts to expand and gulps down its neighboring planets, providing us with a more accessible example to study.
Meanwhile, at the nearby star Beta Pictoris, there's a debris disk that shouldn't be there. The star is pushing out enough energy to drive off any nearby gas. The article calls it, "a serious gap in our understanding." This one, the astronomers have figured out. By turning the FUSE observatory on it, they discovered that the disk was unexpectedly rich in an ion that did not absorb the star's output: carbon. As the authors put it, "Carbon is extremely overabundant relative to every other measured element. … The overabundance may indicate that the gas is produced from material more carbon-rich than expected of Solar System analogues."
The disk appears to be appropriate raw material for forming planetary bodies, but the results would be nothing like the solar system we're familiar with. A collection of carbonaceous bodies buried in a methane haze, much like Saturn's moon Titan, is the likely product of any planet formation, although one account in the popular press suggested the denser ones might form diamond cores. Over time, as more planetary disks are surveyed, it'll be interesting to see how many are likely to produce anything that looks like the system we all know and love.
If you’ve noticed some unexplained traffic on your network every day, it could be Windows Genuine Advantage. As Matt on M-Dollar pointed out last night, Microsoft admitted that the antipiracy tool "phones home" on a daily basis. The software giant characterized the application’s behavior as a safety measure designed to ensure that the program doesn’t malfunction as it’s still a "pilot program."
Windows Genuine Advantage has become Microsoft’s preeminent antipiracy tool. After rolling it out last year, the company began making its installation mandatory in order to download updates to Windows. It works by checking to ensure that users are running a legitimate, licensed copy of Windows XP. If the tool determines that a user is running a pirated copy of Windows, it will nag the user and refuse to download some updates (not critical security fixes, however).
At issue is whether the company should disclose that information as part of the EULA. Other companies have gotten their share of flack for similar application "features." One recent example is the iTunes MiniStore introduced with iTunes 6.0.2. That version of iTunes introduced a small pane to the popular music-playing application that offers up suggestions from the iTunes Music Store based on what you’re listening to. When it was released, Apple failed to communicate that the application transmits information to the company on a regular basis (which Apple says it does not keep). Apple now notifies the user of iTunes’ behavior.
Windows Genuine Advantage’s behavior seems a bit more innocuous than iTunes. Although Microsoft has not disclosed what information the application is transmitting, chances are high that it consists of a user’s IP address, Windows serial number, and product key. There’s nothing terribly alarming in that list. It could also be checking in to see if it should disable itself. The only major cause for concern that I can see is the tool’s "malfunctioning" and incorrectly informing users that they do not have a legitimate copy of Winodws.
Microsoft says it will reduce the frequency with which WGA checks in with the company to once every couple of weeks or so, and admits that it erred by not telling users everything that the tool does. "We’re looking at ways to communicate that in a more forward manner," said Windows Genuine Advantage program head David Lazar.
That’s the biggest problem with Windows Genuine Advantage: not that it phones home to Microsoft regularly—although I can’t think of a good reason for it to do so on a daily basis—but that it does so without notifying the user. It’s always in a company’s long-term interest to fully disclose an application’s functionality, especially one like WGA which Microsoft has made mandatory for its users.
It’s all but official: big price cuts are coming next month from Intel. A few weeks ago, we reported that Intel was planning to slash prices on many of its current chips by up to 60 percent on July 23, the same day that the Core 2 Duo (Conroe) launches. Bloomberg now reports that executives at Taiwanese vendors Micro-Star International and Gigabyte Technology have confirmed the price cuts, though Intel still refuses to comment.
Though the Bloomberg piece paints the cuts as a move by Intel to boost market share, in the case of the steeper Pentium cuts (up to 60%) they are also designed to clear out excess inventory that will immediately become less valuable when Conroe (and later Merom) are introduced later this summer. The new desktop and laptop parts are expected to offer even better performance per watt than Intel’s Core Duo (Yonah) systems released earlier this year. Price cuts normally follow new processor launches, but what makes the move more interesting this time is that AMD is rumored to be prepping price cuts of its own. Could a processor price war be in the works?
A Gigabyte official claims that AMD has already told him of impending price cuts to their own chips, and confirmation comes from The Inquirer, which claims to have seen a distributor’s price chart showing up tp 50 percent reductions.
The aggressive price cuts come as competition between Intel and AMD intensifies. Earlier this year, AMD announced that it was shipping more than 20 percent of all CPUs worldwide, a milestone for the company. Intel’s share price has been tanking for almost a year now, even as AMD has posted impressive gains. Despite all the positive indicators, AMD has some pending problems of its own, including a move to 65nm that Intel has already completed. Intel has also generated considerable excitement around the introduction of Conroe and Merom, and AMD does not yet appear to have anything quite as compelling in the pipeline.
Between the upcoming price cuts and the new chip introductions, it’s a great time to score some new gear. If your tastes (or your wallet) don’t run to the latest and greatest, you’ll be able to scoop up January’s technology at a fraction of its original price. What this means for AMD is less clear, however, as the smaller company will have a harder time continuing its market share gains if Intel gets both more aggressive on price and retakes the processor performance crown.
Progress: it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Back in 1983, when the Atari 2600 was burning up the sales charts, a game called Bachelor Party was firing up the libido of geeks across the country. Well, it tried to, at least, but the game’s pixelated, Pong-style gameplay represented a pretty low level of erotic stimulation. Fast forward two decades and think about how far we’ve come. Erotic games have progressed from low tech paddle twisters through Leisure Suit Larry adventure games and BMX XXX action to today’s Hot Coffee and Naughty America. The flesh is more realistic, the interaction more human, the gyrations more elaborate. But is it progress?
Sony America takes no position on this delicate moral question, but it does have doubts that the US market is ready for the same level of erotic activity as that approved by Japanese consumers. The company has decided to take a pass on publishing the Rule of Rose in the US due to concerns that the game’s semi-erotic interaction between children might not go down well here. I wonder what, exactly (*cough* Janet Jackson *cough*), gave them (*cough* Hot Coffee *cough*) the idea (*cough* MySpace predator hype *cough*) that this might prove controversial?
State of the art video game eroticism, circa 1983
The game itself is meant to be a psychological thriller, centered around the plight of a 19 year old girl who is trapped in an orphanage and tormented by other seemingly evil, childlike girls. The developers reportedly wanted to catch the natural interaction of young girls, but they are aware of the possibility that onlooking adults could see their interactions as possibly erotic. Readers may be interested to visit this trailer for a taste of the game’s eroticism.
Controversy sells—up to a point. But some kinds of publicity are, in fact, bad publicity, and being associated with underage sexuality comes bang at the top of the list. The game will still be published on this side of the Pacific, just not by Sony America, so if you’re inclined to try out the game, you won’t have to import it in a brown bag. Given the current climate of suspicion toward video games, this is probably a wise move for a company that has been reeling from a succession (*cough* Sony Connect *cough*) of missteps (*cough* rootkit *cough*) lately (*cough* Network Walkman *cough*), but it does nothing to answer the normative question of whether or not such material should be published, or whether you should play it.
It’s clear that the current legislative climate surrounding video games and sex in the media has real effects on the marketplace. Companies are starting to hold back or tone down products that might have been published a few years ago. While pundits have long lamented America’s “puritanical” attitudes toward sex and its comfort with ultraviolence, it’s interesting to note that violence in video games has actually come under far more scrutiny than sexuality. Progress, or even more puritanism?
The creation of transgenic animals, which have pieces of foreign DNA inserted into their genomes, has been pioneered in mammals, where a fertilized egg can be created in culture and injected into the uterus. It's not the most efficient process, but it does have the advantage that the fertilized egg can create everything that's needed to start embryonic development. This isn't true in birds, where the fertilized cell is only a small part of the necessary support structure of the egg. As such, transgenic chickens have been few and far between. That may change, though, thanks to a new technique published yesterday in Nature.
The method takes advantage of the fact that in birds, the germ cells that will eventually produce eggs or sperm develop far from the gonad. To get to their ultimate location, they hitch a ride in the blood stream; if you take an egg at the right stage, you can even isolate them from the embryo's blood. The research group, a collaboration between a biotech company and academics at UC Davis, did just that, and found they could grow the germ cell progenitors indefinitely in culture. These cells could also be frozen for future use, and held up well to techniques that introduced transgenic DNA. To get them back into an actual chicken, they just had to be re-introduced into the blood stream at the same embryonic stage; they found their own way to the gonad. The engineered cells accounted for up to 86 percent of the next generation of chickens.
As far as the report is concerned, the only thing that's been done is to make a chicken that glows green when exposed to UV light. But the potential is enormous, as the technique appears to be much easier than mammalian transgenics and bird populations can expand pretty quickly. Chickens can be viewed as superb protein factories, as the mother deposits many things in the egg for the benefit of its offspring, and produces a lot of eggs. One obvious candidate for production is antibodies, which the egg has in abundance. Specific antibodies are increasingly used in targeted cancer therapies, and the genes producing them can easily be put into the chicken. There's also been the suggestion that this technique could be used to rapidly engineer bird flu-resistant strains in response to changes in the virus. Finally, it may be possible to engineer healthier or more appealing agricultural products, such as eggs that are high in HDL cholesterol. The days of the giant chicken in Woody Allen's "Sleeper" may not be so far off…
A new control device for the PC? Let's see where it fails! I'm often accused of being a pessimist, but in terms of PC game controllers, it really does take something extraordinary to beat or even match the original mouse and keyboard configuration. Take the Zboard, for instance. Made by the same people who are now bringing us the Fang, the Zboard allowed you to swap out custom key configurations for each game you played. While a few hardcore players might want a setup like that for their World of Warcraft or Battlefield sessions, the keyboard was expensive for what it did, and I can't see people picking up a new keyset for each game they buy. Even worse was how squishy the keys were, I tried playing with one, and was really turned off by the swampy feel of the buttons.
The Fang is a new approach, it plugs into your computer in addition to your mouse and keyboard, and lays out the WASD control scheme in a way that's more reminiscent of a game controller than a keyboard. The device has a bevy of keys, as well as the ability to recognize up to seven keypresses at once. I have no clue what you'd use that for, but I've often used three or four keys at once, so room to grow is appreciated. The unit seems to have some nice ergonomics on it, and the button placement looks well thought out. Even better? The number pad doesn't have a zero key, it starts at one and goes up to 11. My drummer just exploded.
I may have to get my hands on one of these to see if they made the buttons feel more satisfying, and with an price of US$35 it's certainly a tempting buy. It's a nice looking unit, and doesn't try to be all things to all people.
Is it just me, or with hurricane season starting up again, does it seem like the state of Louisiana would have more pressing issues on its plate than video game violence? Apparently they don’t think so down in Baton Rouge, where the Louisiana state legislature has passed a bill (PDF) that will prohibit the sale of some video games to minors.
Under the terms of HB1381, sales of a video game to children would be prohibitied if the title
- "Appeals to the minor’s morbid interest in violence" according to "contemporary community standards,"Depicts violence inappropriate to minors according to "prevailing standards" in the adult community, andLacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."
Those selling such games to minors could be fined a minimum of US$100 and be sentenced to a year at hard labor.
The bill has cleared both the State Senate and House of Representatives, and is now on the way to the desk of Governor Kathleen Blanco. She is expected to sign the bill into law.
Although it was sponsored by Rep. Roy Burrell (R), the bill was actually written by none other than self-aggrandizing video game crusader Jack Thompson. Thompson apparently testified in the state legislature on behalf of the bill, apparently forgetting to inform lawmakers that the bill would be dead on arrival due to First Amendment issues. Thompson and anti-videogame demagoguery go together like curdled milk and stale cookies, so it’s no surprise that he was involved in crafting the legislation. Unfortunately for the state of Louisiana, his record is less than exemplary and while he’s good at pressing buttons, his ability to actually accomplish meaningful change has been less than minimal.
Once HB1381 is signed into law, you can expect the Entertainment Software Association to quickly file suit to block the law. It’s a near certainty that the courts will bar enforcement of the law due to First Amendment concerns, as the law is similar in scope to those shot down in Illinois, California, and Michigan. It’s a shame that a state like Louisiana, which is facing the huge financial burden of rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is going to end up squandering much-needed tax dollars on defending a lawsuit it can’t win. At least Jack Thompson gets to be in the news again; that seems to be the number one item on his agenda.
Google has taken the wraps off of another couple of tasty tidbits, and while one is more or less old hat, the other one is something that can really help major geeks like myself. Let me knock the trivial release out of the way first: a new version of the Google Firefox Toolbar is out, and besides the usual stability improvements and bugfixes, this one adds a few new features. There’s the Safe Browsing feature we discussed last week, an option to set GMail as your default e-mail client for clicked mailto: links, improved RSS feed subscription handling, and a choice of layouts for the toolbar itself. The search box now supports Google Suggest functionality, which is always cool. Most of these things are handled by separate extensions already, but it’s quite handy to keep it all together and supported by a well-funded development team.
On to the real news: the Google Browser Sync extension. If you only ever browse from a single computer, this tool is not for you. Move along. But if you’re like me, juggling six installed operating systems at last count, each with a separate Firefox installation, this is the best thing since baked bread. The Googlish announcement sounds almost too good to be true:
Google Browser Sync unifies your bookmarks, history, saved passwords, and persistent cookies across all the computers where you install it. It also remembers which tabs and windows you had open when you last closed any of your browsers and gives you a chance to reopen them. We think you’ll enjoy how it handles sync conflicts and “just works,” enabling you to bring your browser with you everywhere.
There are a number of bookmark synchronizers available as Firefox extensions already, including at least one that leverages the Google Bookmarks feature of the personalized homepage. But this one does more than that: it can sync up your saved passwords, browsing history, and cookies too. That makes for a more homogenized browsing experience, where you don’t have to worry about saving those pesky passwords for each browsing environment, or set up site options cookies many times over for the same site.
I know that some of you will complain that cookies are evil, and you’re welcome to your opinion. I for one find them convenient from time to time, and can appreciate the value of keeping your cookie jar consistent everywhere you go. You can turn off the synchronization of any category of data that you’d rather keep separate, so don’t let the cookie thing stop you if that’s your only complaint so far. There’s more goodness still to come.
You can leave a few sites up in your browser at work and just go home. When you get there, resync your browser and you will be asked whether you’d like to restore any of the last session’s open sites to your current Firefox instance. If you’re too lazy to bookmark, or just can’t alway ensure that you’re planning ahead, this feature alone could be worth all the cookies in the Oreo factory.
The synchronization process is quite painless. Install the extension, restart your browser, and walk through a couple of setup questions. At the end of that, you’ll be logged in to your Google account and have your options properly set up, and waiting for your first sync to run to completion. It can take a couple of minutes, depending on the amount of
junk data you keep in your bookmarks. Do this once for each computer/OS/Firefox installation you’d like to keep updated, and you’re good to go. When you run a sync, that Firefox instance becomes active and the previous synchronization session is ended. The data in central storage merges with anything in your current session that’s different, while doing what appears to be a good job of eliminating duplicate data.
It’s a great tool for progressive multifocal geeks like yours truly (though I’m still waiting for something that will keep my installed extensions syncrhonized as well), but also for migrating regular Joes onto a new Conroe laptop or Ubuntu installation. OK, Vista installation. The Browser Sync tool really does “just work,” and I’m looking forward to a more enjoyable browsing experience when moving across platforms thanks to it.
So what’s in it for Google? Of course, you need an active Google account to use the tool, so there could be a few extra signups involved. The more, the merrier, especially as we look at future moves into powering TV ads and the like. And increasing the reach of Firefox could be a shrewd move against Microsoft’s browser market dominance and the accompanying default browser settings issues. But in the big picture, this application shouldn’t really matter too much. Letting Google engineers work on this kind of thing in their 20 percent time doesn’t cost Google anything they haven’t already budgeted for, and it keeps the staff happy. If the occasional user finds some use for these playthings too, the company basically gains some mindshare for free. And in this case, I’m reaping the benefits of some introverted dork’s labor of love. More of that, I say!
Hillary Clinton is spearheading a movement to spend what is bound to be fifty hojillion dollars to study the effects, if any, of media on kids. This includes games, television, movies, radio, all aspects of the media-saturated world kids are subjected to. We have to know what these things are doing to kids! She's also urging that more laws be passed restricting the sales of violent games to children. We all know how well that's working out for Louisiana.
Senator Clinton has already released a one-sheet breakdown of the ratings system for games and television, and that's fine. I like this sort of information being pushed out there and made easy to understand. What else needs to be done? Nothing really. Do we really need millions of dollars worth of studies that the media and politicians will claim say one thing, hint at others, and allow all of us to argue about the methodology for years ahead? Will this information help parents, or simply help the Democrats add a "family values" plank to their platform? The study will likely be vague enough that actual useful information will be impossible to glean from it, but pointed enough that polticians will have some new bullets in their political guns to push their own agendas. While we may get some interesting and useful information, it will most likely simply lead to more argument in an already contentious issue. That's what I see our money buying in this case, I'm not seeing a lot of actual useful information that parents will be able to apply their own kids in day to day life.
I live with two kids, and when talking to other parents it's clear no one knows jack about raising kids. Everyone goes in dark, and does it day by day. We've all read so many books and articles, and some advice works for us, some doesn't. What works for me may work for another family, but more often than not it doesn't. Even between a dozen or so parents there's no consensus on how to do this or that. General information on how all the different sorts of media affects children is just that, and while it may provide some information on trends, every child's experience is so different no actual understanding will likely be gained for the money.