‘Final Fantasy’ designer creates the wildest take on Batman yet

As reported on The Verge.

By Sam Byford

Tetsuya Nomura’s Dark Knight is very, very dark

If nothing else, Square Enix artist Tetsuya Nomura has built up a distinctive style over the years — his androgynous, zipper-heavy designs for characters in games like Kingdom Hearts and theFinal Fantasy series are recognizable anywhere. But none of that will have prepared you for his surreal take on Batman, revealed in action figure form at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

The “DC Comics Variant Play Arts Action Figure” looks more like something from Soul Caliburthan the Caped Crusader, with bizarre talons on the back, dragonesque “wings,” and a helmet with giant red horns. No word on when or where this figure will be released, but it’d certainly make for an interesting conversation piece on anyone’s coffee table.

Nomuratman

 

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The Server Needs To Die To Save The Internet

As reported on TechCrunch.

by Natasha Lomas 

The Server Needs To Die To Save The Internet

 

Do we have the Internet we deserve? There’s an argument to say that yes, we absolutely do. Given web users’ general reluctance to pay for content. We are of course, paying. Just not with cold hard cash, but with our privacy — as digital business models rely on gathering and selling intel on their users to make the money to pay (the investors who paid) for the free service.

Users are also increasingly paying with time and attention, as more ad content — and more adverts masquerading as, infiltrating and degrading content — thrusts its way in front of our eyeballs in ever more insidious ways. Whether it’s repurposing our friends’ photos and endorsements to socially engineer selling us stuff, or resorting to other background tracking and targeting tricks to divert our attention from whatever it was we were actually trying to do online.

The commercialization of the web is the ugly reality of the hidden cost of all the datacenters and servers required to power the Internet. And that commercialization is compounded by the power of the big digital platforms that dominate the web we have today: GoogleFacebookAmazon. Increasingly we’re forced to play by their rules if we want to participate in the digital space where most of our friends are.

But perhaps there is another, far better way — that benefits individual web users and startup developers alike.

A UK startup called MaidSafe, based in the small town of Troon in Scotland, reckons the myriad problems with today’s Internet can be linked to a design quirk of its underlying architecture. And that the answer to solving the web’s most perennial issues, such as finding sustainable digital business models for content, safeguarding user data and privacy, and thwarting hacking, malware and overreaching surveillance, is to begin again – with a whole new re-architected Internet.

No one said this was a small problem with an easy fix. MaidSafe has actually been working on its new network since 2006, finally coming out of stealth earlier this year to begin detailing its grand plan. It’s now rolling out the first of three test networks, to test the underlying network without any apps on it as yet, ahead of a full beta launch in Q4. The initial test network comprises 180 nodes, located in Singapore, San Francisco, Amsterdam and New York.

So what exactly is this startup building? MaidSafe’s Nick Lambert summarizes the product as “a fully cross-platform, fully decentralized autonomous data and communications network”. What that means in practice is a network that does away with an intermediary layer of servers and datacenters — replacing that with peer-to-peer infrastructure. (No surprise then that MaidSafe counts Michael Jackson, the former COO of P2P pioneer Skype, as an advisor.)

Basically, the users of the network are also acting as the network infrastructure by donating a portion of their spare hard drive capacity – with built in incentives for them to do so in the form of a network specific cryptocurrency (called SafeCoin).

There are no other networks that combine being autonomous and serverless

So, in a similar way to Bitcoin mining being incentivized by the creation and distribution of new Bitcoins, users of the MaidSafe network will be compensated for the computing resource they contribute by earning SafeCoin. (Currently one SafeCoin is worth around 2 US cents but there was also a time when Bitcoin was worth as little — and MaidSafe obviously expects the value of SafeCoin to scale up as usage of the network scales.) It calls this resource donation process farming. 

“What we’re building is software that connects together all the computers on the network to form — think of it as one giant computer, or effectively one giant cyber brain. So it really connects together all the nodes on the network and allows them to effectively become a very large datacenter, without of course the datacenter,” explains Lambert. “It’s a network infrastructure that will replace datacenters — and hopefully large technology companies.”

That’s right. This startup wants to reconfigure the current Internet hierarchy too — pulling the power and centre of gravity away from the owners of the biggest datacenters and platforms, and putting it back in the hands of individual users.

And individual developers too. Development costs for building an app on the MaidSafe network would be lower than via today’s hosted model — being as a startup wouldn’t need to pay for any hosting costs. AWS, Rackspace — not required! There’s also no upfront fee required for the privilege of developing on this network (it’s no Apple App Store). And the MaidSafe API is free.

Users of MaidSafe’s network contribute unused hard drive space, becoming the network’s nodes. It’s that pooling — or, hey, crowdsourcing — of many users’ spare computing resource that yields a connected storage layer that doesn’t need to centralize around dedicated datacenters. And so doesn’t need any middlemen serving data. The user directly accesses the network, and the network directly accesses the users’ computers. And that’s it.

“This is, we believe, to be the world’s first operating autonomous and serverless network that enables self authentication,” says Lambert. “It’s self managing and self healing… If data is lost through nodes going offline it recreates them. It’s able to be resistant to viruses as well… It’s utterly serverless. There are no other networks that combine being autonomous and serverless.

“There are other peer to peer networks that you could argue don’t require servers but if you want to join some of these programs at the end of the day you have to create an account to a lot of these services. And in order to create these accounts you have to go to a server and someone has to authenticate you onto the network… With this network self authentication is enabling the user to authenticate themselves onto the network.”

So, instead of paying for digital services with privacy, users on MaidSafe’s network pay with hard drive capacity they’re not even using. Which — frankly — sounds like a far fairer, more egalitarian ‘client/server’ relationship than the one we have now.

The only way they can actually stop the Safe network in a country is to shut off the whole Internet. It just can’t be shut down

Meanwhile, data being transmitted over MaidSafe’s network is encrypted locally then broken into fragments by its software and distributed randomly across the nodes so it’s stored in a massively decentralized way, thus — so the claim goes — thwarting hacking and snooping.

The problem with centralising data storage and transmission by using servers and datacenters is that data becomes inherently vulnerable, argues Lambert. Vulnerable to theft by hackers or other prying eyes — whether that’s corporates tracking us or governments snooping on us. Or regimes trying to control what we have access to. Ergo, all the more reason to throw the middleman away.

“MaidSafe doesn’t use DNS. Everything goes through routers in a thing called encrypted RUDP packets, so basically the packets go through the router but nothing can tell what’s inside it. And it doesn’t use DNS so they don’t know that it’s traffic for the MaidSafe network. So countries can’t shut MaidSafe down. So China couldn’t shut off the Safe network the way they could now, or Turkey couldn’t shut it off the way they shut off Twitter. So the only way they can actually stop the Safe network in a country is to shut off the whole Internet. It just can’t be shut down,” he says.

“The other interesting thing is the NSA could train all their resources on one router and they still wouldn’t be able to stop and detect MaidSafe network traffic.”

Lambert adds that the Internet we have today was also never designed to support so many users — making another argument for overhauling the underlying structure, on network resilience grounds.

“As it was originally designed the Internet was never meant to have 2.5 billion people on it. And that’s why it creaks at the seams sometimes. So I think what we’re doing is a kind of evolution — decentralization is a much more efficient way of doing this. And I think whether it’s MaidSafe or somebody else… someone will do it. I think it’s just an evolutionary step.”

“A lot of these large [digital technology] incumbents will not be overly happy with us but I think what we’re doing is natural evolution,” he adds.

How does MaidSafe ensure resilience with such a massively distributed infrastructure that it has no direct control over? “We keep a minimum of four copies of every chunk of data at all times. And the reason we do that is obviously people will turn their computers off and on, and people will have hard drive failures so what the network needs to know fairly quickly is does that piece of data still exist?” notes Lambert, likening the technology MaidSafe has built for this portion of the network to systems used by file-sharing sites like eMule — except, he says, it’s far, far faster. Because it has to be to make a viable network.

“Our network knows within 20 milliseconds if the status of a piece of data or a node has changed. It has to happen that fast because if you turn your computer off the network has to recreate that chunk on another node on the network to maintain four copies at all time.”

“We’re often maybe confused with a decentralized Dropbox,” he adds. “And that is maybe one very good use for our network… [because] it’s completely private, we don’t know who our users are, we don’t hold your cryptographic keys so we can’t access your data… But effectively MaidSafe is a data and communications network so you could put any service that you get on the Internet today onto the network — absolutely anything, YouTube, Facebook, Dropbox, basically everything.”

MaidSafe calls its network the Safe network — aka Secure Access For Everyone. (The MaidSafe name itself is short for ‘Massive Array Of Internet Disks — Safe Access For Everyone’. It’s also, according to Lambert, a play on RaidSafe — and indeed ‘Made Safe’.)

Lambert says the network needs an absolute minimum of 60 nodes to be viable, and likely a couple of thousand to “make it much more established”. “Which I don’t think is really too much when you consider there is 2.5 billion regular Internet users,” he adds.

So how is MaidSafe going to incentivize developers to build apps for the Safe network? That’s also built in to the design, via the SafeCoin cryptocurrency. Developers will be able to hardcode their SafeCoin wallet address into their applications — setting their own usage price (which can also be free if they like) — and then the network will pay them based on their app’s usage.

“There’s a built in revenue stream for them already. They don’t have to go down the advertizing route, or the support route if they don’t want to,” says Lambert.

MaidSafe has already had more than 650 developers registering their interest in the network – and it isn’t even beta launched yet.

With SafeCoins being distributed based on app usage, that allows for a network that rewards developers for building services that people actually use. Now just think about that for a minute. Apps that people love and use could receive payment just for being loved and used on this network – rather than their founders having to resort to stuffing ads in front of eyeballs, or selling user data off to marketing entities. That’s potentially a sea change in the kind of digital services that are possible.

Consider the problem content producers such as publishers have in getting people to pay for accessing their information. Again, this network could offer a way to earn money from readers without having to rely upon — or resort to — advertizing. This could very well be the micropayments dream that’s long been talked about and hoped for, but not yet executed effectively in practice.

From the user perspective, although there can technically be a cost for accessing the digital services on MaidSafe, if you’re acting as a node for the network then the money you’re using to pay for those services is money you’ve earned by being part of the network (i.e. SafeCoin). So there is effectively zero cost involved.

“The concept of free is an interesting one, if you have earned SafeCoins by using and providing space to the network then these SafeCoins are used on other services, no money (digital or otherwise) has left your pocket,” notes Lambert.

The user also has the option of donating storage space and just converting the SafeCoin they earn straight to fiat through an exchange. In other words they could put MaidSafe’s software on their computer purely to generate a revenue stream from being part of its crowdsourced, distributed datacenter-in-the-cloud.

SafeCoin is earned by Safe network users above what they are using on the network so spare capacity is a requirement. Users will also be able to access and use the network for free up to a certain capacity, according to Lambert — which will open it up to mobile users and mobile usage.

(And for cryptocurrency nerds, there is a finite number of SafeCoin that can be farmed, circa 4.3 billion, because of a technical limitation, however Lambert says MaidSafe may end up recycling a small percentage, say 2% to 3% per year, to avoid reaching a hard stop — in the ten or so years it takes for all the SafeCoin to be farmed.)

Despite open sourcing the network technology itself, MaidSafe is also a startup business – and has raised some $6 million over the years from private investors (including a big chunk from a crowdfunding sale in April) to fund development of the project – so it needs its own business model here too.

It’s looking at three areas for that. Firstly it takes a 5% cut of all SafeCoin generated on the network in order to maintain the core code. As the network scales up, that 5% cut scales with it. And if the value of SafeCoin rises it’s also earning a larger sized slice, since 5% of a bigger pie amounts to more pie.

MaidSafe’s team also plans to make apps itself to earn money on the network — it now has a team of around 16, skewed towards developers (C++ is the dev language for building on the Safe network). “We’ll be well placed to capitalize on the network because we know it better than anyone else,” says Lambert. “We will create money by making applications that are well used.”

In addition, MaidSafe has filed multiple patents — and will be looking at opportunities to license its technologies for use outside the Safe network. “We’ve got about ten granted patents, about 22 pending just now and more on the way. And some of these libraries and technologies that we’ve created can be used outside the network. So, for example, an existing Content Delivery Network… like Akamai they could use our routing and RUDP libraries to basically make their distributed servers run much more efficiently and much faster,” he says. “Anyone using our patents within the network is absolutely welcome to do so. The patents, just to point out, are purely defensive.”

Although MaidSafe is a for-profit startup business, there’s also clearly a huge determination to see the vision — the concept of a truly decentralized Internet – succeed and “change the world”, as Lambert frequently puts it. So it has set up a not-for-profit foundation that is the largest shareholder in its company. The crowdfunding raise — selling SafeCoin that will be redeemable when the network launches — was also a way to incentivize success across a wider group of supporters.

Plus, it’s working on decentralizing its own network knowledge (its own ‘corporate IP’ if you will) – and ultimately diluting its own paycheck by sharing that 5% cut with others — in order to increase the resilience of the network and boost the overall chances of success.

“We’re trying to decentralize the Internet, we’re also trying to decentralize the knowledge of the safe network so we’re trying to create global development pods which are not part of the company — these are little separate groups of people that exist in different parts of the world that will effectively start to contribute to the MaidSafe core codebase, and start to take some of that 5%,” he says.

“Our intention is to try and create these competing pods. And what that will mean is there’s no central point of weakness to the technology. And it will also make the network much better and much faster. These pods will hopefully start to become self sustaining. As they start to earn SafeCoins for their contributions to the underlying code and taking a portion of that 5% total. They’ll be able to start having a fund and potentially become a legal entity themselves if they choose to do so.”

Pods have been set up in San Francisco and Montreal so far, with Washington DC next in line.

Talk of pods sounds rather organic and that’s unlikely to be an accident given that the original inspiration for the Safe network came in part from one of the founders, David Irvine, being a fan of physicist Richard Feynman, and drawing on his advice to focus on the natural world when trying to solve a problem. That led Irvine to spend time studying ant colonies — as a model for an alternative, serverless connectivity topology.

“Ants are interesting because if you think of them like nodes on our network… they perform pretty much one function — but when you bring them all together they become this great powerful colony,” says Lambert. “So if you think about the nodes being ants, and each of those little nodes performing one function pretty well, actually when they come together you’ve got this amazing, powerful, safe and secure network that will — when it reaches critical mass — be more powerful than any supercomputer.”

So, while this small town startup has (mostly) been sequestered a world away from the big digital technology hubs where Internet giants are forged in bubbling development cauldrons liberally fed with VC-cash, you’d never guess that from the scale of its ambition.

“Hopefully the network will replace the entire Internet” is a phrase that rolls off Lambert’s tongue more than once during our conversation.

And while it may not have big VC backing, given its radical vision and open ethos – the network is being “given away” for free, as Lambert puts it, and once it’s up and running won’t be something MaidSafe has the ability to shut down – it’s not a startup that’s easy to ignore. This idea has the potential to turn the Internet as we know it on its head — for the better.

“The network is open source. People can fork it. If we start doing stupid things that people don’t like they can just fork the code from Github and just create their own. We’re very respectful that we’re kind of custodians of this network now, which is a fairly risky strategy given how much money and effort has gone into the network thus far, just to give it away — but I think it’s the only way that it will work,” he says.

Lambert jokingly refers to the company as the “oldest startup in history”, given its eight+ years of development, most of which were spent in stealth mode. So why has it taken so long to re-architect the entire Internet? When phrased like that it’s not really much of a question…

“Doing what we’re doing is exceedingly hard. Which is why it’s not really been done before. We’re different because we’ve set out to decentralize the Internet. And we’re also different because nothing like MaidSafe does exist. People will say that’s just like that or that but there is no other network in the world where you can privately log in to your own data, without anyone else knowing. And store data and share data – without the use of an intermediary, I’m just not aware of any network that you can do that on,” says Lambert.

“It probably requires different thought,” he adds. “Developers are trained from a very early stage that the infrastructure is: there is a server, there is a client, the client logs into the server and so on. And I think that has become utterly pervasive throughout the programming community. And I think why it’s not been done before is MaidSafe is such a different mindset.”

When Irvine was designing the Safe network he began by trying to figure out what the problem was with servers — and ended up with the realization that servers are the problem.

“The mindset has been how do we make servers better. Instead of saying servers are the problem let’s try and remove them.”

Now there is a thought.

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Thiel Fellow’s Elegant Sleep Tracker, Sense, Crushes Kickstarter With $120K In A Few Hours

As reported on TechCrunch.

by Kim-Mai Cutler

james-proud

 

When I first took a look at Sense, a smart sleep sensor launching today on Kickstarter, it reminded me of two things. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium and Google’s old, discontinued Nexus Q product.

“Those are two of my favorite things,” said James Proud, a former Thiel fellow who went on to found a startup behind the device called Hello. “I wanted to create something that didn’t feel like a piece of electronics that you don’t want, like an Apple TV sitting beside your bed. It had to be something that you’d be happy with having there even if it wasn’t doing anything.”

So Sense is like the spherical Nexus Q enmeshed in a geometric pattern like what Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron designed for 2008 Beijing Olympics.

sense_hand_cotton_lit

A007_C006_07038Z

Sense is a sleep tracking device that measures temperature, humidity and ambient light. It goes for $99 with the campaign starting today, but pre-orders will start at $129. Proud’s company Hello is aiming for a $100,000 goal. He hasn’t disclosed external venture funding, but you could assume there’s probably some significant round given that they’ve been working secretly on the product for about a year. Update: Connie Loizos over at Strictly VCfound this $10.5 million SEC filing. Investors are undisclosed.

Why sleep tracking?

Proud pointed out that people spend one-third of their lives sleeping.

“No one’s even looking at the most important room in your life,” he said.

In addition to tracking temperature and light, his device has a particulate sensor that can detect small particles like pollen that can disrupt sleep for people with allergies. A “smart alarm” can wake a person up at the right time in their sleep cycle, like early forerunners in the space from several years ago like the Zeo.

The whole package contains three components. There’s the beautiful spherical sensor, and then a small clip-on called the “Sleep Pill,” that attaches to a person’s pillow and contains a six-axis accelerometer and gyroscope to track tossing and turning. It communicates with the sphere through Bluetooth Low Energy and ANT. There is no pairing or syncing necessary like there is with other wearables like the Misfit Shine, another great product that tracks physical activity on top of sleep.

sensors

The last component is a mobile app, of course. It awards a sleep score out of 100 based on the sensor data tracking night time disturbances and ambient light. Sense will give a breakdown of your score and help you start to notice patterns that might be interfering with your sleep.

wakeup

Other magical Arthur C. Clarke moments include a proximity sensor that lets you wave your hand over Sense to stop your alarm. You can also wave your hand above the device to light up a ring of LEDs at the base to get feedback on your environment.

Sense enters a fast-emerging space of smart hardware companies like pioneer Nest, which was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion. There are scores of smaller companies like the Vessyland Spire, along with wearables companies like Misfit and FitBit.

Proud said that the company is almost entirely focused on Sense, but they haven’t ruled out working on other devices in the future. The team he recruited comes out of companies like Garmin and Foxconn.

“Doing either hardware and software on their own is pretty complex,” he said. “But to do them together is pretty insane.”

Posted in Business, Culture, Engineering | Comments Off on Thiel Fellow’s Elegant Sleep Tracker, Sense, Crushes Kickstarter With $120K In A Few Hours

Google banks on its own tech to protect Chrome users from another Heartbleed

As reported on Engadget.

BY STEVE DENT

Google New Laptop

Last month Google said that it was tired of mashed-together bug fixes for OpenSSL and decided to create its own fork called BoringSSL. It has now implemented that variant in thelatest Chromium build, the open-source software that eventually arrives in Chrome. OpenSSL is software used for secure connections — created largely by volunteers — and an overlooked code problem recently caused the infamous Heartbleed bug. When BoringSSL was first announced, there was some grumbling from the security community about yet another flavor of SSL. But Google said that with over 70 patches now in OpenSSL, it was becoming much too unwieldy to implement in Chrome. It added that it wasn’t trying to replace OpenSSL and would continue to send any of its own bug fixes to that group. It’ll likely be implemented in the next version of Chrome, but you’ll be able try the beta soonhere, if you’re feeling lucky.

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Prototype NASA robot will burrow through sheets of alien ice

As reported on Engadget.

 

When it came to life on Mars, NASA might have struck out, but it’s got a good feeling aboutEuropa. The agency is working on a probe designed to scan its vast oceans for signs of alien life, but there’s a problem, namely the thick layer of ice that covers the moon’s surface.That’s where VALKYRIE comes in, a torpedo-shaped robot that’ll suck up water, warm it and fire it back into the ice to quickly and easily drill through the layer. Once the hardware reaches its destination, it’ll release a swarm of smaller ‘bots that’ll map the geography and hunt for alien microbes. There’s still a few issues to work out with the gear, like the fact that it can’t properly change course while tunneling, which would be pretty essential if it were to come across a rock or other blockage. Then again, given that we won’t be ready to launch a mission to Jupiter’s moon until the early 2020’s, NASA’s got some time to fix the problems.

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Here’s the first teaser art from the new ‘Fight Club 2’ comic series

As reported on The Verge.

By Chris Welch 

Chuck Palahniuk’s long awaited sequel to Fight Club is coming in the form of a 10-issue comic book series, and today we’re getting our first look at what it will look like. Set ten years after the events of Palahniuk’s novel, the comic book will apparently feature the wedding of Fight Club’snarrator — who now goes by the name Sebastian — and Marla. Tyler Durden is also featured in the artwork; just take a look at the stained glass window behind the expecting couple.

Fightclub

Comic Book Resources spoke with Cameron Stewart, who’s handling interior artwork for the comic series, about the pressures of following up on the cultural phenomenon that Fight Clubbecame. Most people were introduced to Tyler by David Fincher’s 1999 film, which presented some challenges while also lending Stewart and Co. artistic flexibility. “The thing I find really liberating about it is that, because it’s a sequel to the novel, not to the film, we have a little bit more freedom to play with the visuals,” Stewart said. “It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing, because the film is so ingrained in popular culture  the image of Tyler Durden is Brad Pitt — and we cannot make it look anything like Brad Pitt for various legal reasons.”

Instead of a famous Hollywood actor, Tyler now looks a whole lot more like a superhero: Thor. “He’s supposed to have that kind of hairstyle,” Stewart explained, referring back to Palahniuk’s original novel as proof. “I thought that putting him in the Jesus position with the longer hair was a good way to introduce that concept to the new audience.” It’ll be some time before Fight Club 2(which Palahniuk has already finished writing) will hit comic racks, however; Stewart says he’s only now “just doing layouts for the first issue.” The series will debut next May.

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Can’t Manage A Standing Desk? Meet Cubii, The Sitting Exerciser

As reported on TechCrunch

by Natasha Lomas 

Sitting down — and the sedentary lifestyle it encourages — is killing you, slowly but surely. The problem is, standing desks aren’t for everyone. Making the switch is a big deal. I love mine but it took a week of pain and suffering to go from seat to feet, and it still feels pretty tough on calves and soles after a full day-long standing stretch.

So here’s a third way: Cubii is a sitting exerciser that’s been designed to fit under an office desk so those who are stuck in their office chairs can push its pedals while they work and get some exercise, rather than being entirely sedentary.

The Cubii is a pretty simple elliptical trainer but the design has been tweaked so the trajectory of the pedals keeps the user’s knees low enough not to bang the underside of the desk.

It also includes a Bluetooth radio and there’s a companion app — so your underdesk mileage can be quantified. Top marks for tapping the zeitgeist there, Cubii.

Cubii app

Cubii’s Chicago-based makers took to Kickstarter to raise funds to get their device to market and have now crowdfunded their way past their original target of $80,000, with five days left on their campaign.

The  early bird Kickstarter price for Cubii was $279. It’s now stepped up to $299, with an estimated shipping date of January next year — just in time for your New Year’s fitness revolution.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about the Cubii, since it’s not hugely innovative. Arguably it fills a fitness hole for those who can’t manage the transition to a standing or walking desk. Or for people who have other health issues that make standing all day a no-no.

I do take issue with Cubii’s claim that standing desks are prohibitively expensive. Sure they can be, if you want something super fancy with lots of bells and whistles. Or you can spend$19 on an Ikea Lack coffee table, saw its legs down to size and put it on top of your existing desk — for a shoestring standing desk, like mine.

Oh, and another fringe benefit of a standing desk: loads of underdesk storage space. In my experience it’s a great place to keep boxes of unused gadgets.

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OS X Yosemite preview: the Mac gets a major makeover

As reported on Engadget.

 

The last time Apple released a new version of OS X, we came away feeling a little… underwhelmed. Don’t get us wrong: We’ll never say no to a free software upgrade. But despite a handful of new apps and features, last year’s Mavericks release still felt like the same old OS X. You can’t say that about Yosemite, though. The company’s next-gen operating system ushers in the Mac’s biggest makeover in years, with a flat, streamlined look inspired by iOS 7. Yosemite works more like iOS too, particularly the part where you can route phone calls to your desktop. You’ll also enjoy improved Spotlight search, with results that include news, local restaurant listings, Wikipedia pages, movie times and quick unit conversions. Safari works much the same way, and includes some enhanced privacy settings, too. Right now, Yosemite isn’t quite finished — it won’t arrive until sometime this fall — but you can sign up for the public beta, which will open tomorrow for the first million people who enlist. In the meantime, I’ve been using an early build for a week now. Here’s a quick preview for those of you who can’t wait till tomorrow.

OS X Yosemite preview

LOOK AND FEEL

You’ll notice it as soon as you restart your machine: OS X Yosemite takes many, many cues from iOS. There’s the dock, for starters, which features redesigned, flatter-looking icons for all of Apple’s built-in apps. The menu bar now sits flat with the rest of the desktop — not that it ever really got in the way. Throughout, too, Apple has moved to a new, less condensed font, and it’s also adopted some of the same icons used in iOS (check out the “share” button in Finder, for example). Even the “stoplights” for closing, minimizing and maximizing windows are flat — no 3D shading here. Oh, speaking of the stoplights, the green button now allows you to bring windows to full-screen. You should get used to it pretty quickly.

Open up Finder — or any app, really — and you’ll see the left-hand pane is translucent, and will turn to the color of your wallpaper or whatever files you happen to have open in the background (see above for an example). The menu bar inside apps is translucent too, and it’s also significantly narrower, allowing content to stand front and center. If I’m honest, all those translucent panels are just a visual flourish. A cool flourish, but a flourish nonetheless. Yes, the slightly see-through bits up top remind you there’s more to see if you keep scrolling, but you could have figured that out anyway.

Not that I’m complaining about a fresh coat of paint. This new release feels modern — so much so that it makes my old Mavericks system feel shamefully dated. What’s nice is that even as you start installing third-party apps, the OS continues to look clean. Programs like Firefox have those flattened stoplights, for instance, though they don’t currently show the translucent panes. At the same time, as current as the OS feels, it’s still easy to find your way around; no one, and I mean no one, will feel lost inside OS X. Mail looks like Mail, and Safari looks like Safari. They just look better.

SPOTLIGHT

OK, I spoke too soon: There is one thing that works differently, and that’s Spotlight search. Whereas before, your search results appeared in drop-down form in the upper-right corner of the screen, clicking the search button now brings up a big ol’ search bar in the middle of the desktop. But it’s not just the placement of the search results that have changed; they’ve gotten quite a bit smarter, too. From here, you can convert units and measurements, preview Wikipedia entries and news stories, and pull up friends’ contact information, complete with phone numbers, email addresses and websites you can click on from the search bar.

Apps are included in search results too, as are things you may have purchased from iTunes. You can also pull up more personalized information, such as local restaurant listings and movie times, but you’ll need to have “Spotlight Suggestions” checked off under location settings in order for that to work. In cases where the keyword is a little ambiguous — “numbers,” for example — you’ll see any Numbers spreadsheets you have saved, as well as a prompt to open the Numbers app itself. Ditto for “apes” — I’ll get movie times for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as well as any emails where someone was talking about apes (and yes, I do have some).

All told, it feels a little like Smart Search in Windows 8.1, though there are things Apple can do that Microsoft can’t, and vice versa (Windows, for instance, lets you go to specific settings from the search results). To be clear, iOS 8 will show the same kind of Spotlight search results as the Mac, but what I particularly like about the desktop version is how self-contained it is — you can pull up search results without having to open a new window. Of course, if you click on a news story, Safari will open a new tab, but that makes sense — you can’t do everything in the search interface, after all.

SAFARI

It’s more of the same in Safari: The newest version of Apple’s built-in web browser shows previews of search results, with snippets of things like Wikipedia pages. The favorites bar, too, reminds me of the new Spotlight search — just click on the URL and you’ll see a pop-up window beneath showing your bookmarked sites. It’s nice because on the one hand, your favorites no longer take up unnecessary space in the browser, but they’re there when you need them, and you don’t have to navigate away from your current page to see the list.

In addition, Apple redesigned its “tabs view,” where you’ll see a mixture of tabs from both your Mac and any iDevices you own (obviously, you need to be signed into iCloud on every device for this to work). From there, you can close tabs remotely, so long as the remote device is running either Yosemite or iOS 8 (if all you want to do is open remote tabs, you just need iOS 6 or higher, or Mavericks on the desktops side). The tabs window also stacks pages from the same site, which helps keep things tidy. Meanwhile, Safari’s “share” button now shows recent shares. It’s also “extensible,” which is to say you can add extensions to share via more apps, even if they aren’t part of the default sharing menu.

The latest build of Safari also includes a couple important nods to privacy. DuckDuckGo, the do-not-track search engine, is now one of four default search options, with Google, Yahoo and Bing being the other three. Additionally, you can now open private browsing in a new window, even if you already started a regular browsing session in a different window. (In Mavericks, once you turn on private browsing, you’re turning it on for every subsequent window and tab you open.) As you open new tabs in that private window, they’ll be private by default. The private browsing window is also easy to tell apart, with a “private browsing enabled” banner and a lock symbol in the address bar (check out the screenshot above to see what I mean).

MESSAGES

More than any other app mentioned here, Messages is the one that now feels most like iOS. With this new release, you can mute or leave conversations, or add someone to an existing group chat — all features you’ll find on iOS 8 when it comes out. Additionally, if your texting partner is using iOS 8 and has elected to share their location, you can view a map inside the Messages app that shows where your friend is — a handy feature if you’re trying to meet up in real life. Also, you’ll now see a Camera Roll-type stream on the right side, showing all the photos and videos you and your friends may have exchanged over the course of the thread. Naturally, that includes shots from both Macs and iOS devices.

If you ask me, the ability to mute or leave a conversation both seem like no-brainer features, and I’m glad Apple’s adding them to both OS X and iOS. The “add participant” feature is particularly convenient — until now, if you wanted to bring somebody to the conversation, you had to start a whole new thread from scratch. The only catch here is that you need at least three people in the conversation to add another. That means if you and Joe are planning a Sunday brunch and decide Jane is invited too, you won’t have the option to just loop her in. Needless to say, I hope Apple rethinks the “three-person” requirement between now and the fall.

Finally, Apple added a “Soundbites” feature that lets you send short, pre-recorded audio messages in a normal texting thread. (This feature is also coming to iOS 8, though you don’t need an iOS 8 or Yosemite device to receive these audio clips.) It’s all very self-explanatory, really: Just click the microphone button and start talking. And take your time. The limit for Yosemite devices is 100MB, which amounts to a lot of talking — several hours, according to Apple. Thankfully, you’ll have a chance to review your message before sending — in that sense, it’s more akin to a voice mailbox greeting than an actual voicemail. Even after you send it, you can either hit “keep” or let it expire after two minutes, à la Snapchat. Meanwhile, the sender can also choose to keep the message, or allow it to self-destruct two minutes after viewing it.

MAIL

The built-in Mail app has seen a couple changes too, even though the inbox itself looks the same as ever. The first of these features is Mail Drop, which uploads large attachments to iCloud instead of Gmail, or whatever your mail service is. If your recipient is using OS X Yosemite too, they’ll just download the attachment in Mail, as they normally would. If they’re not on Yosemite, they’ll instead get a download link that will work for up to 30 days. Aside from the ability to skirt attachment-size limits, the nice thing about Mail Drop is that attachments don’t count against your iCloud storage cap.

The second new feature is called Markup, which gives you an easy way to — wait for it — mark up attachments from inside the Mail app. Just hover over a PDF or image after you insert it into your draft email, and click on the “Markup” option that’ll appear over on the right side. From there, you can add shapes and text, complete with formatting options like text colors and different fonts. You can also sign documents if you like by either signing with your finger, or using your Mac’s iSight camera to photograph your signature on a piece of paper.

Lastly, you can draw on the document, at which point Markup will attempt to smooth out your scribblings if you happen to make a shape it recognizes. If you dash out a crooked arrow sign, for instance, Apple will give you the option of swapping in a straight, more professional-looking one instead (you can also keep the crooked one, if you wish).

CALENDAR AND NOTIFICATION CENTER

It’s been about two years since Apple added the Notification Center to OS X. Fundamentally, it works the same way it always did, with pop-ups appearing in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen when you receive a new email, have an upcoming calendar appointment, et cetera. The difference here is that in addition to the usual “Notifications” column, there’s now a “Today” view that combines any and all information that might be relevant to you throughout your day: reminders, the local weather, stock prices, a world clock and a summary of your calendar appointments. Stocks and weather, in particular, can sync with iOS 8, so your stock list, say, will be consistent across your Mac and iPhone. Unfortunately, none of my devices are currently running iOS 8 (it’s not out yet), so I wasn’t able to test that feature. Soon, hopefully.

In short, the new “Today” view feels like an updated version of the ol’ Mac dashboard, with some of the classic widgets in one place. Of course, the dashboard is still there if you want it — old habits do die hard, after all. Personally, though, I don’t see why you’d use the dashboard if you didn’t have to; it’s much easier to just open the Notification Center and take in lots of information at once.

Meanwhile, the Calendar app also has a redesigned day view, with an inline, full-height inspection pane sitting alongside a list of all your appointments for the day. From there, you can see lots of details pertaining to a given event, such as location, the weather forecast, a map, a list of attendees and a miniature month calendar. What can I say? It looks nice. The only thing I would add is the ability to zoom in on the map without having to open the standalone Maps application.

INTEGRATION WITH IOS

I saved this section for last because iOS 8 isn’t out yet, which means I can’t actually test any of the features that tie into OS X Yosemite. That’s a shame, because iOS integration really is the big story here, even more than those flat new icons. I’ll of course revisit this when I eventually write my full Yosemite review, but for now, all I can really do is explain what these iOS features are and how they work.

And explain I shall. Perhaps the flashiest of these features, as I said earlier, is the ability to field calls from your desktop. As on an iPhone, you can accept or reject the call, or set a reminder for five minutes, 15 minutes or an hour. To make this happen, just sign into iCloud on both devices, and make sure both your Mac and iPhone are connected to the same WiFi network. Meanwhile, your Mac can automatically tether with your iPhone, so long as they’re within a close enough distance. Also, when you do tether, you’ll see your phone’s battery life and signal strength in the menu bar. Finally, the Messages app will now show both iMessages as well as SMS texts from non-iOS users. What’s more, you can send SMS messages through your Mac, with the texts ultimately routing through your phone (again you need to be signed into iCloud on both devices, and be on the same WiFi network).

So far, I’ve mostly enumerated features that let you control your phone from your Mac — texting, receiving calls, et cetera. But Apple has also added some features to OS X that make it easier to transfer files between devices. Perhaps the biggest development is iCloud Drive, which allows you to store your files on iCloud and then access them on any device. Meanwhile, a new “handoff” feature means that whatever you’re doing on one device, it will show up on the other — open tabs, documents in progress, et cetera. Finally, your friends on iOS can send you things through AirDrop even when you don’t have Finder open.

WRAP-UP

For anyone who thought OS X was getting stale, that it was evolving a little too gradually, you’ll definitely want to check out Yosemite: It ushers in a new, iOS-inspired design, along with some new, iOS-like features. In my week of testing, I’ve found the updated look to be more visually pleasing than the previous version, yet still easy to navigate. The new features are generally welcome too, though some admittedly feel more granular than others. Of course, the most important updates to the OS generally have to do with iOS integration — never have Macs and iPhones worked in lockstep the way they will here.

The thing is, those are precisely the features I didn’t get to test out: With iOS 8 reserved just for developers right now, it’s impossible to say how well these features work in real-world use. We’ll be back in the fall with a full review, but for now, this latest OS update looks promising, especially for people who also own iPhones or iPads (and that’s a lot of you, I’m guessing). Don’t take my word for it, though: Join the public beta program so you can get hands-on yourself.

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Dropbox for Business lets you limit your coworkers’ access to shared files

As reported on Engadget.

Dropbox

Dropbox for Business is good for collaborating on files stored in the cloud, but it hasn’t had fine-grained permission control — not great if you have a sensitive project you’d rather notshare with the folks in Accounts Receivable. You’ll be glad to hear, then, that Dropbox is introducing some much-needed access limits. You can now say which of your colleaguescan edit or view a given file, and you can both set expiry dates and passwords for shared links. In other words, contractors won’t get to peek at that big company report once their work is done. The new tricks are available through Dropbox for Business’ early access program today, and there are promises of more features within a few months; they’ll get the ability to search for text within files, work on Office documents with others and preview that same content on Android.

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The Secret NYC Graveyard Where Ships Go to Die

As reported on Wired.

BY BRENDAN I. KOERNER 

Reaching the marshy spot on southwestern Staten Island where good boats go to die requires a car, sturdy footwear, and a willingness to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Though a sliver of the Arthur Kill ship graveyard is visible from the nearest road, the site’s full grandeur only becomes apparent once you sneak beyond the “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” signs and hack through a miasma of seven-foot-tall reeds that stink of brine and guano.

The thicket finally dead-ends at a colossal pile of junk: thousands of splintered beams of lumber mixed in with broken engine parts. Just beyond this debris field lie as many three dozen ghostly ships in various states of decay, abandoned decades ago in this isolated corner of New York City.

The Arthur Kill ship graveyard was never meant to become such a decrepit spectacle. In the years following World War II, the adjacent scrapyard began to purchase scores of outdated vessels, with the intention of harvesting them for anything of value. But the shipbreakers couldn’t keep pace with the influx of boats, especially once people started to use the graveyard as a dumping ground for their old dinghies. Plenty of ships fell into such disrepair that they were no longer worth the effort to strip, especially since many teem with toxic substances. And so they’ve been left to rot in the murky tidal strait that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, where they’ve turned scarlet with rust and now host entire ecosystems of hardy aquatic creatures.

Like so many relics of our species’ industrial past, the graveyard has attracted a fair number of intrepid artists and vandals over the years. The small ships closest to shore are splattered with spray-painted tags, while those farther out have been frequent subjects for oil painters and water colorists. A South Korean artist, Miru Kim, has even photographed herself wading around the site as part of a series fittingly titled “Naked City Spleen.” But no one has produced anything quite as visually striking as Graves of Arthur Kill, a new 32-minute documentary that features up-close and ultra-rare footage of the graveyard’s most gorgeous wrecks.

The film’s producer, Gary Kane, first learned about the graveyard’s existence in 2010, while engaging in a bit of Internet procrastination. “I spotted some images of these rusting tugboats and dilapidated barges online and aesthetically they were so compelling,” says Kane, a freelance editor and former Associated Press reporter. “Then I came to realize that this was all in Staten Island and I thought, ‘That’s a very bizarre location.’”

Kane was inspired to reach out to the man who had taken the photos, a longtime English professor named Will Van Dorp whose true passion is maritime transport. (A former “human shield” hostage during the Gulf War, Van Dorp recently took an unpaid leave of absence from his tenured teaching gig to join a tugboat crew.) The two men bonded over their mutual fascination with the graveyard and agreed to collaborate on a short film, with Van Dorp as the director. They knew their big challenge would be to gain legitimate access to the site—the company that owns the scrapyard and the ships, Donjon Marine, is typically loath to let strangers traipse about. But after Kane was able to secure an endorsement from the prestigious New York Foundation for the Arts, the company’s president relented and gave him special permission to move forward with the project.

Here’s an exclusive clip from Graves of Arthur Kill:

Filming took place in the summer of 2012 aboard a rowboat that Kane and Van Dorp maneuvered around the corroded hulks. The shoot was perilous at times, mostly due to the flotsam that lurks beneath the water’s surface. On one occasion, for example, the rowboat nearly sank after being punctured by a stray rivet. (Van Dorp saved the day—and a very expensive Sony HD camera—by using a hand pump to keep the craft afloat.) The filmmakers may also have accidentally dosed themselves with radiation by getting too close to the USS YOG-64, a Navy gas tanker that was posted near Bikini Atoll during the Operation Sandstone nuclear weapons tests in 1948.

Aside from capturing the eerie beauty of the crumbling ships, Kane and Van Dorp poured tremendous effort into researching the histories of the graveyard’s most photogenic vessels. Kane was particularly fond of a submarine chaser known as theUSS PC-1264, which he discovered was the first Navy ship to have a predominately African-American crew during World War II. He was also partial to the USS Bloxom, a 70-year-old steam-powered tugboat that is now stained a brilliant scarlet, as well as the Abram Hewitt, a fireboat that was present at New York’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the passenger ferry General Slocum that killed over 1,000 people.

Graves of Arthur Kill, whose $30,000 budget came out of Kane’s own pocket, is almost certain to be the last film ever shot at the haunting site. The filmmakers had a falling out with Donjon Marine toward the end of their shoot, and it seems highly unlikely that the company will ever again cooperate with an artistic endeavor. Guerrilla film crews are free to try their luck, of course, but they’re strongly advised to leave bail money with trusted friends before venturing forth.

Graves of Arthur Kill is currently available on CreateSpace for $11.99.

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