Saturday, April 26, 2014

Boot up: cloudy neural nets, fanboys ahoy!, Office 365 why?, and more

Disneyland Disney characters in Disneyland, California. Will their movements be directed by visitors’ RFID wristbands soon? Photograph: Armando Arorizo/EPA

A burst of 8 links for you to chew over, as picked by the Technology team

Sam Biddle:

Have you ever yearned: 'I love the physical junk mail I get, but is there any way I could have it intercepted, opened by strangers, scanned, and routed directly to my email inbox, so I don't have to touch paper?' San Francisco startup Outbox thought it had the solution. Maybe it did. Now it is gone. Good.

Ever more rare than humility in the face of failure is failure itself: bad ideas are usually rewarded as unidentified innovation, not simply dumb. Outbox was one such smiled-upon inanity, having received millions of dollars in venture cash, and credulous headlines from tech press:

"Outbox Pours Salt On Snail Mail By Launching Its Digitizing Service In San Francisco"

"Kiss your postal mailbox goodbye for $5 a month".

The fact that people were spending real money and real human working hours to address the greatest non-problem of our time was an insult to anyone not ankle-deep in horse shit. Hardly ever did anyone ask: why not just go get your own mail?

Amazingly, Outbox had 2,000 customers by the time it wound up.

neural nets are shy creatures. Rarely are they shared in the same way as other computing resources such as memory, processing power or software.

That looks set to change thanks to the work of Erich Schikuta and Erwin Mann at the University of Vienna in Austria. These guys have created a way of setting up neural networks in the cloud so that their services can be shared, just like other resources. They call their new system N2Sky and they are putting it through its paces now.

This could be as big as storage and processing in the cloud - a whole new generation of startups should make use of this.

Lessley Anderson:

Marooned in his home office, pounding tepid coffee, Fisk meandered down the path of calling various journalists and commenters "idiots" in his posts. Especially those who unfairly bashed Android. He had, without realizing it, become a fanboy.

"I can bitch anonymously, and I've tried to tone it back, because I let it get to me," he says.

But that's not all that gets to Fisk. He has a meta-frustration that seems to be always vibrating in his mental circuitry, like a hum you can't place. It has to do with the power that technology companies wield over his life.

He talks about being "trapped in his contract" with his former phone carrier, and about being unable to receive Android updates because of some Machiavellian plot on the part of the manufacturer to force consumers to upgrade their phones. He paints Apple as a ruthless force that effectively killed Flash, the software plug-in favored by designers, by refusing to support it on Apple's mobile devices. At the time, Fisk made his living as a Flash developer.

"Apple to me is just a gigantic, media-bending smokescreen," he complains.

A great piece of reporting - it looks all over this manure-strewn field - which is today's must-read.

It began on 29 January 2013, so the one-year renewal period is coming up:

For people who already have Office 2010, it's a pretty easy choice - there isn't a good reason to renew your Office 365 subscription. Revert to Office 2010 and wait and see if Microsoft adds any must-have features to Office 365. At that time, you can start subscribing.

When Microsoft launched Office 365 Home Premium, it said that it would deliver new features and services to subscribers as soon as they were ready, eliminating the need for users to wait for the next version of the software to get the new features.

However, in the year that it's been available, Microsoft hasn't added anything notable to Office 365. That makes it hard to see the benefit of using Office 365 instead of Office 2010.

Are there blockbuster new features that it can add? If so, what are they?

An off-and-on customer of OfficeMax, Mike Seay has gotten the office supply company's junk mail for years. But the mail that the grieving Lindenhurst, Ill., father said he got from OfficeMax last week was different.

It was addressed to "Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash."

Strange as that sounds, the mail reached the right guy. Seay's daughter Ashley, 17, was killed in a car crash with her boyfriend last year. OfficeMax somehow knew.

It didn't exactly "know"; it had bought the list from "a third-party provider".

John Foreman, chief data scientist at Mailchimp, went to a Disney park where he and his family were issued with an individually-programmed RFID-equipped wristband.

Stop a moment and dream of the MagicBand possibilities.

The pitch that Disney is making is personalization. For each band, for example, Disney asks for the name and birthday of the person who'll be wearing it. So if your kid is having a birthday in the park and there's a character wandering nearby, that character can be notified to sneak up on your kid and creepily wish them a happy birthday individually.

Now, let's dig a little deeper.

What does Disney get out of the deal? In short, it tracks everything you do, everything you buy, everything you eat, everything you ride, everywhere you go in the park. If the goal is to keep you in the park longer so you'll spend more money, it can build AI models on itineraries, show schedules, line length, weather, etc., to figure out what influences stay length and cash expenditure. Perhaps there are a few levers they can pull to get money out of you.

Microsoft fell victim to hackers for the third time in a month, after attackers defaced the newly redesigned Office blog.

The group known as the Syrian Electronic Army posted several articles on the Microsoft Office site, including one titled "hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army".

The group crowed that it had managed to hack into the blog's CMS [content management system] despite Microsoft's best efforts - and suggested it had access to employee login details.

This could continue for quite a while. Two-factor authentication isn't any use if the intruder is inside the system and the system is big enough.

If you ignore the bad spacing and read the parts [of the received email] that I bolded, someone sent me a spam email offering money to get links that pass PageRank. That's a clear violation of Google's quality guidelines. Moreover, we've been seeing more and more reports of "guest blogging" that are really "paying for PageRank" or worse, "we'll insert some spammy links on your blog without you realizing it."

Ultimately, this is why we can't have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains. We've reached the point in the downward spiral where people are hawking "guest post outsourcing" and writing articles about "how to automate guest blogging."

Though it is hlarious that someone would try an SEO-spamming tactic on Matt Cutts, who is Google's anti-spam guy.

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