WEEKLY RECAP

Abandon Shame, All Ye Who Enter Airports

If you plan to travel by air for the holidays, or for any reason in the near future, really, it may require having a short yet intimate encounter with a TSA employee. The agency has been ramping up the use of so-called backscatter scanning machines in recent weeks, and the high-volume holiday travel season will be the first time many people will have to use them.

The TSA’s procedures related to the scans and the aggressive pat-downs offered as an alternative have kicked up quite a bit of controversy. They’re clearly way more invasive than any common practice the agency’s enacted before. Taking travelers’ water away is one thing, but for some would-be fliers, these new procedures cross the line and take away their dignity.

TSA officials had to defend their new policies in front of a congressional panel this week, asserting passengers need to know that everyone around them on an airplane has been thoroughly checked over. Even TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said at the hearing that he was uncomfortable when undergoing a test physical screening, but he said the screenings match practices in Europe and are less invasive than practices elsewhere in the world.

The panel more or less gave TSA a pass, though republican representatives did offer some mild criticism. Democrats were generally more supportive. So don’t expect a reversal in policy on the machines any time soon.

But what do these backscatter machines actually do? In short, they’re capable of seeing under your clothing to check whether you’re carrying a weapon. The image it produces isn’t exactly on par with what you’d see on Cinemax at 1 in the morning, but it does tell quite a story. The TSA says the people actually watching the images are sitting far away and that there’s no way to save the images. But that doesn’t do much to reassure some people who are very uncomfortable with the prospect of being ogled — or having their partners, parents or children ogled, for that matter. And that’s not to mention the fact that getting scanned exposes you to radiation, though it’s not nearly as much radiation as you get during an actual flight.

Also, that line about not being able to save the image smells fishy. Whenever digital imagery is involved, there’s a way to save the photo. A courthouse in Florida was actually caught saving backscatter images recently — Gizmodo published the images after getting them through a FOIA request.

If all that sounds like something you’d like to avoid but you still get selected for a body scan, you have an alternative: getting groped. Travelers will have the option of getting patted down by a TSA worker, and it will not be gentle. The TSA has implemented a new way of feeling you up. Hands will go places they would not otherwise go in public settings, and it’s unclear whether eye contact will be part of the package. Your groper will be the same sex as you, regardless of whether that’s to your liking. Some travelers have even characterized the experience as a state-sanctioned sexual assault.

So that’s what’s going to go on in airports for the foreseeable future, every time we fly anywhere. And if you don’t like it, please note that you are in a distinct minority and are officially weird. A recent CBS poll found that 81 percent of those surveyed fully support the x-ray machines. It’s unclear, though, how many of those 81 percent never actually travel by plane and just like the thought of other people using them.


Listen to the podcast (14:39 minutes).


The Message Is the Medium

Facebook is fast learning the art of stripteasing for the media. Assoon as invites to its latest event started going out earlier thismonth, the immediate expectation was that it was going to be all abouta new email service, thanks to the postage-themed image.

That in itself would have been kind of a big deal. The world is sosteeped in email providers that an all-new upstart wouldn’t have achance. But if this half-billion-strong social network got into thebusiness, well, that could make the heavyweights start sweating,especially Google.

But that was just step one, and it left plenty to the imagination.When Zuckerberg and company finally went full monty last Monday, itturned out there was actually much more to show.

What they revealed was Facebook Messages. Yes, it involves email, andyes, users will be able to get an @Facebook.com address — eventually.But CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t even see email as that big a part ofit, so he says.

Presently, there are various ways of communicating with other Facebookmembers within the confines of the social network itself. Wall posts,private messages and chat, for instance. Facebook Messages will takeall these inside-the-garden communication services and integrate themwith other digital communication systems that we usually have to leaveFacebook in order to use — email, IM and text messages. So it’llbundle all this stuff together and give you a single feed for everyconversation you have with someone, regardless of medium. You don’thave to jump between apps and devices to keep talking.

You can still communicate with non-Facebookers, of course. They’lljust receive your messages through these separated, siloed media, likenormal. Facebook Messages users will get it all streamlined into aunified feed.

Facebook isn’t going to be able to just magically access all theseaccounts you have if you want to turn Messages on, though. You’regoing to have to let it in on all these feeds you want to incorporate– kind of like giving it a copy of your house key and trusting itwon’t do anything too awful with it behind your back.

In unifying all these communications streams in the name ofconvenience, though, Facebook could be dancing through a privacyminefield. Say you don’t want to have anything whatsoever to do withFacebook, ever in your life, yet you’ve just texted someone who,unbeknownst to you, uses Messages. Does that mean you just caught thecooties? Is your number now floating around in Facebook’s megaservers?And what happens if you want to let other people into theconversation, but not everyone agrees on who should see what? Andaren’t certain types of communication media just generally regarded asa little more intimate than others?

Facebook will be rolling out Messages slowly, so it’s something we’llhave to learn about first-hand on a step-by-step basis. I guess mostof these questions have been around in one way or another since theinvention of the Forward button. And as usual, if you really want aprivate conversation, do it by talking face-to-face in a soundproofcloset, post-patdown.

Blast From the Past

It’s unclear whether AOL’s latest move was supposed to happen exactlywhen it did. They’ve obviously been working on it a long time, but Iwonder if any last-minute changes in schedule were made — orstubbornly NOT made — to put the company’s new email system out onpublic view the day before Facebook did its own email show-and-tell.

Regardless of timing, AOL’s revamped email system appears to be morethan a mere cosmetic makeover. For a lot of us, this is the companythat first conditioned our brains to kick out a little squirt ofserotonin every time that “you’ve got mail” sound chimed in.

Eventually we learned to use the Internet without a constant tourguide showing us the way, and “you’ve got mail” guy and AOL mail ingeneral fell out of fashion. Those who still use@aol addresses perhaps don’t care much that they’re signed up with atechnological laggard. Or maybe they just have a very strong sense ofloyalty. Benefit of the doubt. Whatever the story, AOL mail has becomeassociated with a slow to develop and slow to navigate service.

But slow is exactly the thing the new AOL mail wants to get away from.In tests, its new service — named “Project Phoenix” — loads messages awhopping 1.5 seconds faster than Gmail, saving users perhaps a fullminute of screen-staring time per week. But if that’snot enough to convince you to go through the tedious process offlipping email providers, perhaps the new interface and featureadditions will make a difference.

Hell, you don’t even really have to switch: New tools will make iteasy to bring in-boxes from other services into Phoenix, and youcan send messages via those accounts from within Phoenix.

The real Phoenix won’t rise until sometime next year, but users cansend AOL a message to request an invite for the betaversion.

You Finally Give Me Your Money

For the better part of a decade, the music of the most famous band in the history of popular music could not be purchased through iTunes, or any other legit download vendor. This fact did not cause civilization to crumble. Life went on, the sun kept rising, the surviving Beatles remained rich as hell, save for a divorce here and there, and iTunes managed to become the biggest music vendor in the world. And anyone who wanted Beatles songs on their iPods could just buy a CD and rip it. Or hit up any of the dozens of file-sharing networks that have come and gone over the years.

Still, it just didn’t seem quite right. iTunes is supposed to be this massive, exhaustive index of music — if you can’t find it there, it’s probably pretty obscure. The Beatles are the exact opposite of obscure, so why couldn’t you find a single listing for Sgt. Pepper’s? It was a natural imbalance that’s been resolved, and it sort of happened out of left field. Apple has come to an agreement with the Beatles to sell their catalog through iTunes. The company didn’t wait for its next product show-and-tell to try and make a one-more-thing showstopper — it just put it out there. Happy birthday to ya.

But why the hold-up? Probably a combination of factors. First there’s the tangled wad of legalese and contractual obligations that’s been gathering around the Beatles’ music for the last four decades. Then there’s the scuffle Apple had with the Beatles own Apple Corps over the whole naming and logo issue. Finally, Apple is a notoriously hard negotiator, but it was going up against some of the music industry’s toughest, grizzliest business veterans. Irresistible force vs. immovable object.

There were probably a number of artistic concerns too. The Beatles’ music was created in the days of phonographic records — you were supposed to listen to the album as a whole, all the way through, and those great big 12-inch sleeves made the cover art almost as important as the music itself. There was probably much negotiation in terms of how exactly Apple would package the material, even when it’s being sold as a digital download.

Call Accepted

Over the course of 2009, it became increasingly clear that Apple andGoogle were no longer in love, and one of the many events to cementthat perception into place was Apple’s refusal to allow an iPhoneversion of Google Voice in the App Store. Here’s this interestingapplication that could be very helpful to some users, and it’s comingfrom a company that’s already done tons of stuff with the iPhoneplatform — Google even made one of the very first iPhone apps, thebuilt-in YouTube app.

But despite that, Apple rejected it. Or maybe they didn’t reject it –they just said they were continuing to examine it … for weeks, thenmonths. So basically it just sat there in App Store customsindefinitely.

This aroused much suspicion. Did AT&T put its little hand on Apple’sshoulder and warn it away from Google Voice? Was it scared customerswould use it to make VoIP calls rather than use their voice minutes?Well, no. That part got put to rest fairly quickly. It’s not howGoogle Voice on smartphones works, though it can cut down your costsfor sending text messages.

Apple’s official line was that the app duplicates existing functionsand features and that it looked like it was trying to replace thephone’s original interface for calling, texting and voicemail.

Whatever the reasons, the FCC took a look at the whole situation, andnow, over a year later, Google Voice is indeed available in the AppStore. Did the FCC have to twist Apple’s ear to convince it to put itthere? Dunno — Apple’s not talking, it’s just giving away Google Voiceas a free app at this moment.

So what’s changed over the last year? Apple and Google are still atit, just in a more upfront way, I suppose. Google Voice still worksthe same way. AT&T is still the iPhone’s only U.S. carrier for thetime being. Not that they had anything to do with the big delay;that’s something they denied. Maybe Apple just decided that it wasn’tworth fighting over anymore. You can already use a bunch of alternatetexting and calling apps on iPhone, even true VoIP services, and thoseapparently don’t usurp the sacred UI throne.

Plus, a lot of Android phones have had Google Voice for over a year.If the iPhone does eventually expand to other U.S. carriers, maybeApple figured it wasn’t going to have much luck getting Android usersto switch if they’d already become addicted to Google’s phone servicebut weren’t allowed to access it on an iOS device.

Welcome to the Other Side

The scientists at CERN have so far utterly failed at producing an Earth-swallowing mini black hole, but they did manage to complete a different insanely cool mad-scientist project: They made themselves a nice little batch of bizzaro-world antimatter. Anti-hydrogen, to be exact. Thirty-eight whole atoms of the stuff, and they lasted about a sixth of a second before being annihilated by regular matter.

The kind of hydrogen we’re used to in our corner of the universe is made of a negatively charged electron going around a positively charged proton. Reverse the charges and you have antimatter — a positively charged anti-electron, the positron, orbiting a negatively charged antiproton.

If you want to make antihydrogen in your garage, you’ll need to cool things down to just one half a degree above absolute zero. Any warmer, and the antimatter particles get too energetic and spin away. Remember, things go boom when matter touches antimatter, so everyone be careful.

The overall goal for scientists working on these antimatter experiments is to find out whether antimatter behaves the same way as regular matter. The process will take a long time, because antimatter is really, really hard to make. According to Rolf Landua, a CERN scientist not inolved in this particular experiment but who has done antiparticle work, producing just a gram of antimatter would probably take something like a billion years.

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