Economic Gloom, Presidential Politics Collide With Tech

eBay came through with a profitable third quarter, but don’t expect such good news in the coming months. Its earnings were almost 1 and a half billion dollars better than Q3 of last year, but the total sum of all transactions on the auction site actually went down one percent.

That’s a first. It’s also gotten itself into a somewhat standoffish predicament with some of its smaller sellers. It increased their fees and strictly curtailed what they’re allowed to say about the customers they do business with. Then there’s the fact that other sites are offering increasingly noticeable competition. And there’s the glut of counterfeit merchandise and the litigation it spurs.

Did I mention that consumers are spending less? eBay hasn’t quite buckled yet. A downturn was expected due to the overall economic climate, and it’s started to aggressively deal with most of the other issues — cutting a bunch of jobs, for one thing. But that drop in gross merchandise value really deepened the gloom.

Listen to the podcast (12:47 minutes).

Bad News Inside

iSuppli is an analytics firm that studies the electronics industry’s supply chain. Sometimes, just for fun, they’ll grab one of the newest, hottest gadgets, dissect it and estimate how much margin the manufacturer makes based on what’s inside.

Recently, the guys at iSuppli cut open the entire semiconductor industry and pulled out a big wad of bad news. They’ve revised their forecast for the remainder of 2008 from 4 percent growth to 3 and a half percent for the full year. Sure, that’s a slowdown, but it’s still growth. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.

Thing is, the firm finalized its estimate before Wall Street started on the main leg of the little magical mystery tour we’re now caught up in, so the future for the semi industry — and just about every industry except canned food and shotguns — is getting foggier all the time.

Slide Ahead

That’s foggy as in how bad will it get.

Gartner’s not mincing words for the tech industry. The firm forecast a dramatic slowdown in the growth rate of IT spending in 2009, slashing its projection from 5.8 percent growth to 2.3 percent.

Businesses are having a tough time getting credit, which they need to finance enterprise IT projects. The server sector will be hardest hit — your IBMs, HPs and Dells. It won’t be a bed of roses for software vendors like Microsoft and Oracle either. But at least the big guys have a better chance of staying on their feet.

In this case, the smaller they are, the harder they’re likely to fall.

Unfair Use?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain had a run-in with YouTube.

Here’s what happened: The video site took down some of his campaign commercials after receiving complaints from the news outlets whose copyrighted clips were used in the ads. The McCain campaign asked YouTube to reinstate the videos, saying they were protected under the fair use provision of copyright law.

The original takedown request was based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives big-media copyright holders an incredible amount of sway in having material removed from online publications. It’s also a law that John McCain and 98 other senators — including Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden — voted for.

21st Century Campaigning

No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. That was, in fact, a presidential campaign ad for Barack Obama you saw whizzing by as you raced around the corner while playing “Burnout: Paradise City” on your Xbox 360.

Yes, Obama is tapping the power of in-game advertising in an effort to corral as many voters as he can before November 4th. The Obama campaign says it’s targeting the ad to battleground states such as Ohio and Nevada, where he and Republican John McCain are locked in a tight race.

The ads are only appearing on the Xbox platform, and McCain’s campaign was offered the chance to run its own in-game ads. McCain passed, presumably because understanding video games is even more of a technological challenge than figuring out how to e-mail.

Wireless Internet Future

The FCC has struck down the objections of wireless carriers to a plan to offer national wireless broadband Internet access for free over a small segment of airwaves.

Back when the FCC was getting ready to auction off the sections of wireless spectrum freed up by the switch to digital television, it included a 25 megahertz segment that was intended for free, national broadband Internet. The incumbent wireless carriers protested that the signals would interfere with their customers’ communications.

The FCC conducted some tests and concluded those objections were bunk. Maybe the carriers should admit why they really object: If someone gives away free wireless broadband Internet, it’ll look pretty silly for them to charge 30 bucks a month for the same thing.

Apple Drops a Brick

Apple finally refreshed its parched line of MacBook laptops, and — as usual — reality did not entirely conform with the wishful thinking and rumors that precede an Apple announcement. What did come through was the so-called brick manufacturing process.

Some MacBooks’ cases are now carved out of solid blocks of aluminum, and that unibody construction makes them even more durable. The notebooks also feature new Nvidia graphics cards, glass trackpads and new keyboards. Their shape has also changed — now they look sort of like fattened-up MacBook Airs.

One rumor that didn’t pan out was the emergence of a small, $800 MacBook. Nope, the cheapest MacBook still costs about a grand and doesn’t get the new all-aluminum look that the beefier MacBooks get — though that $999 price point still represents a dip from what the cheapest MacBook cost before.

Android Kill Switch

A few Google-HTC-T-Mobile G1 handset are out in the wild, and early reviews are generally positive, though many say it’s not quite up to the level of the iPhone 3G.

The G1, which runs Google’s Android mobile operating system, also has a kill switch — that is, a way for Google to remotely remove any application that might do bad things to the network. When a similar iPhone feature came to light, people were up in arms.

Of course, Apple kept the thing a big secret until it was discovered by a developer, who spread the word on his own. The Android kill switch was never hidden — its existence was revealed in the terms of service that accompany the Android Market, where applications for the phone can be downloaded.

Chopped Spam

The Federal Trade Commission has essentially shut down the largest spam operation in the world, freezing the assets of two of its accused ringleaders.

Bad for them, but it’s not like there’s now going to be any shortage of e-mail offers for amazing male-enhancement things; bargain-basement Viagra and Prozac — no prescription required! — and pills that will let you eat all you want, never exercise, but still lose weight. Tons of it.

I get these offers all the time. I know, because when I open my spam folder, there they are, with their little square boxes in the subject field and interesting first names like Petra and JoJo. Generally speaking, though, I don’t bother to open that folder — I just let it disappear without so much as a glance, because it’s spam.

What I want to know is this: How are people like Lance Atkinson of Australia and Jody Smith of Texas making enough money to interest the feds in the first place? Who’s buying all this crap? You? Cut it out!

Brain Power

Sorry, I didn’t mean you. You’re smart. You get your news on the Web, so presumably you’re used to doing Web searches. And that means you have an active frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, reasoning, and your ability to see the big picture.

At least, that’s according to some researchers at UCLA. They took a bunch of people ages 55 to 76 and measured their brains as they read a book.

The ones who frequently searched the Internet displayed more frontal lobe activity than the ones that were — well, your John McCain types. But all was not lost for the disconnected. After a week of Web search practice, the ones without as much experience started to show increased frontal lobe activity too.

There was some other research going around recently that suggested alcohol actually shrinks the brain, so surfing while you drink should balance things out nicely. Just don’t try Gmail — they have a new anti-drunk e-mailing feature, so you probably won’t get far. I recommend Twitter — it’s an even faster way to subject even more people to your genius, boozy insights.

Paralysis Bypass

People who have spinal cord injuries or other neurological problems may be able to move their paralyzed parts in just a few years, if enough money is poured into the development of applications for a now-proven theory.

In an experiment with monkeys, scientists at the University of Washington showed how neuronal signals could be rerouted through the help of a computerized system. With electronic implants attached to single nerve cells, the monkeys were taught how to use their brain activity alone to make a cursor move on a computer screen. Then they were injected with a drug to paralyze their wrists.

The scientists rerouted the brain signals to the animals’ wrists, and after a short time, the monkeys were able to move their paralyzed wrists, just as they had moved the cursor. Jonathan Wolpaw, chief of the Laboratory of Nervous System Disorders in the New York State Department of Health, called the study an advance.

However, he said it may not even be necessary to put implant electrodes into the brain to get movement control — it may be possible use brainwaves recorded from the scalp.

Smart Talker

Nobody thought it was possible to have an intelligent conversation using text messages. And that may still be the case. But it’s still one way to measure the intelligence of a computer, according to some scientists.

It’s called the Turing Test, named after Alan Turing. Works like this: Human A chats with both Human B and a computer. If at the end of the conversation Human A can’t tell for sure which one was a person and which one was a computer, the computer passes the Turing Test.

There are a lot of ways to carry this out, and the judges for the Loebner Prize — now in its 18th year — use text messages as their medium of communication. This year’s winner was an AI program called “Elbot,” which managed to stump three out of twelve judges.

That was enough to win it the biggest prize in the contest’s history — a bronze medal. The silver is reserved for a program that can stump half the judges, and the gold will be awarded once they find an AI program that can process text, audio and visual data, at which point I’m out of a job.

Also in this week’s podcast: Android could tip smartphone balance; new, sharper stellite photos stream in; MySpace tries new ad platform.

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