Hate Comic Sans? Blame this Microsoft virtual assistant

The Windows 95 “Microsoft Bob” interface. Twenty years ago, not only did we write birthday letters, but they were so easy, a cartoon dog could tell us how to do it.

It’s hard to disagree that virtual assistants have wrought little good in this world. From Clippy’s benignly stupid questions to BonziBuddy’s spyware and evil homepage resets, it’s a wonder that Siri or Google Now have been able to reclaim any goodwill. But it turns out virtual assistants have a more lasting negative impact than general annoyance: the font Comic Sans.

Comic Sans lore says that Vincent Connare, a designer on a Microsoft consumer software team, saw a working prototype of the assistant Microsoft Bob back in 1994. This featured a cartoon dog named Rover speaking in text bubbles and, incongruously for a cartoon, Rover spoke in Times New Roman.

In what can now only be described as dramatic irony, Connare was shocked and appalled at how ugly Times New Roman looked coming, ostensibly, out of a cartoon’s mouth. He decided that a more comic-like typeface was needed.

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via Ars Technica http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/vMrqy5Lxpqc/

If worthy, Google will lend you its 42lb, 15-camera backpack for an adventure

If you’re an off-the-grid backpacker who dreams of sharing remote destinations with the world, this is your lucky day. This week, Google released a video and an application asking for individuals who can help further its Google Maps coverage:

“If you’re a tourism board, non-profit, university, research organization, or other third party who can gain access and help collect imagery of hard to reach places, you can apply to borrow the Trekker and help map the world.”

The Trekker is one of several pieces of equipment Google officially utilizes for Street View imagery (others include the well-known cars and things like trikes, trolleys, and snowmobiles). This piece of equipment was announced in July 2012 but then showcased to the world through Grand Canyon imagery in January. The Trekker is, at its core, a 42-pound backpack that allows a wearer to access areas where bulkier camera rigs can’t navigate. Google describes it with a little more detail:

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via Ars Technica http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/klfQhn1lhX0/

Why retail console games have never been cheaper, historically

Recently, we took a look at the history of how much various video game consoles have cost at launch. Research shows that the upcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft look much more historically competitive once inflation is taken into account (and once expected price drops are extrapolated). But the cost of the hardware is actually not the most significant portion of what you’ll spend on a console over its lifetime. The price of software matters just as much if not more (and these days there are factors like online service and accessory costs). In light, a few readers have asked us to examine just how the prices for games have changed over the years.

This is trickier than it first seems. Console makers don’t set a uniform suggested retail prices for every video game released in a given year. Software prices can vary based on publisher, genre, system, format, and more. Game prices are also often reduced quite quickly as a game gets older, so bargain-basement clearance titles can complicate things.

To try and account for these issues, we decided to look at a representative “basket” of games in a variety of genres for each year for which we had reliable data (loosely defined genre list: Action, adventure, fighting/brawler, racing, RPG, shooter, sports, and other). For each genre, we determined a general range of prices by looking for the most expensive and least expensive games we could find with documentary evidence of a contemporaneous advertised price. We then took the average of the high price and the low price for each “basket” to come up with a general range of game prices for each year. To limit the effects of clearance items, we limited our data to games that were being advertised within a year of their original release date (to see the raw data behind our analysis, as well as sources for prices, check out this Google spreadsheet).

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Japanese earthquake literally made waves in Norway

Aurlandsfjord, Norway, where seiches were observed.

During an earthquake, it’s the area near the epicenter that sustains the greatest damage, though shaking can sometimes be perceptible at impressive distances. But the seismic energy released by the earthquake actually travels around the globe—several times, in fact—as the planet, in essence, rings like a struck bell. The bigger the earthquake, the louder it rings. And the magnitude 9.0 quake that struck just off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 was very big, indeed.

Scientific instruments like seismometers are sensitive enough to pick up seismic waves from distant earthquakes, even on their second or third trip around the planet. (Satellites have even detected the accompanying atmospheric waves.) It doesn’t always take super-precise measurements to know something is happening, however. A groundwater monitoring well in Virginia made the passage of seismic waves from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake quite clear in the form of a rapid two foot rise in water level.

While the tsunami that accompanied the earthquake in Japan was devastating, waves of a very different sort were spawned far away—in the fjords of Norway. A number of witnesses noticed the strange waves, occurring as they did on a calm morning when the fjord waters were otherwise smooth. As some managed to capture on video, the water swelled and ebbed by as much as five feet once per minute or so for several hours—starting about half an hour after the earthquake in Japan.

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via Ars Technica http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/HpQItBc5gtg/

How a 30-year-old lawyer exposed NSA mass surveillance of Americans—in 1975

The NSA at night—always watching.

US intelligence agencies have sprung so many leaks over the last few years—black sites, rendition, drone strikes, secret fiber taps, dragnet phone record surveillance, Internet metadata collection, PRISM, etc, etc—that it can be difficult to remember just how truly difficult operations like the NSA have been to penetrate historically. Critics today charge that the US surveillance state has become a self-perpetuating, insular leviathan that essentially makes its own rules under minimal oversight. Back in 1975, however, the situation was likely even worse. The NSA literally “never before had an oversight relationship with the Congress.” Creating that relationship fell to an unlikely man: 30 year old lawyer L. Britt Snider, who knew almost nothing about foreign intelligence.

Snider was offered a staff position on the Church Committee, set up by Congress in 1975 to function as a sort of Watergate-style inquiry. This initiative focused on CIA subversion of foreign governments and spying on American citizens, recently revealed in the New York Times by noted investigative reporter Seymour Hersch. Congressional “oversight” of intelligence agencies was, at the time, nearly useless, as the Senate’s official history of the Church Committee notes:

In 1973, CIA Director James Schlesinger told Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis that he wished to brief him on a major upcoming operation. “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis. “Don’t tell me. Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.” Similarly, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright was told of the CIA subversion of the Allende government in Chile, he responded, “I don’t approve of intervention in other people’s elections, but it has been a long-continued practice.”

The committee was initially given nine months and 150 staffers to conduct its work. Snider was tasked with expanding the committee’s inquiry to the NSA, which was so opaque that no one in Congress could even come up with an org chart for the Fort Meade-based operation. Years later, Snider became the CIA’s inspector general. In late 1999 he wrote up his memories of that early NSA investigation and how it helped to reveal a massive program of NSA spying on telegrams—including those sent by US citizens. It turned out that the telegram companies had secretly agreed to the scheme out of a sense of “patriotic duty.” Sounds a bit like the NSA of today, no?

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Review: The Hisense Sero 7 Pro is a Nexus 7 clone for $50 less

The Hisense Sero 7 Pro (left) and the Nexus 7 (right): peas in a pod.
Andrew Cunningham

A few weeks ago we reviewed Hisense’s Sero 7 Lite, a new budget Android tablet that isn’t very good until you consider that it costs $99. The tablet that Hisense really wants you to see, though, is the $149 Sero 7 Pro. This tablet runs a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC, has a 1280×800 7-inch screen, 1GB of RAM, and runs Android 4.2. If these specs sound familiar to you, it’s probably because they’re identical to those of the Nexus 7 tablet that Google and Asus will sell you for $199.

Using the Sero 7 Pro is very similar to using the Nexus 7 with Android 4.2 installed, so for this review we’ll be focusing on a side-by-side comparison with the tablet that Google has been selling for about a year now. If you’re buying a 7-inch Android tablet today, should you stick with the Nexus or save yourself the $50?

What does it share with the Nexus 7?

Specs at a glance: Hisense Sero 7 Pro
Screen 1280×800 7″ (216 ppi) IPS touchscreen
OS Android 4.2.1 “Jelly Bean”
CPU 1.2GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 (1.3GHz in single-core mode)
GPU Nvidia Tegra 3
Storage 8GB NAND flash (expandable via microSD)
Networking 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, GPS
Ports Micro USB, mini HDMI, headphones, microSD card
Size 7.87″ × 4.95″ × 0.43″ (199.9 x 125.7 x 10.9 mm)
Weight 0.79 lbs (358 g)
Battery 4000 mAh
Starting price $149
Other perks 2MP front camera, 5MP rear camera, power adapter

The screen, the SoC, and the RAM are probably the three biggest hardware components that will affect your tablet experience, and the Nexus 7 and the Sero 7 Pro share them all: a five-point 1280×800 IPS touchscreen, a quad-core Tegra 3 SoC that can run at up to 1.3GHz, and 1GB of RAM. The Sero 7 also includes the same 8GB of internal storage as the original entry-level Nexus 7, but Google’s more recent $199 model has since been bumped to 16GB of storage.

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Man creates “invisible headphones” by implanting magnets into his ears

A man has implanted magnets into his ears to use as invisible headphones in a remarkable example of DIY transhumanism.

Rich Lee, a self-described transhumanist and body modification fan (or “grinder”), was inspired by a similar idea posted on the Instructables site that featured two small in-ear magnets stimulated with a magnetic coil necklace connected to an amplifier (you can see the video with this piece). The difference is that Lee actually implanted his inside his fleshy lobes.

The coil necklace is completely hidden by his clothing, and the scars from the implants are also unnoticeable, so it’s unlikely you’d realize that as he was standing in front of you he could be listening to music. In a way it’s reminiscent of the bone vibration Google Glass uses instead of conventional earphones.

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