Friday, March 14, 2014

#TechSeven - Making sense of a disappeared plane

It's been a particularly eventful week in tech, and as I do every Friday, I was on-air live with Barry Morgan on CJAD 800 Montreal to run down the biggest stories. In case you missed it, here's a link to the podcast page, and here's a quick rundown of what we chatted about:

ONE - Malaysian Airlines phantom cellphone calls

Amid the agonizing search for answers in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 somewhere between Kuala Lampur and Beijing - or perhaps way out in the Indian Ocean - this disturbing piece of news: some family members of the flight's passengers say they've been trying to phone their loved ones, and instead of going right to voicemail (as you would expect if the phone was powered off or destroyed) they're actually ringing. Other family members say they've gone online and seen their loved ones active in the popular Chinese social media service QQ. They try to contact them, and receive no response.

Sadly, this doesn't mean they're alive.

The phantom cell phone calls are fairly easily explained. Depending on a number of factors - mostly revolving around how a carrier configures its network, and what kind of phone the caller may be using - it's entirely normal for some phones in some settings to "ring" as soon as the Send or Call button is pressed. So the caller THINKS the phone on the other end is live and ringing, but it's really only a sign that THEIR (call originator's) phone is searching for the network and trying to make a call. Sadly for the families, this has nothing to do with the state of the target phone that they're calling - so it does NOT mean that their loved ones' phones are physically powered and able to receive calls.

Sometimes I get calls from people asking why it took me so many rings to pick up - or why I wonder why my phone rang only twice before it went to voicemail: there's a disconnect between how many rings callers and receivers hear, because it doesn't always mean the same thing.

We're also seeing reports that passengers are still appear to be signed into their QQ accounts. This is a popular Chinese social media service, much like Facebook. Unfortunately, there's a similar explanation here, as well. It isn't about the device as much as it is about the account. You can be logged into your account from more than one spot - so a traveller who, for example, was logged into QQ from a work computer, then locked the desktop before heading to the airport and getting on the plane, would still appear to be "available" in QQ (or Facebook, or Skype, or FaceTime, or...) even if his/her actual cell phone was powered off.

I get this all the time with Facebook, for example. People THINK I'm online, all because my iPad - or laptop, or whatever - had the app running in the background, even when I wasn't anywhere near it.

It's normal to grasp at technological straws when there are no other concrete answers, but reports like this can mislead more than anything else, and it makes a lot of sense to talk through the technology and explain what's really going on.

Additional angle: Crowdsourcing. We're also seeing a lot of interest in crowdsourcing, where regular folks around the world are scouring digital satellite images and sharing their findings with researchers. If you want to get involved, point your browser toward DigitalGlobe's Tomnod and start searching.

TWO - The Web turns 25!

Hard to believe it's been this long, but 25 years ago this past Wednesday, on March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a then-unknown computer scientist working at CERN, the European nuclear science organization, first published a paper that outlined how the World Wide Web would work. Before then, hyperlinks, HTML and even the term "web" meant nothing to anyone. Today, it's how we live our lives.

Interestingly, for many of us, this was also the very beginning of the Internet as we know it today. And by the mid-1990s, many of us were taking our first tentative steps online.

We often mistakenly think this is when the Internet started, but that's a bit of a misconception. The Internet was around in various forms since the 1960s. The Web was not, is not, and will never be the same same as the Internet. Rather, it is a service that sits on top of the Internet (like Gopher, WAIS, and even Archie, Veronica, and Jughead) and it's the one that transformed the Internet from a land of researchers, scientists, military personnel and geeks into the thing we all use today.

Now, Sir Tim is calling for an Internet Bill of Rights, a kind of online Magna Carta, to ensure the Internet as it was originally conceived remains free, open and accessible to all. The way it's evolved in recent years, with online crime, rampant commercialization by competing interests and, most critically, government spying and repeated breaches of privacy, we're losing control of it. By entrenching it as a fundamental right - like speech and expression - those early ideals will be maintained and built upon.

THREE - Want to read 1,000 words per minute? There's an app for that

The app is called Spritz. It's scheduled to launch on the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S5, as well as the company's Galaxy Note - the same device Ellen Degeneres used for her famous Oscar selfie. Eventually, it'll come to iOS devices as well as the Web.

How it works is it displays one word at a time, and rapidly cycles to the next one. Your eye doesn't have to move from side-to-side, which is a little disconcerting at first but you quickly get used to it. As each word is displayed, one letter is set in red. That's known as the "Optical Recognition Point" and it keeps your eyes focused dead-centre. The science is this: we spend 80% of our energy while reading moving our eyes around, and only 20% processing content. By eliminating the need to move our eyes, we can significantly speed up our pace.

You don't start off at light-speed, of course. You can control the speed - up to 1,000 words per minute. The average human reads around 250 to 300 wpm. As you get more comfortable with it, you can bump the speed up. At max speed, you'd rip through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 77 minutes. The Bible would take 13 hours.

Try it out at and hit the "Click to Spritz" button.

FOUR - Is HTML a sexually transmitted disease? 11% of Americans think so

A survey by the Los Angeles times suggests, strongly, that we could benefit from a little tech terminology brush-up. According to the survey, some of the more eye-opening results include:

  • 27% identified "gigabyte" as an insect commonly found in South America. A gigabyte is a measurement unit for the storage capacity of an electronic device.
  • 42% said they believed a "motherboard" was "the deck of a cruise ship." A motherboard is usually a circuit board that holds many of the key components of a computer.
  • 23% thought an "MP3" was a "Star Wars" robot. It is actually an audio file.
  • 18% identified "Blu-ray" as a marine animal. It is a disc format typically used to store high-definition videos.
  • 15% said they believed "software" is comfortable clothing. Software is a general term for computer programs.
  • 12% said "USB" is the acronym for a European country. In fact, USB is a type of connector.
  • Despite this, 61% of respondents said it's "important to have a good knowledge of technology in this day and age." I guess they have some studying to do, then.

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