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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Today\'s Scuttlebot: Stolen Facebook IDs and All About Zelda

The technology reporters and editors of The New York Times scour the Web for important and peculiar items. For Tuesday, selections include Google Maps adding information on North Korea, a computer virus that has stolen thousands of Facebook log-in credentials, and a book that tells how all the versions of a popular video game fit together.

For Rent: the New Microsoft Office

Office is one of the great gushers of profits in the software industry, so it is noteworthy when Microsoft starts fiddling with how it charges for its suite of productivity applications.

On Tuesday, the company began what it called a reinvention of its Office product for consumers. Users will now subscribe to the software for a $100 annual fee, rather than buying it outright as they have for years. While Microsoft is still offering the more conventional option of buying a “perpetual” version of Office for the home â€" prices start at $140 â€" it’s clearly betting that it can get most of its customers to move to the new model over time.

“I would say in 10 years, the majority of customers, perhaps all customers, will be in a subscription relationship as opposed to a perpetual,” Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft’s Office division, said in an interview.

Why fork over $100 for Office each year, rather than make one payment of $140 Perhaps more pointedly, why pay anything at al when Google offers online alternatives to Word, Excel and PowerPoint that are free for basic versions and cost only $50 a year for versions with extra features

Microsoft justifies the price for the subscription version of Office, called Office 365 Home Premium, by adding some flexibility for households with multiple computers. A subscription comes with the rights to install the software on up to five Windows and Mac computers. If you’re using a computer outside the home that doesn’t have Office on it, you can download a version of the software from Microsoft’s site that deletes itself from the computer when you’re finished.

Office subscribers also get extra online storage through Microsoft’s SkyDrive service and 60 minutes of free Skype phone calls. Microsoft also says it will up! date the subscription version of software with new features before it updates the version that people buy the old-fashioned way.

There is one glaring omission in the new Office offering: support for the iPad. Although Microsoft has a hush-hush development effort to bring its major Office apps to Apple’s tablet, the company hasn’t done so yet. The company has released one Office app, OneNote, for the iPad and says people can do light editing of Office documents through versions of the Office apps that run through the iPad’s Web browser.

Still, there are undoubtedly many users who would love to have an authentic version of Office on their devices, given how popular the iPad is becoming in the workplace.

Mr. DelBene said Microsoft had “nothing to announce at this point” when asked when the company will bring the complete version of Office to the iPad.

As for Google, Mr. DelBne said it has not “in any way diminished demand” for Office because Microsoft’s applications are “just so far beyond the capabilities that are in those alternative products.” As an example, he cited a feature in Excel that analyzes a batch of numbers selected by a user and automatically recommends the best way to represent the data in a chart.

Despite Google, Mr. DelBene said, “we think that we’re on track for Office 365 to be one of the fastest-growing businesses in the history of Microsoft.”

Bahrain Criticized for Use of Tear Gas Following Boy\'s Funeral

Video produced by activists said to show tear gas in the neighborhood of an 8-year-old boy who died from exposure to the gas this month.

The government of Bahrain has drawn renewed criticism for its use of tear gas after activists said an 8-year-old boy died this month when his village was exposed to tear gas. But Bahrain’s government contradicted that claim, saying the boy died after being admitted to the hospital with severe pneumonia.

The death of the boy, Qassim Habib, on Jan. 26 touched off further protests in the Persian Gulf island, which has been widely criticized in recent years for what human rights groups say is its excessive use of tear gas. This week the group Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain called for an investigation into the boy’s death based on a report from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, whose acting vice president, Said Yousif Al-Muhafdha, visited the family after his death and described the incident.

The family stated that their village, Karbabad, was attacked extensively with tear gas on the 17th of January 2013 and as Qassim suffers from asthma, it is believed by the family that this attack made him vulnerable to tear gas and lead to his death.

Qassim was suffering from a severe form of asthma. He was following up with doctors in Bahrain and the family was strongly advised to take extra care of him during changes in the weather or any other stimulant that may precipitate a lethal deterioration of his health.

He was admitted to ! the pediatric intensive care unit in Salmaniya Medical Complex in Bahrain where he died later due to respiratory failure from the severity of the asthma attack and worsening general condition.

The rights group said Qassim was one of two people who died this month after exposure to tear gas. The other was an 87-year-old man named Habeeb Ebrahim, who inhaled tear gas on Sept. 27 and Nov. 30 of last year and was hospitalized several times before he died on Jan. 12, his family told the rights group.

Bahrain’s public prosecutor said in a statement that the boy’s death was investigated.

A post-mortem was conducted on the child’s body and his medical record was reviewed which indicated that he was admitted to hospital on 19-1-2013 following breathing problems due to severe pneumonia. Meanwhile, the medical examiner confirmed in his report that there was no criminal cause of death and that doctors exerted all effrts to treatment the child but without any use.

A video produced by a local Karbabad resistance group shows tear gas inundating what it says is the boy’s house and neighborhood. The group has also posted video of protesters lobbing flaming petrol bombs at security forces who appeared to respond by firing tear gas.

The Feb. 14 Media Network said the death of the boy touched off more protests.

Bahrain’s interior ministry said on its Twitter feed that unrest erupted after his funeral.

Feb. 14 is a reference to the day in 2011 when the uprising began in the country. Police officers responded with force, and the government has since continued to silence its critics and jail dissidents, as my colleague Kareem Fahim wrote in a recent report.

Human Rights Watch has said that reports of deaths from beatings and excessive use of tear gas were among the reasons that human rights groups in Bahrain continued to be so critical. Physicians for Human Rights said in a report to Congress and in a statement last year that the government’s “indiscriminate” use of tear gas has resulted in the “maiming, blinding and even killing of civilian protesters.”

This month, the European Parliament called ! for sanctions against Bahrain for its violent handling of protesters.

The House expresses its “strong disapproval” of the EU’s lack of response to the ongoing crackdown in Bahrain and calls for sanctions against the individuals directly responsible for the human rights abuses and for restrictions on EU exports of surveillance technology, tear gas and crowd-control material.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.

Under Attack, Cairo Hotel Sends Twitter SOS

Video of unidentified men streaming into the lobby of Cairo’s Semiramis InterContinental hotel broadcast live on Egypt’s ONTV early Tuesday.

As our colleagues Kareem Fahim, David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh report, the mayhem on Cairo’s streets briefly spilled into the lobby of one of the city’s luxury hotels, the Semiramis InterContinental, during intense clashes between riot police and protesters along the Nile Corniche overnight.

Images of a mob streaming into the hotel, broadcast live on Egyptian television and then posted online, raised fears of further damage to the country’s already battered tourist industry.

<>Judging by a series of urgent pleas for help posted on the hotel’s Twitter feed, the raid came just after 2:30 a.m. local time.

SOS If anyone knows anyone in #Military #Police #Government, please send help! Thugs in Lobby #Emergency #Tahrir #Jan28 #Egypt

â€" InterContinental (@ICSEMIRAMIS) 29 Jan 13

Within an hour of sounding the alarm on the social network, the staff reported on Twitter that the security forces had arrived.

Guards at the hotel told Bel Trew of the Egyptian news site Ahram Online that phone calls to the police and the army initially went unheeded as about 40 men armed with shotguns, knives and a semiautomatic weapon broke into the shuttered lobby and started looting.

An Ahram Online journalist who witnessed the attack, Karim Hafez, said that protesters had stopped fighting with the police to help secure the hotel: “When they realized these groups were trying to loot the hotel, protesters shot fire crackers at them as they attacked the building and tried to push them away from the area but these groups were armed with birdshot bullets.”

This reported cooperation of the protesters with the police officers they have been battling on and off for more than two years prompted bloggers like the British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr to comment on the black comedy of the situation.

An Egyptian blogger, Mohammed Maree, reported on his @mar3e Twitter feed that a police captain on the scene confirmed to him that the protesters who were fighting with the security forces when the raid took place were not responsible for the storming of the hotel.

Mr. Maree also reported that witnesses to the raid said it began after four people drove up in a car with no license plates and fired shots to scare protesters away, before storming the hotel. He later posted a photograph of some of the hotel’s guests leaving under the protection of protesters.

Nabila Samak, ! a spokesw! oman for the hotel who posted the calls for help on Twitter, told The Times that the staff had called Egyptian television stations for help earlier in the evening, well before the attack, because they’d been worried about an attack during the running street battle that has now continued for several days.

Ms. Samak told Ahram Online that the staff worked to secure the hotel’s guests but were not equipped to cope with the effective collapse of the police force, since, “no guards of hotels in Egypt are armed.” Later she thanked protesters for coming to the aid of the hotel’s staff and guests.

A Saudi women who identified herself as a guest at the hotel, Hilda Ismail, posted updates and photographs from a shelter the guests were taken to during the incident on her Arabic-language Twitter feed.

In one message, she wrote: “If there is no Egyptian security, and if Morsi is sleeping, where are this country’s men!! Come get these dogs, the Semiramis Hotel is being ransacked and we are there.”

Later, Ms. Ismail uploaded a brief video clip of a man attempting to reassure guests that they were safe after the arrival of special forces officers from the ministry of the interior led by a Captain Moataz.

In the clip, the man tells the guests that the police captain wants “to assure you that the hotel is secured and it is under the control of the ministry of the interior now. Within no time you will go back to your rooms and already are in safe hans.” The police, the man added, “will make sure that such thugs will not enter the hotel again. We are sorry.”

Ms. Ismail also posted an image of the ransacked lobby on Twitter.

Ms. Ismai’s claim to have been a guest at the hotel was supported by the fact that she had uploaded a brief video clip, apparently shot from a high floor of the hotel, showing the fighting on the Nile Corniche below.

The luxury hotel chain, which was created in 1946 by Pan American World Airw! ays, did ! not immediately reply to a request for comment, but an executive in Cairo told Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian newspaper, that “more than 45 clients insisted on leaving despite the hotel’s offer to relocate them to higher floors, away from the clashes.”

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim in Cairo.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.

OpenTable to Acquire Foodspotting for $10 Million

Booking a restaurant reservation on the Internet is more convenient than calling a hostess or jotting your name down on a waiting list, but it can feel impersonal. OpenTable, the online reservation business, says it is acquiring a start-up to make booking a table a bit more intimate and social.

The company on Tuesday said it had agreed to buy Foodspotting, the San Francisco social media start-up, for $10 million. On Foodspotting, a user can search for a restaurant or a type of dish, and the search results will display user-uploaded pictures of food at certain restaurants.

How would this fit in with OpenTable Matt Roberts, chief executive of OpenTable, said that when you book a reservation at a restaurant, you may receive a confirmation e-mail that includes a menu, accompanied with photos of entrees that people recommendeating there.

“If you can have a rich menu with images instead of just words and recommendations of dishes you may like, it really just broadens the experience and helps diners get the most of their evening out,” Mr. Roberts said in an interview.

The purchase of Foodspotting is one of OpenTable’s first steps to use customer data to make dining more personalized. Mr. Roberts imagined a waiter carrying around a tablet loaded with the OpenTable app, which would display a patron’s dining history and show his food preferences or cocktail of choice.

The $10 million purchase of Foodspotting will include hiring 10 of the start-up’s staff members, including its chief executive, Alexa Andrzejewski, who will serve as an interface designer. The start-up had raised $3 million in funding in 2011.

Soraya Darabi, a founder of Foodspotting who is no longer at the company, and previously worked at The New York Times, said the start-up’s database now had three million photos of dishe! s from all around the world, and users are adding a few hundred thousand photos every month.

Not all restaurant owners will be thrilled about the idea of customer-taken photos showing up alongside their menus. Some restaurateurs have prohibited photography of their dishes because it can be distracting to other diners and chefs.

Mr. Roberts said he didn’t think this would be a problem. He said users of Foodspotting typically voted for photos that are of the highest quality, which gives them more weight.

“We think restaurants will be broadly enthusiastic and appreciate the way their brand and dishes can be shared,” he said, adding that OpenTable could also give restaurants the tools to share their own photos of their dishes.

Daily Report: For Search, Facebook Had to Go Beyond \'Robospeak\'

In The New York Times on Tuesday, Somini Sengupta reports on the eclectic team that Facebook assembled to create its search tool to help users find answers to many kinds of questions.

The team included two linguists, a Ph.D. in psychology and statisticians, along with the usual cadre of programmers. Their mission was ambitious but clear: teach Facebook’s computers how to communicate better with people.

Kathryn Hymes, 25, who left a master’s program in linguistics at Stanford to join the team in late 2011, told The Times that the goal was to create “this natural, intuitive language.” She was joined last March by Amy Campbell, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.

When the team began its work, Facebook’s largely ineffective search engine understood only “robospeak,” as Ms. Hymes put it, and not hw people actually talk. The machine had to be taught the building blocks of questions, a bit like the way schoolchildren are taught to diagram a sentence. The code had to be restructured altogether.

Loren Cheng, 39, who led what is known as the natural language processing part of the project, said the search engine had to adjust to the demands of users, a great variety of them, considering Facebook’s mass appeal.

The project represents how Facebook builds products. It studies human behavior. It tests its ideas. The ultimate goal: to draw more people to the site and keep them there longer.