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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Today’s Scuttlebot: Digital Music Resales, and an Obsolete Supercomputer

The technology reporters and editors of The New York Times scour the Web for important and peculiar items. For Monday, selections include musings about small children and mobile devices, a one-hand zoom on Google Maps and April Fools' Day in the technology community.

Why Big Data Is I.B.M.’s Friend

For big sellers of computer technology to business that are looking to stay relevant, there’s no friend quite like Big Data.

Things like cloud computing and mobile technologies are changes in the ways that computing is done. That makes them a threat to an incumbent’s legacy businesses selling, say, computer servers, laptops, or databases. Big Data, however, is a trend that relies largely on the digital information already in a company’s system. The company that got it there in the first place stands a good chance of helping a company make sense of it.

Case in point: I.B.M. just announced a series of technologies intended to make data analysis faster and more powerful. That is probably good news to Big Blue’s core customer base of large corporations, which are increasingly drowning in digital information from both the Web and the physical world. A good portion of that data is already derived from and running on I.B.M. technology.

I.B.M.’s offerings include an easier way to load corporate data into an I.B.M. machine and produce analysis quickly; an analysis “accelerator,” which can speed the production of analytics reports, I.B.M. says; and a Big Data “appliance,” or combination of hardware and software, that enables companies to posit questions, then have them answered automatically when the appropriate data comes along.

“Queries that took two days to execute can be done in three minutes” using the accelerator, said Bob Picciano, I.B.M.’s general manager of information management. The appliance, he added, “lets you ‘persist’ a question. That means you can know what to ask, without knowing about when you can ask it.”

A customer cited by I.B.M., BNSF Railway, was said to have had a 100-fold improvement and a 90 percent drop in data storage consumption using the new technologies. Mr. Picciano suggested that the analysis technology would be useful for an entity like a national retailer “looking for information patterns around occasions of sales over years of data.”

Mr. Picciano said that, after looking at “thousands of customer engagements,” his company has found five major uses for Big Data. In order of frequency, they are: retail, which wants better customer understanding; security threats and fraud detection; gaining efficiency in the operation of information technology; analyzing information from other networked machines, like sensors on electricity grids; and incorporating new data sources, like Twitter, into existing databases.

That is a fair portrait of needs among I.B.M. customers. Big Data, as sold by I.B.M., supposedly helps the large companies figure out how to understand customers that the big shops see only at a distance from headquarters. It can also be good at helping customers better run the expensive equipment they bought from I.B.M., among others.

In all, it is the kind of impressive technology that appeals particularly to companies with years of data on their hands and problems that stretch across nationwide chains of stores, or networks of sensors and computing systems.

Egypt and U.S. Argue Over Jon Stewart, ‘America’s Bassem Youssef’

The American comedian Jon Stewart’s criticism of the Egyptian government briefly escalated into a diplomatic incident on Tuesday, as the United States Embassy in Cairo shared a link to the “Daily Show” segment on Twitter and the office of Egypt’s president reacted with anger.

Mr. Stewart devoted the first 11 minutes of his program on Monday to mocking Egypt’s ongoing investigation of Bassem Youssef, the Arab world’s most popular television comedian, for the supposedly criminal use of satire in jokes about President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist political party.

The opening sequence of Monday’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” devoted to coverage of Egypt’s investigation of satirist Bassem Youssef.

Mr. Youssef, whose satirical review of the news “Al Bernameg” or “The Program,” is closely modeled on “The Daily Show,” is being investigated by Egyptian prosecutors in response to complaints filed by citizens, including supporters of the president who claimed that they were “psychologically affected by this nonsense, ridicule and slander addressed to the head of state.” Despite the investigation, Mr. Youssef has continued to make light of the complaints on his weekly show.

Video of Bassem Youssef joking about the charges against him in an episode of his comedy show in January.

As he explained in an interview with CNN, prosecutors questioned the satirist for hours about episodes of his program on Sunday, forcing him to explain joke after joke and finally releasing him only after he had posted bail.

Late Tuesday, the Egyptian president’s office said in a statement posted on Facebook that the interrogation of Mr. Youssef had been carried out by a fully independent prosecutor (albeit one appointed by Mr. Morsi) investigating complaints “initiated by citizens rather than the Presidency.” Under Mr. Morsi’s rule, the statement added, “All citizens are free to express themselves without the restrictions that prevailed in the era of the previous regime.”

Writing on Twitter on Tuesday Mr. Youssef reported that yet another legal complaint had been filed against him, this time for the previously unknown crime of “insulting Pakistan,” as part of what he described as a concerted campaign of harassment.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Morsi’s political party had condemned the United States for “blatant interference in Egypt’s internal affairs,” following remarks on the case by Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.

Asked about Mr. Youssef at a news conference on Monday, Ms. Nuland said that the comedian’s arrest, “coupled with recent arrest warrants issued for other political activists, is evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression.” The government of Egypt, she added, “seems to be investigating these cases while it has been slow or inadequate in investigating attacks on demonstrators outside the presidential palace in December 2012, other cases of extreme police brutality and illegally blocked entry of journalists to media cities.”

That prompted a series of critical tweets from @Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official, English-language Twitter feed, and an indignant statement from the Islamst movement’s Freedom and Justice Party, which nominated Mr. Morsi for the presidency last year. In both forums, the Islamists claimed that the main charge against Mr. Youssef was not mocking the president but insulting his religion.

Unsurprisingly, the Brotherhood’s Twitter comments defending the criminal investigation of such a popular comedian inspired a wave of critical comments from Egypt’s activist bloggers.

Although the Brotherhood maintains that Mr. Morsi operates with independence from the movement, its Twitter feed harshly criticized the American Embassy for sharing the link to “The Daily Show” shortly before a similar message was posted on the official feed of the Egyptian presidency.

According to the Egyptian journalist and blogger Mohamed Abdelfattah, the online reaction to Mr. Stewart’s commentary was far more virulent from Islamist supporters of the president on unofficial fan pages, which sought to discredit the comedian by tapping into Egypt’s rich vein of anti-Semitism.

Late Tuesday the Brotherhood Twitter feed even posted a link to an Al Jazeera report on comments by Rick Sanchez, who was fired by CNN in 2010 after he called Mr. Stewart “a bigot,” and suggested that the comedian had made fun of him for being bad at his job because he was Latino and not Jewish.

The first words of the report lined to by @Ikhwanweb are Mr. Sanchez saying, “everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority Yeah.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the wave of complaints against Mr. Youssef intensified after the comedian discovered and broadcast earlier this year video of Mr. Morsi making anti-Semitic comments at a rally in 2010, in which the Brotherhood leader said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.”

Video of Bassem Youssef discussing anti-Semitic comments made by Mohamed Morsi in 2010 before he became Egypt’s president.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.

It’s an April Fool’s Day Spoof, but It’s Not a Joke

Monday was a really funny and sad day on the Internet.

Funny because the tech companies in Silicon Valley indulged in their annual April Fool’s jokes, announcing prank products that don’t actually exist. Sad because many of those goofy updates could easily have been real. Vimeo’s spoof unveiling of a new service dedicated to cat videos, Vimeow, was one of many April Fool’s joke announcements on Monday, but for all that, it was plausible.

The jokes also point up how Silicon Valley companies frequently announce with great fanfare incremental changes that deserve little attention at all.

Take Google’s Gmail Blue spoof. A new product by Google that turns everything Gmail blue. In a video, a man asks: “How do we completely redesign something while keeping it exactly the same” Then he responds: “The answer is Gmail Blue.” The people in the video explain that everything in Gmail is now blue. ”The button compose: blue. The word compose itself: blue. Boldface is blue. Underline is blue. Italics are blue as well.”

I LOLed â€" as they say â€" when I watched the Gmail video. Then, I almost cried.

I could easily imagine Google putting out a release to note that it now offers a blue version of its products. I could conceive of any company in Silicon Valley putting out similar updates, announcing things that really shouldn’t be announced. It happens all the time.

Earlier this year Sony held an elaborate press event to show off its Sony PlayStation 4, except that the company never actually showed off the Sony PlayStation 4. Last month Twitter announced its seventh birthday. Yahoo put out a press release noting that its chief executive was going to a conference. BlackBerry put out a 450-word press release about a single third-party app becoming available for the BlackBerry phone.

Maybe the public cares if a chief executive is going to a conference. Maybe people really do care when a company changes a color on its Web site. Or maybe these companies just aren’t innovating as they once were, and so they make big deals out of little deals.

There was one truth to the Gmail Blue spoof video, and it was when the man asked: “How do we completely redesign something while keeping it exactly the same”

Why Retailers Ask for Your ZIP Code

I usually dread shopping in stores. Trying on clothes is tedious, and sometimes completing the actual purchase is, too. Retailers like to ask for all sorts of information as they’re ringing up your merchandise, like your e-mail address and ZIP code. I just want to pay and be on my way, and they give me the third degree.

I always decline to give my e-mail address, since the last thing I need is more promotions clogging my in-box. But I’m often puzzled about the ZIP code, since in some instances â€" when paying for gasoline at the pump, for instanceâ€" you must type in your ZIP code to complete the transaction. It’s a security feature to verify that you’re authorized to use the card, since a clerk isn’t physically examining it.

It turns out, though, that stores are asking you for marketing purposes â€" an issue that is starting to come to light in state courts. Stores want your ZIP code because, combined with your name from your credit card, they can use it to find out other information about you from commercial databases, like your full mailing address. They may even sell the information to data brokers, who sell it to other marketers.

The result can be unwanted catalogs and other junk mail. (To get a simple idea of the cumulative impact of each tidbit of information, try searching for your name alone on Google search, and then search again using your name and ZIP code, and see how much more data comes back. If you have an uncommon name â€" as I do â€" it’s eye opening.)

In March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that collecting ZIP codes for credit card purchases violates a state consumer protection law. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit a shopper had initially filed in federal court against the craft chain Michaels Stores Inc. The plaintiff said that because she had mistakenly believed that the information was necessary to complete the sale, she provided her ZIP code upon request several times when shopping there. As a result, her complaint said, she received unsolicited phone calls and mailings.

“Armed with a consumer’s name and ZIP code, Michaels is capable of obtaining its customers’ complete mailing address by utilizing a ‘reverse phone book’ that matches names and ZIP code, which it does in order to increase profits through direct marketing, or it could sell its customers’ mailing addresses to third parties,” the plaintiff argued in a legal brief filed with the state court.

The court found that a ZIP code was “personal identification information” because when combined with the consumer’s name, it provided enough information to identify the consumer’s address or telephone number.

A Michaels spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The case is similar to one in California in 2011, in which the state’s Supreme Court ruled that ZIP codes qualified as personal information under a state credit card privacy law. About a dozen other states have similar laws but so far they haven’t been interpreted in the same way, retail lawyers say.

The Massachusetts case is leading to suits against other stores, as happened in California.

So what should you do if you’re asked for your ZIP code at checkout

Gregory Parks, a lawyer who represents big merchants as head of the retail litigation practice group at Morgan Lewis in Philadelphia, said most stores won’t insist that you give your ZIP code. So if you don’t want to provide it, you should just politely decline. “If you prefer not to give it, they’ll process the sale anyway,” he said.

But all stores are still entitled to ask for the information, he said, if it is required to complete a transaction. One example, he said, is if you hand over your credit card to the clerk but for some reason it won’t swipe properly. The store needs extra information to verify that you are authorized to use the card.

(American Express gives merchants the option of a using a system in which shoppers must provide their ZIP code, to match with the billing ZIP code on file, as an antifraud mechanism. Generally, an American Express spokeswoman said, merchants are restricted from using or storing information about the cardholder for other purposes.)

Mr. Parks also said that the court’s restriction didn’t apply to cash transactions. Stores seek ZIP code information to better identify where their customers are located, which helps in selecting sites for new stores, and to make sure that stores have the products that customers in that area want. “They want to improve customer service and have stuff you want to buy,” he said. Providing the information is still optional. But since you’re not providing a credit card with your name on it, it’s unlikely to lead to unwanted solicitations.

Mallory Duncan, general counsel for the National Retail Federation, said consumers needn’t give their ZIP code if they would rather not, but they may do themselves a disservice by withholding it. “I guess the question is, what is the perceived harm you’re trying to protect against” he said. “A better selection in the stores That’s an odd harm to be protecting against.”

Nancy Perkins, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., who specializes in data privacy, said customers can simply ask if the information is necessary to complete the transaction.

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, suggested that if you would  rather not get into a possible debate with a store clerk â€" or if, for some reason, the cashier doesn’t know how to finish the transaction without a ZIP code â€" that you simply give an incorrect one. Or, “Make one up.”

What do you do if you’re asked for your ZIP code or other information when shopping

Daily Report: Pressured by China, Apple Apologizes for Warranty Policies

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, took the unusual step on Monday of apologizing to Chinese customers over the company’s warranty policy and said he would improve customer service in the country, David Barboza and Nick Wingfield report in Tuesday’s New York Times.

The apology was the latest twist in a strange spectacle that has unfolded in recent weeks in China over Apple’s warranty policies and underscored the challenges the company faces as the country becomes an important market for its products.

Apple’s problem began on International Consumers’ Day, when China’s biggest state-run television network, as is its tradition, broadcast an investigative report on how companies operating in China cheat or mistreat consumers. This year, on March 15, one of the targets was Apple.

China Central Television criticized the American company’s after-sales iPhone customer service in China because it gave only a one-year warranty, while in China the law is two years. It also said that phone owners had to pay about $90 to replace a faulty back cover.

Apple did not immediately respond to some of the accusations, but other state media outlets stepped up their criticism over the next two weeks, raising the stakes for Apple in China, which is now the company’s second-biggest market after the United States. Soon after the segment was broadcast, several Chinese celebrities piled on, posting harsh comments on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., issued a statement in Chinese on Monday. “We realize that a lack of communication in this process has led the outside to believe that Apple is arrogant and doesn’t care or value consumers’ feedback,” Mr. Cook wrote in the open letter. “We sincerely apologize for any concern or misunderstanding this has brought to the customers.”

Grand St., an Online Boutique for Electronics, Raises $1.3 Million

Often, the new must-have gadget is not something you can pick up at Best Buy or find on Amazon. It is something you find on a site like Kickstarter, or a product produced by a small start-up company.

Grand St., a new start-up based in New York, wants to be the one-stop shopping destination for all of these quirky electronics wares. Every other day, it lists a new product for sale. Previous choices have included at-home sous vide cookers, smart watches, portable phone chargers and headsets that monitor brainwave activity. The company, which has slowly been building its audience since it put up a Web site this year, announced on Tuesday that it had raised $1.3 million in venture financing for the site. The round of investment was led by First Round Capital, Collaborative Fund, Betaworks and David Tisch, among others.

“Consumer electronics is a dated term right now. The industry is going through a fundamental change because of the rise of indie electronics,” said Amanda Peyton, one of the founders of the company. “It’s not just a few companies making products anymore. Everyone is making products.”

Ms. Peyton also said that she initially wanted to start her own hardware project on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site. But after she talked to other people who were  working on developing and selling new categories of hardware, it became clear that they all had one thing in common â€" difficulty dealing with the selling, marketing and distribution of their projects. Ms. Peyton and two developers, Joseph Lallouz and Aaron Henshaw, began working on Grand St. The name of the company comes from the location of their first office, a hip, eclectic street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. The company scours design and technology blogs for interesting devices it wants to sell, then contacts the creators to get a demo unit. If the team likes it, Grand St. buys devices in bulk and sells them through its Web site. The company sends e-mail newsletters advertising new products.

Right now, Grand St. is an invitation-only site. Ms. Peyton said the company was trying to ensure that it managed its own inventory and avoided excessive overhead. The new financing should help the business grow, she said. “We’re looking at social activity and the velocity of sales to determine how many items we think we’ll sell,” she said.

Before Grand St., Ms. Peyton worked on a messaging application called MessageParty, which has since been shuttered. Her two co-founders worked as developers at Hashable, a social networking app that has also closed. But they are banking that Grand St. will prove fruitful.

“When we first started this, it seemed like it was a niche market,” said Ms. Peyton. “But we’re realizing that there is a lot of pent-up demand and consumer interest around the market for independent electronics.”

Aereo Wins a Court Battle, Dismaying Broadcasters

Aereo Wins a Court Battle, Dismaying Broadcasters

AEREO challenges one of the most basic tenets of the television business. Broadcasters have been trying to sue it out of existence for a year. But after suffering a big setback on Monday, the broadcast world may have to learn to live with it.

The founder of Aereo, Chet Kanojia, left, in 2012 with the company's chief technology officer, Joseph Lipowski, in a Brooklyn warehouse that hosts miniature antennas, each belonging to an Aereo subscriber.

A federal appeals court in New York on Monday upheld a ruling in favor of Aereo, the start-up Internet service that streams stations without compensating them. The decision set the stage for a full-blown trial.

The broadcasters, surprised and disappointed, said they were confident they would prevail eventually. But as the legal battles continue, Aereo, for now available only in New York City, plans to offer its service in nearly two dozen more cities this year.

The service’s triumphant backer, the media mogul Barry Diller, said of the ruling: “We always thought our Aereo platform was permissible and I’m glad the court has denied the injunction. Now we’ll build out the rest of the U.S.”

Aereo is able to stream broadcast stations by operating an array of tiny antennas that pick up over-the-air signals. Subscribers paying about $8 a month receive control over one antenna and can select programming over the Internet. Aereo essentially turns the subscriber’s phone, computer or tablet into a small television set, but without the rabbit ears that would normally be needed.

The array of antennas in Brooklyn allows Aereo to avoid paying the retransmission fees that operators like Time Warner Cable and DirecTV pay for access to stations. Those fees are an increasingly important revenue source for the stations, so it is not surprising their owners have sued to protect them.

The broadcasters, including CBS Corporation, Comcast, News Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, filed two suits against Aereo more than a year ago, weeks before the service was made available in New York. But a district court judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction last summer.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling on Monday in a 2-to-1 decision, saying that Aereo’s streams of TV shows to individual subscribers did not constitute “public performances,” and thus the broadcasters’ copyright infringement lawsuits against the service “are not likely to prevail on the merits.”

Aereo also includes a digital video recorder not unlike the remote digital video recorder system that was operated by Cablevision and was upheld in court several years ago. Judge Christopher F. Droney pointed to that decision as he affirmed the previous court ruling in favor of Aereo.

Another appeals court judge, Denny Chin, dissented on Monday, calling Aereo’s antenna system “a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, overengineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law.” He concluded that Aereo’s streams to subscribers were “public performances” and thus violations of copyright.

But the majority opinion gave momentum to Aereo, which announced a plan to expand to 22 more cities in January. Broadcasters aren’t the only ones affected by the technology. While it doesn’t have many subscribers now, Aereo gives television viewers a new and relatively cheap way to subscribe to a limited diet of TV and gives advertisers yet another way to reach those viewers.

Aereo’s wins in court may make other companies more comfortable in joining forces with the service; prospective partners include cable channels that want carriage (Bloomberg TV signed the first such deal with Aereo last year) and wireless providers. And the mere existence of the service may cause the broadcasters to speed up their own plans for streaming programming to phones and tablets.

After the ruling on Monday, analysts suggested that some cable and satellite providers â€" those that pay billions of dollars in retransmission fees for the right to carry broadcasters’ signals â€" might start to mimic Aereo’s system to get around the fee requirements, or at least improve their position at the bargaining table. Others predicted that the broadcasters might lobby Congress to change the law.

Undeterred, a group of the plaintiffs, including Fox and PBS, said they intended to move to trial. “Today’s decision is a loss for the entire creative community,” they said in a statement. “The court has ruled that it is O.K. to steal copyrighted material and retransmit it without compensation. While we are disappointed with this decision, we have and are considering our options to protect our programming.”

The broadcasters say they are heartened by a victory in December in Federal District Court in Los Angeles against an Aereo-like service named Aereokiller, backed by the billionaire Alkiviades David. CBS alluded to that ruling when it said in a statement on Monday, “As the courts continue to consider this case and others like it, we are confident that the rights of content owners will be recognized, and that we will prevail.”

A version of this article appeared in print on April 2, 2013, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Aereo Wins a Court Battle, Dismaying Broadcasters.