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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Guantánamo Officials Accused of Inventing ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Rumor

After a Congressional delegation was given a tour of the Guantánamo Bay prison recently, one member of the group recounted an anecdote.

“Rather than the Koran, the book that is requested most” by the detainees is “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Representative Jim Moran, Democrat of Virginia, told The Huffington Post in July. “They’ve read the entire series in English, but we were willing to translate it,” he said of the erotic novels. “I guess there’s not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell.”

A spokeswoman for Representative Moran, who advocates closing Guantánamo, confirmed the account to Reuters, though the prison itself declined to comment.

The story â€" which had some of the world’s most avowed Islamic extremists reading a novel described as “mommy porn” for its popularity among middle-aged women, in an environment where reading material is strictly controlled â€" seemed too good to be true.

Largely, it seems, it may have been, according to a report by The Associated Press. A lawyer for one of the men said that prison guards had given his client, Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a contraband copy of the book only after Representative Moran’s comments appeared. It might have been a joke, said the lawyer, James Connell, or an attempt to discredit his client.

Another lawyer, James Harrington, who represents Ramzi bin al-Shibh, accused of participating in the Sept. 11 plot, said his client had not read the book. “I don’t know where it’s coming from,” he said. “It’s something that clearly was planted with this congressman who comes back to Washington and makes a big deal about it, all of which is designed to paint a picture of our clients and the other detainees here which is just not accurate.”

Now, You Can Follow Government Intelligence Agencies Back

If surveillance from government intelligence agencies has you concerned, now you can at least follow them back â€" if only on Tumblr.

Yesterday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence started a Tumblr blog about the work of the nation’s intelligence community, called IC On The Record.

Created in response to President Obama’s move to both defend the country’s intelligence-gathering practices and to create a “hub for further transparency,” the site includes official statements, declassified documents, testimony, interviews and fact sheets. The office represents 17 different intelligence agencies, including the N.S.A., the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and military intelligence units.

So far, the site’s most prominent release has been an 85-page ruling by the former chief judge of the FISA court, Judge John D. Bates, who “sharply rebuked the National Security Agency in 2001 for repeatedly misleading the court that oversees its surveillance on domestic soil,” as reported in The New York Times.

But its appearance on a blogging platform that is more commonly used by 20-somethings to share GIFs and other snippets of pop culture (or for pornography)  surprised many.

The contents of the releases themselves, including official statements, video and testimony, were no different from what the office released on its own Web site, which raises the question: why make a Tumblr?

For some time now, government entities have been turning to Tumblr, as well as other social media platforms, to freshen their image and revamp their tools for reaching the public.

Tumblr powers over 30 United States government blogs, including the official blog of the United States government, as well as sites for the White House, the Department of Defense and the Internal Revenue Service.

For Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr’s director of causes and politics, the blogging service offers qualities that frankly, she said, government agencies could use.

“Do I think the posts that IC On The Record is making are going to be the most viral posts that Tumblr has ever seen? Probably not,” she said, “But using the Web-facing side of Tumblr, I think that’s really smart.”

The site’s modern gloss of openness, sharability, buzz and cool, gives staid agencies a fresh new image, something that is harder to achieve on formal Web sites drenched in bureaucracy. And Tumblr hasn’t only given a new image to government agencies, but its youthful audience was one of the reasons cited by many for Tumblr’s $1.1 billion acquisition by Yahoo this May.

In the case of the intelligence agencies, however, some have complained that the move to Tumblr is more sizzle than substance, and that the documents released so far are not, in fact so open and accessible but heavily redacted and missing search, copy or paste functions.

(A searchable version of the court ruling was later provided by news organizations.)

For its part, Tumblr is happy to lend its hip reputation to whatever companies and institutions find the platform useful.

But of course, the essence of ‘cool’ can be fleeting.

As one young woman in Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter:

Today’s Scuttlebot: Former Windows Boss Goes to Andreessen, and Dear Miss Disruption

Every day, The New York Times’s staff scours the Web for interesting and peculiar items.

Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive, announced on Thursday that he would be joining Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm, as a board partner.

As the leader of Windows, Mr. Sinofsky was widely admired for his effectiveness in running one of the biggest and most important software development organizations on the planet. He was also seen as abrasive, and the discord engendered between him and Steve Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft, ultimately led to Mr. Sinofsky’s departure from the company in November.

Kara Swisher, writing for All Things D, noted that for a man who is known for being “relentlessly curious,” he’d likely be a good fit for the tech scene in Silicon Valley. The news also generated a bit of snark from at least one observer, who wondered if the move was akin to a senator joining a lobbying firm after leaving Congress.

Here’s what else we noticed today:

From the Valley to Washington
Businessweek |  Steve Case’s second life as D.C.’s favorite businessman - Ashwin Seshagiri

Apple Buys (Another) Map App, Embark
Jessicalessin.com |  “Mapageddon,” or the fight between Apple and Google to build the best maps for mobile, marches on. - Jenna Wortham

F.B.I. Agent: ‘We’ve Dismantled the Leaders of Anonymous’
The Huffington Post |  Anonymous is less active because of the F.B.I., an agent said. - Damon Darlin

Internet.org Is Business Dressed Up as Charity
The Verge |  Is Mark Zuckerberg’s effort to take the Internet global a play to make Facebook the default in his fastest-growing market? - Quentin Hardy

Dear Miss Disruption
Medium |  In a clever satire, a Silicon Valley advice columnist offers the answer to every problem â€" learn to code. - Damon Darlin

While Other Airlines Hand Out iPads, Delta Chooses Windows Phones for Flight Attendants
Skift |  Delta flight attendants will use Windows smartphones in flight to manage passenger purchases. - Damon Darlin

Founder Says Failure Isn’t the End of the Dream
The Guardian |  Who wants a Linux smartphone? A failed attempt by Canonical to crowdfund the Ubuntu Edge offers lessons. - Vindu Goel

Egyptian Police Failed to Defend Churches, Rights Group Says

A Human Rights Watch video report on recent Islamist attacks on Egyptian churches and the failure of the security forces to protect Christian property.

As my colleague Kareem Fahim reported from Nazla, Egypt, dozens of churches and other facilities connected to Egypt’s Christian minority have been attacked and burned in the last seven days by Islamists seeking revenge for the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and a violent government crackdown that has left hundreds of his supporters dead.

The country’s security forces, which have taken center stage in Egyptian political life in recent weeks, have made little effort to protect churches and other Christian property, leaving Christians in many parts of Egypt to fend for themselves. A majority of the attacks have happened in Upper Egypt, the country’s poorer and more conservative southern and central regions, which have historically been important centers of both Egyptian Christianity and Islamist extremism.

Activists and bloggers have posted witness accounts of the sectarian attacks online, and on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a video report that documented what it called “simultaneous” attacks on churches across the country on Aug. 14 â€" the day the Egyptian security forces violently dispersed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing more than 600 people. The group criticized the security forces for failing to defend the ransacked churches, saying that the police were not present at the churches before the attacks began and failed to respond to Christians’ calls for help.

“Muslim Brotherhood activists and other Islamists have insinuated a direct link between Coptic activism and the removal of former President Morsi in early July,” Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the video. Later, he added, “In the vast majority of the cases of attacks on churches that Human Rights Watch documented, security forces were not present at the start of the attack and did not come to the aid of the churches during the attack.”

Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people and have long complained of prejudice at the hands of the Muslim majority, as well as official indifference to their plight. Sectarian attacks have become more common since the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and many Christians feared for their well-being during Mr. Morsi’s one-year tenure. Mr. Morsi reneged on a campaign promise to appoint a Christian vice president and failed to halt an hours-long attack in April on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope.

In addition to attacking churches, mobs ransacked and burned a range of other buildings affiliated with the Christian community last week, including a Jesuit school and an orphanage in the city of Minya. They also targeted a tourist restaurant on a boat on the Nile, killing two employees who had hidden in a bathroom.

Evan Hill, a staff writer at Al Jazeera America, visited Minya, an Upper Egyptian city with a large Christian population, on Monday and posted pictures to Twitter of the Amir Tadros Church, which he said was the first to be burnt in the city.

My colleague Mr. Fahim reported that a mob destroyed several facilities owned by the Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of Nazla, southwest of Cairo, including a computer lab, a wedding hall and a school that had only opened last April after local Christians spent 13 years saving money to build them.

“In most of these attacks that we have documented, hundreds of men came armed with guns and, in some cases, Molotov cocktails and sticks,” Mr. Coogle said in the Human Rights Watch video. “They broke in, they came in, they looted, they destroyed and, for many of the churches, they burned them to the ground.”

One young Christian man interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the burnt-out husk of his local church said that there was a police station 20 or 30 yards down the road, but that as a mob descended on the church, no one came to defend it.

“Not even the fire service came to put out the fire,” said the young man, Philimon Sameer. “People in the neighborhood helped us put it out.”

In the face of such intense sectarian animosity, and with scant protection from the state, Egypt’s Christians now face the daunting prospect of being caught in the crossfire between the military-backed transitional government and Islamist supporters of Mr. Morsi. A representative of the Maspero Youth Union, a Christian group, spoke to The Times about the scope of the week’s violence and the peril in which his community finds itself.

A Coptic Christian group, the Maspero Youth Union, recorded at least six deaths and the destruction of at least 38 churches, as well as attacks on at least 23 more. An activist with the group, Beshoy Tamry, primarily blamed Islamist leaders for “charging their followers with hate” and trying to destabilize the country by attacking its weakest citizens.

The government, though, was hardly blameless, he said.

“I think the state wasn’t serious about protecting churches,” Mr. Tamry said. “They know who is going to do what, especially in Minya. The attacks have happened before.”

Yahoo Surpasses Google in Web Traffic, Somehow

Without question, it has been a good month for Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo. She was featured in a fancy fashion spread in Vogue magazine, Yahoo’s stock has continued to climb, and now, like a big cherry on top, the company beat Google to become the most visited Web property in America.

According to comScore, a market research firm, Yahoo had 196,564,000 unique visitors during the month of July, beating out Google’s 192,251,000.

And yet: it remains unclear what is behind this latest bit of traffic news. Yahoo did not respond to a request about why it had more visitors, and comScore said it was unable to determine why Yahoo was the top site this month. In other words, it could just be a blip.

The report by comScore is part of a monthly Web ranking that highlights the top 50 Web properties in the United States. The report also noted that Yahoo’s Web properties were seen by 87.2 percent of the 225 million people who accessed the Internet in July.

It might seem that some of Yahoo’s recent visitor success had something to do with the company’s acquisition of Tumblr, the social network it acquired in May for $1 billion. But comScore said Tumblr was not included in Yahoo’s ratings.

ComScore told the Web site MarketingLand that the last time Yahoo was in the No. 1 spot on comScore’s leader board was May 2011.

Yahoo has been steadily buying start-ups and other Web outlets over the past year. The acquisitions have included several mobile companies, including GhostBird Software, maker of the iOS photo apps KitCam and PhotoForge2; Loki Studios, a mobile gaming company; and Astrid, a personal assistant app.

But it isn’t all fun and mobile games for Ms. Mayer. The company still appears far from being a successful turnaround story, as many analysts question whether Yahoo can can equal its rivals in attracting advertising. And under Ms. Mayer’s leadership, Yahoo has redesigned several of its flagship sites partly to attract that advertising, including the Yahoo home page, Yahoo Mail and Flickr, its photo-sharing Web site. But many critics and users have harshly criticized the new sites as too clunky and confusing.

A 3-D Scanner Reaches for the Masses

The 3-D printer company MakerBot on Thursday entered the new market for scanning, introducing a desktop device called the Digitizer that could help push more of the public into 3-D printing.

The $1,400 Digitizer looks a little like a classic record player, but with lasers. It rotates small objects on a turntable near two lasers and a camera to create a three-dimensional model that can then be reproduced by a 3-D printer.

For MakerBot, which was acquired by Stratasys for $403 million in June, the Digitizer adds another component to its lineup of 3-D printing products and services. The company has Replicator 3-D printers, the online design library Thingiverse and a presence in Microsoft retail stores.

While desktop 3-D printing has become more widely available in the last few years, designing new objects can require specialized skills in 3-D modeling or engineering, which can be a barrier for novices.

Many in the industry say that the grand visions of a home manufacturing revolution will not happen until easy design tools are in place. Scanners are one way to simplify that process because they allow people to copy objects, or to just tweak, adapt or remix existing objects.

Still, the technology is in early development for consumer use. Shiny, fuzzy or reflective surfaces do not scan well, the company said, saying that “like any technology, 3-D scanning is limited by the laws of physics.”

“Expectations should be realistic,” the company says in F.A.Q. about the Digitizer. “You will not be able to, for example, scan a hamburger and then eat the digital design.”

The Digitizer is available for preorders, and the company said it would ship to customers in mid-October.

MakerBot is one of the leaders in the 3-D printing industry, but this is not the first scanner on the market. There are also more technically precise scanners, like the NextEngine 3-D scanner, which scans in color, unlike the Digitizer. The NextEngine sells for $2,995.

Other 3-D scanners are in development, some financed by online campaigns, like the Fuel3D, a handheld scanner that promises to cost less than $1,000, and a scanner from Matterform that was available to early supporters for just $599 and for which preorders will be taken starting in September.

As 3-D scanners grow in capability and drop in cost, their availability raises questions about copyright protections for physical objects.

Once the messy problem of design is out of the way, will people buy another Buzz Lightyear action figure when they can just scan one and make a copy?

Daily Report: As Tech Industry Shifts, Big Players Scramble to Adapt

Outsiders often think of Silicon Valley as a constantly changing landscape, a place where fortunes rise and fall with the next great idea. Now some of the technology industry’s biggest names are finding out that once you fall behind, it is pretty hard to catch up, Quentin Hardy reports.

On Wednesday, Hewlett-Packard announced several significant personnel changes, along with sharply lower revenue and narrower operating profit margins. It was the latest in a string of disappointing earnings news from big technology companies that has some asking if the industry, after at least five years of growth, is finally slowing down.

“We’re doing a turnaround in not the greatest economic environment,” Meg Whitman, H.P.’s chief executive, said in an interview. “Everyone is trying to position themselves for the new style of information technology. The fittest will survive.”

But the bad earnings news from older, big tech companies does not â€" so far â€" appear to be spreading to more youthful Internet companies like Google or Salesforce.com, which provide their software as a service over the Internet.

H.P.’s news, for example, comes on the heels of surprising plans announced last week to cut about 5 percent of the work force at the network computing company Cisco Systems and continuing issues at Oracle, Intel and even Microsoft.

If there is a common thread among these older outfits, long considered bellwethers for their industry, it is that they are all struggling to adapt to a computing world where people use the Internet on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Likewise, the information they retrieve is stored in a cloud of network computers that are used by many companies at the same time.