Ben's been doing all the talking on the Child's Play front as of late, but now it's my turn to say that you guys have been doing an amazing job when it comes to raising money for this great cause. The Opposable Thumbs Child's Play Drive has now passed the $5,000 mark and the donations are continuing to pour in at an awe-inspiring rate. We asked you to dig deep, and a lot of you have: there's going to be some happy kids this holiday season, that's for sure.
We've still got our big personal prize pack borne from our personal video game collections to come, so keep those donations coming in. Ben has hinted at it, but I'm willing to be more forthcoming: some of the stuff in the big pack you simply will not be able to find easily or cheaply—if at all. My out-of-pocket contribution, in all its white, pearly, non-Nintendo-related glory, has left a stinging hole where my heart used to be, but it's for a good cause that I'm willing to make just such a sacrifice. Expect the final unveiling soon.
For those who haven't been following the Child's Play Charity run this year outside of our drive here, the Penny Arcade guys have voiced extreme satisfaction with this year's turnout thus far. The total donations were up to $600,000 prior to last night's Child's Play Gala Event, which managed to raise an incredible $225,000 more. The night's auction starred some incredible impromptu acts of generosity, as Bungie sweetened its offerings with the Bungie employee-exclusive, in-game Recon Armor suit for Halo 3 and Valve dished out the desirable Portal-born Weighted Companion Cube as well as a tour of the office. "And the throng responded—fiscally," Tycho remarked.
It's been a great year for the charity, but that should come as no surprise. Tycho put it so: "That you can generate million dollars in just a couple months—on an annual basis—is now, to me, quite ordinary. You are incredible, and changing the world is easy for you. I should have understood that from the start."Keep the donations coming, everyone. Let's see if we can't make 2007 not only a memorable year for gaming, but an unforgettable year for giving.
I'll admit it. I'm kind of a sucker for end-of-the-year top 10 lists. They don't only have to be "best of" lists either; sometimes the "worst of" lists are even more enjoyable. That's why I was mildly excited to see Popular Mechanics' The Top 10 Worst Gadgets of 2007. If you are the sensitive Mac user, one to get angry about people saying negative things about your platform of choice, or one that follows the company with an enthusiasm that can only be described as zealot-esque, you should just stop reading now.
The list starts out innocently enough: number 10 is a vibrating exercise machine straight out of the 1960s, number eight is everyone's favorite brown portable media player (the Zune), and number six is some sort of talking WiFi rabbit. Number four is, of course, the ubiquitous, yet-to-be-released robotic dinosaur (the Pleo), and number two is none other than the Apple TV.
That's right, the darling of so many year-end top 10 lists, Apple Computer, has contributed to a worst of list. According to the article's blurb on the Apple TV, the high (or low, as the case may be) ranking doesn't stem from what is wrong with it, but instead that "there’s nothing overwhelmingly right about it, either." Popular Mechanics argues that in a crowded field of similar devices, it just doesn't shine. The magazine also argues that the content just isn't there. We would like to add the inability to purchase content from the device and no high-definition media to the reasons why the Apple TV is lacking.
We know that you're wondering what is the number one worst gadget of 2007, and we're glad you asked. It's none other than the Palm Foleo. "But the Palm Foleo never shipped!" you say. You are correct. That makes the Apple TV the worst own-able gadget of 2007. Now in Popular Mechanics' defense, it did put the iPhone on its Top 10 Most Brilliant Gadgets of 2007 list, and the magazine based its choices of worst gadgets on missed opportunities (and not overall terribleness). That may make it a little easier for some of you to swallow.
Google's $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick has drawn a lot of scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic it was announced last April, and continues to do so as the year draws to a close. Consumer groups have expressed their concerns over the privacy implications of such a deal, since both companies have harvested massive amounts of consumer data in order to build their advertising networks. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) believes the companies haven't been forthcoming about how they'll address those concerns, leading him to demand answers in a letter sent to Google CEO Eric Schmidt earlier in the week week.
In a copy of the letter seen by Ars, Barton reminds Schmidt that the CEO promised to help Barton and his staff better understand the company's search and targeted advertising practices. According to the letter, when Barton tried to send staff to Google's campus to discuss the matter, they were turned away. "Since then, all efforts to reach a mutually agreeable time have been rebuffed, and it begins to seem that no date for a visit is sufficiently convenient to Google," wrote Barton. "Your warm initial invitation followed by Google's chilly response to a proposed visit by Committee counsels is disconcerting." (Google disputes that Barton has been rebuffed—a spokesperson said that the chosen dates were merely inconvenient, that no alternatives were provided, and that Barton's committees could come at any time. )
Throughout the rest of the missive, Barton takes Google to task over its search practices and algorithms, data retention, data analysis, advertising programs, how the search giant anonymizes certain data, cookie use, and more. Overall, the 24-question letter asks Google to describe its practices in great detail, and requests a response as early as next week.
In the meantime, others have called into question the Federal Trade Commission's ability to investigate the merger impartially (the investigation began in May). The Electronic Privacy Information Center—one of the organizations that filed the initial complaint with the FTC—has asked (PDF) that FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras be recused from the investigation after discovering her husband's involvement with Jones Day, a law firm that has represented DoubleClick in the past. The husband, John Majoras, told the Mercury News that he was not involved in the deal between DoubleClick and Google, although the FTC is reportedly already discussing the issue with its ethics officer.
Update: Majoras and the FTC have decided that she will not recuse herself from the merger approval process.
Academic research can be a messy thing. In contrast to the carefully formatted and argued publications that result, the raw material is often a mass of annotated documents, hastily taken notes, and scattered references. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University thinks that this raw material could be just as useful to the wider research community as the final publication. They've now secured a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a system for uploading it into a database at the Internet Archive. The catch? The academics have to be organizing that material using Zotero, a Firefox plug-in.
Zotero is actually an impressive piece of software. It integrates into Firefox, allowing researchers to save and organize the material they access through the Web. But its library can also contain references to files stored locally, as well as free-form notes. Users can annotate any of these documents or tag them for future searches. It also formats citations for publication and integrates reference management into Word via a plug-in. In this way, it acts much like commercial reference managers such as the cross-platform EndNote or Papers on OS X.
With the new grant, the Center for History and New Media will be getting half a million dollars to enable Zotero to send the notes and other material on to the Internet Archive. The Archive will be getting another $700,000 to handle the material as it comes in and make it accessible to the academic community via a searchable database.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, academics will be encouraged to share in part by the convenience of the system. If someone is already using Zotero, it will just take a few extra clicks to place their material online. A carrot will come in the form of OCR software at the Internet Archive; scans of handwritten notes and original material will be sent back to researchers as editable text.
There are a couple of serious practical issues with this plan. The first is that it's limited to academic users of Firefox that have decided that Zotero is a compelling solution—in short, a small subpopulation of the research community. The second is that some of the material that is uploaded will undoubtedly run into the same issues regarding copyright and fair use that plague any information sharing site.
Will the material that's uploaded be of any value? Based on my personal experience, the answer here will be mixed. I've taken notes and made annotations for everything from peer-reviewed publications to articles for Ars, but only a fraction of the ideas ever make it into the publication. Within the remainder, there are some genuine insights that don't make the cut due to a lack of direct relevance or space constraints. But there are also a lot of spur-of-the-moment thoughts that I later reject due to further reading or analysis. Unless all contributors are careful about what they upload, this effort may produce a storehouse of bad ideas.
When most people think of a high-end laptop chassis, they think of titanium, or possibly the brushed aluminum that's currently popular. If Asus' prototype attempts prove successful, however, the next high-end, must-have chassis material on a laptop could be bamboo. At first glance the idea sounds quite odd, but bamboo actually possesses a number of characteristics that could make it suitable for housing a computer.
Bamboo is naturally flexible, durable, and extremely strong; laminates can be applied to the material to shape or strengthen it further. It grows rapidly and abundantly, and could theoretically serve as an ecologically renewable resource for building laptop (and I suppose desktop) chassis. Asus has yet to define the specs on their Eco Book (as the product is called), but the evaluation is ongoing. At present, even if the Eco Book proves successful, it'll remain a high-end option aimed at executives who might otherwise be in the market for a leather-bound or alligator-skin notebook. With bamboo mice, keyboards, and monitor frames already on the market, it's not hard to see where a bamboo laptop might fit as well.
Bamboo-based products may be more eco-friendly and less likely to pollute the environment once the system has been disposed off, but I'd wager that even companies interested in deploying such products would want to conduct aggressive long-term durability tests, first. Consumers would have to be assured that a bamboo laptop wouldn't be more likely to chip, break, or crack than a metallic chassis under similar stress. That might be a tougher sell in Western markets, where bamboo isn't widely used as a building or scaffolding material, but it's certainly possible if manufacturers can create a plausible long-term chassis.
The NPD Group has released its sales figures numbers for November, and it's notable yet again the sheer amount of games and systems consumers are buying this year. November saw a 52 percent gain in gaming sales over last year, to $2.63 billion. "If the year had ended on December 1st, 2007 would be up 5 percent versus last year," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier in a statement. "With the biggest month of the year yet to go, total industry sales are on track to achieve between $18 billion and $19 billion in the US."
Let's take a look at what people were buying in November.
The Nintendo DS had an amazing November, with 1.53 million units sold. That makes the Wii's sales of 981,000 units look almost quaint in comparison. To put this in perspective, the Nintendo DS outsold every single Sony system combined in November.
The Wii did move a good amount of software in November; Super Mario Galaxy took the number two slot with 1.12 million units sold, and the always popular Wii Play came in fifth place with 564,000 units sold. The Wii version of Guitar Hero 3 was a popular title, coming in at number eight with 426,000 units sold. The extra controllers are also a large profit center for Nintendo. "4 of the 5 best-selling accessories for the month were Wii controllers," Frazier noted. "The Wii Zapper, which debuted in November, sold 232,000 units. The second-best selling accessory for the month was the PS3 wireless controller at 282,000 units."
The Xbox 360 had its second best month on record, trailing only last December in terms of sales. The system, with its myriad configurations, sold a respectable 770,000 units. Microsoft has proven yet again that 360 owners are a hungry lot; four of the top ten best-selling games were on Microsoft's platform.
Call of Duty 4 took the number one slot overall this month, with 1.57 million units sold on the 360. The 360 version of Assassin's Creed came in at number three with 980,000 units, Mass Effect was number six with 473,000 units, with Halo 3 at number nine with 387,000 units. Multiplatform games perform incredibly well on the 360: Call of Duty 4 on the 360 outsold its PlayStation 3 counterpart by 1.1 million units, and the 360 version of Assassin's Creed outsold the PS3 version by 603,000 units.
"The combination of the price cut and seasonal lift gave the PS3 the biggest October to November sales increase of any hardware platform," Frazier said of the PS3. Unfortunately, it is the one of the few positive things to be said about Sony's performance in November. Sony's three systems took the rear of the sales charts with the PlayStation 3 selling 466,000 units, the PlayStation 2 continuing to sell well with 496,000 units, and the PSP selling 567,000 units of hardware.
Software was a mixed bag. The PS3 versions of Call of Duty 4 and Assassin's Creed came in at the number seven and 10 slots respectively, but sold far less on the PS3 than they did on the Xbox 360. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune also failed to chart, despite being one of the best games of the year.
A few notes about November: Assassin's Creed was the best-selling new IP in gaming history, with Gears of War coming in at number two. Despite mixed reviews, the game did very well at retail. Call of Duty 4 was another monster hit; the game has only been available for one month, but it's already the number four title of the year. The $170, four-player Rock Band sold 382,000 units; the NPD Group notes that sales may pick up as word of mouth spreads.
November was a huge month for both hardware and software sales; December sales should be positively insane.
Geez, when Apple finally gives in to user's demands, it sure can be quiet about it. Yesterday's QuickTime and GarageBand updates brought more than just a plug for that RTSP security flaw that Symantec found. GarageBand 4.1.1 can now create custom ringtones for the iPhone too. Officially-sanctioned ringtones.
It's not like Apple released a PR for this or anything though; Apple slipped in a support doc on the topic after the update went out. Evidenced by a new "Send Ringtone to iTunes" option from GarageBand's Share menu, about the only thing missing here is support for turning iTunes Store-purchased tracks into ringtones (though iTunes Plus tracks should work just fine). Unfortunately, GarageBand will still deny importing said tracks, presenting a warning about stealing food from the dinner plates of wealthy executives' children. While the iTunes Store ringtone process is definitely slick and convenient, it looks like you'll have to keep paying double the price just to use a song you already own as a ringtone instead of an iPod track.
Naturally, the process of creating a ringtone from non-iTunes Store songs is exceedingly simple, but that aforementioned support doc elaborates, just in case. You can simply select a cycle region of a GarageBand project (which means you don't actually need to chop the project down) that's 40 seconds or less in length, then hit the magic button. Prepare for an onslaught of Snow and Heat Miser ringtones boys and girls.
For those who aren't carrying Apple's smudge-loving phone, the company even linked another support doc on using GarageBand to create custom ringtones for your third-party mobile phone.
On a conference call today, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime expressed regret at the hard-to-find nature of the Nintendo Wii, noting that it has been a sell-out since launch. Agreeing that shortages help "no one", he then detailed some of Nintendo's plans to fight the effects of such high demand.
The first news is that there will be a large push of Nintendo Wiis to store shelves this weekend, with advertising in the circulars of big box retailers. While Wal-Mart doesn't publish a weekly circular, Fils-Aime did say that the retailer would have large amounts of stock in its stores. Get ready for the lines, in other words.
The second plan is to introduce rain check vouchers through GameStop. These vouchers will guarantee you a system before January 29, but to get one, you'll have to prepay for the system in full. Reggie noted there will be "tens of thousands" of these rain checks available, and that we could expect a press release from GameStop explaining the program in greater detail. The vouchers will be sold on December 20 and 21.
During the call Reggie mostly repeated things we knew before: production is at 1.8 million units a month, the shortages won't be over any time soon, and consumers need to be patient—trying to hold out instead of buying at inflated prices from resellers. With Nintendo hardware selling in vast numbers, and the holiday crush just beginning for parents and grandparents looking for the elusive Wii, a voucher program and sales numbers may not be enough to sooth irate consumers. It's been estimated that Nintendo may be losing over $1 billion by not being able to meet the current demand for the system.
J. Craig Venter is famous within the biological community for both his development of the "shotgun" method of genome sequencing and behavior that some view as egomaniacal. In a number of cases, he's partially sequenced his own genome (or his pet's), declared victory over public sequencing efforts, and moved on to other projects, leaving others to finish off the work. In recent years, his focus has shifted to synthetic life—cells directed by simplified genomes engineered to perform useful tasks such as fuel production or drug synthesis. But, in pursuing that goal, he's accumulating a patent portfolio that may inhibit biotech research in general.
The concept of synthetic life may be a bit of a misnomer. Venter's approach has involved characterizing bacteria that have radically reduced genome sizes in order to determine the minimum set of genes necessary to support life in a favorable environment. With that list of genes in hand, researchers could then create DNA encoding them from scratch, using machines that can chemically manufacture short stretches of DNA. Those stretches can be assembled into longer pieces (Venter's coworkers have patented an assembly method), eventually producing a genome that's never actually seen a living organism.
DNA on its own can't accomplish much; it needs to be processed by proteins, supported by a variety of chemical compounds, and separated from the environment by a membrane. All of those could possibly be arranged, but it's far simpler to just take an existing cell, wipe out its genome, and replace it with the synthesized one. Whether this represents synthetic life or an engineered variation of existing life is largely a matter of philosophy and public relations. In either case, rumors have circulated that Venter's group has already achieved this, but are awaiting the publication of a scientific paper before formally announcing it.
If there were any doubts regarding these rumors, patent applications by Venter and his associates should put them to rest. In November, applications were filed, entitled Synthetic genomes and Installation of genomes or partial genomes into cells or cell-like systems, that describe this process in detail. But, in typical patent fashion, they also generalize the process in such a way that it applies to a wide variety of other potentially useful processes. The latter claims a patent on, "obtaining a genome that is not within a cell; and introducing the genome into a cell or cell-like system." A further 17 clauses expand that claim to nearly every potentially imaginable form of DNA or membrane-contained space. The former spends five clauses just to expand the claim about DNA to a huge range different sized DNA molecules, including just about any size that's convenient for biologists to work with.
The ETC Group, which has been agitating against Venter, suggests that this is an attempt to dominate synthetic life, calling it an attempt to create a "Microbesoft" like monopoly. "It appears that Craig Venter's lawyers have constructed a legal rats' nest of monopoly claims that may entangle the entire field of synthetic biology," ETC's Jim Thomas said in a statement.
The key question will be whether these new applications will survive the more stringent test of obviousness that resulted from a recent Supreme Court decision. Although the patents suggest a few clever twists on work that's already being done in many labs, most of what's described appears to be an extension of commonly utilized lab techniques to organismal genomes (researchers commonly do this work with viral genomes already). In fact, due to the vague phrasing, the patents would actually cover somatic cell nuclear transplant, a technique for creating embryonic stem cells that's been in the news recently. Given the overlap with existing work, it seems doubtful that these patents would survive the barrage of lawyers that universities and the biotech industry could subject them to if those groups run afoul of licensing issues.
This week Harmonix claimed that the reason there is no patch to allow Guitar Hero 3 guitars to work on the PlayStation 3 version of Rock Band is Activision's meddling;now Activision has fired back at the Rock Band developer. "The recent announcement by MTV Games/Viacom's Harmonix division that Activision is blocking Sony from releasing a patch and their plea to enable Rock Band software to work with Guitar Hero hardware paints a very misleading picture," Activision states.
ButActivision never says that the allegations of patch-blocking are false, either. "In fact, Harmonix and its parent company MTV Games/Viacom recently declined Activision's offer to reach an agreement that would allow the use of Guitar Hero guitar controllers with Rock Band," the statement continues. "We have been and remain open to discussions with Harmonix and MTV Games/Viacom about the use of our technology in Rock Band. Unfortunately for Rock Band users, in this case Harmonix and MTV Games/Viacom are unwilling to discuss an agreement with Activision."
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Activision asked for a sack of cash and Harmonix said no. While the companies bicker amongst themselves it's the gamers who suffer; with no first or third-party Rock Band guitars on store shelves for the PlayStation 3, rhythm gamers were looking forward to using their existing guitars on the game. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we're any closer to that being a reality.
In the meantime, this may be costing Activision business. "Simply put: GH3 is off my Christmas list," one reader commented yesterday. Another reader noted that Rock Band would have made him more likely to buy Guitar Hero 3: "Activision has eliminated me as a potential customer. I was otherwise unlikely to buy the game, but because of Rock Band and the extra guitar, I would have."