Nick Summers

Stories by Nick Summers

  • Antivirus Under Attack From Polymorphic Threats -- and You

    For cybersecurity geeks, it was a moment to celebrate. In May, as President Obama announced a new federal office to oversee America’s digital infrastructure, he used language rarely heard in the White House. “We’ve had to learn a whole new vocabulary just to stay ahead of the cybercriminals who would do us harm: spyware and malware and spoofing and phishing and botnets,” Obama said. (Today, he named his pick for the post.) Obama also reminded the audience that he knew of what he spoke: in 2008 his campaign’s computer network had been badly compromised by a virus that hackers hid in an e-mail.When frustration with malware has risen to the level of the BlackBerry addict in chief, the companies that make antivirus software -- a $6 billion global industry dominated by two U.S. firms, Symantec and McAfee -- know that their work is cut out for them. “I never thought I’d hear the day when our president was talking about botnets and Trojans,” says Rowan Trollope, an executive at Symantec,...
  • Tiger Woods, Text Messages, and the Golden Age of the Sex Scandal

    Some people savor literature; others, fine wine. I prefer to relish the really exceptional sex scandals of our time.Right now, obviously, that's the Tiger Woods inferno. Its dimensions keep expanding, from a bizarre home dispute to a single infidelity, to serial adultery, to Tiger's seeming to have slept with every club hostess along the pro tour. The laundry list of women claiming dalliances is now so large that it obscures the importance of two early revelations: a panicked voice mail and cheesy "sexts" Woods sent one of his alleged paramours. Bear with me here—there is a reason you're reading this on a technology blog—because I think those digital communications are the clearest sign yet that we're entering a golden age of sex scandals, one with far juicier details, because they come straight from the smartphones of those directly involved.Don't get me wrong: we already had it pretty good. Eliot Spitzer and Ashley Dupré; John Edwards and Rielle Hunter; and, of course, the...
  • Friendster 2.0: This Isn't Going to End Well

    Friendster announced a relaunch last week and, responsible journalist that I am, I wanted to sign up for an account and investigate the service thoroughly before ripping it to pieces. The first two times I signed on, however, I almost got a virus: an ad, I'm fairly sure, redirected my browser to a fake antivirus site in China and attempted to download a .exe file to my desktop. Poor Friendster. This wasn't going to end well. Friendster, it seems, is irredeemably snakebit. The site has for years served two main purposes. Foremost it's a punchline, a synonym for "out of touch." "Bulls--t," says Ari Gold in a 2005 episode of Entourage when he hears some unlikely gossip. "Where'd you hear that? Friendster?" Second, and more substantively, Friendster has functioned as an object lesson in the fragility of social networks. Once the most popular such site on the Internet, Friendster was lapped by MySpace and then Facebook en route to...
  • Zeo Personal Sleep Coach: It's a Dream (and Then You Wake Up)

     Like sex and salsa, sleep is one of those things that you never have quite enough of. You wish you’d turned in earlier, snoozed a little later, suffered fewer midnight interruptions from the baby and your partner’s freezing feet. Even if you do get enough sleep, it can always be better sleep. Doctors say we’re not only supposed to get seven to nine hours a night, but the same seven to nine hours in order to log the proper amounts of light, deep, and REM sleep. Who in the age of TiVo and Twitter has a schedule that’s peaceful and predictable enough for that? With inadequate sleep a risk factor for chronic disease, it’s enough to keep you up at night. Into this restlessness steps the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, a $250 gadget that claims you’ll sleep better if you let it spy on your brain at night with a magic headband. As you wear it, the sensor chatters wirelessly with a special Zeo alarm clock, which logs data about REM cycles, interruptions, and overall sleep quality; this...
  • Microsoft Vista Still a Thorn in PC Makers' Side

    Has Windows Vista reached out from the grave to foul things up one last time? Judging by lower-than-expected PC sales off the back of the Oct. 22 Windows 7 launch, it would appear so. ...
  • Microsoft's Finally Got Game

    After Atari popularized the joystick in 1977, videogame developers spent years cramming more buttons onto the controller. Then along came Nintendo, with a motion-sensing controller for its Wii console that was less complicated, and more fun. Since Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006, it has sold more than 50 million units worldwide--about as many as its two rivals, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, combined.  ...
  • William Cheswick Helped Invent Internet Security. He'd Like to Say He's Sorry.

    It's a hot afternoon in July on the AT&T Labs campus in Florham Park, N.J., and William Cheswick, on staff as a principal researcher, has been asked to open the summer lecture series on any topic of his choosing. Cheswick is a polymath, an inventor, and a hacker, but he is best known as a network-security god; he wrote the book, literally, on firewalls, coined the term "proxy server," figured out how to map the Internet. The auditorium is filled with graduate students and career researchers with terminal degrees, eager to hear whatever Cheswick dispenses. Upstairs, in and around his office, lie all manner of breakthrough ideas—for strapping wireless Internet boxes onto airplanes, not for the passengers aboard but the people in flyover country beneath; for arranging thumbnails of every frame of famous movies into gigantic 54-inch-by-5-foot murals, fit for a modern art museum; for unraveling the backup Internet architecture of Iran. But Cheswick doesn't want to...
  • Building a Better Password

    From this week's magazine:My password is gr8199. I've been using it for more than a decade,...
  • Blowing Your Freaking Mind: There's an App for That

     The only force equal to the pace of innovation is our ability to become blasé about it. The first time a little box on my rental car's dashboard talked to a geosynchronous satellite and then told me where to turn left, I was amazed. Now the GPS lady mostly annoys me. When Hulu debuted, all perfect and polished, I was ecstatic that two stodgy networks finally got how my generation wants to watch TV. Now I get impatient when the newest 30 Rock isn't uploaded right away. Our socks get knocked off, and we put them right back on. ...
  • Ten Simple Ways Apple Can Improve the iPhone

      While the tech world waits in thrall for news of the fabled Apple tablet to appear, we should also hope that Cupertino continues to refine its current best seller, the iPhone. Yes, the device is already a pleasure to use, with copious grace notes sprinkled throughout the operating system -- songs fade out when you receive a call, for instance, and then there's the gorgeous simplicity of visual voicemail. But let's be honest. The interface and built-in apps do have their annoyances. Let me get this straight, Apple: I can cut video on my iPhone 3GS, but I can't edit a playlist? As a daily iPhone user, I've compiled a list of simple and significant ways Apple can improve its own suite of apps and the iPhone OS itself. Here's my top 10: A more useful "slide to unlock" screen. Show my unread email count, the weather, or upcoming appointments. Fewer taps to move between mail inboxes. Right now, checking my two inboxes requires seven taps: Mail >> Gmail >> Inbox << Gmail <<...
  • Touch Yourself: Read Smarter With Instapaper

    Here's the first installment of Touch Yourself, the Techtonic Shifts iPhone app review column:Some iPhone apps, like Urinal Test, you download as a gag. Others meet some temporary need, like the U.S. Open scoreboard app. And then there is the rare app that you come to  use every single day, to the point that it changes how you use the Internet itself.For me, that's Instapaper (free; $4.99 pro version). It does one thing, and does it really well: when you come across a long article on your PC and don't have time to read it, Instapaper zaps it to your iPhone. Then, the next time you're stuck on an airplane, or anywhere else sans connectivity, you have something high-quality to read. "The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it," developer Marco Arment writes about his creation. "Instapaper helps you bridge that gap."Instapaper is dead simple and elegantly designed, from the option to not password-protect your account ...
  • Envy: The Apple of HP's Eye

    In design, imitation is a funny thing. When Thing A looks like Thing B, it can be homage─or plagiarism. Tribute─or theft. The message from the imitator to the imitated might be, "Yep, you nailed it, the platonic ideal of this category, and I can't help but follow your lead"─or a more brazen "You did all the hard work of creation, and now I will shamelessly copy."But a lot of that is just academic banter for the design teams that work at Thing A and Thing B's companies. The real question is whether you, the consumer, care. The laptop HP announced today, the appropriately named Envy, is as brazen a case of design thievery as it gets, aping the look and feel of Apple's MacBook in every conceivable way. If I worked at HP, I would be ashamed to walk in the door today. But if I were buying a Windows computer, I'd snap an Envy laptop right up.A laundry list of the, uh, homages that the Envy pays the MacBook is beside the point. (Here's one...
  • Why Rap, Klingons, and Jailhouse-Rape-by-Broomstick Aren't the Best Way To Teach Kids About Piracy

    Have you seen the new antipiracy video from the software industry? It is execrable! Outdated, kinda offensive, and embarrassingly unhip, the clip has a zero percent chance of achieving its goal of deterring illegal downloads on campus. One young person I shared it with said the video made him want to go pirate something, anything, out of spite. Don't Copy That 2─a sequel to the campy 1992 educational video Don't Copy That Floppy─Keith Kupferschmid, the Software & Information Industry Association's policy director, was magnanimous enough to answer my sputtering questions about some of the video's inexplicable choices. Like: why rap, in 2009? (That's like sending a disco star to lecture a '90s classroom to get its "groove thang on" by respecting copyrights.) If you're referencing a videogame, why choose Doom, which dates to 1993? Why Klingons, instead of teenage vampires or wizards? "We just didn't thinkabout the vampire thing...
  • Why I'm Not Yet Sold on Twitter as a Search Engine

      As people still struggle to explain exactly what Twitter is, one of the more compelling theories I've heard is that the service is actually a real-time search engine. The site's recent redesign certainly encourages that view, with search front and center of the new home page....
  • Meet the Twitters

    Ben Stiller attempts to explain Twitter to Mickey Rooney, just shy of his 89th birthday: Ben Stiller: See, look at this: "OMG, oldest daughter shaving legs for the first time! How did this happen? What's next? I need a drink." Mickey Rooney: I don't find that entertaining. Ben Stiller: I don't find that entertaining, either. The clip threatens to be a live-action Old People Talking About the Internet, but Mickey holds his own! Stiller comes off as the one who can't quite articulate what Twitter is. (via)
  • Swing and a Miss: "Even a six-year-old can dock a 40’ powerboat"

    From the Techtonic Shifts inbox, a classic ludicrous press release: The boating industry has known for years that the intimidation of driving and docking a boat, especially a yacht, keeps many people who enjoy boating from owning one themselves. Now, new technology in the form of joystick steering control has come to boating, promising to change the industry forever by making it easy for most anyone to drive. It's now so simple that even a six-year-old can dock a 40' powerboat. Like playing a video game, you just point the joystick and computerized control of specialized "pod" engines below provides the right thrust in the right direction, taking into account wind and current.  The boat can slide sideways through the water, all with a tap at the joystick. Twist the joystick and the boat rotates in place. Yes, it's the difficulty of that has kept so many people from yachting lately. And not, say, the %&#$@ recession?
  • Things That Suck: iPhone Voice Control

     Part of the deal when you fall in love with the iPhone is that you clammer and coo every time Apple rolls out features that have been standard on other devices for years. Take, for instance, the pants-peeing that attended the addition of copy and paste to the iPhone in July....
  • Swing and a Miss: 'The World's Greenest Gaming PC'

    From the inbox, back on June 4: "The World's Greenest Gaming PC" Awesome, a green gaming PC that uses less energy!  As, you know, you sit indoors this summer with the A/C blasting, slamming Red Bulls packed with chemicals, lights blazing for your all-night gaming marathon. You know what's even greener than that? When you write about tech, you get a lot of p.r. pitches. Swing and a Miss lets us vent about the worst. 
  • How Facebook Keeps Things Clean

    It's just before lunchtime in the sunny, high-tech headquarters of Facebook in Palo Alto, California, and Simon Axten is cuing up some porn. A photo of a young couple sloppily making out pops onscreen. It's gross, but not against the rules, so Axten punches a key to judge the image appropriate. Next up: a young woman in panties only, covering her breasts with her hands. "That's pretty close," Axten says, pondering the image. There's nothing arbitrary about his judgments: at Facebook, they have developed semiformal policies like the Fully Exposed Butt Rule, the Crack Rule and the Nipple Rule. In this photo there's no visible areola, he decides, so it stays. After delivering a verdict on 75 of the 438,848 outstanding photos flagged by Facebook users—buff guy soaping up in the shower (OK); girl blowing an epic cloud of pot smoke (he deletes it); an underage user drinking from two liquor bottles at once (ditto)—Axten is off to a meeting. It's just another day at the office of the world...
  • Worth It: Common Craft's "In Plain Language"

    I have simple needs. I like cold drinks, hot pizza and difficult things explained to me like I'm a drooling half-wit. Just because I'm familiar with a technology doesn't mean I get it—a distinction addressed by CommonCraft.com, whose In Plain English series of videos takes complicated, tech-forward topics, such as wikis, CFL bulbs and phishing, and explains how they work using disarmingly crummy paper-cutout animations. The short clips might sound like something you'd e-mail to your digitally dim elders—and I have—but they can be just as hypnotic for young folks. (Yes, sometimes technology stumps us, too.) The site, run by a married couple in Seattle, plans to tackle financial matters next, such as insurance and retirement saving. Tech blogger Jacob Bijani recently noted that when you Google the word "what," one of the top results is the Wikipedia entry for RSS (really simple syndication) because so few people understand what it is. If you're one of them, there's a video waiting for...