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This Legendary Video Store Is Going Out of Business to Save Itself

August 20, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Youve probably seen some variation on the headline more than once by now: Internet Killed the Video Store. 

That late 20th Century fixture, which rose up alongside the video arcade and similarly saw a rapid decline as technology, provided an ever greater incentive to not leave the house. Or the couch.

Despite the closure of one Blockbuster after another and the loss of landmark independent stores like Kims Video in New York, though, the video store isnt dead just yet. But those remaining are now faced with some tougher choices than ever on how to best keep the doors open in the face of Netflix, Hulu, and whatever else might be around the corner.

One of the biggest still standing is Scarecrow Video in Seattle, which has amassed what the store says is the single largest library of VHS, laserdiscs, VCDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs, over 120,000 titles in all, since its opening in 1988.

Like other video stores, though, its been struggling, and the future of that massive library has been uncertain. Its solution is a radical one: shut down the business and re-open as a non-profit organization.

As one does these days, Scarecrow has turned to crowdfunding to help pay for the endeavor, and its found that it has plenty of would-be patrons eager to help out. The Scarecrow Project, as the effort is known, has already met its $ 100,000 goal with nearly a month left to go in its Kickstarter campaign

The store isnt just looking for money to keep DVD rentals flowing through the return bin, though. Its ambition is to become less of a store and something more like a B-movie counterpart to the American Film Institute or the UCLA Film & Television Archive—an organization that preserves and brings attention to the films that need it most.

Preserving a home video copy of a film may not sound all that significant when the future of actual film is at risk, but the two causes arent all that distinct. In both cases, the technology of the past is being phased out in favor of new technology that has its own advantages but isnt equal.

Shooting a movie on digital is cheaper and more convenient than shooting on 35mm, and brings with it other benefits that often make it an artistic choice as much as a financial one. But it is very much its own distinct thing. The warmth and texture of film, the sense of weight to the images on the screen, is something that still cant be replicated with a digital filter or a higher-resolution camera. (Preserving movies shot digitally is a whole other matter.)

Home video—even Blu-ray—isnt able to fully replicate that experience either, of course, but it is a dependable and accessible way to see movies. As film critic and action movie aficionado Outlaw Vern explained in a post on Project Scarecrows Kickstarter page, that cant always be said for streaming or downloading.

Because of the way copyright law works, Vern wrote, once Scarecrow and other stores buy a movie on physical media they can rent it out forever. You can’t do the same with a digital file, so in a post-video-store world it’s completely out of our hands which movies are available to the public and when, it’s all up to negotiations between giant corporations.

Thats true of recent blockbusters, which are often subject to exclusive deals, and its especially true of the obscure, underrated and forgotten films that video stores like Scarecrow specialize in. Many of those still havent even been released on DVD, let alone on Blu-ray or Netflix. Without video stores existing in one form or another, those movies could well once again be as hard to see as they were in the pre-VHS days. Were already starting to see that play out to a small degree, with some hard-to-find DVDs regularly fetching $ 50 or $ 100 on the used market.

Of course, its unlikely that well ever see video stores thrive the way they did a decade ago, or see anywhere close to a majority of movies shot on film again. But its not all that unrealistic to hope for a reprieve. That has already happened to some extent with film, with Kodak recently striking a deal with film studios (after lobbying from directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) that will see it continue to produce film stock for at least a little while longer,  The Wall Street Journal reported

The Scarecrow Project, on the other hand, offers a look at what the future of movies as physical media might be: one thats more in the hands of us, the consumers, instead of the producers. After all, you can’t expect video stores to remain open if customers arent coming through the doors, or expect studios to produce Blu-rays and DVDs if the demand isnt there. But we also havent yet seen what a streaming and download-only future is really like, and how customers will react to it.

For a glimpse of that, though, we can look to music. The rise of streaming and downloaded music has come close to squeezing out physical media, but its also coincided with a resurgence of vinyl in recent years; not anywhere close to truly being mainstream again, but big enough to become a sustainable niche market. Thats partly been driven by folks seeking out records that cant be found on Spotify or iTunes, but its mostly the result of people looking for a more satisfying experience. A library thats permanent, say, that they own and can share with others.

Movies could well be headed in a similar direction, with stores like Scarecrow repositioning themselves to better serve their audience and physical media catering more to a devoted fanbase instead of the mainstream. Increasingly, the latter is coming not from the big movie studios themselves, but from smaller labels like the Criterion Collection and Shout! Factory, who the studios are now more willing to license titles to than ever

Those studios may only be doing so because they see little value in releasing the titles on Blu-ray or DVD themselves, but Shout! Factory are others are proving that there is an audience waiting and willing to pay for a better experience and presentation . One that, like Scarecrow itself, gives the movies the attention and respect they deserve.

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The Anti-Feminist Internet Targets ‘Depression Quest’ Game Creator Zoe Quinn

August 19, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Hordes of angry gamers attacking a woman on the Internet, just like any other day in cyberspace, yeah? This week’s target of the largely anonymous hivemind (re: 4chan, reddit, gaming forums) is indie game developer Zoe Quinn, who recently released the interactive fiction novel and educational aid Depression Quest

It’s an unusual entry for the gaming genre, but its out-of-the-box thinking is not what pissed off these predominantly male communities—they claim to be mad about an alleged sex scandal wrapped in what they see as a lapse in ethics. It is neither.

Like most harassment campaigns against women originating from these communities, this one was started by her ex-boyfriend with the intent to shame and punish. More specifically: his multiple blog posts on their failed relationship where he accuses Quinn of sleeping with various prominent figures in the video game industry, including a writer at Kotaku. 

It is here that the harassment campaign—which includes sharing her personal information, defamatory YouTube videos, and weird phone calls to her parents—tries to bill itself as justified: exposing corruption in video game journalism. Gamers have been complaining about corruption in video game journalism for years now (googling “video game journalism corruption” yields 870,000 results, to give you an idea) and the Quinn/ Kotaku writer connection was seen as more proof of just how bad video game journalism has gotten. 

Except, the Kotaku writer in question never actually wrote said favorable review about Quinn’s game.

A pertinent comment from a user on the gaming forum Escapist:

Literally the only thing relevant in any of that is that she had sex with the reviewer, and that’s only relevant if she did so before the review came out. And, even then, I can’t even find his supposed review of the game. I’ve found him pointing out the game existed in a news article, but nothing close to an actual review. So, unless someone can link me his actual review of the game (where I expect to see corruption levels of praise), what we have here is a bunch of people pretending that games media not reporting on a woman’s adultery is evidence of some feminist conspiracy.

Yes, the angry digital horde has taken to calling the lack of news coverage over Quinns involvement in the degradation of the video game journalism industry a “feminist conspiracy.” Can you even believe it?

To make matters even more ridiculous, males have taken to accusing Quinn, not ironically, of creating “a negative image for all current and future female game devs with her actions” and “[setting] back women in the video game industry.” 

Actually, what keeps women from the gaming industry (and other tech related fields) are online incidents like this one. A woman should be able to engage in sexual relations with her peers and not be publicly smeared for it. Quinn’s plight follows the same old (unfortunate) formula of women who are slut-shamed and attacked over not just their work, but their appearance, their past relationships in their field, their hobbies, and any opinion they dare to have, really. Women are not welcome on the Internet, this is known.

Quinn herself, on her Tumblr, has stated she will not be addressing the accusations in her ex-boyfriends blog posts as they are a personal matter and “not a matter of legitimate public interest.” She goes on to call the bombardment of her online presence with hateful messages a form of “gendered violence, whereby my personal life becomes a means to punish my professional credentials and to try to shame me into giving up my work.”

Journalists and influential developers in the community, including Polygon games reviewer Philip Kollar, have come to her defense but it has done little to placate the angry horde.

A woman in gaming does anything wrong: “you’ve set back the cause of women in gaming”A man in gaming does anything wrong: business as usual

— phil kollar probably (@pkollar) August 19, 2014

At the time of this writing, reddit moderators were still deleting Quinn-related comments violating the site’s guidelines (i.e., posting her phone number and address) and a newly added Know Your Meme entry on the controversy is trending. The silver lining in all of this is that the controversy has generated more interest in Depression Quest (the Google Trends spike is quite dramatic), a game said communities loathe almost more than they loathe Quinn. We’ve been here before, of course: the same thing happened to culture critic Anita Saarkesian and her feminist video series about video games, circa 2012.

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Photo editing tool enables object images to be manipulated in 3-D

August 19, 2014 Robots Comments Off

Editors of photos routinely resize objects, or move them up, down or sideways, but Carnegie Mellon University researchers are adding an extra dimension to photo editing by enabling editors to turn or flip objects any way they want, even exposing surfaces not visible in the original photograph.

A chair in a photograph of a living room, for instance, can be turned around or even upside down in the photo, displaying sides of the chair that would have been hidden from the camera, yet appearing to be realistic.

This three-dimensional manipulation of objects in a single, two-dimensional photograph is possible because 3-D numerical models of many everyday objects — furniture, cookware, automobiles, clothes, appliances — are readily available online. The research team led by Yaser Sheikh, associate research professor of robotics, found they could create realistic edits by fitting these models into the geometry of the photo and then applying colors, textures and lighting consistent with the photo.

“In the real world, we’re used to handling objects — lifting them, turning them around or knocking them over,” said Natasha Kholgade, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute and lead author of the study. “We’ve created an environment that gives you that same freedom when editing a photo.”

Kholgade will present the team’s findings Aug. 13 at the SIGGRAPH 2014 Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Vancouver, Canada. A video demonstrating the new system is available on the project website at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~om3d/.

Though the system is designed for use with digital imagery, it enables the same 3-D manipulation of objects in paintings and in historical photos. Objects that can be manipulated in photos also can be animated; the researchers demonstrated that an origami bird held in a hand can be made to flap its wings and fly away, or a taxi cab shown in a street scene can levitate, flip over to reveal its undercarriage and zip off into the heavens.

“Instead of simply editing ‘what we see’ in the photograph, our goal is to manipulate ‘what we know’ about the scene behind the photograph,” Kholgade said.

Other researchers have used depth-based segmentation to perform viewpoint changes in photos or have used modeling of photographed objects, but neither approach enables hidden areas to be revealed. Another alternative is to insert a new 2-D or 3-D object into a photo, but those approaches discard information from the original photo regarding lighting and appearance, so the results are less than seamless.

One of the catches to using publicly available 3-D models is that the models seldom, if ever, fit a photo exactly. Variations occur between the models and the physical objects; real-life objects such as seat cushions and backpacks are sometimes deformed as they are used, and appearances may change because of aging, weathering or lighting.

To fix these variations, the researchers developed a technique to semi-automatically align the model to the geometry of the object in the photo while preserving the symmetries in the object. The system then automatically estimates the environmental illumination and appearance of the hidden parts of the object — the visible side of a seat cushion or of a banana is used to create a plausible appearance for the opposite side. If the photo doesn’t contain pertinent appearance information — such as the underside of a taxicab — the system uses the appearance of the stock 3-D model.

Though a wide variety of stock models is available online, models are not available for every object in a photo. But that limitation is likely to subside, particularly as 3-D scanning and printing technologies become ubiquitous. “The more pressing question will soon be, not whether a particular model exists online, but whether the user can find it,” Sheikh said. One thrust of future research will thus need to be automating the search for 3-D models in a database of millions.

This research was sponsored, in part, by a Google Research Award. In addition to Kholgade and Sheikh, the team included Tomas Simon, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute, and Alexei Efros, a former CMU faculty member now an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

This Tool Shows How Your Email and Search History Gets Turned into Ads

August 19, 2014 Tech Comments Off

The internet is a big, black box when it comes to how our data is used by advertisers. Seeing a Gmail ad for something I just emailed a friend about doesn’t much faze me anymore, yet I have pretty much no idea how my personal communications data got from the proverbial point A—as a keyword in an email—to its final form as a targeted ad. 

X-Ray, an experimental tool that tracks how data turns into advertisements, aims to explain this relationship. Designed by researchers at Columbia University, X-Ray models the correlation between certain keywords, say, debt, with the ads that return to the user, which might include something about car loans. 

The vast bulk of the internet is funded by targeted ads, which use data mining to allow marketers to target us based on our recent searches, emails, and more. By trying to understand how our data is used, and not just collected, the Columbia researchers are hoping to bring more transparency to online ads.

To do this, the researchers sent out emails containing keywords both benign—travel—and sensitive—AIDS. X-Ray then reported every ad that demonstrated a high degree of correlation to the topic in question in order to build a probabilistic framework that measures the relationship between the keywords and ads. Some of the results, which you can view on X-Rays website, were surprising.

Emails and their correlated ads. Image: X-Ray

For example, the researchers found a high degree of correlation between the keyword debt and ads for credit cards and car loans. This finding is especially concerning, since it suggests that the ad firms representing credit card companies are targeting people already in debt for new loans. 

Bafflingly, the keyword depression returned ads for shamanic healing and a texting coach site to help you score the girl of your dreams with one perfectly crafted message. While humorous, its the ability to highlight exactly this kind of skewed, not quite 1:1, relationship between our data and the ads they engender that makes X-Ray such a notable tool.

While some services, like the Electronic Frontier Foundations Privacy Badger, allow for some transparency regarding who is collecting data and how, X-Ray takes the next step to map how its used. The tool is part of a growing trend among techies to try and give consumers some skin in the game in the online data marketplace. 

the keyword depression returned ads for shamanic healing

Telefonica, for example, is looking into a free market for data that will allow users to sell their information themselves to whomever they choose. Meanwhile, researchers at MIT have developed a data security framework called OpenPDS which allows users to keep their raw data in a black box of their own, before it gets into the hands of advertisers. 

X-Ray is another link in the chain of consumer data empowerment, which seeks to explain what happens once users let their data go.

The point is that I dont know how the hell my conversations end up serving me an ads—only that they do. Im left to ask, Why me? What did I do to be targeted by an ad for a massage therapist in my area? 

While X-Ray doesnt have all the answers just yet—the researchers are keen to note that the service only maps correlation between keywords and ads, and not causation—it seems to be well on its way.

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Red v. Blue state knowledge about abortion examined

August 19, 2014 Singularity Comments Off

A new national survey reveals that the political divide among red-versus-blue states does not support the hypothesis that knowledge about abortion and health is shaped by the state in which one lives. Research led by Danielle Bessett, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of sociology, was presented at the 109th Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Bessett says that regardless of political viewpoints, only 13 percent of the 569 people polled in the national survey demonstrated high knowledge of abortion, correctly answering four or five questions. Seven percent mistakenly thought that abortion until 12 weeks gestation was illegal (another 11 percent didn’t know if it was illegal or not).

More than half the sample (53 percent) reported living in a blue (considered liberal) state; 26 percent reported living in a red (considered conservative) state and 20 percent reported living in a “purple” state — swing states such as Ohio, in which Democrats and Republicans have strong support.

Although initial results showed some support for the red-versus-blue state divide when it came to abortion health knowledge (but not legal knowledge), this difference between states disappeared when researchers took into account individual-level characteristics, including respondents’ political beliefs, their beliefs about whether abortion should be permitted and whether or not they knew someone who had an abortion. “Because the issue of abortion is an exemplar of polarization, it provides a useful way to test the red states v. blue states hypothesis,” write the authors. Bessett says she and her co-researchers found that their “data does not support the red-versus-blue state hypothesis: geography does not dictate the world views of Americans. Some individuals in all settings do have accurate information about abortion, regardless of political context.”

An online questionnaire was administered to 586 randomly selected men and women ages 18 to 44 via SurveyMonkey Audience. The findings focused on answers from 569 respondents (91.7 percent of the sample) who were born in the U.S.

Participants responded to five survey items related to knowledge about abortion health and one exploring legal knowledge about abortion:

Survey Questions

  • What percentage of women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45?

Correct answer: 33 percent Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 41 percent

  • Which has a greater health risk: An abortion in the first three months of pregnancy or giving birth?

Correct answer: giving birth Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 31 percent

  • A woman who has an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy is more likely to have breast cancer than if she were to continue the pregnancy.

Correct answer: disagree somewhat/disagree strongly Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 37 percent

  • A woman who has an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy is more at risk of a serious mental health problem than if she were to continue that pregnancy.

Correct answer: disagree somewhat/disagree strongly Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 31 percent

  • A woman having an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy is more likely to have difficulty getting pregnant in the future.

Correct answer: disagree somewhat/disagree strongly Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 35 percent

  • Abortion during the first three months of pregnancy is legal in the U.S.

Correct answer: true Percentage of respondents with correct answer: 83 percent

Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that men and women making sexual and reproductive health decisions may not be well informed about the relative safety and consequences of their choices, highlighting a need for the provision of better, more comprehensive and evidence-based sexual and reproductive health education.

Survey Demographics

Fifty-three percent (313) of the respondents were male; 47 percent (273) female; 49 percent reported an age between 18-29 and 51 percent reported being between 30-44; the majority of the respondents (78 percent) identified as white; 11 percent Hispanic; four percent black and seven percent identified as “other” race or ethnicity.

Thirty-seven percent described themselves as very or somewhat liberal, 38 percent felt they were moderate and 25 percent identified as somewhat or very conservative.

Forty-one percent did not affiliate with any religion, 16 percent identified as Catholic and 35 percent identified as Protestant. Twelve percent reported they had a personal experience with abortion and 65 percent reported knowing someone who had an abortion. Eighty-seven percent believed that in most instances, abortion should not be restricted.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Cincinnati. The original article was written by Dawn Fuller. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Latest Science News — ScienceDaily

Canada’s Cyberspies Are Targeting Hamas For Israel: Report

August 18, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Earlier this month, Glenn Greenwald published a story on The Intercept called Cash, Weapons and Surveillance: the U.S. is a Key Party to Every Israeli Attack, but in the course of reporting on how America provides relief in the form of greenbacks, guns, and spying to the Israelis during their military campaigns—theres mentions of Canadas own surveillance agency, CSEC, scattered throughout his story and source documents.

Obviously, this indicates that when Israel heads into battle, theres at the very least, some sort of intelligence from Canadian cyberspies assisting it to develop its military strategies. This was likely a new revelation to any Canadian who read the piece, but it didnt receive much scrutiny or publication in the media, other than a small post on Lux Ex Umbra, a detailed blog for people interested in monitoring Canadian signals intelligence (SIGNIT) activities past and present.

Lux Ex Umbra recently made headlines for decoding part of the infamous, leaked CSEC presentation implicating CSEC in spying on Canadians through free airport WiFi, which the CBC first reported on earlier this year. The various leaked slides have been continuously analyzed ever since, due to the immense complexity of the materials.

In Greenwalds piece about Israel, however—which is based off of leaked documents from Edward Snowden—cooperation between the NSA, CSEC, and Israels spy agency, INSU, is clearly outlined: In many cases, the NSA and ISNU work cooperatively with the British and Canadian spy agencies, the GCHQ and CSEC. The article goes on to say that GCHQ and CSEC actively participate in feeding the Israelis selected communications data they have collected.

Putting aside for a moment the moral and political outrage Israel is generating since their conflict against Hamas in Gaza began, this level of cooperation between surveillance agencies opens up major questions about whether or not its within CSECs mandate to be conducting such operations, and what those operations entail in the first place.

I reached out to Chris Parsons, a prominent cybersecurity and surveillance researcher from Torontos Citizen Lab, to discuss CSECs role in Israels military offensives. 

He told me there are at least two ways that CSEC would be involved in helping out Israel. One of which would be to provide INSU with a tracking program, or specific databases, to help spy on targets and persons of interest, which would have been developed by CSEC. 

As we learned from the free airport WiFi presentation, which was more about tracking targets as they log into various WiFi access points around the world than it was about surveilling airport travellers, CSEC does have these capabilities in their wheelhouse.

Parsons went on to say that CSEC could also assist Israel by providing some sort of expertise with how to use databases that are shared out to the Israeli intelligence community. Simply put, Canada may be giving the Israelis tech support for the spying systems were giving them.

In terms of whether or not this kind of assistance is within CSECs mandate, Parsons told me: As youre aware, the Canadian government has identified Hamas as a terrorist organization and as such, it would make sense for CSEC to be engaged in the monitoring of their locations and their electronic systems that Hamas is believed to be using. So in that sense, it should fit within CSECs mandated intelligence-gathering.

But even with Hamas on a designated terror list, the complexities surrounding our Canadian surveillance agency spying on Palestinian targets opens up major issues of privacy. Specifically when you consider how a target is selected, and how sure government powers need to be before a person is added to a list of terrorists. As Parsons told me, there is the very serious question of how exactly individuals are identified as valid targets or not… How many individuals are swept up into the monitoring?

Given what we already know about Afghanistan, i.e. that the NSA records all of the phone calls made within that country, it seems highly unlikely that with at least four spy agencies targeting Palestine, only the so-called bad guys are getting caught up in the dragnet. We have also learned about the NSA providing Israel with surveillance information that was not properly scrubbed beforehand, meaning American conversations between civilians, which were caught up in the NSAs spying operation, were handed over to Israel without redaction.

This of course comes back to the problem of who is a target, and who isnt. Parsons discussed how particularly difficult this problem is for the Hamas conflict. Because Hamas is a government, it has government employees who arent active fighters or militants. This would make targeting Hamas members tricky, and could potentially result in unnecessary surveillance.

Parsons did note, however, that a pervasive surveillance operation could lead to more precise military operations. He was unsure if this were particularly true in the case of Gaza, but indicated that its likely how a sweeping dragnet would be defended.

That said, with so much information being gathered by surveillance agencies the world over, and with such moral ambiguity surrounding this years Gaza conflict, its hard to say whether or not CSEC is helping Israel minimize civilian deaths by helping to produce more precise strikes. If international intelligence agencies are supposedly helping Israel in their pinpointing of targets, how did we end up with so many civilian casualties in Gaza?

Whatever Canadas role in supplying signals intelligence to the Israelis actually is, we do know diplomatically the Harper government has positioned itself as a strong ally of the only Jewish state in the Middle East. 

We also know that millions of dollars worth of Canadian defense products have made their way to the Israelis, stuff that includes Software and Technology materials (the specifics of which, we do not know the contents). In other words, its not a stretch to imagine CSEC is covertly aiding a key ally of the Canadian government during wartime.

CSEC, of course, is unwilling to clarify any of these major questions or the operations theyre involved with in the Middle East. In an email (which was designated as “UNCLASSIFIED”) sent to VICE by CSEC spokesperson Ryan Foreman, I was told CSE does not comment on its methods, operations or capabilities.

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