Monthly Archives: June 2016

Theories in the Information Age

One of the most volatile conspiracy theories in recent times ended with a whimper last month, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made the terse statement, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”

Though birthers may be with us always, it seems that many have turned their attention to other potentially scandalous topics — and they need look no further than the place most conspiracy theories are born these days, the Internet.

Scientists recently made a discovery that might explain why Trump’s search for President Obama’s “real” birth certificate resonated with his supporters — those most drawn to his promise to “make America great again.”

Highly stressed people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, according to research published this spring in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Based on the responses of 420 U.S. adults surveyed, stress and discontent correlated with a higher likelihood of belief in conspiracy theories ranging from 9/11 being an inside job to the moon landing being produced on a Hollywood set, researchers found, regardless of the participants’ social status.

That offers some insight into why some people are more likely to believe, but it does not explain why they push away a preponderance of evidence in favor of the generally accepted answers to questions most people don’t even ask.

There always have been conspiracy theories, noted pop culture expert Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University, who pointed to all the wild ideas that emerged in the aftermath of the JFK assassination.

Social media have fanned the flames, making conspiracy theories more likely to spread, he said.

“Anyone can write anything, and it can be viewed by millions in the blink of an eye on Twitter. Millions can, in turn, easily retweet the comment or image or link,” Levinson told TechNewsWorld.

At the Intersection

One of the most popular conspiracy theories — one that’s likely to outlive this generation and the next — concerns the untimely death of Princess Diana in a 1997 automobile accident. That event occurred squarely at the intersection of two eras, spinning one of the first major series of conspiracy theories of the Information Age.

Suspicious circumstances surrounding the incident intrigued the world. Back then, newspapers were still alive and well, birds were the only ones tweeting, and posting meant sending mail.

Author and self-described Diana fanatic Roman Clay recalled how old-school TV and print media coverage of the princess’ death focused on certain details and missed many others.

Clay was surprised by the common perception that Diana had died immediately in the tunnel, as well as by the many other details that generally were unknown — for example, that it took 108 minutes to “rush” her to the ER, and that she passed away due to internal hemorrhaging.

“There were a few writers who questioned the official report and wrote investigative books on Diana’s death, but they received very little coverage in mass media,” Clay told TechNewsWorld.

So Clay, using the freedom fiction allows to fill in the blanks, wrote Death of the Queen of Hearts to publish his own theory and encourage more people to question the official line.

Coverage of the princess’ death certainly would have been a lot different had it occurred a decade or so later. These days, individuals can express themselves to a large audience over the Internet, and that’s definitely a plus, Clay said.

“Researchers into Diana’s death would be able to present the facts quickly and widely,” he noted, “but that easy access to the Internet also permits some outrageous theories that bring in aliens or lizard people, which thereby dilutes and buries other serious investigative research.”

Magical Mi Mix On Xiaomi Debut

images-43Tuesday fired another shot in the shrinking bezel wars, as it announced a smartphone with a front that’s more than 90 percent display.

The Mi Mix is a 6.4-inch phone that’s stylishly crafted by French designer Philippe Starck. It sports a feature set that indicates Xiaomi wants to compete at the high end of the smartphone market.

“For many years, Xiaomi has had a reputation of copying designs and branding from Apple and Samsung,” said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research.

“This phone breaks with those designs,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“One factor for success is trying to get the greatest possible screen area into the smallest possible footprint,” Rubin said. “This design comes close to the ideal of an all-screen phone.”

The Mi Mix has a screen-to-body ratio of 91.3 percent. That compares to 67.7 percent for Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus.

Real Estate Grab

To expand the Mi Mix’s display, Xiaomi grabbed the real estate at the top of the phone occupied by the front-facing camera, ear speaker and proximity sensor.

It did that by moving the front-facing camera to the bottom of the phone, and replacing the ear speaker with a piezoelectric speaker that uses the metal frame of the phone to generate sound. It also replaced the infrared proximity sensor found on most phones with one that uses sound.

The proximity sensor turns off a smartphone’s display as the device approaches the ear. Most phones use an infrared sensor at the top of the phone to do that. The Mi Mix uses ultrasound waves and software to do it.

“We use the sound transmitter that’s already inside the phone,” explained Guenael Strutt, vice president of product development at Elliptic Labs, maker of the ultrasound technology, which it calls “Inner Beauty.”

“The sonic wave echos off the head, is picked up by a microphone, and the data is processed by our algorithms inside the phone,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We use components in the phone to detect the head — we don’t have to add a new sensor.”

Using sound to detect proximity also avoids issues that make infrared sensors unreliable from time to time, such as weather conditions or skin and hair coloring.

Top-Shelf Play

In addition to its eye-catching display, the Mi Mix has a 16-megapixel camera with phase-detect auto focusing, a generous 4,400 mAh battery, two SIM slots and a Snapdragon 821 processor. It supports high-definition audio with a 192 Hz/24-bit DAC chip, which users can listen to through a standard headphone jack.

Although the Mi Mix is officially a concept phone, Xiaomi will start selling it in China next week. Models with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage will be priced at US$516, and those with 6 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage will sell for $590.

“Xiami lost a lot of traction in China as Vivo and Oppo strengthened their position in the lower end, and Huawei and Apple took the high end,” said Carolina Milanesi, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies.

“I see the new Mi Mix concept phone as an attempt by Xiaomi to recapture the higher end of the market and reposition itself as an innovator,” she told TechNewsWorld.

Xiaomi already is a top global contender because of its performance in China, and it wants to challenge Huawei in the West as best-performing Chinese brand.

“If this phone really goes up for sale in the West, it might jump ahead of the iPhone in terms of sexiness and design appeal,” Newzoo CEO Peter Warman told TechNewsWorld.

Just the Beginning

It’s unlikely the Mi Mix will be made for the mass market, though, in Milanesi’s view.

“Chinese consumers love large screens, and the quality of the display looks fantastic,” she said, and “$520 is in line with their pricing strategy of delivering a high-end experience at an affordable price.”

That said, “it will be interesting to see what supplies will be, as I have a feeling that these phones are more focused on revamping brand than growing sales,” Milanesi added.

Xiaomi might be wise to sell as many Mi Mixes as the market will bear as fast as it can before competition heats up.

More designs like the Mi Mix will start appearing in the next 12 months, said Daniel Matte, an analyst at Canalys.

Sources AI Toolkit Of Microsoft Will be Open

Microsoft this week released an updated version of its Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit as an open source Beta.

The deep learning system is used to speed advances in areas such as speech and image recognition and search relevance on CPUs and Nvidia GPUs. It also works with Microsoft’s Azure GPU offering.

The Microsoft computer scientists who developed the toolkit initially were looking for a tool to speed up and improve their own research. Initially called “Microsoft/CNTK,” it morphed into an offering that Microsoft customers and flagship product groups depend on for a wide variety of deep learning tasks, the company said.

Deep learning is an artificial intelligence technique developers and researchers use to process large amounts of data, called “training sets.” The software teaches computer systems to recognize patterns from inputs such as images and sounds.

The toolkit is available on GitHub via an open source license.

“The toolkit’s scalability and availability as an open source project are both pluses that should spur interest and use,” noted Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

What It Does

With the update, Microsoft changed the name from “CNTK” to “Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit” to reflect an offering that is more broadly based and has new capabilities, said Microsoft spokesperson Casey Johnson.

“Our vision is to democratize artificial intelligence for every person and organization. We made Cognitive Toolkit open source so it is easily available to every developer who wants to build great AI applications,” she told LinuxInsider.

The latest version of the toolkit includes new functionality that lets developers use Python or C++ programming languages in working with the toolkit. With the new version, researchers also can do a type of artificial intelligence work called “reinforcement learning.”

Who It Targets

Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit is designed for researchers and developers who need machine learning and neural network tools to create artificial intelligence applications, Microsoft said. The toolkit provides users with greater flexibility and extensibility.

The upgrade delivers better performance than previous versions. The improvements focus on speed when working on big datasets across multiple machines. That speed boost is needed to support the deep learning process across multiple GPUs used to develop consumer products and professional offerings.

The toolkit’s ability to work across multiple servers is a key advantage over other deep learning toolkits, according to Microsoft. When used on bigger datasets, other software products are subject to performance degradation. Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit has built-in algorithms to minimize that computational slowdown.

The toolkit helped the Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research team create a technology that recognizes words in a conversation as well as a person does, according to Microsoft.

Mixed Bag

It appears that Microsoft has made substantial progress in speech recognition accuracy, Pund-IT’s King told LinuxInsider.

On the minus side, it is a fairly narrow solution in and of itself, he suggested. Other cognitive ecosystems, such as IBM’s Watson, offer far richer and deeper resources for developers.

Surprising Touch to MacBook Event

Apple on Thursday unveiled two new MacBook Pro laptops, adding a touch more power to the line.

Both the new 13-inch and 15-inch models will be offered in silver and space gray. They have a Touch Bar that replaces the row of function keys found on laptops, as well as a Touch ID fingerprint scanner incorporated into the power button. They sport a Force Touch trackpad that’s twice the size of the trackpad in previous models.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is 14.9 millimeters thick, 17 percent thinner than its predecessor. It’s also smaller — 23 percent by volume — and at 3 pounds, it weighs half a pound less than the previous version.

The 15-inch unit is 15.5mm thick, 14 percent thinner than previous models. It too has a smaller footprint than its previous generation, 20 percent by volume, and it tilts the scales at 4 pounds, also a half pound lighter than its predecessor.

Both units have an improved version of the “butterfly” keyboard introduced in Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, as well as a key dedicated to Apple’s digital assistant Siri. They also have four Thunderbolt USB-C ports that can be used for a variety of tasks, including charging the units.

“Four Thunderbolt ports are a tremendous amount of bandwidth,” said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“You can support two 4K displays, a 4K camera and an external storage array all at the same time with the 15-inch MacBook Pro,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That’s a lot of power.”

Brighter, Faster, Louder

The MacBook displays also have been upgraded. For example, the screen on the new 15-inch model is 67 percent brighter, with a 67 percent greater contrast ratio and 25 percent more colors.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro runs on a 6th generation Intel Core i7 quad processor with 2133 MHz memory. It has Radeon Pro graphics based on AMD’s Polaris architecture. It can deliver graphics 2.3 times faster than the previous generation of the laptop.

The unit now supports up to 2 terabytes of solid state storage, and it’s faster — 50 percent faster than the previous model.

The speakers also are better. They not only produce greater volume, but also have two times the dynamic range of previous models.

The new 13-inch model runs on 6th generation i5 or i7 Intel chips, also mated to 2133 MHz system memory. It has Intel Iris graphics, as well as storage speeds twice those of its predecessor.

Touch Bar

The Touch Bar feature on the new MacBook Pros definitely was the star of the Apple’s Thursday show.

The bar is a high-resolution touch display that replaces the function keys on the laptop. The display is context aware, so it can change its content based on the application running in the foreground of the computer.

“It’s a disruptive new implementation,” said Werner Goertz, a research director at Gartner.

“It’s not new to see a dynamically adaptable bar,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but as usual, Apple has taken something that’s already out there and perfected it.”

The bar acts almost as a second monitor. Items can be dragged from the main display to the bar.

“That’s something that will capture the user’s imagination and will be a great differentiator for Apple going forward,” Goertz said.

The Touch Bar is a game changer for Apple, according to Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

“It allows not only Apple, but also developers to create custom connections to their applications, and make those applications more interactive and easier to access,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Apple emphasized the role of the MacBook Pro for creativity,” Bajarin continued, “but that Touch Bar will be extremely attractive to even mainstream consumers, because it changes how they interact with applications.”

Apple TV

Along with the new MacBook Pro announcements, Apple revealed a new app for Apple TV and iOS aimed at unifying a user’s TV experience.

Called “TV,” the free app displays an aggregate view of all shows and movies the user currently is watching through other apps. It also recommends programming based on the user’s tastes. It provides access to a library of iTunes purchases and rentals, and a store for buying more content.

“We want Apple TV to be the one place to access all of your television,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Thursday event.

With 1600 apps available for Apple TV, it’s become necessary for someone to step in and make it easier to discover and organize content, explained Bajarin.

“The new TV app is designed specifically for that purpose,” he said.