Saturday, October 4, 2008

Python language slithers into the future with 2.6 release

By Ryan Paul

The Python development community announced Thursday the official release of version 2.6, a significant transitional release that introduces some of the features that have been implemented for Python 3.0. It includes support for new syntactic features, new modules, and some structural improvements.

Python 3.0 will be the first major release to break backwards compatibility with prior versions. It will move the language forward with significant improvements to I/O handling, string formatting, the class system, and many other aspects of the language. The compatibility break, however, will create serious challenges for application developers and much existing code will have to be ported to work properly.

The Python community has worked very hard to minimize the disruptive impact of the transition and make it more seamless and natural. The 2.6 release is a very important part of that strategy because it provides a crucial stepping stone for the migration of existing code. Python 2.6 provides backwards compatibility with the 2.0 series but also includes many features that have been backported from Python 3.0. Additional 3.0 features can be toggled individually by importing from future_builtins and using various flags at the command line. Python 2.6 also emits warnings when it detects the use of deprecated functionality that will not be supported in 3.0. This approach will make it possible for third-party developers to shift applications and libraries over to 3.0 incrementally and with minimal breakage.

Python 2.6 introduces the new format method for string types. The format method, which is based on PEP 3101, can be used as an alternative to the string "%" operator and facilitates more sophisticated interpolation capabilities. The behavior of the format method can be overloaded in individual classes by defining __format__.

This release also adds several additional modules to Python's standard library. The new io module, which is specified in PEP 3116, provides a new structured I/O system that will provide a stronger foundation for Python's concept of file-like objects. Another very welcome addition is the new JSON library (based on simplejson), which can translate Python values to and from JSON. This presently only works on built-in types, but it can be expanded with custom encoders. Python 2.6 also adds plistlib, a new module for reading and writing Mac OS X property lists.

The class system has a few new tricks to offer in this release too, including some object model refinements and esoteric features for metaprogramming. The most significant additions in this area are class decorators and abstract base classes. There are also new getter and setter decorators for properties and a new abstract syntax tree module that can parse Python expressions and generate a nested tree structure with representations of Python operations.

Some Python 3.0 features that break backwards compatibility are available as options in 2.6. For instance, developers can import the new print function from __future__ to replace the standard print keyword. The future_builtins module contains several more, including the new iterator-based map and filter functions.

Python 2.6 doesn't offer many surprises for those of us who have been closely watching the development process. This release solidly delivers on the promise of a smooth transition to 3.0 and provides access to a lot of compelling new functionality. Development on Python 3.0 is moving along quickly and the first release candidate was issued last month. To download Python 2.6, visit the official web site. For more information, check out the official overview of changes in the release.

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Google's Picasa for Linux catches up to Windows

Posted by Stephen Shankland

A collage mode in Picasa lets users create poster-size collections, sizing and placing each snapshot.

A collage mode in Picasa lets people create poster-size collections, sizing and placing each snapshot. (Click to enlarge.)

(Credit: Google)

Google has brought to Linux the beta version of its new Picasa 3 software for image editing, cataloging, and uploading.

The new release catches the open-source operating system up with Windows, which got the Picasa 3 beta one month earlier. There's still no word about a Mac OS X version, although Mike Horowitz, Google's Picasa product manager, told me earlier that "Macs are important to us...We're always looking for new ways of making sure our users are happy, so it's something we're looking at."

The new version adds a retouching tool, automatic synchronization of photos on the PC with those stored at Google's Picasa Web site, and a collage mode that lets people combine numerous snapshots into a poster-size collection, Google programmer Lei Zhang said in a blog post announcing the new version. The new version also is faster, he added.

However, it does lack the Windows version's movie maker feature that can turn photos into a slideshow with a soundtrack that can then be uploaded to YouTube.

The software runs using Wine and an open-source software layer that translates a program's Windows instructions into commands for Linux instead. Google has contributed about 850 patches to the Wine project so far this year, Google said. Better video support in Wine is still a work in progress, though, which is why the movie maker feature is disabled.

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All-polymer solar cells improve efficiency, flexibility

By Todd Morton

Polymer-based solar cells have received a fair bit of attention in the research community, some of which has been covered here at Nobel Intent. Much of the attraction is in being able to move away from the expensive raw materials used in inorganic solar cells and the costly manufacturing that accompanies them. Researchers have recently demonstrated an all-organic solar cell with a high efficiency, one that can provide both thin and flexible solar cells and routes to cheap manufacturing.

Much of the coverage of solar cells is focused on the material doing the dirty work of converting energy from incoming photons into usable electrons, which is a main factor behind the efficiency and properties of the cell. But an anode and cathode are also needed to create a complete, functioning photovoltaic cell, and this is where the research focused. The anode needs to be transparent across the full spectrum of visible light while being highly conductive. This has historically meant indium tin oxide (ITO), even in "organic" solar cells. Although effective, ITO is brittle and uses expensive indium, making it a target for a replacement material.

Electrically conductive polymers have been continually improving over the years, and have finally reached a place where they have acceptable conductivity to be up to the task of acting as the anode of a photovoltaic device. Researchers used the polymer PEDOT:PSS as an anode, fabricating a complete photovoltaic device using a relatively simple spin-coating process to create the various functional layers; the cathode was made through an evaporation of aluminum and calcium.

The device showed performance drops of less than 0.5 percent compared to the same device fabricated with an ITO anode, marking what is believed to be the highest efficiency in a polymer anode solar cell. The use of a polymer substrate rather than glass was also investigated, with performance drops of roughly 0.1 percent reported when compared to the ITO cell.

Even more important is the mechanical stability of an all-polymer device. After only 75 bending cycles, an ITO anode cracks enough that the device no longer functions. The all-polymer cells went through 300 bending cycles with no decrease in performance, making these the most robust solar cells around.

Although the absolute performance of an all-polymer solar cell (about 2.8 percent efficiency) pales in comparison to the state-of-the-art silicon cells (which can top 15 percent efficiency), this is still a noteworthy accomplishment for cheap, clean energy generation. An all-polymer cell has the potential to be fabricated using techniques like roll-to-roll processing (think newspaper printing press), which would provide supremely cheap organic electronic devices. The combination of price/watt efficiency and the ability to take the punishment of applications outside of a dedicated solar array promises that polymer solar cells are likely to play an important roll indeed.

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“Saw” Director Recruits ‘Army’ to Post Fake Torrentsup to fit in your pocket

Written by enigmax

Are you the director of some high profile movies, feel you have a piracy problem but no longer do business with MediaDefender? Do you want to fail, badly? Then maybe you should follow the lead of Darren Bousman, director of the Saw movie sequels - and ask members of the public to upload fakes files on BitTorrent sites.

Darren Bousman, director of Saw II, III, IV, and no stranger to scenes of slaughter, has been caught up in his very own BitTorrent bloodbath. On the official forum for his up-coming movie Repo! the Genetic Opera, Bousman has been rallying support among his forum fans (known as the ‘Repo Army’) to become some kind of highly motivated, organic peer-to-peer version of MediaDefender.

Bousman details his brilliant plan in the forum post:

People will copy and burn the REPO CD and put it out on the web on something called TORRENT SITES. What this means to the movie is devastating. Basically - those who MIGHT have bought the soundtrack will instead download it for free… Thus hurting the soundtrack, and the movie. So what can you do?

Upload FAKE REPO albums to TORRENT sites under the REPO name. Meaning basically people will go online to a TORRENT site and try to search for REPO. They will find it - but alas it wont be REPO. It will be something else… If enough people do this - it becomes harder to STEAL the album.

Pain, something found in abundance in the Saw movies, was evident in the disorganized battle-plan that followed. Technical discussion began, noting the need for a good fake album to have the same number of tracks as the real version. Other suggestions to thwart the evil pirates include renaming and seeding random songs, and uploading audio recordings which preach the importance of buying the album.

After someone pointed out that people would complain about fake torrents in the comments section of torrent sites, solutions offered included the Army posting its own comments saying that the fake isn’t really a fake, and posting on real torrents to say that they were the fakes. Both techniques were doomed to fail before they began.

One of our favorite posts was the user who offered to spam the Ares Galaxy network on her own, and unwittingly came up with the basis of a usable slogan for the fakes campaign: “Wait a minute, did Darren just ask us to essentially Rick-Roll people in the name of Repo? Hell yes.”

Sadly, even with an army of completely well-intentioned and dedicated fans plus a great slogan, victory isn’t guaranteed. After posting some fake torrents on The Pirate Bay, it didn’t take long for the negative comments from regular Pirate Bay users to build up, and the torrents were removed. Despite many attempts by the Army at countering with some fake comments of their own. The ranks of the general public Repo Army went into battle against just a few pirates but were completely unprepared, and suffered a bloody end that would’ve made Jigsaw proud.

One user seemed to be a bit more aware, posting, “You can keep it secret or whatever method you want, it’s not going to work. You can’t fool a pirate that easy, if we just could get scene access and pre it, so it looks real.”

Right now, the fans have regrouped and are currently marking real Demonoid torrents as containing a virus, in order to get them removed. It doesn’t seem to be working.

The Repo Army doesn’t act purely against BitTorrent, since it had been previously ordered to “Attack YouTube” by messaging anyone on the site who uploads any part of the album, and ordering them to take the clip down. Some fans are even creating Repo anti-piracy videos:

In the meantime the fans have ensured that the soundtrack in question, Repo! The Genetic Opera, is currently at 22 in Amazon’s bestsellers chart, largely thanks to 25 five-star reviews, which currently represent 100% of the total reviews on this album. Apparently it’s easier to fool Amazon than the average BitTorrent site.

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'Citizen Journalist' Could Face Prison for Fake Jobs Story

By Betsy Schiffman

Iminjail_2 The gutsy (and stupid) "citizen journalist" who posted an erroneous story that said CEO Steve Jobs had a heart attack has the hallmarks of a short seller, and it's likely that he (or she) could face criminal charges and possibly prison time, according to one attorney.

"It's unlikely that anybody does this for kicks," says Scott Vernick, a partner at Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia. "People generally do this kind of thing because they have a position in the stock and they want to see it go one way or the other."

This isn't the first time Apple shares have been subject to violent swings due to product misinformation or speculation about Steve Jobs' health. Last year, bogus reports that the release of the iPhone and Leopard operating system would be delayed shaved $4 billion off Apple's market capitalization.

And earlier this year, shares of Apple took a beating on concerns that Jobs was battling cancer again after he appeared gaunt at a company event. Jobs declined to disclose the cause of his weight loss but denied it was cancer. When asked about the origins of the cancer rumors, Jobs told CNBC they were started by "hedge funds with a big short position on Apple."

In this case, the erroneous story, which appeared on CNN's iReport -- a citizen journalism site pitched as "unedited" and "unfiltered" -- prompted a sell-off of Apple shares, which dropped to $95.41 from $105.27, between 9:40 a.m. and 9:52 a.m. EST, before Apple denied the report and the stock recovered.

CNN says the story was removed after it was flagged by the community, and the user's account has been disabled, so at least that part of the system worked.

But since information seeded on the internet (to say nothing of one of the internet's premiere news brands) can seep into the markets virtually instantaneously, 12 minutes is an eternity during which time anybody with certain knowledge of the truth or falsity of the report could, you will pardon the expression, make a killing.

To boot, the subject of Jobs' health is exactly the sort of front-burner item that would tend to catch fire. Plus, Apple stock has been especially tormented lately, even given the downward spiral of the broad market, and has been trading at 52-week lows.

So giving a manipulator the benefit of less than perfect timing, it would have been possible to net a gain of about 10 percent. In about 10 minutes.

We don't know if the perpetrator had this particular plan in mind or was just having his jollies. But that is exactly how a person of larcenous intent would do it.

And assuming the Securities and Exchange Commission can prove the fake news writer published the post with the purpose of manipulating the stock, there would likely be criminal charges, says Vernick.

"These sorts of financial crimes or attempts to defraud investors carry criminal penalties and the possibility of imprisonment," says Vernick.

Similarly, in a 2000 case, 23-year-old community college student Mark Jakob published a fake press release suggesting Emulex would have to restate its earnings. The stock tanked and Jakob netted roughly $240,000 by shorting it. He got busted, though, and had to give up his gains and was sentenced to 44 months in prison.

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Apple denies CNN iReport of Steve Jobs heart attack

By Slash Lane

Apple has categorically denied a citizen report published to the CNN iReport website early Friday claiming that chief executive Steve Jobs had been rushed to a local ER following a major heart attack.

"It is not true," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling told Reuters.

CNN describes its iReport site as a venue where ordinary citizen journalists can share their "passion about the news."

"At CNN we live for news. We love talking about it. And we know that there's a whole lot more to it than what you see on TV or read on your favorite Web site," the news agency says. "So we've launched an independent world where you, the community, tell the stories we're not used to seeing. And the most compelling, important, and urgent ones may get seen on CNN."

The report about Jobs appears to have been one of the stories deemed suitable for publication on the alternative news service. Although CNN has since removed the report, a copy secured by Silicon Alley Insider can be seen below:

Steve Jobs was rushed to the ER just a few hours ago after suffering a major heart attack. I have an insider who tells me that paramedics were called after Steve claimed to be suffering from severe chest pains and shortness of breath. My source has opted to remain anonymous, but he is quite reliable. I haven't seen anything about this anywhere else yet, and as of right now, I have no further information, so I thought this would be a good place to start. If anyone else has more information, please share it.

Friday's incident is the second scare in as many months to send a shiver through the Apple investment community and industry watchers in general. On August 28th, the Bloomberg news service accidently published an obituary for Jobs while making a routine update to its stock files.

Shares of Apple entered into a 10 point free fall following the most recent incident Friday before recovering nearly all those loses after the company officially denied the report.

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iTunes 8.0.1 fixes HD episode deletion issue and more

By Jacqui Cheng

While we were all busy playing Vice Presidential Debate drinking games Thursday night, iTunes 8.0.1 came out. The update addresses a number of issues that have come up since the software's release in early September that, while perhaps not deal-breakers, can be pretty annoying. Here's the copied-and-pasted fixes list:

  • Seamlessly plays the current song when creating a new Genius playlist
  • Improves syncing spoken menus to iPod nano
  • Addresses an issue of deleting HD TV episodes when downloading
  • Improves checking for updates from the App Store
  • Improves accessibility with VoiceOver
  • Addresses problems syncing Genius results to iPod.

That third point, the deleting of HD TV episodes when downloading, is an issue that came up within days of the original iTunes 8 release. Apple acknowledged it to a few customers when it was first reported, and there were a few workarounds, but it's nice to know that it's been resolved. For those who create Genius playlists often, the improvements to Genius playlist syncing and playing are sure to be welcome. And finally, I think everyone can agree that improvements to App Store updates will always be good. Now if I can just find a foolproof hangover remedy.

The ~58MB update is available through Software Update or Apple's iTunes download page.

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Personal secrets your iPhone could reveal

iphone.jpgTwo trends in cellphones are combining to create a new security risk. On the one hand they are becoming more powerful, and more like computers. On the other, they are universally relied upon.

As Nokia's cellphone anthropologist puts it, all over the world people take three things with them when they leave the house: keys, money and phone.

The result: an easily lost or stolen device with a lot of private and sensitive data on. And a book released this week called iPhone Forensics (published by O'Reilly) gives an insight into the surprising amount of personal information a smartphone can store. Or give away.

Here's a list of ways in which your iPhone could release sensitive data about you - I image much the same could be gleaned from other similarly advanced handsets.

  • Past keyboard input - "Nearly everything typed into the iPhone's keyboard is stored in a keyboard cache, which can linger even after deleted." That will include user names, passwords and much more.
  • Deleted images from the photo library, camera roll and web history can sometimes be recovered.
  • Deleted address book entries, contacts, calendar events can also sometimes be recovered.
  • "Exhaustive call history, beyond that displayed, is generally available." The last 100 entries can usually be found, and deleted call records recovered.
  • Map tile images, direction lookups and location coordinates from the Google Maps application. In effect, where you've been or may be planning to go.
  • Deleted browser cache can usually be recovered, revealing the websites you've visited.
  • Cached and deleted emails, SMS messages and other communications can be recovered, along with information on when they were sent and who to.
  • "Deleted voicemail recordings often remain on the device."
The rest of Jonathan Zdziarski's book details the tools and techniques that will give you access to all those. Apart from an iPhone, all you need is some free software.

Police forces already use records recovered from GPS units to solve crimes. Techniques like those in Zdziarski's book look set to become a big part of the work of police and criminals alike.

Tom Simonite, online technology editor

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AT&T in no rush to build out 4G network

By Slash Lane

Apple's exclusive iPhone wireless carrier AT&T said this week it's in no hurry to begin deploying a fourth-generation wireless network, as it believes there's two to three years of "runway" left in its current and future 3G technologies.

Speaking at the 4G Executive Summit on Tuesday, AT&T's VP of Architecture Hank Kafka downplayed any perceived urgency on the part of the carrier to push out a 4G network based on LTE, or the so-called Long Term Evolution standard.

He said AT&T's existing HSPA 3G network already offers a superior mobile broadband experience to that of its primary rival Verizon, whose EV-DO technology sports a limited future.

“HSPA is more economical for carriers to deploy,” Kafka said, adding that the extendibility of the technology offers the ability for smooth transitions to new technology, such as his firm's upcoming 20Mbps HSPA+ 3G network planned for sometime next year.

The exec also cited the iPhone as a device that has only just begun to open the eyes of consumers to mobile broadband and its inherit internet capabilities.

When asked specifically about his company's 4G plans, Kafka reportedly danced around the subject, saying he couldn't provide a concrete answer because specifications for such technology aren't yet finalized.

“Future evolutions may meet 4G requirements, but for now, true 4G technologies don’t exist because the requirements haven’t been defined,” he said. 

With that said, Kafka added that he’d be surprised if LTE wasn’t significantly available "within five years." In the meantime, AT&T has about two to three years of "runway left with HSPA and HSPA-plus," he told the summit.

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Apple details cursor-based QuickLook and advanced functions

By Sam Oliver

Apple is exploring new ways to use the Mac OS cursor to provide users with additional information and usability options for files residing on their hard drive or linked via the internet before they're triggered or activated.

A patent filing published for the first time on Thursday notes that it's often useful for a user to be given an indication as to the content of a target file or link, before the user clicks on the user-activatable element that will open the target.

Cursor limitations

However, the text or icon normally associated with a user-activatable element in today's computer operating systems is typically insufficient to provide a user with enough information to determine whether the target item is of interest.

For instance, the appearance of an on-screen cursor may change to a text entry cursor (vertical bar) when positioned in a text entry field, or morph into a hand or arrow when positioned over a movable object, which offers some information as to the type of input operation that can be performed.

"However, such limited information generally fails to provide useful information about a target item referenced by a user-activatable element," Apple wrote. "In particular, current user interfaces do not generally provide any technique for providing detailed information about a target within a cursor in a manner that is responsive and dynamically controllable by the user."

Instead, the company proposes methods for changing the appearance of an on-screen cursor to provide excerpt of the contents of a target, what applications are available to open the target, as well as meta-data or other descriptive information concerning the target.


One method described in the filing essentially relates to making QuickLook technology -- currently available in the Finder of Mac OS X Leopard, and system icons in Mac OS X Snow Leopard betas -- accessible to the cursor. In the example shown below, a thumbnail of a web page is displayed natively by Apple's Safari browser when a user places the mouse over a hyperlink.

Mac OS Advanced Cursor

Similarly, a mouse-over can present the user with an icon representing the type of document associated with link when a thumbnail image is not available or cannot be read quickly enough to provide satisfactory response time.

Mac OS Advanced Cursor

Launch and operational controls

Most useful, however, are mouse-over events that cause the cursor to produce visual representations of the options available for working with a file or link. In the example shown below, a mouse-over event results in the display of four operations a user can perform on a file, such as a folder of pictures or a video file. Without activating the file, dragging it to a dock icon, or using a contextual menu, the user can choose to initiate a slideshow, email the file, send the file via iChat, or begin playing or displaying the file.

Mac OS Advanced Cursor

Likewise, the cursor may instead display four applications suitable for working with a file, letting the user open the file within an application other than its default application without having to use a contextual menu or fussing with the Mac OS X dock. For example, a mouse-over event on a text file would allow the user to open the file in either Word, BBedit, Pages, or Text Edit.

The 17-page filing is credited to Apple engineer John Louch.

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'Little guy' claims foul in dispute with Apple

A Saanich web design school is holding its ground, following a threat by Apple to take legal action if the local firm does not change a corporate logo it has used since 2005.

Calling his company a dedicated customer that uses Apple hardware and software almost exclusively in its operation, Victoria School of Business and Technology vice-president Christopher Boag said he and partner Dieter Gerhard were surprised to receive a strongly worded letter with no advance warning.

"It was a total shock," he said. "It was like the small guy was kind of getting blown away and Apple was pushing hard in order to get us to (submit to their demands)."

Boag and Gerhard argue that the apple is a "traditional representation of education" and that the logo in question, which incorporates the mountain logo of a sister company and has the words VSBT in one corner, in no way can be confused with the Apple logo.

"It's 100 per cent unique. It's an original idea that came from a flow and a process we worked through here in the office," Boag said. "We've never had anyone make a comparison between the Apple logo and the VSBT logo."

The computer giant believes otherwise.

A letter sent on behalf of Apple Inc. by the Toronto law firm of Baker and McKenzie, stated that VSBT's logo "reproduces, without authority, our client's Apple Design Logo which it widely uses."

It went on to say such use infringes upon Apple's trademark registrations and legal rights, which it claimed allow Apple the "exclusive right to use its trademarks and any confusingly similar trademarks and trade names" to market its products and services.

The letter said Apple is prepared to waive any potential punitive claims against VSBT if the company removes the apple component of its logo, refrains from using any Apple trademarks and co-operates with Apple to remove the VSBT logo from any third-party publications or websites.

Media lawyer David Sutherland said cases of trademark infringement often come down to whether there is a reasonable possibility of confusion between two entities on the part of the consumer.

"It's not so much whether it looks like the other guy's mark, as much as it is using it with something identified with the other person," he said, noting that both Apple and VSBT are both involved in the computer field.

He gave as an example a political cartoon in the Maritimes in which the Michelin Man was stepping on a worker during a factory strike. The judge ruled against trademark infringement since the cartoon was being used for comment, not as a trademark by another organization.

Boag knows his company couldn't fund an extended legal battle with deep-pocketed Apple, but he said the situation seems like a classic case of corporate bullying.

"It's a matter of them trying to push over the little guy, to some degree. They figure we're going to roll over and play dead, but we want to be more vocal."

In its classrooms, VSBT has 20 large-screen iMac computers and has another 20 on order, Boag said, in addition to nearly a dozen Mac laptops and a handful of iPhones used by staff.

"I feel ethically 100 per cent behind our decision," he said. "I just hope Apple can take a look at this and realize we're on their side."

Apple is no stranger to lawsuits relating to its logo. Earlier this year it challenged the City of New York in court over use of an apple logo used in the Big Apple's GreeNYC campaign. Apple Corps., the Beatles' corporate entity, battled the computer company for years over its use of the trademark and ultimately settled by allowing Apple the entire brand and agreeing to license certain other trademarks from the computer giant.

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