Archive for June 19th, 2012

The Secret Benefits of Video Games

Anyone who has looked up from their computer to discover that they just lost two hours to Farmville or World of Warcraft would like to believe that there is some redeeming value to playing video games. On August 3rd, PBS MediaShift published an article asserting that video games teach our kids a “new literacy”. Even though I am not personally a gamer, I would argue that there are plenty of secret benefits to playing video games.

My husband is a gamer and I can virtually guarantee that my son will also be one in the not too distant future. As hard as it is not to see playing Xbox all afternoon as a waste of time, today’s variety of games offer far more than simple hand-eye coordination exercises. The part of the argument asserted by the PBS MediaShift article that I find most intriguing is that video games offer a chance to take risks and fail without the same consequences as real life. This can encourage a different type of problem solving, based on trying different paths to find a solution, fostering creative thinking and a willingness to take risks. Video games encourage exploration and an understanding that failure is a necessary part of reaching a challenging goal.

While it’s not difficult to argue the merits of a game like BrainAge or Soduku, is anything gained from games like Halo or Call of Duty? One of the hidden benefits of multi-player gaming is that if you create a team and play together, it creates a need to learn to work together and cooperate to reach a common goal. “Massively Multi-Player Online” games like World of Warcraft, often make it impossible to reach certain goals or complete certain quests without working as a team. The dependence on others encourages gamers to learn to cooperate and communicate more effectively with different personalities. I think we can all agree that this is a necessary skill in real life.

While every gamer likely has a favorite genre, I would argue that in order to gain the most benefit from your time spent playing video games it’s important to branch out. Different kinds of games foster different skills, so break out of your rut and try something new. A game like the Sims may teach interpersonal communication, economics, and social consequences. If you prefer, role playing games like Fable involve similar themes. Problem solving games like Portal or Soduku require logic, pattern recognition, and strategy. Action games (like shooters and fighting games) develop accuracy, reflexes and timing.

In 2008, Fordham University released a study reporting that students in grades 5 through 7 improved their cognitive and perceptual skills after playing a new video game. However, just as no early reader could be handed a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird without some guidance, parents can help to ensure that their kids gain from their time spent gaming by getting involved. The PBS MediaShift article recommends that parents participate and play video games so they can communicate with their kids and highlight the beneficial parts of the game. Connect games to books, movies, TV, and real life experiences to encourage kids to link the skills they learn in-game with the outside world. Encourage kids to play with peers to learn how to cooperate and work together toward a common goal, and maybe even learn a different perspective or path to the goal than they’d have experienced alone.

Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, an on-site computer and laptop repair service company for consumers and businesses. Andrea established the company with her husband, Ryan, from a spare room in their home in Redding, Calif., in March 2004. Andrea is the writer of two weekly columns, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight, and Computer Nerds On Call for the Scripps-Howard News Service. To ask your puzzling tech questions email her at nerdchick@callnerds.com.

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Unity announces version 4 of its game engine, with new animation system and Linux support

Unity has announced version 4 of its game engine, available now in pre-order form from the company’s store. Unity is used in everything from indie iOS hits to browser-based MMOs, and the new version of the engine contains a slew of new updates, including a new animation tech called Mechanim, better visual quality and rendering, and new options for publishing online with Adobe’s Flash and in Linux.

All developers who pay the rather heavy license fee for the engine (the Pro version, at least – the current version is available as a free download if you just want to play with it) will get access to the new beta for free. And Unity promises more news about what Unity 4 can do for game developers at the upcoming Unite12 event in Amsterdam later this year.

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Tron: Legacy minipack, LBP.me updates for LittleBigPlanet 2

LittleBigPlanet 2 is still building new digital worlds, adding a Tron: Legacy minipack and a couple new features to LBP.me. The Tron pack includes a Clu Costume — previously a pre-order bonus — along with Quorra and Gem garb. There are also some Tron stickers for neon flair needs.

A recent update to LBP.me added lists and the ability to show off pins. Lists allow creators to make lists of up to 40 lands for proper, obsessive sorting. The pin feature lets players show off their pins to the world, revealing their dedication to the almighty Sackboy deity.

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Can Apple build a map service better than Google?

SAN FRANCISCO: Get ready for the mobile map wars. For many people, phones have become an important way to navigate the world, and mobile maps are at the core of the journey.

They are often the critical element in commerce, socializing and search. So far, Google has reigned supreme in the mobile map world, with its maps on every iPhone sold so far – and, of course, on every phone based on its own Android operating system.

Last week, though, Apple gave notice it would enter the battle, announcing that in the fall, its phones would no longer carry Google maps, but instead would have Apple’s own map service built in, part of its new mobile operating system. Maps are simply too important to be left to a rival.

The question is: Can Apple build a map service that does as good a job, or a better one, than Google has?

If Apple slips up, consumers in the highly competitive smartphone market may have a good reason to turn to Android phones. If Apple succeeds, Google will be under pressure at a time when it already has to deal with other competitors in map services.

“It makes Apple more valuable and denies Google a lot of user data, and a brand presence, on the iPhone,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with the technology research firm Creative Strategies. If Apple cannot meet or exceed Google’s maps, he added, “it will irk their power users,” who are the most valuable customers.

Apple’s move into maps was not exactly a surprise. It has bought a few companies that make mapping features, like three-dimensional visualizations, and has secured rights to data like the names and layouts of streets in over 100 countries from TomTom, a big digital map company based in the Netherlands.

But making digital maps is not easy. Google has spent years working on its services, pouring all kinds of resources into the effort, including its Street View project to photograph and map the world. It will be hard to duplicate that depth and breadth.

“Apple has gotten into a place that is very technical, quite a challenge, and like nothing they’ve done before,” said Noam Bardin, chief executive of Waze, a mapping service that provides real-time traffic information by tracking the movement of phones.

Still, it would be foolish to underestimate Apple, said John Musser, editor of ProgrammableWeb, an online service that follows mobile application development.

“Apple so far has close to nothing in maps, because they never had a product before,” Musser said. “But they are hardly empty-handed.”

Mapping technology is a growing field that draws on everything from aerial photography to the movement of the continents, to individual comments on websites about a favorite hiking trail or a bad dining experience. ProgrammableWeb counts 240 mapping-related services that people building mobile map applications can draw from. That is up 73 percent from a year ago, and 243 percent from 2009.

Apple has offered few details about its plans for the map service, which is part of the new operating system, iOS 6, that was unveiled at the company’s annual developer conference in San Francisco.

Some of the features may come from companies that it now owns. Apple may buy other features – like store locations and hours, and information about walking paths, landmarks and public transportation – from data companies, independent developers and consumer information services like Yelp.

Apple can expect to pay a lot of money for this information. Google declined to comment on what it spends on its map business, but others in the industry estimate that the figure is $500 million to perhaps $1 billion annually, equal to a fifth of its budget for research and development.

For consumers, an important part of the Apple service is likely to be the apps that support and enhance it. This week, Apple is set to widely release its instructions, known as a software development kit, to guide developers in designing these apps.

Those instructions are important to hundreds of independent software developers like Scott Rafer, whose startup is making user-friendly walking directions for maps, based on things like landmarks and street views. He hopes to produce an app that is a hit in the app store, or even wins Apple’s eye as it looks for more partners.

“We’re all trying to figure out the next 100 days” before Apple releases the operating system to consumers, Rafer said. “Does Apple want gorgeous features, or do they want ubiquity?”

Once Apple releases its new service, iPhone users will still be able to reach Google maps through the browser in their phone. But in practice most people go with the default map. Even if you do go to the browser for a Google map, you would not have any of the associated services, like connecting directly to a map location from an address written in an email.

For Google, losing the maps spot on the iPhone is no small matter. According to the research firm comScore, in March, people with iPhones spent, on average, 35 percent more time using the maps on their devices than Android users did, although over all there are far more Android owners using maps. The maps feature is the second most popular one on the iPhone, comScore says, after iTunes.

By losing the maps spot, Google will lose data about iPhone users’ locations, destinations and driving and shopping habits – information that is useful to a company selling ads. It also helps Google provide local search information, an area Apple has already moved into with Siri, its voice-activated search tool.

“Being in maps and getting that data affects Google’s revenue from things like sponsored links, and it affects search quality,” Bajarin said. “People could move from saying ‘Google it’ to ‘Ask Siri.”‘

Google has other rivals in the mapping business as well. Microsoft is coming out with its own new mobile operating system at about the same time, using its Bing Maps service. Yahoo Maps, also popular, relies primarily on maps from Navteq, which is owned by Nokia. Bing Maps and MapQuest also use Navteq maps.

There are even rumors that Amazon, whose Kindle reader runs a version of Android, will revamp its comparison shopping app in time for Christmas, in a new mobile device. That could also require maps.

None of the four companies would discuss the details of their plans for mobile maps.

Google initially relied on outside sources for map information, as Apple will at first, but it now pays for its own planes, cars, bicycles, snowmobiles, hikers, satellite data and geographers, among other things, to produce comprehensive online maps. A few days before Apple’s announcement, Google held a news conference with little news but lots of details that underlined how much Apple would be paying to play this game.

At the end of its last fiscal quarter Apple had $110 billion in cash and securities, so it can afford the battle. How well it can share information with developers and integrate their services into a single experience remains to be seen.

“Every rendering of every map on the iPhone was going to Google,” Musser said. “Apple had to do something, since maps are the fundamental unit of a mobile Web.”

 

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Microsoft’s tablet a biz-friendly alternative to iPad

LOS ANGELES: In its most strategically significant push yet into the hardware business, Microsoft on Monday unveiled a tablet computer called Surface that is intended to challenge Apple’s iPad.

At an event here, the company showed off the device, which is about the same weight and thickness as an iPad, with a 10.6-inch screen. The tablet has a built-in “kickstand” that will allow users to prop it up for watching movies, and a thin detachable cover that will serve double duty as a keyboard.

The Surface tablet runs a variation of Windows 8, a forthcoming version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system that is due out in the fall. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, said the product was part of a longstanding tradition at Microsoft to create hardware, like computer mice, that show off innovations in its software.

“We want to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovations,” Ballmer said.

Microsoft executives, however, were largely mum on how Surface would affect the company’s relationships with PC makers, the hardware companies that are the vehicles for sales of Windows software. With its new tablet, Microsoft will effectively be competing directly with its biggest customers.

When asked whether Surface would damage those ties, Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows division, gently pushed a reporter in the direction of a stand of Surface tablets and said, “Go learn something.”

Analysts said it wasn’t clear that Microsoft could depend on PC companies to build something as compelling as the iPad.

“This was clearly a referendum on Microsoft’s partners,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, a technology research firm. “Microsoft felt they could not rely on others to deliver on their vision for Windows 8 in mobile computing.”

Microsoft’s decision to create its own tablet was an acknowledgment that the company needed to depart from its regular way of doing business to get a grip on a threat to its dominance in computing.

While it has made a few hardware products over the years, including the Xbox video game console, Zune music player and computer keyboards, Microsoft is still thought of largely as a software company. In the computer business, it has for decades left the work of creating the machines that run Windows to Hewlett-Packard, Dell and others.

But the response to Apple’s iPad has considerably raised consumers’ expectations of how well hardware and software work together. That has put pressure on Microsoft to create a tighter marriage of hardware and software if it is to compete seriously with Apple’s products.

As it prepares to release Windows 8, which is designed for touch-screen devices, Microsoft can ill afford a flop.

The iPad already has eaten into sales of low-end Windows laptops, and there are growing signs that Apple’s tablet is becoming increasingly attractive to business customers, a lucrative market Microsoft has dominated for years.

Microsoft said one version of the Surface tablet would come with 32 gigabytes or 64 gigabytes of storage and feature a type of chip called ARM that is commonly used in mobile devices. Sinfosky said the price would be comparable to that of other tablets that use ARM chips.

He said a professional version of the tablet would come with an Intel processor, which is standard in more conventional PCs, and would be similar in price to ultrabooks, thin laptops that often start at around $1,000.

Sinfosky said the ARM tablet would be available when the next version of Windows is released this fall, and the professional version would go on sale a few months later.

With the detachable keyboard for Surface, known as Touch Cover, Microsoft seemed to be positioning its tablet as a more business-friendly alternative to the iPad, one that is better suited to productivity tasks that require faster typing. They keyboard has touch-sensing keys that become inactive when the cover is closed.

The keyboard could make Surface more competitive with Apple’s thin MacBook Air and more traditional Windows laptops. It will come in a variety of bright colors, adding a whimsical touch to the dark, hard-edged appearance of Surface. The company would not say whether the keyboard will be sold with Surface or separately.

One thing that will most likely limit sales of the tablet is Microsoft’s initial plan to sell it only in the company’s own retail stores, along with its Web store. Microsoft has opened 20 stores, and five more are coming soon.

On Monday, Microsoft seemed to borrow from Apple in the way it introduced the product. The company invited the media to the event with only a few days’ notice and maintained an unusual air of secrecy around its details, withholding even its exact location until Monday morning.

If that alone wasn’t enough to pique the interest of the tech industry, the company took the risky step of more explicitly building up expectations for the event by promising invitees a “major Microsoft announcement,” and telling them they “will not want to miss it.”

In part, the secrecy worked, sending the blogosphere into a whirlwind of speculation about what the company had planned. The location of the event suggested to many that the device would be accompanied by a push into entertainment. But Microsoft announced no such plan and offered no explanation for why it held its event in Los Angeles.

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Regulator seen conflicted in Nasdaq’s FB mess

NEW YORK: It is not every day that a company bungles something so badly that it has to turn to a regulator for help to clean up its mess. But that is what the Nasdaq stock market has done with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority following its blunders in Facebook’s $16 billion initial public offering.

The move is causing raised eyebrows because of the long and intertwined relationship between the exchange and Wall Street’s industry-funded regulator.

Market makers say Nasdaq OMX Group Inc owes them at least $115 million and probably much more because of costly delays in processing orders when Facebook Inc made its debut on the exchange on May 18. Nasdaq has only offered $40 million in compensation for the losses, and most of that is in rebates on trading rather than in cash.

Nasdaq, which says software glitches caused the delays, has asked FINRA to review the client transactions and claims. But some industry lawyers and compliance experts on Wall Street disapprove.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable and could lead to questions of fairness, say observers and people familiar with both entities.

For its part, FINRA sees the review and subsequent report as a “natural extension of the services we provide to Nasdaq under our regulatory agreement,” spokeswoman Nancy Condon said in response to Reuters’ questions about possible conflicts. “We make decisions every day that could have an impact on Nasdaq.”

A Nasdaq spokesman declined to comment. FINRA’s involvement in the process is “a mistake,” said a person familiar with the regulator’s operations.

Despite a longstanding reputation for integrity, Richard Ketchum, the Wall Street watchdog’s chairman and chief executive officer, “should have said no” to Nasdaq’s request for FINRA’s services, the source said, because the relationship is “heavily conflicted.”

Among those conflicts that experts cited: The exchange pays FINRA fees to be regulated. FINRA’s role as a regulator includes monitoring the exchange’s trading activity and providing surveillance for insider trading – services that are remnants from when Nasdaq was owned by FINRA’s predecessor, the National Association of Securities Dealers, or NASD.

In 2000, Nasdaq members voted to spin off the exchange after a widespread and historic price-fixing scandal that led to industry reforms. FINRA continued to have an ownership interest in Nasdaq until 2006, according to regulatory filings.

FINRA is also a Nasdaq customer, relying on the exchange’s technology to operate a unit that provides various trade and quote data to brokerages so they can comply with reporting rules. And Nasdaq’s annual report says the company subleases roughly 115,000 square feet of its downtown New York headquarters space from FINRA.

Ketchum spent a total of 12 years with NASD and Nasdaq. He left his post as Nasdaq’s president a month after current CEO Robert Greifeld arrived in 2003.

Ketchum is not the only top financial regulator who has longstanding ties with Nasdaq. U.S Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro is a previous head of NASD and FINRA.

Neither FINRA nor Nasdaq would disclose how much money changes hands between them. But Nasdaq’s bill for regulatory services could be in the tens of millions of dollars, based on a review of recent FINRA annual reports.

WHAT FINRA WILL DO FINRA’s role in the Facebook IPO will include determining the total value of all valid claims against Nasdaq. The exchange’s compensation program is subject to approval by the SEC, which is also taking a broad look at Nasdaq’s handling of the IPO. It is unclear how long the SEC will take to decide if Nasdaq’s compensation proposal is adequate.

Recent Nasdaq notices to traders say FINRA has agreed to review the Facebook claims and “related data,” using criteria the exchange has already laid out. FINRA will base its evaluation on information from Nasdaq and other details the regulator may request from claimants, according to the alerts.

NEW YORK: It is not every day that a company bungles something so badly that it has to turn to a regulator for help to clean up its mess. But that is what the Nasdaq stock market has done with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority following its blunders in Facebook’s $16 billion initial public offering.

The move is causing raised eyebrows because of the long and intertwined relationship between the exchange and Wall Street’s industry-funded regulator.

Market makers say Nasdaq OMX Group Inc owes them at least $115 million and probably much more because of costly delays in processing orders when Facebook Inc made its debut on the exchange on May 18. Nasdaq has only offered $40 million in compensation for the losses, and most of that is in rebates on trading rather than in cash.

Nasdaq, which says software glitches caused the delays, has asked FINRA to review the client transactions and claims. But some industry lawyers and compliance experts on Wall Street disapprove.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable and could lead to questions of fairness, say observers and people familiar with both entities.

For its part, FINRA sees the review and subsequent report as a “natural extension of the services we provide to Nasdaq under our regulatory agreement,” spokeswoman Nancy Condon said in response to Reuters’ questions about possible conflicts. “We make decisions every day that could have an impact on Nasdaq.”

A Nasdaq spokesman declined to comment. FINRA’s involvement in the process is “a mistake,” said a person familiar with the regulator’s operations.

Despite a longstanding reputation for integrity, Richard Ketchum, the Wall Street watchdog’s chairman and chief executive officer, “should have said no” to Nasdaq’s request for FINRA’s services, the source said, because the relationship is “heavily conflicted.”

Among those conflicts that experts cited: The exchange pays FINRA fees to be regulated. FINRA’s role as a regulator includes monitoring the exchange’s trading activity and providing surveillance for insider trading – services that are remnants from when Nasdaq was owned by FINRA’s predecessor, the National Association of Securities Dealers, or NASD.

In 2000, Nasdaq members voted to spin off the exchange after a widespread and historic price-fixing scandal that led to industry reforms. FINRA continued to have an ownership interest in Nasdaq until 2006, according to regulatory filings.

FINRA is also a Nasdaq customer, relying on the exchange’s technology to operate a unit that provides various trade and quote data to brokerages so they can comply with reporting rules. And Nasdaq’s annual report says the company subleases roughly 115,000 square feet of its downtown New York headquarters space from FINRA.

Ketchum spent a total of 12 years with NASD and Nasdaq. He left his post as Nasdaq’s president a month after current CEO Robert Greifeld arrived in 2003.

Ketchum is not the only top financial regulator who has longstanding ties with Nasdaq. U.S Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro is a previous head of NASD and FINRA.

Neither FINRA nor Nasdaq would disclose how much money changes hands between them. But Nasdaq’s bill for regulatory services could be in the tens of millions of dollars, based on a review of recent FINRA annual reports.

WHAT FINRA WILL DO FINRA’s role in the Facebook IPO will include determining the total value of all valid claims against Nasdaq. The exchange’s compensation program is subject to approval by the SEC, which is also taking a broad look at Nasdaq’s handling of the IPO. It is unclear how long the SEC will take to decide if Nasdaq’s compensation proposal is adequate.

Recent Nasdaq notices to traders say FINRA has agreed to review the Facebook claims and “related data,” using criteria the exchange has already laid out. FINRA will base its evaluation on information from Nasdaq and other details the regulator may request from claimants, according to the alerts.

FINRA could take some precautions that could make its conclusions more palatable, said former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt. It could, for example, set up a virtual firewall to prevent people sorting through the Facebook claims from interacting with other officials who may be looking at where Nasdaq’s processes or systems may have gone wrong, said Pitt, who now heads Washington-based consultancy Kalorama Partners.

The SEC’s involvement “ought to allay concerns,” Pitt added. Still, appointing a special master, such as an accountant or academic, to adjudicate the claims may be better, said Lawrence Harris, a finance and business economics professor at the University of Southern California.

The SEC uses a similar process when distributing funds to harmed investors, Harris said.

“It would potentially give at least the perception of more objectivity,” said a financial services company’s lawyer who requested anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

 

 

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Top 5 manufacturers of tablet comps in ”11

n producing its own tablet computer called Surface, Microsoft Corp. is entering a market dominated by Apple Inc. Six out of every 10 tablets shipped are iPads, according to research firm IHS iSuppli.

Here are the top five manufacturers of tablets last year:

Apple Inc. , maker of the iPad, 40.5 million shipped worldwide, 62 per cent share

Samsung Electronics Co. , maker of Galaxy line, 6.1 million, 9 per cent.

Amazon.com Inc. , maker of Kindle Fire, 3.9 million, 6 per cent

Barnes & Noble , maker of Nook products, 3.3 million, 5 per cent

AsusTek Computer Inc. , maker of Transformer line, 2.1 million, 3 per cent

Other, 9.4 million, 14 per cent

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Google asked to censor online content 225 times

NEW YORK: Internet giant Google has said it has logged 255 instances of India asking for online content censorship, marking a sharp rise of 49% in the second half of last year.

Google said India’s request formed part of 1,000 demands from governments around the world in the second half of last year to take down items such as YouTube videos and search listings, and it complied with them more than half the time.

India’s objections ranged from blockage of 133 YouTube videos, including 10 made on national security considerations and 77 on defamation, besides 26 web searches and 49 blogs, Google said in its report on Sunday.

Google said political comments were a prime target as the number of requests for the company to remove content from the reach of Internet users jumped manifold.

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