Today seems to be a day of contests! First we have the DDO stress test contest that’s going to be occuring tonight, and now we have another one for Second Life! A contest of summer style, no less! Who’s up for some virtual modeling?

It’s the summer, and Linden Lab is interested in seeing everyone’s summer attire — like swimwear, bright colors, and the things you generally wear on the beach. So interested, in fact, that they’re willing to lay L$10,000 on the whole deal via an Xstreet shopping spree.

This post has been written by Colin Brennan on Jul 27th 2009 at 8:00PM couresy of massively.com.

Advertisements

It sounds like something out of The Matrix: a giant, world-spanning electronic network where high-powered machines, some of them using GPUs to gain a speed advantage, run secret, rapidly-evolving software algorithms that battle it out for profits in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, attack-counterattack, that yields some $21 billion a year for the winners and can spell ruin for the losers. Except that it’s not The Matrix—it’s the stock and commodities markets, and the fact that these markets mainly consist now of computers trading against one another has been brought closer to the public’s attention by last month’s alleged theft of Goldman Sachs’ proprietary trading code.

The collection of computer-automated, high-speed trading technologies and techniques that are typically lumped under the heading of "high-frequency trading" (HFT) have been around for a while, but HFT has recently become heavily identified with the banking giant, Goldman Sachs, that dominates some aspects of it on the New York Stock Exchange. And as Goldman draws more media and congressional scrutiny, so will HFT. To prepare you for the high-frequency trading media onslaught, we’ll take a look at HFT and at a stock market that really isn’t what you thought it was.

If you look under the hood of the markets in 2009, you’ll find that the trading floor has been replaced by electronic networks, the frantic, hand-signaling traders have been replaced by computer systems, and all of moves in the trader’s dance—a thousand little tricks and techniques (some legal, some questionable, and some outright illegal) for taking regular advantage of speed, location, and information to generate profits—are executed hundreds of times per second, billions of times per day. And the whole enterprise is mainly powered by the same hardware from Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA, that Ars readers use for gaming.

The world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth

Press reports of trading days that end with big gains or losses are typically accompanied by shots of a trading floor where young traders are either euphorically throwing papers into the air (up days) or staring dejectedly at a stock ticker with hand pressed to forehead, shoulders slumped in defeat (down days). These guys, you think, are "the market," and if you looked up the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Investopedia you’d find nothing in the "Stocks Basics: How Stocks Trade" entry to disabuse you of this widely hold notion. "The NYSE is the first type of exchange… where much of the trading is done face-to-face on a trading floor," Investopedia declares, and it goes on to provide a description of how a floor-centered, face-to-face NYSE that hasn’t matched reality for about five years.

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Only about three percent of trading volume on the NYSE is actually carried out by means of traditional "open outcry" trading, where flesh-and-blood humans used to gather to buy and sell securities. The other 97 percent of NYSE trades are executed via electronic communication networks (ECNs), which, over the past ten years, have rapidly replaced trading floors as the main global venue for buying and selling every for of asset, derivative, and contract. So the ECNs are the markets in 2009, and those pit traders who pose for the cameras are mainly there for the cameras.

"Why don’t you know BATS?," Bernard Donefer, a finance professor and HFT expert at CUNY’s Baruch College, asked me rhetorically. "Because there’s nothing to look at. It’s based in Kansas; the computers are in Jersey City."

At the time that Donefer and I spoke last week, BATS was the third largest equity market in the world, behind the NYSE and NASDAQ, and it has been all-electronic since it began life in 2005. There has never been a floor that a CNBC camera crew could report from, so it’s essentially invisible to the general public. The NYSE and a few other exchanges keep hang on to their trading floors "mainly for branding purposes," Donefer told me.

The ECNs offer the advantages of speed, anonymity, error minimization, and audit trails. They’ve also "ported" many of the problems endemic to electronic networks—security vulnerabilities, the "garbage-in, garbage out" (GIGO) problem, and the problem of technology moving too fast for lawmakers, to name just three—from the Internet to the markets. But the problems with ECNs are a topic for another day. The real issue is that when the average retail investor gets an E*Trade account and tries to play the stock market, she typically has no idea that she’s going up against the market equivalent of IBM’s chess grandmaster-thumping supercomputer, Deep Blue.

This post has been written by Jon Stokes on July 27, 2009 11:12 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.

When Apple discussed the new features of the forthcoming iPhone OS 3.0, SVP of iPhone Software Engineering Scott Forstall said that the iPhone would be capable of streaming video and audio directly over HTTP. Apple also advertised HTTP streaming as a feature of QuickTime X, the update of its media architecture coming in Snow Leopard. What it failed to explain, at least publicly, is how this streaming would be accomplished. Fortunately, Apple submitted its proposed protocol last month to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in the hopes that it will become a ubiquitous standard.

Apple identified what it considers a few issues with standard streaming, which generally uses the Real Time Streaming Protocol originally developed by Netscape and Real in the late ’90s. The biggest issue with RTSP is that the protocol or its necessary ports may be blocked by routers or firewall settings, preventing a device from accessing the stream. As the standard protocol for the Web, though, HTTP is generally accessible. Furthermore, no special server is required other than a standard HTTP server, which is more widely supported in content distribution networks, and more expertise in optimizing HTTP delivery is generally available than for RTSP.

Enter HTTP Live Streaming. The basic mechanics involve using software on the server to break an MPEG-2 transport stream into small chunks saved as separate files, and an extension to the .m3u playlist specification (.m3u8) to tell the client where to get the files that make up the complete stream. The media player client merely downloads and plays the small chunks in the order specified in the playlist, and in the case of a live stream, periodically refreshes the playlist to see if there have been any new chunks added to the stream.

This is in contrast to real-time streaming, as there would necessarily be a minimum latency of whatever duration the server slices the stream into (Apple refers to 10 seconds as an example). As the server encodes the video and slices it into 10 second clips, for instance, it creates or updates a playlist for the stream with the URL of the next clip. The client begins by downloading one or more of the clips, playing them in order. As one clip plays, the client begins downloading the next specified clip until it reaches a tag in the playlist that signals the end of the stream.

The protocol offers a way to specify alternate streams by pointing to separate playlists for each alternate stream. These generally would be of different quality and bandwidth requirements, so the client can request an appropriate stream for whatever network conditions allow. The client can also change to any of the alternate streams as needed, "such as when a mobile device enters or leaves a WiFi hotspot," according to Apple. So if your iPhone moves out of WiFi range and switches to 3G, the QuickTime player could request a lower bandwidth stream and begin downloading the alternate, smaller chunks instead.

Further, the protocol allows for the individual media clips to be encrypted so that broadcasters can limit access to paid subscribers, for instance. In this case, key files for decoding the encrypted clips are referenced in the playlist, and the client uses the key files to decrypt each one before playing. There is also a flag that broadcasters can set to disallow caching of individual media files as they are downloaded.

The only requirement is that the media must be formatted as an MPEG-2 transport stream, program stream, or audio elementary stream. Apple’s current implementation uses (unsurprisingly) H.264 video with AAC audio, though audio-only streams can use AAC, MP3, or the MPEG-2 elementary stream. The version of QuickTime in iPhone OS 3.0 is compatible with these formats, as is the version of QuickTime that will ship with Snow Leopard. Apple also has a beta version of a stream segmenter—currently only available to Apple Developer Connection members—to slice up a stream into individual files, create .m3u8 playlist files, and handle encryption and key generation.

Since the entire method works with standard HTTP transport and essentially any off-the-shelf software or hardware encoder can make the necessary MPEG-2 stream, it opens up streaming to nearly anyone. What Apple doesn’t say explicitly is that its protocol can negate the need for proprietary solutions such as Adobe’s Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight to deliver remotely hosted or encrypted content. And since neither of those are likely to appear on the iPhone anytime soon, it’s one of the few ways to stream live video reliably to Apple’s mobile platform.

Currently the standard is an Internet-Draft, and we’ve yet to see any evidence that others are ready to jump on Apple’s bandwagon. But given the issues Apple has identified with RTSP, the proprietary nature of other common solutions, and the inclusion of support for encrypted streams, it has potential to appeal to a width swath of content providers.

Further Reading:

This post has been written by Chris Foresman on July 9, 2009 10:00 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.

The iPhone 3G S has enjoyed tremendous popularity thanks to its powerful hardware, slick (and abundant) applications, and new features.  However, it has also had its problems with overheating and signal strength.  Now a new problem has been rearing its ugly head — poor battery life.

For a mobile gadget, especially cell phones, battery life is critical.  And when it comes to battery life, many are finding the iPhone to come up unexpectedly short.  Apple’s support forums are seeing a large volume of battery-related gripes.  Writes one user, npshenoy2, "My charge did not last from morning to evening with a very moderate usage of checking mails just 5 times in a day and 10 minutes of YouTube video. All this was on Wi-Fi with 3G turned off."

Theories about the cause are becoming abundant as well.  Brian X. Chen of Wired.com believes that the problem is caused by a defective batch of hardware.  Meanwhile, The Examiner‘s Daniel Nations blames the iPhone OS v3.0 update for the problems.  He based this theory on the fact that the first reports surfaced after the update.

Some, like Mr. Nations believe that the new push notifications are having a major adverse impact on battery life.  Apple had long warned that running multiple applications would cripple the iPhone’s battery, and while push applications aren’t true multitasking, they do admittedly place additional drain on the battery.

For those unhappy with battery life, there are some options, all of which involve disabling features.  First you can disable Push Notifications via the Setting menu, Bluetooth (Settings>General), and Wi-Fi.  As a last resort you can also turn off 3G and switch to the older EDGE network, which the first generation iPhone used.  That, however, will likely decrease both browsing speeds and reception quality.

As with many of the other iPhone problems, there’s much hope in the community that the iPhone OS v3.1 update will bring salvation for those suffering these woes.

This post has been written by Jason Mick on July 8, 2009 6:46 PM couresy of dailytech.com.

Both conservationists and the wireless industry continue to press the Federal Communications Commission for some response to concerns that millions of migratory birds fatally collide with mobile phone towers every year. But there are no obvious signs that—despite a court order requiring agency action—the Commission has plans to do anything.

A small army of industry representatives just met with the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on this issue. They urged the Commission to contract with an "impartial avian consultant" to "assess the state of the science surrounding avian mortality, as a first step toward filling the void of peer-reviewed data that exists in the Migratory Bird rulemaking proceeding." The meeting included reps from CTIA – The Wireless Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Association of Tower Erectors.

But conservationist groups call this a delaying tactic. "There is overwhelming peer-reviewed science to demonstrate the significance of tower-caused kills on bird populations," the American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and National Audubon Society say in their latest comments to the FCC.

Meaningful public involvement

As we have reported, after years of doing nothing, in February of last year the FCC was ordered by an appellate court to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and assemble guidelines to protect migrating birds that fly into wireless towers at night.

It’s unclear how many birds actually perish this way. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that as many as four or five million birds may die in this fashion, but recent research suggests that even if the actual number is smaller, the dilemma is real. In their filings, the conservationists put the Bay-breasted Warbler at 150,000 wireless tower fatalities a year, and the Blackpoll Warbler at 90,000. At least 60 species included on the FWS’s Birds of Conservation Concern list are killed by towers, they say.

The court told the FCC to determine "how it will provide notice of pending tower applications that will ensure meaningful public involvement in implementing NEPA procedures." New rules will require tower construction applicants to show that their proposed structures don’t hurt birds, or provide details of how they plan to protect them.

But not even the court order got the agency off its feet. Finally in April ABC et al submitted a Petition for Expedited Rulemaking to the FCC, asking the Commission to assess the impact of its current Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) standards on bird safety and finish a proceeding on how to address the problem.

There’s plenty of back and forth in this fight over which studies can be understood as credible or peer reviewed. But there have also been constructive suggestions. The CTIA group has asked the FCC to run a public notice on tower registration standards and to conduct an environmental assessment of the Gulf Coast Region, where significant bird tower death has been said to take place. And industry reps have offered an array of suggestions for authorizing new wireless towers and asking the public for feedback on their construction.

Meanwhile there’s a lot of research out there offered by conservancy groups about ways to minimize the harm cell phone towers do to migrating birds. These include reducing the tower height, relying less on guy wire construction, and using strobe rather than continuous lighting systems.

What there doesn’t seem to be is an FCC willing to deal with the issue. The item is not in circulation with the Commissioners at this time, and the agency has been "kicking [the problem] down the road," in the words of one Commissioner, since 2002. Seven years is a long time, even for the government.

This post has been written by Matthew Lasar on July 8, 2009 11:45 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.



When news came in of the Champions Online launch being delayed to September, a few of the writers at Massively were despondent. It’s always better for a game to launch once it’s solid rather than release in a buggy state, though. While we wait for the re-scheduled September 1st launch, we’re keeping up with the news and interviews surrounding the upcoming superhero title. In fact, we’ve just come across an MMOCrunch interview with Bill Roper, executive producer of Champions Online you might be interested in.

Roper gets into how some of the game mechanics in Champions Online will play out, and explains a bit about how travel powers like flight and teleportation can be countered by those without such capabilities. (For example, how does a ground-based melee character engage a kiting opponent in flight?) He also touches upon the game’s sidekick system, which will allow newer players to temporarily boost their powers to keep up with higher level friends. Alternately, the sidekick system will give advanced characters the ability to tone their powers down to the level of their appallingly weak lower level buddies.

This post has been written by James Egan on Jul 8th 2009 at 8:00PM couresy of massively.com.

picture-53The timing of Google’s announcement of Chrome OS was curious. I don’t mean the fact that Google moved up the post on it by a day when some details leaked out, I mean the fact that they were announcing it on some seemingly random date in July, well before anything is actually ready to show off. Now, we likely know why.

On Monday, Microsoft is set to unveil its plans to counter the attack Google previously had launched on it with Google Docs. Yes, Microsoft Office is going to the cloud. This is something which we all knew was eventually coming, and there has been some testing, but the full details will pour out Monday at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans. You can expect the new version of Office, that syncs with the cloud, and the ability to use it in the cloud without any software as well.

Almost immediately following the Chrome OS announcement, Robert Scoble took to his favorite home on the web, FriendFeed, to have one of his, I-know-something-you-don’t-know “discussions.” During the course of those “discussions,” Scoble gave dropped quite a few hints about what Microsoft planned to announce on Monday, including “Diego, no, it’s one of Microsoft’s primary businesses. Did you know Microsoft has 14 billion dollar businesses?” Guess what that is? Microsoft Office.

It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. And several bloggers already have. And it was especially easy after Scoble ruled out the new browser project Microsoft has code-named “Gazelle.” Scoble also noted that what Microsoft was showing off would run in browsers beyond just IE.

So yes, it’s Office Web that was first talked about at PDC last year.

And it’s possible that Microsoft could unveil that this new web-based Office will reside and the great domain, office.com. That site is clearly going through a transition to new ownership right now, and that would make a lot of sense.

Office is obviously the 900-pound gorilla that Google is attempting to slay with Google Docs, but a 900-pound gorilla with a matching web offering will be a lot tougher. And that’s likely why Google wanted to get its own uppercut in first this week. And it’s a strong one. But now Microsoft is going to have to come up with some answers to how it can counter Chrome OS, rather than focus on talking about the new Office.

[photo: flickr/tipiro]

This post has been written by MG Siegler on July 9, 2009 couresy of techcrunch.com.