Business this week

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Leviathan of last resort Investor demand was very high for the first long-term sovereign bond from Greece in four years. Borrowing costs for periphery economies in the euro zone have declined sharply. The yields on Italian and Spanish ten-year government bonds are now around 3.2%, about half what they were a couple of years ago. The yield on existing Greek ten-year bonds dropped to below 6% this week; two years ago it was nearly 40%. See article The IMF said that the recovery in the global economy “is becoming not only stronger but also broader”. Its latest report forecast that world GDP will grow by 3.6% this year, with Britain the best performer among the G7 at 2.9%. Statistical significance Nigeria overtook South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy overnight, after a long-overdue revision of the way its GDP is calculated. Now using 2010 as a base year, Nigeria’s GDP in 2013 was $510 billion, 89% bigger than previously stated. The old figure used 1990 as a base, which did not give enough weight to, among other things, Nigeria’s swelling telecoms industry. Nigerians will not feel any richer because of the change; most still live on less than $1.25 a ...

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Online business and security: Digital heart attack

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Leviathan of last resort Fly Title:  Online business and security Rubric:  A flaw in popular internet-security software could have serious consequences for all sorts of business Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  A bug at the heart of e-business A bug at the heart of e-business THE Heartbleed bug sounds like a nasty coronary condition. But it is in fact a software flaw that has left up to two-thirds of the world’s websites vulnerable to attack by hackers. “This is potentially the most dangerous bug that we have seen for a long, long time,” says James Beeson, the chief information security officer of GE Capital Americas, an arm of GE. Since its existence was revealed on April 7th by researchers at Codenomicon, a security outfit, and Google, countless companies around the world that rely on the internet for part or all of their business have been scrambling to fix the flaw. Ironically, the ...

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Babbage: April 9th 2014: Dark matter: not so dark

NEW hints of dark matter, the IBM System 360 mainframe computer at 50, and regenerating the thymus organ Comment Expiry Date:  Thu, 2014-04-24

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Computer security: A digital heart attack

THE Heartbleed Bug sounds like a particularly nasty coronary complication. But it is in fact a software flaw that has left up to two-thirds of the world’s websites vulnerable to attack by hackers. According to researchers who uncovered the bug in popular encryption software, it can be exploited by nefarious types—and prying spooks—to extract everything from user names and passwords to details of people’s bank accounts and corporate secrets.Since the bug’s existence was publicly revealed on April 7th, companies have been scrambling to install software patches that fix the flaw or to upgrade to newer versions of the encryption software, which do not contain it. Tumblr, a blogging service owned by Yahoo, has been advising users to change their passwords for all of the secure sites that they use that hold sensitive data. Expect many other web outfits to issue similar warnings soon.Ironically, the weakness that has been exposed is in software that was designed to make the internet safer. Secure websites typically have web addresses that begin with HTTPS, in which the S refers to SSL, or Secure Socket Layer, a widely used technology that encrypts data before it is sent. (Users can see a little lock icon at the start of a web address when they visit a website that employs the technology.)To protect themselves and their users, many sites have turned to OpenSSL, a popular ...

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Difference Engine: End of the road for Windows XP

THIS week sees the last batch of bug fixes and security patches that Microsoft will issue for Windows XP. After April 8th, computers using the 13-year-old operating system will continue to work just fine, but all technical support for XP—whether paid or otherwise—will cease. In a change of heart, Microsoft has at least agreed to continue issuing updates for its Security Essentials malware engine, which runs on XP, until July 2015. Apart from that, users who continue to rely on the thing will be on their own—at the mercy of mischief-makers everywhere.More than a few seem determined to stick with it. According to NetMarketShare, a web-analytics consultancy, Windows XP runs on 28% of the world's PCs, making it even today the second most popular operating system (surpassed only by Windows 7, with 49%). Over 400m machines will therefore be left exposed. Included in that number are 95% of all the cashpoints (ATMs) in the world. Windows XP and Embedded XP also power a lot of cash registers.At least most banks, stores, petrol stations and other retail chains have plans in place to migrate their point-of-sale (POS) terminals from XP to Windows 7 or Linux. Many have delayed doing so for financial reasons. POS terminals cost anything from $15,000 to $60,000 apiece, so they tend to be left in place for ten years or more. Besides, new rules will soon require the American versions of ...

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The week ahead: April 6th 2014: Africa's biggest economy

NIGERIA becomes the biggest economy in Africa, India holds the world's largest ever election, Britain squeezes booze and Microsoft retires Windows XP Comment Expiry Date:  Mon, 2014-04-21

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Computer security: A digital fortress?

WINDOWS "is spyware with an operating system attached" according to the old sysadmin joke. Riddled with unpatched security vulnerabilities ("zero-days") that let criminal hackers and intel agencies take control of the operating system, Windows is a computer security professional's nightmare.Measuring the severity of the problem is difficult because of the lucrative black market in zero-day exploits. A handful of boutique exploit providers—Endgame Systems, Exodus Intelligence, Netragard, ReVuln and VUPEN—control the market, and buyers, according to Stefan Frei of NSS Labs, pay on average $40,000 to $160,000 for an exploit (depending on the software affected and the reach of the zero-day offers).Mr Frei's research suggests that, on any given day from 2011-2013, privileged groups had access to at least 58 vulnerabilities targeting Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, or Adobe—and these are just the known ones. In 2013 alone, according to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the NSA spent more than $25 million on zero-days. Other governments and criminal hackers are also known to be stockpiling these digital armaments.How many zero-days are there? Who knows about them? What software do they affect? These are, as Mr Frei puts it, "known unknowns."Nor is the problem confined to Windows, which bears the brunt of these attacks because of its popularity. Mac OSX, Linux, Android and ...

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Microsoft: Once-forbidden fruit

LITTLE has been heard from Satya Nadella since he succeeded Steve Ballmer as Microsoft’s chief executive last month. On March 27th he made up for it. In a shift long trailed—and, many would say, long overdue—Microsoft made its Office suite of software, which includes word-processor, spreadsheet and slide-presentation programs, available on Apple’s iPad. The company also announced cloud products to make life easier for beleaguered corporate information-technology departments trying to keep up with staff using their own mobile devices rather than being chained to desktop computers. Mr Nadella promised more announcements in the next few weeks.

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Facebook and virtual reality: A game of goggles

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Rise of the robots Fly Title:  Facebook and virtual reality Rubric:  The social network makes another expensive bet on the future Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  So that’s what $2 billion looks like So that’s what $2 billion looks like AT SXSW, a techie festival that took place in Texas earlier this month, some lucky attenders were able briefly to immerse themselves in HBO’s fantasy television series, “Game of Thrones”. By donning virtual-reality goggles made by Oculus VR, people could see how the world looked from the top of the 700-foot-tall Wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms from enemies that lurk beyond. The digital rendition was so lifelike that gazing down from the Wall gave some folk vertigo. Such a compelling experience explains why Oculus Rift, the company’s virtual-reality headset, has captivated keen gamers. It has also caught the attention of Facebook, which announced ...

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Facebook buys Oculus VR: Game of goggles

A LONG-TERM bet on the future of computing. That is how Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, described the news on March 25th that his firm had splashed out some $2 billion on Oculus VR, a company that makes headsets that let gamers immerse themselves in fantasy worlds (pictured). Oculus isn’t the only firm trying to turn virtual-reality technology into real money by bringing it to the masses. But its combination with the giant social network is certainly eye-opening.

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The week ahead: March 22nd 2014: Avoiding the issue

WORLD leaders meet in Europe, Microsoft launches Office for the iPad, France holds local elections and a Jamaican musician is sentenced for murder

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Anonymous social networking: Secrets and lies

SOCIAL media may have brought millions of people together, but it has torn many others apart. Once, bullies taunted their victims in the playground; today they use smartphones to do so from afar. Media reports of “Facebook suicides” caused by cyberbullying are all too common. Character assassination on Twitter is rife, as are malicious e-mails, texts and other forms of e-torment. A recent review of the academic literature on cyberbullying suggests—conservatively—that at least a quarter of school-age children are involved as either victim or perpetrator.

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Adobe: Super subs

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The new world order Fly Title:  Adobe Rubric:  Adobe’s bold embrace of the computing cloud should inspire others Location:  SAN FRANCISCO ON MARCH 18th Adobe published its latest quarterly results, showing net income of $47m, down by 28% on a year earlier. It was the fifth quarter in a row in which the maker of professional graphics software, such as Photoshop and Illustrator, had reported a sharp drop in year-on-year earnings. At most listed firms that would trigger a stockmarket bloodbath. Yet Adobe’s share price has soared by 63% over the past 12 months (see chart). It has defied gravity because investors are bullish about the dramatic shift that the firm is making from being a purveyor of pricey, shrink-wrapped software to one that charges users a monthly subscription fee to access its applications online via the computing “cloud”—vast warehouses of servers run by Adobe and other firms. Like the music industry (see article and article), Adobe is ...

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Supercomputers: Game on

“MONEYBALL”, the book and subsequent film of the same name, put a spotlight on the role statistics play in professional baseball. The story depicts how the Oakland A's figured out new ways to use historical data about player performance to assemble a winning team (despite a relatively small budget).“Moneyball” focused on the A's 2002 season, however, and so did not scrutinise what most people think of today as big data. The number crunchers who looked at player statistics to make decisions back then, for example, worked on regular PCs.But 95% of all data collected over the 140-year history of major league baseball (MLB) has been generated in the last five years, according to Sean Lahman, a baseball expert and journalist. With new troves of information, teams can make decisions entirely different from those central to “Moneyball”. Consequently, one MLB team has invested in a Cray supercomputer according to Pete Ungaro, the company’s chief executive officer. The team, which declines to be named, exemplifies an organisation that, five years ago, most people would not have dreamed would need, or even want, a supercomputer, he says.The team obtained one both because the machine has the capacity to analyse enormous quantities of data and because of the short time in which it can process them. Other technologies, such as cloud computing, could wade leisurely through ...

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Monitor: Quantum quantified

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Printing a bit of me Fly Title:  Monitor Rubric:  High-speed computing: Although it works, a much-hyped quantum computer fails its toughest speed test yet QUANTUM computers are a grand idea. By harnessing the famous strangeness of quantum mechanics, they should be able to perform some (though not all) calculations far faster than any ordinary computer. But building one has proven tricky. The idea was first floated in the 1970s. Four decades later quantum computers are still small, fragile devices confined to the laboratory bench—with one exception. In 2011, to great fanfare, a Canadian firm called D-Wave announced a commercially available quantum computer, the $10m D-Wave One. Deals with Google, NASA and Lockheed Martin, a weapons firm, followed. Admittedly, D-Wave’s device is a very specialised sort of computer, restricted to a single area of mathematics called discrete optimisation. But it was big news, and many scientists were rather sceptical. In the past couple of years the firm has published enough papers about its device ...

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Difference engine: Stalking trolls

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Printing a bit of me Fly Title:  Difference engine Rubric:  Intellectual property: After being blamed for stymying innovation in America, vague and overly broad patents on software and business processes could get the chop Main image:  20140308_tqd005.jpg AT LAST, it seems, something is to be done about the dysfunctional way America’s patent system operates. Two recent developments suggest calls for patent reform are finally being heard at the highest levels. First, in 2013, defying expectations, the House of Representatives passed (by an overwhelming majority) the Innovation Act, a bill aimed squarely at neutralising so-called patent trolls. These are individuals or companies who buy up lots of patents and then use them to extract payments from unsuspecting victims. Second, the US Supreme Court agreed to rule on what is the most contentious issue of all: which inventions are actually eligible for patent protection. Frivolous lawsuits filed by trolls cost ...

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Internet culture: It takes a global village

ACCORDING to Andy Baio, Kickstarter's first and former chief technology officer, Twitch Plays Pokémon is "the best thing on the internet right now."The game combines an array of online trends. It starts with Twitch, a live-streaming site with a twist: gamers can broadcast their action to all users (even opting to have a camera fixed upon them). The site, an offshoot of the lifestreaming service Justin.tv, claims 45m unique monthly visitors and 1m unique monthly broadcasters, including some of the world's most highly rated players of certain videogames.But it took a nearly two-decade-old game, Pokémon Red, released in 1996 for the Nintendo Game Boy portable player, to make Twitch truly interactive. A still-anonymous programmer wired the input controls for a black-and-white emulated version of Red into the Twitch chat room that appears alongside any streamed game. (Emulation involves the use of a virtual machine that executes instructions just as the Game Boy would, and the Pokémon software runs on top of that.)In the chat room, viewers can type any of the commands that correspond to the Game Boy's physical controller: a, b, start, select, up, down, left and right. While this might work for a small audience in which only a few people issue instructions, it could have been expected that tens of thousands of simultaneous participants would have caused the experiment to ...

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Thespian bots: I said, you can call me Cleverbot if you want to*

WHEN Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician whose code-breaking helped end the second world war, devised a test to establish whether machines could think, he simply called it the “Imitation Game”. From a room an individual would converse with two other, separate rooms; in the first would sit a human being and in the second a computer. If the individual were unable to distinguish which was which, the machine would win the game. Writing in 1950, Turing reckoned that his test would be passed by turn of the century.Since 1991, the annual Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence, worth $100,000, has awaited any chatterbot (a text-based machine) that is able to convince a panel of four judges that it is human. Artificial intelligence (AI) machines have conquered chess champions and won Jeopardy!, an American quiz show. But despite the exponential advancements in processing power (thanks to Moore’s Law) which have endowed computers with the ability to crunch huge arrays of data, no machine has come close to meeting Turing’s mark. Thus far, the complexity and variety of the human brain has proved too difficult to replicate: a computer that is able to master linguistics and integrate it with a vast breadth of knowledge, all the while staying on topic.Nevertheless, AI is in use throughout the world: 1,128 chatterbots are reviewed on Chatbots.org; Apple has incorporated an AI, ...

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Internet security: Biting into Apple

PROGRAMMERS often engage in debates over pernickety details. One such is whether a conditional statement, "if this is true then…", should always have the block of code that follows it enclosed in braces—{ and }—to make it more explicit that those actions are a consequence of that condition. In many software languages, the braces are optional. Some programmers may wear braces to hold their trousers up (they pair nicely with socks and sandals), but abjure them in coding for the sake of simplicity (among other reasons).Apple has found, to its detriment, that omitting braces may help explain one of the largest security flaws in the company's history—and how it was missed. The firm's trousers are truly around its corporate ankles. (Using braces doesn't ensure good coding, but it would probably have revealed this mistake.)The programming error allows a malicious party to corrupt the integrity of a secure internet connection without those either side knowing. This allows snooping on e-mails, passwords, financial transactions, web sessions, instant messaging and much more. The flaw is present in iOS software, used for iPhones and iPads since September 2012, as well as in Mac OS X 10.9, released in June 2013 for Macintosh computers. The scale of the problem is astonishing: a man-in-the-middle (MitM in cryptographic jargon) could commandeer any secure connection from a Wi-Fi ...

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Cyber-security: White hats to the rescue

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Putin’s inferno Fly Title:  Cyber-security Rubric:  Law-abiding hackers are helping businesses to fight off the bad guys Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  20140222_WBD001_0.jpg ANDREW WHITAKER has made a career out of breaking into things. A “white hat” hacker in techie jargon, Mr Whitaker leads a team of security specialists at Knowledge Consulting Group who spend their days trying to worm their way into clients’ computer systems to see how vulnerable they are to cyber-criminals, spies and other nefarious “black hats”. The team’s record is both impressive and alarming. Some of the firm’s clients are utilities, and Mr Whitaker and his colleagues often target software that controls critical infrastructure, such as water and power supplies. “We’re getting in pretty much every single time,” he says. Crooks and spooks are still finding plenty of chinks in digital armour too. On February ...

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Babbage: February 19th 2014: Gold Rush Saga

CANDY CRUSH lists on the NYSE, Merkel dreams up the European internet and IBM takes its intelligent computer to Africa 

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Microsoft’s new boss: Inside job

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The worldwide wobble Fly Title:  Microsoft’s new boss Rubric:  The technology giant has at last chosen a chief executive. His intended destination is clear, but his route is not Main image:  Nadella, a head from the cloud Nadella, a head from the cloud IN AN episode of “Father Ted”, a television comedy about three priests living on a windswept Irish island, another cleric turns up unannounced, claiming to be an old pal of the title character. Mrs Doyle, the priests’ housekeeper, tries to guess the visitor’s name. She reels off a litany that proceeds from the plausible (“Father Andy Riley”) via the ludicrous (“Father Peewee Stairmaster”) before somehow reaching the right answer (“Father Todd Unctious”). “I was just amazed that she got it in—wow—well under an hour,” grimaces Ted. Divining the identity of Microsoft’s next chief executive has been a little like Mrs Doyle’s guessing game. After Steve Ballmer said last August that he would step down, the Redmond ...

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Fiction and software: Multilingual

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The worldwide wobble Fly Title:  Fiction and software Rubric:  Inspiration for poetry and logic Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software. By Vikram Chandra. Faber & Faber; 258 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Gray Wolf Press in September; $16. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk SOFTWARE programmers like to think of their work as art. Paul Graham, a programmer and Silicon Valley investor, wrote in 2003 that “of all the different types of people I’ve known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.” For geeks this is a seductive conceit. There is more to programming, they say, than simply telling a computer what to do. Effective code can also be elegant, even beautiful. In making something out of nothing, it stands shoulder to shoulder with art. But who is to judge? Few programmers are actually artists. Fewer artists can code. Vikram Chandra, an Indian author who made money as a programmer in America while he was writing his first book, takes on the challenge with “Geek Sublime”. The result is ...

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Microsoft's new boss: From cloud to clout

AT LAST, almost six months after Steve Ballmer said he was standing down as Microsoft’s chief executive, the company has anointed a successor: Satya Nadella, the head of its cloud and enterprise group (pictured). On February 4th the company also announced that Bill Gates, its founder, would be its chairman no longer, but would become a “technology adviser”. John Thompson, the director who oversaw the process of choosing Mr Nadella, will succeed Mr Gates as chairman.

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Difference Engine: Built to last

WITH Microsoft’s venerable operating system, Windows XP, about to be cut loose by its creators, Babbage has been upgrading all his geriatric “wintel” computers to Windows 7. For those who have not yet done so, a word of warning: after April 8th, there will be no more security patches, bug fixes and free (or even paid) online assistance for Windows XP, as Microsoft ends its extended support for the ageing software. From then on, anyone who continues to use it will be at the mercy of hackers, who will doubtless find yet more devious ways of exploiting vulnerabilities in the 13-year-old operating system and applications that run on it.In making the move, Babbage has avoided Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8. It does things a bit too differently for his liking. Besides, having flopped badly, Windows 8 (now in version 8.1) is not expected to be with us much longer. Microsoft is now rushing out Windows 9. In due course, Babbage will leapfrog to that instead. Meanwhile, Windows 7 will do just nicely. Official support for it will last till at least 2020.By and large, the upgrade process has gone without a hitch, even though migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7 is not as simple as upgrading direct from Windows Vista (XP’s loathed and short-lived successor) to Windows 7. Fortunately, there is an excellent tool on the market called PCmover that makes the migration a ...

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