Monday, March 31, 2014

The end of Windows XP is also the end of everything we thought we knew about computing

More than a dozen years after it first went on sale, the reign of Windows XP is finally coming to an end.
XP was Microsoft's most popular operating system ever — it was only recently overtaken by Windows 7 as the most used OS in the world – and it's still running on somewhere around a quarter of all desktops.
As of next week however, XP is no longer supported by Microsoft: no more software updates or security patches will be forthcoming from the company.
XP's dozen-year lifespan is the equivalent of millennia in tech years, and so XP is a digital dinosaur still roaming the earth. Many will be mourning its passing, others will be grumbling as they scramble to update to a new operating system, and some will be cursing because they have to pay out for additional support after having left their migration too late.
But the death of XP is more than just a headache (and the cause of some heartache) for IT: it also part of some profound changes in the tech landscape.
As we lay XP is to rest, we're also saying goodbye to some of technology's old certainties: that the PC is the default hardware for the average user, that Windows is the standard operating system it will run. Both of those assumptions held true throughout the life of XP — but no longer.
The decline of the PC continues: it's already been overtaken by tablets and smartphones among consumers, and increasing in business. As well as the rise of new hardware form factors, new operating systems are grabbing market share too: in the case of tablets and smartphones, it's still pretty much a two horse race between Android cornering the mass market and iOS at the premium end.
Windows is still around of course, and still a strong presence (especially in business), but its dominance is being questioned: the upgrade from XP to Windows 8 is such a big leap that some may consider switching to an alternative platform altogether, such as iPads or Chromebooks.
All of this means we're entering a new era of fragmented computing, a jumble of devices, operating systems and competing ecosystems.
Neither Android nor iOS are monoliths: there are many versions of Android in use (less than 10 percent of devices are running KitKat, the latest iteration of the operating system), and the older versions of Apple's iPhone and iPad (only a few years old) cannot run the latest versions of iOS. Build it once, run anywhere is just as much of a dream as it ever was.
Competing ecosystems have lead to a profusion of app stores and operating systems flavours (just compare Amazon's Fire OS to Android) which can create strife for developers and users. Stifling walled gardens of content and apps are everywhere as tech companies seek to enforce the loyalty of their customers.
Windows, of course, was just another walled garden (ask the Linux enthusiasts or the Mac fans) but for most it was such a big enclosure that most couldn't see the walls.
None of this is bad, just different. It's unlikely that we'll see a platform as dominant as Windows again; Android is making a strong play but will probably never be the operating system of everything.
The downside of all of this is uncertainty and fragmentation, at least for now. But it's also a bigger, more complicated and more exciting world with better devices, wider options and more opportunity.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Microsoft issues multiple critical Windows patches

Microsoft has released their monthly Patch Tuesday updates. There are seven updates: six for Windows, one for Microsoft Forefront Protection 2010 for Exchange Server. Three of the Windows updates are rated Critical, the other three Important.
A total of 32 vulnerabilities are addressed in these updates, 24 of them in the Cumulative Update for Internet Explorer. Four of the vulnerabilities have already been publicly disclosed, according to Microsoft and, for two of those, Microsoft is aware of targeted attacks in the wild which attempt to exploit it. Microsoft credits 13 different researchers for reporting vulnerabilities to them.
In their initial Advance Notification for this month, Microsoft indicated that there would be five updates, four for Windows. On Monday they issued an updated Advance Notification Bulletin which added two extra updates for Windows. They are MS14-005 and MS14-006 in the list above.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

KPN Job Cuts

KPN is planning another round of job cuts as part of an aggressive cost cutting and streamlining programme designed to stem falling profits, the Dutch incumbent has revealed.
The operator said it will cut the equivalent of between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs by 2016 as it seeks to simplify its product portfolio, client processes, networks, and IT operations. KPN uses a Full Time Equivalent (FTE) model when referring to job cuts – which measures the workload of individual staff – and said it has already cut 4,650 FTEs as part of a previous round of lay offs started in 2011.
KPN predicts that its cost cutting program will generate capex and opex savings of at least €300 million ($405 million) per year by 2016.
CEO Eelco Blok said during the presentation of KPN's 2013 results that the company is unable to rule out compulsory redundancies in the latest round of staff cuts, Bloomberg reported.
KPN is streamlining its operations amid fierce competition in its core European markets – the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. The tough environment saw net profit fall 6.7 per cent to €293 million in 2013, and EBITDA fall 14 per cent to €2.8 billion.
The operator cut its fourth quarter net loss from €263 million in 2012 to €108 million in 2013, but EBITDA fell 29 per cent year-on-year to €581 million, well short of an average €631 million predicted by analysts in a Bloomberg poll.
Blok predicted that KPN's financials will begin to stabilise by end-2014, and said the company is confident it will gain regulatory approval for the planned sale of its German E-Plus business to Telefónica Deutschland.
"KPN's financial profile will be further improved following the sale," Blok said, adding that the company could also "benefit from additional excess cash by receiving dividends from the 20.5 per cent stake in Telefónica Deutschland".
The European Commission last week refused a request from German competition authorities to review the E-Plus sale, claiming its regulators are better placed to decide whether to approve the transaction, which will cut the number of mobile operators in Germany from four to three, and create the country's largest operator by subscribers numbers.
KPN's results statement underlines Blok's confidence by omitting E-Plus from its future strategy. The operator said it will focus on LTE, IPTV and bundled services in its domestic market, and on building its post-paid subscriber numbers at its BASE operation in Belgium.
The operator is close to achieving nationwide LTE coverage in the Netherlands, and aims to hit the same goal in Belgium by end-2014.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Final Secret

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I had two contradictory but complementary responses to the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a drug overdose at the suddenly tender age of 46 — two responses, that is, beyond how terrible and damn, he was great.
The first was that there was no way Hoffman had died with a syringe still in his arm — no way that an actor who brought such finicky dignity to his portrayal of the most desperate characters had permitted himself to die so ruthlessly unmasked.
The second was that of course he had died in such a sordid manner — how else was Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to die? There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets…no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind. The only way that Philip Seymour Hoffman could have died in a manner more consistent with the characters he created would have been if he had died by auto-erotic asphyxiation.
And in the extermity of these two responses was, I think, the essence of Hoffman’s art.
He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His metier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves and invited us not only to take a peek but to see someone we recognized. He played frauds who knew they were frauds, schemers who knew they were schemers, closeted men who could only groan with frustrated love, heavy breathers dignified by impeccable manners, and angels who could withstand the worst that life could hand out because they seemed to know the worst was just the beginning. And what united all his roles was the stoic calm he brought to them, the stately concentration that assured us that no matter whom Philip Seymour Hoffman played, Philip Seymour Hoffman himself was protected.
That’s what I thought, anyway — in reading the early reports of his death, I was surprised that he’d battled the demon of addiction, because I’d always confused Hoffman’s mastery with detachment, and assumed that he had lived by Flaubert’s charge to live an orderly life so that he could be violent and original in his work. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, and — here’s that contradictory and complementary response again — I wasn’t. I’d never met Philip Seymour Hoffman, never knew anyone who knew him, never even read a passably revealing magazine profile of him. All I really knew was that he was a character actor who came as close to being a movie star as character actors ever get, and that he played the lead in more Hollywood movies than any other portly, freckly, gingery man in human history. And that, in its way, is all I, or anyone else, needs to know.
We live in the golden age of character actors — in an age when actors who have done their time in character roles are frequently asked to carry dark movies and complicated television dramas. The line between character actors and movie stars is being erased — in art, anyway, if not in life. In life, it’s different, because the “movie star” remains not just the product of looks and charm, but also a kind of social construct, with very distinct social obligations. Character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini have found themselves getting more and more leading roles because they are permitted to behave onscreen in ways that George Clooney and Matt Damon never could. But the same permission extends offscreen, and that’s where we see the cost; indeed, we pay to look at men who look like us only when they convince us that that they live in psychic spaces that we could never endure…unless, of course, we happen to be enduring them.
Would Matt Damon ever be found dead, with a syringe still hanging from his arm? Would George Clooney essentially eat himself to death? No, for the simple fact they both have way too much to lose. But neither would they permit themselves to be weepily jerked off by Amy Adams, as Philip Seymour Hoffman was, in The Master, or to crawl as far into his own dead eyes as James Gandolfini regularly did in The Sopranos. The great character actors are now the actors whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice once claimed by the DeNiros of the world, as well as the element of danger— the actors who thrill us by going for broke. It should be no surprise when, occasionally, they break, or turn out to be broken. RIP.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade

Hospital rooms, shopping floors, and fast-food counters: This is where the future of U.S. employment lives. We think.
The latest ten-year projection from the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that just a handful of occupations—personal care aides, registered nurses, nursing assistants, and home health aides (all in health care), along with retail salespeople and food-prep workers—will account for one-in-six new jobs in the next decade.

But there are two catches. Here's the first. Healthcare spending is growing slower than the economy for the first time since 1997, and "nobody knows why," as Matt O'Brien reported for The Atlantic. And the slowdown in growth is affecting workers, too. Healthcare jobs apparently fell in December for the first time in at least 27 years. Fresh out of the oven, BLS's healthcare employment projections might already be deflating.
Here's the second catch. A new paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne calculated the odds of "computerization" for the 600+ jobs that the BLS tracks. They range from 96% automatable (office secretaries) to 0.9% (registered nurses). Here are the ten fastest-growing jobs and the odds that robots and software eat them:
1) Personal care aides: 74%
2) Registered nurses: 0.9%
3) Retail salespersons: 92%
4) Combined food prep & serving workers: 92%
5) Home health aides: 39%
6) Physician assistant: 9%
7) Secretaries and admin assistants: 96%
8) Customer service representatives: 55%
9) Janitors and cleaners: 66%
10) Construction workers: 71%
These ten occupations account for 3.85 million projected jobs in the next ten years, or 25 percent of the decade's projected job haul. And six of them are at least two-thirds automatable, based on researchers' projections of current computing power. For example, secretaries and administrative assistants are already being complemented or replaced by simple office organization software, and Walmart and Amazon pose a mortal threat to many classic retail jobs, even before you account for Kiva robots patrolling warehouse floors around the country.
To be fair, this is an article about the future, which, as a rule, is unknowable. Ten years ago, the BLS whiffed on its ten-year projections by 13 million jobs, since it failed to predict the mining boom, the publishing apocalypse, and the Great Recession. In all likelihood, the BLS will whiff again this decade (such is the nature of huge predictions), but perhaps it will be a Great Automation rather than a Great Recession that causes the miss.

How Do Hitmen Operate?

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How Do Hitmen Operate?


British criminologists claim that hitmen are more boring than we make them out to be, but their analysis can’t account for the behavior of “Master” killers.
If a hitman excels at his craft, he’ll operate quietly and without incident. In theory, the whispered meetings will be held in secret, the job will be executed with precision and grace, and no one will witness the escape.
For those reasons, the few criminologists who do attempt to study these misdeeds acknowledge the thorny methodological problems associated with examining “a secret world” to which they have no access. Of course, that hasn’t exactly stifled their ambitions.
A group of researchers at the Center for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University in the U.K. has recently analyzed newspaper articles, court records, and a series of “off-the-record” interviews with informants “who have, or who had, direct knowledge of contract killings” in order to construct what they term a “typology” of British hitmen. For the record, these social scientists “define a hitman as a person who accepts an order to kill another human being from someone who is not publicly acknowledged as a legitimate authority regarding ‘just killing’.” The results of their detailed search of British cases that matched this description in the period between 1974 and 2013 only turned up 27 contracted hits or attempted hits “committed by a total of 36 hitmen” (there was only a single “hitwoman”), but the researchers used the sample to tease out the details and profiles of typical killers-for-hire.
The main thrust of the paper, which will be published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, is that hitmen do not operate with the drama, professionalism, or glamour that mob films and spy novels afford them. In actuality, the majority of killers select jejune settings for their crimes, have occasionally bumbling performances, and are often hired by contractors with lame motivations.
Here’s the profile of an average British hitman, who seems more confined by the boxy restraints of reality than the undulating arcs of fiction:
  • He kills on the cheap. The average asking price was £15,180. It was £100,000 at the highest level, and a teenager was shafted with £200 at the low end. “[A]s another British researcher who studied the economics of contract killing noted: ‘the majority of paid killings take place for very small sums much lower than the economic value of life and lower too than what one would expect as compensation for efforts and risks of the hiree’.”
  • There’s really nothing to do on Tuesdays, so naturally that was the most popular day to make the hit, “although this finding is not statistically significant.”
  • The weapon of choice was a firearm.
Within our sample, the vast majority of hits were carried out using a gun – a not insignificant finding in itself, given the tight controls on the availability of firearms that exist within this country and this finding was statistically significant. Out of an overall total of 35 victims, 25 were shot. Perhaps the most alarming use of a firearm can be found within the murder of David King. Mr King was shot five times by hitman Roger Vincent (33 years) and his accomplice David Smith (33 years). The weapon used in this hit is noteworthy as it was the first time that an AK-47 assault rifle – seemingly originally belonging to the Hungarian Prison Service – had been used on the streets of Britain. Of the ten remaining victims in our sample, three were stabbed, five were beaten to death and two were strangled.
  • The majority of the victims were selected by the contractor for murder on the basis of a sour business deal or rivalry, but the reasoning did vary a bit. “The motivations that we could discern for the remaining hits included: disputes within gangs or more formally-organised criminal networks; domestic disagreements between divorcing husbands and wives; cases of mistaken identity; or, more broadly, the hits related to ‘honour killings’.”
  • Most of the killers were working on first-time contracts, meaning there weren’t many long-distance snipers taking shots from towers.
  • The murders did not occur in the cinematic locations of “smoky rooms, bars and casinos frequented by gangsters.” Instead, the victims were killed in drab suburbia, often “out in the open, on pavements, sometimes as the target was out walking their dog, or going shopping, with passers-by watching on in abject horror.”
Beyond the averages of the sample, the researchers also offered four basic profiles, varying on the basis of skill and experience level: the “Novice,” the “Dilettante,” the “Journeyman,” and the “Master.” “We gave these labels considerable thought as we wanted to capture accurately the skills and experience shown by the different hitmen who we uncovered, although we also accept that some might see these descriptions – especially that of being a ‘Master’ – as too affirming of someone who commits murder,” the researchers wrote. “That is not our intention.”
Predictably, the “Novice” is a total fledgling. He may be decent at organization, but he’s not an expert when it comes to execution. He’s usually apprehended with the use of forensic evidence.
A “Dilettante” is a bumbling idiot, who turns to murder only because he’s desperate for cash. “By using the label ‘Dilettante’ we are implying that this type of hitman does not necessarily come from an offending background and only seems to have decided to accept a contract as a way of resolving some form of personal crisis,” the researchers write. “As such, the ‘Dilettante’ dabbles and dips into the culture of contract killing, but not necessarily with any enthusiasm, or, indeed, with much skill.” 
A “Journeyman” is far more skilled than the “Novice” and often has access to firearms and criminal networks. He can still flounder in the moment, though. This guy gets nailed because he lives in the same area as the victim, and local law enforcement officers are able to connect the dots.
The researchers argue that most crimes are committed by these first three categories of killers. They maintain that the murders are “commonplace and ordinary” in their execution, and “mundane” in their motives. But they also write: “We also acknowledge that our results relate to those hitmen who have been caught and, of course, those hitmen who remain at large might present a very different profile from those whom we have described here.”
That’s where the speculative and expertly trained “Master” comes in. They created his persona based on unsolved murders:
However, we can glimpse how a ‘Master’ hitman operates when carrying out a hit, in such cases as the hit executed on Frank McPhee in Scotland in May 2000. McPhee, popularly described as a ‘gangland boss’, was killed by a single shot to the head from a .22 rifle with a telescopic sight outside his house in Guthrie Street, Maryhill – just 500 yards from the Maryhill Police Station. It was widely believed that McPhee was killed by a hitman to prevent him from becoming involved with the sale of drugs in Northern Ireland. McPhee’s killer has never been brought to justice. We use cases of this kind, which we suggest were carried out by a ‘Master’ hitman, to throw further light on the characteristics and patterns of behaviours associated with our other three types.
A “Master” doesn’t commit the same mistakes as all the other killers do. They parachute into the selected area, kill, and depart immediately. The researchers speculate that they have paramilitary experience or a great deal of criminal expertise, and they do not live in the same geographic area as victims, which makes them less likely to be thwarted by local law enforcement intelligence. “These ‘Masters’, by virtue of evading justice, exist in the shadows – almost like ghosts – and it has, therefore, been impossible to build up any concrete picture of them as individuals, as opposed to the picture that we have been able to present of the types of hits that they might execute,” they conclude.
But this idea that there are “ghost” killers out there negates the argument that there is any “mundane” average at all. To be able to determine what the true average looks like, the criminologists would have to capture every corner of the market, not just the narrow sample they’re working with. The people doing the death-defying, under-the-radar, cloak-and-dagger, tactical operations are the same ones they have absolutely no intelligence on.
Fortunately, the researchers realize the constraints of their methodology, and acknowledge the possibility of something much darker lurking in their midst. “Indeed, might it be the case that there are some hitmen who are so adept as killers that the deaths of their victims does not even raise suspicion and are, instead, simply thought to be the result of natural causes?”