Tech Thoughts Daily Net News – June 23, 2014

Walmart, Virgin Mobile Team Up for $20 Phone Plans;  30-Second Tech Trick: How to Save a Wet Phone;  The best alternatives to Google’s stock Android apps;  The EFF wants to improve your privacy by making your Wi-Fi public;  Launch Window: Upcoming Tech Product Releases;  25 great Linux games available dirt cheap during Steam’s Summer Sale;  Amazon Flow: Try Firefly on your existing phone (sort of);  10 Shocking Games That Ignited Controversy;  The best video game trailers of all time;  Seven common Android problems and how to fix them (pictures);  A list of all the Google Now voice commands;  German publishers want an 11 percent cut of Google News;  Illinois university offering sports scholarships… for League of Legends players.

Walmart, Virgin Mobile Team Up for $20 Phone Plans – Budget-conscious consumers can pick up a Kyocera Kona or Samsung Montage at Walmart with service from Virgin Mobile for just $20 a month, the Sprint-owned prepaid wireless carrier announced on Friday. There’s two different “payLo” plans to choose from, one of which emphasizes texting and the other talking.

The best alternatives to Google’s stock Android apps – Your Android phone came with so many apps preinstalled, but not all of them are crapware foisted upon you by carriers and OEMs. Once you dig through all that junk (and disable it), you get the the core of the experience with apps like Gmail, Maps, Play Music, Chrome, and more. They all work pretty well these days, but have you ever considered for a moment that they might not be the best option? Shocking, I know! Let’s check out the best alternatives to stock Android apps.

A list of all the Google Now voice commands – You pick up your phone and say “OK Google”… and then what? Your phone is listening. The microphone icon is pulsing. What do you say to your phone? What can you say to it? Google Now’s voice function has become surprisingly robust over the years. Here’s a list of just about everything you can say to Google Now. Try experimenting with different phrasing, you’ll be surprised how much it understands.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Now On Sale in the U.S., Canada – Heads up, if you’re in the market for a new tablet. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, billed as “the tablet that can replace your laptop,” is now on sale in the U.S. and Canada. Starting at $799, the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 is available through Microsoft stores, MicrosoftStore.com, and retailers like Best Buy, Staples, and Tiger Direct.

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GM’s new app lets you scan license plates and text the drivers – The folks at GM’s China R&D division have been hard at work thinking up new ways to connect drivers, and the by-product is a prototype app called DiDi Plate for Android smartphones. With the app, drivers can snap a picture of someone’s license plate, which is then used with an identification database to send that driver unsolicited text messages. DiDi Plate is centric to the Chinese market, fortunately, and would likely never get off the ground in the US, where privacy issues would cause a quick uproar

Amazon Flow: Try Firefly on your existing phone (sort of) – Hands-down, one of the most impressive features we saw during a demo of Amazon’s soon-to-launch Fire Phone was Firefly, Amazon’s answer to real-time discovery. Better yet, you can access some of it right now, on your own phone, without even having to wait for the Fire Phone to launch.Firefly is an extension of an older Amazon app for iOS and Android—Flow Powered by Amazon—and it’s available in the iOS App Store and Google Play Store right now.

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Simple mouse and keyboard tricks for efficient file management – Yes, they’re a pain to learn, and many of us are used to sticking with a mouse. Nevertheless, being familiar with even a handful of shortcuts will help you get around your system faster—plus it has the added benefit of making you feel like a power user.

This Company Will Help Job Seekers Erase Unseemly Facebook Photos – By the time this year’s college graduates grab their diplomas, they’ll likely have heard countless warnings about what not to post on social media. But in case they never listened — and are only just starting to grasp what four years of keg stands and Solo cups might do to their employment prospects — Social Sweepster wants to help. The service goes through Facebook and Twitter accounts to find photos and posts that might make hiring managers think twice, the New York Times reports.

Kingston and PNY found changing SSD components – ExtremeTech reports that Kingston and PNY are changing the components in their SSDs once the initial reviews are in. And not necessarily for the better.

Launch Window: Upcoming Tech Product Releases – Wondering what’s coming in the weeks ahead? You could consult your favorite fortune teller, but she won’t tell you what’s really important: the latest gadget releases! Whatever it is—a game, a phone, a tablet, or a mysterious new product—if we’ve got the scoop on when it’s going to make a public debut, we’ll share it here. Bookmark this page so you’ll know when you can get your hands on the latest products. Maybe you’ll even discover something here you didn’t know you absolutely had to have.

Mozilla is working on a Firefox OS powered Google Chromecast killer – Mozilla could be working on a Firefox OS powered, Google Chromecast rivaling media-streaming stick for use with any compatible display according to a new report by Gigaom who obtained hands-on access.

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10 Shocking Games That Ignited Controversy – Critics claim that violent behavior can be linked to violent video games, though the jury is still out on that one. But no matter where you come down on the issue, some video games have definitely have crossed the line from questionable to offensive. Check out the slideshow for 10 games that sparked some real controversy.

OK Google, let’s rock: Android apps can play music directly from Google search – If you use Google Search to look up musicians and bands on your Android handset, you’re in luck. Google now provides a one-touch option to play their music right now on your Android* phone. *Yup, that’s an asterisk. This feature requires your Android smartphone to be already loaded with one or more music playback apps; namely, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, Spotify, TuneIn, or YouTube. And so far it’s only for Android users in the United States.

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Seven common Android problems and how to fix them (pictures) – Let’s face it, our phones aren’t perfect. When they aren’t running out of juice, they are slow, won’t power on, or have problems connecting to the Internet. These are some quick fixes for some of the most common problems Android owners face.

30-Second Tech Trick: How to Save a Wet Phone – Step One: Don’t panic, but don’t NOT panic.

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Security:

Yo hack spills users’ phone numbers – Single-function messaging app Yo may have seemed like a gimmick – albeit one raising $1m in funding – but it’s also got an unpleasant security sting in its tail, with hackers claiming to be able to extract phone numbers of users. Yo arrived to mixed confusion and enthusiasm earlier this week, intended to do one thing in sending a “Yo” message to a contact.

The EFF wants to improve your privacy by making your Wi-Fi public – According to Wired, the EFF will release free firmware for Wi-Fi routers that will “let you share a portion of your Wi-Fi network, password-free, with anyone nearby.” The software, called “Open Wireless Router,” is part of the EFF’s OpenWireless.org initiative, which aims to make free wireless Internet as ubiquitous as possible. The idea here is that by opening up your network to strangers, not only are you being a good neighbor, but traffic on your network can’t necessarily be tracked back to you—a potential boon for those for whom privacy is sacrosanct.  The EFF will officially release the Open Wireless Router firmware at next month’s Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference.

Heartbleed Isn’t Dead Yet – There’s a really good reason why security researchers were so spooked by the Heartbleed bug: there’s just no silver bullet. Even if we somehow banded together to get most of the world’s systems patched, a big chunk of the Internet would likely be left vulnerable. Sure enough, Heartbleed beats on.

Mock email scam ensnares hundreds of bureaucrats at Justice Canada – Many of the Justice Department’s finest legal minds are falling prey to a garden-variety Internet scam. An internal survey shows almost 2,000 staff were conned into clicking on a phoney “phishing” link in their email, raising questions about the security of sensitive information. The Justice Department’s mock exercise caught 1,850 people clicking on the phoney embedded links, or 37 per cent of everyone who received the emails. That’s a much higher rate than for the general population, which a federal website says is only about five per cent.

Company News:

German publishers want an 11 percent cut of Google News – Several of Germany’s largest newspaper and magazine publishers have instituted legal proceedings against Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. They’re seeking an order that would make the search engines pay them an 11 percent portion of their “gross sales, including foreign sales” that come “directly and indirectly from making excerpts from online newspapers and magazines public.” That’s according to new media pundit Jeff Jarvis, who published a blog post this morning calling the demands “as absurd as they are cynical and dangerous” and part of a German “war on the link.”

Twitter sued over spammy text messages – Twitter has been slapped with a lawsuit, the reason for which revolving around text messages. The social network has been accused of ignoring requirements to keep an eye on which phone numbers have been ported or disconnected, resulting in spam, as well as failing to honor requests to stop the notifications.

T-Mobile CEO apologizes after accusing rivals of “raping” consumers – John Legere, chief executive officer of T-Mobile US, is well known for his outspoken views, and frequently takes to Twitter to share them with his 288,000 followers. Even at official media events, Legere is famed for his profanity-laden speeches, often referring to rival carriers in less than flattering terms. John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile US, has apologised for his comments at the company’s latest Uncarrier launch event, at which he said that rivals AT&T and Verizon were “raping” their customers. (Outspoken views = sociopathic ignorant prick!)

Google’s Nest Buys Dropcam for $555M – For now, the two firms will operate independently, and it will be business as usual for Dropcam users. But eventually, “we’ll incorporate Dropcam into how we do business at Nest. That includes how we handle everything from customer support to customer privacy,” Matt Rogers, Nest founder and head of engineering, wrote in a blog post. Ultimately, Nest wants to “reinvent products that will help shape the future of the conscious home.”

Will Google Enter The Insurance Industry? – When it comes to collecting and organizing information, Google is well on its way to establishing its hegemony through the registration of 6 billion daily unique searches and indexing of over 50 billion web pages (2013). What remains to be seen is how this information is being made universally accessible and at what price. One of the industries that has particular advantage of access to the world’s information is insurance.

FCC Hits Chinese Company with Record Fine for Selling Signal Jammers – The Federal Communications Commission has announced a record-breaking fine against Chinese electronics manufacturer and online retailer C.T.S. Technology Co. Ltd. The $34.9 million penalty, which the FCC revealed publicly on Thursday, stems from allegations that C.T.S Technology marketed and sold signal jammers to U.S. Customers. In the FTC’s eyes, that’s a big no-no.

Games and Entertainment:

The 20 best hidden deals buried in Steam’s massive summer games sale – Steam’s annual Summer Sale kicked off Thursday and runs through June 30th, bringing a bonanza of deeply discounted game sales every day throughout. While the front page is the place to find great time-limited deals on hot new titles or popular favorites, there are still a bunch of sales on lesser-known or older titles sitting in the background that are also on sale, but not advertised on Steam’s front page.

Amid controversy, Ubisoft denies downgrading graphics on PC Watch Dogs – Much has already been made about how the final shipped version of Watch Dogs looks considerably worse than the version shown in presentations at the last two E3 shows. Those comparisons took on new weight when modders found references in the PC code to settings and animations explicitly meant for “E3” mode. Some have suggested that Ubisoft purposely scaled back the performance of the PC version of the game so it wouldn’t outclass the console versions too handily. One comment unearthed from the code lends some credence to this idea, by derisively suggesting that a color setting “is PC only, who cares.”

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A shot from the modded version of Watch Dogs shows the impact of “unlocked” effects like fog and variable depth of field.

The Sims 4 preview: More hangout spaces, better personalities breathe fresh life into The Sims – During last week’s E3, we sat in on a few gameplay sessions from Sims 4 producers, where we heard the repeated claim that “we’ve made Sims three-dimensional… on the inside.” In spite of the cheesy phrase, however, the game’s robust character creator makes us wonder what took EA and Maxis so long to make something like this, doling out equally robust sliders for faces and character interests.

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25 great Linux games available dirt cheap during Steam’s Summer Sale – Who says great games can’t be found on Linux? This small army of killer Linux-compatible games beg to differ—and they can all be found dirt-cheap during Steam’s Summer Sale.

The best video game trailers of all time – Developers go so far above and beyond creating that mini-commercial for their game that they ultimately create a tasteful, self-contained narrative all on its own that’s able to be delivered in just a couple of minutes. Many trailers are good, but only a select few can survive on their own as a separate piece of flash video fiction, and these are the best out there.

Illinois university offering sports scholarships… for League of Legends players: Up to 50 percent off board and tuition for accomplished gamers – The university is looking for applicants who participate in the League of Legends High School Starleague, with a view to building a League team to play in the Collegiate Star League (a separate competition to League of Legends developer Riot’s own collegiate program). The 2014 season starts in September and will feature teams from 103 different institutions.

Off Topic (Sort of):

Consumer Robotics Is Finally Ready For Prime Time – The robotics revolution has been in the making for decades, but market expectations have historically outpaced technology readiness. While industrial and military sectors have adopted a number of high-priced robotics solutions, the consumer sector has lagged due to lack of technological maturity and high costs.

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8 technologies on the way out — and one we’ll never lose – A technology that’s on top today can be made obsolete by the next big thing. Six futurists predict which of today’s common technologies are headed for the scrap heap.

U.S. Government To Ban Drones In National Parks – So, you bought a drone. What are you going to do with it first? Snap some real estate photos of your house? Take a dronie? Crash it into a tree then try to convince the manufacturer it came like that? If your answer is “Take it to a national park”, you might want to reconsider. That’s not allowed anymore. The US Government’s National Park Service has just issued an order banning unmanned aircrafts from being launched, landed, or operated in any of the 58 US national parks.

More Than 400 Military Drones Have Crashed Worldwide – No deaths from drone crashes have been reported yet but the documents detail close calls, including in the United States. In April, a 375-pound drone crashed near an elementary-school playground in Pennsylvania where children had been playing just minutes after students left for the day, the Post reports. The investigation calls into question the safety and security of drones, which have become increasingly prominent in U.S. military operations, with commercial operations set to expand in the coming years.

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Little girl persuades Google to give dad day off (with cute letter) – A little girl writes to Google and complains that her daddy gets only Saturdays off from the company. And it’s his birthday. Google relents.

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The Daily Show mocks Google Glass but privacy concerns are real – Seemingly everyone likes to ridicule Glass wearers, even “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” But the privacy issues brought up on a recent segment are real.

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The Daily Show screenshot by Teena Hammond/TechRepublic 

Something to think about:

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Today’s Free Downloads:

Foxit Reader – Foxit Reader is designed for a broad spectrum of users including enterprise and government organizations. Foxit Reader is fully customizable to meet any organization business objective and its small footprint makes it easy to deploy. It is also packed with features not available in competitor’s products. Foxit Foxit Reader’s small footprint makes easy to update and maintain. Finally, Foxit Reader adheres to all ISO 32000 standards.

Its core function is compatible with PDF Standard 1.7. Therefore, using Foxit Reader you will no longer have to worry about document incompatibility.

Features:

Interactive form: This new feature enables you to interactively fill out a PDF form, export it as a FDF file, e-mail it and save it together with PDF document.

On-demand download of add-ons: Foxit Reader enables you to download add-ons at your needs and when necessary.

Multi-language UI support: Foxit Reader 2.0 supports dynamical UI language switch. English is the default UI language, but you can select a localized language from the Language menu.

JavaScript add-on: This powerful new feature allows advanced users to create complex logic for PDF forms, to validate user input and process data.

Self upgrade: With this new feature, Foxit Reader self-upgrade, you don’t have to manually download a new version from website, only need to click on “checking for updates now” from the Help menu. Update manager will search for a latest version available on Foxit server, download and re-install it.

Improved printing speed: Foxit Reader 2.0 has improved printing speed for PS (Postscript) printer.

Streamlined UI: Foxit Reader 2.0 consolidated toolbar for a streamlined UI, creating a neat and better look and feel.

Breezing-fast: When you run Foxit Reader, it launches instantly without any delay. You are not forced to view an annoying splash window displaying company logo, author names, etc.

Annotation tool: Have you ever wished to annotate (or comment on) a PDF document when you are reading it? Foxit Reader 2.0 allows you to draw graphics, highlight text, type text and make notes on a PDF document and then print out or save the annotated document.

Text converter: You may convert the whole PDF document into a simple text file.

High security and privacy: Foxit Reader highly respects the security and privacy of users and will never connect to Internet without users’ permission. While other PDF Reader often silently connects to the Internet in the background.

Nexus Root Toolkit – This program will automatically bring together all the files you need to unlock and root your device in a few clicks, or flash it back to stock and re-lock it. You can also use this program to backup/restore all your important data, flash zips, set file permissions, push and pull files, install apps, generate logcats/bugreports, and much more!

With the included file association options, you can perform tasks like flashing zips, installing apps, restoring android backup files, and flashing/booting img files with just a double click! The program includes a full featured interface for automating tasks in TWRP, enhanced restore features, an in-built auto-updater/notification system, ‘any build’ mode, advanced restore features,’NRT- Live Log’ for viewing the adb/fastboot cmds that are run in the background, quick tools utilities, and tools for taking screenshots/screen-recordings. All the latest Android builds and Nexus devices are officially supported.

The program intelligently and selectively downloads the files it needs for your device and makes sure you are using the latest files available. The main changes in this release are enhancements to the screen recording feature, some added driver information, and extended support for all the latest KitKat builds.

Supported Nexus devices:

· Galaxy Nexus: GSM Models (both yakju and non-yakju builds)

· Galaxy Nexus: CDMA/LTE Verizon Models

· Galaxy Nexus: CDMA/LTE Sprint Models

· Nexus S: Worldwide, i9020t and i9023 Models

· Nexus S: 850MHz, i9020a Models

· Nexus S: Korea, m200 Models

· Nexus S 4G: d720 Models

· Nexus 7: Asus Tablet

· Nexus 7 3G: Asus Tablet

· Nexus 7 v2 (2013): Asus Tablet

· Nexus 7 v2 (2013) LTE: Asus Tablet

· Nexus 10: Samsung Tablet

· Nexus 4: LG Phone

· Nexus 5: LG Phone

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In Pursuit of Freedom – The Pushback Continues:

NSA Reform Gathers Momentum In Congress After Late-Night Vote – After a somewhat desultory year of little to no change, reform of the United States surveillance state appears to have finally found momentum.

Recently the USA FREEDOM Act was gutted and rammed through the House, and two funding amendments that would have cut monies for forced backdoors and certain government searches failed.

Last night, however, the House passed a single amendment to the military funding bill that did what the two failed amendments had attempted. At once, a large House majority had taken an unambiguous stand against certain parts of the government’s surveillance activities.

It’s up to the Senate to act now, but at a minimum, those looking to reform the National Security Agency (NSA) aren’t losing every skirmish.

Where do we go from here? Co-sponsors of the House amendment that passed are pledging more action. In a collection of statements provided to TechCrunch, Rep. Zoe Lofgren said that the “amendment is a worthwhile step forward and will make a meaningful difference, but our work is not done.” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner had a similar comment, saying that the passage of the amendment, and the USA FREEDOM Act are “positive, but not final, steps in our efforts to reform the administration’s surveillance authorities and protect Americans’ civil liberties.”

In the upper chamber, the current pace of change isn’t enough for some.

Illinois buys cell-tracking gear complete with NDAs, no-bid process – Newly published documents show that in July 2008, the Illinois State Police purchased over $250,000 worth of “covert cellular tracking equipment” from the Harris Corporation. The federally funded gear likely includes a Stingray and related devices that track a phone’s location and can also be used to intercept calls and text messages.

The 110-page set of documents represents yet another puzzle piece in the slowly emerging national picture of how such devices are acquired and used.

The document set also indicates that the Illinois governor’s office signed off on the equipment purchase and authorized an exemption from the “competitive bid process.” It includes a rarely seen Harris contract that uses language meant to keep the stingray purchase quiet. The documents, which cover a period between 2008 and 2012, were obtained through a public records request and were first published earlier this week by Scott Ainsile, a freelance “data pilgrim” based in the United Kingdom, with help from Heather Akers-Healy.

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Legal experts: Cops lying about cell tracking “is a stupid thing to do” – Legal experts—including a former US magistrate judge—are dismayed and appalled at the stingray-related e-mails published late Thursday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union.

As we reported last night, the 2009 e-mail exchange between police departments in Sarasota, Florida and North Port, Florida, shows that local law enforcement had concealed the use of cell phone-tracking devices, known as “stingrays,” in court documents. This deception could lead to punishment for law enforcement officers or perhaps even their lawyers, the legal scholars said.

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