Police, IFPI make bacon of OiNK BitTorrent tracker

The invite-only music site OiNK will grunt and snuffle no more after police seized the site's servers and arrested a 24-year-old UK man. The IFPI is now crowing over the bust and the closure of the "primary source worldwide for illegal prerelease music." HangZhou Night Net

IFPI and BPI, the UK music trade group, spent two years investigating the private BitTorrent tracker and worked with police in both the UK and the Netherlands to shut the site down. The servers, based in Amsterdam, were grabbed last week, but the alleged administrator of the site was just picked up near Middlesborough in the UK.

OiNK specialized in leaking albums; IFPI estimates that the site had a membership of 180,000 "hard-core file sharers" who had to prove their worthiness to join the site by providing leaked demos or rough mixes of hot upcoming releases.

The site didn't charge a membership fee, but it did accept donations. The Cleveland police, which conducted the UK raid, claim that "hundreds of thousands of pounds" were being made by the operators and then stashed in various bank accounts.

OiNK's address, oddly enough, is oink.cd. The site was previously experiencing DNS problems and eventually decided that the solution was to use an address belonging to the Congo. Now the domain throws up a gray screen with the IFPI and BPI logos. Above those is a warning message about how the site has been closed as the result of a criminal investigation into "suspected illegal music distribution." Will other invite-only tracker sites and darknets take the hint?

Whac-A-Mole

The evolution of such sites follows a predictable pattern. First, the development of new technology like BitTorrent means that people initially believe they can do just about anything they want with the new tools and no one will come after them. Once the tools enter public (and police) consciousness, big sites like OiNK generally move underground and out of easy view, or become targets for rights-holders and law enforcement.

Bringing underground sites down isn't easy, as the two-year IFPI investigation demonstrates, but it can be done. Such attention is generally directed only at sites that have grown exceptionally large or important, and the result is often that the operators get busted but the users simply join smaller and less visible communities.

So is this just a game of Whac-A-Mole? BPI insists that is not. CEO Geoff Taylor said in a statement, "BitTorrent has fast become the most popular file-sharing client, and while the technology is now commonplace, closed criminal networks such as OiNK take time to develop; make no mistake, this operation will cause major disruptions this illegal activity."

The hope is clearly that it will also send a message to smaller darknets who might have believed that they could operate without consequences. The legal pressure brought to bear by music, movie, and television content owners around the world has made operating such sites more risky. Anecdotally, we have some evidence that some of these smaller sites are getting the message. For example, Something Awful used to host forums filled with links to torrent files, but worries about potential legal liability led site operators to abandon the project at the beginning of 2005. Many users then migrated to private spinoff trackers like Whilst, which offered a similar set of torrents to a closed community. In the past few months, Whilst, too, has gotten out of the torrent business, presumably out of concern for liability, and now hosts only a handful of discussion forums.

OiNK may be sizzling in Big Content's frying pan, but there are still countless other private trackers and darknets up and running. The arrest of OiNK's admin shows that there is a definite risk in running these sites, but it's a sure bet that the illicit music previously available on the tracker will eventually find new homes on the Internet—especially with sites such as The Pirate Bay openly flouting the IFPI and other industry groups.

EA removes GTA content from Simpson’s game, but we think that’s a shame

"If we make fun of Grand Theft Auto, we're not going to hurt the sales of Grand Theft Auto… But yeah, we've definitely had some reactions—we've had to pull stuff from the game." HangZhou Night Net

Rockstar has this little thing it does to prepare for games they're working on: it creates a sort of tone poem with scenes from movies and music that help to set the mood for the game. This is what the game should feel like, these are the cues they're taking. I've been lucky enough to see a few of these videos, and they're usually pretty rough, but when you play the resulting game you see where they were coming from; it's a good tool to get the team on the same page when working on a game. This is why it's so surprising to hear that Rockstar may have asked EA to make some changes to the upcoming Simpsons' Game. The Grand Theft Scratchy section is now called Mob Rules; hopefully that was the only edit that had to be made.

The Grand Theft Auto series, and to a lesser extent the sublime Bully, have gotten where they are by tapping deeply into pop culture to bring us characters and worlds we already recognize from numerous films, pop songs, television shows… these are the worlds that people who have been saturated in pop culture dream about. In creating games with such rich material, Rockstar has created a cultural force in Grand Theft Auto; it should be the highest honor that the game and its settings have become so entrenched in our minds that another team is satirizing it. In some ways, it's like the student becoming the master.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; why doesn't Rockstar take the compliment?

I'm not sure what Rockstar hopes to do here. It has always been the bad boy of gaming and its games are wickedly funny and show a sharp mind for picking up on the violence and insanity of pop culture. But, now that Rockstar is pop culture, it seems to have lost its sense of humor about its own brand. Grand Theft Scratchy wouldn't have hurt the brand, and it proves how big the Grand Theft Auto series is to gaming in general. If Rockstar forced EA to remove aspects of the Simpsons' Game, causing lead designer Greg Rizzer to say the words that lead off this post, it shows that Rockstar doesn't quite understand how it got where it is. It's a damn shame for such a talented group of people to be so grumpy about their own ubiquity.

Verizon discovers symmetry, offers 20\/20 symmetrical FiOS service

For years, the broadband wars have been largely fought over download speeds, but Verizon has just thrown down the gauntlet and declared that it's going to fight over upstream speeds too, and in a big way. How does 20Mbps sound? HangZhou Night Net

Some residents of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey who live inside the boundaries of Verizon's FiOS network will be the first to be able to take advantage of Verizon's new 20/20 FiOS service. As the name implies, 20/20 FiOS is a symmetrical 20Mbps connection (same speed in both directions), and it's one of the first symmetrical services to target the consumer market.

Available today, 20/20 will cost $64.99 per month and will include Verizon's Internet Security Suite and 1GB of online backup (up to 50GB can be purchased at "competitive rates").

Susan Retta, the company's VP of Broadband Solutions, was quick to compare the new plan to cable. "For more than a decade, the Internet has been defined by how quickly you can download content," Retta said."Our 20/20 FiOS service changes everything by creating an entirely new category of US broadband where 'fast' means fast in both directions."

It's a category of broadband that cable companies have yet to embrace. Although Comcast, Charter, Cox, and other cable ISPs have bumped download speeds in areas where they are facing direct competition from Verizon, they haven't shown much love for upload speeds. Those typically remain stuck in the 256Kbps to 1.5Mbps range even as downloads soar above 10Mbps. If Verizon is able to effectively sell the advantages of symmetrical service to Joe Sixpack, cable companies may be forced to widen the upload pipe.

20Mbps upload speeds will enable a whole host of new services, many of them actually legal (symmetrical connections can also be a boon to P2P networks). Uploading high-def video to friends and family, for instance, suddenly becomes a possibility instead of a nightmare. Online backup systems like Mozy have been gaining in popularity, but it currently takes days to back up a media collection or large photo set. Verizon, of course, also touts the standard example that's always trotted out when speed claims are made: medical imaging.

FiOS now has more than half a million subscribers. How many of them actually need a 20Mbps upstream connection remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that the cool factor here is off the charts; we're confident1 that "Hey baby, want to head back to my place to see to me stream high-def video from my Mac?" will soon be the hot new pickup line at NYC nightclubs.

1Note: we are not sure of this at all. Use line at your own risk.

Wal-Mart fires warning shots over Black Friday sales price leaks

It's that time of year already: even though you're still stockpiling your Halloween candy and figuring out whether to be a pirate or a ninja, retailers are gearing up for the holiday shopping season. That shopping season officially begins, of course, with the day after Thanksgiving, known as "Black Friday" in the US. But unlike previous years, some retailers aren't waiting until after the bargain sites post their leaked Black Friday ads in order to threaten them with legal action. In Wal-Mart's case, it's making a few preemptive strikes in hopes of preventing its prices from being leaked too early. HangZhou Night Net

"It has recently come to our attention that you and/or your company may potentially obtain possession of and ultimately release Wal-Mart's sales circulars, advertisements or other information prior to their authorized release dates," reads the letter sent to several deal sites and posted by Chilling Effects. "Please be advised that the information on Wal-Mart's circulars and advertisements are, prior to their authorized release date of November 19, 2007, confidential and proprietary information of Wal-Mart. The circulars and advertisements, as well as related documents are also protected by copyright and other laws. Therefore, any unauthorized reproduction, publication, or distribution of the information or materials (e.g., via website) prior to Wal-Mart's authorized release date violates Wal-Mart's rights."

Wal-Mart warns that anyone who violates the company's terms by posting the Black Friday ads before the specified date could be subject to "liabilities and severe legal penalties," and that the documents are protected by "copyright and other laws."

This is not the first time that retailers have tried to claim that their sale prices were copyrighted. Best Buy began to make headlines in the last few years for sending DMCA takedown notices to the ISPs of sites that published its prices. It claimed that prices are not facts, but rather intellectual property that can be copyrighted—something that deal site FatWallet disagreed with in 2003 when it sued Best Buy for abuse of the DMCA.

But as Chilling Effects founder Wendy Seltzer points out, it looks like Wal-Mart is attempting a new strategy with its early notices by making broader claims about its "commercially valuable" pricing information. By making these claims, Wal-Mart could be looking to get in under trade secret laws that prohibit the transmission of information that affect the company's sales (other companies may see the prices and decide to alter their own to better compete). Wal-Mart is making sure that the sites know that they could be misappropriating confidential information, which might then allow the company to pursue further legal action in the future if the sites still push forward with the sale prices.

Five things to do in the 360 Guitar Hero 3 demo, available today on Live

The Guitar Hero 3 demo is out—no need to download a semi-pirate copy or buy Tony Hawk to get it. We've had the Guitar Hero 3 guitar in our possession for a while (we've given our thoughts on battle mode), but now everyone gets their chance to jam out. So what should you do once you download it? HangZhou Night Net

Play "Even Flow" Guitar Hero 3 will feature over 70 songs, and many more of them will be master tracks compared to previous games. "Even Flow" is a great track for Guitar Hero 3, and you may be surprised by how challenging it is. This is a song that I'm guessing would have been slaughtered by a cover, but having the original is just great.

Get a note streak In Guitar Hero 3, if you hit 20 notes in a a row, a little streak counter pops up under your rock meter. This allows you to keep track of how many notes you've played in a row. While watching that counter instead of the notes can be a problem, this is a great way to keep track of how close you are to having a song mastered.

Own a friend in Battle Mode Opinions are mixed on this one. Some people say Battle Mode makes the game unfriendly, but it's not like the developers took away Co-op or Face-Off modes. If anything, this gives you a more aggressive game to play in addition to all the friendliness. The attacks, gained the same way you gain star power in the previous games, allow you to royally mess up your opponent; you don't know pain until someone throws you into expert mode before breaking a string with two attacks. It might be a gimmick, but it's also fun if you're in the mood to really test someone's skills.

Activate Star Power This counts for attacks in Battle Mode as well. It feels like it takes much less tilt to activate star power in Guitar Hero 3. This means that Guitar Hero 2 and Guitar Hero 3 guitars will have a different feel for the movement required to activate star power. Start practicing now, and let's hope this is something they add a dial for. A way to make star power easier/harder to activate would be great.

Watch a friend play While the art feels different than previous Guitar Hero games, the character models and their ability to play and sing along to the songs are pretty amazing. Don't bother trying to watch when you're playing—you're just asking for failure. Give a friend the controller, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Once you've spent some time with the demo, come back and tell us what you think. Some people have been complaining about the audio mix, but so far for me it hasn't been bad—or at least not bad enough to really get in arms about. This looks like it's going to be another solid entry in the series.

iTunes Store boosts indie offerings while Hollywood still holds out

It's no secret that the iTunes Store's movie selection is lagging behind the soaring success of the music department. While the store has steadily risen up the top music retailer charts (currently holding the number 3 spot under Best Buy and Wal-Mart), the iTunes Store's best-selling movie list includes not much more than a few Disney/Pixar hits and classics like The Princess Bride and Zoolander. HangZhou Night Net

In other words: the movie shelves aren't exactly stocked with fresh goods. Obviously the iTunes Store can't simply wait around for Hollywood to pull its head out of its ass, so the store is looking to expand its horizons into an industry that we reported back in February was ripe for digital distribution: independent film.

The iTunes Store will now debut Purple Violets on November 20, a $4 million film from indie director Edward Burns. It will be the first time a feature film debuts exclusively on the iTunes Store, according to the New York Times, and the latest step towards injecting life into the store's struggling movie section. For now, it seems as though only indies are steadily hopping on board and singing the praises of the iTunes Store.

While the "little guys" (as they're called by Apple's iTunes VP Eddy Cue) are thrilled to gain the visibility the iTunes Store provides, the store still doesn't seem to be making headway on the larger challenge it faces: getting the major studios to stop quibbling over outlandish DRM and prices for digital content. Hollywood got spooked by the sudden and rampant spread of music piracy, but now it seems to have a hard time learning from the music industry's turnaround success with legitimate digital distribution outlets.

Ultimately, it looks like Hollywood and the iTunes Store are likely to be stuck in a stalemate for some time. Hollywood wants higher prices (despite making even more money per digital download than with DVDs) and crappier restrictions. In Apple's favor, however, most consumers typically don't jump ship after they've invested time and money in products like the iPod and iTunes Store—the current DRM that still exists on much of the store's music and all of its video will help keep those consumers in their seats for some time. Our best hope for now is that a growing indie film segment in the iTunes Store will drag the movie dinosaurs out of their self-imposed mothballs and into the 21st digital distribution century. We aren't quite ready to start holding our breath just yet, though.

Samsung SDI posts loss on weakening plasma prices

Up until the past few years, plasma screen technology dominated the 40"+ television market. Not only did plasma screens offer a larger picture than LCD's could produce, they were typically brighter, sported better contrast ratios, faster response times, and wider viewing angles than their LCD counterparts. Recently, however, LCD's have narrowed the gap significantly in many of these areas, and companies like Samsung SDI that specialize in producing plasma screens are feeling the pinch as a result. HangZhou Night Net

As ZDNet reports, Samsung SDI posted a net loss of $112.2 million for its July-September quarter, which actually beat the $125.4 million loss analysts predicted. Sales of plasma screens actually grew by 40 percent compared to the second quarter of this year, but the falling price of plasma screens has hurt Samsung SDI's efforts to re-enter the black. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that things will get better any time in the near future, although SDI does expect plasma prices to stabilize in the fourth quarter. Plasma television sales have continued to grow, from 750,000 sold in 2005 to one million sold in 2006, but LCD television sales grew from 2.6 million to 5.2 million over the same time period.

Now that LCD's have moved into the large display segment, it's clear that plasma has some significant deficiencies compared to LCD. Although the average cost of a plasma television dropped dramaticatically this year, from $2480 to $1664, that's still nearly double the cost of an LCD television, which dropped from $989 to $932. Plasma screens are also tremendous power hogs compared to LCD screens, and can draw up to 400W depending on the size of the screen and what's being watched.

Samsung SDI and other plasma manufacturers are collectively working to boost the both the power and luminous efficiency of their displays, while simultaneously working towards bringing OLED screens to the mass market. Realistically, however, OLED technology is years away from mass deployment. Sony has stated it intends to introduce an OLED television next year with a screen somewhere between 11 and 27 inches—and a price tag of $800-$1000. Without being able to count on OLED technology as a near-term revenue source, Samsung SDI and other plasma manufacturers are going to have to focus their efforts on building a better class of plasma screen. If not, they risk being eliminated from the consumer market.

Effects of chewing gum and fast food on diet

This week, the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity is being held in New Orleans, Louisiana. A pair of studies presented on Monday examined a contributing factor in obesity and a simple way to help control appetite. The first study reported results from a series of national surveys carried out over the past three years that examined American's eating out habits. The second looked at using chewing gum as an afternoon appetite suppressant. HangZhou Night Net

Researchers at Temple University carried out an analysis of people's view towards healthy foods in restaurants. The study found that "Americans are less willing to pay more for healthy dishes, less knowledgeable about healthy menu items, and more likely to consider healthy items bland tasting." According to the study's lead author,Kelley E. Borradaile, "the results underscore the importance of competitively pricing healthy foods."

Data for this study came from a series of three national phone interviews carried out in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Each survey reached at least 4,000 adults aged 18 to 98. In the 2006 survey, Americans reported eating out five times a week. Fast food was the most common choice for breakfast and lunch; for dinner, casual dining and fast food were the most common options. The survey found that those who ate fast food three to six times a week had a BMI that was "significantly greater" than those who ate less than one or two fast food meals a week. It was also found that an additional one, two, or three fast food meals correlated with an increased body mass of 0.63, 1.26, 1.86 kg, respectively. As obesity becomes a bigger and bigger health concern in the US, the series of surveys found that "Americans were less likely to pay more for healthier foods, less knowledgeable about healthy menu items and more likely to consider healthy items bland-tasting in 2006 than in 2004," according to Borradaile. Even with the increased public discourse, people are less informed about the effects of food on their daily diet.

A separate study, carried out by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University and theWrigley Science Institute, found that chewing gum can be a good appetite suppressant. The study found that by chewing gum before an afternoon snack, one would consume 25 less snack calories. While that is not a high number, according to nutritionists, even a slight reduction in caloric intake can have significant effects in the long term. This study was comprised of 60 adults between the ages of 18 and 54. Each participant consumed a sweet and salty snack after either chewing sweet gum or not chewing gum at all. Hunger, appetite, and cravings were then monitored throughout the remainder of the day. Along with reducing caloric intake, participants reported feeling an improved mood due to reduced anxiety and stress, and increasing contentment and relaxation.

TiVo Series 3 and HD get bonus features, multi-room viewing

Just weeks after announcing its partnership with Rhapsody to offer music services, TiVo today announced a host of new features, as well as an eSATA storage product, that will be available for Series 3 and TiVo HD boxes. HangZhou Night Net

We're most excited about the arrival of TiVo's Multi-Room Viewing (MRV) which will allow users to view their stored TiVo shows across separate TiVo devices in different rooms. For example, if you've stored an episode of Golden Girls in your living room, you can also watch it on the TiVo in your bedroom as you doze off. For TiVo fanatics, this is the best way to record all your favorite shows, even when you might have 3 or even 4 shows on at once (recording 2 per DVR, for instance). MRV support will extend across Series 2, Series 3, and TiVo HD boxes, although recordings must be sent from a Series 3/HD box to the Series 2, and not vice versa, and the Series 2 cannot handle HD content.

The Series 3 and HD boxes also now support TiVoToGo, which will allow any downloaded content to be sent across your network to a laptop or desktop computer, where it can be either viewed using Desktop Plus, or burned to a DVD. If you're using Mac OS, instead of using TiVo's Desktop software, you'll be able to use Roxio Toast 8 or Popcorn 3.

In a joint venture with Western Digital, TiVo has released the first
TiVo-certified external storage device, dubbed the "My DVR Expander."
It's a 500GB eSATA drive which looks just like the MyBook line
of external drives currently offered from WD, albeit with an orange
drive light. The My DVR extender will work with the TiVo HD and Series
3 DVRs and will be available from Best Buy or the TiVo store for
$199.99. eSATA support is nice, but the added box, power requirements, and heat have us thinking that hardcore users are better off hacking their own storage expansions or turning to a Weaknees TiVo.

Finally, TiVo also announced a progressive download feature, which will allow users to begin watching downloaded content from Amazon UnBox as it's downloading instead of having to wait until the download completes to begin watching the media. Keep in mind that this feature is completely reliant on the network connection's ability to download at a quick pace: if the download is too slow, the software may limit playback to avoid any hiccups.

We have a pair of Weaknees TiVos in the lab for testing, so we'll be testing out a bunch of the new functionalities, including the Multi-Room Viewing support, in the near future.

Floating, Texas-sized garbage patch threatens Pacific marine sanctuary

A looming environmental threat the size of Texas should be hard to miss, but when that threat is floating in a rarely-visited section of the Pacific Ocean and composed of a diffuse mass of plastic, it's easy for it to avoid public attention. The recent establishment of a marine preserve north of the Hawaiian Islands has refocused attention on this floating refuse heap, which has picked up the moniker the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. HangZhou Night Net

The technical name for this area is the North Pacific subtropical gyre. It is bounded on all sides by a clockwise flow of currents around the Pacific basin and tends to have a high-pressure system sitting over it for much of the year. The net result of these conditions is that material that drifts into this area tends to stay there, as this portion of ocean doesn't mix much with the surrounding currents.

Up until recent years, much of this material has been biodegradable; the arrival of plastics, however, has changed that. A survey (PDF) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that dates from 1999 suggested that, at the surface, plastic was present at five kilograms per square kilometer—that's nearly six times the plankton density in the same area. Most of the plastic was either thin films (such as trash and grocery bags) or monofilament line used in fishing.

Given that the Garbage Patch falls in a rarely-traveled area of ocean, the accumulation of plastic was unlikely to draw much public attention. But the region's obscurity actually helped it gain widespread attention. A chain of islands extending northwest from Hawaii that forms the Garbage Patch's western border have been largely untouched since their use as American bases during World War II. Last year, President Bush ordered that they remain undisturbed, creating the Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument (the web site contains an MP3 of its proper pronunciation).

The sanctuary designation means that the government is now obliged to come up with a management plan and perform regular environmental assessments, both of which are likely to focus attention on those contents of the Garbage Patch that either wash ashore on these islands or interfere with the animal life within the preserve. Even prior to the reserve's formation, Congress had passed a law that directed NOAA and the US Coast Guard to begin tracking marine debris and participate in global efforts directed towards its reduction. Unfortunately, the money necessary for these agencies to implement the law did not appear in the subsequent budget.

Plastics are an essential part of modern life, so this problem is not going away in the near future. One possible way of cutting down on the accumulation of plastic there would be to shift to plastics with a shorter half-life in the environment. But until these plastics hit the market, the clearest way to prevent the Garbage Patch from growing and harming the United States' largest marine sanctuary is to prevent the plastic from getting there in the first place, either by limiting its use or aggressively recycling it.