Spontaneous Broken Symmetry, Secret Mac Factories and One-Click Wildebeests: One Weird Week

Outside of the money you pay for Internet access, it still costs nothing to watch YouTube. Technically.

But if you have a problem with compulsive shopping, you may want to cut up your credit cards, because Google has figured out a new way to monetize its video-sharing site, and it’s actually pretty simple — if not outright obvious.

Say you’re watching a music video on YouTube — you can now click on a link near the viewer window and be taken directly to iTunes to buy that song. Or say you’re looking at a preview for a new video game — click the link and you’re buying the game from Electronic Arts. Other partners include Amazon and Universal Music, but things could get bigger.

I’m thinking direct delivery of Mentos and Diet Coke, hiring out Tay Zonday for children’s birthday parties with one click, or booking a safari to see wildebeests and lions fight it out in real life. Big possibilities here.

Listen to the podcast (13:18 minutes).

A Nobel Pursuit

Nature appears to be a chaotic and random place, but it’s actually quite orderly. It’s the concept of spontaneous broken symmetry that gives the appearance of chaos — things randomly go out of whack, then return to their normal, orderly selves.

In between, we get major disruptions like the Big Bang. The Nobel Foundation thought this concept was important enough that it gave its annual Nobel Prize in physics to three scientists who have applied it in their studies.

One of them, a University of Chicago researcher, came up with the idea of spontaneous broken symmetry decades ago, while the other two applied it to particle physics, using it to explain the existence of certain types of quarks.

Their concepts are being put to the test in the handful of supercolliders around the world, including the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the French-Swiss border. Researchers are using the collider to find proof of the elusive Higgs boson, sometimes called the “God particle.”

What’s Apple Up to Now?

By this time next week, there could be a new line of redesigned MacBooks in Apple stores. Anyone who follows technology knows that Apple is notoriously secretive.

The funny thing is, its fans are among the most rabid of any brand in existence, and that secrecy actually serves to feed the frenzy. Even given its culture of secrecy, though, could Apple actually build an entire factory without anyone knowing? Maybe, if the latest rumor is to be believed.

The story started like this: Apple was getting ready to announce its new MacBook lineup, and it would have something to top the MacBook Air. And it had something to do with, well, Brick. If you want to stir up real excitement among Apple bloggers, give them just one word.

Brick, as the more credible rumors have it, is not a product but a manufacturing process for aluminum laptop cases — such as the ones holding MacBooks together. The process uses lasers and water jets, and is supposed to be more energy efficient than current methods. The end result would be sleek, with no seams or screws — something that surely would appeal to the fashion sensibilities of the Mac crowd.

When talk of Brick peaked, Apple announced it would be hosting a show-and-tell on Oct. 14, and as usual, the company was a little cryptic. However, it did use the word “notebooks.” So what could that mean? Well, along with the Brick buzz, there’s now another rumor: that one MacBook coming down the line will sell for just 800 bucks.

That would actually fit in with a comment that Apple execs made during a quarterly conference call weeks ago. At the time, they warned that an upcoming product might cause the company’s margins to take a hit. That rumored price point is $300 cheaper than the most modest MacBook currently out there. Guess lean times call for lean laptops.

Big Blue’s Big News

IBM jumped the gun on its third-quarter earnings report because it couldn’t wait another week to give investors its good news: The company beat Wall Street analyst profit expectations by 4 cents a share, and given current economic conditions, that’s no mean feat.

The increase amounted to a 20 percent improvement over the same period a year ago. IBM’s shares floated skyward on the news, peaking at $95, a shade off Big Blue’s 52-week high of $131, but respectable nonetheless.

It even looked as if the happiness would spread throughout the tech sector — for about five minutes, that is. Then the markets resumed the awful skid they’ve been on and the Dow lost nearly seven-hundred-points, carrying IBM with it to, you guessed it, a new 52-week-low — 88 bucks.

Big Blue closed the day a dollar higher, but that was no comfort at all. With the Dow dipping below 8,000 this morning, we can only wonder what would have happened if IBM’s news had been bad.

Secretary Whitman?

In the second presidential candidates’ debate, John McCain suggested that former eBay CEO Meg Whitman might be a good choice to succeed Henry Paulson as Secretary of the Treasury. He said, and I quote, “She knows what it’s like to be out there in the marketplace. She knows how to create jobs. Meg Whitman was CEO of a company that started with 12 people and is now 1.3 million people in America make their living off eBay.”

Hate to break it to you, my friend, but as of this week, 1,000 of those people got pink slips. That’s the number of full-time jobs the company jettisoned, which amounts to 10 percent of its workforce.

Temps bring the ballpark figure up to around 1,500 eBay livings lost. The layoffs were a response to a decline in overall consumer spending and increased competition from upstart online auction houses on the small-seller side, and Amazon on the e-commerce Goliath side. eBay’s not exactly hurting for cash, though.

Simultaneous with the downsizing announcement came news it had plunked down $820 million for BillMeLater, an online payment service. Now, you might argue that the job slashes didn’t happen on Whitman’s watch, but she is still a director of the company, as well as an advisor to John McCain.

iPhone’s Endless Summer

Now that we’re all ruined, it might be nice to think back to happier times. It was July of 2008: There was still hope that season 3 of “Heroes” might be OK; the only people talking about economic meltdown were nutters like Warren Buffet; and the iPhone 3G had just descended from on high to make our lives bearable.

Apple had quite a nice summer with its top-selling handset. Between June and August, it went from having an 11 percent share of the smartphone market to 17 percent, according to the NPD Group.

AT&T also benefited from that success. Thirty percent of people who bought an iPhone 3G during that time frame came from rival carriers, and almost half of the ship-jumpers were formerly with Verizon. Remember, though, that the Android is just around the corner, and T-Mobile says pre-sales for the HTC G1 have been much better than it anticipated.

Sony’s E-Reader Upgrade

Sony is hopingthat as the days shorten, more people will be cozying up to a crackling fire with a nice mug of hot chocolate and a good e-book. To read the no-doubt vast collection you have stashed away in your e-library, you’ll need a handy e-reader, something like Sony’s new PRS-700.

Weighing in at about 10 ounces, it’s capable of storing roughly 350 average-length digital novels. Add some optional memory, and you can boost that number to thousands of books and documents of all sorts. If you don’t like the idea of using an electronic device for your reading pleasure, the PRS-700 sports a touchscreen that lets you turn pages with the swipe of a finger, making it feel a bit more like you’re reading an actual book. That’s the idea, anyway.

If you do like the idea of using an electronic e-reader, you might want a little more than the PRS-700 has to offer — like wireless connectivity, for example, which you can get with Amazon’s Kindle. Even if people start warming up to them, though, e-readers may not fly off the shelves this holiday season. Prices remain fairly high, and consumers’ willingness to spend is heading south.

Yahoo Me-Too

Yahoo launched back-to-back product releases that can only be described as me-too announcements. First, there was its upgrade to the decade-old Calendar utility, which improves functionality over the existing version.

Good thing, too, since Yahoo hasn’t updated its calendar the entire time it’s been in existence — and that includes the two years since Google put it to shame in the calendar department. The new version represents the fruit of Yahoo’s purchase of open source company Zimbra and also offers compatibility with Apple’s iCal and the CalDAV standard.

Then, once again following Google, Yahoo announced that it’s getting into the analytics game. Yahoo Web Analytics’ big selling point is that it serves up data in real time. Data delivered by Google Analytics can be hours old by the time you see it.

Google Plays With Ads

Google is expanding its advertising empire to the gaming universe with a program that could pepper online play with video, display or text advertising before, after, or even in the middle of a game.

No one seems to know for sure whether this idea will open up another channel for revenue to flow or cause the heads of diehard gamers to explode. Google is apparently willing to throw the dice. Advertisers might be a little more hesitant.

Besides the possibility of royally pissing off their target markets, they have to consider the content they’re associating their products with.

Maybe fast-food chains will be interested. I hear that blowing things up, shooting things down, and speeding through a blood-spattered landscape can really work up an appetite.

Somebody’s Watching Me

Here’s something I bet you’re not sure you want to know: Your webcam could be watching and recording you, even if you didn’t turn it on.

And I’m not only talking to you laptop thieves who are being busted by the people you stole them from. A new vulnerability has been found that allows a really creepy exploit — it will let someone remotely turn on your webcam and microphone to spy on you.

The weakness is in Adobe Flash Player software. Adobe has issued a workaround and promises that it’s working on a patch, which should be available by the end of the month. Until then, keep your clothes on while around your computer — or at least throw a T-shirt over the webcam.

Still Not Dead

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is sort of a reverse Elvis. You can go a lot of different directions with a comparison like that, but I’m talking about whether the guy’s alive or dead.

In Jobs’ case, he’s alive and well, but stories keep popping up about him going to the hospital or the cemetery. In August, there was that Bloomberg slip-up where someone accidentally posted Jobs’ canned obit.

News services have these pre-written, fill-in-the-blank obituaries on just about everyone who’s anyone, but they’re supposed to keep them under wraps until a person actually passes. That incident looked like an honest mistake.

More recently, though, a story came up on CNN’s iReport, a Web site for citizen journalism. The story reported that Jobs had been taken to the hospital after suffering a massive heart attack.

Apple flatly denied any truth to that, but the company’s stock dipped 10 percent before quickly recovering. This may be more than a case of someone at a news agency hitting the wrong button — perhaps it’s illegal stock manipulation. The SEC is reportedly investigating. On the other hand, next time you see Jobs on TV, keep in mind that Pixar is capable of some really amazing things.

Also in this week’s podcast: AMD goes fabless, Sprint shops Nextel, Ask.com gets all semantic.

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