21st Log: This is your brain on hype


Andrew Leonard
October 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

This is your brain on hype

"It's like getting a new brain for your Mac -- for only $99!"

Apple is proud of its new operating system upgrade, MacOS 8.5, and it's telling the world. Nothing wrong with that -- but the hype level in its new ad campaign is deafening. OS 8.5 includes an innovative new search system, Sherlock, that finds stuff both on the Net and on your Mac; and it contains the usual operating system upgrade bug fixes, system speedups and interface improvements. For instance, Apple has finally revised its antiquated "Open File/Save As" dialogue boxes. Yay.

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But such changes do not "a new brain" make. And the Apple marketing campaign trumpeting the notion that you can "Get a new Mac for $99" just might leave some buyers a little disappointed when they realize that, um, it's actually still the same old Mac with a few nice tweaks.

Getting a "new brain" for an older Mac today actually costs a lot more than $99. The cheapest upgrade cards to rev up old Mac systems with new G3 PowerPC processors start at around $400.

-- Scott Rosenberg
SALON | Oct. 23, 1998

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"Star Trek" funds real-life alien hunt

Boldly going where no marketer has gone before, Paramount announced Monday that it will help fund the SETI@Home project in its search for real-life Klingons.

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SETI@Home is part of the SETI (or "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence") Institute, which scans radio waves from space in hopes of detecting alien signals. By distributing screen savers to volunteers, SETI@Home plans to harness the CPU cycles of idle home computers and use them to process the collected space data. So far, more than 100,000 people have signed up for the project, which officially begins next April.

Paramount donated $50,000 to SETI@Home, matching a donation given by Carl Sagan's Planetary Society. Paramount also plans to promote the project on the "Star Trek" Web site, and as part of the marketing for the upcoming film "Star Trek: Insurrection."

The money won't cover all of SETI@Home's costs, but the astronomers behind the project are thrilled with their new partner. Explains Dan Wertheimer, the UC-Berkeley professor behind SETI@Home, "When I was a kid, 'Star Trek' was about seeking out new life and civilizations. That's what we're doing here -- searching out new life and civilizations."
-- Janelle Brown
SALON | Oct. 21, 1998

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Server woes at HotBot

For the past couple of months, die-hard search engine junkies have been reporting intermittent problems with the HotBot search engine -- "busy" servers, incomplete results listings, strange error messages. Conspiracy theories abounded. HotBot moved to Windows NT three months ago, and if the Net can find a reason to blame something on Microsoft, it will.

The truth, says HotBot chief engineer Joel Truher, is not quite so simple. Yes, there have been problems with HotBot in the last couple of months -- a time during which the search engine, built by Wired Digital and recently purchased by Lycos, has launched a major ad campaign. But there were also plenty of problems before the switch to NT; they just weren't so obvious.

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Previously, HotBot relied on Apache Web server software running on computers operating with the Solaris flavor of Unix. They "were less reliable," says Truher, "but much more polite." In other words, the Apache servers crashed only after delivering a page of search results to users. Site visitors would just go their merry way -- not realizing the HotBot servers had just collapsed behind the scenes.

Truher explains that the tight interrelationship between the NT operating system and Microsoft's IIS server software means that when something goes wrong, for whatever reason, the system crashes before or during the generation of search results -- leading to highly public error messages.

Truher says he's happy with the switch to NT. The decision was made for cost-benefit reasons, he explains: NT/IIS came with enough pre-built components -- including an all-important bit of software that connects HotBot to the Inktomi database at its heart -- to allow HotBot's engineers to focus their development efforts on designing useful features for HotBot users, rather than on building a whole system from scratch.

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"Faced with the choice of doing more feature-oriented development," says Truher, "rather than systems development, I think it was the right choice."


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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