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22 December
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Accord launches online chat service for brokers

The service, which was soft-launched over the first week of December and officially rolled out yesterday, is supplied in partnership with software provider Synthetix.

Accord Mortgages managing director Jill Evans says: “We are confident the new web chat service will be a hit with brokers allowing them to address any queries directly to an adviser and getting an immediate response as they search through our mortgage range.”

22 December
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College football kickoff: Bowl season begins, national buzz, matchups and picks

Heres a look at this weeks bowl games, including top storylines and predictions:

The Big Buzz: Utes, Rams kick things off in Sin City

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Saturday, December 20
No. 22 Utah vs. Colorado State, 3:30 pm ET

As we prepare to embark on a historic bowl season, we should all adjust our expectations accordingly. First up, for those college football fans aching for power-five matchups between ranked squads in this initial week of postseason play, look elsewhere. And, quite frankly, please do so with a smile on your face. Because the College Football Playoff rankings gave us a thrilling seven-week stretch of football the likes of which weve never seen.

This is new ground, folks. We have a playoff, we have three brand new bowls in Boca Raton, Miami and the Bahamas, and at the end of that rainbow, we have the ultimate prize in the first CFP National Championship. These factors combine to give us an extra week of a college football. So dont fret over the early slate of games. Rather, sit back and enjoy the appetizer to the main course, starting with this afternoons 2014 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

Speaking of power-five conferences, Utah is in one of them in case you havent heard. And why would you have? The Utes have barely made a peep since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, compiling a 9-18 record in conference over that span. But that all changed this season for head coach Kyle Whittingham and company, who are the only ranked team that plays this week.

Riding a ferocious defense and the brilliance of running back Devontae Booker, Utah beat USC and Fresno State in Salt Lake City and won at UCLA, at Michigan and at Stanford this season en route to an 8-4 record. Three of its four losses came to teams ranked in the top 15 at the time, including an overtime heartbreaker at Arizona State. The Utes played a hellacious schedule in one of the countrys best divisions and theyre still standing. They are for real.

22 December
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New Jersey Teachers Accused of Insulting Special Needs Students in Online Chat

Parents of special needs children in a New Jersey school district say they want three teachers who were caught in an online chat allegedly making disparaging comments about teachers and students fired from the district. Checkey Beckford reports (Published Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014)

21 December
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College football bowl rankings: The five best games

College football bowl season gets underway Saturday and this year were treated to a total of 39 games, including the the national championship.

Every day this week, weve been counting down the bowl games ranked by watchability. We recommend you watch every game – because its you know, college football – but let this be your unofficial guide to the postseason.

PREVIOUSLY: No. 38 – No. 30 | No. 29 – No. 22 | No. 21 – No. 14 | No. 13 – No. 6

We reach the climax today, taking a look at the five best games of the 2014-15 bowl season, including the two College Football Playoff semifinal matchups.

21 December
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The Only Truly Intimate Online Experience Left

The internet has long promised a certain kind of connection between people, one that is now close to being fulfilled: We can reach anyone, at any time, anywhere! But while the web was born in plain text in IRC chat rooms and messageboards, our online conversations were supposed to multimedia, dynamic, and visual by now.

Video and audio streaming will make it much easier for people to chat with voices, and facial expressions, and body language-almost like really being there, the cyberpsychologst John Suler theorized back in 1996. When that happens, will text-only chat environments die out?

Fast-forward nearly 20 years and were seeing a boom of apps like Slack, GroupMe, and WhatsApp that suggests online chat is actually more important than it ever was. The promise that Suler noticed in the 90s is still alive today, out of a new kind of necessity. Group chat rooms are providing a rare space for private conversation in a public internet thats looking more dangerous than ever. Two decades later, chat is the arguably the only intimate space left online.

Safe spaces

Some of my earliest internet memories come from AOL Instant Messenger. After graduating from AOLs collection of pre-made group chat rooms (Kids Only, anyone?), I would talk with friends incessantly on the platform from the dark cocoon of the basement where my familys desktop computer was kept.

GroupMe is the only digital space in the past decade to remind me of the closeness of those formative AIM experiences. I have a GroupMe chat running with a handful of New York friends where we discuss anything and everything the better part of 24 hours a day-work worries, dating, whos fighting who on Twitter. The app lets us create a miniature social network with its own unique etiquette, obsessions, and memes.

The first name for the product was groop.ly, but quickly developed into something with broader appeal-GroupMe, the apps marketing manager Sheila Raju tell me. The name is good branding, sure, but it also calls to my mind a kind of collective subconscious. GroupMe is as intimate a social interaction as Ive ever had online, and one Ive come to depend on daily as a digital whisper in my ear.

If Twitter is a megaphone in an urban plaza, then group chats are hushed conversations around cafe tables. GroupMe provides intimacy and authenticity by design.

In chat we know who our audience is-we can fail, says Dr. Bernie Hogan, a researcher of human-computer interaction at the Oxford Internet Institute. We can say something stupid and walk it back in a way that is much more difficult in a public situation.

Considering the social and professional contacts who might be watching, maintaining public social media presences has become less fun and more work. Group chats are safe places to bullshit with trusted friends.

When the internet turns especially cruel, private chat can be a necessity. Kevin Nguyen, the editorial director at Oyster Books, recently became a target of Twitter harassment by an openly racist white advocacy gang. Tweeting about the barrage only made it worse.

GroupMe became a great place to air my grievances without feeling like a burden, he told me. The distance and space and access it afforded made it really powerful. I could just throw out a thought or a feeling and someone might be around to respond.

In the absence of strong anti-harassment tools on most major social networks (though Twitter recently promised to improve its blocking function), group chats preserve a corner of the internet for empathy and understanding, intimate emotions that seem to have less and less of a place online. Our small tide pools shelter us from a utopian promise of Sulers 90s-era internet-instant connection with all humanity across any distance-that has since become a threat.

The internet clubhouse

From January to October 2014, Slacks daily active users ballooned from 4,000 to over 250,000. Built as a productivity tool for businesses, its also being coopted as a GroupMe-style personal chat platform. The appeal is obvious-why limit better group communication to corporations when we could all use a little help?

Slack is a conduit for culture, cofounder Stewart Butterfield tells me. Indeed, the platform creates a de=facto online micro-community, like a tide pool away from the larger internet ocean.

These private spaces allow people to be more provisional and have fun without worrying about what they share or what they say being attached to their internet record, Alexis Madrigal, executive producer at Fusion and a critic of digital media tells me over email. Madrigal notes that he is in an indie Slack for journalists that functions like the listserves of yore, but in real-time.

Rather than being created for a specific company or office environment, a so-called indie Slack is an intimate place for friends to hang out online (my younger brother, an Apple engineer, created one to organize a Bay Area apartment hunt with his roommates).

Several such indie Slacks exist as open secrets in the online media world, hosting gossip sessions safe from the consequences of public Twitter. Similar to a locked Instagram profile, users have to be given permission to join a Slack chat room before they can see its contents, ensuring a kind of opt-in privacy.

This members-only clubhouse vibe is crucial to developing an intimate chat culture, but not a panacea for online privacy, its worth noting. Slack controls all the information that flows through its servers, and though user data is not yet monetized through tracking or ads, the business model could easily change. For now, the company wants you to know that it wont touch your chats. Neither the CEO nor any other executive has access to all user data. Any access is logged and spot audited, Slack told BuzzFeed.

But when everyone from your boss to the NSA spies on social media, its harder than ever to keep a secret. Work Slack is just the same as a corporate email account, Choire Sicha argued on The Awl. No matter how intimate it seems, dont say anything in office chat you wouldnt want to say to your superiors face.

Is the intimacy real?

For proof that chat is booming, just look at the many options we now have for sending digital words to each other. We can open up one of Facebooks new Rooms app to chat with semi-anonymous users about a niche topic of our choice. Or download WhatsApp, popular around the world for its ability to dodge mobile SMS fees, for instant access to over 600 million active users. Or open WeChat, with its arsenal of multimedia formats and twee stickers.

Despite this profusion, the stigma remains that chat is an inferior method of communication. When we interact with another human being, we expect the full range of emotions from that person, Hogan says. When we only get the tiny snippets of communication through text, we have to fill in the rest of the emotional details ourselves, leaving plenty of room for misinterpretation.

But the medium actually gives way to a different form of online intimacy.

Ironically, rather than being less personal, the chat environment is hyperpersonal, a term coined by psychologist Joe Walther in 1996 to define a condition in which people are conversing from a distance and able to selectively edit the personas they present, which must then be decoded by the listener.

In chat, its up to us to determine if a smiley face is flirty or if a LOL is sincere, sarcastic, or just a linguistic spaceholder meaning nothing in particular. This isnt less personal than real life-Sometimes we can even make it more intimate, Hogan says. We read more into it than is often there.

I tend to agree with Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist and researcher for Snapchat (which is developing its own chat function), who calls drawing an artificial distinction between life online and off digital dualism.

Online communication is just one flavor of information among others that weaves differently through all of social life, Jurgenson explains. Rather than assuming everyone we type to online might be a robot, we make sense of chat within the entire context of our relationship with another human being, or group thereof.

Online communication might be imperfect, but having grown up with it, I feel fluent in its subtleties, able to interpret what others truly mean even through the frame of a GroupMe or Slack window. In group chat, I often feel more eloquent than in a large social situation. Im more sure of what Im saying and to whom Im talking, given the help of a split-second delay and @ messages. I feel no different about my virtual self than my real, with all its quirks and flaws.

I think the intimacy of chat enables me to display more facets of my identity, in more ways rather than less, connecting me daily to a more diverse group of people-friends, colleagues, confidants-in farther-flung places than I would ever have access to without these platforms.

As real life bleeds into digital and vice-versa, group chats have become a unit of social organization.

Finding shelter online

In the 90s, when Suler was delving into his new cyberpsychology, even the public internet was intimate. The entirety of the web in 1996 hosted 36 million users; today, its over 3 billion. Our perception of private versus public space online has changed accordingly, though the change is slow. Were beginning to realize that the huge social platforms weve collectively constructed can be harsh environments to exist in.

Its not just the NSA that makes a private internet desirable. We also want to be shielded from each other. Group chats take the benefits of the open internet and social media-effortless communication, instant sharing, a sense of belonging-and shrink them down into something that fits the scale of our personal lives instead of the entire planet.

Suler noticed this concordance when he pointed out the peculiar permanence of chat. We see beauty in the clean, simple, quiet flow of scrolling words, he wrote. Text is an art that must not die.

The exchange of words in real-time in group chat creates a digital space, I think, where we can resolve the barriers weve put up between life online and off, resolving our identity in the same way that my sense of self can seem to snap into place in a bar filled with close friends all talking over each other.

One afternoon in November, my GroupMe chat stopped working. My friends and I tweeted at each other for a while, slyly mourning our private chat in public. We even tried opening a Slack, but the corporate branding just didnt feel the same. When the bug was fixed and service returned, we rushed back to the GroupMe like a bunch of teenagers returning to the cozy confines of a parents basement, secure together.

Image by Tara Jacoby, source image via Shutterstock

21 December
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Time to take the byte out of online jihad

Usayrim, who is believed to have entered paradise without offering a single prayer, was the online chat identity that 24-year-old techie Anees Ansari used with foreign jihadi elements in a closed online chat group. Anees was picked up by the anti-terrorism squad of the Maharashtra Police from Kurla, here, on October 20 on a tip-off from the Americans. He’s in jail now and the charge sheet against him, for among other things planning an attack on the American School in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, will be filed anytime now.

The transformation of Anees, from a tech-savvy professional to a lone wolf jihadi did not happen overnight. It started with Anees telling his parents not to watch television; then he stopped subscribing to the daily newspaper at home, said investigators.

Shakeel Ahmed, his 59-year-old father who worked as a freelance journalist, often warned Anees against the radicals preaching of the Islamic State, especially when he spoke about a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But he knew nothing about his son’s activities online.

“To interact with jihadis online, Anees used only his computer at the multinational firm that employed him at the Special Economic and Export Promotion Zone (SEEPZ) in Andheri,” said an investigator, requesting anonymity.

Anees may never have been exposed if this computer had not been linked to the direct leased line that connected the multinational firm to its associates in the United States. Anees’ references to the American school as a potential target for a terrorist strike caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A covert enquiry was launched and directors of the firm were first questioned to establish the identity of their employee. Later, the Research and Analysis Wing was informed, which led to the ATS arresting him.

Indian intelligence agencies, including the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), are only just waking up to threat the internet poses as a medium for indoctrinating terrorists. The spectre of scores of lone wolf jihadis who can easily stay under the radar till it is time to strike is very real.

“We Indians always thought the internet to be another medium of entertainment. But radical elements have identified the reach of internet, especially social media, and are using it a potent weapon for indoctrination and recruitment,” said a seasoned terror investigator, requesting anonymity.

Besides, the proliferation of cheap smartphones has widened access to the internet to all sections of society. “We are looking at a situation where we have the second largest Muslim population in the world, and at the same time are set to undergo a technological revolution. Today there are more than 900 million subscribers using mobile phones in India, and with smart phones available as cheap as Rs5,000, the internet is just a click away,” said a senior IPS officer, who has been tracking terror.

The indoctrination and recruitment of a jihadi is a complex process that can take months. It is only after potential recruits spend long hours in a closed online chat group that the first approach is made. The recruiters have devised elaborate methods to check the antecedents of potential recruits to ensure their organisation is not penetrated by security agencies. “Once the recruiter gets in touch, he either asks his target to call from a local PCO or through VoIP, and in some cases only after leaving the country,” said an IPS officer.

What worries Indian agencies is the ease with which jihadi elements have managed to translate and circulate fanatical messages from Arabic to local languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada through seemingly innocuous web pages.

Areeb Majeed and his three friends from Kalyan who went to join the Islamic State; Shoeb Khan and Mudassir Shah from Hingoli and Yavatmal in Maharashtra who were arrested in Hyderabad while trying to leave the country to join al Qaeda; and Mehdi Masroor Biswas arrested on the charge of being twitter handler for ISIS are all youth who were indoctrinated via the internet.

21 December
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Newton Aycliffe children enjoy online chat with David Cameron

NEWTON Aycliffe youngsters embraced the digital age when they enjoyed an online chat with the Prime Minister and mastered the art of computer coding.

Year six pupils at Vane Road Primary School spoke to David Cameron and children from schools across the country via an internet application called Google Hangout.

21 December
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Police Log: Unregistered Motor Vehicle, Protective Custodies, and More

Police Log: Unregistered Motor Vehicle, Protective Custodies, and MoreThe following is from the Mansfield Police Log. Where arrests and charges are mentioned, they do not imply conviction.

21 December
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Prison Legal News prepares for trial over Florida ban

LAKE WORTH, Fla. (AP) – The publishers of a journal that reports on inmate rights is preparing for trial over Floridas ban on the publication in state prisons.

The states prison system is the only one in the US to ban Prison Legal News, said Paul Wright, editor and founder of the Lake Worth-based journal.

The publishers have sued Floridas Department of Corrections over inmates access to the monthly journal. Trial is scheduled for January.

The agency declined comment on the lawsuit to The Palm Beach Post (http://bit.ly/1GyChJB).

According to the journal, Florida inmates received copies of Prison Legal News by mail without incident until 2003, when state corrections officials said its advertisements for pen-pal services for inmates, three-way calling services and postage stamps posed a security threat.

The publishers sued and the journal returned to inmates in 2005. Access again has been blocked since 2009, Wright said.

21 December
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Facebook Quietly Dumps Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) Bing

Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has quietly removed Bing from its search. Representatives from Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Facebook told Reuters amp; VentureBeat that Facebook will focus on helping people find what’s been shared with them on Facebook.

A Facebook spokesperson told Reuters:

“We’re not currently showing web search results in Facebook Search because we’re focused on helping people find what’s been shared with them on Facebook. We continue to have a great partnership with Microsoft of lots of different areas.”

A Microsoft statement to VentureBeat, echoed the statement:

“Facebook recently changed its search experience to focus on helping people tap into information that’s been shared with them on Facebook versus a broader set of web results. We continue to partner with Facebook in many different areas.”

According to industry research firm comScore, Microsoft’s Bing is the No. 2 Web search provider in the U.S, with nearly 20 percent market share.  Microsoft and Facebook have had a long-standing relationship dating back to Microsofts $240 million investment in Facebook, for a 1.6 percent stake in the company, in October 2007. This isnt the first time Facebook has dumped Microsoft. In 2010, seeking more control, Facebook switched from Microsoft Banner Ads to its own platform.

Facebook revamping Search sees as Growth Potential

Facebook recently revamped its search to make it easier to filter through old comments and posts. The company has placed an emphasis on search and rolled out new search products including its Graph Search. Facebook handles over 1 billion search queries every day, and sees Search as a potential growth initiative. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told analysts in July that users search through over 1 trillion posts which is bigger than any web search corpus out there.