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November 2010 Archives

Wi-Fi lifeline reaches remote Himalayas

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Agence France-Presse

NAGI--It used to take teacher Mahabir Pun more than two days to check his email from his home in the remote Himalayan village of Nagi in western Nepal.

The 55-year-old would walk for seven hours to the nearest road before taking a three-hour bus ride along precarious mountain tracks to the only town in the area with an Internet connection.

Today, all Pun has to do is log on to the wireless network he has set up over the past few years, catapulting more than 100 impoverished villages in Nepal into the 21st century.

The technology has transformed lives in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, where there are no roads or hospitals and where most people scratch out a meagre living as subsistence farmers.

It allows communities to access vital medical expertise via videolink, stay in touch with loved-ones abroad, and even sell their yaks, goats and chickens online on www.nepalwireless.com -- a sort of e-Bay for local farmers.

"We chose areas where no commercial Internet service provider would ever go," says Pun, who estimates that around 70,000 people can access the network.

"When we started, almost no one in rural Nepal was using the Internet. Now we have connected more than 100 villages. But that is nothing, there are thousands more villages like these in Nepal."

It all started when Pun travelled to the United States in the 1990s to study for a masters degree. The Internet was just becoming popular, and one of his professors suggested they set up a web site for his home village.

It was one of the first Internet sites to mention Nepal, and by the time he returned home, Pun was being bombarded by messages from people around the world who wanted to visit the 800-strong mountain community.

"At that time, not even businesses in (the capital) Kathmandu had websites, but Nagi did," he told AFP in his native village, 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) up in the Himalayas.

"I was getting emails from all sorts of people including doctors and college professors, and they all wanted to know what they could do to help our village. So I invited them to come and volunteer."

Pun decided his students should learn about this emerging new technology, but the school could not afford to buy a computer. So he asked everyone who came to bring a component, and set about teaching himself to build one.

He organised a collection centre in the backpacker district of Kathmandu, and managed to put together around a dozen makeshift computers, building them in wooden crates and distributing them to schools in the area.

But it was not until 2002 that, with the help of volunteer students, a plan was formed to hook up the village to the Internet using a wi-fi connection from the nearest major town, Pokhara.

There were myriad challenges. No one had ever tried to build a wi-fi network at such a high altitude before, and a series of relay towers had to be built to beam the signal through the narrow valleys.

All the construction materials had to be carried up the mountain by hand along with the solar panels needed for power. The highest stands at 3,600 metres, and is manned by a yak farmer who has to check the connections daily.

Mains electricity had still not reached any of the villages, and to make things even more difficult, Nepal was in the grip of a bloody Maoist insurgency and Nagi had fallen completely under the control of the leftist guerrillas.

"The Maoists had eyes everywhere. They used to come and ask lots of questions, but they didn't know much about the Internet," says Pun.

"All the parts we used were totally illegal. If the army had come here more frequently, they would have put a stop to it."

Once again, Pun asked his foreign volunteers to bring what they could to help -- customs officials, he reasoned, would be unlikely to suspect Western backpackers of smuggling in contraband communications equipment.

Nagi was the first village to be connected, and by September 2003, five villages in Myagdi district, around 200 miles (300 kilometres) north-west of Kathmandu, were accessing the network.

Now, Pun operates two networks that connect more than 100 villages to the Internet -- a significant achievement in a country where just 6.3 percent of people have online access.

In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay prize -- widely viewed as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel -- for community leadership.

But he is determined to avoid the world of "conferences, resolutions and commitments," and has said he only accepted because the $50,000 prize could help put more villages online.

To keep costs down, Pun travels around the country by public bus and works from a tiny office in his family home.

The local Internet service provider charges a discounted rate of 45,000 rupees ($640) a month for the connection, with the cost shared between dozens of villages in the area.

In Nagi, they have set up a paper-making business to raise funds, and Pun is working with the government to create a new trekking route he hopes will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the villages.

In the packed computer room at Nagi school, the impact on the community is clear.

At one terminal sits 63-year-old Amar Pun whose three children, like many Nepalese, have moved abroad, unable to find work in their home country.

"They send news of their lives by email and I send back news of the village. It feels great to be in touch, I love hearing from them," he says.

Teenagers chat on Facebook to friends in neighbouring villages, watch Nepalese pop music on YouTube and look up the latest gossip on their favourite football players.

In the village clinic, health worker Rupa Pun connects every morning to a Kathmandu hospital using a webcam, allowing patients to be seen by doctors hundreds of miles away.

"It used to take sick patients two days to get down into the valley for treatment. They had to be carried in a basket or on a makeshift stretcher," she says.

"Before, we could only treat minor illnesses here. Now the doctor can give his diagnosis and send the right drugs up here if we don't already have them. It has made a huge difference to our lives."

Google seeking Miramax films for YouTube--NY Post

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Agence France-Presse

SAN FRANCISCO--Google has been gradually adding professional content to YouTube in a bid to attract advertisers and turn a profit with the site it bought for 1.65 billion dollars four years ago.

According to the New York Post, Google is now pursuing its biggest deal yet for YouTube -- securing the digital rights to Miramax's archives, which include such films as "Kill Bill," "Pulp Fiction," and "No Country For Old Men."

The Post said Google is in talks with Filmyard Holdings, the soon-to-be owner of Miramax.

The Walt Disney Co. announced in July that it was selling Miramax for about 660 million dollars to the Filmyard Holdings consortium. The Post said the deal is expected to close by December 10.

The News Corp.-owned newspaper said Google may have to do battle with US video rental giant Netflix for the Miramax film library.

A Google spokesman told the Post "we're always talking to the studios about different things and Disney remains a valuable YouTube partner. Outside of that, we don't comment on rumor or speculation."

Google does not release revenue figures for YouTube, but senior executives at the Mountain View, California-based Internet search and advertising giant have suggested recently that it is near profitability.

The New York Times reported in September that YouTube is expected to turn a profit this year on revenue of 450 million dollars.

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Nokia acknowledges limited N8 power problem

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Agence France-Presse

HELSINKI--The world's leading mobile phone maker Nokia acknowledged Friday some of its new flagship N8 smartphones, which it hopes will help re-take lost market share, are simply dying.

Some customers are reporting that their N8 turned off unexpectedly without any way to turn them back on, or refused to power on at all.

"It's a very small number of phones, we don't have exact numbers," company spokesman Tapani Kaskinen told Agence France-Presse on Friday.

The company said that complaints of the problems have emerged in the press in recent days, prompting Nokia to release a video interview Thursday with Executive Vice President Niklas Savander in which he said he was "concerned" about the flaw.

"We have dressed it down to the way we assemble the engines," Savander said, adding that the company has taken "precautionary measures" across their product line to weed out the problem.

The problem is covered by the phone's warranty, and if the original handset can't be fixed then the customer will be given a new one, Kaskinen said.

The N8, which is the company's first handset to run the Symbian 3 platform, was released in October.

It is the company's push to win back smartphone market share which has been pecked away over the past year by Apple's iPhone, Research in Motion's Blackberry, and handsets running Google's Android operating platform.

On Thursday, Fitch ratings agency downgraded Nokia to BBB+ from A-, citing a loss of overall market share as well as market share for the Symbian operating system.

Three arrested over Indonesian ringtone mayhem

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Agence France-Presse

JAYAPURA--Indonesian police said they had arrested three men Thursday after two Melanesian tribes clashed with machetes and arrows over a mobile phone ringtone.

Hundreds of Wamena tribesmen descended on members of the Yoka tribe on Wednesday morning in the Papua provincial capital Jayapura, after learning that Yokas were sharing a ringtone which insulted Wamenas.

The ensuing clash reportedly left 23 houses burned to the ground, another 56 damaged and 12 vehicles set ablaze. Police said no one was injured.

"We deployed dozens of police to ensure security in the city. The situation has improved after we arrested three men for allegedly composing the ringtone," Jayapura police chief Iman Setiawan told AFP.

The ringtone had a reggae beat and offensive lyrics about the neighbouring Wamena tribe, he said.

"The lyrics were considered humiliating and insulting to the Wamenas, so that triggered a spontaneous reaction," he added.

Papuan tribal groups engage in elaborate war rituals to resolve disputes, often involving arrows, spears and homemade guns.

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New Facebook message system takes aim at Google, Yahoo!

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Agence France-Presse

SAN FRANCISCO--Facebook has launched a next-generation online messaging service that includes facebook.com email addresses in a move seen as a shot across the bow of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled what he called a "convergent" modern messaging system that "handles messages seamlessly across all the ways you want to communicate" in a single inbox.

The messaging service blends online chat, text messages and other real-time conversation tools with traditional email, which Zuckerberg said had lost favor for being too slow for young Internet users.

"It is true that people will be able to have facebook.com email addresses, but this is not email," Zuckerberg said at an event in downtown San Francisco. "It handles email."

Zuckerberg dismissed reports referring to the messaging system as a "Gmail killer" aimed at the heart of free Web-based email services from Google and similar services from Yahoo! and Microsoft.

"We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say 'I'm going to shut down my Yahoo! Mail or Gmail account,'" Zuckerberg said.

But, he added: "Maybe one day six months, a year, two years out people will start to say this is how the future should work.

"Maybe email won't be as important a part as it was before and we can push people toward real-time conversations."

The new messaging system, referred to inside the Palo Alto, California-based firm as "Titan," will be slowly rolled out in coming months to users.

Approximately 350 million of Facebook's more than 500 million members fire off messages at the service, with more than four billion digital missives sent daily, according to Zuckerberg.

With such a large user base, a free personalized facebook.com email service is seen as a challenge to the established email giants--Microsoft's Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and Google's Gmail.

Hotmail currently has the most users, 361.7 million as of September, according to online tracking firm comScore, followed by Yahoo! with 273.1 million and Gmail with 193.3 million.

Microsoft, which has a small stake in Facebook, is integrating its popular Office software into the social network's messaging system so people will be able to share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents as attachments.

Facebook's new messaging service comes amid sparring with Google over data sharing. Google this month blocked Facebook from importing Gmail contact information over the social network's refusal to share data about its users.

"Facebook says this isn't a 'Gmail killer,' but this is neither completely accurate nor completely wrong," said Forrester analyst Augie Ray. "Anything that makes communication easier and pulls attention away from Gmail is a 'Gmail killer.'"

"It will increase the amount of time people spend on Facebook," said Lou Kerner of Wedbush Securities. "That's really what a lot of this battle between Facebook and Google is about.

"All these Web companies want to have people spend more time with them so they can serve them more ads," he said. "So if people are using Gmail less and Facebook messages more that's to the detriment of Google."

Facebook users can decide whether to get word to friends using SMS, chat, email or a messages feature at the social networking service. Messages will be received in whatever medium or on whichever device is convenient.

"You shouldn't have to remember who prefers IM over email or worry about which technology to use," said Facebook engineer Joel Seligstein. "Simply choose their name and type a message."

Incoming messages are sorted into one of three folders. A main folder holds messages from Facebook friends, while bank statements and other worthwhile messages not from close friends go into a second folder.

Messages people don't want to see go into a junk folder.

One of the major objectives was to streamline sending and receiving messages with an eye toward simulating an ongoing chat, according to Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg also said Facebook employees, who have been using facebook.com email addresses for some time, were transitioning to fb.com addresses after obtaining the rights from the American Farm Bureau.

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Strict Twitter rules for PH officials after gaffe

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Agence France-Presse

MANILA, Philippines--Twitter jokes about bad wine and a lack of handsome men in Vietnam by one of President Benigno Aquino's speechwriters has led to a social media crackdown on government officials.

The Philippines said on Tuesday it had approved a set of guidelines to govern the use of social media sites by government employees after the embarrassing gaffe by a presidential staffer.

Executive staff were temporarily barred from using Twitter after assistant cabinet secretary Maria Carmen Mislang complained about Vietnamese wine, men and its motorcycle-clogged streets during a state visit two weeks ago.

"The wine sucks @rickycarandang," Mislang had tweeted about a state dinner, in response to an apparent query from her immediate boss, Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang.

She also reportedly posted that there were no handsome local men in the host country, and likening crossing a busy Hanoi street to assisted suicide, press reports said.

Mislang later deleted the controversial tweets and apologised.

The guidelines will be applicable to all departments, agencies and bureaus in Aquino's four-month-old government, deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said.

"It's a list of do's and dont's and there just needs to be a consultation among all agencies on how to properly go about it," Valte told reporters.

Aquino has championed the use of social media as a means of bringing his government closer to the public.

He has also brought his anti-corruption fight to cyberspace, with the finance department urging Facebook users to blow the whistle on erring officials and report tax cheats.

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Agence France-Presse

SAN FRANCISCO--Internet search giant Google began rolling out a new feature Tuesday called "Instant Previews" that allows Web surfers to sample a website without having to click through to the page.

Clicking on a small icon of a magnifying glass next to a search result gives a user a visual snapshot of the most relevant content on a particular page in a pop-up box off to the side.

Hovering with a mouse over the other search results provides a visual preview of the other pages.

A Web surfer looking for a picture or a map, for example, can determine whether it is contained in a particular site by checking out the preview, eliminating the need to click through to the page and then back again if disappointed.

"In our testing, we've found that people who use Instant Previews are about five percent more likely to be satisfied with the results they click," Google product manager Raj Krishnan said in a blog post.

"The previews provide new ways to evaluate search results, making you more likely to find what you're looking for on the pages you visit," Krishnan said.

"With Instant Previews, we match your query with an index of the entire Web, identify the relevant parts of each webpage, stitch them together and serve the resulting preview completely customized to your search -- usually in under one-tenth of a second," Krishnan said.

He said "Instant Previews" will be available in more than 40 languages over the next few days.

"Instant Previews" is Google's latest bid to improve search and comes on the heels of "Google Instant," a feature launched in September that displays search results as fast as a user types.

Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON--Google's Android mobile operating system surged past Apple's iPhone and Canada's Blackberry in the third quarter to become the second biggest smartphone platform after Nokia's Symbian, research firm Gartner said Wednesday.

Gartner said Finland's Nokia sold 29.5 million smartphones during the third quarter of the year for a 36.6 percent share of the worldwide market, down from 44.6 percent a year ago.

Sales of Android-powered smartphones soared to 20.5 million units, giving the Android platform a 25.5 percent market share, up from just 3.5 percent a year ago, Gartner said.

Apple's iPhone was next on sales of 13.5 million units for a 16.7 percent market share, down from 17.1 percent a year ago.

Canada's Research In Motion, maker of the Blackberry, was in fourth position with sales of 11.9 million units. Its market share dropped to 14.8 percent from 20.7 percent a year ago.

Microsoft's Windows Mobile saw sales of 2.2 million units giving it a 2.8 percent market share, down from 7.9 percent a year ago, Gartner said.

"Smartphone (operating system) providers have entered a period of accelerated platform evolution, stimulated by more regular product releases, new platform entrants and new device types," said Roberta Cozza, principal research analyst at Gartner.

"Any platform that fails to innovate quickly -- either through a vibrant multi-player ecosystem or clear vision of a single controlling entity -- will lose developers, manufacturers, potential partners and ultimately users."

Gartner said worldwide mobile phone sales totaled 417 million units in the third quarter, up 35 percent from a year ago.

Smartphone sales grew 96 percent to 81 million units and accounted for 19.3 percent of overall mobile phone sales in the quarter.

Nokia remained the world's top handset manufacturer with sales of 117.5 million units in the third quarter but saw its worldwide market share slip to 28.2 percent from 36.7 percent a year ago.

South Korea's Samsung was next on sales of 71.7 million units but its market share also fell -- to 17.2 percent from 19.6 percent a year ago.

South Korea's LG sold 27.5 million handsets. Its market share dipped to 6.6 percent from 10.3 percent a year ago.

Apple leapfrogged RIM during the quarter with sales of 13.5 million units, giving it a 3.2 percent market share, up from 2.3 percent a year ago.

RIM sold 11.9 million units. Its market share edged up to 2.9 percent from 2.8 percent a year ago.

Sony Ericsson sold 10.3 million units for a 2.5 percent market share, down from 4.5 percent, while US handset maker Motorola sold 9.0 million units for a 2.1 percent market share, down from 4.5 percent a year ago.

Gartner said Samsung was the top Android seller in the quarter with sales of 6.6 million Android phones.

The technology research company said it expects overall mobile device sales to grow 30 percent year-on-year in 2010 and for sales of tablet computers such as Apple's iPad to reach 54.8 million units in 2011.

Indonesian minister all a-Twitter over Michelle Obama

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Agence France-Presse

JAKARTA--The Indonesian media and blogosphere lit up with condemnation of a conservative Muslim minister who expressed embarrassment about shaking hands with US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Critics accused the minister of lying about the "hand-shaking incident" and bringing shame to the mainly Muslim country, which President Barack Obama held up as a model of tolerance and diversity during his brief visit this week.

The First Lady became the unwitting focus of an online debate over religious tolerance and women's rights when Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring messaged his thousands of Twitter followers that he had reluctantly shaken hands with her at a formal reception on Tuesday.

Sembiring is a conservative Muslim who refuses to touch women he is not related to, and has previously outraged liberal society by suggesting AIDS funding is a waste of public money and linking natural disasters to immorality.

"I tried to prevent (touching First Lady Obama) with my two hands but Mrs Michelle moved her hands too close to me, then we touched," he Tweeted on Tuesday, sparking a firestorm on the hyperactive Indonesian blogosphere.

Video footage of the meeting suggested otherwise, showing Sembiring reaching out to shake Michelle's hand, like the other dignitaries had done.

Rather than call a press conference to face the media in person, Sembiring defended his beliefs by posting comments on Twitter and Facebook on Thursday.

"I still stand by the position that I will not shake hands with women who are not related to me," he wrote in a series of 14 numbered Tweets to his 110,000 followers.

He added that "some situations happen suddenly, or I meet people who don't have any idea about my beliefs".

"Usually in state-related events, or sometimes after praying, there are ladies who scramble to shake hands."

He claimed that his encounter with Michelle Obama was such a moment, even though they met as she followed her husband down a long line of assembled officials, shaking hands with each in turn.

"I offered my two hands in a Sundanese-style greeting (held together as if in prayer)... And then the hand-shaking incident occurred," he explained.

Most Twitter users were scathing in their condemnation of the minister.

"Of course, the communications minister is stupid, naive and inconsistent," wrote one.

"It wasn't about shaking hands. It's the lying!!!!" wrote another.

One user wrote: "He's just embarrassing".

Apple to bring iAd mobile ad platform to Japan

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Agence France-Presse

TOKYO--Apple and Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc. are teaming up to bring the California-based company's iAd advertising network for portable devices to Japan early next year, the companies said Wednesday.

Dentsu, Japan's largest ad agency, will sell advertising space and produce commercials to be distributed through the iAd network to iPhone and iPod touch users in the country.

Apple launched the iAd network in the United States in July, which exclusively targets the firm's devices, enabling advertising through applications used by iPhone and iPod touch users running the company's iOS 4 operating system.

According to Apple, application developers who incorporate advertisements using iAd get 60 percent of income generated by them.

Competition in the mobile advertising space is increasingly fierce.

Last year Google bought AdMob for $750 million and on the same day the Internet powerhouse threw down the gauntlet to Apple by unveiling its own smartphone, the Nexus One.

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Britain's royals join Facebook, but poking not allowed

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 Agence France-Pressse

 

LONDON--They are already regular users of Twitter and YouTube -- but now Britain's royal family is setting up its own page on Internet social networking site Facebook.

 

The British Monarchy page features pictures, videos, news and speeches from Queen Elizabeth II and heir to the throne Prince Charles, plus his two sons Princes William and Harry, among others.

 

But Facebook users hoping to "poke" the queen, become her Facebook friend or post comments on her status updates will be left disappointed.

 

The monarchy has created a page on the hugely popular site, rather than a personal profile, meaning that its Facebook followers will merely receive updates on new postings through their news feed.

 

Buckingham Palace has frequently emphasised the queen's desire to embrace new media.

 

She has a BlackBerry and an iPod and sent her first email from a military base as long ago as 1976, royal officials have said.

 

Buckingham Palace set up a royal channel on YouTube in 2007 and signed up for micro-blogging site Twitter in 2009. The monarchy also has its own photostream on picture-sharing site Flickr.


Europe tests cyber defences against hackers

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 Agence France-Presse

 

BRUSSELS--European computer guards battled Thursday against a simulated attempt by hackers to bring down critical Internet services in the first pan-continental test of cyber defences.

 

All 27 of the European Union's member nations as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland took part in the simulation as participants or observers, working together against the fictitious online assault, the European Commission said.

 

The exercise was based on a scenario in which one country after the other increasingly suffered problems accessing the Internet, making it difficult for citizens, businesses and public institutions to access essential services.

 

Security experts had to work together to prevent a simulated "total network crash," said Jonathan Todd, a commission spokesman for digital affairs.

 

"I would like to emphasise, so as to avoid any 'War of the Worlds' scenario here, this is purely an exercise and practice," Todd told a news briefing.

 

"There will be absolutely no effect on Internet connectivity in Europe."

 

The threat of assaults on computer systems has been identified as a key challenge in Europe, the United States, and NATO.

 

The threat came to life in a costly cyber strike against Estonia in 2007 and the Stuxnet computer worm attack in Iran this year.

 

The United States held its own major exercise against a large-scale cyber attack on critical infrastructure in late September with 12 international partners and 60 private companies.

 

The European exercise will be followed by more tests with more complex scenarios on the global level, the EU's executive arm said.

 

The EU hopes the exercise will help the bloc understand how such an incident can take place and ensure that authorities know who to contact in other members states in any cyber strikes, the commission said.

 

"This exercise to test Europe's preparedness against cyber threats is an important first step towards working together to combat potential online threats to essential infrastructure and ensuring citizens and businesses feel safe and secure online," said European technology commissioner Neelie Kroes.

 

The European Commission proposed on September 30 a new regulation that would impose heavier criminal sanctions against hackers and producers of malicious software.

 

Cyber security will be one of the top issues that NATO leaders will tackle at a summit of the 28-nation military alliance in Lisbon no November 29-20.

 

During a visit to Brussels in mid-September, US Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn urged NATO allies to build a "cyber shield" against the treat of computer attacks.

 

Warning that military assets were not the only targets of cyber strikes, he underscored the need to protect the computer systems of vital economic infrastructure such as power grids and financial markets.

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Facebook lets friends share online memories

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Agence France-Presse

SAN FRANCISCO--Facebook has launched Friendship Pages at which online pals can stroll virtual memory lanes that chronicle what they have shared at the world's top online social networking service.

The pages contain public comments and "Wall" posts between pairs of Facebook friends; pictures in which both are identified; events they indicated they would attend together, and other joint activities memorialized at the service.

"When it's between two people who share a lot, the page really starts to reflect their friendship," Facebook software engineer Wayne Kao wrote in a blog post announcing the feature he played a key role in creating.

"The best part is the human side of these pages," he continued. "They can bring back memories, conversations and times spent together."

Others will only be able to view the nostalgia pages with the permission of those featured, according to Kao.

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