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Microsoft adds WINFR file undeletion tool to the Microsoft Store

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Enlarge / Although an undeletion utility may occasionally save your bacon, it’s never been a good idea to rely on one.

Although it isn’t yet built into Windows, Microsoft has finally released its own file undelete tool—it’s called Windows File Recovery, and it works with the newest builds of Windows (variously known as 20H1, 2004, and 19041). We were pretty excited to see this tool has become available—even though proper system administration means frequent backups, which render this tool unnecessary. In the real world, proper system administration and frequent backups are a lot less common than we might wish.

The lack of a proper file undeletion tool in Windows means that many of us have been hoarding one of a handful of old shareware or freemium third-party utilities capable of scanning disks and looking for remnants of deleted files. The “hoarding” part is unfortunately necessary because finding one of those utilities means sorting through stacks of scam apps targeting desperate users—and frequently, you can’t be certain whether you’ve found one of the good ones or one of the scams until after you’ve installed it (hopefully, inside a sandbox or isolated VM).

Installation

It’s great news that Microsoft is finally bringing that capability in-house—but the tool certainly could be easier to find. When we looked for Windows File Recovery by name on Bing, in a freshly installed Windows 10 2004 VM, we got buried under pages of ads for other things.

Moving onto the Microsoft Store, the experience was no better—when searching for its exact name, we couldn’t find the Windows File Recovery tool until we’d filtered our results first to Apps only, then to Tools & Utilities only.

Once we’d finally found the tool and verified that we met the system requirements, installation was a click away.

On today’s episode of “Ars Deletes a File”

Unlike most of the third-party “undelete” utilities winfr supersedes, it’s a command-line utility only—users won’t get a graphical interface to help them wade through their drive. It’s also incredibly picky about where it recovers files to—you’ll need a separate storage volume, such as a USB thumb drive, to restore any files to. Attempting to just undelete a file in place earns you a stern rebuke from winfr, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to override this behavior.

More importantly, we were unable to get winfr to restore a just-deleted file from our VM’s C drive at all. In our first attempt, we created and deleted an empty text file, but winfr couldn’t find it. Thinking that perhaps the tool “helpfully” ignored empty files, we tried again, and this time, we put a bit of actual data in our sacrificial text file. There was no change in the results.

To make certain we weren’t missing something, we tried again—this time with a large NASA image saved to the Pictures directory. First we deleted the file using del *.jpg at a CMD prompt, and then we tried to recover it to a USB drive with winfr C: F: -n UsersJimPictures. Still no luck. We thought perhaps the filter was a problem, so we removed it, this time asking for all recently deleted files from the C drive, using a simpler winfr C F:—still with no luck.

Now we wondered if there was something magic about the DEL command that made Windows think it should shred those files rather than simply unlinking them—so after downloading our test image again, this time we tried deleting it from the GUI using shift-delete in File Explorer—still with no change in the results.

SSDs, TRIM, and your deleted files

After some more frustrated digging, it dawned on us that our VM’s C drive was stored on a ZFS pool which was itself living on a set of SSDs—and that perhaps the TRIM functionality of those disks was shredding our data faster than we could recover it. In order to test this hypothesis, we created a new backing file on a second, rust-based pool, fed it to our VM as a separate X drive, and tried again.

After deleting our third sacrificial JPG from the new X drive using DEL on the command line, we tried winfr again—and this time, it worked perfectly; our freshly-deleted JPG showed up in all its glory on the “USB” drive mounted as F, just as we’d requested.

There are a couple of important lessons to be learned here. The more obvious one is that most people likely can’t benefit from winfr (or other undelete applications) at all—the vast majority of modern systems store C on an SSD with TRIM functionality available.

The less obvious takeaway is that winfr may have problems with some Shingled Magnetic Recording drives, as well. Both SSDs and SMR disks use zoned access, with smart firmware and a virtual drive map rather than literal direct addressing. This in turn requires use of the TRIM command, which notifies drive firmware when a block has been deleted—which in turn allows the drive to treat that block as unused space, rather than as precious data which must be preserved.

We repeated our test on yet another virtual drive, this time backed by an SMR disk—the Western Digital Red 4TB EFAX. On the plus side, winfr successfully retrieved the file from the SMR Red—but on the minus side, it required nearly 20 seconds to do so, while the non-SMR disks had managed it in only two seconds. This may be another application that’s not well-suited to SMR disks, which are increasingly found in desktop channels targeted to budget-minded consumers.

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Meta highlights NFT, blockchain hopes as it shutters its Novi crypto wallet

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Meta will shut down its pilot of the Novi digital wallet, one of the last remnants of the company’s beleaguered cryptocurrency push, in September, Bloomberg reported this week.

Novi users in parts of the US and Guatemala will no longer be able to log in starting on September 1.

And as of July 21, they won’t be able to add to the wallets. In fact, Novi’s website urges users to empty their accounts “as soon as possible.” Novi says it will “attempt to transfer your balance to the bank account or debit card you’ve added to Novi” if you still have money in your account after the pilot ends.

The pilot for Novia, originally known as Calibra, launched in October, but Meta was already turning from its crypto dreams, which, at their height, included the company’s own stablecoin, Diem, formerly known as Libra. Novia launched with Paxos Trust Co.’s USDP stablecoin instead. It also had some integration with WhatsApp.

But last year, the head of the project, David Marcus, departed Meta. And in January, we detailed the fall of Meta’s cryptocurrency aspirations, signaled by the company selling off its assets (mostly intellectual property) and refunding investors.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his crypto hopes in 2019, with dreams of using crypto for easy transactions in WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. But despite big-name investments, US regulators’ concerns about distribution, network policing, and fears of overly concentrated economic power going to member companies derailed Meta’s plans. Ultimately, it became unclear if the Federal Reserve would let the project’s bank issue the stablecoin.

Although Novi will soon be dead, Meta insists that the cryptocurrency wallet’s technologies aren’t. Despite skepticism around non-fungible tokens—pertaining to their necessity, reputation, and value (the largest NFT marketplace, OpenSea, fell 85 percent in the first half of 2022, according to Financial Times)—Meta is leveraging Novi technology for other metaverse-y projects, including building Meta’s capabilities around blockchain and “digital collectibles,” a company representative told Bloomberg.

“You can expect to see more from us in the web3 space because we are very optimistic about the value these technologies can bring to people and businesses in the metaverse,” the representative reportedly said.

Meta is already testing NFTs on Instagram as a purported way for creators to make money. In late June, Zuckerberg said the company will bring that testing to Facebook “soon.”

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YouTube flags horror video as “for kids,” won’t let creator change rating

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Enlarge / YouTube thinks the dark and creepy “Local58TV” series is for kids.

Google’s wonderful content moderation bots are at it again. After previously doing things like including suicide instructions in a children’s video, and the whole Elsagate problem, YouTube is now flagging a horror video as “for kids.” Worst of all, this is against the creator’s wishes. The video was previously flagged as for ages 18 and up, and YouTube decided it was for kids and won’t let the creator restore its content rating.

The video in question is from horror series Local58TV. The creator, Kirs Straub, checked his account over the weekend to find that his not-for-kids content has been spotted by YouTube’s content moderation AI, and automatically marked for kids.

“For kids” in this context means Google has flagged the video for inclusion in the “YouTube Kids” app, which is a separate interface for YouTube that is supposed to only show a “safe” curated slice of YouTube. The “Kids” flag also means the video is forced to comply with US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), so comments are turned off.

Local58TV has millions of views across its nine videos and is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page. The channel’s about page describes itself as “ANALOG HORROR AT 476 MHz. Unsettling shorts in the found footage/VHS aesthetic from Kris Straub.” The channel’s most popular video, “Contingency,” is a faux public service announcement from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity.” The message, set to an ultra-creepy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, declares that America has lost the war and was forced to surrender. Before the occupiers arrive though, you can “take America with you” by murder/suiciding your family. The video continues with instructions. This is obviously not the type of channel that is for kids!

YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.
Enlarge / YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.

YouTube doesn’t get the Local58TV vibe though. It automatically flagged one episode, titled “Show For Children” as for children. You can see how an AI bot might get its wires crossed from that title, but it immediately says “Not for Children” in the description, and the creator, Straub, originally set the video’s age rating as “18+” when it was uploaded.

The episode is a black-and-white cartoon where a cute cartoon skeleton wanders around a graveyard looking for a cute cartoon girlfriend skeleton, only to find horrifying, more realistic skeletons and other creatures in the open graves. At the end of the video, seemingly from depression, the cute skeleton lays down in a grave and dies, turning into a realistic skeleton. The cartoon is something an AI bot might not understand, but a human could immediately tell the unsettling video is not kid-friendly. YouTube is certainly not hurting for money having done $28.8 billion in revenue last year, but it does not hire a significant number of human moderators.

YouTube not only flagged a video explicitly marked as “inappropriate for kids” as “made for kids” it also won’t let the creator change it back. The video’s content is now labeled “Made for kids (set by YouTube)” and Straub is forced to file an appeal with YouTube to get the video’s age rating corrected.

Even if you’re using robots for moderation, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for YouTube to be in this position. For every single video upload, YouTube asks if a video is kid-friendly or not. Since YouTube already has this data, it’s not clear why it would ever try to automatically categorize videos, especially by lowering an age rating that was explicitly set as “adults only.” For something as delicate and subjective as whether or not certain content should be viewed by a kid, it seems like Google should be erring on the side of caution.

🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn't belong! 🎵
Enlarge / 🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn’t belong! 🎵

At press time, Straub went public with the issue 20 hours ago and it hasn’t been resolved. The “Team YouTube” Twitter account said it was “looking into” the complaint nine hours ago. You can tell the video is still flagged for children due to the disabled comments section and the “Try YouTube Kids!” ad at the bottom. You also only get suggestions for other “kids” content, which, at a glance, does not appear to feature as much death as the usual Local58TV content.

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IDC: “All eyes will be on Apple” as Meta’s VR strategy “isn’t sustainable”

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Enlarge / The Oculus Quest 2.

A recent media release from market research firm IDC predicts that Meta (the parent company of Facebook) may not be able to compete in the mixed-reality business in the long run if its strategy remains unchanged.

The media release offers a bird’s-eye view of the virtual reality hardware marketplace. In the release, IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani said that, while “Meta continues to pour dollars into developing the metaverse, [the company’s] strategy of promoting low-cost hardware at the expense of profitability isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

A similar concern was raised by tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo late last month. Kuo predicted that Meta would make moves to scale down investment in virtual reality, creating an opening for Apple and other competitors. He also wrote that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable.

Currently, Meta owns 90 percent of the VR headset market, according to the IDC release. In distant second is ByteDance’s Pico, at just 4.5 percent. Overall, VR headset shipments jumped 241.6 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2022. But the industry faced significant supply issues in Q1 2021, contributing to “a favorable comparison” for this year’s Q1.

Like Kuo a couple of weeks ago, IDC research director Ramon Llamas said that “all eyes will be on Apple as it launches its first headset next year.” Apple’s headset is expected to be much more expensive than Meta’s offerings, driving up the average unit price for the product category across the board, and Llamas believes Apple’s offering “will appeal primarily to a small audience of early adopters and Apple fans.”

In other words, don’t expect the first Apple headset to ship vastly more units than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 right out of the gate. It’s just a first step in a long-term plan to own the mixed-reality market. As several reports over the past couple of years have noted, that plan will ultimately involve low-cost AR glasses and other products that will seek to broaden the user base for mixed-reality hardware.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies working on mass-market mixed-reality hardware products. We reported in April that Amazon posted several job listings soliciting candidates who can help the company build an “advanced” AR/VR product. And in December, we learned from job listings that Google plans to build a new augmented-reality device and operating system.

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