Friendster post-mortem, linked rat brains: This week in off-beat tech stories

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This week we sawPope Benedict XVI resign, Groupon's chief executive leave the company in a blaze of comical glory and Army Private First Class Bradley Manning admit to leaking classified materials to whistleblowing group Wikileaks.

Also, it turns out North Koreans also love to tweet, although they have yet to embrace the constant uploading of food-related pictures to Instagram like everyone else seems to do nowadays.

Here are just a few of the top off-beat tech stories that made headlines this week.

Apple refunds iTunes buys after 5-year-old's $2,500 spending spree

Giving an iPad to a 5-year-old can go one of two ways: the kid has fun and learns something new, or it racks up a $2,500 bill on the iTunes App Store leaving a burning hole in their parents' wallets.

For one Bristol, U.K.-based family, the latter is exactly what happened. The young boy believed he was downloading a free game but was in fact unknowingly on quite the spending spree. The parents' credit card company alerted them to the potential fraud. After the cause was determined, they got in touch with Apple, and had their money refunded in full.

At least on the bright side the 5-year-old did in fact learn something new: "not to do it again," reports BBC News.

Friendster's cause of demise revealed

Forget the scalpel, the suction or the paddles. Friendster began to shed users long before MySpace kicked off the social networking scene in the early 2000s. While its heart is still beating, it's considered on life support in Web 2.0 circles. Finding out what happened to Friendster could help save the likes of Facebook one day.

According to Swiss university researchers, who performed a post-mortem on the collapse of the once 100 million strong user-base service, its demise boiled down to a "cascading" effect. Simply put, if one user leaves the service then others will be more inclined to leave, too. This slow-moving domino effect eventually leads to a mass exodus. Along with this, Friendster redesigned its entire website that users strongly disliked, along with persistent reliability and performance issues with the site.

And, as News.com.au points out, turning down a $30 million acquisition from Google "probably didn't help either."

Apple seeks local Aussies to fix broken Maps app

If you're lost down under, it's better to ask an Aussie local for the best directions. That's what the iPhone and iPad maker is looking to do by hiring Aussie locals on the ground in a bid to "provide feedback on unique local map requirements."

This new job may be the perfect job for the lucky Ozzie, by helping to collect "ground truth" information, which is another way of saying, "get out there and see if it's real or not."

After Apple replaced Google Maps with its own in-house service, the media and iPhone and iPad users alike heavily slated its obvious mistake and poor direction support. In the end, Apple's chief executive Tim Cook apologized for the company's failings.

Australian police even warned users not to use the Maps app after authorities rescued several people who became stranded in the outback without food and water.

Scientists link brains of two rats over the Internet

Scientists have been able to connect the brains of two rats -- one in North Carolina, the other in Brazil -- through the Internet in what could be the world's first "organic computer."

The rats were fitted with brain-to-brain interfaces that allowed the fluffy pets to work on simple tasks in order to receive rewards, such as a food or water. According to The Guardian, the scientists were able to show that rats can share and act on each other's thoughts in both directions by connecting electrodes to the movement controlling part of their brains.

By connecting the two rodents over the Web, it is seen as pioneering research that could allow paralyzed people to move robotic arms and legs through the power of their own minds.

Downloading pirated content? No cut offs, but you will be nagged until you stop

The U.S. Copyright Alert System, kicked into effect this week. Internet service providers will start to send notifications and warnings to alleged illegal downloaders and pirates based on the reports of copyright holders and rights groups. After one or two notices, the warnings will escalate in severity.

The blog TechDirt claims that AT&T will start blocking popular websites based on piracy accusations after the fourth strike, while Verizon will reportedly slow down the alleged pirate's Internet connection to a snail's pace after the final strike.

However, Comcast and Time Warner may take a different route. Instead of disconnecting persistent downloaders, the blog TorrentFreak claims they will start incessantly nagging copyright infringing customers using a so-called browser "hijack" technique that makes it nearly impossible for users to browse the Web without being virtually given a slap on the wrist on each website they visit.

  • Zack Whittaker On Twitter»

    Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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