Several months ago, I finished the third book in Hannu Rajaniemi's post-human Jean le Flambeur series. It's a monument of fiction of what-will-happen-when-we-can-upload-consciousness that has social cachet for today's various technological anxieties. Fantastical art as commentary on present day. While researching author interviews and secondary sources after-the-fact, I read one of the author's recommended source articles titled "If Uploads Come First", written in 1994 by Robin Hanson. One key dramatic history, revealed near the end of the Rajaniemi trilogy, was that when brain uploads happened humans became dupe-able VM workers for tasks that algorithms couldn't accomplish. What a computer can't achieve, 5K uploaded brains could be sold into slavery to achieve. The problem that computers can't do X is solved by simply having digitized humans do it by the thousands.
A few years ago, a coworker told me about out-sourced personal assistants. These are 3rd-worlders who will sell their time by the penny to organize your life remotely as best as possible. The concept was as fascinating as it was morally ambiguous, but I never took advantage. How to organize such unlimited resources? This I had encountered before--conceptually--with Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Again, not having partook, the MT offers a marketplace of people-who-will-do-anything with people-who-need-anything-done. Think 1000s of addresses to enter for fractions of pennies an address. People have time and need money, and there is work to do that would be too costly to write a computer program for.
Friday was an argument with the boss about whether a large VM containing multiple server instances was more valuable than multiple, smaller VMs of equal summed potential.
Reading Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel. It discusses both Dave Eggers' new novel The Circle, which I have not yet read, and Jennifer Egan's old novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I read back in 2013. Both deal with how people use and will use social technology. Eggers' is set in the future; Egan's spans past and future, with its future chapters chilling and incisive. I don't want to live there, but to a certain degree I already do and we all will. There's a particularly honest passage quoted about 2/3s down the Anxiety article. One character stops a face-to-face conversation so that she can continue it via text messages. To her, they are more direct and expressive. I understand that.
For no particular reason that I can recall, I had been recalling scenes from M. T. Anderson's Feed, which I read back in 2009. The Circle seems to have similar themes painting social media as golden handcuffs. And group these with Scott Westerfeld's Extras, which I read back in 2008. In that, social media, as in The Circle, becomes a shareable currency. Becomes the only currency. This is a unique anxiety that possibly didn't exist during other connection explosions. Postal. Telegraph. Wireless. Were we terrified of immediacy back then? Or is our current situation simply a higher energy state that risks so much more?
URL shorteners--when widely adopted--have access to usage trends and make their money through such analytics. Similarly, read-later apps have access to the same usage and may provide better analytics since not only can they track clicks, but also an intent to read. If a service has a primary use, metrics of that primary use become its secondary use. The obvious example is social networks (Facebook's recent work with AI will be interesting to follow).
Compare with how web sites themselves can extract meaningful information, beyond just popularity, from usage. In a discussion on the future of journalism, ReadWrite contributor Owen Thomas recounted how a spike in visits to an old article revealed that people were having issues with a software beta release. This seems to be a similar approach to the external/tangent analysis that is pulled from URL shorteners and read-later apps. The depth of information in a news site lends itself to a more dynamic application of such mining.
The Guardian has a review of a documentary called Mission Congo [ IMDB ] that just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It documents Pat Robertson's deceptions during and after the Rwandan genocide where he conned people to donate to his African diamond mining operations. At the time, the Virginian Pilot newspaper exposed his scam. The state government investigated and found his dealings fraudulent but politicians, backed by large donations from Robertson, did not prosecute. Sometimes an obvious injustice is just ignored.
During conversations on the possible invasion of Syria, I listened to an historian dispassionately list the half-dozen or so recent military actions the US went into based on lies-not-misstatements. Beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin incident which was the catalyst of the Vietnam War, the false testimony of the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter--organized by a PR firm--which was presented as a reason to invade Kuwait, and more recently the non-truths that were told in order to invade Iraq. On this last point, during the time that the government was peddling its wares, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder were exposing them (and very easily, they recall) as lies. Another item that was just ignored.
And this week brought the latest of the Snowden revelations: the US government can crack a large portion of encrypted data going over the internet. There is much technical nuance here that I'm still digesting and getting wrong, but there is definitely a there there. Schneier's essay is an absolute must-read and very quotable. However, not enough people are taking the software and hardware engineers to task for their complicity in this. When I found out that NPR killed stories that legitimately put into question the arguments behind the invasion of Iraq, I wished them the worst for betraying the trust they had. Now, knowing the depths that engineers go--good ones--to subvert a trusted technology, I feel similarly ashamed.
And, although I expect the general populace to ignore this ("for our security!"), I hope that it won't be forgotten by the engineers that respect how technology can liberate members of a society rather than stifle them.
Technology triggers our desire both to connect with others and to fix the mistakes of our past. The first impulse is often an effect of the second--anguished memories make us seek external absolution--and so fixing the mistakes would eliminate the desire.
Months ago, my choice of web-based IM aggregators, Meebo, was purchased by Google and discontinued. Google, like Microsoft before, is deep in the era of purchasing companies for their internal skills and then killing the original product of those skills. I started using Meebo several employers back when the desktop client Digsby was blocked by their IT dept. Digsby had superseded Trillian for me, based on a recommendation from my bro-in-law. I wanted to like the open-source Pidgin but could not. The web-based solutions were ideal for access anywhere (yay, the cloud!), and so I doubt I'll move back to a desktop client. Web-based services can also provide a single archive of all of your conversations. I had used a now-defunct service called Dexrex to archive, but it has since welshed on its promise to provide export and search, and just recently went offline complete (fuck you, cloud!).
After the death of Meebo, I, like many others, moved to imo. It was in many ways better and provided both import and export, including import of the Meebo data. One benefit of having Google buy-then-kill your product: their Data Liberation Front army will make sure its data is retrievable in the most standards-compliant form available. I have a general distrust of loss-of-ownership, and a robust import/export mitigates that. A variation on this is the oddness of Apple forcing users to port their information from MobileMe to iCloud when MM was discontinued. Pretty bold offloading your own internal work to your customers. Imo had been doing its job without much fuss up until last weekend when their connection to Skype's network started failing. It has not yet come back. One theory is that since Microsoft, who purchased Skype, is adding web-based Skype access, they must kill access from other OSes such as Chrome. The removal of Skype from imo has, inexplicably, also removed access to your archived Skype conversation. No word yet on if they will become available again.
These aggregation tools are one of the key concepts behind the web--a system that links services--and walled gardens are a barrier to implementing that concept. There is a trend toward products with no user serviceable parts inside (a la the iPad and Facebook) but it is not necessarily the dominant thread in computer evolution. Wikipedia, open source code libraries, embeddable YouTube videos, embeddable tweets, and RSS are all enablers of that other thread (ignoring the dreaded "Video No Longer Available" static). W/r/t the closed systems: avoid those you can and back up frequently. An easy exit strategy is your plan B.
[ updated 22 Apr 2013 ] Reddit admins comment on the issue.
Reddit did some things right during the Boston Marathon bombings manhunt. A few users dedicated their time to post minute-by-minute events to a Live Boston Update Thread (eventually growing to nine separate threads spanning 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.). The thread updates include summaries of information taken from scanners and, apparently, direct observation. Links to map locations and source tweets provide reference material. This type of reporting had been done for previous events, and it creates a more robust ticker than feeds from other sources.
Unfortunately, quick updates to a high profile site can also create virulent mistakes. Users of Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter contributed to misidentification of suspects and broadcast the same personal information that they rightly excoriate traditional media for broadcasting (e.g. the Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect). Here's a list of some of the articles that attempt to summarize how it all went wrong:
It Wasn't Sunil Tripathi: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster from The Atlantic - Attempt to piece together when the first misidentification occurred and how it spread. The author leans further to the "people must have misheard" explanation than the "people wanted to be first" one. I lean towards the latter. One paragraph illustrates the hubris best:
The next step in this information flow is the trickiest one. Here's what I know. At 2:42am, Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi speculation, tweeted, "This is the Internet's test of 'be right, not first' with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown" Then, at 2:43am, he tweeted, "BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."
The BPD identified neither.
Reddit had set themselves the task of finding a needle in a haystack, but failed to take account of the fact that they had no way to tell for certain whether they'd found a needle or a needle-like piece of hay.
Out of respect for Tripathi and his family, I ask that users here please remove any and all links about him. Thank you.A common source of humor online is when a clueless politician or publisher demands something be "removed from the Internet" (see Beyonce's unflattering photos or any celebrity's naked pics).
Several of the articles link to the Reddit thread Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2? as patient zero. That link now 403s [ updated 12 May 2013 ] Link has reappeared, but Google cache still offers it up and I've cached it here for reference. Posted by user pizzatime but no longer exists in their history either. Sample responses:
Great job. Wow, historical thread.
HOOOOOLLLY Shit. Police scanner just confirmed that marathon bomber #2 IS Sunil Tripathi. (this is refuted by the articles above after reviewing scanner records)
according to Boston police scanner (via twitter) - the answer may be yes. (linked tweet no longer exists).
The deleted mistakes risk that they be forgotten and unheeded during the next high-profile event. Reddit, at it's worst, can be defined by attention-seekers hoping to prove their superiority. These failures can cure such hubris.
Some Slashdot commenters were up-in-arms about LulzSec "liberating" gaming and bank passwords etc. Their arguments were of two types: (1) the exploits were so simple that LulzSec members are, at best, simpletons and (2) the exploits are threatening the openness of the Internet by inviting the US gov't to create absurdly restrictive laws to stop similar adventures. Regarding #1, Bruce Schneier held up the exploits' simplicity as proof of corporate laziness. If troublemaking scriptkiddies weren't grabbing headlines, no one outside of the tech community would realize just how vulnerable their data is. If simpletons can do it for fun, you know that thieves are doing it for profit. Regarding #2, I'm shocked that anyone would hold up "fear of the government taking away your freedoms" as reason to stop doing something. I'm doubly shocked that such a reason would dominate Slashdot threads. We should blame irrational and reactive politics on those politicians acting that way. The problem isn't what act triggers their reaction, it's the poor logic that informs it.
It's been entertaining following the growth of the SlutWalks around the world. Background: cop talking to university students about crime prevention tells women not to dress like
sluts. Hilarity ensues. Within a few months, women in cities all over are demonstrating against the idea that they should live in fear of having broken some arbitrary dress code and that, having broken said code, they were "asking for it." We should blame irrational and reactive social behavior on those individuals acting that way. The problem isn't what act triggers their reaction, it's the poor logic that informs it.
Eli Pariser's TED talk and new book, The Filter Bubble, has sparked some new/old discussion on the idea that the Internet creates isolated islands of reality [ via Reddit | Slashdot ]. This is an old fear that the Internet enables us to surround ourselves with only those news outlets, social groups, and encyclopedias that support our beliefs. Pariser's twist on the story is that not only will we self-select the facts that surround us, but the tools we use (e.g. Google and Facebook) will start selecting for us. He illustrates how Googles search results are tailored not only to what you've clicked before but also to where you're physically located (a total of 57 dimensions are parsed for customization). Facebook slowly eliminates friends' comments from your feed if you haven't clicked on their links in a while. Yeah, I'd like to have silliness automatically removed from my environment, but the state of machine learning is such that some very black-and-white parameters (click/not-click) are making for crude silliness eradication. What was that about good intentions and roads?
In contrast, there was a paper put out a year ago by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro titled Ideological Segregation Online and Offline that got some equal, if forgotten, attention [ via David Rogers -> David Brooks ]. A long summary from Brooks:
According to the study, a person who visited only Fox News would have more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of Internet news users. A person who only went to The Times's site would have more liberal overlap than 95 percent of users.
But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.
But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck's Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times's Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the Web.
The authors of the paper summarized their findings:
We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is ... significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members. We find no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time. There will always be ideologues, but maybe those who spend time on the Internet will be exposed to greater diversity than those whose dominant interactions are IRL.
A years or so ago, I upgraded ye olde home network with new hardware, virtualized the old OSes, and was presented with the decision of whether to move from an email client to web email. My only digital possessions dumped online are Twitter, Flickred pics from our Thailand trip, and a couple of years of bookmarks at Faviki. I ended up continuing to download email. (Oddly, I've gone out of my way to archive IM conversations online, but that's probably because they would otherwise exist across multiple machines.)
It's all an issue of control, and I love that a group of Google employees have created the Data Liberation Front to help ensure that users keep control of their data.
Another area of anti-cloud has been this blog and my development wiki, both hosted on a private server (trusting in the security of a good firewall configuration, frequent software updates, simplicity, and personal unimportance). With a good backup plan, I enjoy being in complete control of my data. Unfortunately, my more public site RadioWave, must reside on a professional web host, and over the past week I've felt the pain of giving up control.
There's been a flurry of anxiety-inducing, loss-of-control-type events with Facebook over the ~24 hours. Both Redmond Pie and Ars Technica had their FB pages taken down by DMCA complaints that contained invalid and false contact information.
Ars is not a fly-by-night operation, so to have them taken down so easily points to a system where oversight is approaching zero. Also on the 28th, coincidentally or not, was an article on Slashdot presenting a proposed approach to crowdsourcing the review of abuse complaints on social networking sites. The proposal recommends building a group of tens-of-thousands of randomly selected reviewers. Whenever an abuse is disputed, 100 of those reviewers would be randomly selected to vote on the dispute. Such an approach would likely eliminate the affect of any sock puppet infiltration into the community, so corporations and governments would not be able to silence unwanted criticism via fraudulent copyright complaints.
Ars is reporting on a new feature in Trillian that allows you to continue IM conversations while hopping between computers and phones. In the background, Trillian will continuously sync messages across logged in devices. I had long wanted this feature and would consider dropping Digsby. Alas, my current company blocks IM clients so I've reluctantly moved to Meebo. It's a nice enough web client, but Digsby allows me to archive to the web via Dexrex.
Dexrex has its own issues. I've used it for a couple of years and after IM-History went defunct-ish it became the only game in town. After importing IM conversations from several old machines, I have access to random discussions going back to December 2005 (the first with Lady Crumpet, no less!). Still, being the only game in town means that search can stop working a year ago and it still not be fixed, and that there's no support for mass export of your messages making it effectively like Meebo. When search worked, it was invaluable to find recommended articles from friends or to remember when a co-worker asked for a certain feature. Without search... well, offsite backup is nice. Dexrex are in the middle of a massive re-tooling, so maybe these annoyances will be remedied.
This is turning into one of the best stories so far this year, and yet it seems doomed to only be known by geeks. Still spinning quickly, with new revelations daily, but it goes a little something like this:
[Y]our numbers are too small to draw the conclusion but you don't want to accept it. Your probability based on frequency right now is a gut feeling. Gut feelings are usually wrong.
Hunton & Williams was recommended to Bank of America's General Counsel by the Justice Department -- meaning the U.S. Government is aiding Bank of America in its defense against/attacks on WikiLeaks.Copious footnotes and link as usual. Required reading. Palantir and Berico eventually issue a condemnation of the targeting of Salon and Greenwald.
I always think about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest when I stream some audio or video or, more recently, download a public domain book. In one of those conversations in the book that feels like a musical canon or fugue--multiple speakers in conversation yet each part sounds oddly independent--Orin Incandenza rhapsodizes on how he misses discursive mass media in their current world of everything on demand. Beginning on page 599, speaking with a supposed survey-taker:
'I miss TV,' Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.
'The former television of commercial broadcast.'
'Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,' displaying the board.
'Oh, man.' Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandiibular's much tinier and more vulnerable throb. 'Some of this may sounmd stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases "Order before midnight tonight" and "Save up to fifty percent and more." I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss "Sermonette" and "Evensong" and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something's transmitter was broadcasting at.' He felt his face. 'I miss sneering at something I loved. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.'
... 'I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers' strikes, Actors' Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.'
Patton Oswalt touches on this in a Wired editorial titled "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die" [ via Slashfilm ]. His main premise is that easily accessible culture has changed the fan from someone who scours book stores or record stores or rarity catalogs over years, to someone who downloads the equivalent in an afternoon. Appreciation without effort alters the relationship.
The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the '80s, you couldn't get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn't BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade's worth of grunge or hip hop.
I'm sympathetic with the impulse behind his thesis (before it goes very far afield around halfway through), but not necessarily with the pejorative conclusion. I was driving home yesterday with my Android on the dash showing me POV traffic via Google Maps and listening to streaming Radio Swiss Classic (a Joseph Haydn Symphony, I see, by looking up that timeslot on the internet). Fifteen years or so prior, I had a Newton that I'd only dreamed would have access to such "cyberspace" niceties, and my dreams were probably much paler than the wealth we ended up with. I worry some about the decadence of immediacy, but not yesterday. Yesterday, the immediacy and the realization that it doesn't even register to teenagers made me more interested in what the next wealth will be. We sorta saw this coming (remember that commercial from 10 or so years ago with the guy checking in to the dusty roadside motel and the attendant offering him any movie or recording he wanted for entertainment?) so we can probably see the next wealth coming.
Some notes I had taken a week back:
Compromise On Net Neutrality from WNYC with Tim Wu commenting, at around the 6:30 mark:
I was in the FCC and I said why don't we just extend [Net Neutrality rules] to wireless, and they said "that's great, but AT&T will never agree to that. And I said "AT&T doesn't have a vote on this commission." They said "yeah, but they got 60 Congressmen. They can make our life miserable."
Al Franken has been a long-time supporter. The video from his petition to save net neutrality:
In it, he asks:
How long do you think it will take for these [media] monoliths to buy enough elections so that they effectively have veto power over anything Congress tries to do to regulate them. Succinct.
Recently, I had serendipitously read Richard Stallman's essay in The Guardian titled The Anonymous WikiLeaks protests are a mass demo against control.
In the physical world, we have the right to print and sell books. Anyone trying to stop us would need to go to court. ... However, to set up a website we need the co-operation of a domain name company, an ISP, and often a hosting company, any of which can be pressured to cut us off.
We need more extremists like him.
Ars Technica reviewed recent books on the subject, one by Tim Wu, in their article Four takes on why net neutrality matters. The reviewer gets to the heart of the heart of the matter:
The deeper problem is that the First Amendment is empirically blind. It is oblivious to speech and information bottlenecks. It is not in fact a "free speech" guarantee, but a limitation on government. The Supreme Court focuses more on the "no law" than the "freedom of speech" parts of "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." [emphasis mine] While "no law's" concern about state censorship is certainly well-taken, it is only half the story. It hobbles any government attempt to act against private censorship. (Indeed, corporations have discovered the First Amendment as a useful argument against many types of government regulation, from consumer disclosures to campaign finance.) In an ironic turn of events, the First Amendment is used against speech.
Finally, and related, we have David Frost interviewing Julian Assange on Al Jazeera via Reddit:
I'll repeat: David Frost has a show on Al Jazeera.
+1 for the phrase
banging the absolute hell out of.
Gizmodo first reports that the Swedish charges against Assange (because, you know, they're relevant to whether the content of the leaked documents adds insight to the action of the US govt) were not rape, then update them to reflect updated charges. Basically--and this is a delicate area--Assange had consensual protected sex, they slept, then woke up and had either consensual or unconsensual sex without a condom. It takes Gizmodo to report this? Really?!
Julian Assange answers your questions over at Guardian earlier today at ~13:00 UTC. Site was down for the duration of the Q&A, but they eventually get published. Worth reading for the alternate humility and slight arrogance. A pity he sided-stepped a diplomat's question--pissy as it was. Regarding getting bumped from AWS:
Since 2007 we have been deliberately placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered a free speech deficit inorder to separate rhetoric from reality. Amazon was one of these cases.
Wishing I would have better documented the reasons why these cables are neither boring nor filled with justifications to kill Assange (make up your minds, US politicians; either they're deadly or they're mundane):
We'll continue saying they are our bombs, not yours.
Death threats and blood lust:
I think Assange should be assassinated, actually. I think Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something.
Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?and asked whether it was a
Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.
The information is out there. You haven't stopped anything.
[ updated 9 Dec 2010 ]
Not wanting to get too deeply into the charges, but a Slashdot comment references a blog post pointing to some suspicious social networking comments by one of the accusers. I hadn't seen this anywhere else, so it seems worth linking.
On the 15th, the Diaspora code was finally release in alpha and the reviews weren't good. The Register [ via Reddit along with Slashdot ] focused primarily on the dangerously inept security mistakes festering throughout all areas of the code. How bad? They ignore the most basic issue of scrubbing user-submitted data before inserting it into SQL queries. Here's my test for bad security practices: if even I know not to do something, it's bad. This is really bad.
Defenders--justifiably--remark that the fact that Diaspora is open source allows us to discover these flaws and publicize them to be either fixed or act as a warning to users. Closed source applications could contain worse and we'd never know. With Diaspora, Bloggers (such as MicroISV on a Shoestring) can examine the code and detail the full range of the issues involved. More interesting to me, and of greater concern, was an observation from faulteh on Slashdot regarding system requirements:
To be a seed you are going to need a hosting provider that supports ruby on rails with a freakishly huge list of gem dependencies, that is also running the thin webserver - that's right it doesn't work on apache ... In fact, installing all the dependencies on an ubuntu server running a LAMP stack still required an extra 350+Mb of extra packages ...
I haven't seen their concerns voiced elsewhere, and I'm not sure that the extra Ruby and Apache modules required result in as fragile/bloaty a configuration as they suggest. However, when very powerful blog and CMS frameworks can acheive so much with so much less, it suggests that there was a lack of architectural rigor in the decisions made early on in the Diaspora design process. All of these, of course, are minor points that ignore the 800-lb gorilla that Facebook is. What features are needed to make Facebook the next MySpace?
Diaspora (the open source Facebook) launches in two weeks. After learning about Appleseed and several others (listed in my original post), I was less interested in Diaspora. The Best Possible Outcome from all of this, however, would be for these different open source solutions to interoperate by developing a common protocol. I'm sure it's being discussed.
Interesting events triggered by Wikileaks release of the US military logs of the war in Afghanistan:
This will very soon be all about leaking, and whistleblowers, and danger to our troops ... What it won't be about is the actual substance of those reports.
Wikileaks should be invisible. Stuff should just appear. No one should have any idea where it comes from.
Julian Assange says he's found only one carrot that gets journalists to dig through his piles of raw material: "You can have it first. ... When you release something to the world its scarcity goes from zero to infinity. There is not a good incentive for journalists to invest in pulling the material apart and writing up and placing it in context.
What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai's government and regards him as a legitimate leader--or is it just absurd?
In Closing the Digital Frontier [ via On the Media: Information Wants to Be Expensive ], Michael Hirschorn argues that the death of advertising (see Bob Garfield's own The Chaos Scenario) has brought about the closed systems that are mobile phones. The iPhone being the worst offender and most adept exploiter.
The shift of the digital frontier from the Web to the smart phone signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995. Facebook and iPhone are two augurs of the end of a rich frontier.
Recent articles on the hopes of an open/open source Facebook alternative:
Linked from comments in the articles, several alternatives are mentioned (alpha-ordered):
The building blocks have been available for a while in the form of email+blog+IM+NNTP with more elaborate image and video sharing achievable using Flickr and YouTube (or similar). I always felt that news sites and blogs should have used NNTP/Usenet servers to manage their comment systems. They use email to send messages. Why reinvent? Over the past five or so years, open protocols have flourished: activitystreams (and other microformats), OAuth and OpenID, FOAF, XMPP, RSS, PubSubHubbub, etc. These could provide the plumbing to create a more seamless social environment than patching together email and a blog and whatever. FriendFeed is an attempt to stitch the disparate sites together, but the result still feels like islands.
I'm not a fan of FB and since the privacy changes I have become less of one (less than "not"?). There's no way I'd allow them to host my personal content, and will never contribute to them. Still, most don't have my choices and most want a more passively connected, pre-populated environment as opposed to islands. Despite Facebook's momentum and user base--and as others have pointed out--MySpace was once considered unbeatable.
[ upated 12 May 2010 ]
Leo Laporte has joined the Diaspora bandwagon [ via RWW ]. Many of the RWW comments remind me of the responses to iPad criticism. It's an odd attitude that you should never talk about the flaws you see in something. Still, interesting to see so many competitors popping up in the same comments to hawk their wares.
[ upated 18 May 2010 ]
Added Appleseed and Xobni. Appleseed is already deep in development and has the same goals as Diaspora.
[ upated 27 Sep 2010 ]
Added BuddyPress, Peerscape, and tribe.net.
I'm trying to understand the hatred that comes from people who dislike cell phones or text messages or (especially) Twitter. A few days ago, there was an article on Slashdot about Twitter and I noticed how commenters there have an ole fashioned befuddlement with social tech like this. A highly modded comment, responding to the news story that all public Tweets post March 2006 will be archived by the Library of Congress, quiped
Your tax dollars at work...Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you have to! And this was modded insightful.
Typical, and common in the geekier online communities where members have jobs that make the most of knowledge connectivity, is a distaste for social connectivity. If code we're writing spits out some esoteric error, we grab the nearest search engine and work our best search-fu keyword combinations to find someone, somewhere who has seen the error and blogged about it. This is generally a successful research technique relying on others' chattiness. In contrast, if people we don't know and whose missives will never come up in our browser window choose to blog about some esoteric eatery, many geeks will become livid at such a waste of bits. The common arguments against such public activity streams are always the same and always self-satisfied: "I don't need to tell people what I just ate," "I'm not so vain that I need to be always in touch," or simply "I don't want to be interrupted by phone calls." There's always a certain pride in declaring this non-use. Few feel the need to declare that they don't read mystery novels.
(Is ranting against the iPad similar to this? Is preferring an open source tablet over a closed source one the same as banishing cell phones or Twitter?)
As I was pondering the Slashdot/Twitter oil-and-water thing, someone showed me what's possibly the preeminent example of curmudgeonly ranting over at The Old New Thing blog. The blog entry itself is a short denouncement of cell phones in the "in *my* day" fashion. The real gems are in the comments where veritable Old Person Hallelujahs can be heard praising the author:
I love this; I've been anti-cell phone for years,
I have been a computer programmer for 34 years ... I do not have a cell phone, and I don't want one,
And when my cell rings and I don't recognize the number, I silence the ring. Do that often and I'll put you on my junk contact list. These people seem helpless before communication technology. Instead of not purchasing what they don't need, they have to be "anti". Their credentials are presented either for (1) proof that geeks can survive without tech or (2) proof that their opinion should be weighted more highly. They don't just ignore calls when they're busy but instead treat the callers aggressively, as if the caller knew they were busy and were purposefully interrupting them.
The blog entry criticizing cell phones is a pretty lame pseudo-excuse to say that technology weakens people. Cell phones make people dependent on communication systems. Google Maps makes people dependent on maps. Hammers make people dependent on tools? But it reveals in otherwise tech-savvy people a weakness for an idealized past. And, I'll admit, I'm surprised that my social group is susceptible to such nonsense.
Everytime I tried to watch a YouTube video, the video region was replaced by the message "Old Flash? Go Upgrade!" with a link to Adobe. I finally found this thread on YouTube support explaining that you have to delete all YouTube cookies to get videos to play. Success. So far with Opera 10.50, I've had one lockup (w/ a pdf). It's still in beta, but the new features are worth the risk. Very smooth performance.
[ updated 15 Apr 2010 ]
Problem returned. Summary of solution tweeted by Opera and available here. From the guy who found the workaround:
This is a lame solution to "block" the videos to those who uses flashblockers, or adblockers, or etc.
A few weeks back, I found out that a beta of Opera Mini 5 was available for my Blackberry Storm (out ~a month prior). The move from 4 to 5 added tabbed browsing, near-desktop speed (using Opera's proxies), and just a generally more elegant layout. Their functional tabbed browsing solution on such a small form factor is reason enough for a trial.
I started using Opera I don't know how many years ago. I remember it was when they still had ads at the top, so it was probably version 5 sometime at the end of 2000. It wasn't the most elegant software to work with, but this was years before Firefox was even a dream, so non-IE choices on Windows were few and squirrely. I'm not sure how, but I've stuck with it ever since and only in the last few years has it become really brag-worthy. Stick with something long enough and every little advance makes it seem worth while.
Yesterday, I was helping my brother with some web sites he uses for real estate. They're a mish-mash of multiple installs of WordPress with shared style sheets and several branches of dead code that is undocumented. He inherited this, and we learn a little more of the madness contained each time something needs changed (update the logo? edit two images and three css files...). Opera's Dragonfly is invaluable for tracking down layout idiosyncrasies and resource file locations. The same thing can be done with Firefox's Firebug, but with Opera you have one, small download to get everything you need.
Oddly, whereas I appreciate Opera much for its single packaging of every tool, I use Eclipse for development which is more akin to Firefox with its plugin approach to features. Although I run pretty lean at home, at work we use the ClearCase and ClearQuest plugins--two large installs that would be completely unnecessary for 90% of the people using Eclipse and so sensibly pluginable. And I guess that's the difference between my choice of an all-in-one browser cf. a piecemeal IDE (barring the very real possibility that I chose them because they both happen to be FREE): browsers' features can be lightweight; IDE features will more likely be much heavier. E.g. I don't need a Fortran IDE when all I'm writing is Java and sometimes C++.
I had this idea a while back to create a tweet reader that speaks your tweets as they arrive (Tweaker...? meh). It would be like having a news radio feed playing in the background. The content would actually be more appropriate as a background feed than something you read periodically. You could "tune in" when you hear something interesting, and then rewind to the tweet of note or go to the web feed or whatever. Could be annoying, but maybe not.
A few days ago I got my Google Voice number. I have no plans on using it--my cell has been my primary number forever--but it may become useful. Everyone seems to love the transcribed voice mail messages. Here's Lisa's first message to me, and I assure you it resembles the actual message only in that both are in English:
Hey it's Jenny, I'm giving you a message on your new girl google voice mail. I guess I should say tinker, and everyone's search for can't find it.
So, I guess it works better for some. This transcription could eventually be used to piece together a voice corpus to have the tweet reader read in the sender's voice. Minor audio stitching and compression would make sure it doesn't sound like an audio ransom note. I suspect Google already has such a back-and-forth/text-to-voice planned for Gmail and chat and such once they get a repository built up.
Digsby recently had an update that added an idle processing feature. If your machine's been idle for >5 minutes, it kicks in and performs some generic research using your CPU. Think of it as one of those @Home services embedded in your IM client. They describe the services as being used for
accelerating medical research projects, analyzing the stock market, searching the web, and finding the largest known prime number. This functionality is completely optional and you may disable it at any time. They made the mistake of enabling it by default, and so have been put through the ringer by internet obsessives.
without your knowledge.Gasp.
It Would Be A Bad Thing if someone were to hack the malware. It would be very bad if they changed it so it downloaded copyrighted stuff, say whole CDs of recent music.Or
Laptop users also get less battery life [when the idle research is performed].Similar panicked responses dominated the thread.
I don't think that users should be barred from criticizing free software, but it's a shame that concern over such minor security and convenience issues grows out of proportion to the actual risk. I only hope that the vocal rabble don't have the power that they feel they do, and that their protest doesn't affect a generally excellent piece of free software.
Something I've seen over the last six months to a year (it may be older): using "this" as a one word reply agreeing to a previous comment in a thread. E.g. "It's not that C++ is a complex language, it's simply that programmers tend to fail more spectacularly when using it." Followed by: "This." (Often with an up arrow ^ reemphasizing the direction of the this). Maybe an abbrev. of "this is what I mean" or "this is what I'm talking about" or perhaps just "this is the real issue." It usually follows a very long post and so makes an exaggerated point in its brevity of how well the previous post has encapsulated the heart of the discussion.
[ updated 23 Dec 2009 ]
Over the past couple of months, there's been a backlash of anti-brevity. Here's one humorous example of this-hatred:
Comment from Slashdot discussing Google Wave and Facebook:
Blog engine makers will have an opportunity to see blogs on an equal footing with FaceBook, by integrating with Google Wave. Bloggers will have a chance to spark a conversation through their social network, as with FaceBook, but they will also have the chance to have that conversation grow beyond their circle of friends, as with a high profile blog today. As a participant in those conversations, your contribution today is normally "fire and forget" (I always wonder why people bother posting to the comments area of the major newspapers, where there comment is read only by them and one or two lunatics with an axe to grind). Tomorrow, with Google Wave, you can participate in conversations all over the internet, without the need to remember to go back to hundreds of places to check to see if anyone else was interested in what you said.
That idea of growing the conversation is important. I'm not a fan of Facebook because it's such a closed system. Walled gardens defeat all of the good of blogs when you can't just wander along and enjoy someone's musings on Infinite Jest or their tips on how to fix a wonky laptop. People are up in arms whenever a news site tries to block deep linking; why is there such acquiescence to Facebook? I would have never thought of using Wave as a means to replace social media sites. Conversations on blogs have always been hobbled by not having your comment linked to a central inbox. Embedding "waves" would be a simple solution to help people track the conversations they've been in. Neat.
Google Wave [ Wikipedia ] is an attempt to integrate document management, wiki, and IM, under the rubric of real-time, web-based group collaboration. Their presentation shows much but is a little heavy on corniness and world-changing ambition. Par for the course for most demos and moderately justified here. They also intend to make Google Wave an open-source protocol to complement such technologies as FTP and SMTP. Nicest features: simple sharing of IM threads, adding others to the whole or part of the conversation; and document edit time lines that allow you to replay the edits and see the editors over the lifetime of the document. It's difficult to see now if Wave will settle in the content management space of MediaWiki or Drupal, or the project management space of Basecamp, or some hybrid space encompassing both.
Opera Unite [ Wikipedia ] is a feature of Opera 10 (now in beta) that allows the browser to become a web server. When Opera is running, you can share files, share folders, stream music, host discussion threads, and serve web pages. This is in line with the original idea that Tim Berners-Lee had when he invented the web: emphasizing creation on every node as much as consumption. Most responses have been in one of three categories: "wow", "nothing new", or "too much of a security risk". Although a biased Opera-user, I like the potential simplicity that Unite offers for sharing and communication, and I love how it empowers users to serve their own content from their own machine. Although a person could create a hosted blog to share pictures and files, why do that if the audience is simply friends and family? In a way, this is an alternative to all of those now-dusty blogs: a personal web site could now be truly personal.
Some links of note:
[ updated 23 July 2009 ]
Interesting comment from a Slashdot discussion on Wave. The commenter describes it as
a cross between a Wiki and an Instant Messenger, then relates their impression from the Wave conference at Google:
Everything that was being said was transcribed live, "livewaving" that's what the google employees called it, and the notes/statements/questions said out lout during the presentations were clarified, corrected, rephrased, and formatted by two or three people (just a couple of lines above where they had been captured). There was no coordination whatsoever, people just added things wherever they felt they could contribute. Also, the initial attempt at coordination by the Google organizers was foiled, because they were too slow to create the group and start an official wave on their own, the participants already had a wave underway by the time they started -- so that became the official one by default.
There's been several recent feted releases of unique search tools. Though none are sea changes, they add interesting possibilities and complement existing methods (usually your search-engine-of-choice + Wikipedia).
First up, Wolfram|Alpha: structured answers to a hand tooled domain of data. The best use for this is when Wikipedia's search fails, usually when you have a combination of words within the domain you're interested in. Sometimes a Google search into Wikipedia can resolve that (e.g. search for
site:wikipedia.org rival "Franz Liszt" from Google). The biggest benefit of W|A is the clearly formatted results hyperlinked to deeper, related searches.
Second, the entertainingly naive Google Squared. It's still in Google's "Labs" area, so it's in alpha or earlier and gives results that you'd expect more from someone's Google mash-up or Greasemonkey script. Results are structured like W|A but culled from data scraped from the web rather than hand-picked. I hope it gets more attention from the developers because dynamic and emergent knowledge is more scalable than edited knowledge. When new information appears on the web, GS doesn't need to have updates added like encyclopedia yearbooks. W|A does.
Finally, of lesser note, TextRunner [ via Slashdot ] from the University of Washington allows very simple natural language queries and, like Google Squared, finds answers in an unedited corpus of web pages so is more easily scalable (if a bit slow). Like most basic NL search engines, queries are in the form WH-WORD VERB NOUN. While Google et al. have won the day by de-emphasizing semantic knowledge, it's good to see that tagged information extraction is still being researched.
I've had the Longcat/Ragnarok image for my wallpaper at work for a while. A co-worker has never heard of it nor longcat and so I had to go through the best description I could of why longcat exists. I didn't have much except that it just... does. Even though he was not familiar, he seemed to like the image. I mean, really, what's not to like?!
LC started as a photo of a cat; was shopped to look longer than it is; was repeated everywhere; battled its nemesis, Tacgnol; and now is a trope used for reduplicated emphasis (
boring blog is boring). I suspect that longcat is part of the incipient mythology that is being created on the internet and try to think of it in terms of tapping a primal energy (cue trite Jungian terminology...). These images and memes are part of the stumbling birth of culture. Grunts that eventually develop into language proper. Like spoken and written languages, the systems and images that will result in 50 years will be marked in some small way by their origins but have little obvious connection.
Or something like that.
Those wacky kids on 4chan were at it again. Their target this month? The Time.com poll of the 100 most influential people in the world. Their goal had originally been to put 4chan creator Moot at the top, but after that proved to be too easy they aspired to a higher purpose and gamed the results to spell a "secret message" with the first letters of the names in the list. Eschewing the mundane (e.g. spelling out "eat me" or some such), they went with the more cryptic "marblecake, also the game". Take that, NSA.
I'd first seen the result from a post on Reddit and, honestly, almost didn't believe that they could do it. But after reading Music Machinery's interview with one of the perpetrators [ also via Reddit ], I can't believe what web dev dorks the people at Time.com are. If the interview is to be believed, their poll accepted any and any number of GETs to add a vote. ?!? While the rest of us are puzzling over XSS vulnerabilities, Time breaks the first rule of GET. The rest of the interview (with Zombocom, referencing the always-entertaining http://www.zombo.com/) revealed the details of how they wrote tools to attack each part of the problem. One script busily kept names beginning with unwanted letters out of the top; another sorted the remaining names to spell the message. Although the interviewer grossly overstated the importance of what was done, the casual manner that web skills are applied by this community is interesting. Kids used to work on car engines.
So, what next for 4chan? Well over the past few days they've been working to put both Ashton Kutcher and CNN in their place. The two are in a battle to be the first Twitter users with 1,000,000 followers. 4chan has put it's weight behind a certain account called basementdad. Followers (whose IDs consist of a suspicious mangle of the same few names) appear to be increasing at a few hundred every 15 minutes or so.
[ updated 28 Apr 2009 ]
Performance Today had people begging to buy a recording of Ravi Shankar's new concerto after the premiere was broadcast on their March 6th show. Unfortunately, they didn't have permission to sell it. People want to throw money at a new music composer (albeit, a very tenured and wealthy one) and he didn't have the foresight to prepare an MP3 download of the premiere performance? Luckily, most new composers are wise to the internets and know their way around MP3s. Still, Shankar's actions feel almost dismissive of the audience.
In many instances, NPR is the model of new media provider. They've always had a very clean and comprehensive web site and are committed to working closely and in partnership with local stations. Well balanced national and local implementations are not what you expect from a not-for-profit.
The Space Bat will be fondly remembered. Where Dusty resonated with those who had been bullied, Space Bat is that same beaten individual unable to go on and finding a final rest. Gizmodo said it best:
Bereft of his ability to fly and with nowhere to go, a courageous bat climbed aboard our Discovery with stars in his weak little eyes. The launch commenced, and Spacebat trembled as his frail mammalian body was gently pushed skyward. For the last time, he felt the primal joy of flight; for the first, the indescribable feeling of ascending toward his dream--a place far away from piercing screeches and crowded caves, stretching forever into fathomless blackness.
Whether he was consumed in the exhaust flames or frozen solid in the stratosphere is of no concern. We know that Spacebat died, but his dream will live on in all of us.
I tweeted a eulogy, there have been humorous images, and lengthy dedications on /b/ (think "SPACEBAT!!!" repeated a brazillian times; sorry, no screencap...). I'm sure there'll be more to come. I'm waiting for the t-shirt!
This has got to be my favorite story recently. Probably for the past six months or a year I've been reading /b/ on 4chan. First out of curiosity about the place that made lolcats, Rickrolling, and the always cautious Admiral Akbar, then from sheer enjoyment. It's not for the squeamish, but for me it's a perfect representation of what's best about the internet: near anarchy.
So, when I try to describe /b/ to people--people who don't spend that much time online--it's a little difficult but the best I've come up with is that it's a website where people chat and post porn and cute cat pictures. If you can imagine the intersection of such interests, that's close enough. Saturdays begin with an angry cat demanding that cat pictures be posted:
From there, hundreds of cats+wackiness images are uploaded and commented upon with the mandatory =^_^=. These people love their cats and this made a completely unfortunate situation for Kenny Glenn when he, anonymously, uploaded a video of himself masked and cruelly torturing his pet cat Dusty. Sunday morning the internets got wind of this and 4chan, Reddit, and Digg all posted their vows of vengeance. That being said, nobody does vengeance like /b/ and they quickly put up an irc channel to coordinate efforts to track down the evildoer (in a rare moment, I chose not to watch the video after reading the warning; it sounded grimmer than most of the shock stuff that gets posted). A day later, after geek forensics of the video and the YouTube account, all crowdsourced through irc, the kid was arrested.
Here are some of the relevant references for this weird-yet-happy story (Dusty is on his way to adoption):
Dusty is a Texan tabby who is most known for giving birth to 420 kittens during her lifetime. There could be possibly more.The only subsequent change was a  link; otherwise, it still exists in that form today. I can't make this shit up.
I like the internet even more today.
[ updated 4 Mar 2009 ]
Reddit points to a story about the vet that's taking care of Dusty and his pal Patches. Balance returns to the universe.
I was noticing on Friday at work that many of the conversations we have hop between domains. Conversations start in an email, jump to clarifications on IM then hallway drive-bys and sometimes become ossified into an actual meeting room meeting. I'd thought about this before and wanted someway to dynamically move a conversation to your phone (IM moves to SMS) if you walk away from your desk for a few minutes. The conversation can continue, but you don't need to be in a fixed location or use a fixed medium.
This week's On The Media had a segment on how kids these days (the
digital natives) manage their online presences differently. The assumption is that they have poor judgement in their division of private and public--thus the recent report that 1-in-5 teens have posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. The findings were, as expected, unexpected. Those who have a regular online presence have a greater sense of the inevitability of them being googled and act accordingly. The ungoogleable are anachronisms.
The primary warning of the ungoogleable towards the googleable has been that you risk not landing a job if a future employer finds anything they don't like. Though correct at face value, I've always thought it a little evil that employers' transient tastes should dictate how you present yourself in your life. If I'm a raging socialist (if) trying to get a programming job, do I really want such an employer that would not hire me if they knew that I was? Self-censorship is insidious no matter the origin. The guest on On The Media went one step in a different direction and suggested that such issues will not even be issues when online presence is common (as it is with this next generation). When everyone's online to a moreorless equal degree, discovering another's non-work persona becomes less juicy and, appropriately, less relevant.
Listened to the podcast of an On Point show discussing the history of the song "House of the Rising Sun". It's the subject of a new book by Ted Anthony called "Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song." Origin unknown, but it is maybe 100 years old. Alan Lomax made the first recording for the Library of Congress in 1937 while traveling through Appalachia looking for remnants of Elizabethan songs. He recorded an a cappella performance by 16 year old girl named Georgia Turner in a poor neighborhood of Middlesborough, Kentucky.
When discussing the story told in the song, Ted Anthony invokes a phrase--"invisible republic"--that Greil Marcus used to describe a set of early recordings by Bob Dylan. In Anthony's assessment, the "invisible republic" is an inchoate expression of American myths manifest in Dylan's songs. Archetypal. My assessment: The more structured society of 1700s/1800s England was abandoned to the wilderness of the Americas. The arts that were kept were easily communicable in such an environment (dispersed, agrarian population) and were selected as stories most relevant to that environment (courtship ballades were out, morality tales modified to fit the New World). The unconscious, group process chose and molded the early arts and these incipient myths.
One connection I made on "House of the Rising Sun": spelunking from that article to the one on the English ballad "Matty Groves" brought up a reference to the aubade form: basically a romantic trope where lovers part in the morning (think Romeo and Juliet). I wonder if "House of the Rising Sun" has any relevance as a tragic aubade.
(Although the historical discussion was interesting, the musical discussion was sorely lacking with the author admitting he knows nothing about music. Simple guitar strumming is described as
complicated picking; the chord progression is considered to be unique in the history of folk music. Bah. The chords are i bIII iv V i V i and very common w/r/t folk music in the minor key. It would have been nice if Anthony would have worked some with an ethnomusicologist to place it in historical context. Alas.)
I like the idea of being so close in history to the origin of modern myths. 40 years prior, Dylan probably felt he was tapping something primal (artists usually do) when he unearthed those tunes, and decades before him the folk musicians of the 40s and 50s probably felt the same. We're in touch with the origin of what will be the digital myths but, as with most events in history, it's difficult to discern the temporal memes from the eternal. Not every lolcat will survive the sieve of history. But where are the artists who frieze these incipient digital myths into a more permanent form? In the text-dependent environment of the internet, cyberpunk writers seem to have taken the place of folk musicians to write the history of digital society. Still, there's so much more out there that reeks of primordial potential: 4chan/Digg/Reddit, gamer forums, social networking sites, open-source collaborations. Even dead-and-dying groups have a mythic potential: Feed, Suck, BBSs. What different experiences will become digital archetypes?