blarg?

Electrical

I was asked in an email why I thought that Google Buzz thing was such a big deal, so here goes. Other, smarter people have written a lot about privacy as a human right as well as a practice, notably Bruce Schneier:

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.

But an equally telling anecdote might be an old bit from Cliff Stoll, from The Cuckoo’s Egg, a book now 20 years old, about early forms of data mining:

But there’s a deeper problem. Individually, public documents don’t contain classified information. But once you gather many documents together, they may reveal secrets. An order from an aircraft manufacturer for a load of titanium sure isn’t secret. Nor is the fact that they’re building a new bomber. But taken together, there’s a strong indicator that Boeing’s new bomber is made of titanium, and therefore must fly at supersonic speeds (since ordinary aluminum can’t resist high temperatures).
[...] Now, with computers and networks, you can match up data sets in minutes. [...] By analyzing public data with the help of computers, people can uncover secrets without ever seeing a classified database.

He was talking about classified military information, but that trick was published in a pulp paperback twenty years ago. It’s far easier to do that with people than it is performance specs; just publishing a friends’ list is more enough to figure out where most people live, work and where their kids go to school, and the people most interested in keeping some or all of their private lives private know it.

If you arbitrarily change what people are able to keep private:

  • For most people, nothing happens and life goes on.
  • Some smaller slice of the population might suffer some minor inconvenience, embarrassment, or relatively small financial loss, depending on their situation and the information revealed.
  • Some yet smaller demographic, at the confluence of the wrong circumstances and the wrong information, may suffer some large inconvenience, public humiliation or financial disaster that may be difficult or impossible to ever recover from.
  • And finally, for some small segment of the population, arbitrarily revealing information about them means that someone will figure out who, what or where they are, come to their home and kill them.

There is no way to know which people are which; you have to let them decide for themselves what to share.

Further, I have an obligation as a systems administrator (as does anyone who handles or has access to private information) to protect the people whose information is in my care. Not the information – the people, to risks they might incur via that information. I have no more right to expose that smallest segment of the population to that danger and fear than they would, if they had the capacity, to inflict that on me or anyone else.

Which is all to say, you never expose somebody’s personal information or change their privacy settings without their explicit, informed consent. To do so is wrong.

Escarpment

It turns out there’s been an update to Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” policy.

Remember a month ago, how they said they weren’t going to be censoring Chinese search results anymore?

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

So yeah, a month later they’re still doing that. They haven’t changed anything.

Even better, by which I mean “worse”: You might not have heard of Google Buzz, but wow, it’s probably heard of you. You probably remember when their CEO Eric Schmidt said this:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

And you might know that this is the same person who blacklisted CNet for publishing information about him that it looked up (yes) on Google. Well, it turns out that despite their privacy policy, they’ve codified that fuck-you attitude and deployed it to their entire user base. For most of us these things are minor inconveniences, and possibly minor embarrassments. But for some people, their brain-dead idea of equating “contacts” with “friends” and then making that information public-facing without user intervention or consent has real, severe consequences.

Yeah, they did that. Think you’re having a bad privacy day? I hope it’s not as bad as this woman’s having:

I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.

There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.

You know who my third most frequent contact is?

My abusive ex-husband.

Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.

There are instructions here on how to get out from under that, but the key point is that just turning off Buzz isn’t enough; you need to play whackamole with a follower’s list you probably don’t even know you have first.

It’s not written down anywhere (there is, as of this writing, no comment about this Buzz disaster in any of their blog posts and the word “buzz” doesn’t appear in their privacy FAQ) but the updated policy appears to be:

“Don’t Be Evil*”

* Facilitating, collaborating are acceptable.

The Maestro At Work

A few months ago my wife said that her relatives might find me a bit less completely incomprehensible if I stopped speaking in cartoonishly exaggerated, long-winded metaphor. I said that’s kind of how I roll. She said “you don’t roll” and I explained that it’s a metaphor, let me tell you all about it.

It’s frankly amazing that she puts up with me at all, but all of that leads up to this: about four months in after Maya was born, a colleague at the office asked me what it was like being a new dad, and since I like telling ridiculous stories, I told him this one.

You’re at the edge of a long, narrow highway, looking at a car accident; there’s the remains of a fancy red sports car by the side of the road, twisted and smoking. A man nearby is dressed in a nice sport coat and a collared shirt, looking either wistful or shaken as he stares past the wreckage into the middle distance. A police officer is there coldly surveying the scene, trying to work out what’s happened; he’s talking to a disheveled-looking hillbilly who’s clearly in shock, with a Larry-and-his-brother-Darryl-and-his-other-brother-Darryl voice saying “I don’t understand… it all happened so fast.”

That’s what being a new dad is like.

You’re welcome.

Eastward From Spadina

Oh, god. Via the New York Times:

Google has been talking about entering the direct e-book market, through a program it calls Google Editions, for nearly a year. But in early discussions with publishers, Google had proposed giving them a 63 percent cut of the suggested retail price, and allowing consumers to print copies of the digital books and cut and paste segments. [...] According to several publishers who have been talking to Google, the book companies had balked at what they saw as Google’s less generous terms, and basically viewed printing and cut-and-paste as deal breakers.

Which is to say, “we intend to collude to force our customers to pay more for something with which they will be permitted to do less.” Honestly, that’s your plan? Your business is text, and cut and paste are dealbreakers?

With a plan like that, what could possibly go wrong?

Good luck, publishers. Don’t let the future hit you on the ass on the way out.

The Lip

Have you noticed that when some Person A endorses some notion they can’t really articulate, and person B enthusiastically supports that half-formed idea with arguments they really haven’t thought through, both of them will inevitably say that the other person “gets it”?

So about that iPad.

I appear to be in the minority of my nerd colleagues when I say that I covet this new iPad widget. It may just be the reflexive Shiny Technology Acquisition Reflex we nerds suffer from, but can I justify it by saying that I don’t want one for the same reason other people do? Let’s find out.

This is a difficult position, because a number of the people I know who’ve declared the iPad a waste of time are highly technical people I quite respect, and unfortunately a number of those most vocally in favor of it are idiots. To be clear I don’t think the world is divided into those two categories; it’s just that apropos the iPad, there’s this bright line cut down the middle of my newsfeed aggregator.

So, let me enumerate a few points, just to clarify my position. The iPad is a number of quite polarizing things, and among them are:

  1. A device with a hypermodern, visually minimalist UI that marginalizes or discards thirty years of convention in favor of doing its own thing.
  2. A physical artefact which, in terms of both its form and interactivity, is by the standards of modern computery things shockingly elegant.
  3. A portable device with (apparently) virtually zero physical extensibility. Modulo the docking station & keyboard, it’s basically atomic. Relatedly, it is also
  4. A computer that’s very nearly impenetrable as far as software exposure or modification goes, even from with within the system itself; it is designed (well) and implemented (well) to completely obscure the implementation details within the system. The details of the technology inside it are as close to invisible and unexaminable as they can be made to be.
  5. Another conduit to Apple’s App Store, which via iTunes (again, this is not confirmed but is extremely likely) is expected to be the only way to get software onto the device at all. Software that Apple has not preapproved will simply not be available.

I’ve tried, and somewhat failed, to keep my phrasing relatively neutral there but these are the salient facts.

On the first point, I am wholly in favor. These aspects of the iPad, including jettisoning old UI ideas, experimenting with new interfaces, multitouch, minimalism, and the push towards the style of application that this sort of experimental UI canvas lets the industry take, they’re great. It’s really a shame that nobody else in the industry is willing to make these kind of big pushes forward. And maybe more importantly, nobody else is so merciless about throwing stuff overboard once it’s outlived its usefulness.

I think there’s a certain blindness on the part of the technically inclined to the elegance of invisibility, though it’s completely understandable; when the implementation details disappear it becomes difficult or impossible for us to pursue our jobs or hobbies, because our jobs are the technical details. When they disappear and, worse, when they disappear and that seems to actually work right we get skittish indeed.

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” – Douglas Adams

I think technology whenever possible should be at least translucent, at best invisible. Not everyone thinks so, and some days I agree with them; my fellow nerds have had the same bad days I’ve had when somebody’s tried to hide some implementation details and then gone and fucked it up anyway. It’s no fun at all having to get out from under that sort of thing, and we’ve all been burned by it at some point. But for most people, most of the time, that’s a huge feature, not a bug at all.

Physically it is clearly beautiful, in that brushed-aluminum zen way that’s become Jonathan Ive‘s signature fit-and-finishing move. I wish somebody else would start making hardware that is even fractionally able to compete in this space, but alas.

I’m going to digress for a moment here, about two things: grandparents and open systems.

Digression the first: to every tech writer who feels like pointing out how some technology is not for geeks, but for somebody’s hypothetical grandmother: Maya’s grandmother shows her friends videos of her granddaughter learning to crawl on her iTouch. You, on the other hand, are using dated, decades-old tropes to fluff out crappy writing; you are a lazy slob of a writer using a stereotype as a crutch. Honestly, the only person hanging on to crusty old tools here is you.

Digression the second, in an article on (gag) LifeHacker about the the problems with the iPad, Adam Pash writes:

“To say that “either a device is user friendly or it’s open” is a false dichotomy.”

Ignoring that Pash’s abysmal idea of “openness” is “includes a terminal app and shows you the filesystem”, you’d think that would be true. But shit, guys, prove it! Show us! Ship something that isn’t some bullshit one-off debian/busybox recompile in a crappy plastic box with a half-assed one-off UI and a bunch of proprietary goop on top of it! Because as far as I can tell, Apple is the only company that is successful at both shipping their own hardware and treating usability as something deeper than a coat of spraypaint.

That little rant lets me segue back into the last three points, being very much related. And I’m very ambivalent about them. For a user to install arbitrary hardware means the user needs to be able to install arbitrary drivers, and I’m betting the #1 reason, above even it’s driven minimalism, that the iPad’s hardware is so thoroughly closed is so that the software can stay just as closed. (Dispute that if you like, but take a moment to divide the number of different ways you can extend the functionality of an iPod Touch via the dock or Bluetooth by the number of things you can plug into a MacBook’s USB port; not quite zero, but awfully close.)

I can, I have to say, kind of understand that. Between denying arbitrary third-party drivers and killing Flash, Apple has certainly done great things for the stability and manageability of the iPhoneOS product lines.

But to customers and developers alike, there’s this huge, huge downside. This is arguably the most pernicious elements of the App Store and its approval process, and more generally of Apple’s having complete control over the platform; that nobody can sell you, or even just give you for free, anything that Apple finds inconvenient. That’s why you can’t hook a bluetooth keyboard up to an iPhone, for example, and why you can’t use Firefox or Chrome on it. Mobile Safari might suck, but there’s nothing you can do about it and no way to vote with your feet. “Duplicating existing functionality”, even if the existing functionality sucks and the new idea is better, is out of the question.

And for developers it’s worse. Users just can’t buy the product; developers can’t get back the months of their lives they spent creating it, should they end up butting heads against the perniciously arbitrary App Store approval process. And worse, I’ve heard rumors (just rumors, but serious rumors from serious people) that a careful reading of the App Store developer agreements might imply that Apple actually owns the software you sell through the App Store. Certainly the fact you’re prohibited, under NDA, from even publishing why your apps have been rejected (and, in some high profile cases, it wouldn’t matter if you do because Apple will just lie about it anyway) should be a deal breaker. But with everyone busily keeping their eyes on this Scrooge-McDuck-style bathtub of money, who has time to fret about little things like digital freedoms, competitive marketplaces, conflicts of interest, or actually owning things you’ve paid for?

The App Store business model is classic robber-barony for this shiny new digital age, in short. Sadly, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to be unable to design their way out of a wet cardboard box and ship a competing product.

Did I say that I still want an iPad? Yeah, I’ve been wavering about that.

But the rest of the portable-device field right now is so very, very thin. Nobody else seems like they’re able to pull all these disparate parts (hardware, software, online services, service and marketing, etc…) together in any way that is getting any kind of traction. Despite RIM’s market share, nobody gives a shit about RIM’s store, for example. It’s worth mentioning the context in which the iPad and the App Store exist, which appears to be this huge gaping void in the market that they can pour a basically unlimited number of devices into. Their only reasonable competitor in this space, Google, only just decided to turn on multitouch support on their Android phones a few days ago, and hasn’t yet shipped their presumed future minicomputer based on ChromeOS.

Digressions three and four, here: Boy, ChromeOS (and, indeed, Android) has a rocky future ahead of it. Just recently, Google pulled out their increasingly dog-eared copy of the Classic Microsoft playbook and started putting the screws to their Android clients in a move seasoned veterans of the Microsoft desktop space will find immediately familiar. “We have no intention of developing a competing product. Please, use our OS. Go right ahead, we have no intention of developing a competing product. None. Did I mention we’re not going to sell a phone? Use Android, love Android, let us help you use Android and love Android. Invest heavily in Android. Oh, you did? Great! Check out the new Google Phone! Isn’t it awesome?”

Good luck finding people to work with you on ChromeOS, Google!

The final digression: have I mentioned how consistently shocked I am that Microsoft is completely irrelevant in the portable space? Their mobile OS team has been fucking the dog for at least five years now, and thanks to a CEO who’s got the strategic vision of a stop sign in a parking lot they now have at least three separate mobile strategies that might be conflicting if anyone knew what the hell any of them were doing. It’s really stunning. I mean, honestly guys, “Surface”? You took all those great ideas and decided to make furniture? I can remember companies being afraid to compete with Microsoft. Now, not so much.

And finally, there are some odd hiccups to the iPad launch that I don’t quite understand. And they really didn’t sell the product at the public demo. Unless you looked only at the physical interface part of it, that was a crappy keynote, and the haste with which people like John Gruber have fired up their sneers and leapt snidely to Apple’s defence has read an awful lot more like Stockholm Syndrome than regular old Reality Distortion this time around.

Still, people who’ve actually held one seem to think they’re great. But none of those people will be developers; as far as I can tell, no developers will have actually tested their apps on a real iPad on launch day, because Apple isn’t seeding developers with them at all. And you can expect one, maybe two more major announcements about the iPad before it’s released, possibly with respect to the hardware but likely with with regards to ebooks available through iTunes. So I won’t be picking one up on the first day, but I’ll be paying close attention to it; it will be interesting to see what 3G options in Canada look like.

Which is all to say, right now it looks to me like the iPad is going to be an excellent second computer, maybe the best out there even for people who do some heavy lifting on their primary. Because despite the evils of the App Store, it is just mind-blowingly convenient, a hugely better purchase-through-install experience than anyone else offers. And as far as I can tell, there’s no way I can vote with my dollars for better interfaces, experimental new UIs and more elegant hardware, without also voting for the App Store and all of it’s baggage, but I’m willing to be disciplined about keeping my data backed up and in open formats, and until Nokia buys Palm and ships something they can both be proud of, that will have to be enough.

Two things have appeared in my newsfeeds in the last little while. It’s great that they’re right next to each other like that.

Exhibit 1, via Metafilter: “This is the full text of a statement by Amy, the girl victimized in the Misty Series, a child pornography video.”

“My uncle started to abuse me when I was only 4 years old. He used what I now know are the common ways that abusers get their victims ready for abuse and keep them silent: he told me that I was special, that he loved me, and that we had our own “special secrets.” Since he lived close to our house, my mother and father didn’t suspect anything when I walked over there to spend time with him.”

[...]

“Even though I am scared that I will be abused or hurt again because I am making this victim impact statement, I want the court and judge to know about me and what I have suffered and what my life is like. What happened to me hasn’t gone away. It will never go away. I am a real victim of child pornography and it effects me every day and everywhere I go.

“Please think about me and think about my life when you sentence this person to prison. Why should this person, who is continuing my abuse, be free when I am not free?”

That ellipsis is about three pages long, and I encourage you not to read it unless you’re in the mood for something absolutely awful. From this New York Times article, “Amy’s uncle is now in prison, but she is regularly reminded of his abuse whenever the government notifies her that her photos have turned up in yet another prosecution. More than 800 of the notices, mandated by the Crime Victims Rights Act and sent out by the federal victim notification system, have arrived at Amy’s home since 2005.”

By my count that’s a little more than three a week, every week. One every second weekday.

Exhibit 2: “Miley Cyrus’s nine-year-old sister launches risqué clothing line for pre-teens”.

“Back in October, Noah caused controversy when she attended a Halloween party dressed in a black lace-up mini dress with PVC knee-high boots. She completed her overly grown-up look with a face full of make-up and lashings of red lipstick.

[...] Reaves, who played Cindy Lou in Hannah Montana: The Movie, wore one of her creations – a leopard-print mini-dress, lace tights and fingerless black gloves – in a promotional video with Noah.”

The odds that a 9-year-old can launch a clothing line without a lot of help from a lot of adults? Zero.

Maya’s asleep right now, but I’m going to go and give her a hug anyway. And then I think I’m going to leave her with her mom and go for a walk until I feel a little bit less like killing somebody.

“By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” – Bill Hicks

The Maestro Doles Out The Eyebrow

Oh really, she says? Yes, really. Salad dressing:

  • Two ounces of a good olive oil,
  • About 3/4 of an ounce of balsamic vinegar,
  • One clove of garlic,
  • Half a lime, and
  • Some powdered wasabi.

And small mason jar or other glass container with a lid. Peel the garlic, give it one good thump under the flat of a knife and drop it in the jar. Squeeze the lime juice in and add the oil and balsamic, then sprinkle in the wasabi.

Close the lid, shake vigorously and put in the fridge an hour or so before it’s time to serve it up. I made this up one night, and I’ve had it a couple of times, since; This is a surprisingly uncomplicated, rich-tasting dressing that hints at its ingredients without them rushing you all at once, and makes your basic mixed green salad taste like a pretty opulent meal.

I haven’t forgotten you, internets.

I have so many half-finished drafts here, but I haven’t been able to beat any of them into shape yet, for which I apologize. But you deserve the Mot Juste and not juste des mots, and I do not want to set the bar lower.

Here are some pictures to tide you over. They may be worth 1000 words, they may not; we’ll settle up later.

Swoop

South of Eg

Pew Pew!

Pew Pew Pew!