Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Kathy Sierra, Death Threats, and Persistent Presence Tools...

Blogger Kathy Sierra has been receiving death threats of the most despicable sort. On first reading that fact, you would perhaps assume she is some type of political pundit at an extreme end of the ideological spectrum, or maybe some other inflammatory personality. But no, Kathy Sierra, from the best that I can detect, blogs about nothing crazier than internet technologies. While of course people are going to disagree with some of her arguments, it goes without saying that death threats and sexual threats are despicable and atrocious, not to mention illegal. Here's hoping Kathy sticks to her guns.

But if there's a silver lining, she's getting loads of free publicity to her blog, Creating Passionate Users, and rather than focus more on the threats made against her, I'm going to show some support and actually examine some of her writings.

In her post titled, "Is Twitter TOO Good?", she makes the case that Twitter, Jaiku, etc., (the genre of Web 2.0 services quickly becoming collectively known as "Persistent Presence Tools") are largely negative developments and will be more problematic than useful. Her argument is that as we create new ways to get interrupted with updates and messages providing us with up-to-the-minute status of people we know, this prevents entering into states of deep thought and inhibits true social interaction. As an example, think of your constant barrage of IM popups and cell phone text messages when you're trying to actually accomplish something at work. This is only becoming more of a problem as new services like Twitter are becoming more widely adopted.

"Ironically, services like Twitter are simultaneously leaving some people with a feeling of not being connected, by feeding the fear of not being in the loop."

She also provides a terrific chart on this phenomenon, which would be extremely funny if it weren't so true:

As I've written before, I tend to agree with Kathy about (some of) the negative effects that persistent presence technologies exacerbate - and judging by the blogosphere hype, we seem to be in the minority on this one. Though I don't necessarily believe that it inhibits meaningful social interaction, internet ADD and constant multi-tasking cannot replace the thinking that occurs while spacing out on the bus. In fact, I consider my music-less morning bus ride and subway commute to be the place where I get most of my dissertation thinking done.

My greatest concern is that the willingness to embrace persistent presence tools is the new test of a generational divide. I'm not ready to be old.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Smava, P2P Banking, and the Overthrow of Finance...

A German website called Smava has been launched which enables direct contact between investors and applicants looking for credit. Zen Blogger has a good description of the service, but in a nutshell, Smava lets anybody loan money to anyone else at any given interest rate. Basically, if you have some money burning a hole in your savings account, you can become a small-time banker and lend the money to someone else and make some interest off of it. Conversely, if you need some extra cash for Christmas shopping, you can bypass your credit card and instead just take a small loan from a Smava lender (hopefully with less than a 20% interest rate).

Some people are hailing this as long overdue and making outrageous claims that this will overhaul the entire global financial system. It's true that to some extent this type of peer-to-peer system (think BitTorrent and internet file sharing) would indeed allow lenders and borrowers to circumvent the traditional financial institutions. But the truth is that similar services have been around for quite a while - such a microloan programs for agricultural development in Third World countries.

Smava would hardly revolutionize the financial system. For one thing, people would have to migrate to Smava away from their banks en masse, which is doubtful for the near future, and second, even if successful and widely adopted on a global scale, Smava still wouldn't be redistributing financial power in any fundamental way - it would simply exacerbate already existing economic disparities between the haves and have-nots of the world. Those with money would be at even greater advantage than those without because Smava offers them yet another means by which to increase their holdings, while simultaneously giving the disadvantaged a brand new mechanism for spiraling into debt.

So the pundits ought to take a breath and calm down. Just because a new service says "peer-to-peer" doesn't mean it's revolutionary. However, Smava does, at least, seem like a pretty cool idea for middle-class people to (maybe) get a better rate of return than the paltry interest rate their bank is offering them on their savings account (0.25%, anyone?).

Friday, March 23, 2007

So Klosterman Wants to Understand Internet Porn...

Today’s blog entry is actually a direct response to Chuck Klosterman, author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which has to be one of the funniest books to come out in the past few years. In his essay on Internet porn, Klosterman writes:

In less than a decade, millions of Americans went from (1) not knowing what the internet was, to (2) knowing what it was but not using it, to (3) having an email address, to (4) using email pretty much everyday, to (5) being unable to exist professionally or socially without it. For 98 percent of the world, the speed and sweep of that evolution was too great to fathom. Consequently, we learned how to use tools that most of us don’t understand. This has always been the case with technology, but not quite to this extent… I could explain how a car works to a ten-year-old. Conversely, I don’t understand anything about the construction of the internet…

This is why amateur pornography became so integral to the adoption of internet technology: It not only made people excited about using the Web (because sex is prurient and arousing), but it also made people comfortable with using the Web (because it’s organic and unsophisticated). Sex is so undeniably visceral that anyone can relate to it… This is not a pixeled construction of some Never-Neverland character from Tron; this is some girl you saw at Pizza Hut. Amateur pornography grounds us in our reality.

Well, Mr. Klosterman, if you really want to understand how the internet works in terms of delivering your porn, here are the essential basics:

HTML – In an amazing feat, actually takes ones and zeros of data and magically turns them into pictures of naked body parts and “visceral” acts for the world to see. On par with the invention of fire, the wheel, and sliced bread?

XML/RSS – Allows both the lazy and truly devoted to subscribe to feeds of those pictures and “visceral” acts. After all, why should people have to go out and search for new porn when they can have it delivered to them automatically?

P2P/BitTorrent – Lets people share their pictures and videos of “visceral acts” so that others can download them for free an infinite number of times. Seriously, this accounts for about 80% of the entire internet’s traffic.

Bandwidth – Geeks might call this the transmission capacity of cables along which those ones and zeros of data travel. But the bottom line is that having more bandwidth could mean the difference between downloading 4 pornographic videos in a night, or 40 (or if you’re a teenage boy, 400).

Hopefully, that helps you better understand your "reality". A friend of mine has been arguing for years that the success of a technology is directly proportional to the ability of the pornography industry to adopt it. You two should have a pow-wow.

NOTE: I’m sure a certain segment of Nerfherder readers actually get more turned on by terms like HTML, XML, and RSS than they do over naked pictures. This is what your parents always feared.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ICANN and Domain Name Privacy...

The way the system is currently set up, when a person creates a website they must register a domain name (ex. - www.rdomanski.com) with ICANN - an international consortium group that makes sure your domain name doesn't conflict with someone else's. In the past, registering a domain name with ICANN meant being required to provide your personally identifiable information such as your real mailing address, email address, telephone number, etc., all of which was then made publicly available to the world through the WHOIS database - which has been around since the first days of the internet.

Now, as this Wired article describes, a key task force has endorsed a plan to enhance the privacy of domain name registrants. If ICANN accepts the proposal, people and businesses could register their domain names through third-parties, thereby opting out of providing their personally identifiable information.

This strikes right at the heart of the internet privacy policy debate. To what extent should people's privacy be protected at the expense of better law enforcement?

On one side of the debate, privacy advocates have been pressuring ICANN to adopt such a proposal for years, claiming it will minimize spam, junk postal mail, telemarketing phone calls, and other abuses of having one's information made publicly available online. They argue it will also reduce the "chilling effects" on discourse and protect people who use their websites to criticize politicians and businesses.

On the other hand, critics claim that the new proposal, if passed, would only make law enforcement more difficult. "Businesses and intellectual-property lawyers [are] worried that cybersquatters and scam artists could more easily hide their identities", not to mention purveyors of child pornography and other harmful illicit websites that are illegal in the United States.

Which raises another issue altogether - the need for greater harmonization of laws between nations regarding the Web. In this case, European privacy laws are stricter than those in the United States, and as a result, this new proposal could be seen as a move towards appeasing the European legal community, while subverting the wishes of the U.S. and its law enforcement community.

Both sides in this debate have valid points, and neither stakes out an absurd or extremist position. The need for individual privacy on the internet must be enhanced a million times over from its current state, however complete anonymity online for everyone is neither realistic, nor desirable. After all, there are bad guys out there, and society has an interest in having them caught and convicted.

The proposal is flawed because it sways the pendulum a bit too far in the direction of privacy at the expense of law enforcement. A better compromise might be for ICANN to simply stop publishing the personal information of domain name registrants to the world, and, instead of allowing proxy third-parties, continue collecting that information but only make it available upon request to reasonable authorities (not spammers).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Twitter and Embracing Big Brother...

Privacy advocates seem ready to lay down on the tracks every time a story gets reported on how the government, ISPs, or other entities are monitoring people's internet activity.

But maybe they've got this all backwards. Maybe people actually want to embrace Big Brother. Call it a psychological need to be monitored and live under a microscope, or perhaps its a realization that being watched by surveillance is the closest thing most of us might ever experience to celebrity.

All of which is the new conclusion that might be drawn from the initial success (in publicity and usage terms) of the new web service, Twitter. Twitter is self-described as "a global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?". Shaine Mata posts a better detailed description of the service: "The way Twitter is set up you can have followers, people who are interested in getting updates about what you are doing. Then you can also add friends, people whom you would like to know what they’re doing. Every time you post an update, your followers get the message on their AIM, site, or by SMS. This way, they can follow your activities."

Just what we all needed - another, and this time better, service to facilitate internet stalking. I've railed in the past against how MySpace is primarily used to stalk other people, but Twitter takes it one step further. Now the world can be notified through email, website, cell phone text, or instant messenger that you are "eating a brownie", "having the crappiest day ever", "getting ready to go to Record Exchange and get McDonalds breakfast", etc. (those were just a few live updates of people at this exact moment taken off the Twitter home page).

What's so amazing and leaving me dumbfounded is that this is all VOLUNTARY! At what cultural tipping point did we start wanting to have every aspect of our lives watched, rather than fearing it? Big Brother is alive and well, and only getting more invasive.

Because we want him to be.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

SXSW and Freeing Music...

The South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) is underway and has been one of the most blogged about stories all week long. Why? On the surface, it is a music festival like any other - dozens of indie bands lighting it up in Austin, Texas for the better part of a week - and a lot of corresponding drunken testimonials taboot.

But forget the music. Most of the buzz in the blogosphere is about "SXSW Interactive". The website describes itself as "attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs". I don't even know what that means. However, what's clear is that the numerous panels have featured technologists (rather than music industry wonks) lecturing on topics that relate to how the internet and social networking sites are altering the dynamics of music. For instance, one enticing presentation is by Amy Vickers titled “The New Business of Collectivism”, and is about "how online collectives - whether CrowdIQ, Marketocracy, or Zopa - are forcing tough business and political decisions", and particularly in "how social media is instigating social change".

People are going a bit nuts (which makes me secretly wish I was there). Beckychr007 on Technorati claims that "SXSW is part of the Web 2.0 deal which is going to tear down Hollywood, the Networks, the Publishing Houses, the Music Industry-and replace it all with Blogs, Digg, YouTube and MP3. All very hippie. In Marxist terms the traditional media is the exploitive bourgeoisie and we will all be liberated by the heroic bloggers and podcasters."

Likewise, Parnell states , "SXSW stands for all that free music stands for. For the most part the mainly revolutionary attendees believe the corporate music industry can be broken since mainstream record labels care more about selling records than making good ones."

Let's not jump completely off the deep end. I've been scouring online material all this St. Paddy's Day weekend and can't find any definitive evidence to explain why people are making such bold claims. It appears that the only thing revolutionary that's emerged are a handful of ideas in speeches by techies, about how technology is going to change the music world.

And that's hardly anything new.

(If anyone actually attending the conference can clarify what all the fuss is about, I'd be grateful.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lesser-Known Side Projects...

Human beings only use about 5% of their brain power. Likewise, as many of us use websites like Google and Wikipedia on a regular basis, there is actually an entire schmorgesboard of services from these websites that people never seem to use. Here is a starter's guide to exploring some of those those under-utilized services.

  • Google - Check out dozens of additional Google services besides simple search, including more experimental ones at Google Labs. Some notables include Calendar, Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Instant Messenger, and Blog software. Most tantalizing though has to be "Google Ride Finder" for finding a taxi, limousine or shuttle using real time position of vehicles.

  • Wikipedia - the online encyclopedia has begun other projects based on user-generated content, including WikiNews which reports news stories through contributors from around the world who write news articles collaboratively, as well as Wikiversity which is dedicated to learning materials and learning communities.

  • Mozilla - The organization that created the Firefox web browser has more software up its sleeve. Among them, Thunderbird is an email client akin to Microsoft Outlook, Sunbird is a cross-platform Calendar application, and SeaMonkey, a web browser, advanced e-mail client, newsgroup client, IRC chat client, and HTML editor all-in-one.

Happy hunting.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Muddling Through MP3 Patent Fights...

Whenever a company creates Mp3 software like iTunes or the Windows Media Player it is required by law to pay royalty fees to the patent holder of Mp3 technology. This was always considered to be a German research group known as the Fraunhofer Society, and Microsoft, Apple, and others paid them millions of dollars in royalties over the years. But last week, as the New York Times reported, a jury ruled that Microsoft had failed to pay another Mp3 patent holder, Alcatel-Lucent, and slapped it with a $1.52 billion judgment.

This is sending shock waves through the music and software communities. Now software developers and Mp3 hardware makers (Apple with its iPod most prominent among them) don't really know who they are required to pay royalties to. The law, as it currently stands, recognizes several different intellectual property owners over Mp3 technology, and leaves the door open for even more, as yet still unknown.

This is potentially disastrous. Ambiguity over who owns the Mp3 patent will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on software companies and hardware manufacturers. Because no one wants to get slapped years later with billion dollar fines, these firms will start shying away from getting involved in the Mp3 business altogether. Consequently, consumers will suffer from less sophisticated products and higher prices (stemming from reduced competition). Apple and Microsoft must be peeing their pants right about now, and I can't say I blame them.

There is a clear lesson to be learned here... firms ought to adopt open and non-proprietary technical standards. Groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) exist solely for this purpose, and if more companies integrated their open standards, rather than those owned by other private firms who require royalties, then this whole catastrophe can be avoided in the future. Open standards are often even superior. The digital world needs to look at the programming community for examples - XML, HTML, RSS, TCP/IP, etc.

And as one last parting thought, there is now a fortune to be made by any aspiring lawyer who is willing to develop "a science of muddling through" this new patent mess and develop a legal roadmap for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Linux Odyssey...

I've recently begun a project turning an old computer into a monster Linux machine. I thought of describing the process in a mini-series section of this blog, but not to bore everyone to death, I've spun it off into a completely separate entity - like the Baby Bells from AT&T, circa 1984.

Rest assured, this will not affect my regular postings to The Nerfherder, which will continue until the end of time.

So in an act of shameless self-promotion, you can find my new blog titled "My Linux Odyssey" at http://linuxodyssey.blogspot.com.

Because I obviously don't waste enough time on one blog already :-)

Friday, March 09, 2007

The FSF's Open Letter to Steve Jobs...

Recently I posted an article responding to Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Music", calling Jobs insincere in his stated desire to eliminate DRM software in iTunes - which strips away consumer rights over the music they legally purchase.

Now the Free Software Foundation has set up an Open Letter to Steve Jobs. It states, "it has been three weeks now since you published your pledge to drop DRM, and there have been many responses from commentators who have outlined actions you could take to back up your words. The fact that you have not taken any action leads us to ask the question: How genuine is your pledge?"

As I suggested in my previous post on the subject, it seems evident that Jobs called for the elimination of DRM, not because it's the right thing to do, but rather as a negotiating tactic to leverage against the new deal Apple must make with the recording industry. The Free Software Foundation is trying to hold Jobs accountable for his statements (or put another way, is attempting to find out if his statement was an outright lie), and should be supported in their endeavor. Again, DRM software makes it so that when you buy a song on iTunes, you can never play it on any device other than an iPod, essentially locking you in for life, even if down the road you'd rather get a Zune, Dell, or other Mp3 player.

The Free Software Foundation does suggest two worthy things that Jobs can do TODAY to show the world he is sincere in his desire to eliminate DRM. First would be to drop DRM on iTunes for independent artists. As their letter states, "many independent artists and labels distribute their music through iTunes and many wish to do so without DRM, but you won't let them. You could show good faith immediately by dropping DRM for those artists and labels."

Second, Jobs should take a public stand against legislation mandating DRM by funding a campaign to repeal the Digital Millenium Copyright Act's (DMCA) prohibitions. "The impact of DRM and the DMCA will have chilling effects on our freedom of speech. In a world where our radio shows, TV shows, news, and political coverage, come laden with DRM---because digital TV, digital radio and webstreaming have been mandated to use DRM---we will have lost the legal right to make commentary using source materials. Free speech through parody and quotation will have disappeared."

The ball is in Steve Jobs' court. He is in the unique position to back up his words through action. If he does not truly want to eliminate DRM, then he should at least be honest and say so to the public. Enough deceit.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Problems with E-Voting and Estonia's Response...

In the United States, only about 60% of Americans vote in presidential elections, and the number is closer to 30% in midterm Congressional elections. The system is cumbersome - people have to register to vote months in advance, elections are held on Tuesdays rather than on weekends, lines at polling places can be too long, etc. So wouldn't voting over the internet make sense?

This week the small nation of Estonia put that question to the test holding the world's first national election featuring internet balloting open to all voters. But while internet voting might seem like common sense to some, it remains deeply controversial.

First of all, there is the problem of verification. Right now when you show up at a voting booth, you present a picture ID and your signature is compared to a signature of yours that they already have on record. This way they know it's you and you cannot cast a vote for anyone else. How could a municipality be assured of the same thing through an internet voting system?

Second, a shift to internet voting leads to increased dangers of computer hacking. These attacks can come in many forms over the web - phishing, denial of service, spyware, viruses, Trojan horses and insider attacks. This is the reason why most computer scientists have come out decidedly against internet voting. Do we really want to trust our most basic democratic processes to vulnerable digital systems?

Third, the lack of a paper trail poses a problem as well. During the 2000 presidential election, the final vote in Florida was so close that for over a week vote checkers went back through all the paper ballots with their infamous "hanging chads" in preforming a recount. Recounts actually occur more frequently than people often believe, and without a paper trail, it would be fundamentally more difficult to authenticate results.

Finally, there is the problem of transparency. In the U.S., a company named Diebold Election Systems has administered several elections through e-voting, notably the 2004 California presidential primary, where claims of fraud later surfaced. Many critics argue that having elections run by private firms with closed proprietary source code is an invitation for massive fraud. Without open source code, true oversight over elections is nearly impossible.

The apparent success of Estonia's election, then, demonstrates that while these problems certainly remain formidable obstacles, they are surmountable. Notable causes for its success include 1) a national ID card that most citizens already possessed, 2) making internet voting an alternative to physical voting, rather than a replacement (in other words, people could either vote via the web or else still show up in person to vote if that's what they prefered), and 3) the fact that Estonia is a relatively small nation which does not pose nearly as big a target to would-be hackers as elections in larger and more prominent nations, such as the U.S., would.

Unlike most techno-minded blogging pundits, I happen to support internet voting - as well as most other measures that seek to enhance voter participation in the electoral process - and believe that, to some extent, it is inevitable. However, the implementation of such systems must not be hasty. More time is needed to beef-up security measures and improve reliability and transparency. Estonia is significant in that it proves, if nothing else, that that time is not as far off as many previously believed.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Net Neutrality and "Save The Internet"'s Video...

The group, Save the Internet, has released a short four minute video on the issue of Net Neutrality (which I have written about before). The video, to some extent, must be considered a form of propoganda (even though I agree with its basic position FOR the preservation of Net Neutrality), and it overemphasizes the role of the "Save the Internet" group in the movement. But it is a vitally important issue, so...