July 17, 2009

"Steal Back This E-Book!" - Amazon Channels Big Brother

Update: Amazon says it will stop deleting Kindle books.

Greetings. In a turn of events so ironic that even the seediest Hollywood porn producer would have rejected the plot as ridiculously unrealistic, Amazon.com has demonstrated that the worlds of electronic vs. paper books are universes apart, and in one fell swoop magnified the worst fears of e-book detractors around the world.

The script sounds so ridiculous that it's almost embarrassing to recount. To retroactively satisfy a demand from one of their suppliers, Amazon reportedly reached electronically into privately-owned Kindle electronic book readers and deleted recently purchased copies of -- get this -- 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

The irony drips so thickly that it practically coagulates on spinning disk drives. Just as 1984's Winston Smith's role was to delete and change unacceptable points of history from information databases, Amazon -- without any warning and without asking for permission from Kindle owners -- destroyed e-books that had been legally purchased, replacing them with a purchase credit.

This is precisely the functional equivalent of Barnes & Noble -- or Amazon itself for that matter -- using a crowbar or lock pick to break into your home or business, then stealing back a previous physical book purchase, replacing it with the equivalent value in cash.

That this act of seemingly legal larceny was facilitated by Amazon's "closed ecosystem" for Kindle purchases should not be lost on observers. With the clicking of a few keyboard keys at "Kindle Central Control," Amazon undermined years worth of efforts by e-book proponents to convince the public that e-book purchases are just "as good" as having physical books in hand from a transactional standpoint.

I don't care one nit what sort of fine print in the Kindle terms of service Amazon may use to justify this outrageous and unacceptable behavior. To my mind, it's breaking and entering, plain and simple.

If Amazon -- or any other players in the e-book industry for that matter -- can get away with this sort of behavior, it calls into question the entire foundation of trust that is necessary for a healthy e-book industry -- an industry I would very much like to see thrive.

For Amazon to cease future sales of particular e-books upon request of the associated vendor would likely be completely reasonable in most or all cases. But to retroactively remove legitimately purchased materials from customer-owned hardware is absolutely beyond the pale.

Amazon owes their customers, and the entire e-book industry, one hell of an apology. And Amazon had damn well better not pull a stunt like this again!


Posted by Lauren at 03:12 PM | Permalink
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July 13, 2009

More on Microsoft's "Lose Mail" Feature - and How Google Handled the Issue Correctly

Greetings. I'd like to clarify one aspect of my Oops! - Microsoft's New Feature Guaranteed to Lose Important E-Mail posting from earlier this morning.

One reader quickly noted that Google has what he asserted was a similar capability to Microsoft's upcoming "Ignore" function in Outlook -- the Gmail "Mute" feature.

However, this is a perfect example of how the devil is in the details, and how Microsoft apparently got this functionality wrong, and Google got it right.

In contrast to the reported behavior of the MS "Ignore" command, which deletes current and future messages (relegating them to Trash and eventual automatic oblivion), Gmail's "Mute" command simply moves targeted messages to Archival, from where they can be easily retrieved at any time.

But here comes the real zinger of a comparison. The MS Ignore feature reportedly specifically targets messages in which the recipient is listed as a CC. But the Gmail Ignore function (as I understand it) uses the presence of the recipient on the To: or CC: line as an indication that this might be an important message, and triggers the recovery of the associated e-mail thread from Archival, presenting it high up in the current Inbox.

In other words, key aspects of these functions appear to be 180 degrees apart in the Microsoft Outlook vs. Gmail versions, with MS taking a path that maximizes the risk of confusion and missing relevant messages, while Google chose the route that minimizes these risks.

Case closed?


Posted by Lauren at 11:49 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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Oops! - Microsoft's New Feature Guaranteed to Lose Important E-Mail

Greetings. The bright boys at Microsoft have come up with a new feature for Office 2010 that -- from the description I've seen of this aspect so far -- seems guaranteed to turn some Outlook users into the e-mail equivalent of black holes.

Essentially, it sounds simple enough. Provide the ability to instantly delete all messages associated with an e-mail thread in which you're a CC member -- including all future messages from the conversation.

Some reviewers, presumably of the more anal personality type, are lauding this feature as the best development since sliced bread. They suggest it's more efficient and polite than asking to be taken off a CC list.

The problems of course should be obvious to almost any e-mail user who stops to think about it for a bit.

I don't know whether this MS mechanism uses Subject lines, References lines, or some combination of both to make its thread determinations, but I do know this: E-mail Subjects Drift!

We've all experienced this -- I've been noting it for decades. Because most people are lax about updating Subject lines as a discussion evolves and rely on the "reply" command, single e-mail threads can quickly diverge in unexpected (and often extreme) ways with Subject lines that no longer represent the actual topic of discussion.

So with Microsoft's new feature, you run the significant risk of cutting yourself off from a discussion that has moved in a direction that you would want or need to be reading. Even worse, the other members of the CC list will continue to see you listed on all of the messages (the "ignore" feature, at least from what I've heard so far, doesn't provide any notification to other recipients or the message author that you've activated the deletion feature for future messages). So they'll all quite reasonably assume that you're up to date on the continuing discussion.

And given the habit that many people have of starting a brand new discussion with an existing CC group by replying to an old message thread (and often failing to update the Subject line in the process) the risks of such an auto-delete system seem even more stark.

One can argue that e-mail users shouldn't be so "sloppy" in their mail handling procedures. But that assertion plus $1 will buy you a cup of cheap coffee, and not much else of value. People are people.

Overall, it seems certain that Microsoft's new concept in proactive e-mail deletion will result in vast numbers of lost important messages, misunderstandings, confusion, and maybe worse.

Microsoft needs to reconsider the human engineering aspects of this new Office functionality. It certainly appears that they didn't think very long about the serious negative implications up to now.


Blog Update: More on Microsoft's "Lose Mail" Feature - and How Google Handled the Issue Correctly

Posted by Lauren at 08:06 AM | Permalink
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July 10, 2009

A Disciple of Cyberwar Shakes His Literary Fist

Greetings. Over on the ABC News site today, I had the displeasure of reading this commentary by well-known Silicon Valley observer Michael S. Malone. It struck me as one of the more irresponsible and even potentially dangerous articles that I've seen from any mainstream technology columnists in quite some time.

By suggesting -- even urging -- that the U.S. use Internet disruption techniques (e.g. hacking/DDoS) in response to perceived "cyber attacks," he is in fact endorsing the Crack in the World school of political technology policy. That is, even when the potential risks are catastrophic, fire the missiles anyway.

Even worse, Malone seems so doggoned sure that he knows where to point his Internet-propelled cyber-bombs. In reality, despite his obvious confidence that North Korea's leaders are to blame, calmer heads know that it's virtually impossible to pin down operational command responsibility for these sorts of attacks in most cases.

But here's the real kicker from Malone:

"Yeah, right. As if all of those millions of middle-class teenaged private owners of broadband connected laptops all over that electricity black hole called the People's Republic of North Korea spontaneously decided to hack the Web sites of another country's government and largest corporations."

Say what? Malone must know that attacks of this kind can indeed be triggered by a single botnet-commanding teenager anywhere in the world, and use virus-contaminated PCs in any locations around the planet to try divert the blame.

So we have to assume that Malone is ignoring these facts intentionally to prop up his railing against North Korea. Cyber-warmongering such as that from Malone is unwise, unhelpful, and in the final analysis, both dangerous and just plain dumb.


Posted by Lauren at 02:23 PM | Permalink
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July 07, 2009

"Michael Jackson Radio": CBS Should Lose Their L.A. "News Radio" Licenses

Greetings. Thanks to media consolidation, CBS now owns the two "news radio" stations here in L.A., both venerable old AM callsigns -- KNX and KFWB. But as I type this, there apparently is no news, anywhere on the planet, except the Michael Jackson memorial circus now taking place here in downtown L.A.

I actually do have substantial sympathy for Michael Jackson, despite the obvious fact that for many years all of his difficulties appear to be solely his own responsibility. I also feel that the cash-starved city of Los Angeles shouldn't be paying one thin dime for the extraordinary security surrounding his Staples Center event -- complete with over 3000 LAPD officers deployed, helicopters, and all the other incredibly expensive accessories (we're talking millions of dollars). The city had damn well better go after show producer AEG for the costs. One assumes that AEG will reap significant financial benefits from all of this in the future, one way or another.

I expected all of the commercial television networks and local L.A. stations to go wall-to-wall covering this event, and with only a couple of minor exceptions that proved to be the rule.

But it's KNX and KFWB that have me really pissed off. Stuck on the freeway, unable to legally turn to Google Maps while driving, I tried to get information about road closures and other traffic-related problems from the stations' much promoted 10 minute traffic reports. You can guess what I found. Nothing but continuous live coverage of the Last Michael Jackson Show -- on both of these CBS news stations -- the only radio sources for routine traffic reports.

Apparently right now there is no other news other than Jackson. No wars, no other deaths, no weather, no traffic, no nuttin'.

So, even though I knew it would be a blood pressure raising experience, I called the KNX newsroom. I was told in no uncertain terms that they saw nothing wrong with preempting all programming on both stations since "that's what the people want." I asked about their promise of updated traffic reports every few minutes 24/7. "Shouldn't a semblance of normal programming be continuing on at least one of your two local news stations?"

They had no answer of course. I terminated the call before I said something that I'd regret.

But Michael Jackson aside, this is a prime example of how media consolidation has gotten out of control, and why the next time that either KNX or KFWB's license renewals come up before the FCC, I'm going to have more than few words to enter into the public record.

It probably won't do any good. But it might make me feel at least a little bit better in the wake of this nonsensical and irresponsible behavior by licensees of the public airwaves.


Posted by Lauren at 11:21 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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July 03, 2009

Taxpayers be Damned: L.A. to Pay for Jackson Memorial Extravaganza Security!

Greetings. A quickie from the "lunatics are running the asylum" file.

I'm certainly willing to grant that Michael Jackson was a global entertainer of unique standing, and that many persons are interested in various aspects of his passing. So as not to speak ill of the dead at this point, let's leave aside specifics of his "interesting life" for the moment.

So if the Jackson family and affiliated entertainment corporations want to hold a massive memorial service here in L.A. Staples Center next week, that's fine with me. Even if most commercial broadcasters drop everything else to cover it -- as if it were the death of a president -- well, that's pretty inane, but it's their dime.

Taxpayer's dimes are something altogether different though. Now comes word that the city of L.A. -- we the taxpayers -- will be paying for the massive LAPD security that will be required around this event. A city official, when asked about the costs involved, suggested that it wasn't a problem -- since there was already a "contingency fund" to deal with security for important "first-amendment" gatherings and such.

Excuse me ... but I feel that given the absolutely horrendous budget situation here in Los Angeles and in the state of California more generally (the latter just started issuing IOUs in lieu of real money!) it is unacceptable for the city to pay one dime to cover extra security for a Michael Jackson memorial circus.

Let the Staples Center and other involved corporate deep-pockets pay for security. To saddle this on the taxpayers of L.A. in these circumstances is a slap in the face. I don't care if the money comes from a contingency fund or not. It's money that could otherwise ultimately be used in ways that would far better benefit the city as a whole.

Of course, city offices are closed today in observance of Independence day tomorrow, so I couldn't reach my city councilman's office to (politely, of course) express my opinion about this travesty.

I'm all for Michael Jackson resting in peace, irrespective of the controversies surrounding his life. But -- and I know this will sound cold to some observers -- I don't believe that taxpayers should be financially responsible in any way for his extravagant send-off.


Posted by Lauren at 11:00 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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New iPhone's Battery is Achilles' Heel

Greetings. Before you even think about rushing out to buy the new iPhone, you might want to read this interesting story about continuing negative reactions to the iPhone 3GS' battery life.

Of course, all smartphones are power hungry, and we use these Internet-enabled phones for so much more than just talking. But the iPhone is a particularly egregious case since the battery is sealed inside and not considered to be a "user replaceable" item.

My G1 phone also sucks a lot of juice, but I can pop in an extra charged battery anytime, and I have an extended duration battery (bigger is better!) to use in there as well.

With the iPhone, since battery life sucks, you're really stuck.

There are, however, some comparatively ugly workarounds. One person responding just now to a tweet of mine on this topic says that he uses a solar charger. I guess that's OK if you don't leave the iPhone itself out in direct sun, and don't keep smashing your head into the solar array (OK, so the solar array isn't really that big ...)

A more practical way to deal with the problem may be something like this external battery pack (only $20 on sale -- 50% discount -- at Radio Shack through July 11). You can always duct tape it to your iPhone. Won't that be pretty?

More generally, the whole concept of sealed-in batteries in Apple devices strikes me as the epitome of "those suckers will buy anything with our name on it -- boot to the head!" consumer relations.

But hey, whatever turns you on.


Posted by Lauren at 09:04 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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July 02, 2009

Death by Firefox: Bullets and Geolocation

Greetings. I had a nightmare last night. A real doozie, that joins the pantheon of the half-dozen or so worst dreams of my life. This wasn't a typical confused mashup of creepy sounds and plunging elevators, but rather a short and horrifyingly realistic visit to a hell on Earth. Unlike most dreams, whose origins seem to be random neural garbage collection more than anything else, I know with absolute and specific certainty what triggered this phantasia.

It started out quietly enough. I was in a small, dimly lit room, apparently invisible to the single occupant. The walls were covered with posters emblazoned with slogans, written in a language I couldn't even recognize.

At a small wooden table sat a figure covered by an all-encompassing black burka, typing rapidly at the keyboard of a laptop computer, the brightness of its screen providing most of the light in the room.

Suddenly there was a loud commotion outside and a gang of men -- soldiers of some kind it appeared -- burst in. The burka was stripped from the figure, revealing a young woman. She was thrown against the wall by one man, while another kept screaming at her in words I couldn't understand, as another kept alternately pointing to a printout map on a piece of paper and to her computer.

One more official entered the room, apparently of higher rank. He walked straight to the laptop, typed a few keys, then looked back at his underlings who were holding the terrified woman.

He nodded his head once. Another man pulled a pistol from a holster, placed it against the woman's temple, and pulled the trigger.

Blood splattered everywhere and the woman fell to the floor. I watched as blood sprayed onto the table where the laptop sat, and dripped down the power cable.

The official pulled a rag from his pocket, smeared some of the blood off the laptop, slammed it closed, carefully unplugged the power cable, then marched from the room with the laptop under his arm. The rest of the men followed and slammed the door shut behind them.

A beautiful white cat that I now saw had been cowering in a corner, gingerly stepped forward. It looked directly at me -- was I no longer invisible? -- and gave me a quizzical meow. It sniffed at the pooled liquid on the floor, and started to lap up the blood with its tongue.

I awoke in a cold sweat.

I knew who to blame for this nightmare. A couple of days ago, a reporter called me with what seemed at the time to be a somewhat fanciful question -- could using the new version of Firefox get you killed?

His specific concern was the geolocation capabilities built into Firefox 3.5 -- could these be used to target the population in oppressed nations?

I had deferred answering specifically, noting that I needed time to research the issue and ponder it for a bit.

Then came last night's uninvited visit to the Twilight Zone ...

I'm actually a fan of geolocation capabilities in many circumstances. I love 'em on my G1 cell phone, though I'm still selective about which geolocation aspects I do or don't enable.

However, it's fair to say that while many people have become aware to one degree or another of the tracking capabilities inherent in cellular phones, the concept of their ordinary laptop computers revealing their locations is still largely a new concept to most users.

Tracking IP addresses is old hat, of course. They provide varying degrees of accuracy, dependent on a bunch of factors, and have driven the rise of anonymous proxy systems as mechanisms to make IP-address-based tracking more difficult.

After all, it was less than two weeks ago that many observers (including myself) were praising patriots in Iran who were using proxies to maintain "safe" Internet connectivity in the face of post-election government crackdowns.

But what if your laptop could squeal your location irrespective of your using proxies for your Internet connections?

The geolocation capabilities built into the new Firefox 3.5 and other applications -- with more such apps appearing seemingly every day, make this no mere academic question.

PCs are appearing with built in GPS capabilities -- Dell just announced a netbook with built in A-GPS, in fact.

But even without the ability to receive GPS satellite data, applications can use external geolocation services, such as Google's Geolocation API and/or Skyhook, to determine your location -- often to a startlingly accurate degree.

In the absence of true GPS, these systems rely on cell phone tower and Wi-Fi mapping data to pinpoint users' locations.

By and large, the legitimate applications that access these services are opt-in by design. But that begs an important question. In the essentially insecure OS environment of most PCs, exactly who or what is doing the opting-in?

For example, could a virus or other rogue program enable geolocation tracking in ways that could be easily missed, overlooked, or otherwise misinterpreted by users, so that tracking info could be transmitted without their knowledge or explicit permission?

I'm not sure about the answer to this question for any given case. My gut suspicion though is that there is at least real reason to be concerned about such
possibilities, if not now -- given the current state of these systems in much of the world -- then certainly in a short while as the systems develop further.

None of this matters too much in a relative sense when we're just talking about sharing your location with friends, or being presented with locally-relevant targeted advertising.

But the specter of such geolocation technologies being leveraged by oppressive regimes to the detriment of their citizens could have implications ranging from long prison terms to summary executions, especially if computer users aren't aware of the potential risks.

How best to control these risks is not entirely clear to me. Geolocation is an enabler for an array of very worthwhile user services. Nobody is suggesting (not me, anyway) that geolocation be demonized or banned.

On the other hand, I believe that we need to immediately begin pondering how these technologies (especially PC-based ones that don't need additional hardware) may potentially be abused as they become broadly deployed.

In particular, what will these systems mean in oppressed countries and locales where an innocent person's ability to use the Internet -- without unknowingly revealing their location -- could literally be a matter of life and death?

I usually dream in color. The girl was very dead, and the blood spewed around the room was very red indeed.


Posted by Lauren at 02:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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