Greetings. In answer to numerous queries, I'm been working to pin down the situation with the Google search results glitch this morning (which for a brief period tagged all sites as potentially harmful) and Google's updated blog entry seems very specific as to the cause -- human error that resulted in "/" being treated as a valid "blacklist" table entry, which expanded to all URLs.
I suspect that many of us have run into this type of programming problem ourselves over the years, though presumably not visible on such a large stage. Google fixed the problem rapidly.
I'm still getting reports of Gmail messages supposedly being incorrectly categorized as "potentially dangerous" (based on internal URLs) during approximately the same period as the search results issue, but I do not at this time have independent confirmation of this problem, nor of any specific linkage to the search results glitch. [ Update: A Gmail spam filter problem has now been confirmed by Google -- affected messages should be rolled back to inboxes within a day or so. ]
There has been considerable confusion about the relationship between StopBadware.org and Google, and who is responsible for which aspects of the blacklist in question. The current version of the Google blog entry noted above now correctly describes the situation (the error in question originating on Google).
While this obviously was not a trivial event, I might note that the world did not come to an end. People were able to search on other than Google if they wished, and if there were any incorrectly categorized Gmail messages, they were safely quarantined and available for later viewing.
This does demonstrate that even the best run of large, complex information platforms are potentially subject to relatively simple errors (or complex errors for that matter) that can have broad impact. However, while this Google glitch was a minor annoyance to users and presumably somewhat embarrassing for Google, life goes on.
Contrary to those observers who incorrectly assert that Google is a "monopolist," there were plenty of alternatives available for users during the span of the Google problem.
But for an interesting thought experiment, imagine the impact if something like this had happened with a government-mandated filtering and blocking system that would affect all related ISPs by law, as is being implemented in some countries. Now that's something to worry about.
Greetings. As if there weren't enough truly important issues to worry about, a U.S. Congressman has introduced the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act (CPPAA) -- which would require all cell phones to make an audible sound when snapping a photo.
There's no evidence that illicit "underskirting" photography is a significant problem outside of Japan and Korea, and the law would only apply to phone cameras, not the vast range of other camera devices available, many of which are far smaller and more easily used surreptitiously than a cell phone.
And as for the vast number of situations where cell phones are used legitimately to take photos where a notification sound would be disruptive -- even dangerous -- well, better not to mention those since they get in the way of the fantasy on which the CPPAA is predicated.
Also, given that many cell phones can now shoot video as well as still photos, I wonder if this same Congressman would propose that all video camera devices beep constantly when in video record mode -- just like trucks backing up? That'll do wonders for the audio tracks, eh?
Never let the facts and reality get in the way of political grandstanding.
Greetings. I've blogged here a couple of times about Google Android G1 cell phone hacking toward enabling the use of iPhone-like "multi-touch" interactions with the device. In fact, just a few days ago a new user-community-developed software update for the G1 was released that not only provides multi-touch capabilities, but a fully functional multi-touch-enabled version of the Android Web browser as well (I haven't had a chance to try this yet -- but I will).
There's been a lot of speculation concerning why Google chose not to enable multi-touch for the G1. This has ranged from the G1 not really being a "true" multi-touch device (there are some funky, but not particularly restrictive, aspects to multi-touch scanning on the unit), to user interface commonality issues, to patent concerns.
This development in the ongoing patent madness circus will bear watching. My own ("I Am Not A Lawyer") view is that homegrown multi-touch applications (like that noted above for the G1) are not at major risk of attack from Apple's crack legal team. However, given Apple's ability to patent finger gestures, commercial implementations like Palm's are likely much bigger targets.
Now, if we could only patent a particular three-finger gesture ...
Greetings. In the business of "Web Analytics" -- collecting, analyzing, and reporting of Web usage data -- various firms are continuously pushing the envelope.
Such data is in many ways the bread and butter of the free Web services that we've come to expect, since it is in key respects a crucial element of the ad-supported Web services ecosystem. However, the temptation to push analytics technology too far always exists.
The service attempts to provide a finer grain of usage information than is typically available through analytical techniques, by querying users' browsers for the presence of particular URLs. While this does not permit the reading out of complete browser URL histories, it does permit the service to ask the potentially highly privacy-invasive question: "Has this user been to a particular URL recently?"
Obviously, by sending a variety of such queries (all of which are essentially invisible to the user), a fascinating portrait of users' activities could be generated. Visited this CNN story? This government Web page? This porn image? This medical information page? Well, you get the idea.
I had a cordial chat early this afternoon with Olivier Silvestre, one of Tealium's partners, and a later e-mail exchange with Ali Behnam, another partner.
Opt-out is apparently possible via a cookie -- but of course you have to know what's going on before you'd ever think to set an opt-out cookie! They hope to move to non-cookie opt-out techniques, and claimed in answer to my query that they'd really prefer to be opt-in, but realize that getting people to opt-in to such a service could be, shall we say, impractical.
If so much of this sounds like deja vu, it's because we've heard virtually all of it before. In many ways it's quite similar to arguments made by Phorm and NebuAd, which were roundly criticized as self-serving and inadequate.
The fundamental question is an obvious one -- "Unless we're asked for our permissions in advance, what the hell business is it -- of anyone by ourselves -- what is or is not in our browser histories?"
Arguments about not collecting PII, only looking for particular URLs, and all the rest, necessarily fall flat. Inspecting browser URL histories in such a manner -- without affirmative opt-in permission -- clearly crosses the line from acceptable analytics to an unacceptable intrusion into private activities.
If a burglar argued that the only reason they conducted break-ins was to check to see if you had purchased particular products, would such reasoning be likely to prevail in court? I'm not a lawyer, so I won't attempt here to present a legal analysis of the Tealium technique -- though I'd certainly be interested to hear opinions about this.
But again, the guys at Tealium were friendly and open in our contacts, and made no attempt to evade my questions. Clearly we're dealing in this case with a very different view of what privacy is, and what is acceptable behavior on the Web.
My hope is that Tealium will reconsider their use of this methodology, and I urge that all browsers vulnerable to such manipulations be altered to prevent their use.
Or you might contact Tealium and let them know if you do (or don't) approve of their practices in these regards.
As far as I'm concerned, my browser history is mine, nobody else's. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
Greetings. It's well known that a significant portion of the Obama administration's stimulus plans will likely be a major thrust toward electronic medical records. These are touted as reducing errors, creating jobs, and saving money -- though it's arguable if medical consumers are the ones who actually pocket the savings in most cases.
But there are serious concerns about these systems as well -- reminding us that exactly the same sorts of problems that tend to plague our other computer-based ecosystems could now start hitting people's medical records in pretty much the same ways.
Today's New York Times has an excellent story about privacy and security issues associated with electronic medical records -- and the medical industry heavyweights who are trying to water down related provisions in associated and upcoming legislation. A few days ago, AP reported on a range of potentially serious medical errors created by the Veterans Administration's new electronic medical records system.
Both Google and Microsoft have unveiled electronic medical records systems for users, and are actively seeking partnerships with major medical treatment organizations. While they both promise comprehensive privacy and control by users -- in some ways that exceed those mandated by HIPAA privacy requirements, these systems are explicitly not actually covered by HIPAA -- though my hunch is that this status is likely to change in the near future.
The key concern with such non-HIPAA medical records systems isn't their privacy and security at the moment -- which as I noted appear to be good at present. Rather, an important aspect of HIPAA is that it represents a set of rules that cannot be arbitrarily changed by the organizations involved. Consumers need to know that the "rules of the game" when it comes to their medical records will not be subject to unilateral alterations on the basis of business conditions or management changes, outside the realm of legislated national rules.
My belief is that electronic medical records in general, and the services like those
I trust that Congress will move with deliberate speed, but not be pressured, in the area of electronic medical health records implementation, and that they will put patients' rights to privacy, accuracy, security, control, and choice at the top of agenda. A stampede to electronic medical records without due consideration and care would be a very dangerous prescription indeed.
Greetings. It's one of the most undeniable examples I've ever seen of one hand seemingly not knowing what the other is doing -- and possibly putting people at risk as a result. CNN has previously urged persons not to use scarce cellular bandwidth at the Obama inauguration to transmit photos or videos -- but now is heavily promoting a plan that asks everyone to do exactly the opposite!
Last week, CNN was airing a well done video report explaining the challenges of providing cellular service to potentially millions of persons attending the inaugural. The piece ended with the wise admonition that persons taking photos and videos with their phones be sure not to transmit them from the phones at the event, but rather wait until they were back at home before e-mailing them to anyone out on the Net. Excellent advice -- we obviously want to keep as much bandwidth as possible available for more critical needs in such situations.
This plan is now being heavily promoted on the CNN Web site and on CNN's air. It asks inauguration attendees to take photos of the exact moment of the swearing-in and then to "E-mail each photo as soon as possible" to CNN.
We know what potentially very large numbers of persons will do. They'll use camera phones to take the photos (CNN suggests up to three photos per person) and will immediately start trying to e-mail them to CNN from their phones -- exactly what the earlier CNN report told people not to do!
To be clear, I'm generally a fan of CNN. But in this case, by contradicting their own report's sage warning, they're undercutting their own credibility and potentially risking causing exactly the kind of cell phone "traffic jam" that they themselves had reported as being so potentially disruptive.
CNN needs to immediately rethink "Capturing 'the moment'" -- at least in its current form.
Greetings. As this New York Times story notes, YouTube is rapidly turning into a bona fide research tool, a fact that vocal Internet video haters ignore at their peril (a cohort I discussed a couple of days ago in "Risks in Hating Web Video".
I must admit that I've been using YouTube for a variety of research for some time, with quite remarkable results, at least by my standards.
Leaving aside most of the complex (to say the least) intellectual property and rights issues for the moment, the depth and breadth of material to be found on YouTube is simply staggering, and arguably the most interesting videos are the items that individuals have posted simply because those topics are ones that they personally care about. They post not for gain, nor do they necessarily really care how many people ever view the videos that they've posted. It's just an urge to share -- a drive as old as mankind, and forever vexing when ownership is asserted over easily copied and distribute materials.
These might be old TV shows, or vids about particular animals, or ... well, if you've ever spent any time with YouTube, especially via a decent TV hookup (e.g., through a TiVo), you can't help but start to play around with the term "functionally infinite" when thinking about the vastness of that data, very large portions of which would never see the light of day, nor in many cases likely be preserved in any way, absent the resources that Google has directed to YouTube's support.
I like to play a little game with people who are unfamiliar with YouTube's scope for serious research. I suggest that they name any topic -- and I do mean any -- and then demonstrate how, almost every single time, I can find relevant YouTube videos regarding the subject, often in surprisingly large numbers. Doing this on my G1 phone rather than a PC provides even more impact -- instant access to seemingly endless information from almost anywhere.
That the quality of submissions on YouTube varies widely is not the point. Even the rights issues, while very important of course, are likely to be a relative blip in the long run as such technologies march forward (and I say this with no particular pleasure, it's simply what I believe will be true, for better or worse).
Ultimately, a core "natural value" of YouTube (and I dare say of Google and its ilk more generally) is as a repository of information (and/or indexes of information) in all their varied forms -- regardless of their perceived quality or even relevance to the majority of persons.
The users of these services ultimately decide individually what matters to them, choices that they can only make if the information is available to them in the first place. It's that availability of data that is key, and also where censorship issues raise their heads in attempts to obscure the clarity of perceptions.
There is vast power (and I don't mean just in the electrical sense) in those data centers with their spinning disks and humming fans -- power for entertainment, research, and much else ranging from the most serious and important to the flotsam and jetsam of life.
It is of course this sort of power that drives many of the controversies about the organizations controlling these systems -- everything from reasoned debate to tinfoil hat conspiracy theories. That's the way of the world whenever information is involved -- it always has been.
But one of the biggest mistakes that observers can make is to look at these information ecosystems -- like that now built within and around YouTube, and discount them as "merely" entertainment that can be easily ignored -- especially when more than just textual media is involved.
These technologies are game changers. They are drastically and inevitably changing the shape and dynamics of our world and lives -- and unlike during some periods of history, we can see in our own lifetimes, even in periods of just a relatively few years, how much fundamental change is occurring.
When you think of YouTube, remember that there's a lot more than cute kitties involved. Not that I have anything against cute kitties. In fact, as it happens, there's one on my lap as I type this.
Meow for now.
Greetings. It appears likely that the dominant ISPs in the U.S. will soon be offered major tax credits for broadband expansion and other improvements, as part of the upcoming national economic stimulus recovery package.
In this brand-new segment of my continuing Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds video series -- titled Stimulus or Ripoff? -- I take a somewhat, uh, "tongue in cheek" look at this issue.
"Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds - Part 3"
"Stimulus or Ripoff?" - New Video Permanent YouTube Link
"Stimulus or Ripoff?" - New Video Current Direct YouTube Link
"Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds" - Previous Segments
Take care, all.
Greetings. Regular readers, and others who have known me for a long time, are likely aware of my longstanding high regard for Patrick McGoohan's classic 1967 television series The Prisoner. Viewed in total, I consider The Prisoner to arguably be the finest single series ever aired on British or American television. Complex, enigmatic, insightful, brilliant, and yes, flawed in some ways as well -- these terms could be used to describe both the show and the man.
While The Prisoner was of course not the work of a single individual, McGoohan's imprint in so many ways made the series very much his own, and without him it could never have existed. In later years, he clearly found this achievement to be both a blessing and curse, sometimes apparently trying to distance himself from adoring fans, other times embracing the show's legacy more enthusiastically.
Patrick McGoohan has died at age 80.
You may have noted me ending various messages with the phrase "Be seeing you" over the years. This is in fact the verbal "salute" from "The Village" -- the mysterious prison where Patrick McGoohan's character was incarcerated in the series.
There seems no more appropriate way for me to say goodbye to Patrick.
Be seeing you, sir.
Greetings. The U.S. National Safety Council wants to ban all cell phone use when driving, both hands-free and hand-held.
Now, from a technical standpoint this does make more sense than banning only the use of hand-held cell phones when driving, since study after study shows that hands-free is just as distracting.
However, I question whether the U.S. has the political will for such a total ban on cell phone use by drivers, and I also set forth the following query ...
When viewing someone in another vehicle, assuming no visible flashing lights in their ears and such, how can you tell the difference between someone talking on a hands-free cell phone vs. someone talking to themselves? Would police be issued specialized gear to detect cell phone signals? Just how would such a ban be managed from a practical standpoint?
Of course, the answer is that it would not be practical. The solution is not to concentrate on cell phone use, but rather on actual distracted driving in its various forms -- including when caused by eating, putting on makeup, tuning the radio, playing with the other hi-tech gadgets on the car console, yelling at the kids in the back seat, being visually diverted by the under-clad body waiting at the crosswalk, or ...
The distracted driving itself is what really counts, not the innumerable possible actions that we take while driving with the potential to distract us.
It's time to bring some sense back into this debate, not more nonsense.
Greetings. Google Android G1 hackers should definitely note this truly excellent work by Luke Hutchison towards practical support of "multitouch" input for G1 applications. As he notes, there are some hardware-related limitations, but for the sorts of situations where most apps could make use of multitouch (e.g. page zooming, etc.) his techniques (which are backwards-compatible for non-multitouch-aware programs) look extremely promising. Nice job, Luke!
Greetings. Ever since the "final" timing of the U.S. digital television (DTV) transition analog programming cutoff was announced for February 17 of this year, I have suggested that betting your life against another delay was perhaps a bit risky. Now comes word that a variety of interested parties are wisely pushing for just such a delay, but partly for a somewhat surprising and rather depressing reason.
My concern all along was primarily consumer confusion. Promos trying to explain the situation seemed to run more often on channels only available to cable and satellite subscribers -- who were much less in need of the information (since by definition they already had at least one set that would "survive" the transition). The key announcements seemed to show up much less frequently on broadcast channels where they were really needed.
Even worse, much of the information that has been available has led to even more confusion among broadcast TV viewers, many of whom have been falsely led to believe that they needed to subscribe to cable or satellite to keep receiving broadcast TV signals.
The available DTV converters are just plain confusing to many viewers, especially folks who have been watching the same old TVs with "rabbit ear" antennas for ages. Even if they get everything hooked up right, many people will find that their reception under the digital regime is unacceptable due to coverage variations and differing antenna requirements. And I wonder how many persons with digital televisions and converters realize that they usually have to trigger manually scans to pick up digital channel changes?
Most of these problems could have been predicted. But now comes word that the federal program to help pay for converter boxes has run out of funds, being tied to the expiration of unused $40 converter coupons. Even if Congress bypassed the funding requirements today, the coupons can take weeks to reach people after their requests have been approved, and there's barely more than a month left before the February 17 analog programming cutoff for full power stations. There is also rising concern that FCC call centers will be swamped with confused (former) viewers starting at the deadline.
While we can argue about the manner in which the more technical aspects of the transition have been handled, the mismanagement of the converter box coupon program is inexcusable. It didn't take a genius to figure out that there would be a rush of coupon requests near the cutoff date, and to run out of resources at exactly that time is utterly shameful -- and potentially dangerous as well.
Many viewers could in theory buy converters completely with their own money of course, but given the current economic climate, it's likely that significant numbers would forgo getting converters if that were their only option. And cutting people off from all television in this day and age has enormous public safety ramifications. A month after the official cutoff date, even public safety announcements on the analog channels are supposed to cease.
The entire DTV transition project has been mismanaged from the word go. While it's impossible to predict exactly how bad the picture will be after February 17th, simple prudence dictates that the DTV transition deadline be delayed until the coupon program can be realigned and better public information properly disseminated. I recommend a delay of six months to one year.
I'm as eager as anyone else to see the new uses of the spectrum that will be freed up by the completed DTV transition -- but not at the cost of millions of people, often exactly those persons who most depend on a single old TV for their connection to the outside world, being left out in the broadcasting cold.
Greetings. Back in August and September when I released Part 1 ("Drowning the Competition") and Part 2 ("ISPs, Google, and a Hacksaw") of my Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds videos, I received some complaints that they were difficult to watch due to the displayed aspect ratio.
The problem was due to my producing the spots in a widescreen 16:9 format, then having to "letterbox" them to fit the then current YouTube 4:3 display window without distortion. The end result was a small image with black borders.
Google very recently switched their YouTube site display windows to a full 16:9 ratio, with added HD display capabilities -- serious yippee! So I chanced a visit into the dark recesses of the Vortex Video Vault and extracted the original Network Neutrality nitrate negatives (well, the video equivalents, anyway) -- and remastered them to full 16:9 720p HD.
The upshot is that the old letterboxed editions have now been replaced with versions that fill the new YouTube 16:9 display area. What's more, if your viewing system has sufficient CPU horsepower, you can also watch them with even better clarity by clicking the watch in HD link just below the lower right portion of the image.
Unfortunately, these updates have required changing the associated YouTube direct links. I've updated all links on the original blog entries, but for reference, here are all of the current links to the new versions of both videos:
Be seeing you.
Greetings. You may recall that a few months ago in Addams Family or Ned Flanders? The FCC Internet Censorship Battle Heats Up, I lambasted an FCC plan for government-mandated morality filtering (that is, censorship) of a proposed new free, nationwide wireless Internet service.
Now comes word that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, the prime mover of the plan, has -- in an explicit attempt to get other FCC commissioners to sign on to the proposal -- dropped the filtering requirement.
Of course, this doesn't mean that if the proposed service is ever approved and built, that the firm or firms involved won't choose on their own to impose filtering. And the FCC could also once again decide to go down the incredibly inappropriate filtering/censorship route.
But it appears that Martin has at least come into sync with reality on this issue, for the moment anyway.
In the never ending battle between freedom of speech and those persons who would suppress the open flow of information, there have been many perhaps unlikely champions over the years.
Those of you old enough to remember the Smothers Brothers and their groundbreaking CBS television show around 40 (!) years ago, will probably recall the very public censorship battles the brothers fought against CBS (who ultimately pulled them from the air over these disputes, then lost a federal breach of contract lawsuit that the brothers subsequently filed).
Tommy Smothers, whose character persona (180 degrees from his real personality) was of the "dumb" brother, was actually the mover and shaker of the pair. In this very short (less than one minute) video clip, Tommy recently explained his concept of "Freedom to Hear" -- without which he suggests (and I agree) that Freedom of Speech can be rendered essentially impotent.
The Smothers Brothers' censorship battles took place in an era when the three major commercial U.S. television networks pretty much ruled the broadcast media landscape in this country -- seemingly a very different situation than today.
Yet censorship is still censorship, throughout the ages and across the broad span of technological innovations. The names and details vary, but the goals of those who would censor remain quite familiar, and the preservation of fundamental civil liberties will always require a continuing battle against censorship in its various forms and guises.
When it comes to freedom of speech and freedom to hear, the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.
Greetings and Happy New Year! The "root wars" continue with the Google Android G1 cell phone, following much the same pattern as we saw with Sony's PSP. When Google released firmware version RC30 for the G1, the root jailbreak exploit was closed -- temporarily.
Now comes word that a means for persons running RC30 to "downgrade" back to RC29 (complete with root exploit) has become available. After using that, users can simply install modified versions of RC30 (and presumably later modified releases that will be coming down the pipe) to maintain root capabilities (including the ability to install the "engineering bootloader" which provides even more flexibility).
This downgrading sequence is extremely similar to what we saw a few years ago with the Sony PSP portable game console, where later firmware releases closed various security holes, but means were found to downgrade to earlier "unfixed" firmware and still maintain the more advanced functionalities via modified firmware versions.
In all fairness, the comparison between the G1 and the PSP can only go so far. Google's Android is an Open Source project -- which the PSP has never been. And in fact, Google will sell anyone an "ADP1" (Android Dev Phone) -- which is essentially a non-SIM-locked G1 with the engineering bootloader, allowing you to flash whatever you wish onto the phone from day one (however, since this phone is not subsidized by T-Mobile, it costs $400 -- more than twice as much as a typical "under contract" G1).
Still, it's fascinating to watch history repeat itself over and over yet again. G1 owners who upgraded to RC30 and who have been kicking themselves over losing root capabilities now have another chance. But keep in mind that the next firmware update for the G1 -- termed "cupcake" -- is due early this month, and it's certainly possible (or more likely probable) that this particular downgrade exploit will be blocked in the new version, once again preventing root access -- at least for a while ...
Now -- you knew it was coming -- it's time for the philosophical voiceover.
Once again, we see fundamental powers of the Internet demonstrated clearly. The ability of persons to collaborate globally (securely if they wish), and then quickly disseminate the results of their labors around the world, have created a sea change in our societies. Sometimes we'll be highly appreciative of these Internet-based capabilities, but they may also seem upsetting or even terrifying to many persons, triggering impassioned (but technically impractical and impotent) calls for Internet content controls -- to try protect intellectual property, morality, public safety, or any of a wide range of other goals.
The Internet in the final analysis is "simply" a tool. And like many other powerful and pervasive tools, isn't merely grafted onto society, but is actually changing society in complex ways that we may not always like, but that we must learn to live with. This doesn't mean giving up our individual ethical or moral compasses. But it does suggest that efforts are not well spent on grandstanding for "controls" over Internet content -- mechanisms that would be ineffective at best, and potentially seriously damaging to key human rights at the worst.
OK, "soapbox mode" switched off for now.
Have a great New Year, everyone. We all really need it.