Category Archives: Technology

Black Boxes for your Car? Washington Says They’re Coming

This has been a pretty quiet thing up till now, but I suspect it will get noisier soon. New Federal regulations now require that all new cars have a Black Box, a la airplanes, installed into them. The idea is to be able to reconstruct events prior to an accident:

New Federal Rules To Require Black Boxes to Record Driver Activity in Every Car | Popular Science.

To the extent that they can clarify the events leading up to an accident – which may point to anything from alcohol intoxication to malfunctions in equipment – this seems like a good thing. But its also a privacy issue that needs to be address. How long is this data being stored and who has access to it?

There is also an issue of data interpretation: because certain conditions were present at the time of an accident does not necessarily mean that a single conclusion could be made. Add to that, as the article points out, the fact that your phone is tracking you too and it starts to look a whole lot less benign.

Palin, Paladino, Twitter and the Ills of Micro-Celebrity

The population of New York State is about 19.5 million people. If one tenth of one percent of those people followed me on Twitter, I would have nineteen thousand people following me. I think I could be very happy with that many followers.

The population of the United States is around 307m people. Again, if one tenth of one percent of those Americans followed me, I’d have 307k people following me. I’d be out of my gourd if I had that many followers.

While I don’t have a national stage and cannot hope to put in enough work to have that many followers – not now, perhaps not ever – I fully believe its possible. Whereas fame in the past came from convincing a small number of executives you were good enough and potentially popular enough for them to back you with contracts and promotion, these days simply having a voice is enough to gain you exposure on FaceBook and Twitter. Instead of having to appeal to a narrow set of interests shared by a broad swath of the country, now any unique perspective can find kindred spirits somewhere out there in the sprawling mass of social networks.

The trouble is: you can be convinced by your own hype – by the stove-piped collection of followers who appreciate your world view and cheer you on – that you’ve really got the answer. The answer to life’s burning questions; the solution for all that ails your future constituency; the moral rectitude that this world desperately needs. With thousands of adoring fans, you might be able to convince yourself that those fans aren’t just a  statistically-meaningless micro-culture but the heart beat of America.

And perhaps I’m giving too much credit to – politicians? political celebrities? – like Sarah Palin and Carl Paladino, but I have long seen both of them as “victims” of this strange micro-celebrity echo chamber. When your “field of view,” as it were, is filled with adoring fans who insist you’re really hitting all the right notes, I think its easy to delude yourself. Because “no one” ever raised an objection, except the people you and your fans hate. The result is a persona and a trail of public statements that is ever-increasingly divorced from reality, to say nothing of electable mainstream thought.

Because of course, all 500k Sarah Palin followers will not win her the election in 2012. Not even if she adds her 2m FaceBook fans. Carl’s paltry 2000 followers (wow! Even I am about to pass him!) won’t get him into the Governor’s chair. Not even if he adds his 25k FaceBook fans. In the end, they’re just footnotes to the history they thought themselves the catalysts of.

Its not just political types that can get turned sideways, I’m sure. Anybody with just the right amount of exposure can start believing they can do things that maybe just aren’t possible. But when people think they’re in a position to dictate the policy and moral compass of the nation, things can get really ugly:

Palin: Obama Pussy-Footing By Not Releasing Photo Of Dead Bin Laden | TPMDC.

Better Texting Bill, But What’s Next?

Texting while driving is just stupid.

That’s not to say I haven’t done it, mind you. Not at all, I certainly have. But in the course of doing it, I thought to myself, “this is stupid.” And I kept going. I’m not proud.

But now a new bill passed in the New York State Senate and sponsored by our local Sens Alesi and Robach is aimed at putting the weight of hefty fines behind preventing me and every other idiot on the road from continuing to play with fire. Better than that, the new law makes cellphone safety training a part of pre-licensing for new drivers. Even if they ignore the advice of that education, its good that kids be given an introduction:

Senate passes tougher texting bill | Democrat and Chronicle | democratandchronicle.com.

The thing about it is: what is next? What is the new gadgety thing we can do with our phones? With our cars? With our clothing? And are we really going to need to wrangle with an entirely new set of laws just to prevent the same old thing, distracted driving?

I’m sure I’ve discussed this in the past. I’m sure I will again. There needs to be a blanket law that can cover new emerging technologies and make it clear that distracting yourself while driving isn’t ok just because there’s no specific ban on it.

iPhone iSpy: Tracking Means Many Things

It seems that the story about Apple’s location tracking has widened quite a bit since going to the Senate and additional hearings have been called:

Apple Location-Tracking Drama Extends to Carriers, Prompts Hearing – Mobile and Wireless – News & Reviews – eWeek.com.

These hearings might possibly lead to some genuinely important and helpful laws to enhance our individual privacy.

But since the word “tracking” is getting used a lot, there is an important point that is likely to get lost in the public debate. That is: it doesn’t matter if Apple or Google (who produce the Android Operating System that powers many other smart phones) or AT&T are “tracking” your location. What matters is that information about your whereabouts for the last year or more are available to… anyone.

I should also point out that smart phones logging nearby wifi locations and other data points makes perfect sense to me as a developer: developers are always looking for the most efficient means of delivering content, the better to enhance the user experience. So, keeping record of the spots the user will likely revisit is a good idea, in a purely theoretical programmatic bubble.

The trouble is: if that data is available and not encrypted in some fashion, then not just the developer but any person with access to your phone can access this data. Bluetooth and wifi make having access to your phone a lot less personal than you might think, too.

I am not writing to raise the red flag of panic, either: very simple measures can solve these problems. Encrypting the data would be sufficient. But if the public debate centers on the companies like Apple “snooping” on their customers, we’ll get sidetracked by trust issues.

The Twenty-Dollar Online News: Could it Be a Good Thing?

Noting that the New York Times( @nytimes ) has had a respectable start to its new paywall system, I wonder if the twenty dollar subscription fee ends up being a workable model for former print media companies in other markets. And by other markets, clearly, I mean Rochester.

The NYT enjoys huge a huge national audience as well as a history of being something of a status symbol paper. You cannot think of their audience as quite reliably local as would be the case here in Rochester with the Democrat and Chronicle( @dandc ). But for the sake of scale, if you think in terms of subscribers to population, they’ve got about eight percent of the city in three months time.

Its obviously much too early to tell whether the Times will be able to keep up with those numbers once readers get charged full price. But its not too early to think about what a paywalled news media might mean.

Personally, the volume of news I read – and the variety of sources – makes the prospect of paying twenty dollars for each impossible. I’d have to cut down my reading considerably. Which would at first blush seem cut down on my reason for blogging considerably.

But then there is something intriguing about the prospect of a city full of bloggers, Tumblr accounts, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages with only the D&C in common. Of a community where notoriety might come from being the first to spot a crucial detail missing from an article. It could be a very good thing for journalism in Rochester, the effect quite apart from the information doomsday that media consolidation normally brings to mind. My mind, anyway.

We shall see….

#NYT Paywall, Three Weeks In: How’s it Doing?

The big news out in the tech world (apart from Amazon‘s entry into the tablet race and the Microsoft / Nokia deal) is that the New York Times’ paywall subscription service has garnered 100,000 subscribers in the first two months three weeks:

New York Times Sells 100,000+ Digital Subscriptions in First 3 Weeks.

That’s a pretty impressive start, though as the article notes, the introductory offer was for $.99 a month, whereas the actual subscription service is more like $15 to $35. That’s a big jump that may be hard to sustain come next month.

What will be required is for the New York Times to sell its readers on the necessity of their paywalled service, a feat which as I’ve noted in the past, the current model works directly against.

Twitter Users Don’t Really Seem to be Using Twitter?

I posted this just a few seconds ago to the Twitter feed, but I thought it required a bit more commentary:

CHART OF THE DAY: Here’s How Twitter Employees Use Twitter.

What is interesting about this chart is the sort of lack of engagement as most of us who have been living the Web2.0 thing since Web2.0 was a phrase anyone gave a shit about. The thing is: what has given rise to the huge swell of new technology over the course of the last ten years has been the near-ubiquitous spread of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that allow programmers to share data between different applications. For example, this website features the latest updates from my Twitter feed and Bit.ly linking systems. You don’t need to go to Twitter or Bit.ly to see what’s going on, because I’m able to request this information on a moment to moment basis. Or rather, the code that makes my site work does.

But what this chart reveals is that the company most directly responsible for huge dissemination of data across the Internet is made up of people who, at least as they report it for this study, don’t actually engage in a lot of that same type of information sharing. They use the web interface, iPhone and Mac applications, but Foursquare and many of the other services just barely register. One presumes that the “other” category would include sharing a page from another site.

Its hard to imagine where the Internet goes next week, let alone in a year. I am constantly being tired and annoyed by those who attempt to do so. But it seems like perhaps a pendulum between social / proprietary data may be the new expression of the classic pendulum of technology as we’ve known it, swinging between client/server (or “cloud”) relationships and peer-to-peer systems.

Anyway, I just found that interesting…..

Is Google Android in Copyright Trouble?

Copyright law is complicated. Open Source copyright law is, ironically enough, even more complicated. So, its not necessarily the first thing most people really want to read about, even if the consequences of those copyright laws are more important to the world we live in today than at any time in the past.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a general format to news articles which makes understanding issues like this more complex. Journalists generally tend to start at the end of the story for the benefit of the high-tech audience – tell people who already follow the story exactly what new thing has prompted the article – then follow that up with a history lesson and end with alternate viewpoints that argue against the primary view of the article. That makes something like the current story on Google very hard to read, even for those like myself who consider themselves familiar with copyright law (though not a lawyer):

Google’s ‘clean’ Linux headers: Are they really that dirty? • The Register.

So, what is the deal? Well, let’s break it down:

Open Source

Linux is Open Source software, which means its not just free to use but also free to distribute entirely new versions of. You can modify the software, repackage and release as your own stuff.

But there’s a catch: in the case of the base of Linux, the software is released under a license which enforces a rule stating that not only is the software free, but any derivative distributions must also be free (copyleft). You can’t make money off the core Linux distribution, nor can you make money off modifying it and repackaging it.

Many versions (distros) of Linux exist that do make money, notably Red Hat. So, what’s the deal? Those software distros use a modified “header,” which is sort of like the beginning of the program. Those headers introduce some basic information about how the system behaves, setup environment variables and generally inform the user how the software is to be interacted with. As you might imagine, this modified version of the header is also free for download.

Google Android

What has Google done to cause the ruckus? Well, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, is based on Linux. And instead of using a prepackaged, licensed version of the headers, they’ve opted to create their own based on the core Linux headers. For the most part, as far as anyone can tell, all they’ve actually done was strip out comment language that said the distro was for free-use only.

And that’s the problem: to some people, this is the equivalent of tearing the “not for resale” sticker off a bottle of perfume at the store and then turning around and selling it. Whether or not this is actually true boils down to the kind of hair-splitting decisions upon which copyright law – and law itself – exists. In the opinion of those who believe Google has done nothing wrong, the headers for Linux only really define and establish a few relatively trivial variables and as such, do not necessarily constitute anything all that original. Therefore, they don’t necessarily constitute something copyrightable.

Why did Google chose to go this route? According to the above-linked article, it was because they wanted to keep the issue of GPL out of the user’s experience. I take that to mean they didn’t want users to have to question whether something was legally downloadable or not, just let one Google-defined license define copyright for all apps. Presumably, the GPL licensing on the profit-ready header distribution would have complicated that, at least in the eyes of Google’s executives.

Either way, Google felt comfortable enough – all things in the world of computers revolve around some level of copyright infringement risk – that they opted to create their own headers. It is upon this decision that Android’s fate rests, if its critics are to be believed. It is worth noting that Richard Stallman one of the leading voices in Free Software – and an openly hostile voice against for-profit software – agrees with Google’s assessment of the situation.

The Consequences

Well, with all that out of the way, what earthshakingly-important consequence will there be for all this? Of course, it all comes down to money.

If the Google Android OS is based on the core Linux distro using the copyleft license, then Google cannot charge for its use or development. That’s not a big deal, since Google isn’t really charging for it anyway: unlike Apple, its entirely free to use the Android API and create your own applications from it.

But what about those apps with the $1.99, $2.99 charges on them? Well, you can’t charge for them because they’re based on copyleft software. Whoops! With a single judge’s ruling, any company looking to make money off Android software is out of luck – and may even be subject to lawsuits themselves.

So, that’s what is at stake. I hope that helps some people understand what’s going on.