Can somebody explain why curling is suddenly hot? It’s trending on Google, I’ve seen multiple excited blog and Twitter posts, and its even getting some primetime TV placement.

But nobody seems to be talking about why there’s so much excitement.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a hit piece or a “How can you enjoy that boring sport” piece. I’ve seen far too many of the latter aimed at baseball to ever go there myself.

Serious inquiry. Of all the sports in the Winter Olympics, why is curling getting so much of the love? It’s just my perception–I don’t have numbers to back it up, but by comparison with previous Olympics, interest in figure skating, skiing, and luge seem down, while I’ve already seen more talk about curling than in any other two complete Winter Games.

I suppose I’m not really asking any aficionados for an explanation. You’re part of the baseline of interest, not the current peak.

Maybe it’s because curling is a deceptively simple sport. One of those “easy to learn, difficult to master” things. Are people looking for something simple to understand in reaction to the increasingly baffling actions of our elected officials, who daily seem to become less inclined to act in their own best interests, much less those who elected them?

Perhaps the World Curling Association is running an astroturfing campaign. Will that be the next scandal to rock the international sports scene? Or is some other national or international sport group trying to raise curling’s profile to distract the public’s attention from their own problems–there’s certainly no shortage of candidates if your taste for conspiracy theories leans in that direction.

Is it just curling’s turn in the spotlight? A few months from now, will all the come-latelies be saying “Curling? Oh, yeah, I remember that. Does anyone still play it?”

Still, I’m no more immune to curling’s allure than anyone else. Whatever the reason for its current popularity, you can find me on the bandwagon.

Musing on Current Events

Blame it on the World Cup. Sports have almost completely taken over Google’s Hot Searches list. Of the top ten searches for Monday, seven are sports-related. Five of those seven are related to the World Cup–the other two are “LeBron James” (basketball) and “Wimbledon 2014” (tennis). Total World Cup domination is expected. What’s more interesting is the three non-sporting items in the list.

At Number Seven, we have “Teen Wolf”. Yeah, more than 50,000 people are looking for information on the fourth season of a TV show based on a thirty-year-old Michael J. Fox movie*. Ah, America, I weep for you! No, actually I’m glad to see it. As long as the general public continues to show interest in Teen Wolf, True Blood, and Twilight, it means there’s still a large audience for urban fantasy. Despite Laurell K. Hamilton’s best efforts to destroy it, I think it’s a sub-genre that still has some room to do interesting things.

* It’s probably germane to mention that Fox’s character played basketball…

Number Nine is “Alaska Earthquake.” Good to know that people are paying attention to what’s going on in the real, non-sporting world. Here’s an interesting fact: According to the USGS, the continental United States has survived 53 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or above in the past week. Of those, 31 (58%) were in Oklahoma. You think Mother Nature might be a little annoyed at Oklahoma? I’ve been trying to think why that might be. I doubt it has anything to do with the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, and it seems unlikely that it has anything to do with the state’s unique perspective on marriage. I can’t help wondering how much of Oklahoma’s current miseries have to do with the amount of oil and natural gas that’s been mined in the state. Come on, people, think! Anyone who’s ever played Jenga knows you can’t pull all of the bottom pieces out of the stack without toppling it…

Number Ten. Um. Well, this is where we start getting back to America’s usual fascinations. “Frances Bean Cobain” squeaks into the tenth slot, just ahead of “Robin Thicke” and “Hayden Panettiere.” Think about this for a moment: those three searches cover celebrity, death, sex, and (preferably female) skin. All the topics we normally see cropping up in the Hot Searches list. The World Cup isn’t so much distracting America from its usual preoccupations as it is compressing them.

Update: While I was writing this piece, the search statistics for Tuesday started to appear. The first search to garner enough traffic to make the list? “Luis Suarez.”

Suarez is a member of Uruguay’s World Cup team, and he’s in the news because he apparently bit an opponent during a game today.

Yeah. Bit him. Folks, this is clearly the ultimate news story for the week. We’ve got your sports, we’ve got your celebrity violence, and we’ve even got your urban fantasy–clearly Mr. Suarez is under the impression that he’s a vampire: this is at least the third time he’s been accused of biting someone during a game. The only thing we’re missing is an earthquake. Fortunately for Brazil, all of the South American earthquake activity recently has been in Chile, on the opposite side of the continent.

You know, I just got a great idea for a story…

Theft Detection

Sort of a painful post today. I hate to publish a downer about Google right after the neutral-to-good things I said yesterday, but putting it off doesn’t make it any better.

There’s an interesting story on The Verge about Google uncovering a ring of Chinese car thieves.

The gist of it is that the thieves would take pictures of cars parked on the street and use the photos in ads offering the cars for sale. When they found a buyer, they would go steal the car, take the buyer’s money, and leave him to deal with the repercussions of having purchased stolen merchandise. It’s a clever scam: the JIT procurement processes means that the car probably doesn’t get reported as stolen until after the deal is done, and the delays built into the Chinese banking system apparently make it almost impossible for the buyer to stop payment–and give the thieves several days to make their getaway.

So what’s the Google connection? It seems that when they were updating their tools for detecting fraudulent ads in their AdWords network, a bunch of used car ads were getting flagged alongside the expected ads for counterfeit designer goods and phishing schemes. Nobody was sure why, as the ads didn’t appear significantly different than other ads for used merchandise that didn’t get flagged. In fact, as far as I can tell from the article, nobody is still quite sure exactly what caused the fraud flag to be set. There are some obvious clues, most notably a pattern of quick buys from new accounts. But because the main algorithm incorporates its own feedback loop, using the results of past runs as input for new runs, the specific combination of pieces of information is obscure, to say the least.

Of course, there really isn’t much Google can do when they spot a fraudster in China. They can delete the ad from AdWords, but that’s about it. Their relationship with China is rather rocky, making the sort of fast, targeted communication necessary to catch the scammers somewhere between “difficult” and “impossible”.

But they’re spotting crime, and there are other countries where Google has better access. This is a good thing, right?

Well, no. Even without considering the question of false positives–not everything that gets flagged as fraudulent will actually turn out to be an actual crime–consider this quote from AdWord’s director David Baker: “There’s no one thing or even a handful of things. It’s thousands of pieces of information in aggregate.” In other words, it’s Google’s massive database of information about who is doing what using their system.

This is, of course, exactly the same database that the NSA and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies are accessing in secret. Do you really want Google being forced to produce a list of suspected terrorists based on advertising history? Keep in mind that the database doesn’t just include the ad buyers, it also includes who sees which ads, what pages the ads were shown on, and whether the viewer clicked on them. Are you confident that your name won’t show up on the list?

Sure you’re OK with that risk–terrorism is pretty bad stuff, after all? Consider the FBI’s definition of terrorism: “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. “Any segment” could be as small as one or two people, which means it could apply to breaking windows during a protest (see, for example the recent protests in Oakland over the Zimmerman trial verdict). I’m not the only one who thinks this is a legitimate risk. As far back as 2002, the ACLU pointed out that Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, and WTO protesters were at risk for being treated as terrorists. Open Salon pointed out that the Department of Defense explicitly defines protests as “low-level terrorism” and that definition was used in responding to the 2008 “RNC Welcoming Committee” protests.

Still totally confident that your name isn’t going to show up on the suspect list? Let’s face it: if you came to this post via a Google or Bing search, you’re going to be on that list. Chances are good that even if you just have this blog bookmarked, a simple demand that WordPress turn over their activity logs would include enough information for you to be tied to your other web actions and identified.

And none of this discussion even considers the possibility of scope creep. If the NSA can use this approach to fight terrorism, who’s to say that the local police can’t use it to fight serious crimes like rape and murder? And once that door is open, history shows that other crimes won’t be far behind. Fraud (remember where this discussion started?), theft, and even driving violations could be next).

I implied back at the beginning of this post that it’s Google’s problem. It is and it isn’t. As with the NSA’s reported surveillance activities to date, Google wouldn’t have a whole lot of choice about cooperating with a demand for such materials. It’s their problem, but it’s ours too. And there isn’t any more of a good solution for this part of the problem than the rest of it.


No, that title isn’t the start of a joke.

Now I feel like an idiot for April’s post on the CISPA bill and its potential to strip privacy protections online.

After all, we now know that we already have no protection.

With this week’s revelations about phone companies being required to turn over metadata for all calls and the existence of the PRISM program that gives the NSA full access to everything that Microsoft, Google, Apple, and a host of other large Internet companies know, it’s clear that if you use a phone or computer, you have no privacy whatsoever.

Consider: According to the Guardian and Washington Post reports, to conduct a PRISM search, the NSA has to be 51% sure that the subject is foreign. That’s the only limitation. A barrier that low will allow a massive number of false positives, but that’s almost irrelevant, because once the search begins, it can (again according to the reports) be extended to all of the contacts of the subject and all of the contacts of the contacts. By design, anyone who is “probably” not a US citizen is – and has been since at least 2007 – a terrorism suspect.

Hell, more than half of the regular readers of this blog are “foreign”; they have no protection against being the subject of a PRISM search: PRISM was designed to allow the NSA to monitor everything they do online to “protect against terrorism”.

Last week’s picture of Kokoro lurking in the headboard of my bed drew likes from people in England, Wales, and Moscow. The NSA knows that (and knew it before this post told the world). Since I’m now associated with those foreign “suspects”, all of my online activities are now available to the NSA, and because I’m associated with you, so are yours. And by “you”, I’m not just talking about those of you reading this post. Everyone I’ve communicated with falls into that category – as described, PRISM would make it trivially easy for the NSA to link the email address I use for this blog to all of my other email addresses, at which point they’ll find out that I’ve exchanged emails with citizens of India, Japan, and China. Better check all of their contacts; since they’re foreign, the rule of “two levels of contacts” resets and the NSA can chain their searches outward from there. Nice work, Kokoro. You’re single-pawedly responsible for the investigation of thousands of people around the world for their possible roles in plotting terroristic acts against the US.

Yes, I do have a sudden urge to make myself an aluminum foil hat. Why do you ask? Right now it’s seeming like the most sensible thing to do.

Seriously though folks, if even half of the capabilities being touted for PRISM are accurate, by combining its output with the results of the phone company data, the NSA can figure out not only damn near everything you’ve done online, but also what you’re doing out in the real world. Legally. And that’s why I feel like an idiot about getting bent out of shape over CISPA – all that adds to the government’s capabilities is to let the FBI and Homeland Security track US citizens without first linking them somehow to someone “foreign”.

Please, no comments along the lines of “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t care.” If nothing else, when the government can secretly monitor everything you do, “wrong” is what they define it to be. I don’t think I’m being overly pessimistic in saying that “Niemöller” and Orwell were conservative.

Frankly, I think there’s very little we can do. The capability won’t go away: even if a public outcry forced the repeal of the PATRIOT Act and the other legislation that enables this warrantless surveillance, you can be sure that the tools will stay in the hands of the government agencies that have it now. They’re just too useful for them to give up. And removing the laws that limit their use will just encourage the agencies to use them more: why shouldn’t they if any use is illegal?

Heck, given the administration’s position that these data collection programs are “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats”, even trying to take those toys away can be classed as a terroristic act (giving aid to terrorists).

If y’all will excuse me, I’m going to go downstairs and arrest myself. Maybe if I save the government the effort of doing it, they’ll let me share my cell with Kokoro.