In Today’s News

Americans, I’m proud of you.

Over and over we’ve looked at your top searches on Google and seen you searching for half-dressed women; sporting events; and death, destruction, and explosions.

Today, I look at the search results for this week, and what do I see? Of the top 20 searches Tuesday, four were directly related to the US Government shutdown, and another four, including the two of the top three were for news venues. I’m so very proud to see that you’re taking an interest in what’s going on in the world. So proud, I’ll even largely overlook the fact that the top search was for Fox News.

OK, so three search topics in the top five that were not for news sources were for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cleveland Indians, and Grand Theft Auto V. But you know I’m not going to ding you for taking an interest in baseball. Video games, well… But I’ll give you a pass on that one because GTA V only narrowly sneaked in ahead of breast cancer awareness.

So, a good start. And then what happened? You got distracted. On Wednesday what do we see in the top ten? Half-dressed women (Rihanna’s new music video, Michelle Rodriguez sexual orientation, Britney Spears’ new music video, Jennifer Lawrence’s diet, Monika Jakisic hooking up with George Clooney, Rebel Wilson’s weight, and Mia Farrow’s indiscretions with Frank Sinatra). Death and destruction (Tom Clancy, mummified birds at Lake Natron, and the FBI takedown of the Silk Road website).

Today, you’re doing even worse: Kate Upton without makeup, the President’s Cup (a golf tournament for those like me who weren’t aware), and Tesla (whose stock is sinking in the wake of a video of one of their cars exploding into flames). Oddly enough, nobody seems to be noting that the government shutdown is dragging the whole market down, not just Tesla. But then, a Wall Street flameout isn’t as visually appealing as a literal one.

Focus, people, focus. The government is still shut down, with neither side budging an inch — though I’m sure you’ll all be relieved to know that the NSA is taking to Twitter, Google+, and Facebook to let us all know that this is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. They want to be sure that we thank them for keeping us safe from cyber crime and terror attacks. Thanks, guys! Remember, every dollar and employee minute you spend on publicity is that much less you can spend on reading our email.

There’s other stuff going on too: Tropical Storm Karen is moving towards the Gulf of Mexico. It may or may not cause much damage (it isn’t clear whether it’ll reach hurricane status before it reaches the coast), but because oil companies are shutting down drilling platforms, gas futures are headed up. Yup, higher prices at the pump are coming — even though there’s a 1.85 million barrel inventory to draw on.

Lest I sound too negative, there’s some good news out there that you’re missing out on: a small plane made an emergency landing on the freeway in San Jose and there were no injuries. Too bad there doesn’t seem to be any video of that, as it would have been rather more heartwarming than the Tesla video.

OK, so my pride is tempered a bit. I’m glad to see that a significant number of people can pay attention when necessary. But I’d like to see y’all work on your attention spans now.

Danger, Will Robinson!

After I posted yesterday’s piece on the WEA* system responsible for the cell phone Amber alerts I had some further thoughts. In particular, I was wondering what other sorts of messages one can expect to receive via this “service”. The FCC has a rather useless marketing page on the WEA. It says:

Alerts from WEA cover only critical emergency situations. Consumers will receive only three types of alerts:
1. Alerts issued by the President
2. Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
3. Amber Alerts

* According to the FCC’s website, “Wireless Emergency Alerts” is now the official name of the system, replacing the earlier “Commercial Mobile Alert System” and “Personal Localized Alerting Network” names.

We’ve already talked about the Amber Alerts; whether they really constitute “critical emergency situations” is pretty much a matter of opinion. Let’s take a look at the other two types.

“Alerts issued by the President.” I can’t find an official description of what situations might cause the president to send out a message. Both FEMA and NOAA phrase the category as “Presidential Alerts during a national emergency”. But again, that doesn’t really tell us much. Is the president really going to stop whatever he’s doing to send out a national text message “Just declared war on Russia. Bombs in five minutes! LOL!”? Well, OK, maybe Ronald Reagan would have, but really, what kind of national matters can be dealt with in a 90 character message?

“Imminent threats to safety or life” OK, I can get behind that concept. As I mentioned yesterday, the system was used during the Boston Marathon bombings. It was also used to send warnings during Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the East Coast.

According to NOAA, the National Weather Service will send messages for tsunamis, tornados, flash floods, hurricanes, typhoons, dust storms, extreme winds, blizzards, and ice storms. One hopes that they’ll do a better job of targeting their messages than the San Diego police did with Monday’s Amber Alert, which has apparently been received as far away as Seattle, Washington. Even if they are well-targeted, that could still amount to a heck of a lot of alerts in some areas, and timeliness hasn’t really been a consistent win for any government. I don’t know about you, but if I were outside shoveling three feet of snow off my driveway, and I was interrupted by an emergency alert about the previous night’s blizzard, I’d be pretty damn ticked off. Hell, even if it was a timely warning about the following blizzard, I’d be annoyed at the interruption.

All in all, I suspect that every time the capability is used there are going to be more people turning it off. Of course, you can’t turn off the Presidential Alerts. How long will it be before the rules are changed to require that no alerts can be turned off? After all, it’s a matter of life and death. And it’s for the children!

Oh, one additional note: I suggested yesterday that setting the phone’s Do Not Disturb functionality would prevent being awakened in the middle of the night by a WEA alert. Turns out that’s not the case. By design, such messages ignore your alerting preferences. Sleeping? Driving? Watching a play in a crowded theatre? Enjoying a tender moment with your spouses? Doesn’t matter. If the government thinks you need to know about a missing child, approaching tornado, or zombie invasion, by God, you’re going to hear about it. And no, you can’t change that aggravating alert sound to something less distracting either. Sounds like another good argument for turning your phone completely off when you’re not actually making a call.

Take comfort, though. FEMA, NOAA, and the FCC all assure us that your location won’t be tracked when you receive a WEA message. I’m sure we’re all relieved to hear that. After all, the government would never lie about what information they’re collecting about you and your movements, right?

Alert, Alert!

Monday night around 11pm my cell phone started making a horrible screeching siren sound, not entirely unlike the famous TV and radio emergency broadcast system sound. Combined with the vibration buzz, which was amplified by the wooden shelf the phone was sitting on, it made quite a racket.

I was reading in bed and it scared the heck out of me–and sent the three cats who had been snoozing on the bed fleeing for shelter.

It took me a minute or so to figure out what was going on. It turned out to be an Amber Alert. The California Highway Patrol issued the alert in connection with a possible murder/kidnapping in San Diego and made it statewide due to concerns that the suspect might be trying to drive cross-state on his way to Texas or Canada.

It turns out that most cell phones made in the past couple of years come pre-configured to receive emergency alerts, and several states have been using them since April 2012. California has approved their use for Amber Alerts as of the beginning of 2013; this is the first time any alert has been issued in California.  Yep, the government is in your cell phones in ways other than just monitoring who you talk to.

There’s been very little publicity about this phone “feature”. The online screaming suggests that I’m far from the only person who didn’t know about it. Most of the complaints seem to fall into two categories: “Why are you bugging me with this?” and “Why are you bugging me with this in the middle of the night?” Official responses are playing the “Think of the children” card. The response from Bob Hoever, director of special programs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is absolutely typical: “I can appreciate and feel bad that people were annoyed and disturbed by the alert, but this is how we save children.”

Such responses miss a lot of the point. The cell phone alert system replaces an older web-based system that allowed users to opt-in to the system. This system is opt-out: you will receive the alerts unless you explicitly turn them off. And you will receive the alerts whenever police decide to send one, regardless of the time of day or night. (Yes, most phones allow you to block notifications, but how many people don’t set up those blocks, or can’t because they have to be available for work or personal emergencies?) Hundreds of thousands of people received Monday night’s alert. Thousands more will be receiving further alerts. An Amber Alert sent at 4am in New York led an unknown, but probably high, number of people to opt out. Monday’s 11pm alert will likely have a similar effect in California. A few more such high-profile events would have a serious negative effect on the utility of the program.

I started looking into how to opt-out. On my phone, it’s actually simple once you know the choice is there. Launch the messaging app, go into its settings, and scroll to the “Emergency message settings”. Other Android phones should be similar; you iPhone users are on your own (but feel free to post instructions in a comment). According to the fount of all knowledge, while the messages appear on your phone like a standard SMS, they’re actually sent over a separate system that gives them priority over regular text messages and voice calls, which makes sense given the original intent to use them for warnings of dangerous weather, terrorist actions, or other events being managed by government Emergency Operations Centers.

There are actually five different message types that can be sent via the “Commercial Mobile Alert System” (also known as “Wireless Emergency Alerts” and “Personal Localized Alerting Network”): Presidential, Extreme, Severe, Amber, and Test. By law, Presidential alerts cannot be disabled. The others can be turned off. Whether you do so is, of course, your own decision.

I’m not arguing that Amber Alerts are not worthwhile or a valuable resource. Hoever notes that 656 children have been rescued specifically because of Amber Alerts. On the other hand, that’s 656 children in the 13 years since the Amber Alert program began in 1996. Is the benefit really so great that it needs to be an opt-out program affecting every cell-phone user in the country?

Knock-Knock

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.

GlassPron

OK, so I’m officially jumping on the bandwagon.

“OMG, Google rejected a porn app for Glass!”

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, “Really? Why is this news?”

Background for those of you who might somehow have been unaware of this: Yesterday, 3 June 2013, Google rejected a Google Glass app because it included dirty pictures. The app in question allowed users to take pictures with their Google Glasses and upload them to a website where others (both Glass users and non-Glass users) could view them and rate them. Since the intent was that pictures would include nudity and/or sexual acts, the app fell in violation of the Google Glass Developer Policies. The relevant clause in the policies was added on Saturday, 1 June 2013 – in other words, the app was legitimate when development began, but was not so legitimate by the time it was submitted to Google.

So, a couple of questions:

1) The app makers, MiKandi (link very NSFW) announced their intention to launch the app on 22 May. Did Google change the policies specifically to allow them to reject the app? To me, it seems likely. Allow me to quote the relevant paragraph: “We don’t allow Glassware content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material. Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child pornography. If we become aware of content with child pornography, we will report it to the appropriate authorities and delete the Google Accounts of those involved with the distribution.” The way the paragraph is written feels clumsy compared to the rest of the policy (although I’ll admit that’s a subjective matter), and grouping child pornography with “Sexually Explicit Material” feels like a “we left it out, let’s get it into the policy quickly” reaction, where more thought would have grouped it with “Illegal Activities” or even made it a separate paragraph. Whether I’m right or wrong though, why were these policies not in place sooner? My feeling is that Google was taken a bit by surprise by the vehemence of the backlash against Glass. They probably intended to become more detailed in the policies as they shifted more and more from “developer toy” to “marketable product”, but public reaction is moving faster than they planned, and the perception that they’re “promoting pornography” would ruin their marketing plans. I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

2) Will Google keep porn off of Glass? Of course not. Technically speaking, there’s no way they could possibly keep it off. Even if they wanted to, the nature of the Android ecosystem would prevent it. Even if there is no formal provision for installing non-approved apps, in release versions of the Glass implementation of Android, the functionality is so convenient for developers that it would be politically infeasible for Google to remove it (even if it were technically possible, which I tend to doubt). That means that in all likelihood, the furthest they could go would be to have the functionality there but with the UI to enable it hidden; that in turn means that developers will find a way to enable it, with the result that an ecosystem of alternative Glass app stores will spring up, just as they have for mainstream Android. Even that may be overly complicated. The fact that Glass works in conjunction with apps installed on a phone means that Google-approved (or possibly even Google-supplied) Glass apps can be served porn by less-upstanding apps on the phone.

So why is Google bothering? As I said earlier, Google does not want a public perception that they’re “fostering” or “distributing” pornography. Even a belief that they’re making it possible for people to watch pornography in public would be a public-relations nightmare. Imagine the political speeches and press editorials: “How will our children ever be safe when a Glass-wearing predator can watch pornography while stalking them!” Back in December, Google made the “Safe Search” filters more restrictive to reduce the amount of porn shown in search results – unless the user specifically asks for it by including relevant words in the query. This is a similar move. It allows Google to promote the fact that they’re keeping Glass users safe from the evils of the flesh – unless the user specifically asks for it by installing an app through alternate channels.

My prediction is that by the time Glass is available to the general public, there will be a widely-known, easily-available method to get porn on Glass. Anyone disagree?

The New Land Rush

What the heck is going on in Europe with regard to copyright these days?

The Register reported a couple of weeks ago that the UK now assigns any image that lacks information identifying the owner to an “extended collective licensing pool”. The upshot is that anyone can essentially take any picture that lacks metadata and use it for any purpose, including commercial. (OK, I’ll grant you they’re not the most staid, reliable journalistic outlet, but in this case they do seem to have the core facts straight. Other news outlets are reporting similar facts.)

At the moment, the only sure way to keep your photos out of the pool is to register them with the UK’s PLUS registry or the US Copyright Office. Correction: the other way is to not put them online. Keep in mind that many hosting sites routinely strip out image metadata either when the pictures are uploaded or when they’re displayed.

In fairness, I’ll note that the UK Intellectual Property Office disputes the interpretations of the act in The Reg’s article. Putting on my “I Am Not A Lawyer” hat, though, I’ll note that even in the UK IPO’s document, it notes that anyone not wishing to allow their work to go into the pool would have to opt out. This seems like it would impose a significant burden on anyone not in the UK.

Meanwhile, across The Channel, the French have their own pool going. As the SFWA-affiliated “Writer Beware” blog reports, the ReLIRE database is now online. The database is intended to list all works published in France prior to 2001 that are currently out of print. If a work is not removed from the database within six months of its listing, the right to digitize it and to exploit that right (i.e. to publish it in digital form) will transfer to a collective management organization. Note that the database includes not just works by French authors, but all books published in France.

As is usual with a database project on this scale, the data is apparently filled with errors (books still in print, books published after 2001, and books that are already available in digital form have been listed). This means that anyone who has ever had a book published in France needs to check the database and opt out in writing prior to the deadline – for each book. In other words, it’s an ongoing effort, and for many authors, an effort that must be conducted in a language they don’t speak at all. Oddly enough, French is far less of a universal language today than it was a few hundred years ago. (But I digress.)
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m part of the lunatic fringe that thinks the current state of copyright protection is excessive*, but this sort of preemptive grab and the use of opt-out schemes sets my teeth on edge.

* For those not in the know, in the US copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years for anything created since 1978 and any work-for hire (typically works copyrighted by corporations) get 95 years from the first publication; works created earlier have varying terms of protection, but the upshot is that very little is entering the public domain. Barring further changes to the law, it looks like there will be a bit of a public domain land rush in 2047.) Various international treaties have resulted in most countries offering similar protections; a quick perusal of Wikipedia suggests that life plus 50 years is most common. I’d prefer not to start a discussion of what I think the correct span should be (at least not right now), but just to give some context to the current discussion, I do think that it should be at least for the lifespan of the creator.

The main thing these two schemes (and others like them) have in common is that they set aside a small portion of any proceeds from the licensing of the affected works to reimburse any creators who might manage to prove ownership of included works, with the lion’s share of the proceeds going to the government and independent company that runs the licensing pool. And in the course of establishing the schemes, they force creators to monitor laws in foreign countries and deal with foreign languages – which takes time away from creating new works.

Does that latter complaint sound familiar? It should – I made a similar point in talking about electronic self-publishing and the need to be your own publicist, bookkeeper, copy editor, and several other roles traditionally filled by publishers. This would be another role added to the list.

Just to invoke the maximum amount of paranoia here: I note that Amazon, like many large, web-based companies, has arms in France and the UK among others. Could a good lawyer make a case that publishing through Amazon’s self-publishing arm constitutes French publication?

One final note before anyone suggests that I’m ignoring similar efforts in the US, such as the Google Book Search project (now in its eighth year of raising hackles). The difference is that Google Book Search is an entirely private project. While some of the issues being argued are similar, there is no federal involvement. Corporations are designed to maximize profits. Governments should not be.

The parallels with the great land rushes of the 1880s should be obvious. Then, the US government carved out large chunks of land in “Indian territory” and gave it to whoever got there first. Seems like in Europe, photographers and authors are the new “Indians”.

Thumbs up!

I had some second thoughts about this morning’s post of Kaja as tech support. Not second thoughts in the sense of “that was a bad idea”, but in the sense of “would she really”? And I suspect that the answer is no, she wouldn’t. Kaja has a lot to say – that’s a family catch phrase, actually – and she loves telling people what to do, but following a support script and keeping to a call quota are going to be way outside her core competency list.

Realistically, her job options are limited, most notably by her lack of opposable thumbs. This is not a new idea by any means. For years our answering machine has mentioned that the cats can’t take a message because they don’t have opposable thumbs. We’ve also had a standing policy that any cat who can demonstrate the ability to use a fork and knife is welcome to join us at the table for dinner (no takers, yet, but I suspect Kokoro is working on it.) – we explain the policy to every new cat in the house, and it does seem to cut down on them jumping on the table during meals.

But I digress.

Nor are we the first people to toy with the notion. Cravendale*, a dairy in the UK have had a lot of fun with the idea. They did a great commercial based on the idea, then followed up with a whole series of “Thumbcat” videos.

* I’m not providing a link in accordance with my standing policy about linking to Flash-only sites – though I will note that they do have a decent mobile version.

But I got to thinking (I know, always dangerous), and it occurred to me that many of the “What if cats had thumbs” ideas out on the net ascribe way too many human traits to their thumbed cats. Let’s face it, even if cats had thumbs and could operate can-openers and screw-top containers, they would still prefer to have a human deliver dinner than to get it themselves.

So if Kaja did have thumbs, what jobs would be open to her?

Well, we can immediately rule out anything in customer service. No way is she going to admit that the customer is always right. Or even occasionally right.

I think we can also rule out musical performance. Most instruments would require more modification than just thumbs (her jaw is the wrong shape for reeds and her lips are entirely wrong for brasses. Claws and strings don’t mix. Her fingers are too short for keyboards. Maybe she could play the drums, but frankly she’s got no sense of rhythm. Keyboards? Well, maybe – I’ve certainly heard keyboardists with less sense of rhythm than she has – but claws clicking on the keys would likely drive her bandmates nuts. Vocals are more her speed, but (a) that doesn’t require thumbs and (b) there’s a limited market for sCat singing these days.

She could go into acting, but her unwillingness to let others put words in her mouth would limit her quite a bit. Improv comedy and Christopher Guest movies aren’t going to keep her in Kitty Krunchies.

Politics would appeal to her personality, but the grind of the campaign tour would turn her off quickly. I can’t see her even making it to the first debate.

Accountancy or any other profession involving numbers seems improbable at best. Given that she hasn’t figure out that transferring the contents of the food bowl into her stomach leaves nothing in the bowl, I suspect she has trouble with the concept of “zero”. Not what I’m looking for in the person doing my taxes.

Teaching? That might work, at least in jurisdictions that still allow teachers to administer corporal punishment to students. She’s a firm believer in the power of a slap upside the head to demand attention and obedience.

No, unless there’s a category of employment I’m not thinking of, her best bet is to become a CEO: make a few decisions that underlings will have to figure out how to implement, ignore federal regulations as being beneath her feline dignity, part ways with the company to pursue other interests, retire on her golden parachute, and let a human bring dinner to her.