Google, search, and Star Trek

I love seeing people write about Google's long-term ambitions.  It's so cool to see people display publicly the struggle to understand the volume of what Google is trying to accomplish with search, the struggle just to believe that, when Google employees talk about their goals, they're telling the truth.

Farhad Manjoo at Slate.com has a great article, Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before, about his journey toward comprehending, and believing (if not necessarily believing in), Google's ambitions.

 “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building,” [head of search rankings team Amit] Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.” He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. “It comes up often,” Singhal said. “For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.”

What does it mean that Google really is trying to build the Star Trek computer? I take it as a cue to stop thinking about Google as a “search engine.” [...] A search engine has several key problems. First, most of the time it doesn’t give you an answer—it gives you links to an answer. Second, it doesn’t understand natural language; [...]. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a search engine needs for you to ask it questions—it doesn’t pipe in with information when you need it, without your having to ask.

One of the things I love about where Google is going with search (although this point is more optimistic than Google has necessarily justified) is the opportunities it creates to make the world a better place.  Manjoo quotes a question Google struggles with, near the end of the article:  "Why are men jerks?"  If, instead of taking you to a bunch of websites that validate that position, Google answers outright with a discussion of complexity and individual identities, Google will naturally shift the whole of plugged-in human experience to greater peace and understanding.

It's spreading: Google Fiber is coming to Austin, TX

City officials in Austin, TX have announced that they are the next city getting Google Fiber.  I am currently more jealous than I have ever been of Texas.

Google Fiber is a new broadband Internet network that is 100 times faster than anything available in Austin right now.

“You could upload your entire DVD collection in less than a day,” said local tech blogger Stacey Higginbotham. “It's super fast internet, and it's cheap."

Apparently Google hasn't made their official announcement yet, they're expected to do so on Tuesday, but the media buzz surrounding it makes it all sound pretty definite.  Austin, one of the few inland, southern cities I might be willing to ever live, has suddenly become a lot more attractive.

One of the many reasons I love Google

Here's a picture.  It's a picture of a woman named Karin Tuxen-Bettman walking around in a frozen tundra with a giant camera on her back.

 

She works for Google Street View, and she's part of a team that's mapping chunks of the Canadian arctic.  Allan Woods at the Guardian writes:

Helped by an Inuit mapping expert, and stalked by curious locals, the team spent four days trudging through the terrain and collecting the images and information that will give the isolated community on the tundra of Baffin Island what urbanites across the globe now take for granted.

It's generally understood that the best technologies don't make it out to the far reaches of the globe for a very, very long time, because there's no real profit in bringing them there.  The private sector will bring high-speed internet to the city as much as possible, but there are places in the world where you can't buy a good connection even if you want to.  Not wildernesses, either -- people who make their living putting stuff online have this problem.[One of the YouTube channels I follow, Etho's Lab, doesn't upload high-definition video, because it takes up his whole internet connection for about 24 hours.  I don't know where Etho lives, but I know it's somewhere in Canada.]

Whatever their motives are, and I've heard some sinister theories, Google cares about something other than quarterly profits, and whatever it is, it pushes them to spend money and effort making the world better for as many people as possible.  Maybe they've got an incredibly long view of maximum profitability.  Maybe it's just that they think the Inuits will be worth the advertising views.  Maybe (and this is my pet theory) they actually aren't evil.

Yes, it's true that Google is definitely a for-profit company that does a lot of for-profit things.  But they clearly, obviously weigh all their decisions against measures other than profitability.  And sometimes, profitability is so far down on the list that we get things like street-view maps of the Canadian arctic.

Animated GIF search

Google is rolling out a new awesome thing.  When you search images, you can click on 'search tools,' open the types dropdown menu, and select 'animated.'  It will return only the animated gifs that are relevant to your search. I tried to think of an appropriate gif to put in this post, but the image searches for "explosion" and "awesome" are both pretty awful.  I guess it will take a while for google to get the hang of handing over the best results in gifs.

About Google Reader going away

I used to use Google Reader.  I had hundreds of feeds, many of which I didn't follow very carefully.  I ended up stopping using it, because I'm just bad at keeping track of lists of things.  My bookmarks are a horrible mess, and have only been worse in the past. A lot of people are really unhappy about it getting shut down, and I'm not surprise.  It was pretty awesome.  Enough people, in fact, that there's a petition, with over 100,000 signatures, to keep it running.

I hope it goes through.  Checking tons of websites every day gets to be kind of a pain in the ass. All this attention has reminded me that Google Reader exists, and if it's still going to be around in a few months, I want to start using it again.

So, yeah.  Central message:  I have awful timing.

Dying mice, and maybe also touchscreens

The Atlantic has a cool roundup of devices for controlling computers that are going to be coming out over this year.  I'm still primarily looking forward to Google Glass, but there's a lot of stuff on this list I'd love to play with. (And I'm becoming increasingly disappointed with the continued existence of the mouse.)

the iPhone -- and the brilliant iOS software and declining multi-touch display prices -- cracked that computing paradigm wide open. And for the last half a decade, touchscreens have more or less taken over for mobile computing. At the same time, gesture interfaces from Nintendo and Microsoft in the gaming space exploded, marking a serious move away from the traditional controller for non-hardcore gamers.

That's given a lot of new hardware interface designers hope, not to mention a plausible story to tell venture capitalists. Add a dash of Kickstarter funding and Sergey Brin's interest and you have an explosion of new possibilities. Here are five that I've noticed. What's fascinating is that all are slated to be out this year:

  • The Leap Motion control system took preorders last year and just announced they'll be shipping in May. I've played with a Leap system and I found it fun and interesting. I'm not sure it will replace your touchscreen or laptop input devices, but at $79, it seems worth trying out. The Leap uses cameras to track your motion, but they say the actual secret sauce is in the math that allows them to do that tracking at very high speed and resolution.
  • Thalmic Labs has a different approach. They give you an armband that tracks the electrical signals in your muscles.

Google Glass test run

Joshua Topolsky at the Verge has had the opportunity to give Google Glass a test-run, and he's written a very long article about the experience.

The design of Glass is actually really beautiful. Elegant, sophisticated. They look human and a little bit alien all at once. Futuristic but not out of time — like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like. This is Apple-level design. No, in some ways it’s beyond what Apple has been doing recently. It’s daring, inventive, playful, and yet somehow still ultimately simple. The materials feel good in your hand and on your head, solid but surprisingly light. Comfortable. If Google keeps this up, soon we’ll be saying things like "this is Google-level design."

[...]

When you activate Glass, there’s supposed to be a small screen that floats in the upper right-hand of your field of vision, but I don’t see the whole thing right away. Instead I’m getting a ghost of the upper portion, and the bottom half seems to melt away at the corner of my eye.

Steve and Isabelle adjust the nose pad and suddenly I see the glowing box. Victory.

It takes a moment to adjust to this spectral screen in your vision, and it’s especially odd the first time you see it, it disappears, and you want it to reappear but don’t know how to make it happen. Luckily that really only happens once, at least for me.

Here’s what you see: the time is displayed, with a small amount of text underneath that reads "ok glass." That’s how you get Glass to wake up to your voice commands. Actually, it’s a two-step process. First you have to touch the side of the device (which is actually a touchpad), or tilt your head upward slowly, a gesture which tells Glass to wake up. Once you’ve done that, you start issuing commands by speaking "ok glass" first, or scroll through the options using your finger along the side of the device. You can scroll items by moving your finger backwards or forward along the strip, you select by tapping, and move "back" by swiping down. Most of the big interaction is done by voice, however.

[...]

Let me start by saying that using it is actually nearly identical to what the company showed off in its newest demo video. That’s not CGI — it’s what Glass is actually like to use. It’s clean, elegant, and makes relative sense. The screen is not disruptive, you do not feel burdened by it. It is there and then it is gone. It’s not shocking. It’s not jarring. It’s just this new thing in your field of vision. And it’s actually pretty cool.

(emphasis mine)

This is just a small selection of some of the amazing details about the product in this article.  The thing that sounded the coolest to me was the navigation -- mapping instructions directly onto your field of vision.  That is a feature I would benefit from immensely.

(I wonder if they'll be coming out with a Glass-inspired overlay for car windshields?  No, more likely we'll just get driverless cars soon.)

Honestly, I started to like Glass a lot when I was wearing it. It wasn’t uncomfortable and it brought something new into view (both literally and figuratively) that has tremendous value and potential. I don’t think my face looks quite right without my glasses on, and I didn’t think it looked quite right while wearing Google Glass, but after a while it started to feel less and less not-right. And that’s something, right?

(emphasis mine)

I am looking forward to this technology so much you guys have no idea.

Slate: SEO, Superbowl

Slate has an awesome article up about the way that search engines are changing the way SEO works -- eliminating some of the more horrible SEO practices entirely:

In a follow-up to last year's post, Petchesky today observes that the Super Bowl SEO-trawling is looking a little sad this year. "It might be a lost art," he suggests. Either that, or it has been so well co-opted by the NFL itself that everyone has given up.

Petchesky may be right that "SEO-whoring," as he calls it, is on the wane. But he's got the wrong culprit. After all, it isn't actually the NFL.com page that shows up first when you search "What time is the Super Bowl" (or "What time is the Superbowl," etc.) on Google. It's [...] not a link to anyone's website. It's Google's own "quick answer" to your search query. These answers predate, but are related to, the company's rapidly expanding "Knowledge Graph," a vast internal "semantic network" that links natural-language queries to facts about the world, culled from an array of sources that includes Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook. The basic idea: Why force users to sift through a bunch of links to external sites when they just want a straight answer to a simple question?

Youtube paid channels might be a thing I guess

There's a website called AdAge.com.  I didn't know that. SourceFed's latest video, YouTube To Unveil Paid Subscriptions?!, is about the rumor that YouTube may, soon, be offering paid subscriptions.  Link to the video. Embedded below.

This sounds like an awesome step up past the sponsored channels that YouTube has been funding this past year.  I love Crash Course and SciShow, and I don't mind Felicia Day's channel so much that it makes me want to unsubscribe.  Of course, I don't want those channels to jump up to a pay model -- especially with Crash Course and SciShow, that would kind of defeat the purpose.  But they do make a great proof of concept that YouTube creators can generate consistent, high-quality content that's worth a greater investment than just "You have access to our upload page."

Imagine if Tor had a YouTube channel, that financed quality adaptations of sci fi and fantasy books, the way HBO is doing for Game of Thrones.  Imagine if getting enough subscribers and jumping over to YouTube had been an option for Joss Whedon when Firefly got cancelled.

According to AdAge.com,

It's not clear which channels will be part of the first paid-subscription rollout, but it is believed that YouTube will lean on the media companies that have already shown the ability to develop large followings on the video platform, including networks like Machinima, Maker Studios and Fullscreen. YouTube is also looking outside its current roster of partners for candidates.

I don't think it would go over very well with fans if old channels threw up a paywall for all their new content.  But I think those channels could expand into higher quality, higher production-value work, that would go up on a new channel, and I think external producers of higher-level content might be able to step down on the payscale the way groups like Machinima would be stepping up -- like, imagine if Pixar had a channel, that just produced those shorts from the start of their movies?

This is a great example of the kinds of things that the internet and companies like Google are doing, not just to open up new opportunities for existing art to thrive, but to create new levels at which art can be successful, unpinned from the constraints of pre-existing time slots or demand based on which advertisers were willing to pay.

Replacing passwords with jewelry

Wired writes about Google's effort to eliminate the password as a means of authenticating your identity online.  Passwords are incredibly insecure, and only becoming more so.  They will never again be a good way to protect your data.

Passwords are a cheap and easy way to authenticate web surfers, but they’re not secure enough for today’s internet, and they never will be. 

Google agrees. “Along with many in the industry, we feel passwords and simple bearer tokens such as cookies are no longer sufficient to keep users safe,” Grosse and Upadhyay write in their paper.

Fortunately, Google is working on a solution.

Thus, they’re experimenting with new ways to replace the password, including a tiny Yubico cryptographic card that — when slid into a USB (Universal Serial Bus) reader — can automatically log a web surfer into Google. They’ve had to modify Google’s web browser to work with these cards, but there’s no software download and once the browser support is there, they’re easy to use. You log into the website, plug in the USB stick and then register it with a single mouse click.

They see a future where you authenticate one device — your smartphone or something like a Yubico key — and then use that almost like a car key, to fire up your web mail and online accounts.

In the future, they’d like things to get even easier, perhaps connecting to the computer via wireless technology.

“We’d like your smartphone or smartcard-embedded finger ring to authorize a new computer via a tap on the computer, even in situations in which your phone might be without cellular connectivity,” the Googlers write.

The future may not exactly be password-free, but it will at be least free of those complex, hard-to-remember passwords, says Grosse. “We’ll have to have some form of screen unlock, maybe passwords but maybe something else,” he says, “but the primary authenticator will be a token like this or some equivalent piece of hardware.”

Personally, I can't wait until this technology comes out.  I like jewelry, but I've never been able to come up with anything I would be particularly motivated to wear, or to make work with my outfit.  But having a ring that was my key to the internet would be perfect.

Also: security and stuff.

EDIT 7:58pm -- I actually think a bracelet would be a lot cooler.   Would that work?

Google Fiber is online (in Kansas City, Missouri)

After reading this article on ArsTechnica, I went and did a speed test to see what kind of upload and download speeds I'm getting.  I'm not super computer-literate, so sometimes I have trouble bringing that kind of information into context.  My download speed is 4.63Mbps; upload, 6.37Mbps. Google Fiber offers speeds of 600-700Mpbs.  On the low end, that's 130 Times faster than my internet connection.

The article also discusses Ben Barreth, a man who bought a home in the Fiber-section of Kansas City, to offer free temporary housing to programmers who want to create startups.  They're also considering renting out a room for tourists:

He anticipates getting donations, sponsorships, or, the most-likely scenario, renting out one of the bedrooms via AirBnB to the first Google Fiber "tourists"—people who might want to come for a day or two at a time to try it out.

"$50 a night for 10 nights a month would cover mortgage and most of the utilities," he said.

So, Kansas City has just made the list of places I really, really want to visit, and I know exactly where I want to stay. Heh, I could live-blog the internet at high speed! It makes me a little giddy just thinking about how quickly my post would upload, and re-load the editing page after I hit update.

UPDATE: I just published, and it took like 30 seconds before it would let me type more stuff.

Google antitrust lawsuit contemplated but not well-established

Apparently the Federal Trade Commission is "Leaning toward suing Google," according to an article on cnet.com, Google is many things -- but not an illegal monopoly.  It goes into detail about the many ways in which opponents of Google attempt to prove that its business practices are unfair or otherwise monopolistic.  My favorite bit was this one, comparing Google's search bias to Bing's:

So Wright analyzed a bigger data set and found Google rarely ranks its own content higher than rival search engines do. It turns out that Bing, Google's chief rival, actually displays alleged search bias nearly twice as often as Google.

This line is particularly funny to me, because I keep having to watch Bing's advertisements on Hulu, bragging that people pick Bing nearly 2 to 1 -- the same proportion with which they artificially inflate themselves in their own search engine.  (Funny, but probably not causally linked.)

Later in the article, writer Ryan Radia points out the central issue that I think explains a lot of popular complaints about internet companies -- the methods by which they function are just too new, too alien to apply the same standards and analyses that previous generations of companies worked under.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase once quipped (PDF) that when "an economist finds ... a business practice ... he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation." This sums up the fallacy underlying the case against Google. Its behavior may be frustrating, its employees fallible, and its products inconsistent -- but it's also an American success story that has changed the world for the better, following in the footsteps of Ford, Sears, General Electric, Apple, Amazon, and even Microsoft.

I don't mean, though, that there's no such thing as an internet monopoly.  The broad strokes of the existing rules are important, and I'm glad they're there.  But they need some fine-tuning and revision before they will ideally apply to the present-day status of corporate reality.

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.

###

I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at www.txwatson.com/school-license.

Internet Rights

I have firmly argued in the past that the internet should be considered a civil right, and that every effort should be made to get as many people access to the internet as possible.  Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google, disagrees:

[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

On the surface, his argument looks compelling -- and, certainly, having heard it, I am a little more hesitant to declare that the internet itself should be considered a human right.

But I do think that what he's suggesting here, that the internet, like a horse, is merely a means to an assured end, is insufficient.  We wouldn't be justified in arguing that, if you were to deny anyone today access to the internet, you would not have damaged their freedom of communication as long as they could still pass messages along by mail.

He brings up, too, that there's a better case for the internet as a civil right, rather than a human right:

The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.

Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights.

He goes on to conclude,

Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.

I think he's missing a significant way in which the internet could be considered a necessary right -- it follows the same lines of his argument, that in looking for rights, we're looking for what it is we're trying to ensure.

People have a human right to access to the present state of technology.  I think that the internet is a human right not as a fact unto itself, but as a necessary conclusion of the premise that people have a right to access the technology that the world has available.

In this sense, the internet isn't just guaranteed because it's a useful tool -- it's guaranteed, or should be guaranteed, because it represents the fact of the state of  human progress.  Just like it's atrocious that people don't have access to the medicine that is easy to manufacture, it's atrocious that people don't have access to the information that's easy to transmit, and the forums that are easy to create and maintain.

American Belief Statistics

Browsing EurekAlert, I noticed an article titled Canadians Overwhelmingly Believe Climate Change Is Occurring.  The article claims that only 2% of Canadians deny the existence of climate change.  The survey report breaks it down further:

Canadians most commonly (54%) believe that climate change is occurring partially due to human activity and partially due to natural climate variation. One third (32%) believe that climate change is occurring due to human activity while one in ten (11%) believe that climate change is occurring due to natural climate variation or that climate change is not occurring at all.

Comparatively, according to a Gallup report this year 15% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, and another 15% say that its effects won't occur within their lifetimes. About half of Americans believe what scientists in the field are saying about the heat lately:  global warming is already happening.

Reading this, I got curious: what are the percentages of some other conspiracy-style, anti-sense beliefs in the US?

According to Wikipedia, somewhere in the area of 15-30% of Americans believe that the US government at least had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans, and chose to let it happen.

As of 2001, somewhere between 6% and 20% of Americans believe that the moon landings didn't happen.

In 2011, after the release of his long-form birth certificate, about 10% of Americans still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States.  Among only Republicans, it's at 23%.

Also in 2011, a health poll conducted by Thomson Reuters and NPR concluded that 21.4% of Americans believe that vaccines can cause autism.

A criticism I hear a lot about America, which I personally believe, is that Americans believe that they are not obligated to consider evidence when it conflicts with their views -- that facts are just as subjective and malleable as opinions.  Unfortunately, the broader cultural trends in America seem to reinforce this position.  Mainstream news media's Balance principle pushes them towards giving coverage to verifiably wrong positions, and pseudo-educational media outlets like The History Channel produce shows like UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens and The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon.

Also unfortunately, the web as it's currently structured makes this worse.  Most peoples' major portals to content online, Facebook and Google, filter the content they show the user based on past trends of liking, clicking, and otherwise positively responding.  Then, we all head off into media outlets that target our own demographics, pretty much exclusively.

But, obviously, America is getting it wrong more than the rest of the world.  Our climate change blindness is at 30%.  Canada's is at 2%.

I've depressed myself now, so I'll end it there.

The moral problems of Big Data

Cory Doctorow linked to a great article about the civil rights implications of data collection. By the way, data collection is totally a civil rights issue.  Alistair Croll explains,

“Personalization” is another word for discrimination. We’re not discriminating if we tailor things to you based on what we know about you — right? That’s just better service.

There's a lot of information you can get out of the amount of data that corporations gather about their customers -- and a lot of ways that information can be used in damaging ways.  There was a case in which Target accidentally outed pregnant teens to their families by mailing them personalized catalogs close to entirely about things like baby carriages and diapers.

Croll raises the issue of that sort of information being figured into issues like bank loans or housing.  That's a big problem -- it means existing trends of social dysfunction will implicitly get reinforced.

If I collect information on the music you listen to, you might assume I will use that data in order to suggest new songs, or share it with your friends. But instead, I could use it to guess at your racial background. And then I could use that data to deny you a loan.

It doesn't even matter if they actually try to guess your race.  If the trends among fans of a particular band is that they're less likely to make their loan payments, then being part of a particular musical subculture can unfairly affect your ability to get loans.  And musical taste often does break down along the traditional lines of discrimination -- race, gender, sexuality.

Eli Pariser discussed this issue in his book, The Filter Bubble, which explores a huge variety of the ways in which the massive amount of data companies gather about us is potentially (and often practically) a very bad thing.

Ideally, citizens on the internet need to be empowered to decide how their data is used.  But Croll points out that it's a lot easier to say that's a good thing than to actually make it happen:

The only way to deal with this properly is to somehow link what the data is with how it can be used. I might, for example, say that my musical tastes should be used for song recommendation, but not for banking decisions.

Tying data to permissions can be done through encryption, which is slow, riddled with DRM, burdensome, hard to implement, and bad for innovation. Or it can be done through legislation, which has about as much chance of success as regulating spam: it feels great, but it’s damned hard to enforce.

Croll calls it the civil rights issue of our generation. I think LGBTQ rights still tops it for urgency, and none of the old civil rights problem are really gone, entirely, but he's right that this is a massive issue, and it needs more attention.  Organizations with a lot of power have a bad record for looking out for the rights of the people they have that power over.

Google's new anti-piracy initiative

Why, Google? Why would you do this to us? Alright, to be fair, Google's anti-piracy approach is not as inherently destructive to the basic nature of the internet as SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and ACTA were.  But Google's new approach, to punish sites that receive a high number of copyright infringement notices by decreasing their PageRank values and pushing them further down the search results, has some potentially serious consequences.

It would only take into account whether people claim a site has infringed, not whether the site has actually done so.  Bogus copyright takedown notices definitely exist.  And while the scale of i might not necessarily make it possible for individuals to deliberately target sites with legal content that they object to, it will likely punish websites that produce fringe content that is defensible but easy to attack.

Fair use of trademarks might result in takedown notices that are completely unjustified on the basis of parody laws, but it seems Google won't distinguish those from legitimate claims.  So, issues like Matthew Inman's recent controversy with FunnyJunk could have punished The Oatmeal for its criticism (though this system would likely also punish FunnyJunk for the initial art theft that started the controversy.)

I'm against this, because I'm against Google taking sides with the current legal zeitgeist, even though the people responsible for this decision must know that copyright reform would be better for the internet than reinforcing contemporary legislators' bad behavior.

Facebook founder's family member announces via Twitter that she works for Google

(via Ana Ulin on Google+) Randi Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg's sister, tweeted yesterday that she's working for Google now, after the company she works for, Wildfire, was acquired by Google.

Wildfire is an advertising app that helps organize companies' social presence or a more successful, targeted marketing campaign.  My main focus for this story is that the tweet was funny, but I also want to talk about the existence of third-party marketing organizations, especially backed by Google.

Unlike a lot of people on the internet, I don't think advertising is outright evil.  It needs way more ethical oversight than it has now, but there's a gem of value in there.  If you assume the basic goal of advertising is to connect a customer with a product they would benefit from, then advertising is a mutually beneficial relationship.  With more ethical guidance, the better the targeting, the more valuable the ads are to both the advertiser and the consumer.

We're not moving in this direction now, and even if Google wanted to, their obligation to their shareholders would probably prevent them pushing towards more ethics in advertising.  But I think it's a direction worth pursuing -- even more now that there are companies who specialize in organizing ad campaigns, so the advertiser companies can focus on the quality of their product.

YouTube full name

I just made what feels like a very big decision.  I'm an idiot, so I didn't take screencaps while I was doing it.  But I've just updated my YouTube account to display my full name.  That is, T.X. Watson, the name my Google+ account has listed.  But still, now it's my name that's connected with all my comments. I think that's a good thing, because lately I've been commenting more intelligently and positively -- trying to keep up the standards of web ethics I've internalized over the last couple years of blogging (on this and past blogs).  Here's my first comment with the new name, on SourceFed's latest story, Cyborg Assault at McDonald's (which I'll be blogging about later today).  The question it's a response to is:  " So, if you had a choice to have any part of your body replaced with a cybernetic part of your body, what would it be, and why?"

Arms -- I want a collection of various-purpose arms and hands. cutting edge finger articulation for touch typing, ideally also things like flash drives and secret compartments embedded in the arms, and with replaceable shells for various options on symbolism, style and formality.

T.X. Watson 1 second ago

Now, I'm not going to say that this isn't double-edged.  But I like that Google didn't just start using my Google+ name.  They presented me with a pop-up when I was about to comment, which contained a walkthrough explanation of what will change, and then offered me the choice to make the change or not, with very clearly labeled buttons.  I had to opt in to the change, not hear about it from a news source then dig for the option to opt out, after they already changed it on me.  You know, like facebook did.