CBC radio show Spark wants to know what Canada needs to do today to become a major innovator tomorrow. This is an important issue with the election looming. In addition to interviewing technology experts, the Spark blog has asked listeners to submit their own “Digital Wish Lists”. Here’s mine:
- Establishment of a Minister of Technology. I agree with Mitch Kapoor. We have a Minister of Health, a Minister of Industry—why not someone in charge of the country’s technological infrastructure?
- Better copyright reform. Bill C-61 has demonstrated that many Canadians care about copyright reform. Even if one is in favour of the copyright protection measures outlined in Bill C-61 (I am not), critics have pointed out numerous flaws that make Bill C-61 a poor piece of legislation. I want our government to have open consultation with the public to craft viable, enforceable copyright legislation that balances intellectual property ownership with the need for access to information.
- More competition in the telecommunications sector. I am not a capitalist, but a lack of competition does mean that consumers have less choice. Here in Thunder Bay, we have one choice for cable TV service: Shaw. Until recently, only local TBayTel provided home phone service; now Shaw does too. Only TBayTel and Rogers provide cell phone service. That doesn’t leave the consumer much choice when it comes to negotiating contracts. On a national level, a lack of competition stifles innovation and growth.
- Nation-wide improvement to technological infrastructure. Broadband penetration. We need it. Not just fibre-optics right to homes (which would be nice), but also coverage in rural areas. Bring Canada into the 21st century.
- Access to government databases. Putting publicly-available data online should be a priority. People need to be informed; an online presence is virtually a requirement for any organization. The government has already made good progress, but it can still go further and think bigger.
- Government adoption of open alternatives to proprietary formats. The Quebec government was recently sued for buying proprietary software. While I don’t know if I’d go that far, the government should explore alternatives to proprietary software. Otherwise, businesses like Microsoft and Apple have unnecessary leverage.
Technology advances too quickly for a mechanism like government to legislate in real time. Like any social fad, once a technology becomes mainstream, it pretty much stays until rendered obsolete by newer technology. Rather than trying to create legislation about specific technology, the government needs to establish a framework that encourages the development of technology along certain trajectories.
Part of my comment on that entry was included in this week’s episode of Spark. It’s also got an interesting tale from Bill Parry, an intriguing new service from Nathan Eagle, and a discussion on the French-English digital divide.
I don’t usually rant about work, mostly because it isn’t that bad as jobs go. It has its moments, of course, but what job doesn’t? It is weird, however. I know, I know—every job is weird. But if there were a contest, I’m pretty sure my workplace would be, if not first, top three.
First, the bare essential backstory. We currently have an exhibit up from the Canadian Museum of Nature called “The Gee! in Genomics”. As the name implies, it is a genomics exhibition. The exhibition itself is reminiscient of a science centre; there are lots of buttons to press, videos to watch, matching games—it’s pretty cool. And I’m quite excited about it. Genetics is a science of increasing importance in society. We‘ve mapped the human genome. We’re developing genes that allow us to prevent congenital defects or cure hereditary diseases—but that’s another blog post.
Today, orders came down from on high that we (the front desk staff) were not “enthusiastic” enough. To be fair, this is probably true—at least in my case; in my coworkers‘ defence, they are pretty enthusiastic, or at least amiable. It’s likely that the level of expected “enthusiasm” is higher than even their typical output. However, that raises the question: how does one quantitatively measure enthusiasm anyway?
I’m just not built to work in the customer service industry. I think I would do very well as the stereotypical cafeteria lunch lady (minus the lady part). You know the one I mean: gruff, monosyllabic attitude. She serves you the same unidentifiable meal, day after day. If you ask for pie, she just says, “Eat. Move on.” That’s me. When people come to the gallery, I give them what they want, then hope they go away and stop bugging me. Now, I think that often this is what people want. Let me be clear: I am not rude—at least, I try not to be. I‘m simply brief. I detain people for as long as necessary to communicate the essential rules and information, then I allow them to go. If they want to know something else, they are welcome to ask me questions.
However, I’m getting the sense that more is expected. Apparently I‘m supposed to talk people to death as well as take their money. In addition to being gracious and informative, I’m supposed to extol the virtues of the gallery, the current exhibitions, art in general, and human civilization for the past three hundred years. After politely informing patrons of the exhibition in each gallery and reminding them not to touch the art, I should be thrusting an infinite series of pamphlets and newsletters into their hands.
Maybe some people enjoy being schmoozed. Many probably expect, or at least understand and recognize it (especially if they are schmoozers themselves). But how many really want it? How many just tolerate it because it’s the social norm, not because they’re wired to thrive on it? I recognize that some people genuinely thrive on greasing the wheels on which society turns—all the more power to them.
I have trouble faking enthusiasm. I’m plenty enthusiastic about this current show—ask me how I feel about genomics, and I’ll speak volumes. However, I don’t always volunteer my enthusiasm unless people express interest in knowing. Maybe that makes me a bad front desk attendant. Maybe that makes me defective. But on the flip side, it also means you can be sure I am always sincere. If I am listening, I‘m interested. If I’m talking, I‘m either completely serious or being facetious, but I don’t dissemble.
I was driving home today when I saw this. It just struck me as funny: we cut down trees and clear land so that we can erect large, tree-like objects. Yet no matter how much we clear nature away and try to leave our mark on the Earth, nature finds a way to reclaim the land.
I took some other photos, including a picture of my socks and running shoes (in case you wondered what I wear when I’m not wearing socks and sandals):
I had a bunch of nifty blog posts planned for this week, but I didn’t have the time to write them. My weekend was chock full of work, followed by homework, leaving me with barely enough energy to drag myself to my computer, let alone write or write a blog post. This week hasn’t gone much better.
That’s not to say that I’m having bad days. I try not to start off my day dreading what is to come; it seems like the wrong attitude. Nevertheless, I do feel the pressure of a continuous flow of activities. I wake up, go to class, do homework, maybe read if I‘m lucky. I’ve been working a lot. To reduce the stress and impose some order on this managed chaos, I‘ve tried to establish as much of a routine as possible. Of course, things crop up that don’t submit to that routine, and those throw my day off.
I try to consciously stop and recognize those moments of stillness that happen between each scheduled activity. This afternoon I listened to Brahms while solving differential equations, and that was quite relaxing. Really, it was. No one else was home, so I existed alone in this pocket of classical music and mathematics (which are related, of course!). I knew that stillness could not last, unfortunately—I had to go to work. Worse, I had to work late, which means I had less time after work to 1) watch House and 2) do more math. Work did not last as long as it could have, fortunately. House was excellent—Felicia Day seems to be popping up everywhere since I saw her in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But now the night is over for me.
Hopefully I’ll be less tired toward the end of the week and next week. I wish I could stay up and work on ring theory, but I have an 8:30 class on Wednesday, and if I don’t go to bed, then I won’t get up in time. I’m already going to regret waking up at 7:30 anyway.
I must confess, in general, I dislike numbers. I love math, but numbers just hurt my head. Not all numbers were created equal, however (yes, that is a really bad pun). Certain numbers are more fascinating than others. Take prime numbers, for example. Mathematicians continue to search for larger and larger prime numbers, and we just found another one.
A prime number is any integer that can be divided by only itself and one. Two is the only even prime number. Others include three, thirteen, and twenty-nine. The largest known prime number would fill over 3,000 pages. It’s two to the exponent 43,112,609 minus one. Yeah, that’s big.
What’s the big deal about prime numbers? Surely they have no application in the real world! Those silly mathematicians are too lazy to do work, so they just sit around making up numbers all day! You might have been right, once. Then someone came along and built computers, and prime numbers now have purpose!
All integers (whole numbers) can be broken down into a unique combination of primes. For example, 10 is the product of two prime numbers, 2 and 5. Factorization is the operation of finding a number’s prime factors; you probably did this in school. It’s relatively easy for small numbers. With large numbers, it becomes harder and takes longer.
I imagine that most of you have bank accounts. If not bank accounts, then Facebook accounts, email accounts, etc. What stops hackers from getting into those accounts? Prime numbers! Prime numbers are an integral part of cryptography and securing computer systems. One way to encrypt data is to take two huge prime numbers and multiply them together, producing a larger number. To decrypt the data, you need to know the prime numbers.
As computers get faster, we need to find larger and larger primes with which to encrypt data. If quantum computing ever becomes viable, it would have great implications for current cryptographic methods, since a quantum computer would be able to factor numbers in a fraction of the time it takes current supercomputers. Bye-bye bank account! Fortunately for cryptographers, quantum computing is in its infancy.
As you can see, prime numbers have real-world applications. Our ability to find larger primes and calculate prime factors has ramifications for the security of your data.
Computing prime numbers is an excellent test of computing resources, too. Incidentally, most of the largest known prime numbers have been found using a distributed computing project called GIMPS, or the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (Mersenne primes are a special type of prime, and they are often the easiest to find). You can run GIMPS software on your own computer and help contribute to the search for primes! There’s even prize money involved.
Of course, most of you aren’t running supercomputers at home, so your computer isn’t finding primes all by itself. It runs tests over months on a number, reports back to the mothership, and continues running tests. As the GIMPS website states:
A single test will take approximately 3 years on a Core 2 Duo computer. Your chance of success is roughly 1 in 2,000,000.
So don’t hold your breath.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, recently released the results of a survey of economists that he commissioned. You can read the results yourself; those of you who are economically-inclined may want to view the available slideshow (lots of tasty graphs and percentages). Adams has also posted his opinion on the results of the survey.
I‘ve been reading Scott Adams’ blog since its inception on TypePad. I enjoy his wit and his unique perspective on both mainstream and esoteric issues. Much of what he says is designed to get a rise out of people and provoke them into calling him a stupid lemon-eater. Some of his favourite subjects include intelligent design, the workplace, environmentalism, and of course, politics and the economy. I was not surprised to hear that he had commissioned a survey; it’s just the sort of thing he would do.
So how about those results? Lots of Democrat econimists—it must be biased? Well, I love math, but statistics are not my favourite type of math. I‘m in the camp of people who thinks the survey is an inconclusive indicator of which candidate would be best. I doubt that either of the candidates truly has a plan for the economy. They’re stating positions on issues, but whether or not they would follow through after being elected is doubtful at best.
The economy has been a hot issue of late, what with the uncertain financial markets. What about here in Canada? As always, the economy is an election issue. Harper is playing down job losses, stating the there is a net gain of job creation. Dion and Layton are jumping on the child-care bandwagon after the Tories tried to sway voters by claiming that if they weren’t elected, the government would cancel Harper’s national child-care plan (since I don’t know much about the child-care plan, my opinion is embryonic at best). And let us not forget Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his Anything But Conservative campaign. The ABC campaign has its roots in an economic issue: the removal of nonrenewable resource revenues from the energy equalization formula.1 Harper broke this promise, so now Williams wants to encourage voters to elect a non-Tory government.
What about Dion’s crazy carbon tax and “Green Shift” plan, eh? We‘re all going to be driving to work in outboard canoes with seven layers of sweaters as we go back to living in igloos because we can’t turn on our furnaces, eh? This bit of environmentalism is just the latest consequence of an increasing social conscience toward “green” policies. The question is not whether this carbon tax makes sense, it’s do voters want a more environmentally-friendly government? If that is the case, then there’s two steps: 1) elect a government that will implement environmentally-friendly policies. This is probably ABC.2 2) Lobby your local MP to support environmental initiatives until the government implements something that works. Dion’s shown that he can be persuaded to modify his Green Shift plan. That may have just been election fever talking. But I mean, if it doesn’t work out between us and him, we can just dump him and call another election, eh?
I digress. Personally, I try to ignore the economy as much as possible. It gives me a headache. But I must admit that when it comes to voting, it’s an important issue. All politicians will screw up the economy; that’s a given. What you have to decide is: who will screw it up in your favour?
- [ 1 ] Newfoundland and Labrador have offshore oil reserves. Removing the nonrenewable resources from the calculation of revenue owed to the federal government would generate a huge amount of money for the province.
- [ 2 ] The Greens still have a snowball’s chance in hell—and soon, if we don’t implement green policies, the phrase will be “a snowball’s chance in Whitehorse”.
After a weekend of work, Mondays are refreshing. I don’t work on Mondays, and I get to go back to school and learn.
I’ve been back for over a week now, and I’m enjoying it. This is my easy term; I only have five courses: Foundations and Issues in Education, Educational Technology in the Classroom, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra I, and Ring Theory with Applications. Yes, two education courses and three maths. I love math.
Of the education courses, the technology one is online. I knew going into it that it would be easy, but as it stands right now, it’s rather inane: for the first four weeks all we have to do is read, then we get a test. Then we have to work in groups to create a blog about teaching technologies, theories that apply to these technologies, etc. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that the reading material is full of typos, passive voice, prepositions at the end of the sentence—I‘m very glad that I don’t have to buy a textbook, but this is almost torture. Spellcheck, please!
My other education course looks like it’ll be more interesting. At least it’s mostly discussion-based. That makes it easier to sit through those hour-and-a-half classes.
Did I mention I love math? The university atmosphere works well for me. I like when someone who knows more than I do challenges me (i.e., with an assignment), then I go and teach myself what’s required to figure out the assignment. If I have trouble, I ask for help. I know that many people don’t learn this way, so the lectures are helpful too. However, I‘m glad that university gives me the opportunity to learn in the way I want to learn.
Of my three math courses, linear algebra is the easiest. It’s basically computation: vectors, matrices, and of course, linear systems. Differential equations are slightly harder. I ordered my textbook from the United States in order to get a cheaper price, and it still hasn’t arrived. That will make doing this first assignment problematic.
Ring theory interests me the most. We haven’t started discussing rings yet; last week we covered divisibility and prime numbers, and this week we are working on modular arithmetic and congruence classes. Rings are in the next chapter. This area of math fascinates me because it involves constructing the basic operations of math from scratch, allowing us to define new mathematical systems (presumably to tackle certain problems). That’s rather exciting. And there’s nothing quite like the feeling I get after figuring out a nifty proof.
I’m trying to blog more regularly—not once a day, but at least a couple of times a week. I‘d planned to blog over the weekend, but I was very tired. I found that the major reason I wouldn’t blog (other than being tired) is that I had no compelling idea for a post. Now I’m keeping a list of potential topics in Todoist, so that should generate more posts.
Have you ever looked at someone who is walking down the street listening to an MP3 player and said, “Gee, I wonder if that person is listening to a rap song about physics!”1
Because that’s what I spent most of Monday and yesterday doing. Seriously.
Today marks the first circulation of particle beams through the Large Hadron Collider. This is the largest particle accelerator ever built—27 km in circumference! Soon scientists will begin high-speed particle collisions, and thousands of scientists from around the world will analyze the results of these experiments to help us better comprehend the universe.
I love physics. It interests me almost as much as math does. I‘m also one of those people who believe that science, especially physics, doesn’t need to be inaccessible to laypeople. While you may not be able to grasp the more esoteric mathematics behind the theories, it is possible to distill it down to the most basic points. Katherine McAlpine managed to do just that with her Large Hadron Rap. If you want to know what the LHC does, but you just don’t get all those explanations on Wikipedia or other news sites, watch this:
Yes, it’s a rap video about physics!! There’s also an MP3 available for download (so I can listen to it elsewhere). I think it does a remarkable job at explaining the LHC—the diagrams in the video assist the lyrics, especially for those of us who don’t speak rap. The video reminds me of the music videos at the end of Bill Nye: The Science Guy episodes. Oh, those were the days….
Those of you who just came for the video can go now; anyone who’s going to stay for some science babble may continue reading.
The LHC is a remarkable achievement because it will give scientists a glimpse at subatomic reactions with the fidelity we’ve never had before. It’s like HDTV for physics, only not only can we see better, but we can actually create more types of collisions.
What’s the big deal about particle accelerators anyway? I mean, it’s a couple of protons zipping around so quickly that they’ve completed a circuit faster than your brain can tell your eyes to blink. But by smashing protons into each other, and observing the results—i.e., what sort of particles and energy gets emitted—we can verify theories about how the universe works.
Particle physics and particle accelerators do have real-world applications. These scientists aren’t just spending billions of dollars because they are bored. Thanks to nuclear reactors, we have the ability to treat (alas, not cure) cancer. One form of cancer treatment requires radioisotopes, and the nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario produces eighty-five per cent of the world’s supply of medical isotopes (primarily Cobalt-60, I believe). We live in a society where we have the ability to split the atom not just to destroy, but to create substances to save lives. Science is wonderful.
Particle accelerators have medical applications too. The LHC is kind of large for that purpose, but its smaller, more linear cousins (called “linear accelerators”, unsurprisingly) are an alternative form of therapy for cancer. Rather than creating the isotopes in a nuclear reactor and then storing and transporting them, the particle accelerator collides ions during the treatment, emitting the radiation that kills the tumour. Since storing radioactive isotopes is rather dangerous and expensive, producing radiation only as needed is safer and more efficient.
CERN has slightly larger aspirations for the LHC. Scientists are hoping to test numerous theories, as explained in the Large Hadron rap. We want to know where all the antimatter went; we’re trying to figure out what exactly composes dark matter; and failing all else, the LHC will at least help us verify or disprove the Standard Model of physics. All of this is built upon the work of those who came before, and the results of these experiments will in turn contribute to improvements in science and society in the future.
- [ 1 ] If the answer is yes, and you haven’t heard of the Large Hadron Rap, then you may be a closet physicist. Don’t worry, there’s support groups for those now.
It’s official. Prime Minister Harper met with Governor General Michaëlle Jean today, and she dissolved Parliament, triggering an election. Canadians will vote on October 14.
The American election machine has been rumbling away for the better part of a year now, and we have called and will be finished our federal election before the Americans even get to vote. I love Canada’s electoral system.
What I don’t love is the lack of any charismatic leaders and the lack of any compelling candidates in my riding. The Conservatives have already begun airing these obnoxious ads that consist of Harper sitting in a chair, wearing a vest—very “casual” indeed—and talking about how he enjoys being a father, how he is proud of Canada as a country, and how he wants Canada to have a greater role on the world stage. The tagline of the commercials is: “We’re better off with Harper.” I, for one, find this tagline hilarious.
The CBC has spent most of the day focusing on voters’ response to the election call: are we ready for the election? The response has been mixed. Many people have expressed disapproval, since Harper was a proponent of the fixed election date law that the government passed in 2006. They see this premature election call as a betrayal of his promise for fixed election dates. They also see it as a waste of time, that not many seats will change hands, and the election will result in essentially the same government at great expense to taxpayers. Others, like myself, feel that the election is necessary.
My dad and I listened to CBC’s Cross Country Checkup today, and it seemed like most of the people who phoned in to talk about the election supported the Conservatives! Could it be true? Could we end up with a Conservative majority? Perish the thought. On the CBC website, comments lean more toward the anti-Harper side of things. From a demographic standpoint, this makes sense. To illustrate, I’ve prepared the below Venn diagram. I don’t actually have any statistics, and I’m too lazy to make them up (as most statistics are), so I‘ve decided to just insert some random animal names instead. You can make up numbers if you like.
My riding has three candidates running, one from each of the three major parties. I’ve yet to see if the Green party will be floating a candidate. The incumbent MP, Joe Comuzzi, who ran as a Liberal and is sitting as a Conservative now, is not running again. It’ll be interesting to see who wins my riding, and in turn, if Thunder Bay will benefit from this election, no matter what it holds for Canada in general.
When I woke up on Thursday, there was a dead crow on my front lawn! It was lying prone, wings spread, its head to one side. The sky overhead has no trees, no electrical lines—nothing that gives any hint as to why this bird fell out of the sky. So of course, that’s when I started jumping to conclusions and thought about West Nile Virus.
Our health unit runs a dead bird collection program to test specimens for the presence of virii, particularly West Nile. So I called and left a message, then I ignored the bird. Someone from the health unit returned my call yesterday. He said that the collection program had ended for the year, so to dispose of it I should take a shovel and put the bird in a garbage bag. Even if it had died of West Nile, it wouldn’t be contagious that way, so according to him it would be “moderately safe.”
Excuse me? Moderately safe? The only adverb I want before “safe” is something like “completely.”
Nevertheless, I did as suggested. Grabbed shovel. Grabbed gloves. Scooped bird in garbage bag. Put garbage bag in another garbage bag (I am very thorough). Put bag in trash can. It’s still sitting in there, now that I think about it. Kind of … hmm. Yeah, let’s think about something else. How about that lamp? Who else felt sorry for that lamp?
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across a way to create a low-cost interactive whiteboard using a Wiimote. All that was required was a Wiimote (for its infrared camera), an infrared-emitting pen, and a flat surface. The Wiimote would track the pen across the surface and report its coordinates back to the computer program, which could then draw, trigger controls, or whatever you wantetd it to do.
I don’t own a Wii, so I bought a Wiimote alone. I couldn’t get the pen working properly, however (I tried building one myself rather than buying one). So I shelved my Wiimote, where it sat gathering dust, forgotten. Until yesterday.
Often I like to read in my comfy chair that’s on the other side of my desk. I’ll have iTunes playing music, and I don’t like having to get up and go to my computer to adjust the volume or skip a song. It’s even more inconvenient if I‘m outside and playing the music through the window. I don’t have a multimedia remote (when ordering this computer from Dell, I didn’t think I’d ever want one—foolish me).
Last week, Lifehacker published an article about using the Wiimote with your computer. This reminded me that I had a Wiimote lying around doing nothing, and using it to trigger a few commands couldn’t be too hard, could it?
After wrestling with Vista’s Bluetooth setup to get the Wiimote connected, I downloaded GlovePIE and went in search of an iTunes-controlling script. I found such a script at WiiLi.org that was tied to an AuthoHotkey script. I‘d previously heard of AutoHotkey and thought about trying it, but I hadn’t yet gotten around to it. So I installed AutoHotkey, and as a bonus I now have a way to control iTunes through keyboard shortcuts as well. I’ve also set up numerous other shortcuts since then—I‘ve fallen in love with AutoHotkey and can’t see myself going back!
The Wiimote needed a fresh pair of batteries, but otherwise the script worked excellently. I modified it slightly to add in the capability to control my computer’s volume as well as just iTunes’—once I had the script in front of me, figuring out how to adapt it wasn’t difficult.
By far the most annoying aspect is Vista’s Bluetooth connectivity. Every time I want to connect the Wiimote, I need to go through the whole finding devices, installing drivers, etc., setup. It doesn’t take too long, but it’s inconvenient to have to do that every time. I don’t have much experience using Bluetooth devices, so I’m not sure if this is normal, a problem with Vista, or just because of the way the Wiimote works. If anyone has any solutions, please let me know. Otherwise I’m quite satisfied with my accomplishment!
Yesterday, I explained why I was excited about Google getting into the browser game. Of course, no new Google venture is complete without some people taking issue with Google’s privacy policies. In this case, the controversy was around Google Chrome’s EULA, specifically section 11.1. Now, since everything on the Internet happens at the speed of light, Google has already changed the wording of that clause and applied it retroactively, claiming that it was all a mistake by the lawyers behind the curtain. However, this incident reminds us of just how much data Google collects, not to mention privacy issues online as a whole.
I should begin with the disclaimer that I am not a Google fanboy. I love some of Google’s services—I use Gmail, although I prefer to check my mail through Mozilla Thunderbird’s interface, and Google Calendar is my favourite calendar application. However, I’m perfectly willing to criticize Google. I try not to be a fanboy of anything, but if I were, I‘d be a Joss Whedon fanboy. So I’m going to hijack this post to mention that the Dr. Horrible soundtrack is available for purchase on iTunes. That is all.
The Internet is transforming us into a global village as Marshall McLuhan predicted. More and more information concerning our offline personae is being stored in a digital form and then transferred all around the world, whether we know of it or not. Companies that exist primarily to gather data (like Google, a search engine company) always want more. How much are we willing to give?
When addressing the issue of privacy on the Internet, I’ve decided to tackle four questions. Firstly, what do we want when we yell “privacy!” on forums and blogs? It’s a word, but what does it mean? Next, what criteria should we use to determine which institutions to trust with our private data? And who is to blame when that data gets leaked or shared with third parties? Lastly, let’s put on our pragmatist caps and consider the reality of the Internet today: what’s feasible, and what will require major paradigm shifts to accomplish?
I Have Everything to Hide
A typical retort to those who lament the loss of privacy in everyday life is, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you should have nothing to hide.” No one’s perfect though, and we all have things we want to hide. That’s why most browsers, including Google Chrome, have some sort of stealth mode (or “porn mode”) that doesn’t record what you’re doing. Everyone can have legitimate reasons for keeping secrets. The point of privacy is to present people with choice: an individual should have the choice of whether or not to reveal his or her private information, right?
But what’s private to us? Well, if anonymity is your goal, then probably everything except a pseudonym, maybe your gender. The Internet is increasingly critical to offline applications, however, and anonymity is no longer always an option. Sure, it’s possible to establish an ephemeral blog with no personally-identifiable information available to the public. However, the site will record your computer’s IP address, which in turn can be traced back (in most cases) to you. Even if you use a public computer, you’ll probably have to give an email address that could be traced back to you—you could use a fake address, but then you‘d have no way of receiving legitimate communications.
As the Internet evolves, it begins connecting our offline personae with our online ones. No longer is the Internet just a network on which we push emails back and forth. Now we’re uploading videos, torrenting television programs, tweeting, blogging, using Facebook—much of this relying on our own offline identities to make it relevant. When I update my Twitter status, it shows up on Facebook and on the homepage of my website. People who want to know what I am doing can look at my status.
But if one is not careful, too much information can lead to problems. Put your credit card number in the wrong form, and suddenly someone has stolen your identity. These are real problems that we as a society are going to have to solve. We have to give our private data to someone, but to whom?
Sell Your Soul For a Fiddle
How do you decide if a website is trustworthy? Friends‘ reviews? Newspaper articles? The number of people on the site? Which services deserve to store our private information, and which ones are untrustworthy for one reason or another?
If you have a bank account, then you probably have access to your finances online. Your bank stores massive amounts of personal information about you from your name to your credit history. What makes a bank more trustworthy than Google? Companies often try to sell themselves by promoting how much experience they’ve had, how long they‘ve been around. My bank, Bank of Montreal, is Canada’s oldest bank, founded in 1817. That’s much older than Google, which will be celebrating its tenth birthday in three days! If age is a factor, then my bank must be a more appropriate institution to trust with my data.
Banks don’t have the best track record for keeping private information private, however. It seems like every couple of months there’s another article in the newspaper about one bank or another misplacing or accidentally leaking the private information of thousands of people. Whoa. When was the last time Google did that? In July there was some concern when a court ordered Google-owned YouTube to hand over some information to Viacom. YouTube’s handling of the situation seems to indicate that Google has our privacy on its mind. And that makes sense. Google is a business as much as banks are, and no business wants to become notorious for disclosing private data.
So when our data does get disclosed, who is to blame? In the case of accidental leaks, the company often hits the age-old tome of excuses to produce classics like, “The postal service lost the package containing the data,” or “An employee forgot to clean sensitive data off his or her thumb drive before giving it away.” We are all human1; we make mistakes.
If the court orders the company to share the information with a third party, then we blame the government. And this is an important point: even in so-called free societies, legislation exists that gives the government access to data you store with private companies. If the U.S. government demands that Google hand over some of its data, there is nothing much Google can do about it. Google’s lawyers can fight the case in court, sure, but in the end, if the government wins the case, then it’s not Google’s fault that the government has that power. That is the price Google pays for operating in such deprived countries, much like Google’s self-imposed censorship is the price it pays for operating in China.
Thanks to the networked nature of the Internet, this creates headaches for people who don’t even live in the United States. Any data you send to Google’s servers is going to end up at a machine located in the U.S. at some point, which makes it accessible to the U.S. government. Avoiding such an eventuality requires a great deal of effort2. So the options become just accept the inevitable or boycott Google and its ilk3
Let’s All Go Amish
Boycotting Google is an acceptable, if extreme, method of protecting one’s privacy. However, it is impractical to boycott every possible source of privacy infringement. I suppose that one could cut up one’s credit cards, debit cards, government-issued IDs, etc. There are people who do this—but they are not a majority. Most people accept that some level of compromise is required to keep up with the relentless march of technology.
Ah, now the real demon comes to light: technology is evil! Mmm … not so much. We could destroy all of our advanced technology, but that doesn’t eliminate our privacy concerns. Also, it would utterly wreck civilization as we know it—you can go ahead and claim that a more pastoral existence is the paradise humanity requires, but that’s beyond the scope of this entry. The reality is, we are dependent on our technology, and that dependence comes with a price.
Be careful with your private information, of course. You’re going to have to give it out eventually. Be frugal about to whom you give it out. Tools like Facebook are not inherently dangerous; it all comes down to how you use them4
If you really are bothered by how society treats privacy these days, then make noise. Don’t just blog ineffectually about it like I am—write a letter to your representative of government (if you live in a “democracy”), form activist groups, make T-shirts, make pies … whatever it takes. Fight for change.
Me, I’m more worried about tethered appliances (such as the iPhone) and companies having the ability to remotely terminate products we “buy” as opposed to the data on those devices. But that’s an issue for another day.
Google made a splash on Labour Day when it announced the release of its own browser, Google Chrome.
It’s important to note that this is only a beta release, and Google’s made it clear that they are going to make major improvements to it. Check out the comic book that explains Google Chrome for techie details. A comic book—how cool is that?
Of course, Google has set a high standard for itself in the past. Reaction to this “beta” has been negative from some people (particularly those less tech-savvy who are underwhelmed by the interface), and Google has itself to blame for ruining the “beta” label with stable services like Gmail. However, it’s important to look beyond Google Chrome as just a product and examine its significance to users and the Internet as a whole.
Google has a history of raising the bar with its inventions. Gmail’s initial 2 GB space, free POP access (and later, free IMAP access!), etc., caused other free webmail providers to step up and increase their offerings. I‘m hoping that Google Chrome does the same thing to browsers. We’re going to see cool new ideas—such as each tab being a separate process to save memory and prevent hanging—and some interesting takes on standard methods—such as the omnibox combining the address bar and search bar.
I love Firefox, and other browsers like Opera and Safari are great. However, all our browsers today are still clinging to the legacies of those that came before them. It looks like Google has stepped back and taken a look at the Big Picture of the World Wide Web, which has evolved at a frightening pace since its inception. The Web is no longer about connecting your computer to a box and slowly accessing text and images from other locations. Nowadays the Web is an interactive, ever-changing media. We have “web applications” instead of “web sites.” Some of Google’s methodology behind Chrome indicates that they’re attempting to turn the browser into something that works well with web applications instead of just a tool for viewing web pages. Because it’s open source, other browser makers can incorporate their innovations into their browsers, and they are now challenged to come up with their own.
This is exciting! Even if you aren’t a die-hard techie, you can appreciate the fact that we’re experiencing a pivotal moment in the development of technology. Interfaces started as a very basic, command-oriented idea. Then came the great era of the graphical user interface: everything is “point and click.” But we can still do better. The next step is truly making interfaces intuitive, moving beyond point and click and seeking solutions like natural-language interfaces. All of us already speak at least one language; we shouldn’t have to learn another just to operate our computers.
Google Chrome is a stepping stone, even if it doesn’t turn out to be the Next Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.
Tomorrow, I’ll have my take on the controversy surrounding Google Chrome’s Terms of Service.
Last February, I drew your attention to Harper Collins’ free online browsing of American Gods. Well, they are doing if again, this time with Neverwhere!
You can read it for free or download it as a PDF. You don’t get to keep it forever (the PDF will self-destruct in thirty days) but it’s an excellent offering nonetheless.
I mean, I could go off on a tangent about how self-destructing PDFs is an example of “tethered appliances” taking over the Internet and taking away our control over what content we can access. Then I could casually mention Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. But I won’t.
An election looms in my own fine country even as the Americans battle it out for who gets to inherit the Bush legacy. Two and a half years ago, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives inherited the scandal-ridden legacy of over a decade of Liberal government. As usual, getting elected is easier than actually running the country and making effective decisions that improve the lives of its citizens—Harper hasn’t been doing either of these things very well. He blames his inability to perform on his partners in Parliament, our three opposition leaders. They maintain that he refuses to compromise, doesn’t put the toilet seat down, and until he decides to cooperate, they’re moving out and going to live with their mothers.
Er … anyway, now that we have fixed four-year election dates, the next election would theoretically be in October 2009. However, the Prime Minister still has the right to go to the Governor General and ask her to dissolve Parliament if he believes the government can no longer function effectively. Harper has been rattling just that particular sabre lately, and an election looks increasingly likely. He has met with all three opposition leaders now, but I doubt that any of those meetings was very productive.
The Conservatives have been airing an annoyingly obvious campaign ad on television. I mute it every time it comes on. Those of you not in Canada or lacking a TV can see it on YouTube (warning: contains graphic and disturbing endorsements of Stephen Harper). Notice how the Conservative Party has disabled comments and video responses for the video. Alas, this is not a clean jab—admittedly, disabling comments on YouTube is probably a good idea, considering the average level of intellect you’ll see in the other comments.
The ad focuses on how these supposedly “everyday, Main Street Canadians” see Stephen Harper as a leader who is taking Canada in the right direction. I have several problems with this. Firstly, our government should not be about one leader. That’s the U.S. shtick. I’ll vote for a member of Parliament who I believe will best represent my constituency. However, I do admit that I take the leader of the party into account when I’ll vote, and as this entry’s title declares, I will not vote for our Conservative candidate, no matter who he or she is.
It’s at this point that I must admit I’m a hypocrite. I denounce the attack ads aired by all campaigns; I want them to focus on the issues more than painting their opponents as undesirable leaders. Yet here I am, determined to support a party other than the Conservatives because I find its leader undesirable! Yes, I also disagree with most of the stances of that leader. I still feel kind of dirty though. Curse you, Stephen Harper, and your Kobayashi Maru election!
Secondly, that shot of Harper at the end is kind of creepy. Finally, I disagree with the main message of the ad, and I don’t care what these other people say. Unfortunately, I suspect that the Conservative government doesn’t care if they persuade me with their bubblegum campaigning. I suspect they only care about persuading those other “Main Street Canadians” (the four that weren’t included in the ad) who might not otherwise vote for the Conservatives; the party is emphasizing Harper’s pro-citizen reforms: harsher justice, family values, lower taxes, and all that jazz.
Of course, it doesn’t help that our other potential Prime Ministers have the charisma or leadership abilities of a shaved llama. The Green Party still hasn’t had an elected MP—just recently they obtained their first sitting MP by shopping at a discount Liberal MP store. The NDP get closer to pulling it off each time, but they are still a long way away from garnering enough support to form a government. Not living in Quebec, I have trouble understanding the national relevance of the Bloc1. So we‘re left with the Liberal Party of Canada, just as corrupt as the Conservative Party, but slightly more palatable because it’s not the Conservative Party—just as the Conservatives were slightly more palatable last time because they weren’t the Liberals. It’s how our elections work.
I want an election, if only to kill the horrible copyright bill that’s in Parliament right now. In addition to that, I dislike the cuts that the Conservative government has made to programs designed to promote Canadian culture and Canadian artists abroad. A person more paranoid than me might see these actions as a form of sneaky censorship. It’s a good thing I‘m not paranoid, no sir!
At the very least, if the Liberals form the next government, we can make fun of Dion’s accent. Remember when we used to do that with Chrétien? Good times….
- [ 1 ] Which is not to say that I disrespect the concept of Quebec as a nation or Québécois as a culture. Please don’t throw poutine at my dad’s house.
Roll your dice, ladies and gentlemen. After sixty years of continuous gameplay, I‘m sure you’re eager for it to be over, but there’s still a few cards left to be won.
I’m sure that it came as a big surprise to everyone when Russia announced its intentions to absorb South Ossetia after unilaterally declaring it independent. Now Russia has effectively seized control of the territory. Russia’s actions are irrational and somewhat disturbing, but what else is new? Unfortunately, I’m having trouble forming an opinion.
For those of us too young to have lived through the Cold War or the aftermath of the subsequent decades, it can be hard to understand the significance of Russia’s actions. It doesn’t help that—at least here in Ontario—our one compulsory high school history course ends after World War II. Let’s break the facts down and see if we can make some sense of what’s happening.
First, some background. South Ossetia is a region in Georgia that is loyal to Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became an independent country, but South Ossetia wanted to join Russia—and they were willing to fight for it. Naturally, Georgia does not want to lose a large region of territory. In the early ’90s, violence ensued. Eventually Georgia and South Ossetia reached a tenuous cease-fire. However, other governments have refused to recognize South Ossetia as an independent country.
The current confict is indubitably fuelled by these long-standing tensions. As I understand it, the ignition occurred when Georgia sent soldiers into the South Ossetian region to quell dissidents. Fighting broke out, and Russia saw this as an opportunity to send its own forces into the area under the banner of peacekeepers. This escalated the situation into a global one—Russia invading any country is a matter for concern, especially considering its tenuous relationship with the United States. After all, the Bush administration is full of old war horses who still worry that Russia will set up us the bomb. Furthermore, Georgia is a prospective member of NATO.
Russia, of course, apologized and quickly moved to clarify the situation: it did not care what the rest of the international community thinks. Eventually France brokered a ceasefire that stipulated Russia must withdraw its troops to within South Ossetia—Russia has yet to do so. Initially they insisted they were withdrawing (when they weren‘t), and now they’ve just decided to declare South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent.
So I mean … who’s side are we on? Either way, this sets precedents. South Ossetia is getting what it wants—the very nature of democracy implies that the people should be able to choose their government, and the South Ossetians want Russia. It seems like a pretty clear-cut solution: Georgia and the rest of the international community should accept the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia must face sanctions, of course—whatever the result, the means were unacceptable.
On the other hand, are we just going to let Russia go in and carve up another country like that? Canada came close to losing Quebec—can you imagine if Quebec separatists had won the referendum and wanted to join the U.S.?
Plus, we know that the U.S. and the rest of the world can’t just let this go. Georgia is but the latest pawn in this Ice-Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. Of course, before making an enemy, it is best to ensure that you don’t need them as a friend.
I’m viewing the issue as one of democracy versus the special interests of other countries. How do you view it?