August 2005


Mobile Tech & News & Culture & Privacy30 Aug 2005 10:05 am

In an amusing story this past week, a New York City subway passenger was surprised and disgusted when she found a creepy guy flashing her and masturbating on a lonely subway car last week.

Thinking quickly, she snapped a cellphone picture of the guy, which caused him to panic and flee. Turning the photo over to the authorities, and publishing it on Craigslist.org and in a Flickr photo album, the story — and the picture — were soon on the front page of the New York Daily News.

Not surprisingly, the flasher was recognized by one of his previous victims and he was subsequently identified and arrested by police.

These stories are becoming more frequent, and as one who is often annoyed by the cellphone antics of rude and unthinking people, it is interesting to see cellphones being used for more positive social change. But this comes with some privacy concerns too.

For example, in a Washington Post story a few weeks ago, Subway Fracas Escalates Into Test Of the Internet’s Power to Shame, a woman whose dog relieved itself on a subway train in South Korea, was asked by fellow subway passengers to clean up the mess. She refused.

When she became belligerent, one of her fellow passengers snapped some camera-phone pictures of her and published them on the web. Others identified her, posted personal information about her, and she became the target of anger and ridicule. The woman eventually had to quit her university due to the amount of harassment she was getting.

Certainly this kind of social pressure can be taken too far, and I’m not sure someone should be hounded out of school for failure to pick up dog poop. But perhaps this will be a lesson to some people that common courtesy sometimes isn’t the highest price you can pay.

News & Culture22 Aug 2005 05:31 pm

On Saturday night, Justin and I went out to see the new film, The Aristocrats, and I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a theatre full of people gasping for air and wetting themselves in quite the same way either.

First off, The Aristocrats is definitely not for everybody. Ostensibly, the film is a documentary about the history of the world’s dirtiest joke. (And trust me, it is filthy.) But the film is about so much more.

The film features interviews with about 70 different comedians and comedy writers, during which many of them tell the versions of the joke that they like to tell. And because the joke has been handed down from comedian to comedian since the Vaudeville days, there are lots of versions. But quickly you learn that it’s not about the different versions.

The joke has become something of an art form unto itself. The setup for the joke stays the same, and the punchline stays the same (mostly), but the dirtiest bits in the middle? That’s where the magic happens!

Truth told, the joke really isn’t all that funny, as they point out repeatedly in the movie. The humor, and the artistry, comes in the jazz-like improv riffs that comedians do to fill in the filthiness in the middle. For example, just about 10 minutes into the film, George Carlin begins telling what I think was one of the funniest renditions, made all the more hilarious because he was so clearly improvising. It was a glimpse into comedic genius as he let his mind wander down particularly vile and disgusting tangents and cul-de-sacs of depravity until he finally broke down laughing at his own disgustingness.

Now, you might think hearing a few dozen retellings of the world’s dirtiest joke would get boring after a bit, but actually what you get to see is an amazing insight into the minds of some of the world’s best comedians, and how they both practice, and appreciate, comedy as true art.

It may seem a strained example, but the closest analogy I can think of is this: Imagine one of those PBS shows with Sister Wendy, the art appreciation nun, where she spends 90 minutes analyzing two millennia of the Virgin Mary as represented in art. All the works are essentially the same theme, but many variations, done in many media, and each one a brilliant work of art in its own right conveying a different message.

Then imagine Sister Wendy hoisting her habit and taking a dump on stage, and you have a good beginning for the meat of the joke. ;-)

There was a bit of controversy when the film was first released, because it is unrated, and therefore several movie theatre chains will not carry it. And the AMC chain said No, just because they could. The original release of the film was only to a handful of “art-house” theatres, but as of this week it’s starting to show up at a few Multiplexes.

For those of you who have seen it, whose rendition was the best? I gotta say George Carlin… with Gilbert Gottfried a close second. Honorable Mention: Sarah Silverman. And Lee Marshall’s catholic priest joke during the credits made me drop my box of jujubees. :) Leave me some comments and tell me whose version you liked most!

Finally, if you can’t stand the suspense and want to hear one of the renditions of the joke, this one put together by the creators of South Park, featuring a highly offensive updated riff on the victims of 9/11, you can kick your kids out of the room, put on your headphones, and click here for Quicktime, or here for Windows Media Player. There’s also a “bleeped” montage version of the joke here entitled “Bleep.”

Enjoy!

Miscellany18 Aug 2005 04:52 pm

I apologize for not posting in several days. It’s been a hectic week or so. I’m up to my eyeballs in work, but making progress. Thanks for your patience!

Privacy & Sillycon Valley Biz06 Aug 2005 12:23 am

Google is so annoyed with one of CNet’s reporters for raising uncomfortable questions about Google’s privacy policies that they are refusing to talk to any CNet reporters for one year.

The startling news of the blackballing is mentioned in a parenthetical note at the bottom of a benign article about Google’s search for a new Chef to cook in the company’s cafeteria, replacing former Grateful Dead chef Charlie Ayers:

Google could not be immediately reached for comment. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET News.com reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)

That story by CNet reporter Elinor Mills summarized the myriad privacy problems that Google seems hell-bent on pretending aren’t there. At the time, I praised her article in this blog entry, and added my voice to the chorus of concerned privacy analysts, asking my favorite question: Why does Google still not have a Privacy Officer?

Elinor’s story focused on the privacy issues that arise from the huge amount of data about individuals which Google has amassed and makes available through careful searching. But she also pointed out that the data which is publicly available is only a fraction of that actually gathered internally by Google about your private searches, what ads you click on, what topics you might be discussing in email, and other fascinating tidbits from your life.

As she suggested, such a treasure trove of data could be an irresistible prize for hackers, “zealous government investigators, or even a Google insider who falls short of the company’s ethics[.]” For what it’s worth, I too have previously analyzed some of the gaping holes in Google’s privacy policies, and how one of Google’s executives unwittingly pointed out just how significant a risk their growing database presents.

To demonstrate how much personal information is publicly available via Google, Elinor dug up a few bits of slightly personal information about Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt — including his salary, his neighborhood, a few of his hobbies and some of his political donations — all obtained by searches using Google:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt doesn’t reveal much about himself on his home page. But spending 30 minutes on the Google search engine lets one discover that Schmidt, 50, was worth an estimated $1.5 billion last year. Earlier this year, he pulled in almost $90 million from sales of Google stock and made at least another $50 million selling shares in the past two months as the stock leaped to more than $300 a share. He and his wife Wendy live in the affluent town of Atherton, Calif., where, at a $10,000-a-plate political fund-raiser five years ago, presidential candidate Al Gore and his wife Tipper danced as Elton John belted out “Bennie and the Jets.” Schmidt has also roamed the desert at the Burning Man art festival in Nevada, and is an avid amateur pilot.

A fairly benign list of details, but apparently enough to send the infants running Google’s PR shop into a full-fledged kindergarten tantrum. But instead of scapegoating the messenger, shouldn’t Google be punishing itself? As one commenter on Dave Farber’s IP List noted:

If digging into someone’s relatively public activities is worth starting a fight, why is the Google CEO running a company that makes it so easy for so many to spy on so many? Shouldn’t he resign if he feels that searching through Google’s index is so evil?

Indeed, it was Google’s CEO who defends privacy claims with the lame-ass excuse, “The company’s founding motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil’.” When Schmidt dropped that stinker at an analyst meeting last May, I blogged an explanation of the difference between “don’t be evil” and “be good.”

I know Elinor and many of the other great reporters at CNet, and I know that they’ll get their stories whether Google’s PR department deigns to return a call. And I have no doubt that Google’s hissy-fit will serve only to embarrass which ever of the company’s young and inexperienced public relations staffers issued the silly decree.

But this situation certainly doesn’t reflect well on the way Google, still very much the apple of Wall Street’s eye, can be expected to handle adversity. Meanwhile, Google’s “La-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you!” strategy on privacy issues isn’t going to solve them any problems either.

I’m sorry to say, but I remain convinced that Google is a privacy train-wreck waiting to happen. And when it does, it won’t be pretty — a fact to which this latest stunt attests.

Update: Good Morning Silicon Valley covered the issue and there are some really interesting trackbacks that give some different perspectives on this story. One dissenting view is from Jason Shellen, a member of the Blogger team at Google. Jason takes offense at the information about Eric Schmidt that was reported in the CNet article. His concerns were echoed by Jeremy Zawodny’s similarly themed blog entry. (I too joined the comment chorus on Jeremy’s blog). But I agree with Dan Gillmor’s take on the question whether printing such vague information about Schmidt was a problem. The New York Times has discovered the story now too.

Punditry & Spam04 Aug 2005 08:10 pm

Almost exactly 6 months to the day, after flying me to New York City for an interview with John Hockenberry in the luxurious Waldorf Towers, my Dateline NBC interview about spam is airing on Friday night.

You’ll have to check your local listings. And of course, the airing is contingent on there not being any new missing girls in Aruba, no plane crashes, or other more newsworthy event.

But after some false alarms, it appears to actually be happening this time. A friend of ours called excitedly this evening to say she was standing in her kitchen and heard my voice booming from a Dateline promo on her living room television. So it’s definitely happening! Unless it doesn’t. :)

Here’s a cameraphone picture of what I saw while sitting in the hotseat!

Law & Malware03 Aug 2005 07:40 pm

CNet reports that America Online’s Advertising.com subsidiary has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission on charges that the company had distributed an anti-spyware program that actually contained adware bundled with it, and that the company had failed to adequately notify consumers about the hypocrisy.

According to the report:

Advertising.com, also known as Teknosurf.com, promoted its SpyBlast program as a way to protect users’ computers from “hackers,” the FTC charged. But those who downloaded the product also installed a separate program that monitored their online behavior and served them pop-up ads.

As is usually the case with these sorts of settlements, the company admitted no wrongdoing, but promised not to do it again. The company will also submit to FTC oversight of its behavior, which could subject them to substantial fines if the company is caught engaging in deceptive or unfair practices in future.

You can read the FTC’s press release here, and the settlement agreement here.