Chip's Technical Blog

Tech commentary of thoughts, challenges, how-to's, and the mundane.

Privacy and Google

December 12th, 2009

I have been a long-time fan of Google, and I generally find their products convenient, high-quality, useful, and innovative. Unfortunately, with all that useful product has come an ever-decreasing amount of privacy. It is now possible to do much of your daily computing work with entirely Google products — email, web search, documents, maps, chat, voice & video chat, youtube videos, picasa images, and now even DNS. Beyond all of this content which users freely give to Google, their analytics allow them to track you even further as you venture into non-Google sites, since these sites often use Google to provide ads to their sites, which allows Google to see what other sites you visit.

Recently, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, responded to questions in a televised interview which suggested a lack of concern for the preservation of privacy (some posts about it link to the video of the interview mozilla ceo’s blog urging switch to bing notes from the electronic fontier foundation summary of various posters). I am a little torn about how to react to this. On the one hand, I admit that the statement is factual — Schmidt is telling people that Google and other companies store this information, it is all information made available to Google, and Google is legally obligated in some cases to make this information available to authorities. On the other hand, I think it shows a complete disregard for the importance of user privacy, and the need for companies who are given such information to be good stewards of that information. Simply hiding behind the Patriot Act as a way to defend your practice of gathering, correlating, and then divulging information as desired may be legally sound, but does not reflect the attitude I wish the company gathering information to be taking.

Consider this: if you use Google DNS, yes, you may get some performance benefit over the DNS provider from your ISP. But, by telling your computer to use Google’s DNS servers, you will effectively be sharing the names of all websites you visit with Google. And don’t think for a minute that their automated mechanisms won’t correlate this with both the searches you are using to Google and the data of all Google accounts you maintain. (Note that a naive objection here is that you otherwise give this to your ISP. But your ISP already is transferring all of your network communications, so that information will be available to your ISP whether or not you send them your DNS queries).

From Schmidt’s point of view – you should already be aware of what information you are giving to Google, and the fact that Google may pass it along to others. But are you? Google could pick things out of emails you send or receive, match that up with the GPS data from your cell phone that you pass to Google so it can place you on the map, the searches you conduct on your phone, and the hostnames of sites that you visit, and build a very precise picture of what you’re doing. Granted, certain things in that profile might have been misinterpreted, and that profile could make it look like you’re doing something very embarrassing.

You see, it’s not the fact that Google has or is collecting this information per se that’s bothering me, but rather that when making this statement, Schmidt doesn’t say “Yes, all of this is true, BUT here are the steps Google is taking to safeguard users…” No, Google’s business is enhanced precisely because they can build these profiles of users.

Google’s long standing reputation of following their motto of don’t be evil is eroding. Thus far, I wouldn’t necessarily say they are being evil. But I no longer feel I can endorse them whole-heartedly as I used to. You should think seriously about what tools and products of Google’s you are using, and what kind of information you are giving them, and whether or not you really want a company who does not proclaim their desire to defend your privacy to have all that information about you. Does the cost outweigh the benefit of using their products?

Update on the iMac/TV

November 5th, 2009

So one feature of the iMac which I hadn’t really considered was that it comes with SnowLeopard. On the one hand, this seems like a good idea, since it’s the latest Mac OS. However, in my experience, I actually prefer these days to be slightly behind the curve on OSes, since it usually takes a while to get all of the kinks out of the systems.

One such kink was the support for the Apple Remote. We did eventually get one from our local Best Buy (amusing side story: I had checked availability at the store online, gone in to buy it, and been told by the clerks that they didn’t have any. I went home, observed the availability still online, and so I bought one for in-store pickup. A few hours after that, I got the email telling me to go pick it up, which I did.) Unfortunately, the Apple Remote did not “just work”, like things are supposed to on the Mac. Looking further at it, I saw that in fine print on Hulu Desktop, it very clearly states the same problem.

Oh well. After scouring the forums, I discovered people linking to candelair, a free software driver from the makers of RemoteBuddy for OSX to resolve the issues with the remote on OSX. So I’ve installed it, and now our Media PC works nicely by remote (no configuration necessary for FrontRow, HuluDesktop, Boxee (+Netflix), and MythFrontend). Now, if only the Apple Remote had more than 6 buttons, which would be really nice for MythTV!

Entering the Hi-Res Age

October 31st, 2009

Happy Halloween!

This week, Kristina and I splurged, and bought one of the new 27″ iMacs. Why? Not because we needed a computer — our laptops are sufficing just fine. No, we bought the 27″ iMac to replace our 6-year-old 27″ [analog] Television. This post will serve as my review of our impressions of using this as our main video-viewing-portal thus far.

The short version? We’re impressed. Sure, there are problems, and some we can fix (getting a remote control), where some we can’t really fix (Apple keeps using a high-gloss screen, which unfortunately makes for a nice glare).

Before being able to understand this review, however, I should let you know a bit about our viewing preferences, needs, etc. I have previously posted about hos we were considering canceling our cable TV. Well, we have decided to cut back to just the primitive broadcast cable channels, but haven’t made the call yet. What we don’t need is:

  • Something to watch sporting events. We just don’t watch sporting events.
  • Something to watch Blu-Ray discs. We don’t have any, nor a blu-ray player, and don’t see this as a priority going forward.
  • Something to watch live broadcast, analog cable, or HD cable TV on. We don’t have a cable box, and don’t want one. We haven’t watched any noticeable amount of live TV in years.
  • A huge TV which seems to be so popular today. We’ve always been quite content with our 27″ TV, and were not in the market to make the TV a bigger part of our den.

So, what we do want in our video-viewing-portal is this:

  • MythTV (just the frontend). This is how we watch most of our recorded TV, through our analog MythTV backend. We previously had Mini-ITX-based MythTV frontends attached to each of our TVs. This has been great, being able to access our DVR from any TV, and use the MythTV mechanisms for commercial skipping. However, since thinking about how few channels we actually watch vs. how much we pay monthly for cable TV, I’ve been looking for another legal way to get the TV content we do want to watch.
  • The ability to play content from Hulu and Netflix. What we have discovered is that the vast majority of content we care about is available from these two sources. Unfortunately, the mini-ITX boxes (and even our more powerful MythTV backend) were jerky and unable to handle the flash video CPU requirements of Hulu, and since they were running Linux, there was not option to view Netflix instant watch content.
  • The ability to watch DVDs. DVDs are our primary mechanism for having stored and mailed movies, so we needed to be able to continue this.
  • The ability to control the video-portal in an easy, straight-forward manner. Ever since we added StreamZap remotes to our MythFrontend boxes, we’ve been able to watch MythTV in an easy manner. Previously, we had a wireless keyboard, but it was big and bulky, so the remote was a HUGE step up.

So, how does the iMac stack up?

  • Size. With a diagonal of 27″, it has the same diagonal our prior TV had. Granted, it’s a widescreen (16:9) format rather than the traditional (4:3). So it’s a little wider, and a little shorter, than our older TV. One problem with the huge number of pixes though is that all the OSX fonts are super-tiny when sitting on the sofa. Sure, you can do screen zooming to see it, but it’s really annoying to have to do that all the time. Plus, there’s no good way to increase these fonts. A LOT of applications suffer from this problem, and the menu bar always suffers it.
  • Quality. The image quality of the iMac is GREAT! The glare on the screen is annoying, but it’s not significantly worse than our prior TV. Video quality is excellent. The screen is plenty bright, and can easily be seen from the sofa, or even the kitchen while making dinner. We don’t even turn the brightness of the screen all the way up usually.
  • DVDs. DVDs play without trouble, however, the DVD is loaded into the side of the iMac, which is a problem since our entertainment center (in which it fits) is too close to the side of it to allow loading the DVD. So we have to angle the iMac to load the DVD, which is at least better since it’s not that heavy
  • Hulu. Hulu plays just fine, on everything we have tested thus far. And thanks to the OSX release of HuluDesktop, we can even browse/view Hulu content without having to use the web-browser, which was hard due to the size mentioned above, means it can be navigated with just the keyboard. Further, a plugin to FrontRow allows HuluDesktop to be launched from FrontRow, so you can easily launch it from the keyboard as well. As an added bonus, the video quality is higher than that of analog TV. Granted, the downside of Hulu wrt MythTV is that we have to watch commercials again, but at least they are usually short, and you at least know how long they are.
  • NetFlix. NetFlix instant watch works great on the iMac. The only initial problem was again that we had to use the web browser. But I then realized that Boxee can be paired with your NetFlix account, and then be watched flawlessly with simple, large-font navigation. The navigation works better even than browsing content on the NetFlix site, IMO. Another FrontRow plugin allows Boxee to be launched from FrontRow, making that easy too. Big plus for NetFlix: no commercials.
  • MythTV. This also works fine, and can be launched from FrontRow. The content is lower quality, but doesn’t require the internet, and allows skipping commercials.

Okay, so what does this leave? A big deal has been made of the iMac because it can be a video input [monitor] as well as video output. Unfortunately for most, it only accepts displayport signals, and a simple cable adapter does not work to allow e.g. BluRay input. Not a problem for us, and it means that in the future it can serve as a nice monitor for one of our computers. Another problem is the remote issue. The included bluetooth keyboard is reasonably small, so it’s not too bad. However, we plan to purchase an Apple Remote for use here. Unfortunately, the StreamZap USB remote we already have (which has many more buttons and would be more ideal), cannot be used because it isn’t supported under OSX. Other minor issues – it wakes up from sleep sometimes for no good reason, and you cannot just turn off the keyboard after putting it to sleep (the iMac wakes itself back up).

So, we’re pretty happy overall. I think more and more content will be available for download, so our bet is that this is a better solution for us than joining the traditional big-screen high-definition TV-purchasing crowd. The iMac was a good buy, and with a 3-year AppleCare protection plan we can have peace of mind about the machine’s reliability as well. Extra added features – it’s iTunes player will surpass the MythTV music player in quality and ease of use. Other possible uses — it has an iSight camera which could be used for living room video chat, and picture browsing for family-room slide shows. Boxee comes with a number of other video input sources available.

Time for new grammar checking

September 15th, 2009

Subtitle: protecting the language

So I am often bad with sayings and grammar; as a result, I am fascinated by the subject. There are a number of these which I have often misused, some of which include:

  • I’ve used “here here” when I should have used “hear hear”. See this post for details.
  • I’ve said “intensive purposes” when I should have said “intents and purposes”. I had even worked out a definition, including how they differed from “extensive purposes”.
  • I’ve said “mute point” when it should be “moot point”. See here for details.
  • I also mix up a variety of sayings, such as the nonsensical “double-bladed edge”.
  • And the list goes on…

In addition to the language rules blog linked above, another great place to learn about such things is A Way With Words, broadcast on many local NPR stations.

Unfortunately, I see these mistakes as muddying up our language, so I would like to get better about it. But rather than going out and searching down each of these cases to learn independently, I feel like there is a better solution. As a computer scientist, I recognize that we already have the perfect mechanism for this — the grammar checkers. Our word processing software already has a grammar checkers, and our web browsers have spell checking, so it may just be a matter of time. I think the grammar checker should be adapted to look for misuses of the language, and to suggest alternatives to writers. This suggestion should come complete with internet links to learn more about the cases found. So in the future, when I “tow the line”, it can let me know that I should instead “toe the line”. So short of listing all commonly mistaken sayings, how can we build software to do this? That is my question. But in the meanwhile, I would just settle for a [possibly community maintained] database of common mistakes it can check for.

Stereotyping

September 12th, 2009

I had the fortune of being upgraded to first class in my flights from Seattle back to Indianapolis yesterday. In Minneapolis, I got in line to board the plane after the announcement of first class seating, and was second in line, when I hear the gate agent ask someone behind me if they are in first class.

Immediately upon hearing the question, I cringe. I hope, hope, that the person behind me is looking lost and is in fact not in first class, to avoid the significant potential for a train wreck right there in line. The response from behind me is [imagine being said with a slight amount of attitude] “Of course I’m in first class. Why would I be in the first class line if I weren’t in first class!”. Uh oh. The gate agent just stepped in it, and in a big way. Thankfully, the African-American woman behind me leaves it at that. As we walk down the gangway, I hear the woman describe what just happened on the phone, while letting the person on the phone know that she didn’t make a scene. At this point, very amused, and thankful that the boarding process was not going to be delayed today, I turn around and let the woman know that I was very proud of her for keeping her cool. Tiffany ends up being seated next to me, and on further discussion about it, she lets me know that today, she is in a really good mood, and she wasn’t going to let that bring her down.

So let this be a word of warning. Don’t assume. What I expect the gate agent should have done was to first check her ticket, and then remind her she was in the wrong place only once he was sure her ticket was not a first class ticket.

“Pending Obituaries”

August 9th, 2009

So at the Journal and Courier online (thanks for the recent feature as blog of the week!), they run a daily story about “pending obituaries”. For examples, just do a quick search.

I, for one, find this practice very amusing. It is particularly amusing when it shows up in the optimized page for hand-held devices as “breaking news.” I mean, judging on the title alone, it seems like this should refer to people who are about to die, but who haven’t yet. Something like “John Doe, who was hit by a truck this morning, is in critical condition at the hospital. He is expected to pass within the hour.” Instead, it seems to be brief announcements of the completion of life, but without the full details. (These articles inevitably contain a sentence at the end referring the reader to the next day’s edition of the J&C.)

In the future, may I suggest (to no-one in particular, since I’m not making a point of sending this to the paper) that we find a more appropriate name for these articles? Though I have to say obituaries in progress or partial obituaries aren’t any better. Maybe we should change the word obituary, since it tends to suggest that it should have full details. Perhaps we could call them death notices instead? Then refer readers to the full obituary in the print edition. Or, maybe just leave it as it is. Maybe we need a sense of humor about the passing of our lives.

The “No Camera” Rule

June 19th, 2009

Tonight we were at the LeAnn Rimes concert, in which there was a posted no-cameras sign at the entrance gate. As you will see later when I post 2-3 of my own, you might expect that this rule is not well enforced.

So what’s the problem? Of course, the problem is that you can’t buy a cell-phone anymore without a camera, just about. Thus, unless you are going to either check every cell phone, or not allow them at all, you aren’t going to keep cameras out of the concert. (Of course, these cameras are also small, so unless you plan to use a metal detector, you probably won’t notice the cameras [cell phones] anyway.)

Thus, it follows that there were a LOT of people taking pictures at the concert with their cell phones. Throughout the concert they would walk in front of the first row (between it and the stage) and pause long enough to snap a picture. This of course was very annoying for those of us in the first few rows. There was also no attempt on the part of security to prevent or curb this activity. After all, what are you going to do, short of making people cross the venue at the back?

So accept as a given that people will have cell-phone cameras. It no longer makes any sense to prevent the use of the vast majority of consumer-grade cameras, which are only marginally better than the current generation of cell-phone cameras. And not surprisingly, there were people using those as well. Oh, and the bigger ones too—no, not so big that they were bigger than someone’s head, but still quite big. People were also not shy about it as you might expect, quickly snapping the photo and then hiding the camera so as to pretend they didn’t take a photo. No, they would walk right to the front with their quite-obvious-camera, and take a picture, complete with flash. Oh heck, why stop at just one. Get another one while we’re up here, in case the first doesn’t turn out.

The woman seated just in front of and to the side got a bunch of pictures — many quite good (I know, because it was impossible to avoid watching her LCD screen as she setup the shot, took it, and then checked its quality. It was, after all, being held over the level of all our heads while she did so to avoid anyone in the audience being part of the photo).

So, I think the time may have come to abandon the no-cameras rule, since it is so clearly not actually applied. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to make the cameras less obtrusive during the show. Perhaps have a place people can go to shoot their shots which is out of the way of the main audience. Perhaps have a song break where you tell everyone in the audience to get their photos out of the way now, and then ask them to put the cameras away and enjoy the concert. Coming from the artist themselves, seems more likely to be heeded anyway. Perhaps tell the audience they can take photos but to NOT use a flash. Some of them still will, but if you couple it with a reasonable explanation of why you shouldn’t use a flash, I think many people will respect it. Also, have a big sign posted indicating that shooting photos is acceptable for personal use, which still lets you crack down on those trying to make a buck off their concert shots, while allowing those people who you really can’t stop anyway shooting a photo to post to Facebook.

After all, those Facebook photos are probably doing more to promote and benefit than they are to harm.

[Review: it was a good show, and the third-row center seats were excellent.]

Summer is here

May 24th, 2009

So as a graduate student, I really didn’t understand the full extent of summer. Because I was not involved in classes the last several years, I had no idea how much better research productivity could be during the summer. I have had to deal somewhat with the students who didn’t get the grade in the class and want to re-examine that, but overall it’s great. I’ve heard many faculty this summer express a similar sentiment.

So to all – have a great summer! I fear it may be over far too soon.

New Blog Picture

April 26th, 2009

At NSDI, which I recently returned home from, no fewer than two people exclaimed to me that I did not look at all like they expected. On talking to them about it, I’ve found that they were using my picture from my website/blog as a picture of me. (This is fair, since I did put it there.) The problem is I put it there 7 years ago and haven’t changed it. I’ve changed a bit in appearance since then. So I’ve updated the picture on my site/blog. For comparison’s sake, you can see both here:

Engagement PicturePurdue Studio Picture

A plea to TV programmers

March 1st, 2009

My wife and I have recently been discussing the idea of canceling our cable TV. There are a variety of reasons for doing so, which include these circumstances:

  • Cable TV is trying to push digital cable by removing channels from analog cable.
  • We see no present value in the additional costs of digital cable. In fact, we see no value in getting bigger, sharper, TVs, as we feel the picture is just fine, and sufficiently large to see from our sofas a mere 8 feet away. So it’s not about quality. And it’s not about quantity either — the additional cable channels using a digital box are largely in three categories: replicas of channels available in analog cable, additional-fee channels, and music-channels. Of these three, the only ones we ever use are the music channels.
  • We feel that a large portion of content created today is not worth watching. Our viewing preferences have actually narrowed somewhat — there are only two channels we watch with any regularity outside the broadcast channels. Yet, our flat fee paid to cable companies does not adequately reward content providers for making the content that we do like.
  • More content is available online, or through direct-to-mailbox DVDs from Netflix or Blockbuster. Thus, if we don’t mind waiting a bit for content to become available in either online or DVD format, there’s no need for live broadcast anyway. Even better — when paid for by users, this content is generally commercial-interruption free and better quality than we get through the cable company anyway. I distinguish between commercial-interruption free and commercial free because as we know, the new wave is in product placement on shows. But at least it doesn’t contain those hideously large and non-silent network overlays from channels.

There are others talking this way as well. See this post over at Freedom-to-Tinker for a good read as well. And today, I read that cable companies want to offer exclusive channel content online to subscribers [story]. So this is my plea to programmers. Forget TV stations and network affiliations. Instead, sell your shows direct to viewers. Do it without ads (though I imagine you’ll still have product placement/endorsements), or at least have a two-tiered system where users can pay more for an ad-free program. Then, you will get a better picture of your viewers, and can probably do a better job of marketing to them. Online word-of-mouth can help your show catch on and grab followers. If you are worried about steady-income, offer us high-priced single-show samples, and more reasonable season buy-ins. I would much prefer this — so I can get just the 10-ish shows I actually watch rather than the vast array of TV programming I don’t care about.

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