31 posts categorized "May 2011"

Technology and Self-Love

Jonathan Franzen posted an essay to the New York Times this past weekend.

Sherriff72It ends up being a blog post in the sense that he reveals something about himself, something about his own journey to a more authentic engagement with environmentalism, borne out of a particular passion for birdwatching that he came to later in life.

But it starts as a curmudgeonly rant about how smartphones empower narcissism. How the culture promoted by technology is necessarily destructive of real character and the willingness to make commitments to other people that risk pain and loss.

Now, I don't find it possible to dismiss his critique out of hand, for two reasons: (1) as I say above, he ends up writing his critique in the form of an authentic blog post, by which I mean, not marketing drivel or link baiting, but words seeking authentic self-expression and a willingness to be vulnerable; and (2) I think he's on to something about the link between "liking" and the advertiser's imperative to reduce living to consumption.

However, I know that the quest to love others he holds up as the standard is something that smartphones and blogging platforms and even social media networks will enable. True, if you take Facebook, that big, overdetermined boxstore that is about as humanistic as a shopping mall, as your example, social media begins to seem like a prison where the inmates obligingly lock themselves in and pay an absent corporate warden for the privilege.

It's not television unless you are passive about it. It's more like radio, except you are allowed to listen, to speak, and to manage some of the programming.

But engaging the world through the internet takes curiosity, and more time than most people Franzen's age want to put into it. More time, no doubt, than one should spend if one is already managing one's own journey to authenticity in a different way.

Illustration of the bird watching sheriff by Storn Cook, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License.

Good Writing

I'm at an especially good part of Perilous Fight, the Stephen Budiansky book about the War of 1812.

The author has just set up the mismatch between the British Navy – larger than all the other navies in the world combined – and the fledgling American Navy. Just on feeding its sailors, Britain spends 5X America's entire naval budget. John Adams frets about the "Lilliputian" American force. British ships anchor off American ports and board American merchant ships with impunity. And the US Secretary of the Navy issues orders that appear above all else to direct captains to avoid confrontation except in the rare instances when a British ship might be caught alone.

And yet . . .

Budiansky interlineates his foreboding of American doom with intimations of the root causes of Britain's ultimate undoing. Britain promotes its officers corruptly. Most seaman are impressed or otherwise serve against their will. The battle tactics of even as storied an Admiral as Lord Nelson -- get so close that it doesn't matter where you aim -- seem to prize brute force over seamanship.

American ships of war are so few they can almost be counted on two hands; but they're built to an innovative design and leverage a new world wood that has the strength of a British hull 30% thicker. American officers are so few the Secretary of the Navy can know them all personally and discuss with them the individual progress of every midshipmen; but he promotes only those who can handle a ship, rejecting even President Jefferson's advancement of unqualified candidates. American seaman are self-reliant and enlist by choice.

Budiansky sets the stage for the battle the way Hitchock builds suspense: with leisure and an eye for the telling detail.

This short, conclusive paragraph whets the edge of his foreshadowing:

"Nearly all the captains of the American navy of 1812 were under age forty. All had done something to earn their rank beyond the circumstances of their birth or their family influence. All knew how to handle a ship."

I'll let you know for sure how it turns out.


Photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clay Weis. Description on Wikipedia: "CHARLESTOWN, Mass. (Aug. 19, 2009) Chief Hospital Corpsman Jason Shaeffer, an independent duty corpsman assigned to USS Constitution, leads the crew formation during a commemoration of the War of 1812 battle with the British ship HMS Guerriere. The 197th anniversary of USS Constitution's first battle particularly honored Marine Lt. William Sharp Bush, who lost his life during that engagement and was the first Marine officer to die in service to our country. Old Ironsides's battle with HMS Guerriere also helped establish USS Constitution's nickname when an unknown American Sailor noticed shot from HMS Guerriere either bouncing off or imbedding in USS Constitution's hull."


My base of operations, Seattle, boasts walkable neighborhoods and lightbox skies. But with the notable exception of the downtown Seattle Public Library, there is no distinguished civic architecture in the town in which I live.

Screen shot 2011-05-28 at 11.13.55 AMSeattle's little sister city 170 miles south on I-5, Portland, has an airport that breathes and circulates almost like the downtown SPL. It makes me wonder why the Port of Seattle doesn't just hire everyone responsible for putting the Portland airport together! The Seattle airport is utilatarian and drab, as though someone worked diligently to recycle the blueprints for a complex of bus terminals.

No doubt the situs of the Portland airport gives it advantages. The runways are laid out parallel to the Columbia River and there's a sense of open perspective. You can even double park along Marine Drive, a stone's throw from the river, and watch the planes approach and take off.

Pia3My favorite approach to the Portland airport, however, is the main approach you take when arriving to pick someone up or drop them off. That's the best angle I found to appreciate the overall conception of relating the parking garage to the passenger terminals. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a usable picture of this approach, but the picture posted just to the right, from the American Institute of Steel Construction site (copyright by AISC and used here in good faith based in part on my reading of the site's TOS), does illustrate how a glass canopy bridges the terminal and parking garage.

The AISC pic is taken from the southwest, as though you were looking back as you leave the terminal. From my preferred approach you would see the air traffic control tower, somehow uncannily anchoring the small ecosystem of passenger coming-and-going while at the same time presiding directly over the work of the runways and their approaches. Not sure I've ever seen a tower so well integrated into all the different missions of an airport, unless it was at a military airbase.

IMG_0044I was in Portland last week for my daughter's graduation from college and made a couple trips to PDX. I think I'd only ever been there before when changing planes, so hadn't appreciated arriving and departing as a resident might.

Here is a picture I took of one of the pedestrian bridges hanging from the canopy. Sheer delight.

eBay Sues Google and Former eBay/PayPal Execs

eBay sued Google Thursday over what eBay alleges were and are illegal actions to usurp its PayPal subsidiary's proprietary efforts to develop mobile payment services.

Screen shot 2011-05-28 at 8.36.39 AMThe case seems to spring from Google's hiring of long time PayPal/eBay employees (also named as defendants), including Osama Bedier, who the complaint says worked for PayPal for ten years. "At the time of Bedier’s departure from PayPal," the complaint says, "he served as Vice President of Platform, Mobile, and New Ventures." The complaint alleges that Bedier "now fills a similar role at Google."

I haven't read the whole complaint yet -- just seeing it this morning -- but it looks like eBay will argue "inevitable disclosure." That is, that Bedier and perhaps others were so centrally involved in leading PayPal's efforts to develop and commercialize mobile payment technologies and services, it will be inevitable that they will draw on PayPal trade secrets in working for Google to accomplish the same goals.

Not that the complaint is entirely forward looking:

"[F]rom 2008 to 2011, Google and PayPal were negotiating a commercial deal where PayPal would serve as a payment option for mobile app purchases on Google’s Android Market. During that time, PayPal provided Google with an extensive education in mobile payments. Bedier was the senior PayPal executive accountable for leading negotiations with Google on Android during this period. At the very point when the companies were negotiating and finalizing the Android—PayPal deal, Bedier was interviewing for a job at Google — without informing PayPal of this conflicting position. Bedier’s conduct during this time amounted to a breach of his responsibilities as a PayPal executive."

This conflict of interest or breach-of-duty-while-yet-employed-and-talking-to-a-competitor/customer argument is not something I recall offhand from the HP complaint against Mark Hurd. It may be one more legal theory that could be developed to "get around" California's legal disdain for noncompetes.

Lighting Dark Fiber

Check out this morning's post by Christopher Mitchell about Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's and Seattle CTO Bill Schrier's efforts to bring fiber optic cable to the Pioneer Square area.

City ConduitThe most immediate proposal is to lease conduit the City is laying under First Avenue to telecom or cable companies, to permit them to bring better service to the startups and other businesses between Jackson and Cherry Streets.

Seattle owns 500 miles of fiber optic cable, the Mayor said in this video, much of which is "dark" or unused. The proposal to lease conduit to private ISPs in the Pioneer Square area is a modest first step in an agenda to keep Seattle connected to the world economy.

Also in the video, Jeff Strain of Undead Labs explains how his video game business, located in the area, cannot now leverage co-location and other hosted services due to the poor bandwidth in the neighborhood. Not good.

Image: frame from Seattle Channel video; Bill Schrier showing conduit, with two of three inner ducts available for lease.

Adieu, Old Twitter

Well, it seems to have finally happened. I had been holed up in the Old Twitter, but the website now won't load my timeline. And the RSS feed says it cannot authenticate me.

I think the same thing has happened to my official Twitter client on the iPhone. I've refused to update that app ever since reading reports about the Dick bar.

Adieu to Old TwitterIdenti.ca would be a great alternative to Twitter but the traffic is just not there! Would that it would be easy to migrate followed and followers to the commercial free timeline there.

Sigh. See also this post on Dave Winer's blog.

Update 5/27: Old Twitter is working again! As is the months-old Twitter iPhone app. Not sure what yesterday's outage was . . . 

Unmasking Aggregated Data

A study on collaborative filtering finds that the wall between "personally identifiable information" and "aggregated data" isn't as steadfast as we commonly suppose.

Retaining_wall_breach._-_geograph.org.uk_-_240821The study is called “'You Might Also Like:' Privacy Risks of Collaborative Filtering" and its authors are Joseph A. Calandrino, Ann Kilzer, Arvind Narayanan, Edward W. Felten and Vitaly Shmatikov.

"Collaborative filtering" refers to the use of patterns of user behavior within a system to generate recommendations for a specific user. This is how Netflix suggests movies you might like to see or Amazon media products you might like to purchase.

Because "modern collaborative filtering leverages relationships between items rather than relationships between users," the study says, you might assume there is little or no risk that information about a specific user might be inferred from lists of recommendations. The study authors state flatly: "We show that this assumption is wrong."

I don't follow the math of the study but I think I get the gist of what the authors did. They did not hack into any site's database or recommendation engine. Rather, they put algorithms to work to infer historical individual behavior from changes in aggregated, public recommendations. They used data from Hunch, Last.fm, LibraryThing. and Amazon.

Co-author Arvind Narayanan wrote a blog post about the study which concludes:

"We’re leaving digital breadcrumbs online all the time, whether we like it or not. And while algorithms to piece these trails together might seem sophisticated today, they will probably look mundane in a decade or two if history is any indication. The conversation around privacy has always centered around the assumption that we can build technological tools to give users—at least informed users—control over what they reveal about themselves, but our work suggests that there might be fundamental limits to those tools."

Image: Retaining wall breach by Hefin Richards, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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