Tuesday, October 29, 2013

when looking becomes liking

Trends in tracking are creating a privacy problem that isn't about privacy, per se, that is, not about being personally penalized or embarrassed, but about representing -- or misrepresenting -- a public statement.

Recently, I came up against a quandry. Curiosity, and curiosity alone, made me want to read a book promoting an idea with which I very strongly disagree, and which scholarly critics have said contains poor research and poor reasoning. The challenge is how, in today's world, I can see what this book says without in any way rewarding the author. (I merely want to not reward, rather than to punish, which is why I'm not going to write a scathing review, or even reveal the title or author here.)

If I buy it new online, I not only pay the author, but also leave a record that I've bought it. Not only am I then inundated with suggestions to buy more books from an odious viewpoint, but my "voice" (if only as an anonymous datapoint) is added as a recommendation of the book to others. If I check it out from the library, it adds to the total number of checkouts and therefore prolongs the life of that book on the shelf. The remaining option, pay cash to buy it used, is fast disappearing as local used bookstores disappear, and is not an option in the ebook model that sees all transactions as licensed rather than completely sold.

The problem is that purchases and library checkouts are by default interpreted as liking, but sometimes one doesn't like every book one reads; sometimes one actively dislikes a book. If records are going to be kept -- whether personally linked or anonymous -- there should be a split-second-quick, completely effortless way of saying, "My datapoint is meaningless for your purposes. Don't link me to this or count my looking at it in any way."

Suggestion: Have "like" and "dislike" (or maybe better, "approve" and "disapprove") checkboxes on the order form. If the customer checks neither, it counts for nothing. Yes, that's right; the bean-counters will have to accept the reality that sometimes there are no beans to count. Note that this is not a ranking. The act of ranking or any other high-level evaluation  is to many people a stressful nuisance. If the business or organization wants ranking information, go ahead and put a scale on the form, but make it completely optional. While we're at it, it would be useful to have "not my choice" and "not for me" options for items necessary for school or work or other compulsory reason, and for gifts. These would count an item as neutral, and, in addition, prevent the item from being connected to the person's record in any way.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

attention spybots: it's not always what it looks like

I sure hope the ubiquitous, commercial, spybots that track our every internet move to build up a personal profile are developing some subtlety. I've pretty much accepted that every move online is done in a public place full of nosy people, so my main focus now is to avoid being misunderstood and mislabeled.

Recently I got curious enough to dare to check on a link to an oddball piece on a business blog. So I hope anyone (or more accurately, any algorithm) watching is observant enough to realize that this is just a blip -- that I rarely read this type of puff piece, and more importantly, that the fact that I went to something on a business blog once does not indicate that I have any interest at all in business. All stupid, bizniz, money sh_t  bores me to howling.

And, heaven help me, I actually lingered on the site, pulled in by links. But, please note, little spybot, I did it because the articles were about technology, NOT because they were on a business blog.

Monday, September 30, 2013

the ubiquitous jack

It seems that every book -- at least the mystery, action thriller, and horror books -- set in Victorian England absolutely must include Jack the Ripper. (Yes, there are a couple of exceptions, but it's a pretty strong trend.)

One unfortunate result is that Victorian historical fiction is almost always set in the last decade or two of the century, when in fact Her Majesty's reign stretched back for twice that long before. What with the industrial revolution on the rise, and trains, the telegraph, and artificial lighting being brand new, the mid 19th century was a happenin' time.

C'mon, authors, there were people in England between Jane Austen and 1888. Some of them must have interesting stories.

WARP: The Reluctant Assassin

First of all, let me say that Eoin Colfer's W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin is a great read. The author shows his usual mastery of plot and character and evokes general late Victorian London in intriguing, lifelike detail.

I say "general" because he chose to assign the past part of the story an exact year -- 1898 -- a date which doesn't line up with some of the elements. This isn't a minor gaffe, like another book I read awhile back that describes people wearing the latest miracle dye color, mauve, half a decade before mauve was first synthesized.

In this book, an invention stolen from the future and prematurely introduced into the past, the "Farspeak," has more than passing significance. In real history, while the telephone wasn't common in 1898, it had been patented in 1876. Even more egregious, the Old Nichol rookery, an especially bad part of the Bethnal Green slum, is a location crucial to the plot. Bethnal Green was razed in an urban renewal project in 1891, and rebuilt to sturdier and cleaner standards over the next decade.

So why did the author insist on 1898? I suspect it was to realistically accommodate a cameo appearance by Jack the Ripper in the backstory.

Still, the book is definitely worth reading.

Friday, August 23, 2013

a panopticon with some shuttered windows

One of the many problems of the new reality of "ubiquitous" surveillance -- whether it be by the government, businesses, or just nosy people, is how much it leaves out. To the privacy-minded, this might sound like a strength, but in a world where people are judged by the results of such surveillance, it's a glaring weakness.

A recent NPR story discusses the amount of personal information that can be gleaned just by looking at the overall patterns of an email account, even without looking at the content of the emails. Actually, all email can expose is the person's email life. For those who use different emails -- some unconnected to a real name -- for different groups of friends, family, businesses, etc., the method is likely to leave significant holes. Ditto for tracking by social media. For those old fashioned enough to do much of their communicating face to face, or (horrors!) by traditional mail, the hole is bigger still.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

curious omission

Try to read ninth volume of The Catholic Encyclopedia at Archive.org, and you come up against the message, "The item is not available due to issues with the item's content." Huh?  What topic from "Laprade"  through "Mass" could be so offensive? Or secret?

It shouldn't be a copyright issue. The entire encyclopedia is in the public domain because of age; this volume was published in 1910. Volume 8 and Volume 10 are both available with no problem.

Of course, the block probably is probably just due to a technical glitch, but imagining some kind of conspiracy is more fun ...

Monday, May 27, 2013

summer reading

'Tis that time of year again -- the summer reading program for children and teens has begun. This year the children's librarians have issued a challenge to the rest of the staff: match the kids by reading 20 children's books over the summer. The idea, of course, is to increase everyone's familiarity with the juvenile collection. This is gonna be fun ...

Friday, March 22, 2013

winter reading program

The Adult Winter Reading Program at my public library is drawing to a close. The core of it is to read eight books from January through March. Officially, anything and everything goes, but I usually restrict myself to counting only YA-length or longer, non-how-to books that I haven't read before.

Here's a rough analysis of what I read:
Traditional paper fiction from the library -- 2
Traditional paper nonfiction from the library -- 2
Traditional paper fiction from my own collection -- 1
Traditional paper nonfiction from my own collection -- 2
Ebooks (fiction) from the library -- 0
Ebooks (nonfiction) from the library -- 0
Ebooks (fiction, free (all hail Project Gutenberg!) ) from my own collection -- 1
Ebooks (nonfiction) from my own collection -- 0

What didn't show up:
several comic books (purchased), some from the library, some my own
a traditional paper fiction book of my own, an old favorite I re-read
a traditional paper nonfiction book of my own I'm in the middle of reading
4 traditional paper language books I'm in the middle of using
3 language books and 2 language audiobooks, borrowed electronically from the library
a fiction ebook (purchased), an old favorite I'm re-reading
2 non-fiction ebooks (free) I'm in the middle of reading

What does this show that would be of use to libraries? Merely that, as of 2013, some digital-immigrant readers are feeding their habit from a variety of sources, public and private, print and electronic.

Friday, January 25, 2013

trust no one

Just narrowly avoided getting sucked into clicking on an evilware link.

No, I was not taking any foolish chances. This thing was embedded in a tweet from a personally known, real-life-friend's real account, the icon of which is a clear picture of that person's real face. The message was not out of character. In fact, it was spot-on in character. I'm aware that links to "a picture of you" is usually a red alert for a scam, but this was from an avid (and quite good, by the way) photographer with a penchant for taking silly candid shots and then teasing friends about them.

Out of habit, I checked the condensed URL with a website which expands shortened ones. It looked weird, and just as I was about to send a message to my friend asking about it, my friend announced that the account had been compromised.

Trojans have gone from the equivalent of a mass-mailout letter bomb, to a letter bomb in an envelope with a friend's printed return address label,  to one with a friend's return address in that friend's handwriting, and a personal in-joke from your junior high school years in the letter.

Sometimes the appropriate response to living in a crazy world is madness, so go ahead and be paranoid. Check every link, no matter who it seems to be from. There are several tools that check the safety of URLS or give the full names of shortened ones. Below are a couple:

Sucuri SiteCheck (free website lookup, but with advertising of company products)

URL X-ray (free)

Monday, January 21, 2013

a computer-only public library

The First Bookless Public Library: Texas to Have BiblioTech
(Jan. 14, 2013  ABC News)

The tech-geek part of me thinks it sounds cool, but the book-nerd part feels some trepidation. This is not due to the concept in and of itself, but because we live in a polarized, extremist culture. We have trouble wrapping our minds around two good options existing side by side. We tend to think that if there are two of anything, one must be better, and if one is better, the other is downright bad, and the bad one should be gotten rid of entirely.

Apparently this is to be a new, specialized branch of the San Antonio system, which already has 26 branches. Viewed this way, rather than as the first step into an inevitable printless future, it need not be a threat to beloved tomes with paper pages, any more than the opening of a rare book library would threaten the ability of patrons to continue to get their bestsellers at other branches. So let the past make way for the future -- not by leaving, but by inviting the future to stand beside it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

on a more positive note

Been following the multitude of reports about the recent CES tech show. One trend seemed to be embedding sensors and little computers in everything. If we could get them all to talk to each other, maybe we could finally have the future envisioned on the Jetsons.

If we could get them to talk with our cellphones too, we could have a future even the Jetsons couldn't imagine.

(Right now I'd settle for having my phone communicate with my glasses, as one or the other is often misplaced, but usually not both at the same time.)

it ain't just that they can't add without calculators ...

O.k., this is an oldfogey what's-the-world-coming-to rant. Went to the store the other day and got a few things. I happened to have exact change, so I used it. The clerk -- a twentysomething -- put the coins down, spread them out, and stared at them for several minutes, counting and re-counting (and still miscounted). It's not like we're talking about Victorian English shillings and pounds here; this was U.S. legal tender in convenient, intuitive, decimal form, less than a dollar, with only a couple of pennies.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


2013 is not a prime, although at first glance it looks like it maybe ought to be. It's divisible by 3, 11,  and 61. Three  and eleven at least are useful primes, tools for nice, neat, aesthetically satisfying factoring. Sixty-one is just annoying. It's one more than the beautifully divisible 60. -- 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 -- so useful the Babylonians used it as their base -- and then someone goes and spoils it by adding a lousy 1.  Anyhow, 2013 is still kind of an awkward-looking number, IMHO.