More noise about the major search engine companies turning over data to the government. It seems we've gone right past what has actually happened, paused only briefly at what could have happened, and proceeded directly to what could theoretically happen:
Once government prosecutors get non-identifiable information, they could see patterns that they decide are suspicious, and then go back to subpoena specific data that could identify people whose searches fell within those patterns.
"It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the government would say, 'we know these searches occurred, so lets have more information,'" Serwin said.
There is no indication that the Justice Department is heading in that direction in the current case, but providing such large amounts of data could be the beginnings of a trend, the lawyer said.
Did everybody get that? There's no indication that anything of the kind is happening, but what if it did? Wouldn't the government be evil, evil, evil? And wouldn't the search engine companies be evil, evil, evil by proxy? Federal government AND big business painted as evil-doers - a double score!
What seems to be missing among all the hysteria is a simple technical question: when a user is logged in to one of these services and performs a search, does the company store the name of the user that conducted the search? If not, then there is nothing to fear - even if the government came calling, the companies would have no data to give them.
Theorizing for a second, I'm tempted to say that the answer is no for two reasons:
1) None of these sites (to my knowledge, anyway) offer a list of recently performed searches for easy re-running (other than client side things like auto-complete or the dropdown in the Google toolbar). If they had history data on a per-user basis, this would seem an obvious, easy to build, and convenient thing to give users.
We should note that in compiling the Zeitgeist, no individual searcher's information is available or accessible to us. What you see here is a cumulative snapshot of interesting queries people are asking – some over time, some within country domains, and some on Google.com – that perhaps reveal a bit of the human condition. We appreciate the contribution all Google users make to these fascinating bits of information.
It doesn't say "we don't use personal data," it says "personal data isn't available to us." Now granted, that's just Google. Microsoft and Yahoo may have different architectures with different functionality.
Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden
[Ed. Note: Looking for a review of Billy Joel's Shea Stadium Concert from July 16, 2008? Click here]
I'm train-blogging on my way home from the show. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I bought the tickets mostly out of nostalgia, since one of my first real dates with my wife was a Billy Joel concert in Philadelphia (December 18th, 1989, she reminded me tonight). Just over 15 years later, my expectations for the now 58-year old Joel were quite low. Then I saw a few setlists & realized that this was an oportunity to hear live performances of songs I'd never heard live before.
On that score, the show did not disapppoint. He sang Everybody Loves You Now, Stiletto, Zanzibar (with a truly kick-ass flugelhorn solo, followed immediately by an even more kick-ass trumpet solo - both by the same guy), Great Wall of China (dedicated to his ex-manager - if you don't know why, go check out the lyrics), All for Leyna, and She's Always a Woman in addition to the standard fare of Greatest Hits material.
As to the quality of the show, there's just no getting over the fact that the man is getting older. Some of the harder rock tunes fell a little flat (like Pressure, Big Man on Mulberry Street, which slowed down dramtically as it went on, and All For Leyna, which was a nice concert rarity, but required so much concentration from Joel that he never once looked up from the lyrics tele-prompter or even ventured a smile). Other songs, though, he pulled off quite nicely, including Big Shot, You May Be Right, It's Still Rock & Roll To Me, Angry Young Man and I Go to Extremes. He also sang all the high notes on Innocent Man himself, something he hasn't done in years (my wife pointed out that his new-found sobriety might have been the enabler there).
UPDATE: A listen to Billy Joel - 12 Gardens Live reveals another reason - see this blog post for more.
Being a piano player myself, my favorite part of the concert is watching Joel's hands on the keyboard, which I consider almost as educational as it is entertaining. Tonight's seats, third row just behind & to the left of the stage provided a great view (nice job, Jason!). I was surprised to see that he's changed his style of play significantly. He no longer bangs the living hell out of the piano like he used to. Now, it looks much more like the old cliche - "tickling the ivories.". There were far fewer piano riffs/solos than there had been in years past, but what he did play sounded great, even if it wasn't as dramatic as it used to be.
Also on a musical note (groan...), the band itself was a nice reunion. Rich Cannata and Tommy Byrne were back, so we got to hear all the original sax & guitar solos from the Turnstiles and Glass Houses days, not to mention some great horn section work by Cannata, Crystal Taliefero, and Mark Rivera on songs such as Keeping the Faith, Movin' Out, and Only the Good Die Young. A surprise to me was the absence of Liberty DeVitto who, according to someone sitting in our section, had a falling out with Joel over a book Liberty's writing that apparently goes into a little too much detail about Billy's days of drinking and drugs. My section-mate claims that Liberty wasn't even invited to Billy's latest wedding. As the man says, "melodrama's so much fun..."
Finally, there were those special concert moments that make the price of a ticket worthwhile. We had modern day commentary in the lyrics of Zanzibar:
Rose he knows he'll never make the Hall of Fame; And the Yankees grab the headlines every time.
...and a nod to his recent dalliances in Scenes from an Italian Restaurant:
A bottle of white; A bottle of red; Perhaps a bottle of Ginger Ale instead.
...and even some political commentary from the crowd during the Piano Man finale:
Now Paul is a real estate novelist; Who never had time for a wife. And he's talking with Davy, who's still in the navy; (crowd screams much louder than the rest of the verse:)AND PROBABLY WILL BE FOR LIFE
All in all, the show did not disappoint. It was as nostalgic as I hoped it would be, but not in that awkward, "wow, things have really gone downhill" way that I had feared. With a few exceptions, Billy Joel and his band sounded fantastic and put on a high energy, entertaining show. Yes, he shuffles around the stage instead of running, and stops for a swig of water between every song (and occasionally during someone else's solo). But no one else in the world can make that music sound that good, and on the whole, I'm glad he's still doing it. Bravo, Billy, and thanks for the memories.
UPDATE: I see from my server logs that over 500 of you have read this review. God Bless Google! In any case, welcome to my blog. If you like what you read, please feel free to leave a comment and/or look around a bit.
UPDATE #2: Readership on this post is approaching 2,000 users. Glad you stopped by! If you liked what you read, please feel free to look around. Billy Joel enthusiasts might appreciate my reviews of the My Lives box set (Disc 1, Disc 2, Disc 3, Disc 4) in particular. Or, just check out the main page and go from there. Enjoy, all!
UPDATE #3: Well over 3,500 7,500 pageviews now. Good lord, this thing's getting some mileage. Seriously, though - look around. Stay awhile. What's your hurry? You just got here...
Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush administration's demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet's leading search engine -- a request that underscores the potential for online databases to become tools for government surveillance.
The government wants a list all requests entered into Google's search engine during an unspecified single week -- a breakdown that could conceivably span tens of millions of queries. In addition, it seeks 1 million randomly selected Web addresses from various Google databases.
In court papers that the San Jose Mercury News reported on after seeing them Wednesday, the Bush administration depicts the information as vital in its effort to restore online child protection laws that have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It goes on to say the government asked all the major search engines for a random sampling, in order to determine how often web searches return pornographic sites. Note that they're not asking for who did the searches, just the searches themselves. We continue:
Although the government says it isn't seeking any data that ties personal information to search requests, the subpoena still raises serious privacy concerns, experts said. Those worries have been magnified by recent revelations that the White House authorized eavesdropping on civilian communications after the Sept. 11 attacks without obtaining court approval.
But aside for creating a chance to mention the eavesdropping case again, why are privacy experts concerned? We continue again:
The content of search request sometimes contain information about the person making the query.
For instance, it's not unusual for search requests to include names, medical profiles or Social Security information, said Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum.
"This is exactly the kind of thing we have been worrying about with search engines for some time," Dixon said.
OK, Pam - here's a news flash for you: the name in the search request is the name of the person the searcher is looking for, not the name of the searcher. If someone Googles "Brian Greenberg," it could be me (OK, yeah, I admit it, I check every so often. What, you don't???) But if someone Googles "Pamela Anderson," odds are pretty good it's not her. This sounds a whole lot like a concern in search of a problem, me thinks.
Moving on, we come to a company that usually stays out of the "ticking off consumers" fray: Apple:
The MiniStore, part of the latest version of the iTunes music store, displays a bottom pane that shows artists and music titles a person may be interested in buying, based on the songs they selected in their personal music library. According to a posting on the Boing Boing blog directory, the store transmitted to Apple information related to users' listening habits, as well as their unique Apple identifier that's tied to their credit card, mother's maiden name and other personal information.
The disclosure brought criticism from privacy advocates, who objected to Apple not making it clear to users that it was gathering personal data, and not asking permission first.
"Allowing users to upload information voluntarily and expressly with adequate privacy protections is pro-user; surreptitiously siphoning it into a remote database without any privacy guarantees is not. It's time for Apple to pick a side of the line and walk it," Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote on its Web site.
The quote from the EFF sounds ominous, but if you read more deeply into their article, you see this:
What Apple does with this information is unknown, although Apple has represented that they are not collecting data on its users -- yet. Nor has Apple disclosed the steps they take to prevent disclosure or leakage of the information to third parties.
Ironically, this news comes on the heels of the recent Sony BMG DRM fiasco, a part of which included an undisclosed "phone home" feature of its own. Is the Apple MiniStore a rootkit DRM? Not from what we can tell, but it is part of a dangerous trend EFF has been witnessing in the digital music space market.
(Another Side Note: See the news cataloging again? This has about as much in common with Sony's rootkit as chocolate does with brussel sprouts. No matter - we need to mention something that's already established as "serious" to add "serious points" to our current story. But I digress...again).
According to Apple, they're not storing the data - just using it to determine a recommendation and then throwing it away. Now, of course, they could be lying. Or they could be telling the truth, but have secret plans to start keeping the data one day. But as of now, the phrase "surreptitiously siphoning [user data] into a remote database without any privacy guarantees" seems a little, well, presumptuous, no?
In the end, Apple responded to the criticism by adding an opt-out feature to iTunes, which seems to have placated everybody. That's a good result, although it makes me wonder: if Apple's intent was to try and sell more music (as opposed to eventually blackmailing people who are still listening to Brittney Spears, for instance), then their modification to iTunes was done as a bow to political pressure in order to avoid a public relations nightmare, not as a way to preserve user privacy. With that kind of influence over a major retailer like iTunes, doesn't what the EFF did seem a little like blackmail itself?
OK, not only are they still holding Rubik's Cube competitions, but Leyan Lo just set the world record by solving one in 11.33 seconds. Leyan is twenty years old, making him five years younger than the cube itself.
I guess if you're going to waste time, it's good to be able to waste as little of it as possible...
When we first heard about the Mactel machines, I wrote that the big win for Apple was Macintosh hardware running Windows, turning them from a niche shop into a major hardware provider to major corporations overnight.
At the time, Apple's official comment was that it wouldn't sell nor encourage Windows on a Mac platform.
Today's Internetweek article references this idea, but it's a little vague. It sounds like Apple is standing by it's original statement, but InternetWeek is now spinning it to mean "they're not going to stop it."
Maybe the demand will force Apple's hand here? Or maybe the whole thing is a marketing campaign to reach the ultimate goal without the zealots claiming they "sold out?"
If you're of my generation, the first thing you did that even resembled piracy was taping songs off the radio. I can remember putting the tape recorder right next to the speaker (no audio in/out in those days), and insisting that everyone in the house/room be quiet during the song.
Well, technology has improved far beyond the presence of audio in/out, and now (digitally) taping something off the (satellite) radio can score you a professional quality CD.
I've had bank accounts of one kind or another since I'm a kid, and this is the first time I'm genuinely pissed off at my bank. Seriously pissed off. As in "will seriously considering closing my accounts and going elsewhere after 11 years of hassle-free service" pissed off. Here's the scoop:
I have Checking and Savings accounts with JPMorganChase, but I prefer to use Quicken for online banking, rather than their online banking site. In late November, I received an e-mail telling me that they were replacing their online services vendor with an internal Chase system, and I needed to make a few changes within Quicken to accommodate them. The instructions they sent me, while detailed and well-formatted, left out several major steps and left my online banking environment unstable for several days while I dealt with tech support on numerous occasions to get it right.
But that's not why I'm so pissed off.
The only noticeable impact of the change on my end involved the way Quicken processed online checks. Before the change, if I told Quicken to send Mastercard a check for $500 on January 17th, a debit entry appeared in my checkbook register on January 17th, and Quicken would wire the money so that it arrived at Mastercard on (or very near) that date. At that point (on or near January 17th), the money would come out of my checking account and go into some account at Mastercard. Which, of course, is exactly how I expected it to work.
Not anymore. Now, if I tell Quicken to pay $500 on January 17th, the debit entry appears in my checkbook register for January 12th. This reflects the date Chase will send the check/wire-transfer to the vendor (a wire transfer takes 3 business days to process, and there's a three-day weekend in there.). When I saw this, I called tech support back and asked about it. They assured me that Mastercard would still receive my check on the 17th as I instructed. Quicken was just recording a different date in the register. This was mildly annoying, because it meant I couldn't just glance at my account balance and know how much money was in the account. I had to mentally move the checks down to when they'd reach their vendors and recalculate.
This is also not the reason I'm so pissed off.
Here's the reason: I found out today (a date between January 12th and January 17th) that the January 12th date actually is important. When I instruct Quicken to send Mastercard $500 on January 17th, Chase actually TAKES THE MONEY OUT OF MY ACCOUNT ON JANUARY 12TH!!! EVEN THOUGH MASTERCARD DOESN'T RECEIVE THE MONEY UNTIL JANUARY 17TH!!! They're basically holding the money for 5 days (and, no doubt, earning interest on it at the same time).
Meanwhile, the reason I dated the check January 17th was that my direct deposit paycheck arrives on January 13th. So because of this new policy, I came very, very close to bouncing a check (another vendor didn't cash a large check they received last week, so I got lucky).
But wait - it gets worse! The due date on the Mastercard bill is January 18th. So even if I were willing to play math games in my head, and figure out that I need to date the check January 20th in order for the debit to occur after my paycheck hits, I'm still screwed, because in that scenario, Mastercard gets its check late and hits me with a late fee and a finance charge.
This is no longer a checking account. It's a debit account. The checks I write online are being treated like cash that I stuff in an envelope and mail to people (as soon as I mail it, I no longer have the cash). The whole point of checking accounts is to allow you to hold on to your money until the other person gets it. In other words, had I written a good old fashioned paper check, dated it January 17th, and sent it to Mastercard, Chase would have left the money in my account, right where it should be, until Mastercard cashed the check - on or after January 17th. That's how checks have worked for decades. It's how online checks worked until a month ago.
It's also how online checks work at other banks.
JPMC seems to have forgotten just how unimportant the actual bank is to the process of banking these days. I never walk into the bank anymore - I do all my banking through Quicken and ATMs. One visit to a different bank and a few clicks of a mouse are all I need to do to make the change. Apparently, the right relationship isn't quite everything (as they claim in their ads).
But wait! What would a story like this be without an ironic epilogue: When I called them today, the customer service rep had absolutely no idea why it worked this way, and transferred me to technical support. The technical support person told me they changed the policy because too many people were post-dating checks and not managing their money properly, causing them to bounce checks. So this policy is to prevent check bouncing. Using as much self-control as I could muster, I pointed out to her that this "anti-bouncing" policy just came within inches of causing me to bounce my first check in eleven years. She agreed to log my complaint in the customer service database. Thank God for small favors...
Senator Ted Kennedy has a children's book coming out called "My Senator and Me: A Dog's-Eye View of Washington, D.C." It's the story of a "a full day in the Senator's life, but also explains how a bill becomes a law" as told by Senator Kennedy's dog, Splash.
Today's Screedblog entry from James Lileks covers two topics: faith and George W. Bush. He better watch it - this kind of thing could catch on...
On faith, he quotes a Sunday Strib editorial (not available online) which suggests that:
Regular formal worship really does seem to improve a family's economic outcomes, increased children's chances of graduating from high school and reduce the likelihood of getting divorced or going on welfare.
I think the most useful thing I learned in my freshman year's Statistics 101 class was the difference between causation and causality. Comes up all the time. To wit: Has this study proven that religious people are richer, smarter and more happily married? Or has it proven that rich, smart and happily married people are more likely to be religious? Or, perhaps, it proves that folks who meet certain other criteria (not studied here) are richer, smarter, more happily married and more religious as a result.
None of which matters, of course, unless someone is trying to suggest that becoming more religious will make you richer or smarter or solve your marital problems. There's no control group for that kind of statement.
On Bush, Lileks flames those who worry more about the government trying to spy on us than the terrorists trying to kill us:
If President Clinton had used the same tools as President Bush, intercepted communications between McVeigh's associate and, say, Philippine Islamist cells, and this nifty intel operation thwarted the OKC bombing, most Americans of all political stripes would have nodded approval, turned the page and forgotten about it. (Just as most forgot about the 1993 WTC attack.) That's what we pay you guys for! Nice job.
First of all, as an unwilling participant in the 1993 WTC attack, I'm not sure what he means by "most forgot about" it. That certainly doesn't go for folks around here, but maybe things are different in Minnesota.
As for government spying, I think most people would have been fine with them catching McVeigh talking to Terry Nichols, even if he wasn't a Philippine Islamist. It's not much of a leap to point out that folks are in favor of actions that prevent terrorist attacks.
On the other hand, this isn't an either-or proposition. When successful spying operations raise questions about constitutional freedoms, the system is working. We're having (or should be having) a healthy discussion about the pros and cons of an approach, and finding a way to maintain effectiveness while retaining our civil liberties.
I can't help but feel that this is exactly what would be happening, if not for hysterics on both sides. The political left and the MSM have jumped all over the costs of this program, completely ignoring the benefits. Folks like Lileks, in turn, react by focusing on the benefits and minimizing the costs. Much to everyone's chagrin, both exist and both need to be weighed.
Oh, and in case anyone thinks this is new, here's something I wrote almost four years ago that hits on the same themes.
My wife and I have tickets to see Billy Joel in Madison Square Garden on Jan 23rd. We originally saw him together in Philadelphia back in 1989, and have long considered it one of our "first dates" (thanks, Heidi, on the off chance you're reading this, for getting a stomach ache that night & giving up your ticket). At any rate, we got the tickets to this one, primarily for nostalgia purposes, although we both agreed we'd probably we disappointed with a 56-year old recovering alcoholic trying to recapture his (and our) youth.
Well, the tour opened last night in Florida, and check out this setlist (via SleepingPoliceman).
Laura? Sleeping with the Television On? Where's the Orchestra? She's Right on Time? ZANZIBAR?!?!?
This seems to be the show all the die-hard fans have always wished Joel would do - eschewing the pop hits for some of the more musical (and more obscure) selections in his vast catalog, and throwing in a few standards for old time's sake.
Suddenly, I'm very much looking forward to this show...
UPDATE: I see from my server logs that over 500 of you have read this post. God Bless Google! In any case, welcome to my blog. Here's a review of the show I posted the night of the concert. Also, if you like what you read here, please feel free to leave a comment and/or look around a bit.
UPDATE #2: Readership on this post has now passed 1,000 users. Glad you stopped by! If you liked what you read, please feel free to look around. Billy Joel enthusiasts might appreciate my reviews of the My Lives box set (Disc 1, Disc 2, Disc 3, Disc 4) in particular. Or, just check out the main page and go from there. Enjoy, all!
InternetWeek is reporting that the NSA's website has been caught "placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most of them." These insidious little files are called "cookies."
All together now....<forehead smack>
Six paragraphs in, the article mentions that "Cookies are widely used at commercial Web sites and can make Internet browsing more convenient by letting sites remember user preferences." Of course, it then goes on to mention the recent New York Times flack regarding the NSA and the warantless phone call tapping. How many millions of people do you think will read this somewhere and take it as absolute proof that the government is spying on us through their websites?
Now, to be fair, persistent cookies on federal websites were made illegal in 2003 (session cookies are not). The NSA got a software upgrade and the software installed with persistent cookies defaulted on. When alerted to the problem, they turned them off. Sounds legit to me. But Daniel Brandt, the privacy activist who found the cookies says, "mistakes happen, 'but in any case, it's illegal. The (guideline) doesn't say anything about doing it accidentally.'" That's right Daniel - let's throw 'em all in jail for persistent cookies. Maybe they'll even start calling it "cookie-gate." Sheesh...
One more word on the disney trip, but this time for the select few people that I know read this blog with some regularity: the things my family & friends would find bizarre if I brought up in a "What I did on my vacation" conversation:
As some of you know, I have an iTrip attachment for the iPod that lets me play the thing through the car radio to keep the kids entertained on car trips. Turns out, when we hit the hotel room & have a few hours to kill, I was able to do the same thing with the crappy little clock radio in the room, and prevent the standard "veg out in front of the TV until we hit the theme parks" mode that I assumed would happen. Kids were amazed to hear their own music in the hotel room, too. I was very proud...
Disney technology is an absolute marvel. Quick example: the electrical (nighttime) parade through Magic Kingdom is about 25 minutes long. We were sitting about 20 minutes into the parade route. There are speakers hidden all throughout the park (I couldn't find them even though I periodically looked for them). At fifteen minutes past the posted parade start time, I hand't heard a peep and them - whammo! trumpet fanfares and an announcement from Jiminy Cricket that the parade was starting in five minutes. We got the entire experience (music & characters) just like the folks at the beginning of the route got, and there was nothing to indicate that the sound was moving along with the floats. I'm told the floats actually have RFID devices on them, so that the speakers react to the actual position of the floats (rather than running on a timing routine). That way, if the parade has to stop for whatever reason (technical difficulty, kid runs out in front of Mickey's float), the appropriate music stays with the approrpiate character/float. Awesome stuff & highly effective...
For $30 in Epcot, I took a one-hour Segway class. Got to ride one for about 45 minutes, ask a bunch of questions, etc. Quick review: it's not as effortless as it was made to sound when it came out. You need to practice a bit to get the hang of it. After the 45 minutes, I was pretty good at generally moving around, but going up & down hills (especially down) was still a little uncomfortable). Also, you use a dial on one of the handlebars to turn, so you really can't have both hands free for any length of time while riding it. Finally, something that hadn't occurred to me until I was on one: if you're walking around for 45 minutes, your leg muscles are getting exercise. If you're on a Segway for 45 minutes, your legs are basically standing still for that entire time. When I got off the thing, I had some significant cramps/soreness. Odd for a device I would have thought would be a pleasant alternative to walking around all day. The instructor told me they're working on a four-wheeled version that you sit in, rather than stand on. In any case, I still stand by my original assessment from years ago: if they cost $200, there'd be millions of them all around the country. At $3,500+, they're mildly interesting for postmen, security guards, etc., but they'll never catch on.
WARNING: SERIOUS GUSHING ABOUT DISNEYWORLD AND ALL THINGS DISNEY FOLLOWS. THOSE WITH WEAK CONSTITUTIONS, PLEASE MOVE ON...
My wife & I and are two kids just returned from a week in the Disney theme parks followed by a three-day Disney cruise. I had extremely high expectations for this trip, given how much I love the whole Disney experience, and how psyched the kids were about it. I'm happy to report that the trip met every single expectation and exceeded many of them.
The secret to the whole trip wasn't just the 67 rides we went on across four theme parks in six days. Nor was it the thirty plus Disney characters we met, took pictures with and received autographs from. It was Disney's ability to take their considerable array of well-known characters, stories and music, and create a well-insulated world for the entire family to live in. When you're in these parks (or in the hotels, or the restaurants, or the cruise ship, or even on the public transportation between sites), you're in an environment where everyone is in a good mood all the time, and they all believe to their core that the most famous celebrity in all the world is Mickey Mouse. Despite their almost constant presence, sightings of Mickey & his many, many friends are treasured. The kids go nuts for them. They get autographs. They hug & kiss them and tell them about their trip. The parents take pictures and video. The kids hug the parents & thank them for bringing them to DisneyWorld. It's an incredibly well designed positive reinforcement loop, and it works even when you know exactly what's happening & why. Bravo, Disney. Bravo.
At any rate, our entire trip is documented here: http://www.familygreenberg.com/disney. I'd humbly suggest that anyone planning a Disney trip take a look through it - it's a pretty complete chronicle of what we did and how everything looks.