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Archive for January, 2006

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MSPod?

Friday, January 27th, 2006

Look out Apple, here come the big boys

Categories: Tech Talk | 3 Comments »

More Search Engine Privacy Mania

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

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.

2) This from Google’s Zeitgeist page:

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.

Does anyone know the answer to this question?

Categories: Political Rantings, Tech Talk | 3 Comments »

Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

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.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Came looking for info on Billy Joel and only got a concert review? Check out the I Should Be Sleeping Billy Joel FAQ! Inspired by Googlers like you!)

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…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Words about Music | 66 Comments »

Mickey’s new boss…

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Disney is in serious talks to buy Pixar, in a deal that would make Steve Jobs a Disney board member, and the largest single shareholder of the company.

If it happens, I think the first thing he’d do is turn Mickey into a one-button mouse:

Much more user-friendly, no?

Categories: The Disneyverse | 5 Comments »

Privacy Paranoia Strikes Again

Friday, January 20th, 2006

Two stories in the news today about supposed “privacy concerns.”

First, Google:

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.

(Side note: Another example of news cataloging, as discussed previously).

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?

Categories: Political Rantings, Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

Rubik^3 . . . again

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

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…

Categories: The World Wide Weird | No Comments »

The Unholy Alliance continues

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

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?”

Stay tuned…

Categories: Tech Talk | 1 Comment »

The oldest form of piracy…

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

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.

So guess what? The RIAA is trying to make it illegal.

Why am I not surprised?

Categories: Political Rantings, Tech Talk, Words about Music | No Comments »

JPMorganChase – Not-So-Free Checking

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

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…

Categories: Money Talk | 1 Comment »

A Warning and a Test

Friday, January 13th, 2006

Just in case there are a lot of squirrels reading this blog, here’s what happens if one of you gets caught at Mike’s house:

(More honestly, this is basically an experiment to see if Google’s “Put on site” link works in a blog.)

UPDATE: It works! Cool!

Categories: The World Wide Weird | 2 Comments »

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