Gaiman’s “MirrorMask” Library Cleverness

Gaiman’s “MirrorMask” Library ClevernessThis past week I watched Neil Gaiman’sMirror Mask“. The book-as-film chronicles the dream of a teenager whose mother has become ill and is undergoing surgery. In the scene below, the teenager, Helena, goes to the library with her New Best Friend, Valentine, to find clues to a missing charm. They arrive via flying books (you can see the flying books in the first few seconds of the video). The books fly back to the library if the reader insults them. The two characters insulted some Very Large Books, both to Get Out of a Predicament and to be Taken to the Library to find clues to the missing charm.

I love this scene. The reference librarian is funny, the library has an interesting design, and the fact that the books are alive and that Helena and Valentine have to use nets to “catch” them is cute. I was also amused by the idea of books molting due to depression, because there weren’t chosen to be read. I also wished I could have a copy of the Really Useful Book for myself!

I thought Gaiman showed great creativity and fun in creating new ways to store, access, and retrieve written, “analog” information.

Do you have any information retrieval favorites from fiction and/or film?

Google “Buzz”, Too Much Information

Google-Buzz-Sergey-BrinThe other week I wrote about my own complicity in sharing my private data via Facebook. I do this and I continue to do it because I gain something from using Facebook. I think of Facebook as going to a local coffee shop. You are able to keep up with a wide variety of people and overhear a variety of conversations. For the most part, it is fun. Most of all, you choose with whom you interact and decide whether to friend or not friend someone.

Last week, Google launched, “Buzz”. In case you have been under a rock and haven’t heard, the company initially opened up all Gmail users’ contacts to be viewed and known by the other contacts in the Gmail users’ address book. In other words, all Gmail users were immediately “opted in”, the moment you opened up Gmail. For more information on how it works, please watch Google’s video introduction below.

[26 December 2013: Google has removed this video. You may view some screenshots at TechCrunch.]

Let’s see: I don’t mind if my friends on Facebook see my other friends, but do I want everyone on my email contact list to know every person I have in my address book? No. I file this under, “Google’s intentions were good, but the company bombed in the implementation of this product.” With Facebook, I might be complicit in my data sharing privacy violations, but I was aware of those when I signed up for the service. I did not agree to make my email address book public when I signed up with Google. I had no choice but to share my data the moment I logged into my account, which I had to do before I could “opt out” of Buzz.

The company’s privacy violations have prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) to file a complaint with the FTC.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) filed a complaint with the FTC on Tuesday, saying that Google Buzz, which is location-based and integrated with Gmail, had been launched without taking user privacy properly into account.

“This complaint concerns an attempt by Google, Inc, the provider of a widely used email service to convert the private, personal information of Gmail subscribers into public information for the company’s social-network service Google Buzz,” said the Epic FTC filing.

“This change in business practices and service terms violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google’s own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws.”

Google Buzz, launched on 9 February, taps into a Gmail account to set up a group of people with whom the account holder can chat and network. When it was introduced, users signing into Gmail were automatically set up with Google Buzz. How does Buzz compare to Twitter and Facebook? Cashmore believes that Facebook is great for “managing your personal life”, and that Twitter “is ideal for public messaging”.

The service also automatically populated the users’ networks with the people they emailed and talked to the most. If the user then set up a public profile in Buzz, the service automatically made their list of contacts public.

After the outcry that followed the release of the service, Google changed the privacy settings so that users must “opt-in” to use Buzz. Which, of course, is “too little, too late” for the thousands, if not, millions, of users whose privacy was compromised.

Once the privacy issues are settled, we come to the question of, “What is Buzz Good for“? Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of Mashable, compares Buzz to a campus — it “proves most useful when you’re in search of answers”. How does Buzz stack up against Facebook and Twitter? Cashmore writes that if Buzz is equal to a campus, then Facebook is the “local bar” and Twitter is the “town square”. Katherine Boehret of The Wall Street Journal writes that, “Google Buzz Isn’t Exactly Humming Along“. While the program itself is fine (excluding the now-ameliorated privacy issues), she thinks it falls flat primarily because, “it’s late to the social-networking party”. She and her friends are sticking to Twitter and Facebook, because they don’t want yet another social networking site to check.

I don’t use Gmail as my primary email software, so when I opened it up I found only one follower. I deleted the follower, notified her that I wasn’t going to use Buzz and that my blocking her wasn’t personal, and then opted out of Buzz. I also deleted my entire Gmail address book, as I have a local copy I can refer to, if needed. I can’t give a personal opinion as to what I think it is good for. Like Boehret and her friends, I also don’t have the time for yet another social networking service.

Have you used Buzz? If so, what do you think of it? Do you feel that Gmail invaded your privacy by opting in your address book for public viewing? Will you add Buzz to your social networking repertoire?

Facebook’s Privacy Issue — We’re Each Responsible

CNN’s Ali Velshi interviews John Abell regarding how much privacy consumers should expect when using Facebook and other social media. I think John Abell gives a rather balanced response. I agree with him that as part of managing my personal data, the information I put on FB is mine, and that when I leave I should be able to take it with me easily.

I also agree with Abell’s statements that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy when we use social media — even taking into account it is a public space — and that companies have a responsibility to ensure that their customers retain a certain level of privacy. It is on both our shoulders.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share regarding privacy, Facebook, and the content of this video clip?

The Public Domain Manifesto

The Public Domain ManifestoThe Public Domain Manifesto” has been released by COMMUNIA, the European Thematic Network on the digital public domain.

If you would like to show your support for this cause, after you have read “The Public Domain Manifesto”, you may sign it. You may choose whether or not you would like your signature displayed online. Below, I have copied The Preamble verbatim. The full text of “The Public Domain Manifesto” is available at


“Le livre, comme livre, appartient à l’auteur, mais comme pensée, il appartient—le mot n’est pas trop vaste—au genre humain. Toutes les intelligences y ont droit. Si l’un des deux droits, le droit de l’écrivain et le droit de l’esprit humain, devait être sacrifié, ce serait, certes, le droit de l’écrivain, car l’intérêt public est notre préoccupation unique, et tous, je le déclare, doivent passer avant nous.” (Victor Hugo, Discours d’ouverture du Congrès littéraire international de 1878, 1878)

“Our markets, our democracy, our science, our traditions of free speech, and our art all depend more heavily on a Public Domain of freely available material than they do on the informational material that is covered by property rights. The Public Domain is not some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The Public Domain is the place we quarry the building blocks of our culture. It is, in fact, the majority of our culture.” (James Boyle, The Public Domain, p.40f, 2008)

The public domain, as we understand it, is the wealth of information that is free from the barriers to access or reuse usually associated with copyright protection, either because it is free from any copyright protection or because the right holders have decided to remove these barriers. It is the basis of our self-understanding as expressed by our shared knowledge and culture. It is the raw material from which new knowledge is derived and new cultural works are created. The Public Domain acts as a protective mechanism that ensures that this raw material is available at its cost of reproduction – close to zero – and that all members of society can build upon it. Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of our societies. The Public Domain plays a capital role in the fields of education, science, cultural heritage and public sector information. A healthy and thriving Public Domain is one of the prerequisites for ensuring that the principles of Article 27 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’) can be enjoyed by everyone around the world.

The digital networked information society has brought the issue of the Public Domain to the foreground of copyright discussions. In order to preserve and strengthen the Public Domain we need a robust and up-to-date understanding of the nature and role of this essential resource. This Public Domain Manifesto defines the Public Domain and outlines the necessary principles and guidelines for a healthy Public Domain at the beginning of the 21st century. The Public Domain is considered here in its relation to copyright law, to the exclusion of other intellectual property rights (like patents and trademarks), and where copyright law is to be understood in its broadest sense to include economic and moral rights under copyright and related rights (inclusive of neighboring rights and database rights). In the remainder of this document copyright is therefore used as a catch-all term for these rights. Moreover, the term ‘works’ includes all subject-matter protected by copyright so defined, thus including databases, performances and recordings. Likewise, the term ‘authors’ includes photographers, producers, broadcasters, painters and performers.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with managing your data? It is about whether or not you have access to the works of others, and whether or not they have access to your work. It is about managing how and who uses and does not use your data/information/product, as well as when, and for how long. Ideally, maintaining a “Public Domain” contributes to the cultural output of a society because the producers receive some copyright protection, but their creative output is not copyrighted in perpetuity. This opens the products of their mind to continued use and reuse by later generations.

[Via Nat T.]

What is Your Digital Fingerprint?

binary dataAs a result of Data Privacy Day last week, I have spent the past few days poking around online to see what data about myself I could discover that I didn’t know existed. Before I try to tame others’ data, perhaps I should try taming my own?

I searched under various versions of my name. Now, I admit to engaging in “ego searches” before, but I have never gone through every major search engine and examined every page of the results. Most of it was boring, to be honest. I’m just not that interesting. The links were about this conference, that conference, this old CV, some old presentation. However, some other information I found associated with my name was interesting to me, and it was all new (and news) to me.

For example, I discovered that “someone” had taken a programming assignment from a course I had taken 8 years ago and put the homework online on an assignment sharing site. My name and the course number were still on it, and I was able to compare it to the original assignment. I immediately wrote the company who owned the site, and they did remove the assignment. I also increased security measures on the public html directory provided by my graduate program.

I discovered that someone had stored my master’s paper in a repository in…Argentina. I expected downloads of my master’s paper for personal use. I did not expect it to be stored in a repository without my consent. I found that one to be a bit odd, but I left it alone. I also didn’t realize that Google tracks what I watch on YouTube via iGoogle, if I am logged into my account. I can, however, delete most information about me that Google stores. (Please see the Google Privacy Center for more information on how to view your account-related Google data.)

I also read “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy” by Daniel J. Solove. In this article, he argues that whether or not you have something to hide isn’t the point. Privacy isn’t about whether or not you have something to hide, it is about what is and isn’t someone else’s business. It is about the balance of power. It is about knowing what the government or a corporation is storing about you, having the right to opt out, and having the right to change any erroneous information. Even if data is anonymized and machine-analyzed, what business is it of the government, corporations, or organizations to hold this data in the first place? Can this information that has been gathered about you without your knowledge or consent be held against you at some future point?

For example, today I learned that the government mandates genetic testing of all newborns. Because it is the law, parents are not required to provide consent before the testing is performed. Did you know that some states will hold copies of your baby’s DNA indefinitely? In MN, the DNA is stored attached to identifying information in the event the child goes missing and/or dies. Some states do allow you to opt out, and will destroy the genetic material upon request. Your DNA is very personal. I don’t mind the testing of babies, I do mind if the DNA is stored by any organization for an indefinite period. In one instance, a baby tested positive for cystic fibrosis, and this result will be stored in her records with the insurance company, because the cost of the test was covered by insurance. (Note: the parents stated they would have paid out of pocket for the testing, if they’d known about the testing requirement beforehand, in order to avoid this black mark on their child’s health insurance record.) Will this information be held against this child down the road? What if other tests are developed, for manic-depression or other disorders? Will the indefinitely stored results of these tests prevent these babies from getting health insurance or a job in the future?

Michelle G. Hough wrote a fascinating article, entitled, “Keeping It to Ourselves: Technology, Privacy, and the Loss of Reserve“. The author defined reserve as the “ability to control what information about us is disclosed, and what is not”. She cites a previous study by Sweeney which found, using 1990 census data, that with only the combination of zip code, birth date, and gender, 87% of the U.S population could be identified. If you combine that data set with a 3rd party “anonymized” data set that contains related information, you could identify the users in the 3rd party data set. The conclusion? We need to think and talk more about privacy, reserve, and how much of those we are willing to lose in exchange for the advantages technological innovation brings us.

Anonymized data is not as “anonymous” as one might desire. The Electronic Frontier Foundation estimates that in order to identify one individual in the entire population of the planet, you need only 32.6 bits of information. The organization is conducting an experiment to determine how unique browser configurations are, and whether or not effective online tracking can be accomplished by corporations, organizations, and/or the government. The experiment is a project called Panopticlick. I went to the web site and let the software test my browser configuration.

I learned that I have 19 bits of identifying information in my browser fingerprint. However, my browser fingerprint does appear to be unique among the 572,016 browsers tested so far.

I encourage you to poke around online and check your digital fingerprint. This was a time-consuming exercise for me, but an enlightening one.

A History of the Internet

The History of the InternetThe following animation is a concise, high-level technical history of the Internet, c. 1957-2009. This ~8 minute animation covers its early development and concepts, including the creation of the commercial, military, and scientific networks.

This history describes how the politics of the times, such as the Cold War, influenced the decentralized, distributed design and development of the ‘Net. It also details the non-USA contributions to its development.

I enjoyed watching the development of the network protocols themselves. The visual presentation is clean, flows well, and conveys a great deal of information. More information about the history and development of the Internet is available at Hobbes’ Internet Timeline.

The “Un-site” — They “Get It”

I admit I was left unimpressed by my first view of an “un-site“. I thought it was a clever-but-messy way to tame all of an organization’s online data, but the “site authors” (in quotes because it isn’t a web site) were trying too hard.

In the same post, the authors of The Social Path also linked to a video-as-web-site by Boone & Oakley, a full-service advertising agency based in Charlotte, NC. I did not click on it at the time, having been less-than-impressed with the other “un-site”. However, curiosity made me take a second look at it yesterday.

I’m so glad I did.

This video-as-web-site is absolutely wonderful. I know I am repeating what others have said since this video was posted last May, but B&O completely “get it”. I spent a lot of time on the video/web site examining their portfolio, bios, “vision“, etc. Is the site sticky? Yes. I loved it. It is simple but well organized, and provides access to a lot of information.

I encourage you to check it out for yourself, if you haven’t already. This is an incredibly wonderful example of how to organize and manage your data (i.e., your online presence). I also admire their sense of humor and their ability not to take themselves too seriously while doing great work.