Things, stuff, and other items of interest

March 25, 2010

Notes to my Nephew #003

Dear future Jack:

Hey there little buddy, I hope this note finds you happy, healthy and full of awesome. It was only a few weeks ago now that you came up for your first ever Winterlude visit. You and your entourage arrived in town for the last weekend of our annual winter festival. You handled yourself like a pro while we skated / walked / stumbled up and down the Rideau Canal. The ice was a little rough when you were here since at the time we were smack-dab in the middle of an unseasonably warm two weeks. Never the less, the canal was serviceable and the whole gang of us trekked along gobbling down Beaver Tails and taking in the sights.

Not a spectacular shot, but not bad for an iPhone + the Autostitch app.

Yes indeed, between your Mom speed skating up and down the entire stretch, and your Dad constantly trying to land the triple salchows I don't think the canal has seen such chaos since the last time your cousin Serhij came up for a visit and managed to get himself lost for over two hours. No small irony then that I myself lost you guys briefly when I got side tracked by the blonde beauty batting her eyelashes at me. Or so I thought. Here's where things get slightly interesting.

I was trying to catch up to the rest of you just moments after stopping to take the above photo when I spotted what was a rather awkward attempt to get my attention. As you may have guessed by now, this sort of thing happens to me all of the time. Beautiful women throwing caution and social decorum to the wind, brazenly screaming sweet nothings in my general direction, in the hopes that I may favour them with a momentary interest. What was peculiar about this particular instance was that it was happening in reality. I was completely awake and this blonde vixen was clearly focusing her magnificent attention on moi.

Naturally, being a gentlemen, I stopped to inquire if I could offer my assistance. Now it's important to keep in mind that at this point in our tale, that you and your adoring fans were only about a kilometer or so further along than I was. Your Old Man, being familiar with the "Curse of Adonis" that all men in our family suffer from, had doubled back to check on me, fearing that I had been carried off by a wandering band of wanton she-devils. After a brief search, he found me well in control of the situation, and so returned to you and your Ma with well practiced excuses of how I was merely stopping for a moment to help some poor lass who had fallen prey to our family curse.

It will no doubt shock you when I tell you that your father's perception was in fact not entirely 100% completely accurate. What he bore witness to was not me chatting up some doe-eye'd Rideau Canal skate bunny, but rather me being suckered into a sales pitch from a canvasser from the Red Cross. She and her cohorts had swooped down on the final weekend of Winterlude like an economically inspired venue of vultures.

Embarrassing tales of my ill-perceived Don Juan aspirations aside, I'll pause briefly in this missive to encourage any and all who may be reading this to visit the Canadian Red Cross website and give until it hurts. What with the recent events in Haiti & Chile, as well as their many other on going campaigns, the Red Cross certainly needs your generous support.

Now pal, you may be wondering why would I willfully and voluntarily share this mildly amusing if personally embarrassing anecdote with both you, and the public masses? The answer is simple little man. I'm trying to illustrate an example of where perceptions of a common event have lead to two completely different results. Both 'true' after a fashion, if slightly delusional on your father's part, and pride-obliteratingly awkward on my own. Down right deceptively efficient on the part of the Red Cross cutey however.

Simply put, my goal in this endeavour is to attempt to illustrate the old axiom of "The Three Truths". No, not that one, this one (paraphrasing):
There is my truth, there is your truth, and then there's actually what happened.
- Anonymous
Hardly an original quote, but it's one that I've always found both amusing and on occasion disturbingly accurate. Recently, here in Ottawa, there was a lady from another country who had been invited to come and speak her mind on the topics of free speech, political correctness and media bias. The lady agreed to give her speech, and accepted the invitation. This is where things went a little wonky.

The lady's name is Anne Coulter, and she has a knack for irritating the living shit out of some people. Other people however, think she's very smart and has a lot of interesting things to say. The point is, that she had been invited to the University of Ottawa, by one of their student groups to give a speech. The idea here was to give her a platform upon which she could give voice to her ideas. The audience, presumably would be intelligent enough to determine whether she was a luminary of the ages, or a zealot shovelling bullshit faster and higher than anyone else. This is not how things turned out however. A group of students who thought they knew better than everyone else decided to cause a fuss, and eventually made such a ruckus that it was decided by those in charge to close down the event for fear that they could not ensure everyone's safety.

Personally, I'm not a fan of Anne Coulter. I don't think very much of her ideas or the manner in which she delivers them, but she has the right to her own opinion and the right the share it. There's no small irony that this whole affair is centered around a discussion about free speech. Unsurprisingly, this whole thing has gotten a lot of people upset. I would wager however, that Ms. Coulter does not count herself among that number. A more magnificently efficient form of free marketing she could not dream of. What's more, her next destination on her speaking tour is in one of my favourite towns in this country, and they are likely to be a considerably more sympathetic audience.

In a classic oblivious foot-in-mouth fashion, one of the protesting students was quoted on CBC radio the following morning saying:

I believe in free speech, I just don't think [Anne Coulter] should be able to give her speech here.
- Anonymous student protester
March 23rd 2010
I'm staggered by that. The finest principles of "N.I.M.B.Y." as applied to the concept of free speech. Quite frankly little buddy, I had expected better. If the press coverage of this event is anything to judge, so did a lot of other people as well. The real kicker, is that while all of this is going on, there's a website that embodies the principles of free speech better than I could possibly explain and it is fighting for it's life. That may be both figuratively true, as well as literally if their sources are accurate.

So pal, I'll leave you with this. When in doubt, ask your self: "Cui bono?" Everything is open to scrutiny. Politics, politicians, religion, religious leaders, teachers, authors, luminaries and dullards alike. If someone feels that they are qualified to tell you what to think, then they should at the very least be qualified to defend their point of view. This applies to as much to me as it does anyone else. Develop and cherish your critical thinking skills. Use them often.
The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.

March 11, 2010

Motorcycles, Geeky Euphoria, and Three legged chickens - Riding season has begun!

That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel.
Robert M. Pirsig, from: "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

I am about to do what I had more or less promised I wouldn't. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think writing about riding is an exercise in futility. There are some topics that simply don't lend themselves well to the written word. I'm not so arrogant to think that I can accomplish this task where giants who have walked before me have failed. The best I can do is try, pitifully, to give you some fleeting impression of what it's like for me.

Some of you know this, some of you don't. I write code for a living. That is to say that I think about, design, formulate and eventually write sets of computer instructions in a very precise manner. These instructions are structured in such a fashion that they (usually) cooperate with hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of other instructions to achieve a required goal. I have a friend that I was fortunate enough to work with briefly, who, if he were here right now would almost certainly interject with what I have come to think of as his catch phrase. While making his hands into the shapes of sock puppets (minus the socks) he would pantomime a conversation and declare in a loud, nasal voice:
"Nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd."
- GwaiLo
He's a subtle fellow, with a refined sense of humour not always appreciated for it's true genius. He has a great joke about a three legged chicken, that he tells magnificently. I won't ruin it by trying to match his delivery.

Talking, or writing as the case may be, about programming is almost as equally futile as writing about riding. Among other things, it's not going to do your social life any favours. Trust me on this one, I speak from experience. These two topics may not on the surface appear to have anything in common, but for me, given the right conditions and an ideal set of circumstances, they come very close to being one and the same. All while being wholly, completely, radically opposite.

I suspect, there are more among you that can relate to the idea of laying down a sweet piece of logic than cutting a perfect line through the apex of a tight corner. These two concepts are not so far apart from each other as you might think. Bare with me this will get a little geeky, but in a cool biker sort of way. Think of the Fonze with a pocket protector and taped glasses. On second thought, don't do that. That mental image doesn't work.

Things that programming and riding motorcycles have in common:

  • I had to go to school to learn how to do it properly
  • If you're bad at it, it's immediately obvious
  • You literally have to change the way you think in order to do it properly
  • It is almost entirely a mental exercise
  • Maintenance is required and never ending
  • Arrogance isn't tolerated for very long
  • If you go like a bat out of hell and ignore the details, the outcome is going to be painful and messy.
  • Persistent discipline is a prerequisite
  • It requires focus. Distractions = doom.
  • Chicks dig it.
Ok that last one may not be entirely true, but a man can dream can't he?

Athletes, day traders, chainsaw jugglers and door-to-door salesmen have often referred to a state of mind called "the zone". Being in "the zone" requires a rare state of mental focus that is excruciatingly brief. During one of these moments, one attains a zen-like state of equilibrium where performance is both effortless and flawless. Fleeting glimpses of time where the staggering intensity is matched only by the perception of each intricate detail, anticipated, recognized and accounted for instantaneously. Thought and action are paired in fluid synchronicity, where one can not exist with out the other.

I'm no athlete, I have all the business acumen of a moldy potato, I'm a mediocre juggler and a terrible salesman. Despite these failings, I've been fortunate enough to experience this nirvana like state of mind more than once in my life. Curiously, it's never been when I've intentionally pursued it, but rather when I'm not concentrating on it at all. I've experienced it most often while writing a challenging piece of code. Puzzling away at it for hours or days on end, and then finally, something clicks, and the code is all of a sudden writing itself using my hands. My keyboard serving only as a mode of transportation. It's over before I even know it had begun, and I'm left in a endorphin induced euphoric geeky stupor. I've never experienced another buzz like it. It's addictive, and I'm always left wanting more.

Imagine my surprise when I found nearly that precise sense of euphoric wonder when I started riding. I don't want to give you the wrong impression, this was not a case of love at first ride. I am probably the worlds most unlikely biker. When one of my closest friends called me up and suggested the idea that we should sign up for the Ottawa Safety Council's Motorcycle Rider course I thought he was mental. It took him the better part of a month to convince me that this was something we needed to do. Make no mistake, I'm very much aware of the asinine stupidity that's required in order to ride a motorcycle in the first place. It is a ridiculous form of transportation. Even more so when you consider that our winter season in this country lasts on average five months if you're lucky. Riding a motorcycle even once, is tantamount to taking up arms against the survival mechanisms that have moved our species forward since the dawn of time. It is nothing short of a direct challenge to the principles of natural selection, and ultimately a self correcting problem. Acknowledging all of this, any right-minded individual would run screaming at the sight of a motorcycle on the horizon. I have no rational explanation for it, there's nothing I can write that will reconcile my intellectual knowledge of the dangers involved with the visceral need to go riding.
"Only a biker knows why a dog sticks his head out of a car window."
- Anonymous
I won't try pass off the tired cliché of the 'perfect union of man and machine' bullshit. If that were true, then bikers wouldn't die every year from stupid mistakes or unavoidable blindsided hits. Car, van, truck & SUV drivers would spot us a mile away and give us a wide berth instead of trying to squeeze by when they know it's not safe to pass. Emergency breaking, emergency swerving, and how to ditch your bike safely wouldn't be part of the curriculum on motorcycle safety courses. I'm not trying to convince you that motorcycles aren't safe. Any idiot with with a lead foot and full gas tank can see that just by riding in traffic with us. There's no avoiding the danger, so bikers need to learn how to deal with it. Corny as it may sound, vigilance is absolutely mandatory. Paranoia is your friend. Nothing short of impeccable driving etiquette and good manners will suffice. On the back of a bike, you can't afford to be an asshole.

Today marks the beginning of the 2010 riding season for me. I got my bike out of storage and man-oh-man that first ride felt good. I'm looking forward to many more over the next seven or eight months, weather permitting. You'll probably notice a few changes on the site as a result. I've got a couple of ideas on how to wed my two hobbies. I'll write more about that once I flesh out the details a bit. In the mean while, do me a favour and keep an eye out for your two wheeled neighbours when you're rolling down the road in your four wheeled monster. We may look super cool and tough as nails, but that image only works so long as the paint side is up and rubber side is down.

Safe riding.

March 1, 2010

Browser fingerprints, Academia's Big Brother, and more rampaging paranoia

I have been trying to come up with some sort of clever opening for this post for the last three days, and I've got bupkis. Within the rather limited confines of my cerebellum there is no witty one-liner, no amusing quip, no attention grabbing quote that I can come up with that will frame a conversation about online privacy as even remotely interesting. There's no avoiding the fact that this promises to be a painfully boring topic. Online privacy is about as exciting as tax reform or Friday night bingo strategies. Never the less, that's the subject matter I'm going to try to tackle, because quite frankly, it's extremely important and the vast majority of my very clever and intelligent friends don't know diddly squat about it, and they (you) really really should.

Not convinced? Fair enough. How about you click on this and let me know what you see. That good reader, is what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls a 'Browser Fingerprint'. The EFF's panopticlick site identifies tiny pieces of information that your browser leaves behind every time you visit a website. By looking at the information, and combining key data points, it's able to piece together a profile that is custom fitted to your browser. Creepy eh? The EFF isn't doing this for shits & giggles, it's trying to bring some attention to what many of us gleefully ignore. If you're interested in reading about their methodology, I'd encourage to take a look at Mr. Peter Eckersley's notes on how they did it. Better yet, why not check out some of their strategies for preserving your privacy in the future. I have to admit, checking out my own results were a bit of an eye opener.

Speaking of online privacy nightmares, that leads me to the next stop on the hit parade. Social media sites are essentially the counter point to good online privacy practices. Facebook? Don't count on them to have your best interests at heart. Back on December ninth of 2009, Facebook instituted some changes to their privacy policy. While trying to convince their user base that they were improving their privacy options, they none too subtly reset everyone's privacy default settings. If I'm to be fair, the extra privacy options were an improvement, for those that bothered to check them out. A month into the change it was estimated that only one third of the two hundred and twenty million active users Facebook boasted at the time had bothered to look at the new privacy options. Roughly seventy-three and a quarter million users, out of over three hundred million users that had entered their private information onto that website even showed signs of being aware of the privacy changes.

Facebook is kind of an easy target though, it's designed to share your information with others. That is it's singular purpose. You know this going in, and it is probably the reason you're there in the first place. So caveat emptor friends, don't say you weren't warned. Facebook is hardly alone in it's rather cavalier if not down right opportunistic attitude towards your personal information sadly. Even my hosts at Google have something of a spotty record when it comes to protecting your privacy. I suspect more than a few executives cringed when they read this little ditty from their CEO Eric Schmidt. While I'm at it, I don't think it's necessary to rehash the public relations disaster that was the introduction of Google Buzz. I still think it's a neat product, but it'll take a while to recover (if it ever does) from the botched product launch. I am through and through a Google fanboy, and it gives me no pleasure to point out their missteps and errors that have been publicly recorded as they grow. 

Casting my inner turmoil aside for a moment, now seems like an opportune moment to bring up a recent decision in an Italian court that a good portion of the internet is giving a collective double take. If my understanding of the case is correct, four executives from Google were charged with violating Italian privacy laws. Sounds juicy right? Not so much. Some sick twisted school girl uploaded a video to YouTube that she had recorded in class. The video showed a bunch of despicable human beings picking on an autistic class mate. Naturally, this is something the whole world needed to see. Nothing's so bad that a little world-wide public humiliation can't make worse right kids? Thankfully, someone called the cops. The cops called YouTube, and within a couple of hours the video was removed. 

This did not seem to appease the public prosecutors office in Milan however. The court recently convicted three of the four Google executives that were charged. Far be it for me to cast dispersions on the courts decision, but this is batshit insane. The four 'hardened criminals' involved weren't even aware of the video until long after it had been removed. Allow me to offer a little context: In February 2009, it was estimated that fifteen hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, of every day. In January 2009, 147 million U.S. internet users watched an average of 101 videos per person. World wide, current, daily use statistics? I have no idea, and I wasn't able to find them. Suffice it to say, that there are a lot of people putting a lot of stuff on YouTube all the time. The long and the short of it is that I don't know sweet bugger all about Italian law, and I don't know the details of this particular case. From what little I do know,  I feel the decision is absurd. I've been wrong before, and thankfully, it's not my butt that's on the line. I raise the story to illustrate the point that while people are beginning to deal with some rather unpleasant facets of online privacy, the road is far from clear.

Take for example, Google Street view. I've lost count of all the challenges and lawsuits that it's generated. Our very own Privacy Commissioner has raised concerns about it more than once. With no disrespect intended to good work our vigilant Commissioner does, I tend to agree with the sentiment expressed by John Perry Barlow when he said:
"Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds."
A little glib perhaps, but it gets the point across. Never mind the complexities and pressures that are focused on the Commissioner's work, the simple truth is that it's a problem that will never ever shrink. It will only get larger, and there is a finite amount of resources that we can afford to dedicate to the task.

I realize that I'm painting a rather doom & gloom picture here in terms of our privacy and the future of safe internet browsing. That is not my intention. However, I would be remiss if I didn't underscore the importance of maintaining your own vigilance on this subject. Consider the case of the school district in Lower Merrion Pennsylvania. This one made some serious noise in the news as of late, and it's not hard to see why:

Just in case there's some confusion on the point, that was a public school official, demonstrating how they can spy on the school kids, whenever they want, wherever they are, remotely, without the child's knowledge. That is [EXPLETIVE DELETED] creepy. It would seem that the FBI thought so too. Think about that for a minute. Think of all the shit you got into when you were in school. Now think about all the shit you got away with. Now what if you had a camera, perched on your shoulder (or in your lap as the case may be) watching your every move. Reminds me of a book I once read.

"We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation . . . we make the brain perfect before we blow it out."
- George Orwell
From his novel "1984"
Take some solace in the fact that this is a topic people are very slowly beginning to take seriously. Smart people all around the world, are trying to puzzle this one out. They're going to make mistakes along the way, but there is hope. Things are changing. Hopefully, for the better.