It's My Life

Posted on 4th February 2009

The twitter phenomenon has grown rather well over the past few months. I have started to use it more in the last month, and I note that a number of people I'm friends and acquaintences with have also been using it quite a lot. Which is nice, as although some use it to just tell everyone what they are doing now, others use it as a blogging tool to have a quick rant, or ask followers a question. Occasional conversations and idle banter make it quite a fun way to keep in touch with firends and people you like to talk to, plus there are the useful links to news items, etc. that people post.

Every one of my followers I either know personally, or have had contact with them online several times prior to twitter. Of the people I follow (discounting project/news feeds), only Stephen Fry and Henry Rollins I don't know personally. Seeing as they are well known personalities they expect to have a lot of followers, Stephen has recently reached over 100,000 followers. But I'm not a celebrity or well known personality, yet I'm starting to get twitter requests from people who I have never met, or know anything about. That's not to say that they are random people, as those are usually easy to spot and can be ignored, but are followers of and/or followed by other people I know. I have my twitterings protected as I really don't like the idea of people I don't know, randomly trying to follow everything I say. Not that I have anything necessarily personal to say, but to me I feel my whitterings have a limited personal appeal and are really only of interest to those that actually know me.

With that said, you could argue that I am well known in the Perl community, and indeed I am. But from that perspective people are really only interested in my projects, most specifically CPAN Testers. However, those projects I blog about elsewhere, and are not a regular part of my tweets. It feels awkward to actively block people from my twitter feed, so I usually leave them in the queue, hoping that I eventually meet them, or have someone else mention them, so I can get a reference as to who they are.

I wonder how others feel about random people listening in on their musings? Does it feel like an intrusion or do you feel you are reaching people with what's going on in your life. Do you use it as a way for others to keep tabs on what project you're working on, or do you like the idea of people being interested in you?

Twitter has certainly been a strange success. It's kind of like a global IRC, with a channel that you create. It's reached outside of the geeks that started to use it, and with the success of Facebook and the status updates, people who would never have thought to put their lives on the internet are now doing so. At the moment, outside of Japan, they have no revenue model, so it will be intriguing to see how long that can last, and whether any future changes turn off the new adopters of the service. I'm sure we'll hear a tweet or two about it when it does.

File Under: internet / life / people / web

Suffer The Little Children

Posted on 24th December 2008

Following on from my previous post regarding the Internet Watch Foundation, a fellow Perl programmer, Jacinta Richardson, recently posted on her use.perl blog regarding currently proposed legislation in Australia. To get a bit of background on the subject, read the articles she links to in her post, before reading her reply.

For myself, working in the filtering industry, I'm well aware of the fact that it is impossible to get filtering 100% accurate all the time. Even our Service Level Agreements (SLAs) don't state that, as it is just too difficult to manage. We get very close, and our filter systems are considered to be the best in the world, but we'll never be 100% perfect. As Jacinita highlights in her reply, the owners of the bad stuff change their domains on a regular basis, swap IP addresses and even server locations to avoid detection. In some cases the server locations are beyond law enforcement agencies as they are in countries that have limited or no resources to shut down these operations.

However, the part that irritates Jacinita and the reason why I find objections to this kind of thing important, is the blindly ignorant "you're either with us or with the terrorists" style of retort from officials or self-appointed puritants for the world. Having children of my own, I would never want them to be subjected to indecent or illegal material on the internet. However, the vast majority of that kind of material is very unlikely to be something you would accidentally stumble across. Putting in aggressive filters to scan absolutely everything all of the time, is rarely going to stop those wishing to find that kind of material, and is likely to block more innocent websites than potentially harmful ones. Using scare tactics and accusing your opposition of advocating child pornography is insensitive and irresponsible, and only serves to make you and your arguments look ignorant.

I would be interested to know what recourse a company or individual has on the Australian government, should they block an innocent website that is hosted outside of Australia? The chances are none, and who would you complain to anyway? If your domain is blocked, you'll never get through!

In her reasoning, Bernadette McMenamin uses examples of countries such as the UK who use filtering. Yes we do, and the self-appointed body that tells us what we can and can't see also makes some stupid mistakes and disrupts internet use for the whole country. For all the protection these self-appointed bodies provide, I would rather see more effort put into shutting down the source operations and protecting the children from being abused in the first place, rather than waiting after the fact for government officials to wave their hands limpy, crying "oh, how could this happen, let's ban the internet for children so they can't see it!".

McMenamin claims that British Telecom block 35,000 attempts per day to illegal material. However, how many of them were to truly illegal material and not "potentially illegal" as was highlighted by The Scorpions/Wikipedia incident? How many requests were made by children accessing the content? How many prosecutions were made from these access attempts? How many of the block domains/URLs were taken down? It's easy to throw numbers around, but without substance they are worthless numbers.

Jacinta picked up on an interesting quote by McMenamin - "[T]hose who are aware [of all the facts] are, in effect, advocating child pornography." So by McMenamin's own admission she must be ignorant of all the facts, otherwise she too would be advocating child pornography. Forrest Gump has a reply for Bernadette McMenamin - "Stupid is as stupid does."

File Under: government / internet / law / rant / security

Pictured Life

Posted on 24th December 2008

Earlier this month there was a rather confusing and worrying blanket "Moral Majority" ban of a page on Wikipedia. The page in question has now been unblocked and the actual image that started it all has also been unblocked, with the Internet Watch Foundation that instigating the block now backing down in the face of overwhelming resistance to their actions.

The image in question is from the original front cover of the 1976 album release "Virgin Killer" by The Scorpions. At the time of its release in 1976, it courted controvesy and although widely available to all in numerous retail outlets across the world, some outlets did insist on selling it only over the counter in a sealed paper bag, and only a few refused to stock it at all. Following feedback from the retail outlets, the band reissued the album with a cover featuring a group shot of the band. However, the original album cover is still widely available in second record stores and on eBay. Following remastered reissues and boxset packages, the CD is once again available with the original artwork. It has also appeared in many books over the years, often cited amongst a list of worst album covers, some of which can found in public libraries.

I don't know the retail figures, but I can imagine that several thousand heavy metal fans in the UK alone have a copy of the original album, or a reissued remastered CD featuring the image in their collections.

So the decision to ban the image ONLY on wikipedia now (some 32 years after the original image was widely available) seems absolutely idiotic. At first the main page regarding the album was blocked, and appartently it is the first time the IWF has banned a complete work of text. Wikipedia volunteer David Gerard and Sarah Robertson from the IWF were interviewed on BBC Radio 4 as I was driving into work on the day the block was instigated and it was very evident that the woman representing the IWF was rather ignorant of the situation, trying to focus on the fact that they had shown it to the police who had said it was "potentially illegal". Blaming the police, who are NOT judge and jury regarding obscene material is rather irresponsible at best, and only serves to highlight their lack of process in ensuring that if an image is considered illegal, a botched attempt at banning is the best of their abilities.

Wikipedia themselves issued a statement that reads "Due to censorship by the UK self-regulatory agency the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), most UK residents can no longer edit the volunteer-written encyclopedia, nor can they access an article in it describing a 32-year-old album by German rock group the Scorpions." In addition Wikimedia Foundation's General Counsel, Mike Godwin, is also quoted as saying "We have no reason to believe the article, or the image contained in the article, has been held to be illegal in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world."

So although the image was deemed "potentially illegal" by the UK police the IWF spoke to, for the past 32 years no country has ever passed a judgement and condemed the image as illegal. It might be inappropriate, but not illegal.

And so to a bigger question. Why Wikipedia? In fact why ONLY Wikipedia? The image was wide spread across the internet, in places such as Google's image cache, on various retail sites, including Amazon, The Scorpions own website and countless others. Could it be that Wikipedia is unlikely to be in a position to sue them for blocking their site? I can well imagine that Amazon and any other major retailer would have drafted in lawyers within seconds and be issuing writs for comercial damages. Not something the IWF would be equipped to deal with, particularly since they are an independent self-appointed body, without official government backing.

Following on from that last point, the perhaps more important question is if this body is self-appointed, without government backing, who is reviewing the practices of the Internet Watch Foundation? While in many instances they may well be protecting us from illegal images, without proper regulation and governance, instances like the blocking of Wikipedia will happen again.

The scary thing in all of this is that possessing the album has never been considered illegal, and indeed would have been very difficult to prosecute now 32 years later, but the IWF seem to believe that that doesn't matter and effectively attempted to criminalise a potentially significant portion of the UK population. Should they have that power? In my opinion no, as it should be the police and the courts who govern what is actually illegal.

Because of the fact that most ISPs in the UK currently sign up to the IWF block lists, this incident was felt instantly across the UK for anyone contributing to Wikipedia. Having now blown such a big hole in their metaphorical foot, I suspect the IWF may well be a little more careful about what they block and maybe, just maybe, they might even provide better justification for blocking images and pages in the future. However, it still worries me that they can potentially criminalise a publicly available image by dubious means and make criminals out of the population, without having any jurisdiction to do so. It's not big brother we have to worry about any more it's the nanny state. Tipper Gore still has a lot to answer for.

File Under: government / internet / law / music / rant / security

I Dream Of Wires

Posted on 16th September 2008

The following has recently entered my inbox; body copied verbatim:

"Your internet access is going to get suspended

The Internet Service Provider Consorcium was made to protect the rights of software authors, artists. We conduct regular wiretapping on our networks, to monitor criminal acts.

We are aware of your illegal activities on the internet wich were originating from

You can check the report of your activities in the past 6 month that we have attached. We strongly advise you to stop your activities regarding the illegal downloading of copyrighted material of your internet access will be suspended.

ICS Monitoring Team"

Those who receive this, and the attached file, may well be duped into believing that they have been caught out and consequently open the attachement to discover they have now install a dubious artifact on their machine. The Winlogon trojan, which is then installed, may not be want you want hanging around on your system.

I did find it amusing that the creators, working with the scare tactics of the major music industry companies I've previously spoken of, have crafted this social engineering attack to dupe unsuspecting recipients. It effectively means, once people do educate their spam filters, that any future emails from music industry henchmen threatening fines, court appearances and cutting your internet will most likely end up being deleted :) 

As a result it may just mean the dubious threats might finally go away. Mind you with the stocks and share around the world looking rather shaky, I can imagine the media moguls have better things to worry about than those downloading dubious files over BitTorrent.

File Under: humour / internet / music / spam

Head Down

Posted on 13th May 2008

Nine Inch Nails have done what many record labels would be absolutely terrified to do. Trent has given his latest album, The Slip, away for free. And not any old dubious quality download (like a another high profile band tried to do), but top quality MP3s, together with lossless FLAC and M4A files, and the WAV multitrack files to enable fans to make their own remixes. In fact fans haven't been slow in uploading their remixes to the site either, several tracks off the new album are already there as well several hundred other mixes.

Trent has been quite prolific in recently with this being the fourth album in as many years. Okay so Ghosts was an experimental project, but it still counts. Of the 3 regular albums, he started to change tack slightly, and although the albums were still very much Nine Inch Nails, there was more of a whole album feel, rather than a collection of songs. This was never more so than on Yero Zero. It was only recently I discovered the Year Zero alternate reality game, which has been fascinating to read about. I knew there was a concept behind the album, but never realised the scale it had been conceived on. The NIN Wiki has lots of info if you're interested.

The Slip, however, goes back to the regular collection of songs. On first listen I wasn't completely bowled over, but did think it was worth playing again. The album is a grower, and after several repeated listens, there are a few tracks that I'm starting to think will be firm favourites in years to come. After listening to remix of Head Down, entitled Head Down (Further) if you can find it on the remix site, I relistened to the track and felt I'd opened hidden door. Hopefully it won't be too long for the tour to come to the UK, then I can make up for missing the two gigs they scheduled then cancelled in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, then rescheduled while I was in Vienna.

However, the biggest buzz about the current way Trent is doing business, is going to have a few people sitting up in the record industry, taking notes. The Slip, has been released completely free, with a Creative Commons license that allows you to play, listen and remix to your hearts content. Trent even states on the website "thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one's on me", which is quite a bold statement. You will be able to buy a CD, and judging from the responses, most fans are likely to do just that. Even though you can get the album for free, it's more about being able to listen to the songs on whatever medium you chose, without any fear of the RIAA or similar. Trent no longer has a traditional record deal, and being much more clued into the technological revolution that has been happening for the last 10 years or more, and indeed has positively embraced it, understands probably better than most what his audience will give and take. There aren't many artists that are comfortable just giving their music away, in fact Prince is the only other person I can think of that would, seeing as he's already given away his last album, Planet Earth, as a free CD with The Mail on Sunday.

I don't think artists and record companies will be rushing to follow suit, but I do think more artists will be considering the benefit of having their fans play with their tracks to see what they can come up with. Nine Inch Nails though do have quite a creative fanbase, that many others must be envious of, and one that is very loyal, as Trent himself astutely notes. I'm enjoying listening to the Remix site, and can imagine an official remix album may well see a release a some point. But then again, that wouldn't be anything new for Nine Inch Nails.

File Under: internet / music / nin / review

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