Occupy All Streets

Giełda na Wall Street
"Question us, and you're questioning America"

It is to my shame that I have not yet written about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I hadn’t intended to write about politics at all of course, with my driving test now less than 36 hours away. But if I can break that for something as parochial and – when it comes down to it – irrelevant as an uncorroborated allegation against a relative of a presidential candidate, I can surely spare a few words on the global revolt against capitalism. And as it happens, I have only three:

About ***ing time.

Really, what took so long? When the financial industry has been allowed to get away with the greatest act of larceny in history. When the people of capitalist countries have spent years looking on helplessly as their nations’ wealth was corralled into fewer and fewer pockets. As democracy degenerates into a re-branded aristocracy. As poorer people – indeed, poorer countries – are crushed by systems set up to benefit the rich, while being told that that is their personal failure. How have we managed to put up with this shit for so long?

It is great to see that ordinary people of good intent still believe you can change things. Or maybe they don’t believe that. Maybe they see no hope of ever changing anything. But they protest anyway, because they cannot not protest anymore.

Occupy All Streets

Giełda na Wall Street
"Question us, and you're questioning America"

It is to my shame that I have not yet written about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I hadn’t intended to write about politics at all of course, with my driving test now less than 36 hours away. But if I can break that for something as parochial and – when it comes down to it – irrelevant as an uncorroborated allegation against a relative of a presidential candidate, I can surely spare a few words on the global revolt against capitalism. And as it happens, I have only three:

About ***ing time.

Really, what took so long? When the financial industry has been allowed to get away with the greatest act of larceny in history. When the people of capitalist countries have spent years looking on helplessly as their nations’ wealth was corralled into fewer and fewer pockets. As democracy degenerates into a re-branded aristocracy. As poorer people – indeed, poorer countries – are crushed by systems set up to benefit the rich, while being told that that is their personal failure. How have we managed to put up with this shit for so long?

It is great to see that ordinary people of good intent still believe you can change things. Or maybe they don’t believe that. Maybe they see no hope of ever changing anything. But they protest anyway, because they cannot not protest anymore.

Join The Irish Diaspora

Have you or any member of your family ever been a member of the Irish nation? Then you should join the great new social network, WorldIrish.com. This was launched to coincide with the Global Irish Economic Forum held this week, and its purpose is to… is to… Actually, I’m not quite sure. Why would Irish people need our own special social network. Were we not talking enough?

This Is Me

Well the site looks and works well. You can create an account there (I’m “Richard”, I came early), add a 600-character bio and a few links. And you pick your five ‘values’, which generates a kind of little avatar. It’s trickier than it sounds though, because you have to choose your five from a list of sixteen things that are all about equally good and wholesome:

  • Ambition
  • Community
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Imagination
  • Individuality
  • Integrity
  • Knowledge
  • Openness
  • Practicality
  • Progress
  • Tradition

You think you can’t go wrong, just picking five sugar-and-spice items out of a list of sixteen? How little you know. If I check tradition but leave out progress, I could be taken for a die-hard republican. Vice versa, and I’m a property developer.What if I plump for community but leave out diversity? Big ‘ol racist. What use is compassion without courage, openness without knowledge? Do I choose between creativity and imagination, or pick both and sacrifice ambition?

Such is life. In the end, I left the final decision to what made the avatar come out prettiest.

I really have only one question about WorldIrish.com – how exactly is it a social network? You can browse people’s profiles and you can contact them, but there is no real space for open interaction. There are a couple of pages where you can upload a video, but you can hardly have real conversation through video clips, and though commentary is allowed it’s to the page as a whole rather than the individual video so there is little opportunity for dialogue there either. (What’s more, to make such comments you log in not with your account but with another social networking system such as Facebook.)

In feeling therefore it’s really much closer to a new-media magazine like TheJournal.ie, more about controlled presentation than spontaneous interaction, top-down instead of ground-up. How that turns into social networking eludes me. I’ve joined anyway – networks are what you do with them after all – but I can’t help feeling that this was one of those laudable efforts where someone went “Wouldn’t it be great if we…” and everyone agreed, but no one really knew what the point was.

Who Goes There?

Anonymous
Image by sinsistema via Flickr

A UK court has set an interesting – possibly insane – condition of bail for four men on charges relating to the Anonymous and LulzSec hacktivist clubs. The judge has ordered them not to log on to anything using their ‘hacker’ usernames. What this will prevent exactly is not clear. But then I suppose the judge isn’t too clear about a lot here.

Several questions arise: If someone logs on using those identities, will the court have to prove that it was the suspects? It seems unlikely that they possibly could. Anyone who had the password could go online in the forums or services that the suspects used, and anyone on the planet could register the same names on other forums.

If the suspects have to show that it’s not them on the other hand it would be not only just as difficult, but also counter to natural justice as they would be required to prove their own innocence.

It seems virtually unimaginable that, if these people actually are deadly dangerous hacker types, not using a particular name will prevent them doing anything. If on the other hand they are innocent – which is the basis we are meant to be working on – it could be an enormous inconvenience. I mentioned the other day that I administer an Internet forum. I think I’ll be giving away no secrets if I say that my login for that isn’t “richardchapman”. I use – God forgive me, but it’s true – a name I made up. And the same goes of course for the login I use to write this blog.

The judge may be under the same misapprehension a lot of non technically literate society has: that going online by a name different to the one on your birth cert is the behaviour of deviants. In fact previous to Facebook it was the norm rather than the exception. Why would you allow online strangers to know your real name? The expectation of going by your birth name is part of what I’m tempted to call the “Facebookisation” of the Web. Commerce and government have both realised that the erasure of online anonymity would be very convenient, and they are beginning to cooperate to bring this about. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the Google Plus (Google+) social network even has rules against pseudonyms. It’s more than a little creepy.

But here’s an amusing wrinkle. Peter Gibson, one of the accused in this case, goes by the nerdy hacker username of “Peter”. So now he is not allowed to use his own name. That seems an extraordinary incursion on civil liberties – and will lead to an interesting situation if he tries to join Google+… Or if that’s not irony enough, listen to this: We have only been told three of the four suspects’ usernames. The fourth wasn’t revealed, apparently because he is seventeen. So yes, the username he used to protect his anonymity, something which he is no longer allowed by the court to do, is being kept from us by the court to protect his anonymity.

Something just blew in my brain.

No More Pencils, No More Books

iPad showing OpenStreetMap content
Homework never looked more attractive

Giving iPads to kids in school. How lovely. St Kevin’s in Crumlin is the most recent of something like seven around the country, starting with St Colman’s in Mayo, to join this revolution.

What the hell are they thinking?

I guess it tells you a lot about the world some people live in, that this idea wasn’t shot down on the grounds that the iPads would be stolen by children from other, less well-equipped schools. We assume all these kids are being delivered to the gates by car. It’s even more charming to realise that the kids themselves are being trusted not to break, lose, or ‘lose’ such valuable devices. Of course there’s one advantage – right now, most children who had the cash price of an iPad would probably use it to buy an iPad.

What I find either more touching still, or just hopelessly naïve, is the idea that kids will be able to use iPads, in class or for study, without becoming terminally distracted. They’re being encouraged to do their homework in an amusement arcade. Schools say the tablets will be blocked from things like Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t take a child to figure out that there are about a billion other available distractions on the Web, and it’s quite impossible to block them on an individual basis. And remember, this is in school – the only place in the world where it’s legal to enforce hours of brain-crushing inaction on innocent children. I spent thirteen of my most impressionable years being bored to tears, I would have killed for such distraction.

On the other hand, I am distracted every day by the fact that I work on devices I can use to access the Internet. Raised from the very start with the temptation, maybe these kids will develop the iron discipline necessary to keep their concentration in this all-singing, all-dancing world.

Maybe.

One thing that isn’t a problem though – you may be wondering how the hell it makes economic sense to give such expensive tools to every child in a school. To understand, you just need to know about the cost of schoolbooks in Ireland. School teaching is free here, yes. But school books are basically a massive scheme to ream hapless parents until their eyes pop. Compared to that, the cost of an iPad over a few years is almost trivial.

Another Google+ Bug

Nude Sea Sirens
I can't find any relevant image for this article, so here is a completely irrelevant Russian mercouple

I didn’t speak too soon anyway. The Dow just fell off. Well, had its worst plunge since the crash of 2008. Double-dip recession then? I think that’s far too complacent – why the hell should it stop at two? All we’ve seen since 2008 is an economic system trying to get up off the canvas. It’s not getting up.

But sorry, back to Google+. It’s a bit unfair of me to call it a bug, but “An Aspect Of Google+ Which Users Coming From Facebook May Find Misleading” just doesn’t cut it as a headline. Blame the sub-editors. This isn’t entirely Google’s fault, but I think they need to do something about it.

A lot of people coming to Google+ have prior experience of social networking on Facebook. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “all of them, basically”. So there is a natural tendency to think of someone adding you to their circles as analogous to a friend request. If you have reason to think they’re kosher, you’ll probably add them back. But what if you don’t immediately recognise the name? Speaking for myself it could still easily be someone whose name I’ve forgotten, someone I know by an online name, a friend of a friend. So what I do is see what friends they have in common with me; that almost always makes the relationship obvious.

When someone adds you on Google+ you can see the “People in common” they have with you. If there are a lot, your automatic assumption might be that you should know this person. But unlike FB where relationships are agreed by both parties, being in a circle in G+ is of course only one-way, much like being followed on Twitter. So when someone has a lot of “People in common” with you, all it could mean is that they first added one person you know, and then added all their friends.

It happened yesterday among my peer group – people started asking each other “Does anyone actually know X?” We eventually figured out that X was a fake friend. (Oh and Google? He had a perfectly realistic name and profile.) I would guess people are doing this exactly so that they might be mistaken for friends and added – whereupon they can find out more about you, spam you perhaps, misrepresent themselves even. It’s a new type of insidious social network penetration – we could call it “encircling”.

How can Google make this less likely to succeed? I think “People in common” is a misleading label – indeed, a misleading categorisation. It’s really only “People X has in circles who are in your circles”. There should also be a category “People in your circles who have X in circles.” If the latter group is far smaller than the former, you’ll know immediately that something is up.

Google+ Is A Trap

Google Docs – You create them, but they don’t belong to you

Not two months ago, I wrote:

…Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

With Google+, the straitjacket of authentication has perceptibly tightened. As Guardian blogger GrrlScientist discovered to her cost, it’s a little-known term of service that a Google Profile (which you need for any personalised Google service, not just Google+) must be in your own, real, everyday name. She has just found that all her Google services – Gmail, Reader, Blogger, Google Documents, YouTube, Google Plus – have been taken away, with apparently no recourse to appeal.

Have you created a Google Profile? (I know I have, but I don’t remember doing it. I just thought I was signing up to use Gmail.) If it isn’t in your real name, if it’s in a nickname, a pen name, the name of an alter ego or game character or a name you had to make up because your real one was gone already, then Google can take it away too.

How much could you lose, if Google suddenly decided to throw you into the outer darkness? More than you might easily imagine, as this similar case makes clear:

Now he had pretty much converted everything to Google services. He used its storage (and paid for extra capacity), used its social network, used its email and used its applications. He is a grad student and had more than 500 articles cached for research in his Google reader (gone); he had migrated all of his bookmarks to Google bookmarks (gone); he had consolidated on Google his 200 contacts (gone), his backup files (gone) and his docs (gone).

The guy even put all of his calendar items (doctors’ appointments, meetings, dates) onto Google, and they are now gone. He had used Google Maps extensively, and all of those records are gone. Oh — and it isn’t just access to new items either. His entire mail account and documented history have been deleted.

[Read the victim’s own testimony here]

Your documents, your emails, your pictures, your contacts – you life, dammit. If you have an Android Phone as well, I imagine you’re pretty much screwed. And let’s be perfectly clear, these people didn’t do anything wrong using their Google Profiles. Merely breaking an obscure term of an agreement they were in all probability barely aware of making has allowed Google to trash their online lives – and shatter their trust in one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Why would Google be so draconian, withdrawing their useful – for many now, almost essential – services for what seem arbitrary reasons? It is because they don’t want just to be service providers. Google see how they can be gatekeepers of an authenticated, business-friendly, government-friendly Web, one where your every move is – quite legally – observed and documented, where your online persona is precisely riveted to your real-world identity. An Internet, in other words, where everybody knows you’re a dog.

Now combine that with the same ubiquity and penetration into your personal life as Facebook or Twitter, combine it with the fact that you are happily providing Google with information about the people you know, by dividing them into different categories of trust, genetic kinship, etc., and you begin to wonder what you’re getting into.

But it’s clear what Google are. They’re getting into the business of delivering authenticated identities. You could call it policing.