You loaded it, you might as well read it

June 22, 2001

Doc Searls points out another good article about weblogs, which are starting to get serious media attention. (Has it really been two years since I first started hearing about them?)

A “weblog”, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a chronologically-organized web site that’s updated on a more-or-less frequent basis. (Some are updated multiple times a day, others can go for weeks without activity.) Some reduce the name to “blog”, but just can’t make myself like that term. Even “weblog” has problems, as it invites confusion with the logs kept by web servers.

We could just call them “web pages”, but then we wouldn’t have a fancy new trend. #

From Buffy to Eskimos

I read an article about Joss Whedon’s recent work, like the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his new comic book Fray. I mention that mostly because of the article’s title: “All work and lots of slay”.

Notice anything? Like the way the words aren’t capitalized?

I first heard about this while reading Jef Raskin’s book reviews, where he mentions The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, a book of linguistic essays which apparently recommends this approach.

Curious (linguistics being a hobby of mine), I looked around for information on the book. I didn’t find any, but I did locate a discussion of Eskimo vocabulary that actually lists all the words for “snow” in a particular Inuit language. Turns out, the number of words is remarkably similar to the number of words in the (also provided) list of English words for “snow”.

So much for that cliché. #

Which side is the good one?

After looking at how Tivo annoyed hackers, let’s look at how the hackers annoy Tivo. Turns out, a group has released software that lets people extract recorded programs from their Tivo hardware.

So what, you ask? The problems comes mostly from the MPAA, which doesn’t look kindly on anything that gives people even the possibility of copying movies without paying for them. If they decide that Tivo is going to be an easy way for pirates to get raw material, they may take action against the company—which would certainly piss off the many hackers—and regular people—who use the service. (I should point out here that I’m using “hacker” in the sense of “clever computer programmer”, not “criminal”.) #

The unblinking eye

Salon writes about the Arizona prison cam, which distributes video feed from an Arizona prison on the internet. According to the warden, it’s there to reassure people that the prisoners are being treated appropriately, as well as being an additional deterrent against crime. There are some thorny issues about rights and privacy here—although some may agree with one of the reader responses, which states: “I do wish people would quit worrying so much about criminals’ rights. Why do they have any?”

Whether you agree or not (I certainly don’t), the issue here is not limited to prisons. Perhaps you’ve seen the “pop-under” ads for X-10 web cameras? (So-called because they pop up underneath your web browser window, where you might not notice until much later.) They all but state that they’re useful for secretly recording the world and distributing the feed on-line.

Anywhere you go, you might be on camera. It’s been argued that this invasion of privacy is nothing to be afraid of: it’s just like being in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The sticking point in that analogy is that you don’t know the people who are watching you.

Steve Mann proposes that we fight back by always wearing a camera. He is a developer of wearable computers and wearable cameras who is deeply concerned about the privacy issues involved with ubiquitous surveillance equipment, and he argues that having multiple, independent records of an event is better than relying on a single record from an unknown body. (Even better would be no surveillance, but that’s a moot point in many cases.)

A key point he makes is that hidden cameras are worse than visible ones. Even wearable cameras should be visible, perhaps signified by a glowing red LED, which people associate with cameras (thanks in part, no doubt, to Stanley Kubrick).

Interestingly, he also argues that the video feed should be available, stating: “[P]eople who are being watched by a camera have a right to not only know that they are being watched, but to see how they look on the camera.” Thus, a security camera whose image is shown on a large screen nearby is infinitely better than one hidden behind an ebony sphere.

Thus, the Arizona prison cam isn’t so bad. Except that not everyone it captures is a prisoner or a guard. Apparently, people who have been arrested but not yet charged with any crime have also been broadcast. This is where it starts getting sticky: convictions are public record, but arrest records are sealed to prevent damage to the reputations of possibly-innocent people. Granted, if those people are wearing NetCams, they’re likely to be treated well, but consider how many people think, “They might not have been charged with anything, but they must have done something wrong, or else they wouldn’t have been arrested.” I don’t think anything short of social change is going to solve that problem.

In A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge lists ubiquitous law enforcement—achieved through extensive surveillance—as one of stages civilizations may pass through just before they collapse. Alternately, in “Homer Bad Man”, Marge Simpson states: “You know, the courts might not work any more, but as long as everybody is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done.”

Tiny cameras can be used for good or for evil. I suspect we’ll get both. #