Censorship and the Hollywood Sign

I read with interest some months ago a Gizmodo article entitled “Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps”. My interest came first as a freedom and digital rights advocate, and second as a frequent contributor to OpenStreetMap. The latter of these is particularly important as you will see shortly. (Yes, the article is a bit old, but the larger issues are just as important today, and will become no less important as time goes on.)

The Gizmodo article was written by Alissa Walker, who is perhaps best known for her blog awalkerinla.com and specifically this post from 2011 June entitled “The best way to see the Hollywood sign”. In the Gizmodo article, something very disturbing is noted: with the advent of GPS technology, area residents are resorting to putting pressure on the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (Bing Maps) to divert those asking for directions to the Hollywood Sign to either Griffith Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center.

Such is the problem with relying on corporations for one’s mapping data: corporations are controlled, in the end, by stockholders, who decide it’s in the corporation’s best interest to do such things to avoid a lawsuit. The article goes on to share Alissa’s own experience getting legal threats from a homeowner in the area of Lake Hollywood Park. The threat as quoted from the article:

Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center…

Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland Hwy.

As mentioned later in the article, Alissa got some photos emailed to her as well from the same homeowner showing illegal parking attributed to her directions. The way I see it, the tourists driving in the area are the ones responsible for parking lawfully according to the laws of the state of California and the city laws of the appropriate city (whether Hollywood or otherwise). To pin vicarious liability on Alissa for the actions of others is absurd. Information, such as that Alissa gives out, carries with it the responsibility to use it wisely and obey the applicable laws. It is the same as if someone posted the location of a good fishing spot; the use of the information regarding the location of the spot would not be an excuse to violate daily catch limits or other boating regulations (unless the person posting the location were to do something stupid like include “warden never patrols this area” or “don’t worry about the limit”).

Alissa wrote another article for Gizmodo entitled “There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map” a short time later. This one focuses more directly on OpenStreetMap, but also contains a couple of other gems. Such as this one:

“If I recall correctly, back in the days of MSN maps, searching for Infinite Loop in Cupertino [where Apple is headquartered] showed a blank spot on the MSN map, as if there wasn’t anything there,” said [former Code for America fellow Lyzi] Diamond. “There is no such thing as an accurate map. It’s all up to cartographers.”

Indeed, it’s a pretty low blow to blank out the campus of a competitor company on one’s own mapping service (though I would think trusting Microsoft to get you to an interview at Apple or Google is not exactly the brightest move either). But this is where OpenStreetMap (hereinafter OSM) really comes into play, as like Wikipedia, it maintains an audit trail of what was added, modified, or deleted, and by whom (at least a screen name, though I would assume the IP addresses are recorded as well somewhere). And yes, you can get accurate directions to the Hollywood sign using OSM data. The community behind OSM considers shenanigans like redirecting visitors to Griffith Park Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center as vandalism, and rightfully so.

Would our angry homeowner really sue the OpenStreetMap Foundation, or any other non-profits that financially sustain OSM? It’s certainly possible, but I would like to think most people consider suing a non-profit to be off-limits. The mere existence of OSM, however, serves as a rather powerful check on the near-monopolies enjoyed by the likes of Google, Microsoft (Bing Maps), AOL (Mapquest), Apple, and others who, until OSM became a viable alternative, enjoyed an effective oligarchy on map data. Not only do I personally edit OSM, but I wish I could use OSM every time I needed to map something. As it is I still wind up using some other service (usually Google Maps) maybe 20% of the time as of this post.

Houston’s nominal equivalent of the Hollywood sign, the We Love Houston sign on the south side of I-10 near downtown, was among my additions to OpenStreetMap. And so far, there have not been similar issues regarding the We Love Houston sign; then again, it’s still relatively new, and while I admire and respect the work of David Adickes, I wouldn’t realistically expect it to be the same type of tourist draw in its infancy.

The case of the two-sided speed trap

Yes, it’s a bit old, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is still happening somewhere. It’s still an interesting case study for the law enforcement officers who read my blog on how not to run a speed trap. (Yes, I know cops read my blog.)

This post on TheFreeThoughtProject.com tells the story of a Washington State Patrol speed enforcement effort using aircraft on Highway 2. The law enforcement officers caught speeding on their way to a non-emergency Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) conference were let off with a warning. The unlucky citizens caught speeding during the same operation, on the other hand… well, you probably already guessed this, but they got speeding tickets.

At least until someone who recorded the radio conversations between the trooper in the aircraft and the troopers on the ground found its way into the hands of news media. Those radio conversations were recorded by Bill Gilliam and posted to his blog.

According to this post to komonews.com, any civilians (non-LEOs) who received speeding tickets had them voided. One comment to Bill’s blog post by someone identifying himself as Peter G. offers some insight into the reason why:

KOMO news reports that all the charges against civilians on that stretch of road have been dropped. Did this happen because someone was ashamed of what happened? I doubt it. Did this happen because someone knew those civilians would get the charges dropped anyway, on the basis of selective enforcement? Sure. But the MOST important reason for dropping the charges is that those civilians could go into court, allege discrimination, and force WSP and all the officers at that conference to document all the unticketed violations. And with that information on the record, those uniformed violators– the speeders and the cops who let them go– would have to be prosecuted. So in other words, the criminal justice system is allowing ALL the criminals to go unpunished in order to protect its own.

In other words, rather than let themselves be pushed into a situation where they would have to prosecute a bunch of their own, the Washington State Police decided it would be better just to void all the tickets and write off the aircraft fuel, motor fuel, officer wages, and other expenses as a loss. Yep, your tax dollars at work, Washington…

I wouldn’t be nearly as disturbed if this was nominal speeding… say, up to around 70 mph in a 60 mph (a lot of speed limits are intentionally underposted by 5 to 10 mph). But seriously, setting aside for the moment the issue that these are the people we trust to enforce the law and keep us safe… what’s the excuse for over 80 in a 60? In some states that’s reckless driving automatically (North Carolina, Virginia, Hawaii, and Arizona per John Carr’s traffic law guide; there is also some kind of increased penalty for 20 over in Missouri and 15 over in Arkansas which is not stated clearly in that guide). In Texas, the option to dismiss with a driver safety course (defensive driving) disappears if you get busted for 25 mph or more over the limit, meaning one can be stuck paying a rather large fine. (Or at least the statutory requirement that they allow it disappears; on at least one court appearance, I’ve heard an ADA working that day says they’ll dismiss it anyway even if that’s the case.)

Those are the laws for the non-badged, anyway. What happens to cops caught speeding is anyone’s guess. It might be the same rules, but more often, the badge translates to a very heavy “get away with it” card. I’d honestly like to see that change.

My thoughts on the Caitlin Jenner transition and controversy

I’m going to assume most readers know what I’m referring to without needing to cite a specific news story (a practice which is becoming more hit-or-miss as the days go on and which I’m considering changing; more on this in a later post). For those of you who have missed it and need some backstory, start with this section of the Caitlin Jenner article on Wikipedia.

(I had hoped to get this out there while it was still relatively topical. By now, it’s a bit stale, but I do have a lot to say on the subject, and a lot of the topics will remain relevant for some time to come.)

The last decade has seen a fair number of high-profile events involving sexual preference, gender identity, and gender norms. For example, the “coming out” of college football player, Michael Sam, originally drafted by the St. Louis Rams, later joining the Dallas Cowboys practice squad and then the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. (Other players have since “come out” as gay or lesbian.) It’s no longer the huge taboo it once was for men to use color cosmetics (makeup), though it’s still a relatively small minority that choose to do so. Target has just recently (2015 August) decided to remove gender-based signage from the toys aisles (and some other departments) in its stores. (More on this in a future post, since this is still somewhat topical and worthy of its own post.) The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that life partnership (marriage) can no longer legally be withheld from same-sex couples. All of these combined mean a very different world going forward.

A lot of the controversy surrounded Caitlin receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2015 ESPY Awards. It could be said that Caitlin, with her athletic career long since over, was not all that courageous “coming out” as transgender. I can see the logic behind giving her the award though, because coming out as transgender is damned hard enough as it is, and having become this famous as a male athlete, even if three decades prior, can’t possibly have made it any easier.

When the Ashe Award has been given to multiple recipients, there has always been some connection; examples include Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick in 2002, who perished on-board United Flight 93 hijacked as part of the terrorist attacks of 2001 September 11; the Tillman brothers in 2003; and a few others. So one possible answer to the criticism, to award multiple recipients in 2015 for completely unrelated acts of courage, would probably not have gone over well and for good reason.

I’m not going to pretend to be omnipotent regarding who really should have received the award. Indeed, it could be argued there’s no objective way to measure courage and, thus, the answer as to who was the most courageous over the course of a year will vary depending on who is making the decision, and that the debate over whether or not Caitlin deserved the award will continue for many years if not decades. While we as a society have made a lot of progress, there is still a huge gap to close before we can say we have eliminated bias based on unconventional gender identity. I hope that those that disagree with the decision to give Caitlin the Ashe Award can at least respect that decision no matter how vehement their disagreement may be. It is also my hope that Caitlin’s coming out leads to more acceptance of transgender individuals and greater awareness of LGBTQ issues.

Same song, I lost count of how many verses: Microsoft, Windows 10, and application choices

A recent Ars Technica article reveals a very nasty (but entirely in-character for Microsoft) “feature” of Windows 10. If you are not paying attention when you upgrade to Windows 10, you could easily wind up with all your default applications reset to Microsoft’s “recommendations” by which I mean their attempts at monopoly like the new version of the Internet Exporer browser called Edge. (I’ll cover how to avoid this shortly.)

Not surprisingly, the CEO of the Mozilla Foundation (the non-profit behind Firefox, Thunderbird, and other software descended from the original Netscape Navigator/Communicator suites) is quite unhappy and is asking Microsoft to “please reconsider” their decision. I don’t blame him.

My quick take on this, is it reeks of the same anti-competitive behavior that Microsoft has been engaging in for most of the last two decades. I’m not going to explain all of it here, but a few notable examples:

  • Previous versions of Windows (unfortunately, I would assume Windows 10 is no different) were notorious for clobbering boot loaders for GNU/Linux dual boot setups, so much so that the advice to install Windows first to avoid complications became almost universally known among GNU/Linux user communities. One really should not have to do this; Windows, certainly by now, should be smart enough to detect a dual boot setup and not clobber it.
  • Microsoft’s own websites, during the height of the “browser war”, would intentionally serve broken CSS stylesheets to browsers identifying as something besides Internet Explorer (IE). The intent was for the uneducated users to quickly say “this layout is completely busted, let me see if IE handles it any better.” Of course Microsoft got caught out with these shenanigans in short order.
  • Microsoft orginally partnered with IBM to make Operating System/2 (OS/2). The partnership was short-lived; I am guessing Microsoft was mainly in it to get their hands on the High Performance File System (HPFS) code, which they hacked into the gratuitously incompatible NTFS which is now the default filesystem on Windows (and was the preferred filesystem for Windows NT from the beginning). Microsoft in the end left IBM holding the bag with OS/2, and when IBM made it an actual competing product, Microsoft did everything they could to stop it (a lot of it unethical, some quite possibly outright unlawful).

Anyway, for those of you upgrading to Windows 10 who want to keep your Firefox (or Chrome or Opera or K-Meleon or whatever), the “feature” to be on the lookout for is called “express settings.” If you want to keep your existing application choices, do not select “express settings, instead do this (from the Ars Technica article):

If you click the small “customise settings” button during installation, you can keep your default apps from the previous installation—but the size of the button would seem to indicate that Microsoft wants most users to just click “use express settings” instead. (Actually, you have to click “customise settings,” and a few pages later click another tiny, low-contrast button to actually change the default apps. Microsoft really doesn’t want you to change Windows 10’s default apps.)

It’s disappointing, but unfortunately quite non-surprising, to see Microsoft covertly steering users away from competing technology such as Firefox, Chrome, Opera, etc. Unfortunately it is far from surprising. I have no real issue with Microsoft promoting their own products, but in the case of users upgrading from previous versions of Windows, Microsoft needs to learn respect for the choices the user has already made. Those choices may be OpenOffice or LibreOffice (instead of Microsoft’s Office suite); Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or another competing browser (instead of IE or Edge); Quicken or GnuCash (instead of the now-discontinued Microsoft Money, which is incidentally proof that Microsoft doesn’t in fact win them all); or even Vim (instead of something like Notepad or Wordpad). I could go on and on with the number of applications on an average PC, I’m sure Microsoft has an answer for a lot of different computing applications. The reality is that a lot of people will use something different, and that there are choices out there. Microsoft should work with its customers’ choices, not against them.