The Dylan M. versus Google incident, ten years later

So it was ten years ago this month I wrote two posts about one Dylan M. and the sudden disabling of his Google account over some photos (under the titles “When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm” and “Warm bodies are still smarter than silicon (When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm, part 2)“). The first post concluded with the advice to back up data on USB flash drives and use optical discs for long term archival, while the second post discussed more of the aftermath and how it’s a bit heavy handed for Google to disable an entire account over just one image which arguably isn’t even their business unless it’s being shared with the public.

Everything in both of those posts is still true today, more or less. There’s been an unfortunate move away from optical discs, and it’s a bit harder to find recordable CD and DVD media these days. As for me, I was lucky. Some time ago I was able to buy both the drive and discs I’m using at Target. (I find it easier to use an external DVD-R drive due to the arrangement of my laptop on my desk.)

I’m not sure if Target is still selling the drives or the media. I do remember the last Walgreens I checked was not selling any optical disc media at all. They also weren’t selling USB flash drives either, so it may just have been that one store. I don’t particularly like buying from Amazon when I can avoid it, but they appear to be selling both the drives and media. Best Buy was selling at least the drives online as well.

Unfortunately this move to obsolete optical disc media goes back to Apple and their sudden refusal to put optical disc drives in their computers. On a laptop I can kind of get it, as space is precious and there is the option of an external drive (like the one I’m using). On a desktop, though? Space is not the issue, though I can see forgoing an optical media drive for cost reasons (especially if the money saved is instead going toward a larger SSD, more RAM, or more CPU).

I also mention my luck with failing USB drives. I have since had a few more USB drives fail on me, and at least two or three SD cards give up the ghost. For short-term copies, they might be good enough, especially given how hard it can be to archive larger files on optical discs. (Though, as I write this, external Blu-Ray recorders have come down to around $100-$150. Of course, the media can still be expensive. My spot price check shows a 10-disc spindle of 100GB BD-XL at $52, or $5.20 per disc, from one supplier.)

The key lessons remain the same. If it’s important, make backup copies. Make and use multiple accounts for cloud-based services if your situation warrants (and the terms of service allow). If you go this route, you should have one for the mainstay of your personal then activities, one or more others for riskier activities. Keep them separate, ideally using separate computers or devices and never mixing them up.

You should not assume anything is private when companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Adobe, etc are running the service. Companies often analyze and use your data to figure out what kinds of ads to serve you elsewhere (particularly in the case of Google and Microsoft).

Finally, if you can’t touch it (or the device it is stored on), you don’t really own it. Sometimes this is close to unavoidable (email and web hosting in particular, at least for the majority of people). Still, back up your email and, if you have one, your website. (Don’t forget to also make a copy of the database if your site has one.)

It’s really unfortunate that things really haven’t changed on this front. If anything, I think the situation has gotten worse.

They used to teach an actual computer literacy course as part of the middle school curriculum. (The school I went to for sixth grade would have had me take a full semester of typing–on typewriters!–as a prerequisite to the actual semester of computer literacy. Thankfully, the school I was transferring to did not.) Now, the technology literacy (as it is called now) is woven into other courses. As an acknowledgement of the increasing role technology is playing in our lives, this makes sense.

I do remember learning about backups and things like ethics as part of computer literacy. I’m not sure if today’s students still learn about these things. (Of course, I would hope they still are.)

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 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.

[Edit 2022-12-01: is now offline, link has been changed to point to an archived version of the linked post.]

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.

User groups and the chameleon of technology

Earlier this week, Dwight Silverman wrote a post in Techblog about the demise of HAL-PC which at one time was the largest computer user group in the US. The relevance of HAL-PC, and computer user groups in general, has become so low in recent years that many of you may be surprised that HAL-PC hung on in some form well in to the 2010s.

From the post:

Bill Jameson, a former board member who spoke by phone from HAL-PC’s South Post Oak offices, confirmed the decision. He reiterated the “changing society” theme in the email, saying “this society we live in now has a different set of interests and goals. Our type of organization is not included in that.”

“Most of our members are older,” Jameson said. “The cultural norms we group up with are pretty much gone, and as a consequence the organization has not sufficiently adapted to this new culture.”

What led to this? Let’s take a look back to the 1970s and early to mid-1980s when computers were a new thing, and an era before the vast majority of people had access to the Internet. Most computer-to-computer communication was done via modems over analog telephone lines. Through most of these two decades, 9600 bits per second (bps) modem speeds were a long-chased ideal, with 300, 1200, and 2400 bps being much more common. In the place of the Internet, there were bulletin board systems (BBSes) and amateur email networks like FidoNet.

But more importantly, there was no hitting the power switch, waiting a minute, and coming back to a full color graphical user interface, and clicking on a few things to launch whatever software one wanted to run.  There was the DOS prompt, or on earlier computers a BASIC interpreter (some of the really exotic models didn’t even had that, but only had a Forth interpreter or even just an assembler). There were no mice during this era for the most part, much less something to move a pointer to and click on. If one wanted the computer to do something, one typed it in. Typing was an unmistakable prerequisite to computer literacy, with knowing MS-DOS commands or their equivalent on one’s platform following closely behind. Most people learned a little programming, even if it was MS-DOS batch files or writing short BASIC programs, out of necessity.

Most importantly, though, the line between programmer (today more often called “developer”) and user was much blurrier than it is today (I’ll cover this in more depth later). And this is where user groups came in, where the more advanced users would teach those newer to computing how to get the most out of their gadgets. User groups are the reason technology is not feared as it once was by those who lived through the era in which they existed and were largely relevant.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Microsoft came out with Windows 95 and with it there was no separate MS-DOS product any more, it was all graphical and you had to dig for the MS-DOS prompt if you still wanted it. At least through Windows 98 there was still a fair amount of MS-DOS compatibility (I think Windows 98 still had the ability to boot into a “command prompt” as they call it to run older MS-DOS software). But before too long, the command prompt would become harder and harder to find, and at least Microsoft would rather have you believe it is simply less useful in modern times (I personally believe Microsoft themselves made it that way on purpose). Instead of being something magical, computers take their place next to the TVs and stereo systems at stores like Best Buy and Target. For the most part, computers are just another appliance now. It makes as much sense to have a computer user group as it does a refrigerator user group or toaster oven user group.

On one hand, it still amazes me that once back in 2008 or so, I found a still-usable computer sitting out by the dumpster, and the main reason for this was that there was some kind of issue with the Windows XP install. Rather than try to fix it, this person dumped it and bought a new one. That computer eventually became a firewall/router which served us well for a good 3 years plus, though those who know me will (correctly) guess the first thing I did was wipe the Windows XP install and replace it with OpenBSD (4.9 or 5.0, I think, but I could be wrong). On the other, it’s a rather sad reflection on the public’s attitude to computers, and just how much ease of use has taken a lot of the magic out of learning how to use a computer.

I use a graphical interface now, though I have not kept Windows installed on any computer I’ve considered “mine” for at least 12 years now. While I am not quite at “a mouse is a device used to point at the xterm you want to type in” it’s rare that I don’t have at least one command line open somewhere. In at least one situation on a computer that wasn’t “mine” where getting rid of the installed copy of Windows wasn’t an option, I kept an Ubuntu install on a thumb drive and booted that instead of Windows when I needed to use that computer. The installation failed several times in weird and not-so-wonderful ways, but I got it back up and running almost every time. (The one time I didn’t? The thumb drive itself (not the Linux kernel finding filesystem errors) started throwing write protection errors. I got the surviving important data off that drive and at least temporarily used a different (very old and underpowered) computer exclusively for a while.)

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install, much less realizing there are many other choices for operating system besides those which come from Microsoft (or Apple). There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it. I was there once myself; I once built a new 80486DX/33 and barely had a freaking clue what the heck I was doing. It helped that I had a friend at the time to guide me through the tricky parts (over the phone). Today’s hardware is, if anything, much more friendly towards do-it-yourself builds: RAM chips, CPU chips, power supply connectors, and SATA (hard drive) connectors are all keyed to only go in one way; the only thing decreasing is the number of people actually willing to pick up the screwdriver.

(Quick sidenote here: Apple never did embrace the idea that users could build their own computers. For better or worse, Apple has positioned themselves as sort of a “luxury brand” of electronics. The only thing worse than Microsoft’s near monopoly is that it’s impossible to buy components and build one’s own iMac, or even buy an Apple computer without Mac OS X. Apple has actually made it a EULA violation to run Mac OS X on unlicensed hardware, even though today’s “PC compatible” computers can run it. This is one reason I point to when I say that I believe Apple has been more harmful to the state of computing than Microsoft has been.)

Another sad commentary is the rather rigid wall that’s been built between “user” and “developer” (what we used to call “programmer”). Even “power user” doesn’t have quite the same aura it once did, and it’s used as a derisive term more often than one might otherwise think (and way more often than it should be, in my opinion). I find myself slamming into this wall on many occasions, as there are things I’d like to be able to do as a user, which I research and find out one needs to actually be a developer to do them. (Which sometimes means it’s impossible or going to be much harder to do than it need be; other times, I simply want to say “no, this shouldn’t be a developer feature, I’m just a user who wants to make full use of the technology.”) For example: Windows (which has lineage back to MS-DOS) no longer comes with a BASIC interpreter. Another example: Neither Windows nor Mac OS X come with compilers suitable for writing one’s own software. (Microsoft makes no-cost versions available for download, but they aren’t easy to find, and in all likelihood are a thinly disguised excuse to get one bumping into the limits and then shelling out money for the “real” compilers.) It is in fact expected that most users will simply spend amounts of money (which can run into hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousands of dollars) on the appropriate pre-written, shrink-wrapped, proprietary software. This is great for the stockholders of Microsoft, Apple, and other members of the proprietary software cartel like Adobe. It’s lousy if one’s “just a user.”

How is a protest on Wall Street not news?

I had slacked off reading some of the latest news, so I missed some of the events going on. I particularly missed that a major protest had been going on near Wall Street, and more particularly has received a lack of coverage by the news media. If anyone needs evidence of the perils of corporate-owned mass media that have the power to band together and censor the free flow of information when it is bad for corporate interests as a whole, this is it.

For those new to this whole thing, the following makes for good background reading (note that most of these will display in reverse chronological order, so you might want to page to the end and read up):

  1. The AdBusters site for Occupy Wall Street.
  3. Reader Supported News coverage.

The most important events so far are that Yahoo censored emails about the demonstrations, and that dozens of protesters have been arrested (at least 80 at last count).

This is the problem with trusting large for-profit corporations to give us our news: Disney, Comcast, GE, News Corporation, CBS Corporation, Time Warner, Clear Channel, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Hearst Corporation, Gannett Company, just to name a few. No one corporation of these wants their own media outlets reporting on what could be considered an embarrassment to their own interests. Am I against the idea of for-profit media in principle? No. But something is really broken when a protest like this can go on for a week with barely any coverage in the major media outlets.

Worst of all is the flagrant censorship by Yahoo, a company I had honestly held in high regard and considered above such actions. Shame on you, Yahoo. You have no business scanning your users’ private emails for mentions of Occupy Wall Street. This in addition to being censorship is an invasion of user privacy and a betrayal of trust.

And shame on every so-called “news media outlet” that has chosen to ignore this, who has put their own corporate self-interest above doing what they have been entrusted to do: report the news. Occupy Wall Street is news. To ignore these protests is to ignore news.

I should have jumped on this sooner, and I apologize for not being more timely with this post. But the protests are still ongoing and the cause that the protests are being held for is still relevant, so I figure it is still not too late to spread the word.