Blockheaded blocking, GitHub style

From WPTavern.com comes this surprising development about the block functionality on GitHub. From the article:

Users who are blocked will no longer be able to open or comment on issues or pull requests, nor will they will not be able to add or edit any of the project’s wiki pages.

…both of these sound reasonable so far, but then there’s this:

Blocked users are also prevented from forking any of the organization’s repositories.

It is this last one, however, that I have a huge issue with. While rare, forking is generally considered the best way to resolve differences of opinion on a project. There are also other valid reasons for forking such as wanting to recode substantial parts of a project for different hardware (anything from a completely different architecture to a newer or older generation of CPU), to satisfy different jurisdictions’ legal requirements (example: a GPLed arcade game software needs recoding for Texas’s somewhat oddball redemption game limits), or even rewriting the original code in a new language or new variant of that language (Inkscape in C++ versus Sodipodi in C).

This problem is compounded by Github’s terms of service A.7 which disallows one person or legal entity from having multiple free accounts. Otherwise, the easiest workaround would be to make a one-off account just for forking a project one has been blocked from, and transfer it to the “real” account. Someone who wished to fork a project after being blocked would either need to form a new legal entity such as an LLC (!) or have someone fork the project on their behalf. I’m not even sure if that would provide full functionality.

I am, however, pretty sure that the vast majority of ghost accounts on online services, GitHub or otherwise, go undetected for years. Outside of legal action, there’s no real way to stop them. (Example: I could get a cheap voice/text only “burner” phone plus $10 worth of airtime, pay for it in cash, go down to an Internet-connected cafe such as a Starbucks like the one I am in now, and set up a new Gmail account within minutes. If there are more than 5 people in that Starbucks at the time the account was created, and/or there’s no reason to suspect monkey business until after the video surveillance system at Starbucks erases/overwrites the video from that time, it’s going to be damn hard to figure out who really made that account. Personally, I’ve never done this, but I’m sure some people have. Bonus points for using Tails/Tor Browser on top of all this.)

Too many people who use platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no idea what blocking actually does. Too many use it as an “easy way out” with regard to avoiding differences resolvable with minimal effort. (As an aside, in the case of Twitter specifically, it has changed over the years. At one time one could still easily read public tweets of a user that blocked them. Now, there’s just a screen that says “You have been blocked from following @skquinn and reading @skquinn’s Tweets. Learn more”. One huge problem I have with this setup is that it is taking the user’s authentication information and using it against them; it’s possible to see the same timeline as a not-logged-in user. Twitter does not even restrict me from making a second account just for the purpose of evading certain aspects of blocking, though things like a prohibition against harassment and stalking are still in play.)

Also, blocking is an all-or-nothing proposition in most cases. There’s no way to line-item block certain posts from certain people that are no longer friends. The closest one can come is, on Facebook, to make a custom filter that amounts to “all friends except Joe Dummy” or similar. Indeed, GitHub’s block function appears to allow no easy way to allow just forking, and was made with the assumption someone would want to prohibit a diverse and far-reaching set of actions with one button most of the time.

So again we have a service which has made the block function far more powerful than it really should be. As unfortunate as it is, there is still time for GitHub to fix this unfortunate mistake, and I am hoping that they do.

Red Medicine and the no-shows

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, no longer have restaurant reviews been the exclusive domain of professional restaurant critics. Services like Yelp have enabled reviews of restaurants (and other establishments), both for better and for worse, by average customers.

But, suddenly some no-show customers at a Beverly Hills restaurant found the shoe on the other foot. This story on KGTV (San Diego ABC affiliate) made a lot of waves, because this time Noah Ellis, the owner of Red Medicine, tweeted the full names of several no-shows after getting sick and tired of losing money from people either missing their reservation or cancelling at the last minute.

This tweet:

All the nice guests who wonder why restaurants overbook and they sometimes have to wait for their res should thank people like those below.

and this quote from the owner (which came from the KGTV story) should give you some idea of the frustration level involved:

The (expletive) who decide to no-show, or cancel 20 minutes before their reservation (because one of their friends made a reservation somewhere else) ruin restaurants (as a whole) for the people who make a reservation and do their best to honor it. Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables.

And if that’s not enough this LA Times article has this quote from a competing chef:

[A competing chef] said he usually responds to no-shows with “Cursing, a lot of f-words and other kitchen-speak. It’s the equivalent of being stood up. Not that I’ve ever been stood up. But I can imagine how it feels with how many no-shows and last-minute cancellations we’ve gotten.

And then, days later, this article on grubstreet.com details that at least one of those no-showing had a death in the family which she found out about less than a half-hour from making the reservation, and that she had only called in the reservation at 6pm for dinner at 7:30pm. According to her, staff at Red Medicine had her cell phone number and never called to see what had happened, and it was (understandably) the last thing on her mind to call and cancel the reservation.

(For the moment, I’m going to set aside that this is the same restaurant that once refused service to S. Irene Virbila and her party, and posted her picture, back in late 2010. As it happens, I blogged about that one too; if you want my post about that incident, you’re welcome to go back in the archives and read it.)

I can see both sides of the story here. Since I’m not a restaurant owner, first I will approach this from the point of view of a restaurant guest (which I have been many times, though not often at the level of restaurants similar to Red Medicine).

I think a death in the family is a valid reason to skip a restaurant reservation. For me, hearing a relative had just passed on would certainly ruin my appetite. If I had made a restaurant reservation at 6pm, and gotten that call around 6:20-6:30pm, it would depend a lot on circumstances if I was able to keep my thoughts in order long enough to remember to call to cancel; I might be able to, and then again I might not. Certainly, though, if the restaurant has my phone number and call to ask where I am, I’d tell them why I wasn’t able to make it. So if the woman’s story is true, then Red Medicine’s staff really dropped the ball and made an already bad situation even worse for at least one potential customer.

We don’t know the stories behind why the other six no-shows didn’t honor their reservations, and in all likelihood, we probably never will. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and assume that the others had reasons which were much less serious than a death in the family. If it was simply a case of someone else in the party having reservations elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer: I would call and cancel as soon as I know. Even if it’s something like accidentally losing the credit/debit card that I was going to pay for dinner with, or problems with the vehicle I’d be driving down there (let’s face it, Red Medicine’s clientele don’t hop the bus down there), I’d rather call and cancel than just no-show.

From a restaurant owner’s point of view, perhaps more could have been done so that things didn’t get to this point. I certainly would want to know why people are no-shows at my restaurant so often. Maybe Noah and his staff already knew or at least already thought they knew. While I’ll probably get my share of flames for just trying to see Noah’s side of the story, it’s entirely possible this has been an ongoing problem they have been trying to resolve for months or years.

That said, there’s enough controversy about this that this isn’t something every restaurant owner should seriously consider. Red Medicine got at least three one-star reviews on Yelp in retaliation that I saw (and no telling how many others which will bubble up to the top once the reviewers better establish themselves), one of which suggested the restaurant should consider converting to walk-ins only. While I’m sure the reviewer meant well, that kind of a change either goes very right, or very wrong. Most places which require reservations require them because otherwise they’d lose many more customers without them, since many are bound to give up on a restaurant as the odds of getting a table equal and then become far worse than winning a decent amount on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Only time will tell just how right, or how wrong, this move was. One thing’s for sure: if I get to visit LA and dine at Red Medicine, I will honor any reservation I make. The last thing I need is bad publicity.

The IOC vs. social media

A recent article on Mashable about the 2012 Olympics in London again shows just how crazy the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gotten when it comes to regulating its event.

It’s being billed as “the first social media Olympic Games” but with the IOC’s rather anti-social policies it’s questionable just how social they will be.

Athletes will not be allowed to tweet photos of themselves with
products that aren’t official Olympics sponsors or share photos or videos from inside the athletes’ village.

Fans, too, could be barred from sharing on Facebook and YouTube photos and videos of themselves enjoying the action.

Business owners will have restrictions as well. They won’t be able to lure customers by advertising with official Olympics nomenclature such as “2012 Games.” Regulators will scour Olympic venues to potentially obfuscate non-sponsor logos on objects as trivial as toilets.

The restrictions on business owners are somewhat understandable. But obfuscating logos on everything at venues down to the toilets? I think that’s taking it a bit too far.

From later in the story, the restrictions on athletes appear to be tied to the IOC’s desire to control the message. Quoting Alex Huot, the IOC’s head of social media:

We encourage athletes to share their Games experience. The Olympic
Athletes’ Hub has been in part built for this. We have created a place for them to join and connect with our millions of fans around the world and to share not just during the Olympics but long after the Olympics are gone.

Unfortunately the athletes themselves have personal brands to build as well. This works out well for the IOC, at the expense of the athletes, and certainly looks like the first step down an extremely slippery slope.

The IOC seems to be forgetting without the athletes, the Olympic Games would cease to exist. As a fan, I should be allowed to follow my favorite athlete through his/her regular social media feeds–whether or not they are at the Olympic Games. To expect me as a fan to “switch channels” to the Olympic Athletes’ Hub is ludicrous, and to prohibit the athletes from building their own personal brands during the Games is something I find nearly unconscionable.

I honestly wonder how long it will be until an alternative quadrennial/biennial athletic competition to replace the over-commercialized Olympic Games becomes a reality. I don’t think it will be too much longer before someone decides “enough is enough” and gives the IOC a swift kick in the pocketbook.

I acknowledge every sport requires rules. But do we really need to have such fascist rules about what amateur athletes tweet and blog while in competition? Until and unless it compromises the integrity of the competition itself, the IOC should keep its hands off.

Calling the bluff: Twitter’s response to a subpoena

Wired.com’s Threat Level blog recently featured Twitter in what I believe to be a very positive light. Rather than just quietly fold when faced with a subpoena for information about people of interest in regard to Wikileaks and a corresponding gag order forbidding Twitter from informing the subjects about the subpoena, Twitter decided to call the bluff–or even raise, depending on how you look at it. From the article:

The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.

To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.

Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.

It is refreshing to see a company stand up and defend the rights of its users the way Twitter did here. I’m quite disgusted from a civil liberties standpoint that it’s now routine for law enforcement to attach a gag order to a subpoena. Someone needed to do something about it.

I concur with the author’s hope that other companies follow Twitter’s lead. Specifically, Facebook and Yahoo (who currently owns Flickr and Delicious) would do well to adopt the challenge of gag orders attached to subpoenas as a matter of company policy. For that matter, anyone responsible for an online service involving the data of others, even as a hobbyist effort, would do well to challenge a gag order attached to such a subpoena, especially one from a law enforcement agency, or perhaps even defy it outright (riskier, and only for the especially brave).

At the poker table, players who routinely bluff with nothing eventually have to show down a losing hand. Usually, they don’t bluff for a while after that. This is surprisingly similar to what happens in real life, certainly more similar than most cops and prosecuting attorneys would have you believe. Because the concept of a citizenry that knows their legal rights and asserts them is anathema to them, and a direct threat to how many of them do their jobs.

My take on the story of “Chris”

A recent post on bitrebels.com details the story of “Chris” who was recently demoted for some of his Twitter posts that his company’s loss prevention department apparently took exception to. It is unfortunately very scarce on details, so there’s not much for me to comment on.

I find it difficult for a company–especially the loss prevention department–to find anything to really take exception to anything that can be said on Twitter short of “wow, I hope this million-dollar embezzlement goes down smoothly, then I can book the plane to Hawaii and leave this %$*@# dump,” leaking trade secrets, or financial info for a privately held company. Something tells me it’s not any of these kind of things.

Usually, it is obvious the rank-and-file employees of a company speak for themselves. Now if “Chris” is the PR or marketing guy, or high up enough in the company to have some kind of chief officer position, the rules change a bit. Usually the CEO/CFO/COO/etc are responsible to at least the shareholders for a publicly held company.

I’ve known of at least one friend who has had e-mails taken out of context and construed to mean something entirely different, and was fired for it. Thankfully he bounced back in the months after that incident. And this was back in 2002, long before Twitter and Facebook.

This company, whoever they are, could have handled this much better. Instead of taking a “submarine” monitoring approach, they should have worked with “Chris” so that this never would have had to happen. I certainly would like to know who this company is, and if the circumstances are what I think they are it will be tempting to boycott them.