Friday, February 27, 2015

An opposing view - or is it an opposing view? - on allowing objectionable content

The underlying assumption behind Google's decision to NOT filter certain types of objectionable content is that if a particular person is offended by the content, the person can decide on his or her own to not view the content.

Louis Gray can decide that he doesn't want to view pictures of people sleeping.

I can decide that I don't want to view any positive comments about the Depeche Mode song "Pleasure, Little Treasure."

But what of the filtering companies, who allow you to ensure that content entering your home is "family-friendly"? Here is part of what True Vine says about its service:

Since 1999, we have provided a Christian Internet Filter to families, making their internet experience safer and more enjoyable. True Vine Online is proud to offer our Internet filter and filtering service that allows you and your family to check email, browse your favorite sites, and view that funny new clip without having to worry about inappropriate material. Our filter software works with your current provider or you may order our own high speed DSL, which includes our award winning software for fully protected surfing.

You want your kids and family to enjoy all the advantages of today’s high-speed internet, and have information readily available. But what you may not realize is that they are logging into a battlefield every time they sign on. With pornography, lewd material and sites that hack your computer bombarding from all sides, it can be hard to sift through the trash. Luckily, True Vine Online is here to help.

Don’t let the trash of the internet undermine your family’s values. Get an Internet Filter from True Vine Online and start surfing safely!

More telling is the company', justification (sorry, inside joke) regarding the benefits of a Christian Internet filter.

Why a Christian Filter is a better idea.

We filter from a Christian perspective.

Christian families need to use a Christian Internet Filter. Secular filters often try to be "politically correct" and may tend to block conservative Christian sites. Our Christian Internet filter is designed and programmed with Christian families in mind.

The world has become overly liberal and doesn't get offended very easily. We get very offended and do our best to filter Internet adult sites before they enter your home.

So, whether you choose the True Vine filter, the Anti-Fascist Filter, or whatever, the filter is actually installed in the home, not farther upstream.

Before you advocate that Google implement the True Vine filter to keep all that porn out of your house, consider what would happen if Google implemented some secular filter instead - perhaps a Mozilla filter that would prevent Brendan Eich from making objectionable political contributions.

So perhaps it's better that these decisions be made at the home, rather than upstream.

Why this blog can still feature pictures of women driving

Louis Gray shared something from the Blogger team, which I will reprint in full.

Hello everyone,

This week, we announced a change to Blogger’s porn policy. We’ve had a ton of feedback, in particular about the introduction of a retroactive change (some people have had accounts for 10+ years), but also about the negative impact on individuals who post sexually explicit content to express their identities. So rather than implement this change, we’ve decided to step up enforcement around our existing policy prohibiting commercial porn.

Blog owners should continue to mark any blogs containing sexually explicit content as “adult” so that they can be placed behind an “adult content” warning page.

Bloggers whose content is consistent with this and other policies do not need to make any changes to their blogs.

Thank you for your continued feedback.

The Blogger Team

Gray, who happens to be an employee of Google, added the following comment when he shared the link. While the "our" in Gray's comment presumably refers to Google, the "I'm" is presumably a personal comment.

This reversal is actually a very important stance that highlights our belief in supporting free speech and keeping the web open. I'm very happy this has been reversed. It's the right thing to do.

Why is this the right thing to do?

Because Google, like many multinational companies, has to operate in different countries and in different cultures.

Such companies have to tread a very delicate balance between the company's own principles, and the principles of each country in which the company operates. Some of these are cultural - for example, there are certain people in the United States who are culturally offended by the sight of a woman's exposed breasts. Of course, others are offended by attendance at movie theaters.

Some of these principles, however, are legislative. Men wearing skirts in Italy (what does the Scotsman do?). Doing bad things on the Internet in the United States. Doing bad things on the Internet in China.

And doing bad things on the Internet in Saudi Arabia - specifically, violating the Council of Ministers Resolution from 12 February 2001, reproduced at the end of this post.

Looking at the Saudi example, what if someone wanted to speak about the problem of porn in the United States? And what if that person was Sarah Palin? And what if she wrote this?

Jesus Christ the Son of God says that porn is bad, and I'm going to drive my car to Washington DC and tell that to that idiot Obama!

...that statement (which infringes the sanctity of Islam, promotes the subversive idea of female drivers, and damages the dignity of a head of state) would never be seen in Saudi Arabia.

But this goes well beyond morals. Multinational firms have to comply with the laws of each country in which they do business. As a result, a current visit to the Spanish Google News page - - yields the following result (this is the English version):

We’re incredibly sad to announce that, due to recent changes in Spanish law, we have removed Spanish publishers from Google News and closed Google News in Spain. We understand that readers like you may be disappointed, too, and we want to share the reasons behind this decision.

Google News is a free service, loved and trusted by hundreds of millions of users around the world and available in more than 70 international editions, covering 35 languages. It includes everything from the world’s biggest newspapers to small, local publications and bloggers. Publishers can choose whether or not they want their articles to appear in Google News -- and the vast majority choose to be included for very good reason. Google News creates real value for these publications by driving people to their websites, which in turn helps generate advertising revenues.

But sadly, as a result of a new Spanish law, we had to close Google News in Spain. This legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money (we do not show any advertising on the site) this new approach was not sustainable.

We remain committed to helping the news industry meet challenges and look forward to continuing to work with our thousands of partners globally, as well as in Spain, to help them increase their online readership and revenues.

So while Louis Gray probably doesn't want to see naked handcuffed women sleeping (the "sleeping" part would really be offensive to Gray), he understands that it is better than the alternative in which all "objectionable content" is removed.

Here is the Saudi resolution that governs Internet use:

All Internet users in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shall refrain from publishing or accessing data containing some of the following:

1.Anything contravening a fundamental principle or legislation, or infringing the sanctity of Islam and its benevolent Shari’ah, or breaching public decency.

1.Anything contrary to the state or its system.

2.Reports or news damaging to the Saudi Arabian armed forces, without the approval of the competent authorities.

3.Publication of official state laws, agreements or statements before they are officially made public, unless approved by the competent authorities.

1.Anything damaging to the dignity of heads of states or heads of credited diplomatic missions in the Kingdom, or harms relations with those countries.

2.Any false information ascribed to state officials or those of private or public domestic institutions and bodies, liable to cause them or their offices harm, or damage their integrity.

4.The propagation of subversive ideas or the disruption of public order or disputes among citizens.

5.Anything liable to promote or incite crime, or advocate violence against others in any shape or form.

6.Any slanderous or libellous material against individuals.

Furthermore, certain trade directives stipulate that all companies, organisations and individuals benefiting from the service shall observe the following:

1.Not to carry out any activity through the internet, such as selling, advertising, or recruitment, except in accordance with the commercial licenses and registers in force.

2.Not to carry out any financial investment activity or offer shares for subscription, except when in possession of the necessary licenses to do so.

3.Not to promote or sell medicines or foodstuff carrying any medicinal claims, or cosmetics, except those registered and approved by the Ministry of Health.

4.Not to advertise or promote or sell substances covered by other international agreements to which the Kingdom is a party, except for those with the necessary licenses.

5.Not to advertise trade fairs or organise trade delegations visits or tourist tours or trade directories except with the necessary licences.

All private and government departments, and individuals, setting up websites or publishing files or pages, shall observe and ensure the following:

1.Respect commercial and information convention.

2.Approval of government authorities for setting up websites or publishing files or pages for or about themselves.

3.Approval of the Ministry of Information for setting up of media-type websites which publish news on regular basis, such as newspapers, magazines and books.

4.Good taste in the design of websites and pages.

5.Effective protection of data on websites and pages.

6.All government and private bodies, and individuals shall take full responsibility for their websites and pages, and the information contained therein.

The Resolution refers to a set of regulatory and technical procedures aimed at ensuring the safety of the constituents of the national network (the internet inside the Kingdom) through effective programming and mechanical means. These include the following:

1.Service providers shall determine internet access eligibility through access accounts, user identification and effective passwords for the use of the access point or subsequent points and linking that through tracing and investigation programmes that record the time spent, addresses accessed or to which or through which access was attempted, and the size and type of files copied, whenever possible or necessary.

1.The use of anti-virus programmes and protection against concealing addresses or printing passwords and files.

2.Endeavour to avoid errors in applications that may provide loopholes that may be exploited for subversive activities or to obtain data not permitted for use for whatever reason.

3.Restriction of the provision of internet services to the end-user through the internet service unit at King Abdulaziz city for sciences and technology.

1.Keep a manual and electronic register with comprehensive information on end-users, their addresses, telephone numbers, purpose of use, and private internet access accounts, and provide the authorities with a copy thereof, if necessary.

4.Not to publish any printed directories containing subscribers’ and end-users’ names and addresses, without their agreement.

Al-Watan newspaper 21/11/1421

Friday, February 20, 2015

When your browser acts differently from other browsers

There is a particular online service - I will not name the online service, but its name rhymes with Racehook - which derives its revenue by strongly encouraging you to do things that you would rather not do otherwise. Frankly, all services do this. For example, they all want you to make all information as public as possible, and provide as much information as possible, so that they can target you with specific ad content. Some people are very comfortable with this, while others are not.

To meet its financial objectives, the "Racehook" online service has implemented a particular feature related to videos. When a video shows up in your newsfeed, it automatically starts playing. Yes, the sound is off, but the video is playing. The idea is to lure you to watch the video, and if the video just happens to be from a Racehook advertiser, then that advertiser will make money (provided its video is compelling), you'll get a wonderful product, and everyone - Racehook, the advertiser, and you - will be happy.

There are drawbacks to this idea, but I'm not going to get into them right now. For my purposes, let's just note that I was approached by a Racehook user who asked me how to stop those videos from automatically playing on her Macintosh computer.

It's relatively easy to find out how to stop video auto-play on mobile phones, but it's a bit harder to figure out how to do this on desktop/laptop platforms. However, using my Windows computer running Internet Explorer, I was able to figure this out, and sent the woman an illustrated email that showed how to select Settings in Facebook, how to then select the settings for Videos, and finally where to find the specific control that governs auto-play video settings. I was pretty danged proud of myself as I sent this email, which included three pictures. Here's the third picture, the one that shows the "Auto-Play Videos" control.

What could go wrong?

Well, I'll tell you what went wrong. When the woman opened up her browser on her Mac - the browser happened to be Safari - no such control appeared. There was just the "Video Default Quality" setting, and then...nothing.

The problem was eventually solved when she opened Facebook on Firefox, found the setting, and then set it to her desired preference.

I'm not completely up to speed on Mac stuff, and I don't know whether this is a Facebook issue, an Apple (Safari) issue, an Adobe (Flash) issue, or something else. But it boils down to this - something that works on one browser doesn't work on another.

As I've noted before, this is a complex issue, and developers (Facebook developers, Adobe developers, Apple developers, whatever) incur additional costs as they support additional platforms. As you define every new configuration that you want to support - for example, to support videos on today's version of Facebook on Internet Explorer 11.0.15 on a 64-bit Windows 7 Enterprise Service Pack 1 operating system - every new configuration supported adds to the time required to deliver the product. We're talking about planning time; coding time; testing time; implementation time; sales, marketing, and proposal time (this category is near and dear to my heart); support time; and probably some other times.

The user, however, doesn't care. All that the user knows is that he or she has a perfectly good version of Oracle PowerBrowser 1.5, and the computer won't play the latest Taylor Swift video.

Of course, if you're still running Oracle PowerBrowser 1.5, watching Taylor Swift videos may not be high on your list of things to do. Maybe you watch Grateful Dead videos on PowerBrowser. Or you THINK you're watching Grateful Dead videos on PowerBrowser.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Software test

This is a test of the Blogger app on my tablet. Obviously this is an old picture. Now I will ask to drink my java.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

We'll just work around that restriction - why the "Berlin Firewall" of Cuba may - or may not - soon fall

There are certain people in the Miami, Florida area who live in a delusionary world.

They believe that the best way to free Cuba from decades of dictatorship is to continue every embargo imaginable against the country. Then, when these embargos finally force Cuban Communism into the dustin of history, the exiles of Miami will triumphantly head south and guide their oppressed brothers and sisters toward freedom.

And yes, some of them really believe that.

Jorge Mas Canosa [was] a co-founder and the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation and a man who under certain circumstances might have returned to the island as president of a post-Castro Cuba.

The elder Mas died in 1997. It was around 1995 or 1996 that he realized that there would not be a sudden collapse of the Castro government...

Meanwhile, as Cuban-Americans dream of going back home, the actual Cubans are thinking, "Hey, McDonald's breath. You haven't lived in Cuba in a half century. Stick to your Estados Unidos ways and we'll run our country ourselves, thank you very much." Or, as a Netherlands website puts it:

The anti-Castro groups, such as the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), today concentrate on influencing politics to bring change to Cuba. Most ... probably would not be willing to pay for the continued existence of the social progress made by the Revolution, should they take power. Most people living in Cuba don't like the prospect of the exiles' return. Most Cubans believe that these wealthy citizens will continue to provide them with free education, health care, housing and other essential needs. These groups, which say they want to bring democracy to Cuba, would not stand much of a chance of winning an election.

Meanwhile, there are other delusionary people who are very happy right now, because the United States has unjustly punished the brave people of Cuba by imposing a fascist embargo upon them. Now that there are moves to lift that embargo, Cuba will be able to govern itself as a model socialist state.

Well, that ain't gonna happen either.

As I previously observed, the lifting of the embargo will not immediately solve Cuba's problems. Frankly, some of Cuba's problems are CAUSED by its own government. As I noted, Chinese executive George Wan has been struggling for ALMOST A YEAR to get the approvals necessary to build a manufacturing plant in Cuba that could provide employment to Cubans, and hard currency to the Cuban government. Wan noted that in China, the whole approval process would have been completed in 24 hours. (If you forget, China is also a one-party Communist state, but they've figured out how to encourage business while simultaneously oppressing their people.)

Now that things are opening up between the United States and Cuba, more and more of these business proposals will be opening up. I previously talked about Americans who would come to Cuba and demand unfettered phone service.

But now, Cubans themselves will be asking similar questions.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You see, an American company will soon be offering services to Cuba - sort of:

[Netflix] on Monday announced it is finally available in Cuba. Those in the island nation with an Internet connection and access to international payment methods can now subscribe to Netflix and watch a "curated selection of popular movies and TV shows."

Notice all of the caveats that Netflix (and writer Angela Moscaritolo) included in that paragraph above.

First, you have to have an Internet connection. Cuba, unlike other countries such as Finland, does not believe that Internet access is a basic human right.

Second, you have to have, as Moscaritolo put it, "access to international payment methods." Again, this isn't something that everyone in Cuba is going to have.

The third item, from Netflix's statement itself, is the use of the interesting word "curated." Among the starry-eyed in Silicon Valley, "curated" was a powerful word a year or so ago, suggesting that wise people would work to bring the best content to you. But what exactly does "curated" mean when, say, applied to the Cuban government? Will Netflix be offering "The Interview" to its Cuban customers? Somehow I think that particular movie will be "curated" right out of Netflix's Cuban offering.

So what do all of these caveats mean? Netflix wasn't going to spell it out in its own press release, but Angela Moscaritolo was not reluctant to do so:

On the downside, however, most Cubans probably won't be able to enjoy epic House of Cards marathons — for at least the time being. Just 5 percent of Cubans currently have unfiltered Internet access, according to a CNN report citing data from watchdog group Freedom House.

So as Penny Progressive walks down the streets of Havana on our now-legal non-educational vacation, she might get a surprise.

PENNY PROGRESSIVE: I am so happy for the people of Cuba now! You can get Netflix!

CAROLINA MARTI: What is this net flicks?

ROSARIO CASTRO: That is the American movie computer service. I hear that the Ortega family has it.

CAROLINA MARTI: Of course the Ortega family has it! They've received all sorts of privileges ever since they were Elian Gonzalez's babysitters when he was a kid.

ROSARIO CASTRO: Hey, Elian might have it also.

CAROLINA MARTI: So what? Why can't WE have it?

Many years ago, the slight loosening of similar restrictions in East Germany led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, a physical wall that separated the people of East Berlin from the people of West Berlin. Is it possible that the slight loosening of restrictions in Cuba will eventually lead to the destruction of Cuba's electronic firewall?

Or will Cuba follow the lead of China, and manage to keep its firewall intact? As it turns out, China's firewall is growing harder to breach, according to Sara Rose:

The Chinese government has reinforced its digital censorship platform, hence making it more difficult to use services called virtual private networks to circumvent the country’s blocks to the U.S. services like Google and Facebook.

China has seen some of the most burdensome internet restrictions, but until now the presence of VPN’s had made life tolerable for the people (yet irksome for the government). The move to disable some of the most widely-used VPNs has provoked a torrent of outrage among video artists, entrepreneurs and professors.

And yes, she DID use the word "torrent" in that last sentence.

As for me, I'm going to adapt something that I said last December. If visiting Americans - or resident Cubans - demand the same types of services in Cuba that they can receive outside of Cuba...

...the Cubans would beg the American government to restart the embargo pronto.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

We'll just work around that restriction - why a Radio Shack only had a cash register

The slow expiration of Radio Shack is resulting in unusual behavior. For example, take the desire of Radio Shack management to close stores.

It announced plans last year to close 1,100 stores, but lenders blocked the move.

The lenders dictated that Radio Shack could only close 200 stores during last fiscal year, which ended up January 31, 2015. So Radio Shack closed the 200 stores, and no more. Well, sort of.

This past Sunday, RadioShack (RSHC) quietly closed 200 more stores, according to multiple employees. Staff at several of those stores say they were given only hours notice last week before rental trucks arrived to haul away remaining inventory.

At one of those stores in Pennsylvania, the last item left was the cash register. That remained so that the store could perform a single transaction on Sunday morning, allowing the store to technically make it into the new fiscal year that started February 1.

So now Radio Shack has closed all of the stores that it can close for the NEW fiscal year. Will the remaining Radio Shacks sit with cash registers only until February 1, 2016?

Many people are saying that Radio Shack won't survive into 2016. But I wonder if THE SHACK, zombie-like, will continue to exist forever and ever.

Heck, this reminds me of a business version of my short story "Nine." A hundred years from now, these stores with the name "Radio Shack" will be sitting around, and some business executive will be shocked to discover that they've existed since the 20th century.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Telling a culinary story - my andouillette dinner

I was tidying up my cubicle one day and ran across this receipt from my recent business trip to France.

The observant person can tell a few things from this receipt.

First, it's obvious that I didn't entirely adapt to French culture during my stay. After all, I received my dinner bill before 7:15 pm. That's early in France.

Second, you can tell that any vestiges of my Methodism (and the old Methodist lifestyle of abstinence) have, washed away.

Third, you can see that I have some interesting food choices. There's a story behind that.

I should state that my command of the French language is EXTREMELY limited. (This was one of the reasons that I decided not to tour the sights of Paris on my own on Sunday, the same day as the massive pro-Charlie Hebdo rally.) Luckily for me, most of the people that I encountered had a much greater command of English than my command of French.

This was certainly true for my visit to Café Francais on Tuesday evening, where a helpful waiter took care of me. It also helped that the menu had English translations of most of the menu items. After perusing the menu, I decided I'd try the andouillette; after all, sausage with mustard sounded pretty good.

I gave my order to the waiter, and he paused for a moment.

"You know what that is, don't you?"

I didn't.

"It's intestines," he explained.

I went ahead and ordered it anyway, figuring that if it was really really bad, I had the Carlsberg to wash it down.

As it turned out, I didn't make a habit of dining on andouillette on my remaining nights in France, but I won't turn up my nose at it either.

Much later, I learned more about this dish from a blog post at the wonderfully named Things That Stink, and via Wikipedia. It turns out that this dish is primarily available in France; even the English don't care for it.

And I'll admit that I'm not rushing to join L'Association Amicale des Amateurs d'Andouillette Authentique any time soon.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Unintended consequences, when the West dies

Sheriff Stephen Haskell walked into the county offices for his meeting. Attired in black trousers, a tan shirt, black boots, and a black ball cap, he looked every inch the professional law enforcement officer. Because of his actions, Sublette County, Wyoming was well-respected in law enforcement circles. His deputies weren't a bunch of yahoos (sorry, Marissa) running around - they had THE LOOK.

Sheriff Haskell knew that this hastily-arranged meeting with the county executives was important, to him and to his future. As he walked into the room, he awaited the praise for his far-sighted vision, and the rewards that would accompany it.

"We're going to have to let go of half of your deputies," one of the county executives said.

The sheriff was speechless. This was not what he expected.

"You know the county's budget woes," said another executive. "Tourism has completely dried up here. All the people that are looking for the genuine Western experience are avoiding Sublette County and visiting other parts of Wyoming."

"Places where the sheriffs and deputies look like real sheriffs and deputies," said a third executive.

Sheriff Haskell slowly left the room, took his cap off, and walked out the door. A sagebrush blew across the dusty street as he got into his Ford Crown Victoria. "I probably won't have the budget to replace this with a Prius," he said.

You can't do everything in the cloud - Amazon brick-and-mortar stores, courtesy Radio Shack?

Radio Shack, or THE SHACK, or whatever they're calling themselves now, usually induces yawns.

Radio Shack isn't doing well. Yawn.

Radio Shack is considering liquidating its assets, selling some stores to Sprint and closing the rest. Yawn.

Radio Shack is considering selling some stores to Amazon WAIT A MINUTE THERE.

Bloomberg: Inc., aiming to bolster its brick-and-mortar operations, has discussed acquiring some RadioShack Corp. locations after the electronics chain files for bankruptcy, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

Amazon has considered using the RadioShack stores as showcases for the Seattle-based company’s hardware...

Now obviously you can't put every Amazon item in a Radio Shack-size store. Heck, you can't put every Amazon item in a Super Walmart-size store. But perhaps you can display some physical items, with kiosks or something to find out about the rest. well as potential pickup and drop-off centers for online customers...

Now THAT'S news.

If you do business with Amazon, or any online company, you end up having to have a personal relationship with some package carrier. Perhaps it's the US Postal Service. Perhaps it's United Parcel Service. Perhaps it's Federal Express. Perhaps it's (shudder) OnTrac.

But what if Amazon were to cut out the middleperson and just let you deal directly with Amazon and not with anybody else?

While Bloomberg emphasizes that none of this may happen - for all we know, Radio Shack may limp along for another decade as is - Bloomberg correctly notes that a brick-and-mortar presence for Amazon could help it compete with companies such as Apple.

So in essence, this would be a defensive move by Amazon. Everyone's trying to catch up with everyone else.