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NSA Seal

As revelations continue about the US Government capturing and monitoring online activities and communications, I'm glad (and, ok, only a little bit smug) to see that more conversations are happening about just what privacy expectations we should give up by using modern Internet tools and services.

Most of the mainstream conversation has been focused on what information "big data" companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple do or don't hand over to the government and under what circumstances, and debating where those lines should be.

The built-in assumption here is that it's inevitable that these are the companies that will continue to have access to our private information and communications. I grant that it's a pretty safe assumption - I don't foresee a mass exodus from Facebook or a global boycott on iPhones - but I do think it's important to note that this is a choice we are making as users and consumers of these services.  We are the ones who click through the "terms of service" and "privacy policy" documents without reading them so we can get our hands on cool free stuff, we are the ones who are glad to entrust our intimate exchanges to technology we don't understand.

A certain amount of naiveté about the security and privacy implications of the tools we use is understandable here.  When I've given presentations on email privacy and security issues, some attendees are legitimately gasping at the new understanding that their e-mail messages are traversing the open internet as plain text messages that can potentially be read by any number of parties involved in the management of those servers and networks.  The average user probably assumes that the Internet was designed from the ground up to be a robust and secure way of conducting financial transactions and sending suggestive photos of themselves to amorous contacts.

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In search of a sustainable shave

ShaveIt feels worth noticing the parts of our lives that are set up to make some regular use of disposable items.  Whether it's plastic bottles of water, plastic bags at the grocery or styrofoam coffee cups, there are a lot of things we use once or only a few times and then throw away when we don't necessarily need to.

Recently I went looking for a more sustainable way to shave, so that I didn't have to throw away as many of those ridiculously expensive blade cartridges.

At some points in life I've used an electric razor, which had fewer parts that needed regular replacing.  I suppose you could try to make the case that a really well-engineered electric razor with a long-lasting battery could end up being lower resource usage than the manual razor with cartridges, but as electric razors got more crazy in their design ("buy this special gel-pack that only fits this one model of razor so it can automatically douse your face with soothing chemicals at just the right time!") it felt simpler - and, okay, a little more manly - to just drag a blade across my face by hand.

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Truth in advertising

False advertising?At some point when I was fairly young, I was excited to learn about the concept of "truth in advertising" - the notion that it actually matters whether what you say in a public announcement or description of products or services is true or not.  I was even more excited to learn that there was an official government entity (in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission) empowered to enforce truth in advertising standards, and punish those who would dare publish falsehoods.  It totally knocked my socks off to further learn that ordinary citizens could submit claims of false advertising and compel advertisers to change or withdraw their deceptive advertising pieces.

What a world of pure and unflinching justice we could then live in!  To walk around knowing that the slogans and invitations on billboards, newspaper ads and television were all required by law to be true, and that onerous fines and the shame of the public eye awaited the occasional miscreant who would stray from this noble code.  No need to worry about being deceived or misled as a consumer; we could always have confidence that advertisers would stand by their claims.

Like I said, I was young.

But at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I do think there's been a notable shift in the standards we hold marketers and public figures to when it comes to truth in advertising.  Seems like somewhere around the mid 1990's, we kind of gave up on it.

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Two bank interface stories

Bank interface story #1:

Got a new debit card for a new checking account.  Sticker on card says "must be activated at an ATM before use."  Went to ATM at bank, inserted card, entered temporary PIN (securely mailed in a separate envelope).  ATM menu came up, one option was "Change PIN."  Entered new PIN.  ATM said "Card is being retained" and ended my session.

What the heck.

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iPhone iOS4 IMAP mail syncing problems

Market musicianI offer this account of trying to address a known (and I would say, severe) bug in the iPhone 4 mail software, in case it's helpful to others:

Ever since I upgraded my iPhone to IOS4 (the latest version of the phone's operating system), the Mail application has been flaky when it comes to syncing mail messages via IMAP. Duplicate messages, empty/blank messages, messages dated 12/31/1969, messages that are deleted and then re-appear, and so on.

At first I thought it might be my phone hardware, which had been cursed from the beginning (a story for another time), but after that phone died and Apple replaced it with a brand new one with fresh firmware and settings, and it STILL happened, I was convinced it's the software on the phone.  Other people are having the same issue all over the place.  But it can be hard to make Apple believe this - said the Apple Genius Bar worker at the Apple Store in Chicago, "they're probably all just using the phone wrong."  Wha?

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Unhelpful responses to cyberwarfare

State of the art blender powerA number of mainstream magazines and newspapers have recently published reports on the increasing threat of "cyberwarfare," the significant resources being devoted to fighting that "war" and what we're doing to protect the critical national asset that is our digital infrastructure.

Unfortunately, most of the responses (and the ones favored by the Obama administration) are focused on paying insanely large amounts of money to private contractors to create and deploy complex technological solutions in hopes of addressing the threat.

What advocates of this approach fail to appreciate is that (A) most of the actual threat comes from uneducated human operators of the technology in question, and (B) deploying homogeneous, technologically complex solutions often makes us more vulnerable, not less.

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Good PR via Twitter done right by Sonos

JazzI love the Sonos multi-room music system.  It's a ridiculous luxury to have and I could fill up another blog post apologizing for it, but it's too much a fulfillment of the dreams I had as a kid about what the households of the future could be like to pass it up.  "Wait, you mean I can have N-Trance's Set U Free blaring in every room of the house at once, perfectly in sync?  OMG!"  I used to do this with FM transmitters, spaghetti audio wiring, and various mediocre gadgets - not any more.

But I'm not here to indulge in gadget lust, I'm here to tell you how Sonos, the company, is making great use of Twitter for its public relations and customer service efforts (and, by extension, how Twitter is turning out to be pretty useful for that stuff.)

Thomas Meyer (who is hopefully a real person) is the voice of Sonos on Twitter, and here's all the stuff he does right: Continue reading Good PR via Twitter done right by Sonos