Virulent Word of Mouse

December 18, 2013

Top Dozen Tech Events of 2013

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Computer and Internet Humor,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 10:48 pm

It is time to look back, and give some awards for the best events in information and communications technology. And what a year it was — with Snowden, Healthcare IT, the Twitter IPO, and plenty of other events deserving both recognition and sarcastic observation.

Just like last year, there are four criteria for winning. The winner had to do something in the calendar year. The action had to sally-fields-the-flying-nuninvolve information and communications technology. It had to be notable. That is not asking much, so the final feature is the most important: The award winner has to contain something that deserves a snarky remark or a bit of sarcasm. Like last year, every winner gets a virtual trophy called a “Sally,” affectionately named for Sally Fields. Why her? Because she memorably said, “You like me, you really like me.” That label is meant to convey a simple message: none of this should be taken too seriously.

Here are a dozen. If you disagree with my choices for awards, feel free to suggest your own in the comments section. Let’s get to it. (more…)

July 1, 2013

Information Technology in the Desert

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Essays,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 8:09 pm

Every summer my wife and I take the children west to experience nature at its grandest. Though these trips are designed to foster “quality family time,” invariably they teach us more about ourselves than merely about nature. In previous posts I have used these trips to learn something new about the role of information and communications technology in our lives.DSC_0880

This year we visited the southwest. The Hoover Dam served as appetizers then we turned to the main course –Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon. The Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert served as dessert. Yes, indeed, the desert was dessert. (Sure, it was clumsy, but worth the artlessness nonetheless. How many times in your life do you ever get to put those two words in one sentence?)

This year I learned two kinds of lessons. One was about connectivity, while the other was about prediction. That is not obvious, to be sure. Give me a minute. I will get there. (more…)

May 12, 2013

The revolution will be televised: A teaching moment.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,biography,Essays,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 10:02 pm

As a parent I view the modern era of hyper-connection as an infinite opportunity for teaching moments. My children humor my pursuit, bless them. I do worry that they perceive their father’s aspirations as random outbursts of unconnected insights, barely Gil-Scott-Heron-002 (1)distinguishable from the indecipherable utterings in Ezekiel’s visions, and vested with much less authority. Yet, I persist.

On a recent Saturday I became a taxi driver for my oldest son, and drove him home from the gym. Something by Gil-Scott Heron came up on the bop jazz channel on the car’s satellite radio. Heron’s rebellious expressions made him famous, but today the radio played themes of love. It was one of Heron’s earlier and milder pieces.

The jockeys experiment on this channel on the weekends, taking the music to the edges, though this hardly qualified as an edge. Though Heron is not regarded as a jazz pioneer in most circles, the beat poets influenced him, and he borrowed many of their rebellious forms for individualized expressions.

My son stared out the window, rendered silent by one of those adolescent moods in which sentences never exceed three words. Sometimes the mood can last for months.

gil-scott-heron-the-revolution-will-not-be-televisedLooking for an opening, I faked surprise. “Well, look at that.” I said with an upbeat tone, “It is Gil Scott-Heron.” This registered nothing from the passenger seat, not even a curious question, such as “Who is Gil Scott-Heron?” Was my son listening or descending into a month-long silence? He remained motionless.

A father has to be intellectual resourceful at these moments. I gambled, and issued an overstatement that I hoped might catch his attention. “Some people regard Gil Scott-Heron as the father of Hip-Hop and Rap.” If my son was at all paying attention, he would regard this sentence as a stretch, at best. The present song more closely resembled a male rendition of something acceptable to Ella Fiztgerald. Nothing about this love song would suggest such a radical interpretation. Still, the music contained enough rhythm to be catchy. My son stirred, and I sensed he was listening to me.

If the hook was in, then perhaps he would take the bait. “His most famous song was something called ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ Have you ever heard of that?”

“No.” My son shifted his weight while answering. Maybe I had him. This is what passes for a teaching moment in the suburbs.

“I will play it for you when we get home.” I promised, “You might like it.” No sound came from son, and we drove on. (more…)

December 27, 2012

Technology Awards for 2012

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Considering topical questions — Shane Greenstein @ 10:23 pm

It is time to end this year by giving out technology awards! This post contains a baker’s dozen. They go to firms and managers who took notable actions in technology markets in 2012.

There are no fixed categories of awards. Some categories are recycled from last year’s awards, but somesally-field you really like me are new. Just like last year’s awards, there are three criteria. The winner had to do something in 2012. The action had to involve information and communications technology. It had to be notable.

The awards come with plenty of sarcasm and it does not come with a statue. The prize is a virtual badge called a “Sally,” affectionately named for Sally Field, famous for her flying nun and her cry at the Oscars, “You like me, you really like me!”

If you do not like this year’s awards, please use the commentary section to make additional suggestions.

Also, one last note: None of this should be taken seriously. Most of these awards are given with tongue firmly in cheek. The exceptions come near the end, in awards 11 and 12, which contain a preachy tone. Sorry, but not all of life is fun. (more…)

August 24, 2012

Whitewater, Wimax, and the Milky Way.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 10:36 pm
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Our solar system inhabits an anonymous nub in one of the swirling fingers of the Milky Way. Suburban life renders the neighborhood invisible from the earth’s surface, collateral damage from too much light. Before a dam turned it into a reservoir, the Stanislaus River wandered through the foothills of the Sierras, far from such interference. Lying in a sleeping bag next to that river I first saw the Milky Way as a young teenager. It appeared as a faint background to the brightest stars, as if a spectral highlighter painted the fuzzy line.

I was in that sleeping bag during a whitewater river raft trip, halfway down the Stanislaus. My father had arranged for the trip. Partly as an act of homage to him, and partly to check an item off the bucket list, this August I arranged for two days of white water rafting for my family on the Southern Fork of the American River. I also hoped to show my children the Milky Way.

This post summarizes my family’s summer vacation. Similar to prior posts about summer vacations (e.g., here and here and here), it tells a number of shaggy dog stories about the role of IT – specifically, about choosing the campsite, traveling on the road, and making conversation in a boat. In brief, the post uses my family’s vacation to illustrate the role of information technology in daily life. I hope these stories resonate with you, and I hope you find them entertaining. (more…)

June 5, 2012

The Secret Life of Wally Madhavani

Filed under: Amusing diversions — Shane Greenstein @ 9:58 pm
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Author’s note: I began writing columns for IEEE Micro in April of 1995. This is the 100th column. To mark this milestone this column offers a parody of James Thurber’s 1939 story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In the original story Thurber described Mitty’s shopping trip with his wife in Waterbury, Connecticut. What would be a typical day for a Mitty-like programmer in today’s Silicon Valley? Would he find a more hospitable or inhospitable set of rhythms and economic archetypes?

“We’re going through.” The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore a full dress uniform, with a patch rakishly pulled over one eye. His loyal puppy stood at his side, staring into the horizon.

“We can’t make it,” said Lieutenant Berg with a foreboding tone. “There is a hurricane coming, if you ask me.”

“I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander, who began pushing on the power dials on the complicated dash. The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The crew bent to their various tasks in the huge Navy cruiser…

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Katie. “What are you driving so fast for?”

“Hmmm?” said Wally. He looked at his supervisor, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed unfamiliar, like a strange woman who yelled at him in a crowd.

“I don’t like it when you crash a virtual vehicle.”

“You know I don’t do it on purpose.”

Katie rolled her eyes. Wally drove on in silence for a few moments longer, his attention caught by a rendered ripple on the water.

“It’s one of your days. I wish you would let Dr. Renshaw look you over. He is very good at occupational psychotherapy.”

Wally Madhavani made the boat stop in front of a shack on an uncompleted dock, so Berg could disembark. Suddenly Lieutenant Berg’s face turned red, and he fainted to the ground. He froze where he lay.

“Oh, now look what you did.” Katie could not hide her exacerbation. “The captain’s aide cannot transition between surfaces without his magic overshoes.”

“He shouldn’t need magic overshoes to get off a boat.” pleaded Wally. He stared at the screen, unsure why the boat’s energy force stopped Berg.

“We have been through all that.” Katie rose from her seat abruptly. “I have to go to a hair appointment. I will be back tomorrow. Just fix the beta. And remember: we have to figure out how to throw a bone to that dog.”

She began walking out of the room, muttering to herself. “Programmers! Always ad-libbing. They major in CS, but they think it means ‘creative scripting.’”

MBAs are so damn cocky, thought Wally Madhavani, as he got up from his seat, stretching. Just follow the script. Just fix this and don’t ad-lib. Our start-up was doing fine without them, but, nooooooo, the VCs wanted “adult supervision.” They promised a den mother, but we got a shrew. If not for the stock options I would’ve quit by now.

He opened the door to the street and headed toward University Avenue.


April 8, 2012

The Craigslist Killer and Online Privacy

Let’s discuss the Craigslist killer, online privacy, and police procedures.

Why has this old case from 2009 gotten new attention? The murder itself was rather gruesome and unusual, and the events grabbed considerable attention at the time, especially in the Boston area where they took place. However, it all happened several years ago. Why remember them now? As it turns out, the Boston Police recently released a range of documents concerning the case (which is a good thing – kudos to the Boston Police for being transparent). A few reporters have looked closely at these documents. This has generated a series of online comments about how the police used information technology — ISPs, cell phones, Facebook, email — to connect the murder to the suspect.

Let’s bring the conversation to the attention of readers of this space. It shows how technical progress lowers the costs of performing new technical capabilities, which generate new possibilities for action. A big part of the online privacy debate concerns the simple policy question: how best can society use this new capability? The question is not new, to be sure, but it is hard to appreciate that question without understanding just what is possible. This example offers a good illustration about what online technology made very cheap and what police departments do with it.

On one level there is nothing shocking here. As it turns out, when Facebook receives a subpoena it complies. So do ISPs. So do cell phone companies. Anything anyone does from home leaves an online trace, and any determined police department can deploy subpoenas to associate that online trace with an individual. Police use this routinely when they have a good lead, and it can be useful in catching murderers.

More to the point, online privacy debates are best illustrated in the situations where the debate matters the least, such a successful criminal investigation of a murder. That is because these are the type of situations in which everyone cooperates. As the case illustrates, using comparatively routine processes to trace his actions online, police could take some impressive actions.

In brief, the case makes clear why police should have the ability to use these capabilities, and it makes clear how easy it is to do. The latter observation might be novel for many readers.

Recap and remark

In this instance, the murderer is called the Craigslist killer because he used Craigslist to find his victim. For our purposes, the case has one distinctive feature: Despite being a medical student at Boston University, which surely suggests he had some sort of brain on his shoulders, the Craigslist killer really did not understand how many online clues he was leaving for the police.

The facts of the case are straightforward, albeit gruesome. Back in the spring of 2009 a second year medical at Boston University medical school got into financial problems – due to gambling, it seems. He hatched a scheme to pay his debts through robbery. His potential victims were masseuses he solicited on Craigslist. They did not know him, and he contacted the victims with new email accounts and temporary cell phones. Once he met them, he would handcuff them at gunpoint and rob them. He did this three times before he was caught. The second of these went badly, and he shot the poor victim three times, murdering her in an upscale downtown Boston hotel. (If you want to know all the details about the Craigslist killer, read it here).

Reading this account I was reminded of a sardonic rule of thumb communicated to me by an old friend, who was a professional prosecutor: it is a good thing that most criminals are so stupid, otherwise they would never get caught. He meant the following: it is rather difficult for prosecutors to catch criminals, but many law-breakers make the task much easier by doing a range of things that connect them to the crime, namely, by NOT covering their tracks very smartly. From the prosecutor’s perspective, a thoughtful criminal only need take a small set of actions, and they are much harder to catch. Yet, most of them never think to do so.

The Craigslist killer’s actions illustrate a few such actions, especially on line. These are remarkable because of the contrast with other actions taken by the killer. He was smart enough to find vulnerable victims in Craigslist, and contact them in ways that made it challenging to identify him. He essentially did that by buying prepaid cell phones (which made it hard to trace to him in particular).

As example of one of the dumb things he did… after the murder he kept one of the cell phones at his residence (hidden, presumably, from his companion). But after the murders the police searched his residence and found it. Let’s just say it: such physical evidence is pretty damning, so it is pretty darn stupid to keep the phone at home. I am no expert — but, I dunno’ — it might have been a good idea to throw away the cell that contacted a victim.

Here is another example. Though the killer successfully committed his first robbery, he committed the second one (which led to the murder) in a hotel across the street on the next day. He also used exactly the same method, giving the police a pretty good clue they were dealing with the same individual (which made identifying him much easier). He committed the third one the following night 45 minutes away from Boston (again, using the same method), in spite of the massive publicity surround the murder (which, again, made identifying him much easier).

Anyway, all of this looks pretty stupid to the prosecutors. This guy took action to make his cell phone use anonymous, and then lost a lot of anonymity through his choice of time/place. A little spacing across police jurisdictions, and little patience, and he would have been much harder to find.

But, really, his email and Facebook behavior was clueless, so let’s focus on that. It did lead to the loss of anonymity, and that is worth understanding in detail.

The Craigslist killer acted in ways that tied him directly to his emails. The emails went between him and his victim. If anonymity is the goal – and clearly he had some inkling of its importance through his cellphone purchases – then why didn’t it extend to his email behavior?

He did not behave as if he realized what a trace he was leaving. For example, he acquired his email account the day before he used it to contact his victim, and did it from his home. From his home — whoa, that is stupid. Working from his home made it easy to trace. The email provider and ISP both have access to the same IP address, and the police used subpoenas to connect one with the other.

This association is one of the more remarkable details of the case precisely because the ISP was almost uncooperative. Here is what happened. The police sent a subpoena to the ISP asking for the address affiliated with the IP address they obtained from the email provider. The police got the email address from — no surprise — the victim. In this case, the email provider was Microsoft, and the firm seems to have complied comparatively quickly. In contrast, the ISP — Comcast, in this case — gave a somewhat more bureaucratic answer. They said, in effect, that it would be a couple weeks, unless the police gave them a good reason to be in a rush. Given the high profile of the case, the police had no problem doing that. Then the ISP made an exception to its default behavior, which is a slow answer, and complied quickly.

Notice how important was the online piece. Once the police had that address they could stake out the place. That eventually let them get an ID on the individual as well as fingerprints. They also were able to get photos (from Facebook, and from records at Boston University), which they could then show to the other victims. That allowed them to solve the case in less than a week.

Summing up

There is something deeper running throughout the recent release of documents. On one level, the documents illustrate something that has become almost a standard refrain among the more experience and sophisticated Internet research community, namely, there is less privacy online than in typical offline life. This so despite the attempts of many lawyers to make the online world less vulnerable to government snooping.

The case makes that refrain very apparent: with a search warrant, government prosecutors can find out quite a lot about just about any suspect who has an active online life.

The documents also illustrate another rule of thumb about privacy online. There are two kinds of surfers present, those who seem to behave as if they DO NOT comprehend the lack of privacy online, and those who are wary about whether the Internet will become big brother-ish. The Craigslist killer seems to have been the former.

Looking behind the surface, one other theme runs throughout this case. Nobody other than the killer did anything wrong. The police got it right. They followed proper civil procedure. The firms cooperated. A murder case got solved. The entire experience should make any sensible person want to say “Hurray for civil society.”

Yet, not trivially, the situation also showcases that the improvement in information technology in the last decade is not an unalloyed improvement. Indeed, less restrained governments and police forces can easily use information technology in ways that may have little to do with enforcing criminal law. Tracing emails to political dissidents should be easy. Censoring unwanted communication is no problem. Shutting down the leadership of an electronic communication network also appears comparatively trivial. I am no lawyer, but these events give me additional respect for the importance of subpoenas and other processes to ensure that police use them only when criminal behavior provides probable cause.

February 10, 2012

Wikipedia, Mitt, Barack, and a Hand Over the Heart

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Internet economics,Online behavior,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 3:41 pm

It was just a little skirmish, a mere tit-for-tat in the presidential race. It made headlines for a day and it also made Wikipedia just a little bit better.

To be sure, Romney and Obama infrequently appear in the same sentence as Wikipedia, so this is worth a look. How did the-encyclopedia-that-anyone-can-edit get mixed up with a verbal spit-spat between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? More to the point, how does this little story illustrate why Wikipedia works, and why it works so well?

Ah, therein lies a tale. (more…)

December 29, 2011

Technology market awards for 2011

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Considering topical questions — Shane Greenstein @ 12:36 pm

What better way to mark the end of the year than to give out a dozen awards! This post contains a baker’s dozen. They go to firms and managers who took notable actions in technology markets in 2011.

There are three criteria for these awards. It had to involve something in 2011. It had to involve information and communications technology. It had to be notable.

The winners do not give acceptance speeches. The awards come with no prize other than a bit of dry sarcasm, which is dished out at the same time as the awards.

That is about it. If I missed any juicy events, feel free to make suggestions for additional awards this year.

Enough said. Let’s start the fun.


December 15, 2011

Internet Hysteria Index

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 2:44 pm

<sarcasm alert> Tired of the self-referential and self-important? Then do not attend a conference on communications policy in Washington D.C. (or watch the latest debate among the Republican candidates for president). What is the next best anecdote to that tone? A bit of humor to punctuate the bubble, of course! <end of alert>

Need some humor right now? Then read this post about the Internet Hysteria Index, entitled, “Internet hysteria — Are we Losing our Edge?” Written by Scott Wallsten and Amy Smorodin of the Technology Policy Institute, it takes aim at some of the *ahem* excesses of communications policy discussions today. In particular, it aims at its excessive hype.

And a warning to those of you with a tin ear for a joke or merely a complete lack of sense of humor… before reading this post be sure review the meaning of deadpan humor and understated sarcasm.


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