Technobabbles I try to sound like I know what I'm talking about. Don't be fooled.


It's not a cap, but it is Comcapstic

Posted by dgw

A snippet of the internal documents leaked from Comcast on Reddit.

A snippet of the internal documents leaked from Comcast on Reddit.

Comcast, what are you on about?

Apparently using more than 300 GB of broadband at home in a month is too much. Comcast is expanding the markets in which it's "trialling" a 300 GB soft-cap past which users will be charged $10 per 50 GB of usage.

And it's telling customer service not to call it a "data cap".

Well, technically, it's "not a cap". The customer service training materials originally leaked via Reddit aren't lying when they say, "We do not limit a customer's use of the Internet in any way at or above 300 GB." But there's a fine line between a cap and price discrimination. In either case, customers who use more data every month end up paying more.

Thing is, it probably doesn't cost Comcast (or any other ISP) much, if anything, to provide 3 TB of bandwidth over the course of a month instead of 300 GB. It certainly doesn't cost them $10 / 50 GB = 20¢ per GB. A decade ago, the cost per GB for an ISP was around a penny. There's no way the price hasn't gone way down since then, but even if it hasn't the markup is around 20x. (Read this Reddit comment thread for more on the numbers)

And while it's technically not a cap, it is a form of limit. For an extra $30 or $35 per month, the 300 GB threshold goes away. It's ridiculous, as -jackschitt- explains.

I've seen arguments that this is intended to reduce streaming, because Comcast is also a cable company and they don't like cord-cutters using Internet bandwidth to watch video they could be buying from the cable TV service. I've seen arguments that they're trying to discourage torrenting, or watching YouTube, because those entertainment options also compete with Comcast's cable business in a way.

But I see this as simple corporate greed. Does Comcast have a right to make a profit? America hasn't decreed (yet) that ISPs are public utilities, so I'd say they're entitled to some healthy profit margins. Thing is, the extra usage costs Comcast practically nothing. They have to maintain their network no matter how much data flows through. It's not like there's extra strain on the equipment. Routers and cables are engineered to be used at or near peak capacity as much as possible.

Let's put it this way: Remember when cellular text messages were 25¢ each? That was also back in the era when bandwidth cost ISPs roughly 1¢ per GB. And those text messages cost essentially nothing to deliver, because SMS was built on the inter-node signaling architecture that was already part of the cellular network architecture—built in because it's an integral part of how the network functions. American cellular carriers figured out that they could use idle time on those communication channels to make an obscene amount of money on text messages.

Need more convincing that Comcast is just in it for the money? There's allegedly a policy of forgiving the first three overages. According to at least one customer in a trial area, Comcast actually charges for those outages in advance. If that's true, and Comcast still bills that way in the trial service areas, even customers who don't ever go over the limit still end up paying for it.

Internet service in America is already far more expensive than comparable service in other countries. PBS NewsHour published a report earlier this year showing a comparison between a number of cities both within the US and internationally, rating the speed and cost of Internet access.

Even though the Internet was invented in the United States, Americans pay the most in the world for broadband access. And it’s not exactly blazing fast.

For an Internet connection of 25 megabits per second, New Yorkers pay about $55 — nearly double that of what residents in London, Seoul, and Bucharest, Romania, pay. And residents in cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Paris get connections nearly eight times faster.

PBS NewsHour, April 26, 2015

If this pisses you off—and it should—submit complaints to the FCC describing how anti-consumer Comcast's trial is. If enough people write in, the FCC will be able to investigate and—hopefully—step in to regulate it.

But at least Comcast isn't claiming that they need to experiment with caps to "manage congestion" any more.


RIP Ingress 2012–2015

Posted by dgw

Well, Ingress, you've had a good run.

At launch, in November 2012, you motivated me to start putting money aside for a new phone that could run heavy games like you.

Throughout 2013 and much of 2014, you got me out and about, wherever I was, whomever I was with. You connected me with new people when I went to California for the summer, and brought my friend group closer together at college by getting us to roam campus together for hours late at night.

But, Niantic, you're losing your way.

Cheating is still widespread. Your lackadaisical response to reports of location spoofing and multi-account users makes us legitimate players wonder if you're really in this to make a good game.

We wonder how much you really value those of us who submit new Portals, when you decree that submissions will no longer count toward the Seer badge, making it nothing more than a relic lingering on our profiles. I no longer bother submitting portals. Rumor has it that overwhelming portal submission volume motivated the change—but you should have just disabled submissions until you could catch up. Instead, you killed a medal that many of us wanted to eventually turn Onyx.

Since the Seer fiasco, not much happened. The occasional promotional item was introduced, but gameplay remained pretty stagnant. My friends lost interest. I lost interest. I got back into the game, on occasion. This summer I finally got the Onyx Guardian medal after happening to capture a lucky portal in the middle of nowhere. But I don't really care about the game any more.

And now, you're adding a new currency to the game. Unlike XM, the new Chaotic Matter Units (CMU) cannot be gathered in-game.

They can only be bought.

With real money.

Every game with this sort of exclusive currency system has lost my interest in a matter of weeks, or even just days. Games that let you earn currency through gameplay, instead of paying for it, have a much better chance at retaining my interest. Even if I don't want to buy the currency, it's still motivating to play for the rewards. It takes longer to earn in-game purchases, but there's still satisfaction at having gotten to that point—at having had the dedication to get there.

Gameloft's Asphalt 8, back when it still had only one currency, was motivating. Could credits be bought? Sure. But they could also be "bought" by racing a lot.

Future Games of London's Hungry Shark Evolution has a coin store, yes. But the game also allows earning enough coins to progress simply by playing. (Sometimes it feels slow, but any game can feel that way sometimes. Even games without in-app purchases or PC games.)

Twodots' Dots let me earn enough dots to never worry about buying power-ups or themes when I wanted them—and I never bought the Dot Doubler. Again, just by playing enough, I can earn whatever I want.

But your new Ingress store, Niantic, doesn't allow that. It uses a currency that can't be earned—not in any way you've documented beyond a vague FAQ answer that mentions "promotions". CMU can only be bought. And that feels shitty.

I'm sure Key Lockers were created in response to requests from players. Since before I even started playing, players have been asking for "keyrings" to save souvenir keys and the like. And now our requests have been answered, finally. But not for free.

If I want any Key Lockers, it looks like paying $10—none of this $9.99 crap; just call it $10—to get enough CMU for the five-pack is the only option. And again, that's shitty.

There's still no motivation to keep playing. Leveling up past Level 10 won't change what I can do in-game. If I could earn CMU by playing, the way I can earn coins or credits in other games by playing, there would be motivation—at least for a while.

But I can't, Niantic. You made that choice.

So I'll probably keep playing just enough every day to keep my Guardian charged, and then shut off the app. Why bother doing anything more, when it seems that all you want from me these days is money?


Windows 10 and Microsoft's Bullying

Posted by dgw

There's been a lot of buzz around the internet lately about the tactics Microsoft is using to get users to update to Windows 10. For much of the summer, it's been "automatic downloads" this and "automatic installation" that.

But Windows 10 is better than Windows 7 or Windows 8(.1), isn't it? True, I've heard plenty of testimonials from people who've gotten the new OS and love it. It has a completely rebuilt browser, Microsoft Edge, that allegedly blows Internet Explorer out of the water (not that Microsoft is above scaring novice computer users when they try to switch to Chrome or Firefox). Personalized, voice-activated search is built in thanks to deep Cortana integration (leaving aside the fact that some of us prefer Google Now). There should be lots of good reasons to upgrade.

Whoa, Silver!

Trouble is, it's probably not a good idea to upgrade—not if you have any sense of privacy.

Windows 10 is worse than the town gossip. Windows 10 is the friend who can't keep anything secret. Windows 10, simply put, is an uncontrollable blabbermouth.

Investigations have shown that Windows 10's privacy settings do not actually provide full control over what Microsoft calls "usage information". Turning off every option to send data back to Microsoft still lets some information get sent back. According to Ars Technica UK, certain requests are still made to Microsoft servers even with every possible setting disabled. That's creepy, sleazy, and probably illegal in the European Union. (If it's not, it should be.)

The Competition

Do other operating systems "phone home" like this? Sure they do.

The last time I set up Ubuntu 14.04 on a desktop machine, I had to jump through some hoops to disable sending local search queries to Amazon, because Canonical makes money partly through commissions on sales generated when users click on products within the Unity UI's search function. But that's one of the very few places Ubuntu actually sends out information, to my knowledge—and more importantly, it obeys a single setting that turns off all Web results within the Unity launcher. Flip that one switch off and BAM! no more searches for your own files and apps get sent off to the internet.

Apple's Mac OS X has included online search results in Spotlight for a couple years now, too. But, again, it's easily disabled. The other times OS X wants to send information to Apple, so far as I know, it prompts the user (usually after an app crashes or the system experiences a severe problem).

Under Windows XP and 7 (I have essentially zero personal experience with Vista or 8), Microsoft offered the same kind of optional feedback mechanism as Mac OS X. If an app crashed, the OS gave the option to send an error report. If Windows itself failed, it offered to send crash details to Microsoft the next time it booted successfully. If the user clicked "Don't Send", in either case, the information never left the local machine.

None of these are creepy, because they respect the user's choice.

Me, Myself, and Windows

Over the last several years, I accumulated a veritable collection of (pre-owned) computers from other students at college. My physical holdings include a 2009 Sager gaming notebook, a 2013 Sony Vaio, and a 2006 Acer desktop that's undergone numerous upgrades.1 All of these machines run some edition of Windows 7.

I object to Windows 10 because of the combination of privacy concerns and strong-arming of users into upgrading. And I'll have to take swift geek action to block the upgrade before Microsoft tries to force Windows 10 onto all of these machines. Consumers like me are unfortunately in the minority, but we do not like being pushed around by our operating systems.

When I tell my computer that I don't want it to send data back to its maker, it should respect that choice.

When I tell my computer that I don't want it to upgrade to the next version of its operating system, it should respect that choice.

When I tell my computer not to do anything, it should respect that choice.

If the choice is ill-advised, the computer may show the user a warning explaining why—but only if there is actual risk. (And no, Windows 10, switching to Chrome or Firefox is not actually risky.)

The user must have control. The computer is a tool. It should not contradict the user's commands. Asimov got this one very, very right.

If Microsoft really does go through with this upgrade push, I doubt there will be anything they could possibly do to regain my trust. I'll never buy a Windows license—even pre-installed on a new computer—again.

  1. These are just the Windows machines. I also have a 2011 MacBook Pro, and a 2007-era white polycarbonate MacBook rebuilt with spare parts (which proved too underpowered for my intended uses). Feel free to get in touch if you have use for the old MacBook; I'm open to offers, though it's currently in storage halfway across the country. []

Did Virgin Mobile USA cut an anti-Android deal with Apple?

Posted by dgw

All right, so the big news is, Virgin Mobile USA will soon carry the Apple iPhone 4S. Which is to say, my pre-paid, Sprint-owned cellular telephone carrier may have cut a deal with Apple to make all their Android devices suddenly look unattractive.

Why do I think that? Oh, no reason, just the plan prices. As my long-time Web contact Zoli Erdos asked of Virgin Mobile's Twitter customer service account, and got an interesting (but not entirely clear) answer:

Wait, "Auto top-up" just means letting them charge for monthly service automatically. I let them do that for my Motorola Triumph.1 Can I get that discount, too? Zoli already got an answer to that question, too:

Huh? Yep, exclusively for iPhone customers, Virgin Mobile USA will take $5/month off of your service plan if you let them charge you automatically every month. Want Android instead? Sucks to be you, you get to pay more.

This story gets even better. I asked, specifically, if there was some kind of deal going on between Virgin Mobile USA and Apple. The answer was surprising, but I'm not entirely sure the responding CSR actually read and understood what I asked:

Let me get this straight. I asked if Virgin Mobile and Apple decided to make Android less appealing, and the answer was "Yes!"? With an exclamation mark?


Needless to say, I've been less than amused by the changes to Virgin Mobile's policies over the last year. First they jacked up prices for new customers right before launching the Motorola Triumph in June 2011.23 Virgin Mobile then started throttling 3G data after a 2.5GB monthly usage threshold.4 Then they ended grandfathered plan rates for users who upgrade their devices, meaning that if (when) I eventually upgrade away from the Triumph, my monthly fee will jump from $25/month to $35/month, just because I'm changing phones.5

What started as a great deal for cell phone service is still a good deal compared with contract carriers, to be sure, but the policy changes and new competitors like republic wireless entering the market make it much less sweet. ($19/month for unlimited everything? Tanj, republic, launch something newer than the LG Optimus already!) Ting and NET10 also offer lower-cost smartphone service compared to contract plans, but for my level of usage both are more expensive even than Virgin Mobile's current pricing.

I really don't like this iPhone policy. The one change over the past year that I was actually happy to see Virgin Mobile make was dropping their $10 monthly surcharge for Blackberry devices. Though RIM and its Blackberry devices are all but dead, it was nice to see Virgin Mobile start treating all smartphones equally, pricing-wise. Now, we're back to favoring one platform over the others, and I really don't like that. All smartphone platforms have roughly equal potential for using network capacity, so charging less for one of them makes absolutely no logical sense.

Whether or not there's some behind-the-scenes deal between Virgin Mobile—actually, let's be honest, if it exists the deal is with Sprint—and Apple that's responsible for this price discrepancy, it sure seems like a very anti-Android thing to do. Virgin Mobile, please treat all smartphone plans equally—no platform favoritism. It's the customer-friendly thing to do. Extend the $5/month "Auto top-up" discount to all Beyond Talk plan subscribers (you don't have to include grandfathered users, that's totally understandable) and maybe I won't jump ship to republic wireless as soon as they launch a more powerful device.

  1. I've had it since December, but haven't felt the need to review it as I did the LG Optimus V. Pretty much all the bug reports and battery life problems are absolutely true. If I feel like a writing project, though, I'll do a full review of my own, just for completeness. []
  2. Virgin Mobile have since remained unwilling to push Motorola to fix the software problems with said Triumph. Motorola, for its part, pretty much ignores/dismisses all bug reports. They keep offering "Factory Data Reset" as the solution to everything, and haven't said a peep about whether or not there will be a software update. As far as I'm concerned, Motorola's reputation as a phone maker is completely shot. []
  3. Again, I should do a full review of this phone. It's been out almost a year. I also have a really, really ridiculous story about how I got mine. Plus, I need to rant about the whole "Motorola isn't supporting its devices" thing. []
  4. At least there aren't any overage fees. It's slower, but it's still "unlimited". []
  5. As I understand it, this new policy would also affect an emergency switch back to my LG Optimus V, if my Triumph fails someday. That's one of the major reasons that I don't like the policy change. []

Some Joy in Seesmic Ping Land

Posted by dgw

Wednesday, Seesmic sent all users an email with "important information". Dated May 31 (Seesmic's timezone is well ahead of mine), the letter included some basic information that we all pretty much knew. But one sentence actually made me happy:

To further support development and upcoming features, we will offer Seesmic Ping as both a free and paid service.

(emphasis added). Back in February, I wrote "Why I Will Not Use Seesmic, Ever", a post expressing my dismay at the shutdown of and the apparent paid-only nature of Seesmic Ping. I begged the company to consider a "freemium" model and not make all users pay for the service. My post got the attention of a Seesmic employee, who commented, inviting me to share further feedback via email. I never emailed Yama—perhaps I used a feedback form instead, I don't recall—but anyway… I'm glad to see this announcement of tiered pricing and a free base service.

A March 14 blog post from Seesmic gives the pricing tiers:

There will be three plans for Seesmic Ping: a free plan, so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy it, a $4.99/month plan for the ones who want to get more, and a $49.99 for the ones who just want it all.

Before reading the blog post, I posted this suggestion in Seesmic's UserVoice feedback forum, asking that they maintain a free service tier. The response was pretty swift, and positive:

We will have a free version with limited accounts and posts per day. We’ll continue to add features and services which we’ll make paid. — jyamasaki, Seesmic admin, on UserVoice

Limiting the number of accounts makes sense. It's something HootSuite has done for a while now, requiring a paid plan to add more than five networks. Since I presently post to four networks I care about, and would make Google+ a fifth if supported it, I hope that Seesmic Ping's free plan service limit is also five accounts.

I'm leery, however, of the posts-per-day limit. It has the potential to be unreasonable and oppressive if set too low. Personally, I'd like to see a number between 25 and 50 as the daily posting limit, and enforcement in a rolling 24-hour window (no "resets at 00:00 GMT" or some such). I think it's legitimate for a personal user to average two posts an hour. Posting during a regular 14-hour day, a limit of 50 posts would allow a user to share their thoughts about every 15 minutes or so. For people I follow on Twitter who work office jobs, that seems like a common average sharing rate. (Sorry, no scientific study here, just guesstimating.)

All in all, I'm a lot less down on Seesmic Ping than I was three months ago. The final pricing & limitation details will ultimately set my opinion when they're released within the next few weeks, but for now I've rescinded my personal ban on using anything Seesmic makes in light of the "free plan" announcement.

If Seemic closes before I can auto-publish my blog posts to Seesmic Ping with a WordPress plugin, though, I'll get mad again. Fortunately there's already an API for the new service in private testing.


Why I Will Not Use Seesmic, Ever

Posted by dgw

Update (06/01): Seesmic eventually killed the green bar overlay. They announced a time-frame (by the middle of June) for closing, and also confirmed that the new Ping service will have a free service level. I commend this outcome, with reservations.

Update (03/03): This post garnered a response from a Seesmic employee, Yama, in the comments. From "figure out the best pricing model", I gather that pricing remains undecided, so I maintain my hope for a HootSuite-like freemium model. I'm also glad to hear that the green bar will be reviewed for possible improvements. Thank you, Yama; if I have more thoughts I will certainly email you.

Earlier this month, no doubt on or soon after February 6, 2012, I went to to find a green bar on top of the area where I usually clicked to log in and get on with posting things to my social networks. Seesmic, apparently, had other plans. They really wanted to make sure I heard about their new product, Seesmic Ping. They covered the login link with a green bar to make sure I'd notice it. with a green bar advertising Seesmic Ping

The offending green bar on's homepage

All right, fine, I went to have a look. I didn't feel like signing up for the new service, though. Instead, I dug up the blog post announcing Seesmic Ping, from February 6. Near the end, there was a very telling paragraph:1

For users – With the release of Seesmic Ping, we’ll look to maintain for some time. In the meantime, we encourage you to sign up for a Seesmic Profile and give Seesmic Ping a ride through our mobile applications or the web.

I wasn't the only one made uneasy by those two sentences. "for some time" really doesn't mean "indefinitely", and sure sounds like Seesmic will eventually kill entirely.


Source images: Question mark, Axe, logo from website

I've had complaints over the years with, occasionally with performance. But most of them came from decisions made by Seesmic, explicitly or not, after they acquired They were things like:

  • No new API keys for applications
  • Disabling API keys for applications like the Shorten2Ping WordPress plugin, instead of blocking the users who were spamming
  • No new services for years
  • Issues with existing services, like Jaiku (which Google later shut down completely about a month ago)2
  • Broken post-by-email3

Despite all the issues following the Seesmic acquisition, has remained solidly usable. But Seesmic has now announced a successor to—and what's more, they intend to charge for it (emphasis mine):4

We’ll look to have more features and services when Seesmic Ping comes out of beta as a paid service.

No pricing came with the announcement, just a notice that the new service would eventually cost money. I know we've all been spoiled by free Web services, and the money has to come from somewhere, but somehow I have my doubts that Seesmic will take an approach that is consumer-friendly. HootSuite has a great pricing model: Features that consumers will use (a few profiles, with one user who can manage them) are free; business-level features (more profiles, multiple-user collaboration) cost money. I don't think Seesmic Ping will follow that structure; if I had to guess, everyone will have to pay for it.

I mean, really, Seesmic could have made the green bar push the entire page down, instead of floating it over the four tabs at the top. Look at what it covers:

The green bar superimposed on the normal look

With the green bar made partially transparent, we can see what it covers

It floated on top of the page for a reason, I'm sure. Putting it there made me click on it to make it go away (it didn't). Then I read it, and followed the link. No doubt I followed the expected sequence of actions precisely. And that irritates me, because the green bar should have just looked like this:

How the green bar should have looked, pushing down the rest of the page

This is just as informative, but less annoying.
It probably failed the In-Your-Face Test.

I imagine that the reasoning went something like, "If it doesn't cover the login link, users will ignore it. No, displacing the login link by 40 pixels isn't enough; it has to actually be inaccessible. We will force users to read this bar on every single page." Oh yeah, it pops up on every single page view. Home, login, Dashboard, settings, you-name-it—green bar ALL the pages... for lack of a better X all the Y idea.

There was also an email newsletter sent out on February 15, announcing Seesmic Ping, which I read after going through the whole "green bar" thing. It too addressed the future of sort of:5

Like many of you, we appreciate the passion that brings, and made sure to carry over its core value of the simplicity in posting. With the launch of Seesmic Ping, we continue to enhance this service with reliability and robustness, while offering key features such as scheduling and the ability to post to multiple Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
Eventually, Seesmic Ping will be a paid service. While in beta, Seesmic Ping is free to access. If you have any feedback, please tell us what you think:

The email announcement carefully avoided any mention of shutting down The original blog post never changed, though, so the plans are certainly still in place.

Bar chart of which interface @hidgw used to post to Twitter, as of 02:25 EST February 25, 2012

TweetStats' bar chart showing how I posted my tweets, as of 02:25 EST February 25, 2012

This state of affairs is really disappointing, because I've used as a staple of my online life for, literally, years. According to TweetStats, I've posted from more than I have from (twhirl is still on top because I used to have it open all the time back in high school.) I post from the Web, from a third-party app on my Android phone, via SMS, and I used to use email posting from my mother's cell phone back before I had my own. In short, I use a lot. It still is the best option I've found on the market for cross-posting to different social networks.

If When goes away, I'll probably end up switching to Hellotxt. Hellotxt has its own share of issues at the moment, including a lot of services that are disabled and a significant slowness to the site, but it's still the best alternative to I can also just roll up my sleeves and build my own personal system, since all of the sites I use provide free API access, but I'd rather not take the time to do that. It would also load my (very) shared server and lack a lot of features like posting via SMS6 and scheduled posting.7 Could I implement them? Sure. Would I take the time? Questionable. Additional features also mean additional server load, and so on.

The point is, I have only one practical alternative—Hellotxt—because building my own is hard, time-consuming, and unlikely to happen any time soon. I dream that Seesmic will change plans and decide not to kill, but the reality is that it's almost certain to happen and the only question is when. Hopefully Hellotxt will have its issues worked out by then and will be ready to take over as king of the cross-posting niche. It would certainly serve Seesmic right if Ping never went anywhere, and that might be worth losing

As for never using Seesmic, ever, well, let's just say I oppose the way they do things. I don't like it when a company buys another company, takes the ideas and technology from existing products, and then shuts down the old company's services. Google does that a lot, and those are the times when I come closest to hating Google. The difference is, Google almost always creates awesome things out of the remains of old companies and services. Seesmic hasn't really done anything but allow a useful product to stagnate, and now they're going to kill it at some unspecified future date, replacing it with something that can never be a true replacement. You can't replace a free service with a paid service; it doesn't work that way.

If Seesmic takes their pricing structure in the same direction as HootSuite, though, and they only charge for certain features, I might actually give Ping a try. I have a hard time imagining a situation that would make me actually like Seesmic as a company, though.

  1. The paragraph was riddled with links to, which I didn't copy. There was no point. []
  2. Unlike other social networks that died, Jaiku had a dedicated following willing to preserve its contents, if not the functionality. Apparently, my "presences" are archived. []
  3. Added later on publish date (23:20 or so) when I discovered that Shorten2Ping had failed to post this article via My server's emails are working. The problem is with Grr. []
  4. Yes, I skipped copying another link to All occurrences of "Seesmic Ping" were linked except for one. I guess somebody missed it. []
  5. And just like in the blog post, every occurrence of the phrase "Seesmic Ping" was linked to Talk about carpet-bombing links. []
  6. If I'm not paying for Seesmic Ping, I'm certainly not shelling out for an SMS gateway to serve my one-user app. []
  7. only has scheduled posting because HootSuite supports It's not native. Hellotxt has native scheduling, but I haven't tested it yet. []

Facebook News Apps Open Firehose of Pageviews

Posted by dgw

This is my fourth (and final) blog post assignment for my Journalism course. It's kind of an op-ed in its own right, though not something I was likely to bother writing about if not for the assignment.

Back in September, at its f8 conference, Facebook announced a new kind of app, with the ability to use "frictionless sharing"—basically a fancy way of saying that users' activity can be shared without users specifically clicking a "Share" button.

The first reaction to this announcement was lukewarm at best. As users began to notice just how much activity was being shared, they complained about both ends of the process. Some users were upset about how much of their activity was being shared (Spotify, in particular, started out by sharing every single track listened to); others felt overwhelmed by the new activity ticker in the upper right corner of their Facebook home pages (which was flooded by Spotify posts in the beginning).

News organizations jumped on board with their own apps for auto-sharing every article read by a Facebook user. Some, like Washington Post Social Reader, live entirely in Facebook, allowing (and encouraging) users to read articles without even leaving Others, like Yahoo News, share activity from the organization's site via code that pushes activity to Facebook.

The Yahoo News model of frictionless sharing is actually more disturbing, because there's little to no indication to the user that sharing is taking place. Activity on Facebook can be reasonably expected to be shared, but activity on a third-party site seems outside Facebook's influence.

There are other considerations as well, around the meaning of sharing. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in a now-archived Slate article, "You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn’t worth mentioning." Nicki Porter, blogging for (which provides content development services), made a very relevant point based on that: "If we only share about 10% of what we see online, we’re sharing the best 10%."

Philosophy and user opinion aside, the last two months have seen massive growth in news app usage. Poynter's Jeff Sonderman wrote this morning that news organizations are reaching millions of users through these new auto-sharing apps. In particular, Open Graph statistics released by Facebook yesterday show:

  • Yahoo News: 600% increase in traffic from Facebook; 10 million users connected, who read more articles than the average
  • The Independent: 1 million monthly active connected users; articles from the late 1990s taken viral
  • The Guardian: 4 million users installed their app, more than half of them under age 24; averaging nearly 1 million extra pageviews per day
  • Washington Post: 3.5 million monthly active users of Social Reader app; 83% of readers under age 35

Facebook is helping news organizations with a box at the top of the homepage News Feed that shows a small selection of stories that friends have read recently.

The lesson from all this is that a platform like Facebook, which has over 800 million active users (as self-reported on its statistics page), can be a real boon to news outlets. Traffic equals eyeballs, and more eyeballs can generate more advertising revenue.

What's especially interesting to me is how similar the new sharing (which is officially part of the Open Graph API) seems to Beacon, a "mistake" (said Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook) that launched in late 2007 but was shut down in 2009.

Beacon also shared user activity on third-party sites back to Facebook, at first without permission. The class-action lawsuit Lane v. Facebook, Inc. resulted in Beacon being modified to require user confirmation before any sharing occurred. Open Graph sharing as it is today resembles the original Beacon, sending data to Facebook and publishing activity without any user intervention or even consent.

I, for one, stubbornly refuse to install any of those new auto-sharing Facebook apps. (Fortunately, it's pretty easy to bypass the request for permissions that pops up when I click an article featured at the top of my own News Feed.) I agree with Farhad Manjoo and Nicki Porter: Sharing is about choice. If I want to share something, I'll take the three minutes to post it myself.

Filed under: opinion, school No Comments

Finding Sources for Interviews is Hard

Posted by dgw

This is my third blog post assignment for my Journalism class. I went for the reflection option this time instead of the news topic option because I had something to say about my experiences with the class in the last two weeks.

As I've worked to find people I can interview for my feature article, I've found that it can be really difficult to actually connect with even one person who can address the topic in question. Many people will simply ignore interview requests.

I'm sure part of the problem is my choice of subject. Not that many people know about Bitcoin, after all. What's more, privacy and anonymity are cornerstones of Bitcoin's design. That makes them part of the user culture…or maybe that just means Bitcoin attracts privacy fanatics.

In any case, I've successfully found only one source, an assistant professor of economics here on campus. I found him through the head of the economics department, and even that wasn't in time for me to include in my first draft anything he said. (He's only on campus on Fridays, and I didn't get his name until the Saturday before the Thursday my draft was due.) I also couldn't take the time to properly write my first draft. It was probably the roughest piece of writing I've ever submitted to a teacher, whether graded or not. (Well, there were those bits of writing I did in elementary school, but I won't count those because I don't count those years as part of my real education.)

On the social media front, I've had a nibble or two, but no real responses. I got a really good referral on Twitter from someone I interact with pretty often, who told me about a Bitcoin fanatic he knows, but this fanatic 1) has a private Twitter stream and 2) ignored my attempts to get in touch. What I said about privacy before definitely applies to this guy.

Actually, a follow-up message to the economics department chair here at Brandeis fell through the cracks when I asked about another source within the department who might be available for interview sooner—in time for my first draft. (I hope it fell through the cracks; the alternative is being ignored, and I don't like being ignored when I'm trying to do an assignment. No, Brandeis' email system doesn't lose messages. Google Apps has higher reliability than that. I use it for my personal domain, so I have some experience there.) I guess that can't be blamed on the Bitcoin culture.

Having failed to find any more sources in the week since turning in my draft, I plan to launch something of a guerilla campaign on Friday. (The rest of Wednesday and all of Thursday will be dedicated to making sure I finish my Java programming assignment by the deadline, and to studying for my Hebrew midterm on Friday morning.) My current campaign hit list includes the economics and computer science departments of several colleges, a few friends of mine who must either know about or know someone who knows about Bitcoin, and a couple of legal firms with which I have connections. This last item is important, as I need to understand the legal environment surrounding Bitcoins competing with the United States Dollar (and with every other nation's currency).

May my campaign result in a deluge of responses. If it doesn't work, I guess I'll be asking my professor for help on or around Tuesday afternoon.

As an aside, Bitcoin is also hard to research. In looking for material online (for not much has been said about it in physical media), I followed many dead links. The system is somewhat unstable, as shown by what happened when the Mt. Gox exchange was compromised (a part of my research); the information resources about it are even more so.

Thanks to my source-finding campaign plans and my need for better research, I foresee that my weekend will be full of work for my journalism class. Well, the part of it that is not taken up by tech week for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, for which I am the sound designer.

Perhaps I should just say that I will be having a busy week(end).

Filed under: musings, opinion, school 2 Comments

Google Books and the Book Industry

Posted by dgw

I wrote this for my Journalism class at college, but figured I might as well share it here too.

The New York Times ran a story Monday about a new lawsuit filed against HathiTrust, a partnership of universities and research libraries that maintains a digital book collection on its website.

Plaintiffs in the suit include three major authors' groups: the Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, and the Québec Union of Writers. Eight individual authors are also party to the filing, among them Pat Cummings, Roxana Robinson, and T.J. Stiles.

The objections raised in the suit center around the HathiTrust collection itself. "[S]even million copyright-protected books" (according to Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, as quoted by the NYT) are available without any consent from the authors. The Authors Guild and its fellow plaintiffs say that the collection violates copyright law.

HathiTrust's collection consists of books digitized by Google, Inc. as part of the Google Books project, which has been steadily scanning books from participating university libraries across the United States.

The Google Books project has been the subject of many lawsuits over the years since work on it was begun in 2002. A few examples will help provide context:

  • 2005: The Authors Guild sues Google for "plain and brazen violation of copyright law" (archived press release from AG via
  • 2009: French court halts Google Books in France: the ruling applies only to books published in France under copyright (Los Angeles Times article)
  • 2010: Several professional photographers' organizations bring a class-action suit regarding the reproduction of copyrighted images within the books scanned by Google ( article)

The Authors Guild has been involved with this issue before. This time, the fight has been brought to an organization with a bit less might than Google.

But never mind who sued whom, for what, and when. The issue is really quite simple, and most of the lawsuits against Google Books have had little to no merit.

United States copyright law (the laws under which most Google Books lawsuits have been filed) contains a doctrine known as Fair Use. It was originally intended to protect commentary, critique, and parody of copyrighted works. However, the principles of Fair Use (Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute):

  1. "the purpose and character of the use" — e.g. for commentary, critique, parody, scholarship, etc.
  2. "the nature of the copyrighted work" — published/unpublished, fact/fiction
  3. "the amount and substantiality of the portion used" — how much of the work was used, and how significant the used portion is to the work as a whole
  4. "the effect of the use upon the potential market" — if the use of that portion will negatively affect demand for or the value of the original work

(Thanks to Stanford University's Copyright & Fair Use information center for helping me refresh my own memory of these concepts.)

The way Google Books works is carefully designed to fit within existing copyright laws. Books in the public domain are fully accessible, with no restrictions. Copyrighted, in-print books allow whatever access the publisher has specified. For in-copyright books that do not have a publisher, Google restricts access to "snippets", which show just a few words surrounding the user's search term.

So: Whenever Google Books shows a significant portion of a book, it has permission from the publisher to do so. Without permission, Google Books displays tiny fractions of the full work in an immensely transformative manner.

Google Books falls well within Fair Use doctrine, at the very least. Displaying card catalog–type information about the book plus at most a sentence or so for each search result (I'll go down the Fair Use list):

  1. Is for scholarly reasons
  2. Uses published works
  3. Displays at most a few percent of the whole book
  4. May actually increase demand for the books featured in the results

(Parts of Lawrence Lessig's 2006 video discussion of Google Book Search came in handy for an overview of how Google Books works.)

So why are publishers and authors suing Google and HathiTrust?

As far as I can tell,[original research?] HathiTrust follows the same rules as Google Books. This makes sense, as the content is from the Google Books program.

HathiTrust's entire archive is intended for academic use. It's unclear why the various plaintiffs in this new lawsuit are suing for the removal of their books from the archive, rather than suing for better access controls. If the concern is that anyone can access the books (which they can), then restricting access to verified researchers would clear up the problem.

It's like big music, film, and television. The music industry figured out that it could simply adapt to the Internet and start offering content over the new medium, giving people an alternative to pirated copies shared through services like Napster, LimeWire, and BitTorrent. Film and television haven't yet figured that out, and I guess the book industry is still working on it too.


There Is Always a Choice

Posted by dgw

I recently read a headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune featuring an unfortunate wolf at the Minnesota Zoo.

The story went that this 8-year-old male Mexican gray wolf—an endangered species—escaped from his1 enclosure through a gap in the fencing of the keeper's area. He proceeded halfway around the grounds before being tracked to the Northern Trail area and shot.

Yes. Shot.

Tranquilizers would not have acted soon enough, Minnesota Zoo officials said, forcing them to destroy the 8-year-old male.

I beg to differ. There was nothing forcing these people to shoot an innocent animal—an intelligent being. Wolves belong to the canine family, and do we not use dogs every day to help track criminals, find explosives, and guide the blind (to name a few)?

We do. Canines are intelligent beings. The fact that they are used in so many different parts of human society prove that. They wouldn't be useful in their jobs without intelligence.

So what "forced" the zoo officials to have the wolf shot? Tranquilizers would have taken 8–10 minutes to take effect, and that delay was deemed too long.

Never mind that the wolf hadn't approached anyone.

Ignore the fact that he was probably a very freaked-out wolf, more concerned with getting away from people than with attacking them.

In fact, the paper ran a follow-up story the very next day. They quote a wolf researcher:

"That animal wouldn't have been dangerous, period," countered David Mech, a wolf researcher and vice chairman of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

Sure, anyone would get a little pissed after being stuck with a tranquilizer dart. But tranquilizers and guns weren't the only choices. Could not keepers go out with nets to catch the wolf? They already evacuated visitors, so there was no immediate danger to anyone who might sue the zoo.

Why didn't the animal "experts" come up with a better solution than a gun? Doesn't the Minnesota Zoo—a considerably large zoological institution—maintain contingency plans for escaped animals? Don't they have equipment for containing said escapees?

I am reminded, in a somewhat macabre firing of synapses, of the "death by misadventure" scenarios of many role-playing games. Choose to enter the wrong cavern, and die; or pick up the wrong item, and die. Go through the wrong hole, and die.

If the story had included any mention of the wolf going after visitors, my views might be different (but then, there are many non-lethal ways of neutralizing a threatening animal). But it didn't. Nobody reported being threatened by the wolf. He was just exploring.

That's all he did: He chose to explore the wrong hole.

Zoo officials got scared, panicked, and had an intelligent being killed.

Nobody forced them to do it. Their own fears of potential litigation pushed them into the easy solution.

Killing is never the only option. There is always a choice.

  1. I will use personal pronouns. Referring to the wolf in question as "it" would put me uncomfortably close to the level of consideration displayed by Zoo officials. []
Filed under: opinion 1 Comment