Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

Counting sheep in the stable : what the saddle saw

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of May 2009]

Isn’t one’s subconscious a marvellous beast? – able to problem-solve or do the mental housework while one gets on with day-to-day matters or whiles away time deep in dreamland. In fact, my only problem with the latter is that my particular subconscious marks most of that nocturnal fruit Not Reportable. It would be nice to know the cause of the big smile on my face some mornings or why I’m overcome with an urge to laugh wildly on sight of a presumably totally innocent acquaintance on other days. Fortunately I’m not inclined to spend time wondering about things that do not wish to be revealed at the time, and why would anyone want to stop a cheerful gift horse’s face from smiling by bolting it into a stable until it confesses?

The aspect that interests me most of all is the number of times I’ve awoken with a clear solution to matters that have sometimes baffled me for days, usually work-related issues that have needed answers that will work from numerous perspectives. It’s been one of life’s lessons to learn to trust those intuitions and I’ve now reached the conclusion that one’s subconscious is the ultimate tool for problem-solving. While dusting off older information gained from past experience, it throws irrelevancies out with the rubbish (or, more likely being a female, stores them somewhere else in case they’re needed one day), washes the various solutions to see if the veneer comes off or chips appear, then arranges them in various combinations and surveys them from all angles to see which will be the most universally acceptable. And by the time daylight breaks the obvious solution is cut and dried, ready to go to work in a lunchbox.

Four newsworthy items in the last week or so from totally disparate sources are currently churning around in the depths : they are all interesting in their own right, but there’s a common thread that eludes me at present. Should it work its way to the Reportable grey matter by morning, it’ll become a postscript to this column.

1) European Commissioner’s comments on the future Internet1

The EU has forged a route through this field that makes its opinions and forecasts stand out from other jurisdictions that sometimes appear to be walking in cropped circles of their own. The growth and development of Internet applications over the last fifteen years have laid the foundation by “deeply transforming our approach to social relations, access to culture, education or entertainment”. While preserving the right to freedom of speech which is a founding principle of the Internet, EU members are encouraged to take up the issues of regulation and governance and to meet the challenges of “an ageing population, environmental and energy concerns, the scarcity of raw materials, globalisation, and regulation imbalances”, among others.

It will be interesting to see if the prediction that outside objects are shortly to be incorporated into the ambit of electronically-connected devices does come to fruition. I’ve never seen the need for my cellphone to talk to the fridge. Why, just last week a piece of cheese towards the back of a shelf was feeling blue and called out to me directly I opened the door – no demand for wireless conversations there. But the EU speech holds promise of exciting stuff ahead.

The thread bares itself fleetingly :

2) Sergey Brin’s “2008 Founders’ Letter 2

This missive pulled a lot of ends together. Before reading on, how many websites were in existence in 1992? A piece of trivia but it helped build a picture of a world wide web that grew in a period of six years from 26 websites to millions that by 1998 made an effective method of search imperative. Larry Page’s experimental bot set out in March 1998 and on 4 September 1998 Google Inc was registered. Up until then search engines had been ranking results according to the number of times the requested search term appeared on each page. Page (see, the power of punctuation) decided there had to be a more relevant method of returning results and investigated the number of backlinks per page as a gauge (oh my word, poetry too) of the validity of a source.

Did you know that the number of tweaks to Google Search alone came to almost one a day over the last year?

The letter concludes on a positive note with the expectation of computers becoming 100 times faster and storage 100 times cheaper in the next ten years.

3) The Cookie Monster knows what you did last summer

Still on Google : although public opinion generally coincides with mine that Google Chrome is the best invention since Google Apps since Google itself . . ., there has been quite a stir in recent months caused by the proliferation of articles around how much personal information Google can accumulate about individuals, particularly those who use a number of its services and applications, and Chrome has generally been held up as the Evil Canary in the horse-box.

Believing that smoke and fire frequently hang out together, I decided to find out how much heat is on.

On the face of it, and assuming Simple Surfer has not applied any of the numerous opportunities to opt out of Big Brother’s gaze, bored Google servers may have the information needed to build online profiles of some of its users right at the tips of their hot little synapses.

For example, an article by Robert L Mitchell3 paints a picture of someone who uses Google Search (search topics, URLs, . . .), Google Chrome (groan, even incomplete queries in search – more to follow further on), Gmail (contacts and contents), Google Calendar (appointments), Google Latitude (last known GPS location), Google Voice (transcripts of telephone conversations), Picasa (ability to subsequently recognise you and your friends due to face-recognition technology), and Google Books (your reading preferences and habits).

The article points out that the information Google collects comes from two sources : user-generated which the individual can manipulate and is linked to one’s Google Account ; and, server log data which is collected by browser cookies on the user’s computer. According to Google, the former is deleted within 14 days from many of its applications (with exceptions, for example Gmail is 60 days). The information that is collected is not all centralised ; much of it stays application-specific.

An obvious concern, especially relating to Gmail, is that the information gleaned is going to make one a target for personalised advertising. This doesn’t worry me for two reasons : (i) Google is a business and needs to generate income. As long as it continues to do this from like-minded commercial enterprises and not from me, long may the Ad columns live. Quite a few of my friends have turned the column off ; I haven’t for reason no.(ii) : I don’t even notice the column because my attention is on the results and URLs.

The focus on search in recent years, and not just by Google, has been to personalise results. How is any service going to accomplish that without some record of personal preferences?

Another problem Google will have in trying to build personal profiles, should it want to do so, is that, particularly on home computers, a number of people use the same machine and ISP account, so any profile will be a jumble of data gleaned from a number of different online habits.

In order to provide automatic updates and (another feature I have only come across in Chrome) restart the URLs that were open at the time of a crash, Chrome needs unique application numbers. No number? Bummer.

If you activated Web History when setting up your Google account, it is going to stay in existence until you turn it off again or delete the history.

Let’s turn to Chrome specifically as the poor thing has been forced to gargle fiery coals recently.

Chrome’s search box is called the Omnibox because it is, yes, a search box and so much more. The address bar combines with the search box. Unless the user has disenabled the Suggest feature, Chrome is going to try to complete the line as it is typed. Even incomplete search phrases may be sent back to its servers in order to try to better understand what you are looking for.

A rather nice feature is the default page in a new tab : thumbnails of the nine most-visited pages and a list of recent bookmarks – only possible by looking at trends on that machine – and of way more interest to me than some hotwire in California.

What really put the cat among the pigeons in the stable loft was the wording of Chrome’s original license. Use was apparently made of Google’s Universal Terms of Service. In some people’s eyes Section 11 gave Google the right to re-use anything submitted through the browser, for example blog content, contributions to forums, etc4.

Google has amended the offending section to read : “you retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services”5.

The Chrome Privacy Note6 includes these statements :
”you will always have the option to use the browser in a way that does not send any personal information to Google or to discontinue using it”
”configure Google Chrome not to send cookies”
”you can restrict cookies by setting your preferences in the Google Chrome Options menu”
”using Google Chrome to connect to Google services will not cause Google to receive any special or additional personally identifying information about you”
”Google Chrome records useful information about your browsing history on your own computer. This includes :
▪ the URLs of pages that you visit, a cache file of text from the pages, a list of some IP addresses linked from pages that you visit
▪ a searchable index of most pages you visit (except for secure pages)
▪ thumbnail-sized screenshots of most pages you visit
▪ a record of downloads you have made from websites
You can delete all or portions of this history at any time”.

As far as Incognito mode goes :
”you can also limit the information Google Chrome saves on your computer by using incognito mode. The browser will not store basic browsing history information such as URLs, cached page text, or IP addresses of pages linked from the websites you visit. It will also not store snapshots of pages that you visit or keep a record of your downloads”.

However, Incognito mode cannot walk on water so bear in mind that, quite independently, your ISP keeps a record linking URLs you visit to your IP address ; the target site will record your IP address before responding ; downloaded files stay on your computer.

Freaked out? Me neither. But the fact that Google, like many others, doesn’t explicitly guarantee that they will inform you if a court order or subpoena requires your data seems a bit mean.

4) Three people fired locally for flaming on Facebook7

A news article late this afternoon referred to three  South Africans who have recently lost their jobs for making derogatory comments about their employers in Facebook. One in particular was plain rude and objectionable to the point that I cannot help wondering if the boss wasn’t meant to see. Stoopid!

This brings me to a point I’ve been debating this evening. Assume one feels strongly enough about another’s bad behaviour to want to vent. Should one use some of these negative traits in a character or two in a future novel, surely the standard “characters bear no resemblance to anyone living” disclaimer will suffice? Does someone whose behaviour is that appalling have a life? In which case, the clause is not out.

PS Got it! Oh yes, I’ve remembered this time. The walk-in cupboard was filled with acres of them, floor to ceiling : killer heels, ankle straps, boots for all reasons.
I want to cry.

1 Internet of the Future : what policies to make it happen?. Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media
The 2008 [sic] Founder’s Letter. Sergey Brin
What Google knows about you. Robert L Mitchell
Google amends Chrome license following privacy objections. Grant Cross
Update to Google Chrome’s terms of Service. Mike Yang
Google Chrome Privacy Notice
Facebook slur gets SA worker fired

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.


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