Archive for February, 2008

Community, Civics, and Cyberspace

Several years ago at the local strip-mall shopping center, I watched the then-new local Walmart knock down the old Ames that had in turn knocked down the Sears that had knocked down the Woolworths*.  So I started thinking about which community artifacts are truly stable and can even be counted on to last more than a generation (retail stores obviously not being among them). 

My conclusion?  Churches, Civic Organizations, Bowling Alleys, Government Buildings, Bars, and Liquor Stores

Now, because of declining interest and participation, in this generation even the first three items on that list are at risk.  What that means in the long term I don’t know, but it probably isn’t a good thing.  At least not if you believe the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam who wrote the book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival Of American Community.**”  Written in 2000 (disclaimer: I have not read), Putnam laments our lack of community sharing, our increasing disconnectedness from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, and the resulting “decline in stock of social capital.”   After observing this decline in American civics and social connectedness, he then argues that if America is to continue to succeed this civic mindedness must be reinvented and restored. 

Some will argue that technology and social networking are doing just that.  Personally, I’m not convinced.  The anecdotal evidence I see is that far from bringing us together in the real world, these technologies are just stratifying us and pushing us further apart.  Granted that many of these online ecosystems can truly be considered “communities,” but many are merely homogeneous, and perhaps even stagnant, associations of loosely connected people who generally think and act exactly the same.  Another difference is this same not-easily-defined concept of rootedness.  As the Internet collective hive-mind jumps to whatever the next hip-thing is, these tenuous Internet associations quickly break down.  Don’t believe me?  Try and find those old Geocities or AngleFire pages you did.

I hope I’m wrong and that computer networking technology can lead to “hyperlocalization,” an increased social connectedness, and a renewed sense of community.  But more likely, when Facebook virtually plows under the MySpace that plowed under GeoCities, we’ll be just as disintegrated and disconnected from our real-world communities as we ever were.  At least we’ll still have our local bars and liquor stores to help ease our pain.

________________

* That same Walmart then abandoned that site and moved Borg-like up the road a mile to the local indoor mall and proceeded to knock one third of it down for a Super Walmart.
** Although I did not see a lot of civic-mindedness displayed by “The Dude” and his bowling league in the Big Lebowski – there was definitely diversity.

Your Cheatin’ File Formats

A privacy problem that seems to go largely unnoticed is the issue of personal data that is hidden away in computer documents without their creators’ knowledge.  In fact, nearly all of the most common and popular document formats use such metadata to tuck away all sorts of nifty descriptive information about the document.  Here are just a few examples:

  • When it was created/changed
  • Who made the changes based on User Name or other Operating System-captured name
  • Applications used – including watermarking or similar identifying information tying a document directly back to the exact copy of software or hardware that created it
  • And on and on

Unless you use only text (.txt) files to store data, then odds are pretty good that your documents (MS Word, PDF, JPEG, etc.) have gobs of this type of extra information attached.  And in most cases, while perhaps overdone by complex document formats, this additional document information is intended to be a useful thing and not stored for any nefarious, privacy-intruding purposes.  

However, privacy issues can quickly arise when these documents are then published to the web.  In this scenario, they can reveal personal information through their metadata that their users never desire or intend to be published. 

A perfect example of this situation that has entered the annals of Web Lore is the Cat Schwartz (of  circa-2000 TechTV fame) cropping wardrobe malfunction.  An original topless image was cropped to just an innocuous head shot and posted to her blog, but oops, the metadata thumbnail still contained the original uncropped topless photo.  Just a small, yet-shocking example of hidden metadata stored in only one such complex and ubiquitous Internet data exchange format – in this case a JPEG with EXIF metadata. 

So what are users to do that want to “scrub” all personal information and metadata from their documents before posting to the web?  Unfortunately, there appear to be no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to this problem.  Application vendors have little to gain and much to lose by stripping out such metadata.  These applications need to have access to this metadata to provide increased functionality and the market appears to make it clear that users value this functionality over privacy.  Even when vendors do provide mechanisms to eliminate such data, they make it cumbersome and onerous.  Third party solutions often only work on one specific complex data format. 

Windows Vista surprisingly does provide a mechanism for doing this (Properties | Advanced | “Remove Properties and Personal Information“), but this only removes some of the obvious metadata that Windows can identify and does nothing with vendor specific data.  Also, you have to actually manually select the file(s) – it can’t recursively cleanse subfolders.

Take the simplest of examples: How do I remove personal data from my JPEGs before I post to public photos sites?

The Windows Vista “Remove Properties” tool doesn’t help because it only handles a few of the obvious EXIF data items (like Title, Author, Tags, etc.), but there are literally hundreds of others unhandled (even the very obvious ones like “Taken On” date and editing application).  Thus for even this simplest example, the user is forced to turn to a third party tool like ExifTool – an impressive, but somewhat geeky and command-line driven EXIF metadata utility that includes a cleaner.  One could also save the JPEG to a different format that doesn’t support EXIF metadata like BMP or PNG, but get ready for some serious size bloat as the compression is lost.

To “quickly” achieve this, I just gave up and wrote my own (C# source code below-now how’s that for geeky?) – but it is only a marginal success because it only handles the Text metadata.  When I tried to just remove all metadata, I got some troublesome results (the compression was removed, or the changes were just ignored because they caused inconsistencies).  This is a worrisome example of how even someone who is actively committed to removing all of this information can be thwarted.  But I figured the text attributes included most of information that someone might want to scrub anyway (like dates, programs, etc.). 

So there is one complex data format partially down, thousands more to go.  Privacy really shouldn’t be this hard folks…

  
// Disclaimer: Use of this code is done so entirely at your own risk.
// This software is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind
// C# Snippets/Class to remove image text metadata from a jpeg file
// Note: removing non-text metadata can have undesired effects of
// altering the compression or other image characteristics
class ExifTextCleanser
{
   public static void RemoveImageTextPropertyItems(Image image)
   {
        foreach (PropertyItem pi in image.PropertyItems)
        {
            // if it's text, remove it
            if (pi.Type == 2) // 2 = Text
            {
                image.RemovePropertyItem(pi.Id);
            }
        }
   }

   public static void PrintImageTextProperties(Image image)
   {
    Console.WriteLine("properties id count=" + image.PropertyIdList.Length);
    Encoding encoder = new ASCIIEncoding();

    // Print all Image PropertyItems
    foreach (PropertyItem pi in image.PropertyItems)
    {
       if (pi.Type == 2) // 2 = Text
       {
        string textProperty = encoder.GetString(pi.Value);
        Console.WriteLine("Property, ID=" + pi.Id + ", value=" + textProperty);
       }
    }
   }

   public static void CleanseJpeg(string originalFileName, string newFileName)
   {
    if (!(originalFileName.ToLower().EndsWith(".jpg") ||
          originalFileName.ToLower().EndsWith(".jpeg")))
    {
     Console.WriteLine(originalFileName + " not a JPEG.");
     return;
    }

    Bitmap bitmap = new Bitmap(originalFileName);

    PrintImageTextProperties(bitmap); // take a peek at this metadata info

    RemoveImageTextPropertyItems(bitmap); // then nuke it

    // save the cleansed version of the file
    bitmap.Save(newFileName);
   }
}

Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2008

William Burroughs Heart

In Honor of William S. Burroughs

For Al Bundy
In hopes he is still on the couch

Thanks for the candy hearts and Hallmark cards, destined to be perfunctorily purchased –

thanks for an Expression to despoil and poison –

thanks for FTD florists to provide an escape from neglectful guilt –

thanks for St. Valentine and the Martyrs, to forget their lives and meaning –

thanks for a mandatory dinner at Applebee’s or Red Lobster –

thanks for the idea of TRUE LOVE to commoditize and sell until it stimulates the economy –

thanks for the MPAA, for judges who forget the First Amendment, for prudish soccer moms incensed about Janet Jackson’s breast –

thanks for “I (Heart) My Dog” bumper stickers –

thanks for dove-patterned bulk tableware –

thanks for “two months salary” and Diamond Eternity Rings –

thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to think on their own –

thanks for a nation of consumers – yes,

thanks for all the memories… all right, let’s see your credit cards… you always were a simple tender heart –

thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human emotions.
 

Getting the Intel on Social Networking

The task of any Military Intelligence (MI) gathering operation is essentially to first observe and document relationships and then to describe and build models of these relationships with network graphs.  So Military Intelligence organizations often create networks of equipment and assets, organizational hierarchies, and, perhaps just a little more insidiously, interpersonal relationships.

With all of the intense media buzz lately about Facebook and other social networking sites, I couldn’t help but see the similarity of the tasks and objectives of these sites with Military Intelligence gathering operations.   One is labeled “Market Research” while the other is called “Military Intelligence Gathering (hopefully-but not always-against an adversary),” but in most ways they are indistinguishable*.   

While I find this more than just a little disturbing, I’m not quite ready to take on the breadth of this subject matter yet.  But I do want to answer the first questions: Who are these sites?  Which are most popular?  What are their primary categories and audiences?

Preliminary Findings:

Social Networking and (Micro)Blogging:
Dodgeball.com
Facebook
MySpace (Fox Interactive Media)
orkut (Google)
Tribe.net
Twitter
Windows Live Spaces (Microsoft)
Xanga

Business Relationship Management:
JigSaw
LinkedIn
Spoke.com
ZoomInfo

Multimedia (Photos, Video, Music):
Flickr
Last.fm
PhotoBucket
YouTube
Zooomr

Blogging:
LiveJournal
BlogSpot
WordPress

Social News:
del.icio.us
Digg
reddit
Slashdot
StumbleUpon

School/Organizational Networking:
Classmates.com
Graduates.com
Reunion.com

______________________________

* This line has blurred to the point where, as reported in the FRONTLINE program “Spying on the Home Front,” the US Intelligence Community actually uses aggregated marketing and credit card databases to perform data mining.

Smoking and Obesity – a Boon to Saving Health Care Costs?

In a refreshing breath of academic honesty, a study debunks the nanny state myth that smoking and obesity increase government health care costs.  So it may be time to dispense with this oft repeated myth.  A myth that has long been used as a major justification for governments’ intrusions into these health aspects.    

This should have been simple common sense, but unfortunately common sense just doesn’t work with bureaucracies hell bent on arbitrarily stamping out things they don’t like.  So a formal study was required.  The not-so-surprising findings and conclusions?  Smokers and the obese die earlier and thus have far less overall lifetime health care costs than the otherwise “healthy.”  Moreover, smokers actually provide the added government “benefit” of paying extra taxes. 

Of course, as anyone who has ever watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows (“Zuzu’s Petals!”), when a person dies early (or as in the movie, ceases to exist) there are actually costs that are intangible, difficult to quantify, or impossible to know, so purely looking at lifetime health care costs in itself may not be a true measure of overall cost; but it is at least a start down the road of academic honesty.  An honesty that is sorely needed as governments seek to regulate more and more aspects of peoples’ private lives and behaviors.

Keeping Health Care Costs Down (Part I)Keeping Health Care Costs Down (Part II)

Hash House Harrying and Krispy Kreme Challenging

I heard of a few amusing new “sports” this week: 

I figure such events are only the natural progression of all those supposedly well-meaning matrons forcing junk food on their kids at those youth sporting events.  I can remember at my kids’ soccer league games, I was always a bit peeved by the parents who were compelled to organize the “halftime snack” of juice boxes and Little Debbies.  Especially since I figured that this was probably the only time half of those kids had gotten out of the house away from this junk all week; yet even here in the middle of the soccer pitch, junk food was thrust on them.

On the other hand to look at the positive side, if you figure folks are just going to eat donuts and drink beer anyway, they might as well get in some jogging (and puking).  But be careful, and I am not making this up, one of the few “rules” is “no puking on purpose.”

So move over bowling, darts, and pool, eating and drinking just found a new companion sport.  Krispy Kreme Pizza House Harrying Anyone?  Jog a 5K while eating a dozen donuts, a medium pizza, and drinking a 6-pack of beer. 

In Case You Didn’t Know It

Daddies will do anything for their little girls….

Daddies Do Anything For Little Girls