The King is Dead

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There are a handful of high profile guys who are at or about my age. I’m exactly the same age as Colin Firth, I’m a day older than Hugh Grant, I’m a couple of months older the  Neil Gamin and a few months younger than Jeremy Clarkson. These folk are like portraits of Dorian Grey to me. I watch them age and progress and can’t help but measure myself against them…at-least in terms of grey hair and waist line.

So it was with some sorrow that I learned that one of my portraits fell off the wall the other day. Jeremy Clarkson is clearly a bit of an SOB. He’s hosted Top Gear (the BBC’s most successful show world wide) since 1998 and following a punch up he started with a show producer the other day he’s now the ex-host of the BBC’s most successful show. I love Top Gear, I love car shows in general but Top Gear goes well beyond just being a car show…it’s a institution. Clarkson was the clever, funny, snarky, mean host who took no prisoners and his audience loved him. He epitomized the angry white guy who loves cars and can’t stand or understand much of the world that surrounds him. Unfortunately he was also a bad tempered tall guy with a serious streak of entitlement and more than a smattering of casual racism. Until recently he’s been able to skate on various allegations of extreme rudeness and casual racism simply because he is beloved in 17 countries around the world and the $250M the BBC makes out of the show got him a lot of rope.

His latest escapade, in which he insulted then assaulted a producer who had the effrontery to provide a cold meal rather than the hot one we felt he needed was clearly the last straw. The BBC understandably felt that nobody (not even Clarkson) is above the law and they had to fire him. He clearly over stepped the mark and you can see the Beebs point of view…but it’s still a huge disappointment. Top Gear was one of the few places on the BBC where political correctness and beige thinking so prevalent both on the BBC and in society was mocked with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Clarkson called BS on what he saw as BS. He hated the ‘Nanny State’ mentality where everything is regulated and frowned upon. He wanted a world where middle class white guys could drive huge cars as fast as they wanted, where “ladies” knew their place and “damn foreigners” were seen but not heard. It was funny to hear him fume and rant…but when parody became punching out a producer, he was done.

Close to a million Brits signed an online petition to get him his job back and a handful of knuckleheads resorted to threats against the guy he punched out. I have no way of telling, but I’m reasonably sure the demographic of the petitioners skews towards white, middle class men who also feel put upon, disenfranchised and thoroughly annoyed by the Nanny State.

As I look at the remaining portraits in my Dorian Grey hall of fame, I don’t see quite the same anger and frustration which drove Clarkson. They seem to be more or less routinely charming, affable, witty guys who (aside from a couple of minor indiscretions)  have grown older with a level of grace. We will miss you Mr. Clarkson…..you idiot!

Alas Sir Terry…a Fellow of Infinite Jest

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I was heartbroken to learn last week that we had lost one of our most beloved authors to the cruel waste of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Sir Terry Pratchett was just 66 when he shuffled of the old mortal coil last week…it feels like a loss in my family. If you haven’t come across him (where have you been!) he was one of the most prolific British authors of the past few decades. He started writing his brilliant Discworld series in the early 80’s as a satire of the then burgeoning genre of fantasy fiction mostly for his own amusement. At the time he was a mediocre journalist turned PR hack writing press releases for the British Nuclear Fuels industry. Much to his surprise the Discworld saga took off. He was wildly popular, selling over 85 million books in 37 languages….and I came to think of him as a close family friend.

The Discworld is a fantasy land where a flat earth is balanced on the backs of four giant elephants which stand on the back of the great star turtle as it swims through the eternity of space. The disc is a thinly veiled metaphor for our society. It’s a world where magic works (albeit unpredictably) and in the city of Ankh-Morpork (which is roughly the London of Dickens and today smashed together) pretty much anything can and does happen. I’ve read everything he ever wrote, I’m a huge audio book fan and many of his books I have listened to hundreds if not thousands of times. Every night I go to sleep with his marvelous stories narrated by the equally marvelous Stephen Briggs playing in my ear.

If you haven’t come across him he’s tricky to describe. His writing is sharp without being spiteful, insightful but not preechy and always, always funny. His writing is (Lord I guess that’s a ‘was’ now) beautifully observed. He follows in the tradition of Mencken and Wodehouse using dry wit to poke fun at all aspects of our society. His range was tremendous, Hollywood, ancient Egypt, soccer violence, Jingoism, opera, war, death, newspapers, steam trains, politics, diplomacy and economics all fell prey to his relentlessly acerbic humor.

As he matured (he would say only wines mature..men just get old) his writing improved, got richer and more complex. Thud and Snuff are arguably two of the best funny books written this generation. Back in 2007 he announced that he had contracted early onset Alzheimer’s (an Embuggerance as he called it) and yet he continued to write…albeit with coauthors. His last Discworld book (co-written with his wife) showed signs of the disease…it lacked the pith and wisdom of his best books.

As the disease ate into him he became a high profile activist for assisted suicide pushing for legal reform in the UK. At the end we were told he died from natural causes. My lovely wife (who is a nurse very familiar with his disease) suggests that it’s unlikely that someone would die so quickly from a disease which attacks the brain but leaves other critical systems intact. I hope he had the where with all and family support to get hold of the barbiturate overdose he needed to meet death on his own terms.

We are left with a disc shaped hole in out hearts. Life will not be as funny and we will have to move on without the incomparable Sir Terry.

An Early Test for Body Cameras

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The officer-involved shooting Sunday on skid row that left a man dead could be an early test of the Los Angeles Police Department’s new body camera program for officers. The encounter was recorded by body cameras worn by at least one of the officers involved in the incident. Other videos have emerged showing parts of the incident, but the actual altercation that led to the shooting is not clear.

The department planned in December to outfit every officer with a body camera that will record interactions with the public. The 7,000 cameras will help bring clarity to controversial encounters, guard against officer misconduct and clear cops accused of wrongdoing.

The hope is that the cameras will help with investigations of use-of-force encounters just like Sunday’s. Increasing transparency could improve the public’s trust. But there are many implications that remain unexplored, including the impact on people’s privacy, how the public and defense lawyers can access the footage and how long footage will be kept before it is destroyed.

Police agencies around the country are grappling with similar issues as they try to figure out the best way to implement body cameras. The devices were among a list of recommendations included in a report released Monday by a task force appointed by President Obama to explore ways to improve relationships between police and the public.

Cameras have the long-term potential to help cut down on civilian complaints and lawsuits, speed up criminal cases and reduce paperwork. That is why he sees Sunday’s case an important test of body cameras’ potential to ensure speedy and fair use-of-force investigations.

There is some debate about making the videos that are involved in the altercations public. The department doesn’t intend, in general, to release the recordings unless required by a criminal or civil court proceeding. The LAPD considers the recordings evidence, investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law. But at community forums, some residents said they thought videos should be released as a form of transparency.

Measles: Boiling My Blood…Again

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The recent furor over the measles outbreak illustrates almost perfectly a fault lines which runs through our society. For what is supposedly the worlds most right and powerful country we are mind-blowingly stupid about some issues. I’m a foreigner…I chose to move my life to the US and I’m very happy that I have. I love this country…but good lord people! I have no idea where it comes from but there is a fiercely anti science/common sense thread which runs deep in our society. It typically doesn’t do much more than cause debates over well established science like evolution and the existence of angels (more Americans believe in angels than evolution) but the measles outbreak clearly illustrates that it can cause real harm also. Between 2001 and 2011 the median number of measles reported per year in the US was 62. This year one month in it’s 102.  That seems to put us on track for a 20x the norm year.  There are third world countries with higher inoculation rates than the US.

The mere fact that there is absolutely no credible scientific fact to support not immunizing doesn’t seem to matter. This is even becoming a political issue with lunatics on both the right and left are using immunization as a totem for their brand of selfishness. It beggars belief that supposedly educated people can be so blinded by a quasi religious rights/civil liberties concoction of complete garbage. I’m old enough that I actually had measles, and German measles and chicken pox the hard way as a kid. some of my earliest memories are from the misery those diseases caused.  I’m also asthmatic so it’s lucky I didn’t get killed by complications.

I get that the gun nuts are so powerful that we will have to endure a school shooting per month for the foreseeable future, and I get that we don’t want to curtail any aspect of our society in-order to mitigate climate change…but we are killing our children through this blind ignorant anti science nonsense. If we make the mistake of further politicizing this issue the various factions will dig in, it will become like every other issues which are regarded as settled law in most civilized countries and we will kill more of our kids.  If you have any doubt at all watch this video. Penn and teller (as always) hit the nail right on the head. Not immunizing our children is Bullshit and we should stop the madness.

Hold the Front Page

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Google is locking Spanish publishers out of its popular Google News service in response to a new Spanish law that imposes fees for linking to the headlines and news stories on other websites.

Besides closing Google News in Spain, Google Inc. also is blocking reports from Spanish publishers in the more than other 70 other international editions packaged by Google News. Google News’ exile of Spanish publishers begins Dec. 16, a couple weeks before the start of a Spanish intellectual-property law requiring news publishers to be paid for their content, even if they are willing to give it away.

That means people in Latin America, where Spanish news organizations have sought to boost their digital audiences, won’t see news from Spain via Google News. Also set to disappear are reports in English from Spanish publishers like Madrid’s leading El Pais newspaper.

The lost access to Google News will likely make it more difficult for people to keep afloat on what it is happening in Spain. Spanish publishers also may lose a valuable source of traffic to their websites. Google says its main search engine and other services generate more than 10 billion monthly clicks that send Web surfers to other news sites throughout the world. Google News accounts for about 10 percent, or 1 billion clicks, of that worldwide volume.

Spain’s new law is designed to create a new source of revenue for the country’s publishers, who, like most of their peers around the world, have been hard hit as more readers and advertisers have abandoned printed editions for digital alternatives during the past decade.

The shift has hurt news publishers because digital ads aren’t nearly as lucrative as print ads. But the linking fees could now backfire if the lost access to Google News diminishes the traffic to Spanish news publishers, making it even more difficult for them to sell digital ads.

Even though Google News doesn’t display ads, it still helps Google make more money by deepening people’s loyalty to its products. The ads that Google distributes through its other services and other websites, including those run by news publishers, account for most of the company’s projected revenue of $66 billion this year.

The Pirate Ship May Float On

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In the late hours of Tuesday night, the Pirate Bay abruptly disappeared from the Internet, the result of a surprise raid on the site’s servers by Swedish police in Stockholm.

But forget the big-picture questions of Internet freedom or intellectual property. The real problem, for millions of Internet-users, is how am I going to watch TV?

The Pirate Bay is as much an idea and an orientation to entertainment media as it is/was a torrent-tracking site. Sure, the Pirate Bay technically indexed torrents, a peer-to-peer file format popular for sharing movies, music and other oversized files. But since its launch in 2003, the world’s “most notorious file-sharing site” has done something a bit more significant, and a bit more permanent, too: It’s made digital piracy a casual, inarguable part of the mainstream.

During just one month in 2013, more than 340 million people tried to download illegal content, an industry report claimed. In North America, Europe and Asia — the regions where most infringement comes from — that averages out to one in four Internet users.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Before the birth of the torrent protocol in the earlier parts of this century, sharing big files, like TV shows or movies was virtually impossible. But even then, an American guy named Bram Cohen invented, essentially, a new way for computers to communicate data and named it BitTorrent. Less than two years later, in November 2003, just as BitTorrent was starting to gain steam, a little-known group of Swedish activists launched a site to help people find and access these shared BitTorrent files.

Pirate Bay wasn’t the first torrenting site, by any means — but it quickly became the largest, and the one that stuck around. (It’s no coincidence that the popularity of the phrase “torrent download” grew, in lockstep, with the profile of Pirate Bay.) It helped, probably, that Pirate Bay was initially operated by Piratbyran, a sort of pro-piracy think tank, which lobbied extensively against intellectual property law and wanted to popularize torrenting for “moral and political” reasons. In other words, they had the courage of conviction on their side.

Even when The Pirate Bay split off from Piratbyran shortly after its founding, administrators for the site remained involved with the group, circulating petitions, hosting rallies and publishing on “the practical, moral and philosophical issues of file sharing.” And even when law enforcement and industry groups began going after the Pirate Bay — the site was first raided in 2006, and its founders arrested and charged with aiding copyright infringement three years later — the site stayed online, moving frequently to new domains and changing to a more secure, cloud-based infrastructure in 2012.

And yet, despite all these threats, torrenting — on Pirate Bay, the largest torrenting portal, and off it — has only become more popular and more entrenched. Between 2011 and 2013, for instance, unique users on torrenting sites jumped 23.6 percent. There are now tens of millions of people accustomed to getting their “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead” illegally, online. In fact, more people watch “Game of Thrones” by torrent than watch it on HBO — a figure that, more than any other, should hammer in how well-entrenched this whole digital-piracy thing is.

Pirate Bay could very well come back online soon; there’s certainly no evidence, at this juncture, to suggest that it won’t, and the site has bounced back from several such hurdles before. But even if TPB doesn’t return, the politics and the conventions it advanced — that content should be free, and if you torrent, they can be! — will be very difficult to eradicate.

You may be able to shut down Pirate Bay, but good luck raiding the Internet that Pirate Bay created.

Is North Korea Really Behind the Sony Hacks?

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There’s plenty of rumors and speculation, but one thing is certain: something has gone awfully wrong with the computer systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment – the television and movie subsidiary of the huge Sony Corporation.

The company has shut down its servers, after a ghoulish skull appeared on computer screens alongside a claim that internal data had been stolen and would be released if undisclosed “demands” were not met.

In parallel, Twitter accounts used by Sony to promote movies were hacked to display messages attacking Sony Entertainment’s CEO from a group calling itself GOP (the Guardians of Peace) who claimed responsibility for the hack.

11 terabytes of information had been stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures, and even tweeted a photograph of a sign placed in the lift of Sony Pictures’ London office asking staff not to use their computers or log into the Wi-Fi. If hackers have indeed hijacked Sony Pictures’ network, and stolen a large amount of data, it all sounds very dramatic, but the most the company has said publicly is that it is investigating an “IT matter.” The absence of hard facts about the hack has inevitably led to reporters filling in the vacuum with some guesswork and, in some cases, speculation that may be have shaky foundations.

For instance, one report claimed that Sony Pictures was exploring the possibility that North Korean hackers could be behind the attack – because of anger over an upcoming comedy film featuring Seth Rogan and James Franco working with the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

It does appear that North Korea is genuinely unhappy about the movie, but does it really seem likely that that would motivate what appears to be a widespread attack against the Sony Pictures computer network?

That hasn’t stopped other media outlets from repeating the original claim of a North Korean link without much in the way of questioning, churning out the same “news” without considering just how tricky it might be to attribute the attack to any particular country – especially when the victim itself appears to still be mid-recovery and mopping up the mess.

Does North Korea use the internet to spy on other countries? Is it possible that hackers sympathetic to North Korea (or simply people who aren’t fans of Seth Rogan) might want to disrupt Sony Pictures’ activities? Hopefully until we know the answer, Sony will do its duty to inform the public of what information has been compromised.

Wearable Meets Civil rights

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I own a wearable civil rights activist, well actually I don’t.  I have the poor mans GoPro the MuVi camera. It’s an excellent low cost HD video camera, sold as a police body camera. I put a 32 GB card in it and although the battery life isn’t long enough to last a full 8 hour shift it could easily cover the likely face time I might spend interacting with the public. It also has sound activation, so the moment anything more than silence occurs it kicks on pretty seamlessly. This clever piece of tech costs about $150 retail…including a high capacity card.

There are roughly 450,000 cops in the US (seems like a lot but that what the official numbers are).  Let’s assume that at any one time 1/3 of those cops are out and about.  By my math we could equip every operational cop in the US with an excellent body cam for a little over 22 million dollars. Since we have apparently already found the money to equip our civilian police force with enough body armor and automatic weapons to arm a major third world dictator (for I’m guessing a lot more than $22MM) there is absolutely no reason not to equip our police with these simple but wildly effective devices.

That it should come to this is sad…and I sympathize with the protesters who claim that if the death by cop of Eric Garner captured on camera couldn’t result in a Grand Jury indictment then putting an electronic muzzle on our out of control police force won’t make a difference. However in the same way that “the spy in the cab” installed in every one of the 16 wheelers on our freeways greatly cut down the crashes caused by truckers driving for thirty hours straight, I firmly believe body cameras will make a significant and immediate difference.

This isn’t a tech problem, it’s not “a black problem” it’s an American problem. We have armed the guys who couldn’t get the grades to go to college with sophisticated weapons, given them impunity and “hero” status. They aren’t, they are, in many cases, blue collar guys with way to much power an institutional disregard for our civil rights and a cultural contempt for certain parts of our society.

We can’t fix the roots of this problem quickly. This problem has been brewing for several decades.  We can’t un-ring the bell of a post a Jim Crow culture of separate and not equal and the damage done by the failed ‘war on drugs.’ That harm is done…we can perhaps heal over time…I hope so.

What we can do (for less than one eighth of the cost of a single F16 fighter jet)  is bring some measure of wearable accountability to the people who are suppose to protect and serve us all.

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