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Category Archives: interview

The Virtual Self: a chat with Nora Young

Have you ever wondered why people share so much information about themselves on things like Facebook and Twitter? Have you ever thought about how all of that data might be used in the bigger picture? Have you ever wondered whether all of that stuff might actually be worth more than just free access to a site that lets you share photos?

Nora Young, host of the CBC radio program Spark (which I sometimes contribute to), tackles all of these topics and more in her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us. It’s a great read that provides a good deal of food for thought in regards to why we engage in all this self-tracking, and what it all might mean as it develops further.

I had a long chat last week with Nora about her book and thought I’d present that conversation here in two parts. Here’s part one, with part two coming tomorrow:

What’s your back-of-the-book pitch? What’s it all about?

It’s really about the accumulation of what I’m calling the statistical minutiae of every-day life. I’m not talking about oversharing on Facebook, I’m talking about the way we’re starting to pump out enormous amounts of data about where we’re going, what we’re doing, how we’re reacting to the world around us, the pictures that we’re taking of all the stuff that we do in our daily life. That’s everything from wearing a Nike Plus when you do your runs to checking in on Foursquare to registering a status update on Facebook or Twitter or posting innumerable photos from your cellphone camera.

So it’s thinking about both why it is we’re doing this thing that’s sort of odd on a personal level, but also looking at, on a collective level, how this information can be used for beneficial ends and also what the red flags are as we go forward. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2012 in books, cbc, Facebook, interview, spark

 

UBB ruling will put government in crosshairs

The CRTC is set to announce the results of its usage-based internet billing proceeding Tuesday afternoon. Far from being one of the regulator’s many dull procedural announcements, this one is surely the most anticipated, at least in recent memory. I’ll have an analysis on Wednesday (my posts generally go live at midnight, Eastern time) and probably some knee-jerk reactions on Twitter beforehand, if you want to check those out. In the meantime’s here a primer of what the ruling will involve and why it’s so important.

In the broader sense, usage-based billing is about charging internet customers for how much they download and upload. In Canada, a typical home user gets between 50 and 60 gigabytes included with their monthly fee; going over means more charges, just like a cellphone bill. Pretty much every Canadian is living with UBB right now.

As it relates to the CRTC drama for most of the past year, UBB is a more specific issue that has to do with smaller ISPs that use a portion of the networks owned by big telecom companies such as Bell to deliver their services to customers. Bell has been charging its own customers UBB for years and wanted to impose the scheme on these smaller ISPs. The CRTC gave Bell’s plan its blessing, agreeing with the thinking that all customers need to be treated equally. The logic is that if Bell was only giving subscribers 50 GB of monthly usage, yet an ISP such as TekSavvy was allowing 300 GB or more, then the smaller provider had an advantage.

Despite that apparent advantage, about 95% of Canadians get their internet service from big providers such as Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw and Videotron. Still, all hell broke loose earlier this year just before UBB was to take effect. The Open Media advocacy group got involved and motivated more than 500,000 people to sign a petition opposing it. While the ruling would affect only a few people, it was to be the final elimination of unlimited internet usage in Canada, the group argued. With UBB imposed on small ISPs, the big providers could effectively decide how much Canadians could use the internet. While many people who signed the petition were not customers of smaller providers, they did so to effectively draw a line in the sand and tell large companies that they shall go no further.

The government got involved, with both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Industry Minister Tony Clement signalling they would take action on the CRTC decision if the regulator itself didn’t overturn it. And so, the CRTC went back to the drawing board, bringing us to Tuesday’s decision.

Since then, a few things have happened. Bell submitted a new proposal, called Aggregated Volume Pricing, that is a sort of diet-UBB. Rather than charging smaller ISPs for each of their users, the new scheme would total up their usage instead. Indie ISPs have said that while AVP is not as crippling as UBB would have been to their business, it’s still not exactly desirable.

Out west, UBB became a non-issue last spring when Shaw announced new plans with generous usage limits, which forced its main competitor Telus to match. The large Western ISPs added an interesting dimension to the debate – such large usage buckets completely negate the argument for UBB, which Bell and others have said is necessary to combat network congestion. If Shaw and Telus can give their customers so much usage without congesting their networks, why can’t their eastern counterparts?

On a related note, Bell also recently announced it was easing up on slowing down file-sharing by its customers. This “throttling” is another activity that is technically allowed by the CRTC, but which is hugely controversial and hated by many users. Many believe throttling is a violation of the regulator’s own net neutrality rules, yet the CRTC is doing nothing to stop it. As if to contrast Bell’s announcement, news also recently broke about how big Canadian ISPs – particularly Rogers – are some of the heaviest throttlers in the world.

Also perhaps relevant is the fact that the current CRTC chair, Konrad von Finckenstein, is on his way out. Von Finckenstein reportedly wanted to stay on for a second term, but given his penchant for disagreeing with his employer (the government), that was a highly unlikely scenario.

So why is the upcoming announcement on UBB so important? There are a number of reasons. Aside from the half-million signatures on the Open Media petition, there were also more than 100,000 submissions to the CRTC from the public. A lot of people are watching this one, which means the government is too. It’s safe to bet our friends to the south in the U.S., where large ISPs are testing the waters on UBB, are also watching.

I speculated recently that Bell’s announcement on throttling was a bit of quid-pro-quo with the regulator, as in you (CRTC) scratch our back on UBB, we’ll scratch your back on this other stuff. If the regulator approves Bell’s AVP proposal, as I suspect, it will sure look that way. There’s also the side drama of the outgoing chairman – will he stick to his guns in the face of government opposition one final time, perhaps just to make a point?

Chances are good that anything less than a total rejection of AVP and any other flavour of UBB won’t be accepted by opponents, which means attention will turn to the government. New-ish Industry Minister Christian Paradis has been doing his best impression of the Invisible Man since taking office early this year. If the UBB decision ends up being anti-consumer, he’s going to have to lie in the bed made for him by Harper and Clement.

If the unlikely happens and the CRTC actually comes up with a solution that everyone can live with, thereby restoring relative harmony to the Canadian broadband environment, it will clear a major issue from the table and put even more pressure on the government to get some sort of digital/broadband strategy going. Either way, it looks like the buck is about to be passed to the Industry Minister. That means no more hiding in the shadows.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in bell, bittorrent, crtc, interview, net neutrality

 

Is the Singularity near? Yes, it is

The very last person I interviewed as a full-time staffer at CBC was a good one. The average person may not have heard of Ray Kurzweil, but in nerd circles, he’s pretty much a guru. Literally. People have referred to him as the “high priest of the Singularity.”

Kurzweil is an American inventor, author and “futurist,” which means he’s famous for making predictions about the future. Not too much unlike the sort of thing a science-fiction author might do.

In our interview, which is up on CBC, we talked about one of his latest projects – Blio, which is an e-reading application that you can download for your computer (and Apple & Android devices soon) that preserves the formatting of the original book. That means all those really nice graphical books, like cookbooks, travel books etc., will look the same on your electronic device as they do on paper.

The meat of our conversation, however, centred on the stuff Kurzweil is more known for – namely, his predictions of the Singularity and a coming future that will almost literally blow our minds.

The Singularity isn’t exactly easy to explain, but it essentially refers to a point in the near future where computer intelligence meets and surpasses the level of human intelligence. The two will merge, Kurzweil predicts, to form a super-intelligence that will make us capable of things we can only dream of right now. This will include making many science-fiction ideas real, like immortality and deep-space travel. A big part of this super-intelligence will come from reverse engineering the human brain, including figuring out how emotions work, which he predicts will happen by 2029. Here’s a video of him explaining it:

Not surprisingly, Kurzweil has his share of critics, who believe he’s smoking the crack. Some brain scientists, especially, say he knows nothing about how the brain works and that we will probably never understand it fully. Predictions about being able to replicate our entire personality into a computer file, which could then live on in a robot or virtual world (hello Battlestar Galactica and Caprica!) are way off base, they say.

The thing I like about how Kurzweil approaches his predictions is that he bases them on something he calls the “law of accelerating returns,” which quantifies the exponential growth of technology over time. I think anyone who covers technology eventually comes to this conclusion on his or her own – I certainly did – that the speed at which new technology becomes available is increasing. This is because if someone over here invents Technology A and someone over there invents Technology B, those are both pretty neat inventions. But when you put them together, you obviously get Technology C, and perhaps D and E and F, and so on.

Technology therefore stacks upon itself, which is why it seems like there are more and more new discoveries and gadgets unveiled every day. It’s not an illusion or an accident – there are more and more every day.

Kurzweil brought up an excellent example in our interview. When the Human Genome Project was started in 1990, people weren’t very optimistic that it would ever get done because so little was known. Lo and behold, the project ultimately took only 10 years to complete, surprising everyone. As Kurzweil explains:

People thought [the Human Genome Project] was crazy in 1990 because only 1/10,000 of the genome had been sequenced by that time. But it kept doubling every year. Half way through the project only one per cent had been collected so the skeptics were going strong, but that was actually right on schedule. One per cent is only seven doublings from 100 per cent.

The other observation I’ve come to is that scientists, while often incredibly intelligent (far more so than me), are generally quite myopic and conservative in their views. They’re afraid of or unwilling to make predictions about where their work can lead, which is pretty much why science-fiction authors exists. Someone’s got to do that job, after all.

It’s also one of the ways in which Kurzweil counters his critics: “A scientist may be sophisticated in his own field but he may not have studied technology progression and he may just apply his linear intuition to his own work.”

Ultimately, those two facts – the exponential growth of technology and the often narrow view of scientists – is why I tend to agree with Kurzweil’s predictions. I recommend reading the interview and if you really want to have your mind blown, check out his latest book The Singularity is Near.

 

Joanna Angel talks porn and the ‘net

In wrapping up porn week, we’ve got a special treat today. I chatted yesterday with Joanna Angel, who’s not your average porn star. In 2002, she started her own website at www.burningangel.com (not safe for work, although if you want to read about Joanna here’s her Wikipedia page), and helped kick off a movement called “alt porn.”

What is alt porn? According to Joanna, it’s what it sounds like – alternative porn that is more or less outside of mainstream porn. Many of the people involved are tattooed, have piercings and look like every-day people, rather than the ultra-vixen, bleach-blond breast-implanted porn star image everybody is familiar with. She describes her website as more of a social-network-like community where visitors can communicate with each other and the girls in the photos and videos, as opposed to a straight-up online video repository that’s solely meant for wanking. Think Facebook meets Debbie Does Dallas.

We chatted about a bunch of topics including the downturn hitting the porn industry and the potential of untapped markets like China. In the short clip below, we talk about how porn has influenced society and its attitudes towards sex. Check it out:

We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming on Monday.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2009 in internet, interview, joanna angel, sex

 

Google says it doesn’t want to steal my book

A little while ago, I wrote a post about my mixed feelings regarding Google and its controversial book-scanning process. The long and the short of it is, Google has for some time now been scanning books and making them searchable online. The company got sued for this alleged violation of copyright by a bunch of authors and assorted book people down in the U.S., but the two sides recently came to a settlement. The deal is still awaiting approval by a judge and there are many questions still surrounding the issue.

I was fortunate to get to sit down with Alexander Macgillivray, one of Google’s top intellectual property lawyers, last week for a discussion on this whole books thing. I’ve posted the full interview on YouTube, chopped into four parts, the first of which is below (links to the other three also follow the embedded video).

In a nutshell, the deal is fairly complex because it involves three separate issues: libraries, in-print books and out-of-print books. Under the terms of the settlement, Google will be making snippets of books available online and users will be able to purchase full access to a copy that is viewable only online. I can see this being particularly good in at least two circumstances: it’ll be an awesome tool for people doing research and who need to access hard-to-get, rare or out-of-print books. Looking at my bookshelf, I’ve shelled out for at least 50 books in the course of researching Bombs, Boobs and Burgers, and there were several books that I simply did without because they would have cost too much or taken too long to get. Having instant online access to any book I want, even if I have to pay for it, will be an amazing resource. Consequently, Google’s plan is also good for authors who have books that are out of print. By making them purchasable online, they get a new life and allow authors to continue making money from them.

One of my main concerns was that once the book is digitized and distributed, people would be able to make copies of it and distribute it the same way they do with music, movies and TV shows. Not so, Macgillivray says, because there will be no actual file to download – the books will be hosted online only. I’m sure some users somewhere will figure out how to make copies (i.e. with screen grabs), but at least Google won’t be selling easy-to-distribute PDF files, or anything like that.

Check out the interview:

Also check out part two, part three and part four.

Interestingly, Google has already scanned about 10 million books. Estimates as to how many books there are in existence vary, but the number is pegged at between 30 million and 100 million. Either way, the company is actually quite far along in its scanning project. It won’t be long before every book ever printed is available online from Google. Like I said before, that’s both really cool and somewhat scary.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2009 in books, copyright, Google, internet, interview

 
 
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