Archive for October, 2011

Boo! A brief history of technology scares

October 31, 2011 2 comments

It’s Halloween, which means it’s that time of year when we celebrate fear and all things spooky. Whether it’s scary movies or creepy costumes, now’s the time when everybody seems to enjoy being frightened.

Truth be told, we must enjoy it year round, given the steady diet of fear the media keeps us on. It’s particularly true in the technology world. Over the past year, we’ve had the ongoing Wi-Fi cancer scare, more stories about the potential problems with biotechnology and lots and lots of attention paid to how the internet is threatening our privacy.

Alas, a glance through time shows this is nothing new. People have been worrying about the effects of new technology since, well, fire.

Here, then, are five great examples from history. The next time you read a story about how Wi-Fi may, possibly, conceivably, potentially cause cancer or how genetically modified fish may cause allergies/environmental catastrophe/killer mutant fish, keep these in mind.

Writing: As great a philosopher as he was, Socrates had his moments of idiocy too. He was not big on actually committing ideas to paper, for example, because he thought it would result in peoples’ memories getting worse. In his own words, “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Thank the stars nobody listened to the old coot, because if I had to orally recite every blog post, I’d be crazier than he was.

Books & the printing press: Conrad Gessner, a Swiss biologist in the 16th century, really didn’t like the invention of the printing press because, he felt, it would lead to information overload. He urged various monarchs to regulate the trade so that the public wouldn’t have to suffer with the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Hmm, where have we heard that before (or since, rather)?

Electricity: When electricity started arriving on the scene in the 19th century, many people were too afraid to use it. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison was apparently one of them. Harrison reportedly had White House staff turn the lights on and off because he was scared of getting electrocuted. Similarly, the general public also feared electric doorbells when they were first rolled out. Imagine how shocked they’d be at electricity’s ubiquity now. Okay, that was a bad fun. Scary bad.

Radio: In 1936, music magazine Gramophone lamented the arrival of radio for many of the same reasons that reading and writing were attacked. Ironically, the magazine didn’t like radio because it diminished those two activities, which by the 20th century were seen not as scourges of society, but rather as generally good things to do. Radio had a a habit of enthralling kids to the point that “they have developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker,” the magazine wrote. Even better: “At night the children often lie awake in bed restless and fearful, or wake up screaming as a result of nightmares brought on by mystery stories.” The same has essentially been said for just about every new technology to come along, from video games to the internet to texting.

Email: You’d think a CNN article about email hurting the IQ “more than pot” might be something from the early 1990s, but nope, it was published in 2005. I’m not an expert on proper scientific method, but the study that the story was based on appears to have more holes in it than Hotmail’s spam filter. The best part are the quotes decrying the bad effects of email from some guy at HP. You know, Hewlett-Packard - the company that makes a ton of money from selling devices that people use to print stuff out… on paper.

All of this is just more evidence that when it comes to spreading fear and ignorance about new technologies, there are no corners that the media and some supposedly smart people won’t cut.

Categories: media

Why Rogers’ throttling violates net neutrality

October 28, 2011 4 comments

A week ago I wrote about some figures put together by researchers using M-Labs, an online measurement tool started by Google, that showed Rogers to be the world’s worst throttler. In terms of percentage of internet connections slowed and sample test sizes, the Canadian cable provider proved to be the worst up until at least the first quarter of 2010. The researchers are working on releasing more up-to-date figures, but Rogers’ position is unlikely to improve much if at all, given the ongoing problems it has with throttling online video games.

That post attracted a considerable amount of attention. Not only was it the most read post I’ve had in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been writing this blog, it was also picked up and made the top story on Huffington Post Canada over the weekend. It was also pointed to by numerous other blogs and podcasts.

My old colleagues at the CBC picked up the story as well and spoke with Milton Mueller, the Syracuse University professor who was the lead researcher behind the M-Labs findings. In no uncertain terms, Mueller - who appears to be quite tuned in to CRTC regulations - said Rogers is violating Canada’s net neutrality rules.

“Under the regulations that the CRTC promulgated for reasonable internet traffic management practices, I think 100 per cent, 24/7 throttling is not conformant,” he told the CBC. “So I think consumers would have a basis to complain and the CRTC would have a basis to act.”

A spokesperson for the company got back to me and countered, saying Rogers is in full compliance with CRTC regulations and pointed to a posted notification of its traffic management practices.

“While we don’t know exactly where this data comes from or the methodology used for this report, Rogers only manages upload traffic for P2P file sharing above 80 [kilobits per second],” the spokesperson said in an email. “From what we can tell, this report is measuring BitTorrent traffic only.”

I did my own tests using Glasnost, the same tool cited in Mueller’s findings, and it confirmed what Rogers has been saying all along. BitTorrent downloads were swimming along at between 8 and 11 megabits per second, but uploads were being slowed to around 80 kbps. (I also tried other kinds of traffic such as HTTP and Flash video, but got error messages saying my link couldn’t be tested - if anyone has any theories as to why, I’d love to hear them.)

Does this matter? It does for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m no technical wizard, but what I do know about BitTorrent is that if uploads are throttled, it’s just as good as throttling downloads too because peers often connect to the fastest uploaders first. This may not show up in Glasnost tests but can manifest itself as slow BitTorrent downloads in practice. Perhaps this is why Canadian ISPs are some of the stingiest around in providing decent upload speeds in the first place (Canada ranks 63rd in the world, according to Ookla, behind such internet heavyweights as Laos, Kenya and Belarus).

Secondly, as the CRTC has indirectly noted, throttling BitTorrent is one thing but extending it to other internet applications, such as World of Warcraft, is another. BitTorrent is unfortunately the black sheep of the internet because it is used by many to share movies and music, which is why regulators and other authorities tend to quietly tolerate ISPs beating up on it. However, BitTorrent does have legitimate uses and it is operated by a perfectly legitimate business, so crippling it is a violation of net neutrality principles since all perfectly reasonable uses of the internet should have the same rights and capabilities as others on the network.

Extending that same throttling to other perfectly legitimate uses such as gaming, whether it’s on purpose or accidental, only compounds the violation.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly is the fact that Mueller pointed to. Around-the-clock throttling surely goes beyond the CRTC’s net neutrality rules, which require ISPs to use such measures as little as possible.

A few years back, I had a decent conversation with some Rogers engineers about throttling. I’ve extended an invitation to see if they’d like to revisit the topic and am waiting to hear back. As for the CRTC, how it proceeds on the issue may be influenced by its upcoming decision on usage-based billing, which is due any time now.

Burger King expands its poutine offerings

October 27, 2011 1 comment

A couple weeks back I wrote about how Burger King had recently introduced a poutine-like menu item to its Brazilian outlets. Well, it turns out the burger chain (which, by the way, is owned by Brazilians) isn’t just expanding poutine to other countries - it’s also adding new concoctions right here in Canada.

Just about a month ago, Burger King added two new kinds of poutine to its menu, bringing its total to three. As you can see from the photo below, there’s Angry Poutine and Poutine with Bacon.

Regular readers know that this sort of stuff can’t happen without me checking it out. Call it research.

So I hit the nearest Burger King the other day and was immediately faced with a dilemma: which of the new poutines to eat? Both looked really good in the photos.

“Angry Poutine” was the more intriguing of the two, mostly because eating poutine makes me the opposite of angry. Obviously, it fits in with the chain’s spicy line of “Angry” products, but still.

In any event, Angry Poutine it was. It had the hallmarks of regular poutine - fries, cheese curds and gravy - but it also came topped with onion rings, a spicy “Angry sauce” and jalapenos. I’m not big on spicy foods, but the meal was good nonetheless. The sauce had a little sweetness to it, which counteracted some of the sizzle from the jalapenos. Would I eat it again? Sure, but not before I try the bacon one first.

If you’re considering trying either, you’d better hurry because the chain says they’re only being offered for a limited time. Of course, that’s what they all say - KFC’s Double Down was only supposed to be around for a little while and we know how that turned out.

And if you’re hankering for more poutine advice, my two picks are the following. For plain old basic poutine, my favourite is New York Fries. For the fully loaded kind, I like the Nacho Grande Poutine at Smoke’s. The best poutine I’ve ever had was at Fionn MacCool’s pub on the Esplanade here in Toronto, where they use Guinness in their gravy. Mmmmm… Guinness gravy…

Categories: Burger King, poutine

Superhero porn parodies playing with fire

October 26, 2011 3 comments

One of the hottest trends in adult entertainment continues to be the parody movie, a phenomenon I just can’t understand. Naturally, spoofing well-known TV shows and movies is a great way for porn producers to extend their appeal to fans of those properties, but how they’re allowed to get away with it continues to boggle the mind.

The latest is Iron Man XXX: An Extreme Comixxx Parody. Check out the trailer, which is completely safe to view:

Yes, parodies have been a long-accepted tradition in adult entertainment. My friends and I, while camping, have often played that game where you take movie titles and porn-ify them. It’s in such fashion that On Golden Pond becomes On Golden Blonde while The Legend of Baggar Vance becomes The Legend in Baggar’s Pants, and so on.

But the recent rash of comic-book-inspired parodies takes this to another level, given who the porn companies are potentially going up against. Iron Man is a trademark of Marvel, which is now owned by Disney. It’s hard to imagine the company taking too kindly to having Tony Stark getting it on with the Black Widow and Pepper Potts at the same time (I don’t actually know if that happens in the movie, but if it doesn’t then the producers obviously don’t know what they’re doing).

Parody, in general, is protected under fair use rules in the United States, which are also exceptions that the upcoming C-11 copyright bill would enable in Canada. Still, these types of porn movies seem to lie outside the general intent of parody, if they’re not an outright abuse of it.

The point was driven home when Axel Braun, director of the Batman porn parody, sued file-sharers for illegally distributing his movie. As Geekosystem put it, the move was ironic given that Braun was blatantly using somebody else’s intellectual property to make money.

How long will Disney tolerate its superheroes being put into non-kid-friendly situations before going after the producers? I can’t imagine it’ll be too much longer.

Categories: copyright, sex

Google takes maps to the crowd

October 25, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago, my friend and I embarked on a camping trip - the same one that could have been helped with the military’s super underwear - and we wasted a good deal of time tooling around in Barrie, Ontario looking for the Mountain Equipment Co-op outdoors supply store. My friend had input the store, known colloquially as MEC, into his BlackBerry, but the map app steered us wrong. We instead ended up at a Mac’s convenience store.

In an effort to fix such problems, Google is finally launch Map Maker in Canada. It’s a tool that lets users edit maps, so they can add new features or correct existing ones that are incorrect. Here’s the promo video:

Google launched Map Maker in 2008 in 17 countries, most of them small islands, as a way to fill in incomplete gaps. The service is opened up to individuals for tinkering, with edits having to pass through an approval process before they are accepted into Google Maps and Google Earth. According to a company spokesman, a small team of Googlers around the world verifies the edits, supplemented by a growing number of community editors. Just as with many news sites’ comments sections, Map Maker editors get rated for their input to the point where they can become trusted moderators. Most edits, therefore, get into Google Maps within an hour, the company says.

The Maker Maker team came to Google’s office in Waterloo, Ont. about six weeks ago in preparation for the Canadian launch (it was released in the United States in April). James Maclean, an engineer at the office who happens to be from Hawkestone - a small town north of Barrie - tested it out on his village and added in all sorts of stuff. Prior to his tinkering, the village’s general store showed up as “Hawkestone P.O.” While it does have a postal counter, “If you asked someone in Hawkstone where the post office is, they certainly wouldn’t send you to the general store,” he told me. He fixed that and listed more info on all the other goods and services the store provides.

Maclean also edited in the boundaries of the local cemetery, something that was important to him given that he was in the midst of researching his family tree. He also added in the location of the Barrie Sunset Triple Drive-In, which he frequents, and changed information on the old Oro-Medonte multi-use trail. The old maps listed it as a paved surface, but it’s actually unpaved - an important fact for hikers and bikers.

“It gives every individual the opportunity to make sure the things that are important to them show up on their maps,” Maclean said.

I haven’t had much of a chance to play with it, but Map Maker sounds like a promising application, particularly for people living in rural and remote areas.

Us city slickers can make use of it too. I’m looking forward to the day when it gets really fine-grained - it would really have come in handy when I worked at the CBC, an absolutely giant maze of corridors that I still got lost in even after three years of working there.

Categories: Google

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