How Facebook is killing privacy

I have recently been called crazy (alright, not just recently) for my opinions of things found online.  However, recent changes in the way Facebook wants to use my private data (or what I thought was private) have me thinking that perhaps their site just isn’t for me anymore.  And for these thoughts I was labeled nuts, ridiculous and even a heretic, as I am also helping to create such grand systems of online data sharing.

During their f8 conference in April 2010, Facebook introduced a platform called the Open Graph.  On its face, it seems to do what users want: go anywhere on the web and see information about what their Facebook friends think and let them report their own activities back to Facebook.  Unfortunately, as a “feature” of this new roll-out comes the serious drawback: you are now watched, tracked and exposed everywhere on the web that Facebook has a deal.  What this means is that any data in your Facebook world is now available to any web site that uses the new Open Graph API.  Worse, these sites need only ask for permission once and they can reach in and grab all the data they want and keep it forever.

If all of this weren’t enough, some extra bits of bad behavior from Facebook are now becoming visible.  To “assist” in the social web expansion Facebook wants, they are now automatically opting-in every user’s private profile data to share with the web.  No longer are your favorite books, music, movies or your home town, education and events just between you and your authorized friends.  Nope, now Facebook is pretty much telling you “share it all or else you’ll have no profile page.” This is bad news, indeed.

So far, Facebook hasn’t caved on any of this.  Things have raised enough eyebrows that the US Senate has started asking Facebook to back down. It is likely, however, that Facebook will do nothing about all the controversy, chalk it all up to people not understanding how the web works, then plowing ahead with their own plans to completely own your identity and personal data online.  If you need a hard reason to believe that this will all end badly, look no further than the young Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself who tells the press “he doesn’t believe in privacy” online.  If that doesn’t get people to wake up I’m not sure what will.

I think it is time to own up to the generational gap: I believe that there must be the ability for me to control my personal information online.  I don’t think that a company should have unfettered access to all of my personal data, my friends and then be able to go off and give it to anyone, anywhere for as long as they like without letting me decide about it.  I feel there will always be a public forum on which to share certain parts of my life, but it should be on my terms and with limits that I set.  Yes, the future may be all about “the personalized web” and how great that will make discovering new things… but if it comes at the cost of all of my online privacy I think I’ll stick to hanging out with the uncool kids and their old-school, legacy information and decision-making processes.

UPDATE: after the original post went up the EFF put out this helpful summary of how bad the new Open Graph API is to your “private data.”  In short, if you want to have data shared between just you and friends, you can no longer be on Facebook.  Read Six Things You Need to Know About Facebook Connections for more details.

Parting Company with Bluehost.com

After a few years of “like it / hate it” service with my web host, named Bluehost.com, I have decided to move on. It wasn’t just one incident or issue that pushed me to leave, but a steady and seamingly growing lack of interest from the company to find and fix the issues that arose.

I had a few sites and about 5 gigabytes of data sitting on this host, so moving isn’t trivial. That’s what makes the decision to leave even more instructive to others: if I have to put up with the serious pane of moving my site, email and data plus that of other friends and colleagues to another provider, something must be really wrong.

Over the course of my time with them, Bluehost.com steadily worsened in the support department. It seemed that each month brought some new problem or distanced the customer further from their support staff. Just last week on a support call I had to wait nearly 45 minutes on the phone for answers, only to have my call dropped. When I called back I got the now-standard line from them:

We don’t know what the problem is, but we are looking into it. No, we can’t tell you when it will be fixed or what caused the issue. We have tens of thousands of customers and it would be too difficult to find out what the issue is each time this happens.

It’s not too difficult for them to take my money but it is too difficult for them to explain why they can’t provide the service that I paid for? Along with complaints from folks who simply couldn’t reach me or had their emails bounced, this explanation pushed me to move to a new host, Arvixe.com. Will they work out any better? Only time will tell, but for now anything is better than what I am leaving.

I’ve had people accuse me in the past of acting impulsively or overstating the situation when it comes to customer service and bad company behavior. Luckly, on the Internet the service you pay for can be monitored and quantified, and what I will show below is just a snapshot of the service, or lack of it, that I suffered over the past few months.

Bluehost reliability

What should be noted is that this is a snapshot of the overall service reliability, with 100% being the best case scenario. Whenver there is a dip on the chart, web, email or DNS service was impacted for some period of time. The further down the graph dips, the more issues there were on that date.  This isn’t some arbitrary graph, this is hard data provided by Basicstate.com, thanks to over a year of service monitoring of my account every 5 to 30 minutes.

In closing, I cannot recommend using Bluehost.com at the service level I paid for. They may offer better service for higher paying clients, but as I found when I moved to my new host, there are plenty of other companies out there providing better service for like-or-lower prices.

Video Disc Tools for Happy Streaming

I was asked recently to document the things that a person would need to use in order to take an optical disc with video content on it and turn it into something that streams reliably to the PS3. Rather than write a long email on the topic I’ve decided to chronicle the information here so that I can make it available to anyone who asks, now and in the future.

First off, this guide is for Windows users, so folks using OS X or any of the Linux flavors need to find some way to live temporarily in the Microsoft world. Sorry, but the best and most usable tools only exist for Windows, so you have to deal with it.

Next, I’m going to assume (a risky thing to start with) that the user has some level of decent PC hardware to work with. For the purposes of this article and at the time of this writing decent is a system like this:

  • A Core2 Duo or Phenom II x2 with a clock speed of at least 2Ghz
  • At least 2GB of RAM
  • At least 500GB of free hard disk space, preferably on a SATA controller
  • A DVD + Blu-ray combo reader optical drive, preferably on SATA
  • The OS should be at least Windows XP
  • Some kind of useful Internet connectivity (to acquire the software)

With that taken care of, let us look at why the requirements are set at this level. First off, if any kind of format transcoding is required you are going to be spending a lot of time waiting for things to get done with a slower system. Next, virtually none of the original format media will be usable as-is for streaming, so plenty of memory and disk space are needed to pull apart and re-assemble the video into just the right format. Finally, since there are so many formats out there that are not compatible for streaming there will be at least some time spent buffering up and on-the-fly encoding the stuff you want to watch into a usable stream, and that takes a fast disk and RAM.

The work-flow to accomplish physical media disc video to file based streaming usually goes like this:

  1. The video you want to stream exists on a DVD or Blu-ray disc
  2. Place the disc into your PC DVD/Blu-ray drive and…
  3. Use some software to move the parts you want off the disc and onto the hard drive
  4. Check the files that make it onto the hard drive and re-constitute them into files that can be streamed
  5. Save the new file in a stream-worthy format
  6. Point your streaming software at the new file and…
  7. Navigate to the PC on your gaming console, select the filename and stream away
  8. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately the process is anything but simple. But here are my steps to getting the job done in as few hops as is possible.

    Unless you are a glutton for punishment, enjoy troubleshooting endless registry settings and numerous software incompatibilities, just go get AnyDVD HD and call it a day.

    So much work can be saved by just following this one step. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve read of people trying this or that only to end up with files that don’t work or messed up audio and video sync. Save yourself a whole lot of pain and just use the one thing that works every single time: AnyDVD.

    Eventually you’ll need to get rid of that extra “stuff” that you don’t want surrounding the video that you do want, so grab tsMuxeR for all the Blu-ray tweaking.

    There is a lot of junk packed onto discs these days and most of it isn’t what you want to watch. TsMuxeR will help you pull out the stuff that matters, dump what doesn’t, then reconstitute a new file that will stream just fine. Major space savings can come from just firing up this tool and pulling out all of the languages and extras that eat up so much of the space.

    How do you find out what is the good stuff to keep and what is the stuff to throw away? BDInfo is there to help out with your Blu-ray needs.

    This handy accessory can help you zero in on just the right parts of the disc that you need in order to keep what you want and dump what you don’t.

    Eventually you will run into something that just won’t stream no matter what you do. When that day arrives turn to RipBot264 and make your own file format.

    VC-1 video and DTS audio do not stream well, and by well I mean not at all. When you encounter these codecs you must convert them into something that will stream, and RipBot264 does that for you. The scary bit of this tool is it’s requirement to install a few other geeky video tools on the PC, but don’t worry. It will use them and you’ll never have to worry about seeing them again.

    This stuff is all fine and dandy, but I just want to take a normal DVD and stream it. For that you need one more tool, VOBMerge.

    If you have a standard DVD and you know exactly what parts of the disc you want to keep, VOBMerge can take those parts and turn them into one large streaming file. It is really as simple as anything gets.

    Great. I have streaming files but I need to get them to my game console. The simplest way to do that and the one that works with the most success for the PS3 is PS3 Media Server.

    The great thing about this software is that it runs on Windows, OS X and Linux (if you have the patience to get all the bits compiled). You simply point it at a directory of streaming capable files, let it index those files, hook your game console up to the network and stream away. On the PS3 your system shows up as a “play button” arrow, so it is easy to find. Simply find and hit play on any file that you see and its streaming video time for you.

    So this is my short list of things people can use to take video and stream it. There isn’t a full set of instructions because, frankly, there is no one right way to do things. Instead, there is an entire Internet full of guides out there with thousands of people who’ve done things one way or another. I encourage you to seek those forums out and have a look at what other folks have tried before embarking on your own disc to stream adventure.

It’s All About the Guns in "Wanted"

This weekend on the recommendation of a friend I went to see “Wanted” with another friend.  I was promised that this would be an exciting summer movie and that did turn out to be the case.  This is this director’s first time creating an English language film and it worked well.  His visual style is similar to what you’ve seen if you recall the “Matrix” or BMW “Driver” but with some still unique flair.

In typical movie fashion, the gun-play is completely unrealistic and defies the laws of physics, but that doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable to watch.  It certainly helps that the film contains both Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, great music from Danny Elfman and some great locations.  There are exploding rats, lots of crashes and explosions and some of the oddest and eye popping gun fight scenes to be watched this year.

If you can tolerate blood and guts and some strong language and would like to see a movie that requires you to turn off your rational brain for a few hours this movie fits the bill nicely.  I liked it and it makes for great popcorn fare.

Wanted poster

What did you do on Super Bowl Sunday?

I’m not a sports kind of guy so while everyone else in the USA was busy guzzling beer and cheering for some football team or another I was tackling my own challenge: the tear down and installation of a new MGW short throw shifter in the C6. It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk to do but now that I’ve done it I have a better understanding of how the various plastic bits on my dash came to be together.

The whole goal was to reduce the shifting throw (the back and forth motion) during gear changes and on that part it was a success. The downer is that some parts of the instruction process were a bit vague and my parts on the car were a bit different than the instructions dealt with. An email has been dispatched to the company supplying the new parts and we’ll see if I can improve the situation. All in all, it probably wasn’t a super hard thing to modify but it did involve a lot of patience and ingenuity to get all the bits apart and then reassembled again.

Oh, and it wouldn’t be a complete day without me messing up something. I now have no emergency flasher button as I forgot to hook it up again when I reassembled all the parts. Luckily (sort of) that I have to do another tear down once the email comes back with advice on the fit and throw issues I raised.

Shifter

PT Cruiser; Verdict: it sucks

I really should just end a review on the title, as that says it all. I was rented one of the little PT Cruiser’s today and I honestly don’t know who would want to own one. Window controls on the center console? Terrible ergonomics where you have to lean into the passenger seat to change the stereo? A completely unusable adjustment for the seat height and steering wheel positions? And don’t even get me started on the sadness that is the engine (I call it the little engine that can’t, but wishes it could).

Granted, all of this is just from the drive over from DIA to the hotel in downtown Denver, CO. Maybe I missed something earth shattering that would have made me love this vehicle. But if you never get a second chance at a first impression, I’m calling this first experience with the PT Cruiser completely busted. It is, to paraphrase a friend and co-worker “utter rubbish.” Now I understand why Europeans (especially the Brit’s) laugh at American made cars. So sad.

The Bourne Shakey Cam Express

I just finished going to the theater (what!?!) to see The Bourne Ultimatum with Steve, April, and Steve’s dad, and man does my head hurt afterwards.  Evidently the new “in thing” for movies is to shoot them hand held guerrilla style and make the moviegoer dizzy or sick.  Another great example of this technique shown this summer was Transformers, a Michael Bay epic that was full of robot vs robot fighting (yay!) that would have looked great, if only the camera would have been still for more than 3 seconds.

While this is the 3rd and last in the series of movies, it seems to be the best at keeping action front and center.  I don’t think anyone could accuse the movie of not “moving along” swiftly, but in the rush to answer questions and keep the action going a lot of people exited the theater looking for some aspirin.  I feel bad for the actors in this flick, as they probably did a great job of their craft if only we could have seen it.

The "Fun" That is Windows Media Center and Xbox 360

Recently I went through a setup related exercise for work where I needed to get a Windows Media Center PC to talk to a Media Center Extender. An extender in Microsoft’s view is a device that attaches to a TV and enables interacting with a Media Center UI without the PC actually having to be in the same room as the TV. There have been a few of these devices shipping for a couple of years so I thought this would be a cakewalk. Boy was I wrong, really wrong.

I spend nearly two hours hooking up the Media Center PCs to my home network, getting them to see each other, display on the TV, then share content amongst themselves. Once that got done I added the Xbox 360 as my “extender” and had it talk to both Media Centers, as well as my home server PC. And next thing I knew another three hours was gone. I had very little to show for this time warp, other than a lot of cabling, noisy boxes, and a rather sore backside (me with the hardwood floors and all). In the end, I did get music, photos, and video up and running on the Xbox 360, but only from one Media Center PC at a time.

It seems that the Xbox 360 can only talk to one version of Media Center at a time. Trying to get two of them to cooperate, both an XP and the Vista version, met with utter failure or a host of “go to this web site, download some stuff, then come back and try again” messages. It was painful and I think I know why no one tries this at home. If I had to buy this stuff on my own I certainly would have taken it back for a refund by now.

It all works now, and I’m on my way to understanding how the different boxes work (or don’t) together. But my quick lessons are: one Media Center is all you need, sharing is tough, and PC’s don’t always love TV displays. Oh, and that the Xbox 360 is the noisiest thing I’ve ever heard in the living room.

Xbox 360

Google Picasa Web Album

I had a chance today to fiddle around with yet another Google beta product: Picasa Web Albums. It is the best demo yet of a blend of local (PC based) applications and web site integration with AJAX.

What this all means is that you can add photos from a web page, from an application, or from an email to your photo album any time you want. It’s pretty nifty. Take a look at the progress so far.

The Tale of the Harmony 880 Remote

I recently became the owner of a new smart remote control, the Logitech Harmony 880 via a friend of mine who will remain nameless (he knows who he is).  After months of pain with the previous remote, the Philips Pronto NG (I think the NG stood for “not good”) I was ready to switch to something better.  The Harmony 880 looked to be the ticket.

To be fair, I was warned that the setup process for the 880 would be a little, um, rough.  The warning was correct.  It was an unholy terror to setup the remote due to a few factors, which I will now dutifully list:

  • All of the software needed to program the remote is on the web, literally. There is no software on the PC, it is all run remotely from a browser.  This brings with it all the pain (timeouts, 404s, constant refreshes) of normal Web 1.0 browsing with none of the benefit.
  • You have to know exactly what the model name and number is of every component you own.  Simply knowing you have a Sony DVD player is not enough, and it leads you to hunt around for all of your manuals to be sure the name is correct.
  • The “activities” are fixed in function by the web site.  If you don’t like the order or devices the “activity wizard” decides to drop in each button, well tough.  That’s the way it works.
  • God forbid one of your devices doesn’t work properly, as then you’ll suffer through the pain of the “help wizard” on the remote control itself.  This hellish process involves the remote constantly asking “is product XYZ turned on now?  How about now?  Is it working now?” until you give up and go online to try it all again.

If you get lucky, like I did about the 99th time I tinkered with the web site settings (their “software” evidently hates my Sony AV receiver) when you detach the remote from your PC, things work and you are in happy, happy entertainment land.  If it doesn’t, be prepared to spend a long time on the web site changing settings.

Once this remote gets working its actually quite nice, with a large set of hard buttons and a fairly nice (though narrow viewing angle) screen.  The market that Logitech seems to be aiming this at is the do-it-yourself home theater owner who knows next to nothing about PCs and remote controls.  I’m not sure the overly simplistic approach they take with the on-the-web setup is the right one, but perhaps I’m just used to more control. 

When you think about it, that’s what remotes are all about: control.  And when it gets taken away from me for the purposes of ease-of-use I just cringe.  Perhaps as I spend more time with this remote I’ll grow to accept its “features” but for now I’m a bit grumpy over the whole experience.