Tuesday, June 30, 2009

iPhone porn to-do reveals our prudishness

Last week saw quite a big to-do over a "porn" app for Apple's iPhone. The application, called "Hottest Girls" and featuring topless women, became available for download, then disappeared almost as quickly. At first, the developer behind the application said on his website that its unavailability was because it had "sold out," but then it later became apparent that Apple had blocked it.

The application caused enough of a stir to actually force normally tight-lipped Apple to speak up about it, telling CNN that it "will not distribute applications that contain inappropriate content, such as pornography." It turns out the developer had created a non-nude-containing application and got it approved by Apple, then snuck in the nude content afterward. Very sneaky, but man, what a lame excuse - only an idiot would believe that an iPhone application could actually sell out. Welcome to the internet, where software is unlimited!

The situation raised a number of issues. First up was the obvious fact that Apple's app store has holes in it, which doesn't just mean developers can sneak in objectionable content like nude pictures, it also means they can potentially sneak malicious code through. In other words, unless Apple fixes the system that allowed nudity to slip in, it's only a matter of time before viruses or spyware gets into the app store.

Another issue, which always comes up whenever porn is the topic, is accessibility by minors. As porn star Stoya said when I interviewed her , technology is now widely available to children, so some care needs to be taken in preventing them from getting to it:

Technology used to be for adults. Disposable income in the 80s was usually college age and up. Now it's the kids who have more disposable income... When you’re dealing with the focus for disposable income use being moved to younger and younger people, we’ve dipped below that focus being 18 and up so now [you have to be careful].

She said that several months before Apple released its latest 3.0 software upgrade for iPhones, which contains new controls that let parents restrict access on their kids' devices to adult content. Now that Apple has delivered, others in the porn industry are wondering why the company won't allow the sale of adult content through its app store. I asked Kim Kysar, product manager for Pink Visual (link is not safe for work), what she thought about the whole situation and here's what she said:

It's just another case of people not being willing to take responsibility
as parents... All these 'concerned' parents have to do is take the phone, set the controls, and talk to their kid, know their kid and what they're into. Of course that would require attentive, involved, invested parenting... And um, are these people forgetting that the iPhone can access the web? The WHOLE web? Just like PSPs? If anyone wants to look at porn they can.

One other issue to come out of this, I think, is yet another example of the unbelievable prudishness of our society. Just about every media outlet unthinkingly labeled "Hottest Girls" as "porn," which seems amazingly silly. Over in Europe, where topless women are featured in commercials, day-time television and on page three of many big newspapers, they are surely laughing at us North Americans and our backwards view on sex and nudity. And the fact that we allow senseless smorgasbords of violence like get made. At times like these it's apparent how backwards we've got it all.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Google says it doesn't want to steal my book

A little while ago, I 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 , and .

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.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pre-order your copy of BBB today!

Can't wait to get your hands on Bombs, Boobs and Burgers? Well, it'll be a few months yet but as of now, if you're in Canada you can pre-order my book online. Here is the Amazon.ca page and the Chapters/Indigo page is here. As you can see on both sites, there's no actual cover design as of yet; the image you see in this post is a quick mock-up I whipped up myself in Photoshop a few months back. I imagine Penguin has some talented artists on staff that can come up with something considerably better (it'd be hard not to).

As the Amazon and Chapters pages say, the hardcover is going to be out March 2 and will sell for $32. If you order online, however, you get an immediate mark-down to around $21. Why? Well, I'm told that's how much online booksellers can mysteriously shave off in costs versus actual bookstores. Obviously they have lower costs, but I suspect they're also accepting a lower profit margin. Luckily (for me), I get paid royalties on the full retail price.

There isn't much other info as of yet, other than both sites are listing the book at 320 pages. I suspect it'll be longer, but that'll probably depend on how merciless my editor ends up being. Other than that, I, uh, promise it'll be good?!? Don't delay, reserve your copy of Bombs, Boobs and Burgers today!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Video games meet war, or is it vice versa?

Last week a friend of mine, Andrew Wahl, pointed me towards the new U.S. Air Force website which, after having checked it out, I find impressive and kinda disturbing at the same time. The site is neat because it incorporates a lot of interactive games - you can fly jets and unmanned Reaper drones into combat, or even train search dogs. Clearly, the Air Force has pumped some dough into its website.

It's somewhat disturbing though because of what it means, and what war is becoming. A large number of troops over in Afghanistan and Iraq are young twenty-somethings from the video-game generation. Having been born in the eighties, they have never known a world without video games, and certainly not a world without the crappy, primitive Atari stuff people my age had through their formative years.

If the Air Force site is any indication, the military is obviously capitalizing on this fact by enticing young men (primarily) to sign up with the promise of letting them live the video game. Indeed - many of the unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle East are actually from a base in Nevada. Imagine as a soldier, you drive to work at a desert base, spend seven hours blowing up Iraqi insurgents, then driving home to pick up your kids from soccer practice. This disconnection of soldiers from the grit and grime of war is exactly what's happening with the increasing automation of the military. Is this good or bad? I'm not sure yet.

The website actually reminded me of Ender's Game, the classic science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card that I only just finished reading for the first time the other day. If you haven't read the book and plan to (plans for a movie have apparently been scrapped, although there might be a video game, which would be ironic), you may want to skip the spoilers I'm about to drop. In the book, a smart young boy named Ender Wiggin is taken into the military to be conditioned as the commander that will save them from an alien menace. Ender first trains in war games at a battle school against other cadets. After becoming a master leader there, he is transferred to command school where he gives orders to entire fleets in a simulated game against the alien forces. He masters those games too and wipes out the aliens in the final simulation. In a twist ending, though, it turns out the simulation was actually real, that Ender was in fact commanding fleets that were killing aliens. That's not too dissimilar to what's happening now.

It's amazing that way back in 1985, Card was able to visualize how video games and war would eventually mesh and become almost indistinguishable from each other. That's what good science-fiction writers do, obviously.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wrap your mouth around this

Ah, so rarely do food and porn intersect, much to my dismay. When it does happen, though, you know I'm going to be all over it. This has nothing to do with technology but the ad below for a new Burger King sandwich available in Singapore is just simply awesome. Click on the image to get a larger view.

I don't think I even need to comment on this. It pretty much takes care of itself, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Using burgers to block boobs

Further to my post about recently having my blog censored in the United Kingdom... I did actually receive an email response to my complaint from the offending internet service provider, The Cloud.

If you'll recall, I found that access to this blog on The Cloud's free wi-fi in several UK cities (London, Coventry, Fort William in Scotland) was blocked. Here's what "The Cloud Support Team" had to say:

Thank you for contacting The Cloud customer services. Please be advised that the content filters in place at McDonalds are a contractual requirement and can not be removed. These filters are not in place on other Cloud hotspots, only McDonald locations.

The response was troubling on two fronts. First up, it's not true - The Cloud is also widely available at Pret A Manger, a British sandwich franchise where the food is mildly better than McDonalds, and also considerably overpriced. This here blog was also in full blockage mode at each outlet I went to (I even tried to log in while standing outside a few). The second issue is, what exactly is this "contractual requirement" with McDonalds? I spelled out my concerns in a reply email:

Thank you for your reply. My site was also blocked at several Pret A Manger locations. Also, I'm not sure what you mean by contractual requirement with McDonalds. Do the terms of the contract allow McDonalds to arbitrarily block any sites it sees fit? McDonalds should not be blocking my blog any more than any other site. Exactly how is this being done?

I sent that reply off a week ago, and again yesterday, but have yet to receive a reply. If I don't hear back, I may try McDonald's UK to see why they have taken it upon themselves to become a net neutrality-violating ISP. And yes, isn't it ironic that here we have a case where burgers are blocking boobs?

Speaking of net neutrality, closer to home it was refreshing to hear the Liberals agree with the NDP in coming out in favor of keeping the internet free from ISP interference last week. Check out the video of Liberal MP Marc Garneau, former astronaut and current Liberal industry, science and technology critic, bringing the issue up in the House of Commons last week:

Having interviewed Garneau a little while back, I found him pretty much in the dark on net neutrality, with the same holding true for his predecessor Scott Brison. It seems pretty obvious the Liberals have realized there might be some votes in the whole issue. The Conservatives, despite hosting a one-day summit on the future of Canada's digital economy, remain non-commital.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Could sex overthrow China's government?

The plot to censor internet porn in China thickens, and it's amazing how much has happened since I posted last week. Google on Friday confirmed that it had been ordered to shut down certain search features by the Chinese government because it was turning up porn results too frequently. According to the New York Times, Google would have been "punished" in an unexplained way if it did not comply, especially because the company has already been warned twice this year. Google was thus forced to disable its "suggest" feature, which gives the user associated terms whenever they type in a search. Apparently typing in the Chinese word for "son," which is erzi, "could pull up associated terms that have lewd connotations." Google is now coming under flak again for bowing to China, much like it did in 2006 when it admitted to blocking keywords provided by the government. This censorship, by the way, caused a lot of people to turn on Google and proclaim that its "don't be evil" motto was bull.

In a related story, American computer makers also said late last week that the Chinese government has not backed down on a requirement to add internet-filtering software onto computers, as had been . The "Green Dam" software will still be mandatory on all new computers sold, rather than voluntary. Green Dam is supposedly intended to block porn sites, but it can also be used to prevent access to sites the government deems politically sensitive, like those devoted to the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

In a third story, also related, an American company called Solid Oak is pressing ahead with its claims that Chinese software makers stole the intellectual property behind Green Dam. Solid Oak says Green Dam uses a blacklist it created for parental controls as part of its website-blocking features. The company on Thursday sent cease-and-desist letters to computer makers Lenovo, Acer, Gateway, Sony and Toshiba, as well as Dell and HP earlier in the week.

All of this got me to thinking that China is evidently very, very afraid of sex. The government has put a lot of resources into censoring certain issues, like Falun Gong, or Taiwanese/Tibetan independence, but all of that seems to pale in significance to how much effort is being put into blocking sex. Not just porn, but sex - when I lived there in 2004/2005, you couldn't even find any pictures or videos of Britney Spears (not that I, uh, was looking... by the way, here's the of Britney's song Everytime, which I heard about every 10 minutes while living there - I hate to say it, but I actually kinda like this one... ugh, excuse me, I have to cleanse myself now with some Tool).

Wouldn't it be interesting, then, if the eventual democratic revolution in China is led not be a political or economic movement, but by sex? Make no mistake about it - sex and porn are alive and well in China - some of the porn companies I've talked to tell me it's getting in through virtual private networks based in Taiwan. Some companies are busying themselves with building their brands in neighboring Asian countries, meanwhile, for when the censorship in China eventually ends. Like every other business before it, the porn industry is salivating at the huge untapped market China represents.

Kim Kysar, brand manager for Pink Visual (not safe for work link) told me not too long ago: "The Chinese wall keeping pornography out is going to fall some day. As soon as they're able to, it's obviously going to be the biggest market there is." Scott Coffman, who heads AEBN, the largest video on-demand company in the world (in or out of porn), says: "Porn is probably the last thing to stampede into China. However, we don't miss the fact of what a billion people is going to mean."

The sixties-era sexual revolution was one of the most liberalizing forces we've ever experienced here in the west. Think about the freedoms we gained from it - men and women could live together without getting married, people could have sex outside of marriage without being socially ostracized, masturbation and homosexuality were no longer considered social diseases, we could show affection in public, Madonna could have a job, the list goes on. The Chinese government must be aware of the power of sex and its ability to transform society, otherwise it wouldn't be trying so hard to hold it back. But it's starting to look like the government is trying to plug a hole in the dam with its figurative finger. Pretty soon it's all going to come gushing out in big gigantic climax. Eep, how's that for a visual?

Friday, June 19, 2009

I love Google, except if it steals my book

One of my favorite companies to deal with has to be Google, for a number of reasons. First up, unlike many other big technology companies, I've found Google staff and executives relatively open and willing to talk about stuff they're doing, and about larger issues that affect the world. And again, while the company's execs sometimes resort to company-line puffery, unlike other big firms, they usually keep the self-inflating bull to a minimum.

I should also point out that this has especially been the case while I've been working on my book. Google has some very rich connections with the military - its and products find their origins in spy satellites while its capability also has roots with DARPA, the ever-present advanced technology agency. One of its senior vice-presidents, Vint Cerf, is the guy who designed the internet while working for DARPA. Heck, even some of the computers that Sergey Brin and Larry Page designed the Google search engine on way back when were supplied through DARPA funding. The folks at the company have been very willing to talk about this stuff, not to mention the phenomenon of porn on the internet, all of which has been very helpful in putting Bombs, Boobs & Burgers together.

I'm also a fan of Google as a consumer. The company has provided a plethora of products, from the search engine to Gmail to Maps to Translate to YouTube to Blogger (where this blog is housed) that have enriched my life in ways I can hardly calculate. Best of all, it hasn't cost me a dime. I'm not one of those tin-foil-hat-wearing paranoiacs worried about what Google is going to do with all the information it has on me stored in some servers somewhere, and I barely notice any of the ads served at me which pay for all of these free services. As far as I'm concerned, it's a win-win relationship - Google is making a mint from its text-based ads, and we're all getting a ton of really cool services for free.

Moreoever, I also appreciate that Google is fighting for things like net neutrality and a more open wireless market. The company hasn't just paid those causes lip service, it has put its money where its mouth is. In a U.S. auction of cellphone airwaves last year, the company bid more than $4 billion to get new openness rules established, which will ultimately benefit all wireless customers. In Canada, Google has spoken out against abuses of the internet, like Bell's throttling of customers connections, which attracted considerable attention to the issue. Some media, like the Wall Street Journal, have that Google is actually being duplicitous when it comes to net neutrality, and that the company is really looking into ways to give itself an advantage over rivals. Having talked to many Googlers and having seen just a neutral internet is in the company's culture - there wouldn't be a Google without net neutrality, after all - it's really apparent just how ridiculous that notion is.

With all of that said, there is one thing about Google that makes me and a lot of other people nervous: the whole scanning of the books thing. While the music, TV and movie industries have been crying for years about how file-sharing is supposedly costing them a fortune, the publishing industry has largely stayed aloof from many of the issues raised by digitalization of media. For the most part, that's because it's really easy to rip a CD or DVD and then share it, but it's quite another thing to sit down and scan in every page of a 300- or 400-page book. The amount of time required to do so just hasn't been worth it, so nobody's really bothered to do it. Until Google, that is.

As part of its quest to "organize all of the world's information" - a quest the company apparently actually takes seriously - Google has for some time now been scanning in books and making them searchable, just like websites. A few years ago, a bunch of book people got together and launched a class-action lawsuit against Google for this, claiming the company was violating copyrights. Back in February, a settlement was announced, but to say it was controversial would be an understatement. Here's a
good FAQ. Basically, under terms of the , authors of the seven million books already scanned in will get payments from the company and the Google Library Project will continue. Future books will be searchable and Google users will be able to view previews, but if they want to read the whole thing, they'll have to pay for it. The author will, of course, get a cut of that payment.

Yesterday, Google announced a new feature - embeddable book snippets, which function exactly the same way as embedded YouTube videos (some of which you can see elsewhere on this blog). You can to read the full details, or check out this example below:

This sort of thing, I believe, finally brings the digital media debate to the book world. Given that I'm going to have my first book published soon, it's an issue that I have a personal stake in, and to be honest I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. The same positive and negative arguments that apply to digital music and movies now apply to books. On the plus side, Google's technology (which is very impressive by the way) greatly extends the reach of a book. Now, someone sitting in a country where a book may not be published - Mongolia, say - can with a few clicks and dollars buy access to it. Or, more likely, someone can stumble across the book while doing Google searches and purchase it on the spot. They don't even have to go to Amazon.

On the negative side, now that someone has actually gone to the trouble of digitalizing the book, it shouldn't prove to be too much trouble for others to rip off that digital copy and freely distribute it, right? In a way, the digitalization of books is worse than music or movies because the work required to digitize them served as the main deterrent to doing so. In other words, Google is handing book pirates the keys to the kingdom. And let's not hear any of this nonsense about how the scanned books will be copy-protected. We all know DRM doesn't work.

So is Google's scanning of books a good thing? My agents over at Westwood Creative seem to think so and have advised clients to opt in to the settlement. I certainly hope they're right because I wouldn't want to have to pull a Metallica and threaten to sue people who paid for my work. I wouldn't want to end up being a big douche, like Lars Ulrich.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In search of the universal soldier

I've been polishing off a mini-chapter on cloning this week and thought I'd point out an awesome story I came across, even though it's a couple of years old. The story, from Wired (March, 2007) details some of the experiments being conducted by DARPA, the U.S. military's advanced tech lab, in what it calls "human augmentation projects." The star of the story is "the Glove," a device that can either rapidly raise or lower a human's body temperature, which gives it at least two very practical uses.

On the one hand (no pun intended) it can cool the body after serious physical exertion, thus allowing a person to quickly resume that exertion. The end result: a non-pharmaceutical form of steroid. If the body can exercise more frequently and rapidly, it's going to strengthen faster. Once this technology goes mainstream, and you know it will, I'm sure we can expect juiced-up sports records from the likes of Barry Bonds to quickly fall by the wayside. But will these new records carry asterisks or will they be fully legal?

On the other hand, the Glove is also useful in raising the body's temperature, which makes it very handy (no pun intended) in staving off hypothermia. The Glove can thus quickly revive someone who's been dumped in freezing cold water, as the author of the story demonstrates.

Some of DARPA's other human-augmentation experiments, however, are considerably more intriguing - and potentially frightening. Among its other projects, the agency is working on "augmented cognition," which would let pilots fly entire squadrons of robotic planes, as well as "metabolic flexibility" that will allow people to function after losing the majority of their blood. Then there's the DARPA-funded research at Columbia University into using transcranial magnetic stimulation to help alleviate the need for sleep, or the work on developing a bacteria that will help troops digest their rations better. All in all, I'm not sure if it's cool or scary that we're on our way to creating souped-up versions of Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren:

I bring this up because I've found the whole debate over stem cells interesting. While President George W. Bush was dead against the cloning of human tissue, he clearly had no problem with the biological experiments being conducted by DARPA for military purposes. President Obama has taken a far more enlightened view to stem-cell research and its potential life-saving results. I'm curious as to whether he ends up taking the opposite opinion when it comes to biological warfare research.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Food technology isn't always bad

Like many people with more than a passing interest in what we put in our bellies, I'm looking forward to this weekend's opening of Food Inc., a new documentary that casts a critical eye on the food and agriculture industries. The film is partially narrated by Eric Schlosser, the journalist who wrote Fast Food Nation (2001), a book that really blew my mind and served as the partial inspiration for Bombs, Boobs and Burgers. The part in the where Schlosser visits a chemical factory and samples many different food flavors out of test tubes was what first got me thinking about food technology.

Anyhow, far be it from me to review a movie before I've seen it, but judging from the trailer and the it's sure sounding like a case of "been there, done that." Schlosser already cashed in once with the bizarre fictionalization of his non-fiction book by director Richard Linklater in 2006, and it looks like he's drawing from the "Big Corporation = Bad" well once again. I'm betting the movie will be yet another tarring of big multinational food corporations like Monsanto and McDonald's, who are apparently responsible for everything from cancer to diabetes to obesity.

Don't get me wrong - big corporations, particularly Monsanto and McDonald's - often do behave badly, and those two more than deserve their poor reputations, but haven't we been here before? Isn't harping on Monsanto and McDonald's so four years ago?

Where I differ from Schlosser and his portrayal of the food industry is in my attitude toward technology and the role it plays in production. Fast Food Nation seemed to almost exude an anti-technology bent, that not only were big corporations bad, but so was the application of science to food. Over the course of researching my book, I've found that I couldn't disagree more. Many of the scientists I've spoken to have pointed out that without much of the mass processing technology we've applied over the past 60 or so years, there would be many, many more cases of unsafe food being consumed. Think Canada's recent Listeria outbreak was bad? We could be having such crises on a daily basis if it wasn't for technology. In the language of the scientists, processing is all about making food "shelf stable," or free of harmful bacteria. If we couldn't make food shelf stable, we'd either be getting sick at unbelievable rates or we'd be throwing food out by the truckload (more than we already do, that is).

The notion of processed foods causing obesity also bugs me. The scientists I talked to roundly agreed that it's not fast food that's the problem, it's a total lack of exercise. In other words, eating Big Macs may not make you fat, but driving down the block to the corner store sure will. It's not that simplistic a debate, granted, but the issue of personal accountability surely comes into play here.

One fact that many critics overlook is the continuing lengthening of lifespans here in North America. Since 1950, when mass food processing and fast food really took off, the average American life span has increased from 68 years to 78 years. Much of that is thanks to improvements in medicine, but safer food has also contributed. If our food is continually getting worse and more unsafe, how is it that we're living longer? Or is it a conspiracy to sell us pharmaceuticals to cope with all that cancer and diabetes we catch from eating fast food?

I'm hoping the film goes beyond some of what we've already heard, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You can't ban porn on the internet

Net neutrality is under attack everywhere and it is perhaps the biggest techno-crisis we have ever faced. The violation of net neutrality promises to undermine not only our economy and ability to innovate, but our personal freedom as well. Anyone who has followed my work over at CBC knows this is a topic I'm very passionate about because I believe strongly that the internet - easily the most empowering and equalizing force man has ever come up with - is something that needs to protected from the various forces who are looking to abuse it, change it to their ends, or limit it.

The problem is, most people don't know what net neutrality is. Moreover, violation of it is like cancer - it's terrible when you hear about it happening to other people, but it only really, really sucks when it happens to you. Thanks to my trip over to the UK last week, I now have my own personal tale of woe to add to my distaste for those who are looking to screw with the internet.

First up, although definitions differ, net neutrality is generally defined as allowing the internet to remain free from interference by outside parties, whether they be service providers or governments. Violations of this principle usually come in the form of blocking or slowing of certain websites or functions. Here in Canada, the best two examples are Telus blocking access to a locked-out telecom union's website back in 2005, and Bell's and Rogers' ongoing slowing - or "throttling" - of peer-to-peer services such as BitTorrent.

One similar U.S. example was last year's peer-to-peer blocking by cable provider Comcast. Regulators declared the act a violation of net neutrality and promptly ordered the company to cease and desist. (While not exactly the same thing, our regulators have thus far given Bell and Rogers a free pass to continue throttling.) I've also mentioned in this blog other violations, including in and , where authorities are either actively blocking access to certain websites or are trying to implement a system that will do so. Interestingly, China - the king of net non-neutrality - has been in the news recently for a new filter, called Green Dam, that was to have mandatory installation on all computers sold in the country. Green Dam goes beyond simply filtering websites - it apparently also crashes your computer if you type certain banned phrases, like "Falun Gong." The is that China is actually backing down on forcing people to use the software because of widespread opposition, marking perhaps the first real net neutrality victory there that I can recall.

Not to be outdone, service providers in the United Kingdom are also doing their share to violate people's rights on the internet there. During my visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find a plethora of freely available wi-fi. One particular provider, The Cloud, had service in just about every fast-food chain. I was horrified, however, when I logged in and tried to access this blog, only to see a message saying that access was blocked because I'm apparently running an "adult" site. Well, I flipped! I've purposely kept this site very clean and PG-rated for this very purpose, to avoid possibly being branded an "adult" site and blocked by ISPs. In fact, you won't find boobs anywhere on this site, with the exception of the title and URL, which I'm guessing is enough to flag it for The Cloud. I've sent off an email to the ISP's support people explaining that my blog is not an adult site, that sex and pornography are only TALKED about here, and that it should be removed from their black list, but I've yet to receive a response (no surprise).

This is exactly the sort of slippery slope I've mentioned before. You can't ban porn outright on the internet because you will have cases like this. Websites that seek to foster some sort of half-intelligent discourse on the subject will be lumped in with sites like sheepfuckers.com (I made that one up). Are we in the developed world so prudish that we would ban the very discussion of sex? And if the filtering software is strong enough, it might even pick up a term like "sheepfuckers" and block the website on those grounds. And then what? Do we start blocking websites for using bad language? As I've said before, let the ass-backwards countries like Afghanistan block porn - in the free, developed world, we need to deal with it more intelligently. We need a solid age verification system to keep it away from the kiddies, but the outright blocking of any kind of websites is a very big threat to our fundamental freedom. As a Chinese blogger said in the about Green Dam, "People, including myself, have argued strongly that while parental controls are useful, picking which one to use must be a personal choice." Exactly. If China is starting to get it, why can't we?

UPDATE: Jesse Brown talks about net neutrality on his new Search Engine podcast. Check it out here. He says the net neutrality movement in Canada is making a big mistake by aligning itself with the far left. I couldn't agree more.

In response to the excellent question below from Mr. Matt Shepherd (whose blog and comic book work I fully endorse, by the way), here's how you can support net neutrality in Canada. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is currently reviewing the whole issue of neutrality and you can submit your comments by clicking here. Surprise, surprise, the CRTC hasn't exactly made the process easy so once you're on the site, select "Part VII / PN " from the drop down list and then click "Next." In the box entitled "Subject," type in "CRTC File #:8662-P8-200907727," then enter any thoughts you may have in the box titled "Description/Comments/Questions." You can also add any attachments you want. Don't forget to click next. The deadline is JUNE 22 so don't dawdle! You can also find out more about the net neutrality movement in Canada by going to saveournet.ca, which is the lefty-aligned organization Jesse mentioned above. In the United States, the Free Press is a major voice in the battle for net neutrality as is the Open Internet Coalition, which counts Google among its members.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The godfather of invisibility explains it

I'm back from the UK and I hope everybody enjoyed the week of useless trivia. Fear not though, I'll be doing that again at the end of July when I head out west for a two-week vacation and a friend's wedding, so there'll be more stuff to add to your arsenal of somewhat-bemusing cocktail-party anecdotes.

Other than hiking around the Scottish highlands, one of the things I did over in the UK was interview Sir John Pendry, a theoretical physicist at London's Imperial College. Pendry is starting to become known as the "godfather of invisibility" because of a presentation he gave back in 2004 at a meeting put together by DARPA, the U.S. military's research lab. The meeting was about "metamaterials," or artificial materials that have the potential to affect reality in new and interesting ways. DARPA asked Pendry to throw out some crazy ideas as to what these metamaterials could be used for and, mostly on a lark, he suggested invisibility. That got a bunch of scientists talking and DARPA eventually asked him to write a formal research paper on the idea. He did, and here he is in a short video explaining the basic concept of how invisibility works:

(Blogger seems to be having some difficulty displaying this video, which is in widescreen format. If it doesn't appear on this page, you can watch it by .)

How do you get light to flow around an object? Metamaterials, which hold all sorts of promise, are the key - they can be used to electromagnetically bend light around the ojbect. Some of Pendry's students and colleagues have taken the work a step further, with two separate groups at Berkeley and Stanford universities now working to make the concept a reality. So far, they have succeeded in making small, two-dimensional objects invisible, and they're now working toward expanding to three-dimensional objects. Pendry believes that with a decent amount of funding, which they're currently trying to secure, the researchers should have a fully functional Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak within three to five years. However, such a cloak will likely work first on static, unmoving objects - making moving objects invisible will be much more difficult and will take years. "It would be more like Harry Potter's shed than Harry Potter's cloak," he says.

The military applications are obvious. Britain's Ministry of Defence hopped on the bandwagon a few years ago by revealing that it was working on invisible tanks, although the technology - using cameras and projectors - was nothing like the metamaterials-based stuff (Pendry is actually quite perturbed to have been lumped in to this effort by the press, since he's had nothing to do with it). What will be the every-day applications of invisibility technology, other than, of course, making stuff invisible?

Well, the metamaterials themselves are generally constructed on a microscopic level, which makes them very light. That means they'll be used in plenty of non-sexy but important ways, like in adding radar-based, collision-detecting cruise control systems in cars (adding current radar systems would simply be too expensive). Building an invisibility cloak flat out for consumer use would be too costly, so we'll have to get there incrementally by making the technology widespread and thus cheaper, Pendry says. "Technology really goes forward when you take something really, really radical and apply it to something you're already doing to make it slightly better."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Trivia day #7: Phone sex, an economic powerhouse

Phone sex isn't nearly as big as it used to be, mainly because there's so much actual visual porn available on the internet with just the click of a mouse. But anyone who remembers all those late-night back in the eighties and nineties knows that at one time, phone sex was a big, big business. How big? American authorities estimated in 1988 that phone sex operators were pulling in $2 billion in the United States alone. (By the way, anyone remember ?)

The business started in 1982, after the Federal Communications Commission ended phone companies' monopoly on recorded phone messages. Dial-a-porn was born and its purveyors, who soon thereafter added live calls, were printing money. For consumers it was the cheapest and safest way to get some sexual stimulation. The anonymity and ease with which anyone could call and get their jollies also helped, as immortalized in this classic Aerosmith video:

Of course, the authorities eventually cracked down since it was simply too easy for kids to call up. To get around the various regulations, operators routed their calls overseas, often through third-world countries. Places like Guyana and tiny little thus became major phone-sex routers - and benefited from it big time. Guyana, for one, generated $130 million in 1995 from routed phone-sex calls, or nearly 40 per cent of its gross domestic product. Niue, meanwhile, had four phone lines for every one of its 1,000-plus inhabitants.

Alas, the fortunes of these small developing countries have ebbed in recent years as traditional phone sex has been all but killed off by internet porn and cheap internet-based calling. Nevertheless, as the Aerosmith video shows, there will always be a market for hearing a real, live voice.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Trivia day #6: How about ordering Indian food from someone in India?

These days, it's pretty much an understatement to say that the internet has changed every business, and in many cases for good, but it's true. There are few industries I can think of (crack dealing being one of them) that has not been fundamentally altered because of the internet, which makes the recent idiotic comments by Sony CEO Michael Lynton all that more idiotic. In any event... the fast-food industry is not one you'd instantly think has had much to do with the internet. Other than having websites or even spreading viral promotions, like Burger King's infamous Subservient Chicken, fast-food chains haven't exactly developed reputations for being huge innovators when it comes to the internet.

Quietly, however, chains including McDonald's and Wendy's have been experimenting with lowering their costs by using the internet the same way most big businesses have: outsourcing. But, rather than just shipping their IT work and customer service to places where it can be done more cheaply and efficiently, the fast-food chains are also transferring their drive-thru order-taking elsewhere. In other words, the next time you pull up to order your Big Mac and fries (or even try to scam some ), you may not actually be talking to someone in the restaurant. The person taking your order could be hundreds or thousands of kilometers away.

The North American chains haven't moved the order-taking overseas yet, but there doesn't seem to be any reason why they won't. Over in London, at least one restaurant - Café Spice Namaste - has tried it with their curry orders. There's something kind of poetic about ordering your Indian food from somebody actually in India, isn't there?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trivia day #5: Slinky, a poor Navy instrument but a good toy

Remember the Slinky? The toy that walks down stairs alone or in pairs and makes a slinkity sound? Yes indeed, if you're over the age of 25 or so, you most definitely remember the Slinky, which had one of the most memorable ad jingles of all time. In this classic commercial from the sixties the words are somewhat different from what I remember in the eighties, which obviously means that over the years the jingle had something like a hundred different verses:

The Slinky was invented in 1943 by Richard James, a Navy engineer who was looking for a way to stabilize sensitive instruments on board ships by using springs. When one of his steel torsion springs - a coil that has no compression or tension - accidentally fell off his shelf, he watched it "walk" down to his desk, then a stack of books and then finally the floor. It was a "Eureka!" moment. His wife Betty thought the spring's movements looked "slinky," and the name stuck. The couple managed to convince a Gimbel Brothers department store in Philadelphia to let them display their toy just before Christmas in 1945, and it ended up being a huge hit. Believe it or not, in this day and age of high-tech toys and video games, the Slinky still sells well - more than 300 million were sold by its sixtieth birthday in 2005.

Richard James, however, went kookoo. In 1960, despite being very wealthy thanks to the Slinky, James left his wife and their six kids to join a religious cult in Bolivia. The Slinky was honored in 2001 as the official state toy of Pennsylvania, but James never got to soak it in since he died in Bolivia way back in 1974. Crazy, huh? The Slinky did end up finding a military use - American soldiers in the Vietnam war found it worked well as an antenna for their mobile radios.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Trivia day #4: Camping food? Might as well join the army

Summer's almost here, which means it's just about time for camping. I can't wait - I love the return to nature, the blatant disregard for personal hygiene, the constant congestion from allergies, and of course the regular diet of highly processed, chemically treated camping food. Mmmm... camping food. Wait a second, did I say "mmmm?" I meant "blech, argggh and vomit!!!"

Indeed, if you've tried any of the prepackaged camping foods on sale at your local outdoors store, you know what I'm talking about. These things are so nasty and generally inedible... there are times when I've almost been tempted to go caveman and test out the strange-looking berries growing by the campsite rather than consume the chemical cocktail in a pouch. But alas, when you're on a long camping trip and are in need of stuff that lasts forever, sometimes foods from companies like Mountain House are the only thing that will do the trick.

Where do these foods come from? Why, from the legendary purveyors of foul-tasting and inedible food - the army, of course! It's true. Camping foods evolved out of a joint project by the U.S. military's Natick food lab and NASA to create grub that would have a significantly longer shelf life than the stuff you normally buy at the grocery store. That means the food would have to be able to do without refrigeration and, in many cases, without heating. Oregon Freeze Dry Inc., the company contracted to create such foods, first tested it out commercially on seniors. When they didn't keel over, Oregon figured the stuff was good enough to eat out in the bush, so Mountain House was born.

What I don't get is, if NASA can make ready-to-eat meals for astronauts, how come we still have to eat swill when camping?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Trivia day #3: Barbie, missiles, what's the difference?

Did you know that Barbie was designed by a guy whose previous career was building missiles? It's true! In the mid-fifties Jack Ryan (the engineer, not the Harrison Ford character) was building Hawk missiles for defense contractor Raytheon. He was bored and wanted to get rich, something he couldn't do with Raytheon because anything he invented belonged to the company. So he took his know-how of transistors and micro-circuitry over to Elliot Handler, president of Mattel Toys, who was very impressed with Ryan's "space-age" skills. Handler gave Ryan a sweetheart deal that included royalties on every toy patent he came up with.

Not only did Ryan configure Barbie's joints, he also redesigned the doll from its original inspiration - a German novelty sex doll named Lilli, which itself was inspired by a raunchy newspaper cartoon. Ryan made Barbie, named after Handler's daughter Barbara, look like less of a "street walker," and a phenomenon was born. Barbie made Mattel, the Handler family and Ryan very, very rich. Ryan's skills in miniaturization also came in handy in designing a pair of mega-follow-up hits for Mattel, including Hot Wheels race cars and the Chatty Cathy doll, as seen here:

Ryan was also a sex fiend. He used his riches to build a sex palace that would have made Hugh Hefner jealous and often courted multiple mistresses. He married actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and tried to get her to join in on his swinging lifestyle, but she would have none of it. The two divorced after only a few months of marriage and he ultimately committed suicide in 1991. Quite the interesting fellow, if you ask me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Trivia day #2: Polaroids were used for nudes? Gasp!

Remember Polaroid? The company that made the first instant camera, way back in 1947? The same company that strangely couldn't see the digital revolution coming and thus went belly up, only to be bought out by Toronto's Hilco Consumer Capital Group two months ago? Ah yes, Polaroid... just point your camera, snap the picture, then shake the photo until the image magically materializes a minute later.

One thing the Massachusetts-based company never liked talking about publicly was how much its success depended on customers taking nude photos of each other with its cameras. It's true - in the fifties, sixties and seventies, many couples wanted to shoot their own Playboy spreads, but trying to develop film from a regular camera at the local photo mart might have got them arrested for obscenity. The Polaroid was thus the perfect do-it-yourself photo lab, for all your carnal pleasures. The company tacitly acknowledged this use though - its 1965 "Swinger" model conjures images of Austin Powers, ! Here's a vintage ad for the Swinger from 1966:

Speaking of Playboy, I spoke with some of the magazine's veteran photo editors last week and they told me that the Polaroid was invaluable to them in the days before digital for setting up shots. Models were photographed on Polaroid to test composition and lighting before the real cameras were brought in. Neat, huh?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Trivia day #1: Video games came from weapons

Video games are huge business these days - huger than Hollywood, in fact. Companies such as Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and Electronic Arts are raking it as a result. But in the early days, it was a defense contractor that got rich off video games.

In 1972, a TV engineer named Ralph Baer built the very first home video game system called the Brown Box. It hooked up to the TV and allowed players to control blobs of light with a handheld controller. By today's standards, the game would have been fun for all of two seconds, but in those pre-historic days, it was a huge technological breakthrough. Video games were, after all, the first real demonstration of computing power that the general public could get its hands on.

Baer wasn't just a tinkerer, however. In his day job, he designed weapons systems for Sanders Associates, a defense contractor in Nashua, New Hampshire. He designed the Brown Box in his spare time, but his contract with Sanders stipulated that all of his inventions would be patented in the name of the company. The patent for video games came in 1973 and Sanders licensed the technology to Magnavox, which released the Brown Box under its own name, the Odyssey:

The console sold poorly because of poor marketing, but it served as the inspiration for the Pong and 2600 consoles, both of which were big hits. Sanders then spent a good portion of the 1980s suing the likes of Atari, Activision and Nintendo to protect its patent, and pretty much won through judgment or settlement in every case.

The bottom line: for the 17-year life span of the patent, every video game made until 1990 paid a licensing fee to Sanders, which is now owned by British defense firm BAE Systems. No wonder there's so much shooting and destruction in video games!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Off to the UK for radar and caber toss

I'm heading to the UK tonight for a week to do a last bit of research, but fear not - there will be regular, daily posts here while I'm gone. Starting tomorrow, I'll be posting seven days worth of interesting "little-known facts" from my book that will make you the of every party you go to.

One of the things I'll be doing while in the UK is getting some more information on the development of radar, which was invented there during World War II. It's a little-known fact (don't worry, this doesn't count among the other seven) that the microwave oven was derived from radar. It's true. Percy Spencer, an engineer working for defense contractor Raytheon, was playing around with a magnetron - the radar's heart - in his lab when he discovered that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He then tested the magnetron's heating properties with an egg and some popcorn, and when both cooked, he quickly patented microwave cooking. And the rest is, as they say, history.

I'll also be talking to Sir John Pendry, the researcher behind the move to . I posted on the topic back in March, and I'm very curious as to what the potential commercial spinoffs of this technology could be. If there's one thing I've learned in my research, it's that scientists usually have a commercial spinoff in mind when they're working on stuff. I hope it's more interesting than a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak.

Other than that, I'm going to visit Scotland for the first time and do some Munro-bagging, plus drink some whiskey and perhaps take in a or two. See you all soon, and don't forgot, the Cliff Clavin Cavalcade begins tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Military launching social media assault

Following the lead of , its high-tech weapons lab, the U.S. military is planning to launch a full-scale blitz on social media this week. In an effort to counter propaganda from the Taliban in Afghanistan - a battle the U.S. says it is losing - American military forces are launching pages on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to better communicate what's happening with troops over there. "There's an entire audience segment that seeks its news from alternative means outside traditional news sources, and we want to make sure we're engaging them as well," Colonel Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, told Military.com. Nice of them to notice!

The question still remains: how much information will be posted on these pages? According to the story, soldiers are being encouraged to post their tales and photos on the sites, but will they be allowed to be? You have to imagine there will be a level of censorship - not only do military officials not want sensitive information getting out, they also certainly don't want any of the information posted to give people back home a negative opinion of what's going on over there.

The other question is will these sites contribute to the phenomenon known as "war porn?" Will they result in more ridiculous sites like this one posting more videos like this one:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Australia Sex Party to take part in election

One thing I forgot to mention last week when I posted about the on online porn in India and Afghanistan was the situation in Australia. Internet activists down under have been battling a very puritanical attempt to block porn and other "undesirable content" for some time now. Last year, the government announced a plan that would make it mandatory for internet service providers to enforce a black list of websites, which of course the government itself would decide on. The plan has been immensely controversial and now looks to be in jeopardy - the government may ask ISPs to use the black list voluntarily, which of course none of them will since doing so would be a one-way ticket to the land of zero customers.

I've been in utter disbelief since this whole schmozz started. While it's understandable that a nation in chaos like Afghanistan or even a highly religious and developing one like India may want to block some content, I simply can't fathom that such a thing could even be suggested in a supposedly free, democratized and prosperous country like Australia. As many countries are starting to believe, and are indeed enshrining in law, access to the internet is becoming an inalienable human right. While few people would disagree that there should be some sort of safeguards in place to prevent kids from accessing pornography, outright blocking of it is the beginning of a very slippery slope. What genre of websites is next? Perhaps sites that criticize the government? This move by the Australian government sure looks like the kind of oppressive human-rights violations we're used to seeing from communist China.

In any event, a good number of Australians agree and they're voicing their opinion through the official Australian Sex Party, a political organization that plans to counter the influence of conservatives and religious types by fielding candidates in the country's next election. Party founder Fiona Patten explained the party's purpose to Adult Video News:

While Australians are a pretty laid back bunch, our politicians are not. I am sure this is the same in most countries. They are concerned about the 8 percent vocal minority so they ignore us... Independent research shows that over 25 percent of Australians regularly watch and buy adult material. We are a small country and with 1,000 adult shops and sites to act as branches for the party we think that we can get to a large number of adult voters who are sick of politicians in their bedrooms and now deciding what they can view online.

AVN has a pretty thorough story on the issue (and that link is mostly safe for work). Interestingly, where do you think the Australians got the idea for an officially registered political sex party? Us Canadians, of course.

By the way, I find this subject particularly interesting since my book will be published in Australia. If the government bans porn online, how long will it be before they ban books that talk about porn?
Newer Posts Older Posts Home