One reason I hate iTunes.

I’ve always hated iTunes. It’s a huge pile of bloatware and it’s slow as poo. It’s like 100 mb or more for an mp3 player. I remember winamp playing mp3s when it was a 500k download. Anyway.

I keep all my music on a Linux machine running samba. This way it’s available to every machine in the house. When I had Winamp on all my machines this was wonderful. But now that I’m forced into iTunes (thanks to having an iPhone), it turns out to be a major pain. In iTunes I unchecked the box for “let iTunes keep my libary organized” to prevent it from copying the entire library to each computer’s local disk. Initially adding my library of ~4000 tracks to iTunes takes over an hour (100 mbit wire) – it would take about 5 minutes in Winamp, even reading the ID3 tags for each track as it was added (rather than lazily as the song was played).

But the thing that iTunes does that is so annoying it prompted me to write this whiny rant is:

iTunes "Song Not Found"
iTunes 'Song Not Found'

If, for some reason, my M: drive (where the Samba share is mapped) is not connected when iTunes starts, every song in the library gets this “!” exclamation point of doom. If I attempt to play any of these tracks, I am given the option to locate the file. Nice in theory, but locating all 4000 tracks isn’t realistic. If I quit iTunes, reconnect the M: drive, and reopen iTunes, the ! persists. The only solution I’ve found to this is deleting the entire library from iTunes and re-adding it, which as I said, takes an extremely long time.

I have other reasons for hating iTunes, this is a blog, not a book.

A less insidious way to use Facebook?

I deactivated my Facebook account a couple of months ago. I just kind of got tired of seeing silly updates from friends and “friends” – people I’d friended but wasn’t really friends with. I was also frustrated by the privacy implications of using such a service: you tell it about yourself, you tell it about who you know and how you know them, you keep adding more information about you and your friends to its huge brain that it’s free to use or abuse however it wants.

I don’t know if I’m anti-“Social” or just antisocial but most of the info streaming into my Facebook feed was just not interesting to me. I could have hidden those people, but then it seemed like it would make more sense simply to remove the connection to them, if I didn’t want to see their updates. I actually went through my list of connections and started removing people – people I knew from high school and hadn’t spoke to since then until they added me on Facebook, and then continued not talking to them, and other people who I knew but didn’t really interact with, online or offline. I didn’t really care about what they had to say and it occurred to me that they didn’t care what I had to say. Why did we friend even each other in the first place? Well, the friend suggester (suggestor?) makes it easy to friend people who are only tangentially related, since its whole purpose is to find new people for you to add.

I remember there was one person from school whom I hadn’t spoken to since probably 4th grade. This person attempted to friend me 5 times on FB (Soandso wants to be your friend…) and each time I clicked “Ignore,” but on the 6th time I finally relented. After 2 weeks of inane updates I unfriended the person. Within a month I was getting requests to refriend. Why? I don’t know you, you don’t know me, what’s to be gained by us pretending to be e-friends?

So I had some fundamental problems with Facebook. In addition to the friending of barely-friends, the feeding of so much information into the Facebook brain was starting to bother me. This is pretty similar to my worries about Google’s reach; basically every bit of information you post to Facebook to share with “friends” is also being added to Facebook’s marketing profile about you and your friends. The more you use the service, the more they know about you. And all those “Like” buttons all over the internet – a way for you to inform your Facebook friends that you like a blog post or news story – those are just a way for Facebook to know what sites you’re visiting. Whether you click the “like” button or not, your browser is loading the button of their servers, which means Facebook is reading your cookie and knows that YOU visited the page. This annoyed me so much that I edited my /etc/hosts file to redirect http://www.facebook.com to 127.0.0.1 (my own computer) where I’m running Apache, so the Like buttons just render as 404 errors now:

But I’m fine with that. I’ve also set my browser to reject all cookies from *.facebook.com. I realize this is just a drop in the ocean of data for Facebook, but screw them. Even with my account disabled they were collecting data about me, and that just pissed me off. But much like Google, Facebook’s tracking ability transcends browsers and computers, since in order to use their service you need to log in, and thus your movements around the internet can be tracked regardless of which computer or device you’re using.

Facebook wasn’t a completely worthless service for me. I found the photo album feature very useful. It was a great way to upload pictures and share them instantly with whomever wanted to see them. In my case this was usually my family plus a few friends. I doubt anything will top Facebook for this because these people are already on Facebook, and for something to come along that’s better at this than Facebook, these people would need to move to the new platform, which as of today doesn’t seem likely.

Photo sharing is the one thing I miss. I haven’t stopped taking pictures but it’s a much clumsier process now to share them with people. I put them in an album in Picasa, upload it to PicasaWeb, set the permissions on the album, send out the invitations. The recipients then have to click on a private link to get to the pictures, and if they want to see them again in the future, they need to dig through their inbox to find the link and click on it again. Not everybody uses Gmail, and even for those who do, this is just a clunky process. With Facebook albums, if the album is shared with someone, all they have to do is click on me and then click on my list of albums to see the pictures. Easy. I’m considering returning to Facebook just to get the photo album back.

So I was thinking that if I could restrict myself to using only the Facebook iPhone app, I’d still be able to take the occasional picture with the phone, upload it for people to see, and not fall prey to the tracking cookie problems I described above, since (I’m assuming) the Facebook app and Safari don’t share data. At least, not yet.

That idea prompted me to write this post in the first place, but as I’ve been writing it it occurred to me that it’s not really a workable plan. If I’m using it I’ll eventually feel the need to login via browser, meaning I’ll have to tear down all the walls I’ve erected – the hosts file entry, the cookie blocking – and I’ll be right back where I was, feeding them all my info and letting them track me everywhere I go. So I guess it’s going to come down to a question of whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits, as it always does.

Unless I can just write a browser plugin to strip the “Like” button from non-Facebook websites. Maybe AdBlock can do this. Hmm… The dog woke me up early today and everyone else is asleep still, and this all sounded a lot better in my head before I started writing it down.

The sinister side of Google's Picasa face tagging

So, let me start by saying that I love Picasa, Google’s photo organization tool. It automatically finds new photos as you add them to your hard drive. It lets you crop pictures, remove red-eye, adjust colors and make a few other basic edits that cover probably 95% of what most people need to do when editing photos. It lets you select a few photos from your library and email them to anyone with just a couple of clicks. It also integrates with Google Earth and Google Maps to show you on a map where a particular photo was taken (for those unaware, GPS-enabled cameras, including many mobile phone cameras [e.g., iPhone] embed your GPS coordinates within the EXIF metadata of the photo, so any person, program or website with access to the image will know the location at which it was taken).

It also has a nifty feature called face tagging. How this works, basically, is Picasa analyzes all of the photos in your library and looks for faces. There’s some algorithm in the program that can recognize that two eyes, a nose, a mouth and maybe some hair is a face. So if you use the face-tagging feature, Picasa shows you a page of faces extracted from your photo library. Initially these photos have no names, but Picasa does some basic grouping of them. For example, it doesn’t know who your Uncle Bob is, but it does know that these 14 photos are all of the same person. The grouping feature isn’t perfect, but it is very helpful when you decide to apply a name to the group of photos – tagging 14 photos instead of one is a great time-saver.

This feature only really becomes useful if you start tagging faces with real names — i.e. if you tag the photos of Uncle Bob by telling Picasa “these are photos of Uncle Bob.” If you facetag enough photos, Google will start “guessing” the name for a particular face, and tagging it automatically. This feature is also not perfect, but I imagine they’re working on improving it all the time.

So, this all happens on your computer, within Picasa. I’m not so much of a tinfoil hat type as to suggest Google’s doing anything in particular with the data on your computer itself. The “problem” as I see it is that when you tag a photo of Uncle Bob, Picasa pulls Uncle Bob’s contact info out of your Gmail contacts. So essentially, you’re tying a face to an email address. As I said, I don’t think Google’s surreptitiously going to use the info that resides on your computer.

But in addition to Picasa, the photo organization tool you run on your computer, Google offers an online photo album service called Picasa Web Albums. This is similar to other services, Flickr being the largest, that offer a simple way to upload photos and share them with others. All users get 1 GB of free storage, and you can buy more pretty cheaply (as of today you can get 20 GB for $5/year). As you might expect from the names, Picasa and Picasa Web Albums integrate very well. If you create an album within Picasa, all you have to do to upload it to Picasa Web Albums is click the “Sync This Album” button. It will then upload all the photos in the album to Picasaweb.

Here’s where the potential creepy part starts. Let’s say you have a photo in Picasa, that you took on August 4th, 2010, at 10:00 AM, and you’ve tagged 2 faces in it: Aunt Alice (alice@gmail.com) and Uncle Bob (bob@gmail.com). Let’s further say that you took this photo with your iPhone, so the GPS coordinates are embedded in the photo metadata. You upload the photo to Picasa Web Albums. Well, now you’ve just told Google the following:

  • What alice@gmail.com looks like.
  • What bob@gmail.com looks like.
  • Where alice@gmail.com and bob@gmail.com physically were (via GPS coordinates) on 8/4/2010 at 10:00 AM

There’s lots of other information you’ve probably also told them, but these are the data that are creeping me out lately. If your album has 20 or 30 photos of Alice and Bob that you’ve tagged with their contact info then Google’s got a pretty good idea what they look like – if the Picasa desktop app is able to guess who people in your photos are based on some algorithm inside it, imagine what Google’s billion-dollar datacenters can do?

In all likelihood, you aren’t the only one uploading photos of Alice and Bob. Other people at other events tag photos of Alice and Bob and upload them to Google, further “teaching” this massive computer brain what Alice and Bob look like (since email addresses are basically internet-wide unique IDs, two photos tagged with the same email address can generally be assumed to be the same person). Alice and Bob may never use Picasa, may not even own a camera themselves, and may not even use Google at all. But at this point Google knows what they look like and where they’ve gone – completely apart from their computer-based activities.

I think facial recognition is going to become huge for marketers over the next decade or so. Picasa offers users a useful feature that seems like it has this sinister other side to it – basically building an enormous crowdsourced facial recognition database, so they’ll be able to identify millions of people right out of the gate. If New York City ever gives Google access to its street cams, Google will be able to track the activities of millions more people without their knowledge or consent. Combine that with the existing knowledge Google has – if your iPhone checks your Gmail account, they know your general location at any given time anyway, just based on IP address – and they can create a pretty accurate (in advertising terms) picture of you. And with facial recognition, it will actually BE a picture of you.

Much is made of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto (and I couldn’t write this without throwing those 3 words in), and I tend to be somewhat of a Google fanboy myself. However, much like government, what you have to worry about isn’t always what the current regime is doing with its power, but what the regime 10 or 20 or 100 years from now will do with it. I’m sure Google has rules about how these data are used, but rules change; rules are broken. If there’s one rule that seems inviolate throughout human history it’s that power corrupts. Knowledge is power. Or something.

Well, whatever. I still love Picasa, it just gives me this creepy feeling sometimes. This stuff is all completely voluntary, nobody is being forced to use any of these features, but like I said, Uncle Bob and Aunt Alice were tagged in a photo by someone else – you don’t need to do anything to have your face added to the Great Google Face Database In The Sky. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I was prompted to write it down based on Eric Schmidt’s recent comment, “Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.”

The sinister side of Google’s Picasa face tagging

So, let me start by saying that I love Picasa, Google’s photo organization tool. It automatically finds new photos as you add them to your hard drive. It lets you crop pictures, remove red-eye, adjust colors and make a few other basic edits that cover probably 95% of what most people need to do when editing photos. It lets you select a few photos from your library and email them to anyone with just a couple of clicks. It also integrates with Google Earth and Google Maps to show you on a map where a particular photo was taken (for those unaware, GPS-enabled cameras, including many mobile phone cameras [e.g., iPhone] embed your GPS coordinates within the EXIF metadata of the photo, so any person, program or website with access to the image will know the location at which it was taken).

It also has a nifty feature called face tagging. How this works, basically, is Picasa analyzes all of the photos in your library and looks for faces. There’s some algorithm in the program that can recognize that two eyes, a nose, a mouth and maybe some hair is a face. So if you use the face-tagging feature, Picasa shows you a page of faces extracted from your photo library. Initially these photos have no names, but Picasa does some basic grouping of them. For example, it doesn’t know who your Uncle Bob is, but it does know that these 14 photos are all of the same person. The grouping feature isn’t perfect, but it is very helpful when you decide to apply a name to the group of photos – tagging 14 photos instead of one is a great time-saver.

This feature only really becomes useful if you start tagging faces with real names — i.e. if you tag the photos of Uncle Bob by telling Picasa “these are photos of Uncle Bob.” If you facetag enough photos, Google will start “guessing” the name for a particular face, and tagging it automatically. This feature is also not perfect, but I imagine they’re working on improving it all the time.

So, this all happens on your computer, within Picasa. I’m not so much of a tinfoil hat type as to suggest Google’s doing anything in particular with the data on your computer itself. The “problem” as I see it is that when you tag a photo of Uncle Bob, Picasa pulls Uncle Bob’s contact info out of your Gmail contacts. So essentially, you’re tying a face to an email address. As I said, I don’t think Google’s surreptitiously going to use the info that resides on your computer.

But in addition to Picasa, the photo organization tool you run on your computer, Google offers an online photo album service called Picasa Web Albums. This is similar to other services, Flickr being the largest, that offer a simple way to upload photos and share them with others. All users get 1 GB of free storage, and you can buy more pretty cheaply (as of today you can get 20 GB for $5/year). As you might expect from the names, Picasa and Picasa Web Albums integrate very well. If you create an album within Picasa, all you have to do to upload it to Picasa Web Albums is click the “Sync This Album” button. It will then upload all the photos in the album to Picasaweb.

Here’s where the potential creepy part starts. Let’s say you have a photo in Picasa, that you took on August 4th, 2010, at 10:00 AM, and you’ve tagged 2 faces in it: Aunt Alice (alice@gmail.com) and Uncle Bob (bob@gmail.com). Let’s further say that you took this photo with your iPhone, so the GPS coordinates are embedded in the photo metadata. You upload the photo to Picasa Web Albums. Well, now you’ve just told Google the following:

  • What alice@gmail.com looks like.
  • What bob@gmail.com looks like.
  • Where alice@gmail.com and bob@gmail.com physically were (via GPS coordinates) on 8/4/2010 at 10:00 AM

There’s lots of other information you’ve probably also told them, but these are the data that are creeping me out lately. If your album has 20 or 30 photos of Alice and Bob that you’ve tagged with their contact info then Google’s got a pretty good idea what they look like – if the Picasa desktop app is able to guess who people in your photos are based on some algorithm inside it, imagine what Google’s billion-dollar datacenters can do?

In all likelihood, you aren’t the only one uploading photos of Alice and Bob. Other people at other events tag photos of Alice and Bob and upload them to Google, further “teaching” this massive computer brain what Alice and Bob look like (since email addresses are basically internet-wide unique IDs, two photos tagged with the same email address can generally be assumed to be the same person). Alice and Bob may never use Picasa, may not even own a camera themselves, and may not even use Google at all. But at this point Google knows what they look like and where they’ve gone – completely apart from their computer-based activities.

I think facial recognition is going to become huge for marketers over the next decade or so. Picasa offers users a useful feature that seems like it has this sinister other side to it – basically building an enormous crowdsourced facial recognition database, so they’ll be able to identify millions of people right out of the gate. If New York City ever gives Google access to its street cams, Google will be able to track the activities of millions more people without their knowledge or consent. Combine that with the existing knowledge Google has – if your iPhone checks your Gmail account, they know your general location at any given time anyway, just based on IP address – and they can create a pretty accurate (in advertising terms) picture of you. And with facial recognition, it will actually BE a picture of you.

Much is made of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto (and I couldn’t write this without throwing those 3 words in), and I tend to be somewhat of a Google fanboy myself. However, much like government, what you have to worry about isn’t always what the current regime is doing with its power, but what the regime 10 or 20 or 100 years from now will do with it. I’m sure Google has rules about how these data are used, but rules change; rules are broken. If there’s one rule that seems inviolate throughout human history it’s that power corrupts. Knowledge is power. Or something.

Well, whatever. I still love Picasa, it just gives me this creepy feeling sometimes. This stuff is all completely voluntary, nobody is being forced to use any of these features, but like I said, Uncle Bob and Aunt Alice were tagged in a photo by someone else – you don’t need to do anything to have your face added to the Great Google Face Database In The Sky. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I was prompted to write it down based on Eric Schmidt’s recent comment, “Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.”

Vonage iPhone App Calls Facebook Friends Free, So What?

Lots of outlets seem to have picked up the story about the new Vonage iPhone app that lets you call your Facebook friends free. I don’t understand why this is even newsworthy. There are a bunch of free VOIP apps for iPhone already, with Skype being the one that comes to mind first. But a couple of other things have me scratching my head about this story:

  • AT&T doesn’t offer the unlimited data plan for iPhone anymore, so this “free” call could end up being pretty expensive over 3G.
  • If you’re making a call to another friend with the iPhone app, then your friend probably has an iPhone. They’re also probably also on AT&T, so a regular voice call to them would be free anyway. So just call them?

This might make more sense to me if your friend is outside the US, or they come out with a similar app for other platforms, but even then… so what? Free VOIP calls aren’t new. Is it just the Facebook tie-in? I don’t get the buzz. Maybe it’s because I have 5,000 rollover minutes with AT&T.

Microsoft Office 2007’s awful user interface

Office 2007 is pretty old by now, and I know much has been written on the move from a “normal” looking app to the “Ribbon” UI. I personally hate the change and feel Microsoft just changed the UI as a way to make the application look “different” so that people will look at it and go “oooh, shiny!” and not feel as bad about being forced into another $400 upgrade of a word processor. Sure, Excel’s row limit was finally raised beyond 64k, and I’m sure there were some other tweaks, but .docx? .xlsx? Yet more file formats, ensuring most businesses will feel compelled to upgrade. If your clients are upgrading, you’re going to have to.

Anyway, that’s all well documented. What may not be is the ridiculous location of the SMTP header info in a message in Outlook. If you want to view this interserver communication, which is invaluable when debugging mail issues, you can either A) right-click the message in the inbox, or B) … Well, in Office 2003, there was a way to do this from within the open message. I didn’t think there was a way to do it from within the message in Outlook 2007, but it turns out there is. It’s just retarded:

WTF?

Dear Microsoft: please drop the “Ribbon” completely and go back to menus, or at least provide that as an option. This UI is awful.