Human Nature

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Stilgherrian in bunny hat from Download This Show

ABC logoCareful and sighted readers will have noticed that in the photo accompanying the audio for this week’s Download This Show I was wearing a bunny hat for Easter. That’s because this radio program now appears on video as well as part of the new RN TV.

Not all of it, but one segment at least, and you’ll see that video over the fold.

In light of the software bug Heartbleed, we examine password managers and ask are they the safest way to manage your security online?

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Stilgherrian, Marc Fennell and Claire Porter in the ABC studios: click for full image

ABC logoThis week saw my first appearance on ABC Radio National’s Download This Show. Presenter Marc Fennell made the grave mistake of putting me and Claire Porter, editor-a-large of Techly, in the same place at the same time. Chaos ensued.

“Killing Comic Sans, SELFIE Mirror, Password Managers” is the headline for this episode.

Comic Sans comeback: Created for Microsoft in the mid-90s, Comic Sans might just be the internet’s most-hated font. But this week we meet the guy who’s trying to save its reputation and reintroduce Comic Sans to a new generation, by making it look cool. In light of the software bug Heartbleed, we examine password managers and ask are they the safest way to manage your security online? And it’s a contender for the weirdest high-tech gadget yet: the mirror that automatically takes a selfie.

Here’s the full program.

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The audio is ©2014 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and it’s served here directly from the ABC website.

[Photo: Stilgherrian, Marc Fennell and Claire Porter in the ABC studios, 17 April 2014.]

ABC logoA few weeks back, I had a conversation on Twitter with Natasha Mitchell, presenter of ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, about smartphones and just how much data they’re handing on to, well, all manner of organisations. This morning we came back to that conversation live on national radio.

Do you know what data you’re really sharing, and with whom, when you download and use smart phone apps? Companies are collecting as much as they can get away with, says Stilgherrian.

We spoke for 20 minutes and covered a lot of territory.

If you want to know more, then you can listen to my guest lecture at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and then follow the links to more than 30 references.

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The audio is of course ©2014 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and it’s served here directly from the ABC website.

ABC logoEarlier this morning I spoke about Facebook’s disturbing new “Big Cat” technology on ABC 702 Sydney, and here’s the audio.

Big Cat is the codename for an algorithm that can apparently detect with a high reliability whether your partner is having an extramarital affair, by analysing such things as their pattern of friend formation and communication, comparing their smartphone location with what they’ve said in posts — such as whether they’re really shopping or at the gym or on a work trip — as well as language cues, such as a tendency to avoid answering direct questions.

In a way, it’s a natural extension of MIT research from 2009, which showed that a young man’s pattern of friend formation could reveal whether he was gay — often before he even knew himself. Or Target (US) being able to determine when a woman had become pregnant from her shopping list — at least with 87% accuracy.

It’s the kind of stuff I talk about in my guest lecture to UTS students — which, as it happens, I’ll be updating and presenting this coming Monday 7 April.

As I discuss with breakfast presenter Robbie Buck, however, this is a little more serious than sending someone some discount coupons on a likely hunch. Facebook had better get this right, given that confronting a partner about an alleged affair is a serious issue.

I’m hearing that the Australia test locations will be the Brisbane / Gold Coast nexus or, more likely, Adelaide, for reasons that I explain.

One thing we forgot to mention in the interview is the reason for Facebook’s codename: “Big Cat” is for catching cheaters. Oh dear.

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The audio is of course ©2014 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

ABC logoMid-morning today I received a phone call from ABC journalist David Mark, who was after a backgrounder on the Tor network the lunchtime current affairs program The World Today. His call brought me the news of what appears to be a significant win in the battle against online child exploitation.

Fourteen arrests were made as part of Operation Round Table, which according to the (American) ABC, was an investigation led by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), US Postal Inspection Service and federal authorities in Louisiana.

The roughly 250 victims were spread across 39 states and five other countries — Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Most were boys between 13 and 15. Two victims were 3 or younger, authorities said.

The pornographic images were shared on an underground website on the Tor network, an online anonymity network that masks the location of servers and conceals an Internet user’s location. The subscription-based website operated from about June 2012 until June 2013, had more than 27,000 members and shared more than 2,000 webcam-captured videos, mostly of young boys, authorities said.

There’s further material in the (Australian) ABC story, Australian victims among 251 identified in ‘members only’ child porn website.

The World Today ran Mark’s four-minute story, including comments from US secretary of homeland security Jeh Johnson, and federal attorney-general for Louisiana Kenneth Polite, as well as my own small contribution.

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The audio is of course ©2014 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, served here directly from their website —– where you can also read a full transcript.

If you’d like some more information on how Tor works, and how users’ mistakes can lead to their anonymity being rather less effective than they’d hoped, my Crikey Clarifier: how the FBI hacked users of Tor, the ‘secret internet’ from August 2013 could be a useful starting-point.

[Update 24 February 2014, 0820 AEDT: Before commenting, political tribalists might want to read my further comment. Then again, if you don't, you'll reveal yourselves for the fools that you are. So on second thoughts, comment away!]

Photograph of Reza Berati on screen, with a candle in the foregroundA man — no, a youth — fled danger and sought safety with us. But we put him in a concentration camp, and our hired goons stood back while he was bashed to death. According to our Prime Minister, a man who professes to follow the teachings of that Jesus bloke, that’s OK. After all, we don’t want to be “wimps”.

Well, Mr Abbott, I’m a wimp. A weak nerd. Yet I’ve stepped in to stop people being bashed, despite the risk.

I’ve been the one who, alone and late at night on an otherwise deserted street, walked up to the young couple, the shouting man with his hand gripped on the terrified woman’s throat, and said, “Is everything OK, miss?”

I’ve been the one who’s stood, hands empty and with open palms, and looked straight into the eyes of the crazed guy with the knife and talked him down.

I did those things on those occasions, and other things on other occasions, not because I’m brave — because I’m not, I was shit-scared. Not because I’m tough — because I’m not. Not because I needed to prove anything to myself, because — yeah right, like I could prove to anyone that I were brave or tough. I don’t race a bicycle, or swim in the surf, or strip to my Speedos in public. I’m middle-aged, overweight, short-sighted and I’ve got flat feet.

But I did those things then, and I mention them now, because that’s what people do.

At least if they have any character. Any spine.

The problem here, Mr Abbott, is that you don’t seem to ever admit that you’ve ever done anything wrong, let alone take responsibility for it. Fine. You’re a Christian, or so you say. You know when you’ll be called to account, right?

What’s particularly loathesome, however, is your hypocrisy. Last July you said you’d take responsibility for deaths at sea as a result of the Coalition’s policy of turning back the boats. “Obviously I will take responsibility for what happens on my watch,” you said.

But only when they’re at sea? Once they’re on land that’s fine, eh Abbott? Then we can all bash the living shit out of them and let them die in a pool of their own blood and that’s acceptable? Is that what you’re saying?

Even if this were remotely acceptable behaviour in a civilised society — which of course it’s not — you’ve got it arse-about, Abbott. If you kill ‘em at sea, then the bodies sink and the blood washes away. Think it through!

Speaking of arse, do you remember when you told Tony Windsor that you’d do anything except sell your arse to become PM? It seems that includes letting 23-year-old lads get bashed to death. And you worry about “wimps”. What a pathetic, cowardly, desperate grub you are. Craving power, but unable to take any responsibility once you’ve got it.

You’ve even said that you can’t be trusted at your word unless it’s in writing.

The game of politics is riddled with hypocrites, of course, but you and your current batch of visionless seat-warmers in Canberra really does take the biscuit. Every single muppet that warms a green seat on your side of the House lets a turd like you be their “leader”? How noble of them!

Well in my part of the world, Dear Coalition, the only things that follow a turd are a good long piss and the paper I’ve wiped my arse with.

Reza Berati died on your watch, Anthony John Abbott. “Responsibility”, you said? Why don’t you finally become a man and take some? And may Reza Berati be the last.

As in previous years, the list of most popular posts for 2013 was disappointing, so I’ve hand-curated this list of seven stories for you to consider instead.

As usual, this does not include the material I wrote elsewhere, for ZDNet Australia, Technology Spectator, CSO Online, Crikey, ABC The Drum and the rest. That’s all listed on my Media Output page, although I’ll probably highlight a few articles of enduring interest some time in the next few days.

  1. See this, folks? It’s a picture of democracy, being my defence of the Daily Telegraph’s right to conduct whatever party-political campaigning they like. Even if you don’t like it, the newspaper does still have freedom of political speech.
  2. Microsoft has banned me from covering TechEd, which I still consider to have been an ill-thought move on their part.
  3. My guest lecture in March to first-year journalism and media studies students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on Algorithms and the Filter Bubble, plus the updated versions from August, Take 2A and Take 2B. All three are available as audio files, plus the accompanying slides.
  4. Why people who say “train station” sound stupid, being my first foray into computational linguistics.
  5. My fish are dead: the black dog ate them (an explanation?), being an announcement and discussion about my encounter with severe depression this year — something which still has a significant impact on my life.
  6. Six Pigeons for Jeffrey, being my personal photographic tribute to this fascinating Australian artist.
  7. Hillary’s mangoes, no NSA involved, which is more about the daft reactions to Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s surveillance operations.

If you’d like to compare this with previous years, try these:

As we approach the end of 2013, I’m going to do my usual series of blog posts looking back at what actually happened on this little planet. This is the first, being a list of the most-read posts on this website.

There hasn’t been a lot to choose from in the last couple of years, because most of my writing is done elsewhere these days. That means some rather mundane pieces of writing, such as Weekly Wrap posts, end up on the list. That’s possibly an argument for abandoning this little exercise.

  1. Catchup posts within 36 hours was the most popular post of all, which makes no sense whatsoever because it’s routine administrivia. I suspect the visitor count has been artificially inflated somehow, though supposedly the traffic generated by spambots has already been removed.
  2. My tweets from TechEd Australia 2012′s keynote sessions, a post that was linked to from news stories that reported me having been banned from attending Microsoft’s TechEd conference. My own blog post on this issue is coming up at number 5.
  3. Guardian Australia not the droid you’re looking for, being my reaction against all the excitement generated in January 2013 by the announcement that there would soon be an Australian edition of this news masthead.
  4. My fish are dead: the black dog ate them (an explanation?), being my rather idiosyncratic announcement and discussion of the fact that I’d been dealing with a severe depression episode, published in July.
  5. Microsoft has banned me from covering TechEd, which is self-explanatory.
  6. Choosing my next media directions: you’re doing it, OK?, from May.
  7. Vodafone Australia’s new 4G network ain’t bad, being the write-up of my trial of the network which led to that conclusion.
  8. Weekly Wrap 152: LulzSec, Optus, radio and thinking stuff, which I suspect is only in the Top 10 because it mentions LulzSec.
  9. Weekly Wrap 155: Chemtrails, elitism and much thinking, ditto, chemtrails.
  10. Sydney Harbour “giant gambling den” bullshit reportage, from January.

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ABC logoOn Tuesday last week, we feared that Wednesday would be a day of disastrous bushfires in NSW — certainly the risk was there — so what should people do to make sure their valuable personal and family data was safe?

I spoke about this with morning presenter Linda Mottram on ABC 702 Sydney, but not before we had a chat about what my impressions of how people were reacting to and preparing for the approaching fires — including my own emotions.

We ended up talking for 15 minutes. Here’s the full audio, minus the break for the news headlines at 1030.

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The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, archived here because it’s not archived anywhere else.

Google Ngram "railway station" all English: click to embiggenI cringe when people talk about the “train station”. “It’s ‘railway station’, you morons,” screams my brain. Well as it turns out, they’re actually not stupid — at least not for that reason. It’s just another relatively modern shift in language.

The chart at the top of the post is a Google Ngram search of their entire English corpus since 1820 — the first public steam railway in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 — comparing the usage of “railway station” (blue) versus “railroad station” (red) and “train station” (orange).

You can click through to the full-size chart, or run the search yourself.

As you can see, the most common usage has almost always been “railway station”, with “railroad station” distinctly second-place. A “train station” wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s, but it rose in popularity quite quickly. “Train station” has been the most common usage since the mid-1990s, although it has been declining again since around 2000. I wonder why.

My understanding is that many railway terms derived from the military, because until the railways came along nothing else had been organised on that sort of trans-national and even trans-continental scale except armies. Hence trains have “guards” for their safe operation, and “stations” along the line where staff are stationed to maintain the entire railway system — including fuel, water, trackwork and signalling.

Railway stations are therefore part of a railway’s entire operation, not merely “train stations” for trains to stop at. For me, someone talking about “train stations” is showing their ignorance of how railways work: it’s more than just the trains.

Since I had the Google open in front of me, I thought I’d look at the variations in US versus UK English. It seems that “railroad station” isn’t the dominant American usage that I’d imagined.

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