On Easter, praise Jesus for the Internet!

As you sit at home twiddling your thumbs, imagine how much worse all this social isolation would be without the Internet. There’s not much you can count on these days, but if you at least have a high-speed Internet connection, social isolation and boredom shouldn’t be among them.

It is likely that the Internet will only become more vital in the months and years ahead. That’s because contrary to what you might hope, most of aren’t going anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are going to keep doing so, and many will never return to the office.

“The office” may be one of the casualties of this crisis. If you make it into the office at all, it will probably be to a cubicle of the day. The new normal for white collar people will be what many of us were doing before all this started: working from home. We’ll be using VPNs (virtual private networks) to securely work remotely.

Our social life will evolve to what is already happening: Zoom meetings. This platform seems to be emerging as the go-to online meeting platform. Here on our hill of 55+ people, our association paid for a Zoom account. It sounds silly since we all live in the same neighborhood, but it’s a very socially active neighborhood. Many of these meetings are now virtual. Meeting in person in groups is probably at least a year away.

The ramifications of all this are still being sorted out. We can see one of them today: your Easter service if you are attending one is virtual. Our country was moving in a more secular direction already; this COVID-19 crisis will do more to accelerate it. After a while you may forget why you went to church at all. You can save a lot of money if you don’t have to tithe to your church, and since it can’t provide much in the way of spiritual services, what use is it?

It looks though that in our crazy, upside down world you can at least count on the Internet. Not that it isn’t under stress. Where I live, the only provider is Comcast. With everyone home all the time, and with neighborhoods sharing bandwidth over the same coaxial cable, latency issues are happening from time to time. Sometimes when we stream we get the dreaded hourglass. I’ve looked into this. We were getting 35 megabits per second, but are paying for “up to” 800 megabits per second. Sometimes Comcast can’t do better than 4% of the speed we are paying for.

It will be a wake up call to some that the Internet is not now just a nice-to-have thing, but an absolute necessity, and that we pay way too much for it. For a couple of years I have been trying to persuade our city to create a municipal network to compete with Comcast. The effort has been going great. We were all set to select a vendor to study the viability and costs of the network, then COVID-19 struck. It’s on hold, but I’m betting when our mayor and city council have a chance to catch their breaths, they will prioritize it over a lot of other things going on; indeed, it may be crucial to our city’s recovery from this. Ten years from now, if you are not getting Internet from your local government, you may be thinking you are living in the dark ages. In short, I don’t think Comcast stock is a good buy for the long term.

Most haven’t studied the history of the Internet, so we tend to take it for granted. While there is nothing miraculous about the Internet, the story of how it was created is indeed amazing. It’s the story of the success of long term investment, the sort of thing we rarely do in government anymore. Basically, we threw money at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s (then known as ARPA) to try to get military installations and educational institutions to be able to communicate electronically.

The genius behind it was a core group of radical thinkers (something you don’t associate with our Defense Department) that the network should be super reliable. By creating a public packet-switching network using open protocols, we created a super fault-tolerant network. If it breaks down at all, it’s in local neighborhoods like mine where the pipes provided by a single provider aren’t sufficient to meet the demand of the traffic that streams across it.

Imagine how socially isolated you would actually be if there were no Internet. You would be limited to telephone calls, probably from a landline. Since you could not afford long distance, it would be mostly to people on your local exchanges: one at a time, no conference calls. Imagine searching for work without the Internet. You would not be able to go out and knock on employers’ doors in the midst of a pandemic. You would be limited to local want ads in the paper, but even so what jobs that are available would largely be work from home jobs while the pandemic rages. Without the Internet, finding jobs at all is pretty much impossible.

The Internet provides a robust platform for information and knowledge exchange about pretty much anything, any time, and on demand. It just works. The Internet made much of my career possible and continues to provide me with income even in retirement. Now I help clients with their IT problems over the Internet, and have since 2006. I never leave home to work; it’s all done virtually. Most of my clients are from overseas. Without the Internet I would have never had their business. Yesterday, I was charging a client $60/hour to work on a site they are upgrading. Going to the office means going upstairs. That’s my office now and since I retired in 2014 it’s been my only office.

We’ll get through this in time. It’s going to be painful to get through it too. But if you think you are in pain now, imagine what life would be without the Internet. If nothing else, it can keep you fending off boredom pretty much indefinitely. If you are wise, you can use the Internet in this downtime to train for that next career, and emerge a winner in what is likely to be a new, more socially isolating age.

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.

Anti-government morons

It’s come to this: the anti-government morons are decrying “big government” using the Internet, which would not exist without big government.

Granted, not everyone knows or cares about the history of the Internet. Rest assured it was not spawned as an invention of private industry, or manufactured in someone’s basement. That was sort of tried in the 1980s and failed. Yes, the indispensable Internet that if you are like me you are virtually addicted to (and which also keeps me employed) is a product of the systematic application of your tax dollars chasing what any sound financial analyst back in the 1960s would have called a wild goose chase. As an investment of tax dollars its return is incalculable, but it has connected us as never before, made getting information incredibly simple, and has even help foment revolution in countries like Egypt. It will probably be seen in retrospect as the most brilliant use of government tax money ever and a key enabler of democracy across the globe.

Anyone remember Compuserve? Or AOL? They were private Internet-like networks for subscribers only back in the 1980s and 1990s. Compuserve was bought out by AOL in 2003 and added to their list of “hot” acquisitions like Netscape (cough cough). AOL is no longer in the business of dishing out content only to paid subscribers and sees itself as a “digital media company”. Content equals money so they are eager to get anyone on the Internet to look at their sites, not just subscribers. In part they do that by not associating their sites with aol.com, which is unsexy, and build sites like this one. AOL still frequently loses money and every six months or so it seems to undergo reorganization.

The Internet you enjoy today is a basically a product of the Department of Defense. Back in the 1960s, the Defense Department needed a digital way to connect the department with research arms at educational institutions. It threw research money at the problem through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which takes on great, hard to fulfill quests. Working with a company called BBN under a government contract, the first router was manufactured. It provided a common means to move data electronically over a network through this weird idea of packets. Being able to send packets of data reliably between places on the network in turn spawned the first email systems that also went over its network. In the early 1990s, Tim Berners Lee at a multi-national research institution in Switzerland (which most recently found the God Particle) thought email was too cumbersome for his tastes, and created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became the web. It was government that created the Internet and arguably it could only have happened because of government. Private industry was not interested in some decades-long research project to build an open network that they might not control. Where was the profit in that?

Arguably the Internet could not have happened without the space program. Huge amounts of government research money were thrown at developing electronic computers, needing to be ever smaller and faster, to facilitate the needs of the space program. The space program also developed a whole host of other valuable products we use today and don’t think about, like Teflon, byproducts of government funded research that were turned over to the commercial sector.

Public investments created our interstate commerce system, a system we now take for granted but which made it so much easier to move both goods and people across the country. This investment stimulated commerce, built suburbs, and made it easier and faster to see our great country. Public investments created and sustained public schools and universities, which allowed minds with lots of potential to reach actualization and be put to work for the enrichment and betterment of all.

For a couple of dollars per person per year, the National Weather Service provides non-biased, accurate and timely weather forecasts available to anyone. One of our most valuable federal agencies is also one of our least known or appreciated: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards. Not only does it say how to define an inch or a pound, it also defines standards for more complex things, like data security. Defining it once by engaging the best minds on these subjects keeps everyone from reinventing the wheel. Standards save huge amounts of money and promote competition, but we take them for granted. By promoting open standards and interoperability, NIST and other standards organizations allow the private sector to thrive and we consumers pay lower prices and get more broadly useful products.

Does the government waste money? Most certainly. We waste billions in Medicare fraud every year, and arguably wasted hundreds of billions in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand why some would infer from these examples that that the government simply cannot manage any large problems. However, the government is tasked to manage large problems all the time because lawmakers think those tasks are important. Many times, the tasks are unique and have never been done before, and are inherently risky. For any risky endeavor, there is a likelihood of failure, thus it’s not surprising that government’s record is so spotty. However, by approving these programs, lawmakers are essentially saying they should move forward in spite of the risks.

Oversight is supposed to be the solution, but it works haphazardly. Congress has the responsibility but it seems poor at it. There are other mechanisms in place to audit federal agencies: the Government Accountability Office, inspector generals at every agency, reporting to the Office of Management and Budget and much more. What does not happen often is that a program is held accountable for achieving results, with the penalty that the program goes away if results are not achieved. Some programs have sunset provisions, but these are the exception. (You might want to review my thoughts on how to make a truly accountable government.)

Yes, I can understand that people don’t like to pay taxes. Yes, I can understand that they don’t think the government should be doing lots of things that it does, and want to eliminate huge chunks of the government and pocket the money instead. Doing so may eliminate a lot of waste and fraud by ending a bad program, but it doesn’t eliminate the underlying problems. Eliminate the EPA and pollution is not going to go away. It will get worse. Eliminate the FDA and you run the risk of having unsafe drugs. Eliminate Medicaid, food stamps and welfare and you run the risk of revolution. Eliminate transportation funding and expect more people to die from bridge collapses or find their cars falling into sinkholes.

The real question is whether the costs to society are greater or less because of government, because the costs will get paid either way. They will happen either through taxes or through costs like lowered life expectancies, greater crime, poorly educated children, fouled water and air, unsafe food and a crappy transportation structure. The private sector cannot rush into save us from these problems. They might, if they see some profit in it, but any solution won’t be in your best interest, but in theirs.

The really successful governments these days are those that meld the best of the private and public sectors. Look at Germany, with a progressive government and a huge welfare state that still lives within its means, is thrifty and is innovative in producing products the world needs. Thanks to its government, it is leading the way in getting energy from renewable resources. It did not happen in the absence of government, but because of government. It also happened because Germans believe in their government and support it, unlike large portions of Americans, who are trained to be suspicious of government.

Our imperfect government is a result of an imperfect democracy driven largely by unelected special interests. When it does not truly serve the public good, it becomes ineffective and corrupt. When it works with the public good in mind, as it did for the Internet, it can drive the future and make us world leaders, rather than laggards.

Whether you agree with me or not, that you are reading this at all is due to the fact that you, the taxpayer, invested in a risky venture that networked us together. Without this investment, the United States would now almost certainly be a second world country, because what would we produce otherwise that the world would want? It values our ability to innovate, and our innovation is predicated in part on massive research, far beyond the ability of the private sector alone to attempt. This kind of research can only be done by the public sector and our educational institutions. If we don’t make these investments, other countries will before we will, and we will be a far poorer nation because of it.

The Internet is getting too smart

I don’t know if you have had the same experience I have had trolling around the Internet. No matter where I go, the same targeted ads follow me.

From the perspective of web advertisers and sellers this is good news. Why serve me useless ads for places like Popeye’s Chicken when instead they can target me with ads for open source support from OpenLogic? OpenLogic is one of a number of companies that provide support for open source software. It’s a pretty obscure field, which means if I am to get targeted for their ads someone knows a whole lot about me.

For you see, I do happen to know a bit about OpenLogic. One day at work I was so disgruntled with the price increases that Oracle wanted to support its MySQL product that I went hunting for cheaper alternatives. MySQL is a database used everywhere, but mostly on the Internet. It powers most major Internet websites including the Google search engine and photo sites like Flickr. MySQL has gone through a series of acquisitions over the years, first by Sun, and now Oracle, which acquired Sun. It’s pretty much a given that when Oracle acquires a product, it raises prices by about a third, and that’s what I was seeing for Oracle support for MySQL. Larry Ellison needs more yachts. Yes, there is “competition” for MySQL support but most of these vendors are simply reselling support that really comes from Oracle, which means their prices closely match Oracle’s prices. OpenLogic was one of the exceptions, provided we installed a community edition of MySQL. It looked like if we went with OpenLogic we could trim our support costs for MySQL by half. Good deal.

In the last month or so I have seen OpenLogic web ads pretty much everywhere I go on the Internet. It’s not a big enough company to target users indiscriminately. Most people have no idea what open source software is, and if they do they probably aren’t someone who might have authority to buy or recommend it, as I have. But clearly somewhere on the web there is some firm or firms keeping track of this stuff. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I am at work or at home on my personal computer. I can be on the road as well. OpenLogic ads will follow me everywhere. Frankly, it creeps me out. I don’t want the Internet to know this much about me. I want to turn this off. I want anonymity again when I surf the web.

What worries me more is that if the commercial world can piece this together about me, perhaps Big Brother is doing the same as well. Maybe we are all being monitored by the NSA or some other government agencies, maybe when by law we should not be. Who can say? The Patriot Act has been extended way beyond its planned uses, and both the Bush and Obama Administrations think it gives them carte blanche to snoop around on the Internet and put together electronic dossiers on potential terrorists, which theoretically could be any of us. I have a feeling that my NSA file is already much larger than any FBI file accumulated against famous people like Martin Luther King.

I can live in denial about potential government snooping of my private life, but corporations clearly know way too much about me, including stuff I have not divulged online. I am seeing ads for Three Musketeers candy bar (“Now with more chocolate”) most places I go as well. Someone apparently knows I buy a bar once a week or so. When I do, it’s usually in the snack bar at work. I pay cash. Yet the Internet seems to know somehow because I see the Three Musketeers ads served nearly as much as the OpenLogic ads.

It used to be that if you felt paranoid about your online privacy you would go into your web browser and remove all your persistent cookies. Web sites would lose associations with you. Apparently, that is no longer the case. Web cookies are so old fashioned. As best I can figure your internet protocol (IP) address is being tracked and matched in real time against targeted ads, and probably associated with your name and buying habits. This means that removing cookies offers little privacy protection. I am really disturbed though when I find that some company is relating my work IP address with my personal IP address. This must be happening; otherwise I would not see so many OpenLogic ads when I surf from home.

The Internet also knows I am an old fart. Well, not that old. I live in denial at age 54. But it knows that old farts like me want QWERTY keyboards. So I am being targeted with ads for cricKet smartphones because, presumably, it also knows that I don’t yet own a smartphone. And hey, they have QWERTY keyboards for us old farts! I never mentioned online anywhere that I prefer QWERTY keyboards (well, until now) but someone has figured it out, or has figured out I was likely to want one, being an old fart. I embarrass myself trying to type text messages on my cell phone. It can take minutes. Gimme a keyboard, dammit!

Meanwhile, United Airlines is also targeting me, tempting me with flight deals that don’t seem much of a bargain. This is presumably because I am in their frequent flier club, if flying United three to six times a year for business makes you a frequent flier. Jetblue is tempting me as well, perhaps because I gave them a positive review, but also because I bought some tickets from them online recently. Doubtless I am hardly unique and I bet you too are puzzled by these highly targeted ads as well.

The thing that bugs me is that they don’t pay a toll. Oh, I am sure sites like Google charge a toll, but I don’t get any money from it. I’d like to put up a tollbooth on my Internet experience which basically would say “If you want to serve me a targeted web ad, pay up buddy!” I know there are browser Add Ons like Ad-Block that do a decent job of killing most ads, but I have found them annoying because they aren’t one hundred percent effective. I’d like advertisers to bid for my attention. I figure if I charged only a penny per targeted ad per day, I could make between two and five dollars a day. Can someone write software like this? I’d buy it. Maybe I will write it when I retire. I figure at my age and income level, I should be a valuable advertising target for someone. Just why give away the store?

There are anonymizer services out there that would make my web browsing experience less personalized, but you have to pay for anonymity. Running everything through a proxy would also make content appear more slowly. I realize Internet privacy is something of an illusion, but it feels like it has gone way too far in the wrong direction. I want to reclaim some private space online, but it seems impossible at this point.

To start, it would be nice to get rid of all the ads for OpenLogic, Three Musketeers, various airlines and other sites, but I have a feeling there are other targeted ads in the queue waiting for me if I succeeded. It seems that as part of the price to pay for being an online denizen I will have to get used to being watched. I wish it were otherwise.

Craigslist Casual Encounters: now officially a complete waste of time

(Warning: This post is rated R.)

Every couple of weeks I log into Google Analytics and check out my blog’s web statistics. A fuller report will come in 2010 but I have noticed a few trends. Visits are down by about a quarter and page views are down by about a fifth. This is not necessarily bad. In the past, my page views were artificially inflated by the less than one percent of my blog entries that discuss pornography, particularly this one and that one. Thankfully, page views for those posts are receding at last.

What is increasing? A simple eulogy I wrote and published when my mother died back in 2005 has received twice as much traffic as the year before (over 4300 page views, averaging twelve page views a day). However, my fastest growing blog entry is one in wrote in late 2005 on the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist. Interest in this topic is up 127% from a year ago and averages more than fifteen page views a day. While I have nothing more to say about pornography, in the interest of getting more traffic I could find something more to say about Craigslist.

So over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I put on my dark glasses and revisited Washington D.C. Craigslist Casual Encounters to see what was new. When I reviewed it in 2005 it was a pretty crass place. I am sad to say that four years later the situation is much worse, which I did not think was possible. If I were Craig Newmark, who founded Craiglist way back in 1995, I would be too embarrassed to host it anymore.

At least Craigslist will take the time to warn you that most of the postings in this area are fraudulent.

SCAM ALERT – scammers posing as potential romantic partners are directing CL users to age and identity verification sites, dating/adult/cam sites (where you can see their “pics” or chat with them), even sites designed to deliver malware — all in hopes of earning affiliate marketing commissions at your expense.

In response to the high volume of spam, Craigslist has taken some steps. It has made it harder to post ads, in that you have to go through the open source reCaptcha system first. (I am using it too to filter comments.) The good news is that this means that whoever posts to Craigslist is a human, rather than a robot. The bad news is that it does not appear to be deterring spammers in the least. There must be enough money to be made trying to sell sex as a “casual encounter” on Craigslist to go through the bother anyhow.

Also in response to the high volume of spammers lurking in the Casual Encounters weeds, Craigslist has provided tools to “vote a poster off the island”. If enough people say that an ad is spam, it is marked as spam and shortly prohibited from display. Craigslist then sends the poster an email, which apparently contains a convenient link which if you click on it lets you repost the message. The result is that it appears that Craigslist Casual Encounters is now largely a flame war between people pissed off by the spam and the spammers.

What is getting lost? Well, casual sex connections on the site, which were probably largely an illusion anyhow. However, there a number of ads that appear to my untrained eye to be wholly legitimate. At least I assume that is true of the many ads posted by “BBWs” (Big Beautiful Women, or judging from their pictures when they post them, morbidly obese women) looking for a good time. Whatever, they are likely to be quickly voted off the island as well. Maybe the BBWers are in reality spammers. Or maybe the Craigslist men just hate fat women. The result appears to be a toxic mess of spam and vindictive people willing to flag everything.

Perhaps you read about the murder that happened in Boston in May to a woman who advertised in Craigslist Erotic Services. Since then Craigslist has tightened up its Erotic Services board, apparently charging anyone a fee to post, and prohibiting ads that suggest you will receive actual sex. The result of this policy seems to be to move the whores into the Casual Encounters area instead. As was true in 2005, there appear to be plenty of “women” whoring over there. Certain words though must be getting flagged because these “women” have developed a whole new vocabulary for asking for money. Mostly they want “roses”. Men are not beyond asking for “roses” either, particularly when they are advertising for their own gender. The typical ad is like this one:

I could use your help with bills. If you could use a good bj, let’s help each other. 100 roses for bj. I can host. Must be clean/ddf.

There are even people out there selling manufactured group sex. If I were interested in group sex, I suspect I would find a local swingers group where, presumably, you can swing safely and with people who are not psychos. I sure would not expect to pay for the privilege, particularly when multi-partner sex with complete strangers can kill you. Moreover, who is to know if you go to some stranger’s apartment you will not end up robbed or worse?

hot gangbang 2nite only!!!! 46DDD, big nipples, wet pussy. horny. TIGHT ASS HOLE 5’8 black I CAN HOST TONIGHT ONLY. $

Even if you can find a legitimate poster for a gangbang, do they want you? No, apparently they are into fantasy, which means you must be very well endowed, not Mr. Six Incher. With our African American president, black must be the new “in” color. Well-endowed black men seem to be in great demand, particularly for group sex.

Seeking 4 to 5 more Black males to join our GB grp.. Requirements is as follows.. Must be clean and dd free. Able to perform in a grp setting. 8′ or better. Must be in shape. Must not be camera shy.

8 feet or better? Good luck with that. Okay, well, Craigslist posters are not exactly known for their spelling skills and can’t seem to be bothered to reread the posts before the make them.

In short, if you want to waste your time, want to catch some sort of deadly social disease, want to get robbed, are into hugely obese but possibly horny women, want to have an encounter with a woman who turns out to be a transvestite or love flagging spammers then Craigslist Casual Encounters is your perfect destination.

To the many horny men out there, I am sorry, but if you want to get laid, it’s time to start frequenting bars and clubs again. At least you can see what you are getting in a bar. Good news: most are non-smoking these days, so it’s easier to discern the good looking women from the not so. I cannot see how you can possibly find what you are looking for on Craigslist.

Back in 2005, I said that surfing Craigslist Casual Encounters was like rubbernecking past an awful accident. In 2009, I can say it does not even have the appeal of rubbernecking. It is the definition of a complete waste of time.

The synergy of RSS to Email

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about this new cool technology called RSS. Actually, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was hardly new in December 2003. It was introduced by Netscape in 1999 as “RDF Site Summary”. This original version is now quaintly referred to as RSS 0.91.

The problem in 2003 was that RSS had not caught on. Who really wants to manually check the same web sites periodically for new content when a solution like RSS was available? It took a couple trillion web clicks but eventually users realized this was stupid and inefficient. Instead, web savvy people like me were noisily petitioning content providers to create RSS feeds. Eventually web publishers took notice. They realized the cost of implementation was relatively small, the underlying XML dirt simple to generate and that it could expand their market for minimal cost. Now, it is hard to find any web content provider without news feeds. This blog, for example, is accessible in two RSS formats as well as the Atom 1.0 syndication format. According to Feedburner, approximately thirty of you access my blog via my RSS feed. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.

So RSS has caught on to the point where it is widely available, but it is still not as widely used as it should be. Only about 10% of us web surfers regularly fetch web content through news feeds. I can only speculate on why this is so. I know I often prefer the rich content available on a web site to the relatively dry text that comes through with RSS. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox let you subscribe to a site’s news feed with a couple clicks, providing the site adds appropriate tags to its HTML.

Syndication formats like RSS and Atom thus serve a different purpose than a browser. We visit web sites for the relative ease of finding the depth of information at a site. We subscribe to news feeds because we want its regular content on a small range of specialized topics. Those of us who are religious about reading content via a newsreader know that it is very efficient at aggregating feeds for us. Yet it lacks the breadth of information that is available on the web site. A newsreader does not facilitate curiosity the way a browser does.

Many of us would probably like to subscribe to hundreds of news sources but really do not have time to read all of them, even with the efficiency built into a newsreader. For example, there may be a site that you only want to read quarterly. In addition, these sites may have pertinent information, but much of it may be irrelevant to our needs.

The problems with email are well known. Given the overwhelming amount of spam, it is hard to legitimate email to make it to your inbox. There is never any assurance that you have received all email sent to you. More email than you think gets lost, but much of it probably ends up in spam folders because spam filters generate too many false positives. As dreadful as missing an important email is to us, many of us fear the alternative even more: having to sift through the dozens or hundreds of spam emails we would get daily if we turned off our spam filters.

I have been wondering if RSS might be an effective solution to broadcasting certain kinds of information. Generally you do not have to worry about an RSS feed containing spam, since you typically verify that the site is legitimate by visiting the site. Once you know it is legitimate, you then can add its RSS feed. However, as I noted, unless you are meticulous about using your newsreader on a daily basis, it is easy to lose these timely notifications.

For those feeds where I need certain information, but only sporadically, it would be nice to get an email with the feed content when the feed changes, or when certain keywords appear in the feed. Moreover, when I no longer need to receive a feed from a particular source, it would be nice to have a fast way of unsubscribing from the feed.

As usual, industry is way ahead of me. A simple Google search eventually led me to the RSSReaderLive site, which I have been testing out. You could also choose one of the many other alternatives out there. Among them are RSSFWD, SendMeRSS, and FeedBlitz. FeedBurner also has a notification service. Using RSSReaderLive, the only thing I had to remember is to program my spam filter to let all emails from it go into my inbox automatically. I just have to hope that the email will not end up dropped in some digital bit bucket on its way to my inbox.

As you might expect these services are not necessarily free. You generally have to either pay a small fee for the service or deal with ads in the email. I hope that email clients will get smarter and start polling RSS feeds for you automatically, and include feed items as emails in your inbox. For those who like to diddle with their PCs, there are programs like rss2email that you can install that will act as an RSS to email proxy for you.

I like it when a confluence of standard web technologies (email, the web and newsfeeds) can be leveraged together to solve a problem like this, minor though it may be. It neatly solves the timely broadcast notification dilemma in a way that works for both content providers and consumers.

A bundle of confusion

If you own a horse, you have to let it run regularly. If you own a sports car, you should take it on a racetrack occasionally for the pleasure of being smashed into your seat while you accelerate. Similarly, if you have a high definition television (HDTV), you do not buy it to watch interlaced analog TV signals with only 473 lines of resolution. You want content that will make you appreciate the fact you just spent $699 on a high definition TV.

That is how much we paid for our HDTV. It is an Olevia 37 inch HDTV that comes with more ports and options than we will ever use. Our TV room is small but despite its relatively modest screen size, it still seems enormous to us. The TV it is replacing worked perfectly fine. It is now sitting in our basement queued for a likely donation. While only about seven years old, it was doomed soon after it was bought. The FCC declared that on February 19, 2009 TVs like ours will be obsolete unless we buy a conversion box. Even if we did our picture quality would not have been improved. Neighbors would laugh at us for being so 20th century.

Both our cable provider (Cox Communications) and our phone company (Verizon) have spent years tempting us with their all-digital services. We have our Internet and cable TV service with Cox and an old-fashioned POTS line with Verizon. On a typical month, I pay Cox $93 and Verizon $32. Both Cox and Verizon have been luring us with bundled services. If we bundled all our communications needs with them, we were told, we could save some money.

Verizon has its fiber optic FiOS service. In addition to providing high-speed Internet access, you can also receive a lot of other content, including their version of movies on demand. Cox offers essentially these same services for roughly the same price. How do I know? Well, it is hard to tell. Masters of voodoo marketing are putting together their sales brochures. They excel in obfuscation. Yet they refuse to leave me alone. Roughly once a week I get a solicitation from each company. Typically, they come in the mail, but now and then, they also come attached to my door handle. Verizon has lately been very uppity, sending salespersons to my door to pitch their FiOS service. That was one strike against them; I hate door-to-door salespersons and by implication any company that would send me one. Moreover, I have an unlisted phone number. You would think Verizon would take this as a signal not to call me. You would be wrong. They have given me several calls pitching FiOS. Cox at least has neither knocked on my door nor solicited me over the telephone.

Now that we are HDTV owners it was time to consider their various offerings. As we soon discovered, analog TV on a HDTV looks ridiculous. Either much of the screen is black or if your TV is fancy like ours is, you can put it in a zoom mode. The screen fills up, but suddenly the picture looks fuzzy.

Both Verizon and Cox had mid-tier bundled service packages for $99.99 a month that combined telephone, digital TV and Internet service. At $99.99 a month, either looked like a good deal. Either deal appeared to be about $25 less than we were currently paying. The question became which one to choose? Which was better?

Naturally, both providers claimed they had a superior network, superior content and lower prices. Both though delight in obfuscating the consumer’s real costs. It is almost impossible to determine what you are actually buying and how much the service will cost you. I spent a couple hours on Verizon’s site trying to pick through the details of their bundles. Eventually I gave up. There is probably no way to know for sure without hiring a lawyer to decipher the fine print. Verizon though did have three strikes against them. First, they annoyed me by having salespersons knock on my door and call me unsolicited on the phone. Second, was their stance on network neutrality. Third and probably most importantly, like with their cell phone service if you select one of their bundles they want to lock you in for a couple years. I mean for such a steal as they are giving you they have to make up the difference somehow! I am old fashioned enough to think that if their service is that great it will be obvious to me, so I should not have to be locked into it.

Cox Communications had a few strikes against them too. About a year ago, I inquired about one of their bundles. I asked many questions and I did not like what I heard. I politely said no thanks, not at this time. A few days later one of their digital receivers arrived on my doorstep. That raised my dander. A phone call confirmed that I had not subscribed to their bundle. However, I still had to take an hour out of my life to return the box they sent me. They would not pick it up.

Nevertheless, between their latest brochure, reading their web site and a long conversation on the phone with their sales office, I was able to get a sense of what my bundle would actually cost me. Still, the devil is in the details. Did their $99.99 a month bundle include the rental cost of their digital receiver? Negatory. That was $4.50 a month, so the bundle was really $104.49. Did it include any HD channels? No except for the local HD broadcast signals. However, they did offer 31 HD channels. If I wanted them on top of our digital cable, they were $1.44 a month. What is this free digital tier that comes with the bundle? Apparently, the ones listed in the brochure were incorrect, but I could get the equivalent of their Variety Tier. This is what my wife wanted because she wants to see the latest Torchwood episodes on BBC America. Would there be an installation charge? Not if I install the digital receiver myself. They have to come out to the house to install the telephone interface, but there is no charge for that. Can I get extended local long distance like I have with Verizon? In other words, can I call my father who lives across the Potomac River toll free? No, but you can call the District of Columbia for free. Oh, and to get the bundle you have to choose Cox as your local long distance, long distance and international provider. Long distance rates are fifteen cents a minute, or more than three times what I pay Pioneer Telephone, my current long distance provider. However, this is not much of an issue since we hardly ever call long distance. We do email instead. Moreover, to maintain my unpublished telephone number I have to cough up another $1.71 a month. All totaled with taxes my $99.99 a month bundle would cost me $123.09. Hey, but at least I will only have to cut one check.

In short, I may save a few bucks a month but I will not be supplementing my retirement income with their fabulous bundled savings. On the plus side, we will no longer be stuck with analog TV signals. Digital signals will no longer be interlaced. The picture on these channels will not make them much bigger, but will make the picture smoother. Their 31 HD channels are expected to double soon and there will be no extra fee. We will get channels we do not get now, but that does not mean we are likely to watch them. In addition, as best I can tell I am not locked into a two-year contract.

In fact, the differences between Cox and Verizon are rather marginal, but I chose to go with Cox for these reasons. I may end up regretting my choice. Their eight-hour battery will keep my landline working during a power outage, but what if the outage lasts nine hours? While many of our TV channels will soon be in HD, I am still not sure I will watch any more TV. I largely gave up TV years ago. On the other hand, our daughter will be pleased.

Our next purchase will probably be a Bluetooth compatible DVD player. Apparently, regular DVDs are not good enough for a modern HDTV, which means that we will want to buy some of our favorite DVDs again so we can have a more proper theatrical experience.

Well, someone has to pull this country out of recession.

Google hits another home run with Google Analytics

At least a few of the best things in life are actually free. For web site owners like me who want useful statistics on our visitors but do not want to pay for it (in either money, time or advertising) there is a slick solution: Google Analytics.

Until Google Analytics, I had mediocre statistical solutions. I monitor my site with the free versions of SiteMeter and StatCounter. However, both services offer only limited free features. Both allow you to see detailed information on your last hundred page views only. If you want more information, you need to take out your charge card.

On the too much information side, my web server of course logs every hit for all of my sites. My web host like most provides access to free Awstats reports. It does a nice job of summarizing the data in my web logs. However, the information tends to be about a day old. Moreover, since it logs everything it provides statistics that, while valid, are not always terribly meaningful. For example, I get many hits on my RSS and Atom feed links. Most of these are just machines polling my server at periodic intervals. It does not necessarily mean that someone is actually reading my content. In addition, I am too lazy to try to figure out how to tune my Apache web server and Awstats configuration files to split my three domains into separate reports. However, the price of Awstats cannot be beat, and it does give me a picture of the total volume of traffic my site is getting.

What I really care about are those who are actively reading content. SiteMeter provided a close approximation. I could look at its statistics, add in a weighting factor for my newsfeed hits and get an overall picture. Still, without paying for it I had no way to ask questions such as, “Which entry was most popular last month?” and “What search words bring the most people to my site?”

Enter Google Analytics, Google’s free web site statistics package. Finally, I have a convenient way to dig down and see the relevant information I am looking for without having to pay for it or maintain it. I also have a way to get detailed statistics beyond the last one hundred page views. Google provides it as a free service to all but the largest web sites. It is designed to work with your Google Adwords account. However, you do not need to have a Google Adwords account to use Google Analytics.

While not a perfect package, it is slick. First, its drawbacks. It is not as easy to add the metering code to your web pages as it is with SiteMeter or StatCounter. You will need to dig through your web site’s templates and add the appropriate code in the HTML headers and ask it to validate each site. Second, by default you do not get up to the minute information. Google Analytics defaults to showing you statistics through the previous day. Current information is there but you have to change your date range. Third, it cannot track your non-browser related hits. This is good and bad because much of it you would want to ignore anyhow (search engine robots come to mine). Others, like relevant hits on your newfeeds, would be useful. Fourth, it would be nice if it had an API (application programming interface). I suspect this will come soon. With an API, Sitemeter-like features such as counters that appear on your web pages could be implemented. (Some WordPress plug-in authors have already done some clever things.)

With these downsides though, look at what you get. First, there is no money or advertising. Second, it has a super-slick user interface built on top of Flash technology. It allows easy customization of your Google Analytics reports simply by dragging and dropping widgets. You can customize your dashboard to show your relevant statistics. You can also drill down to get relevant statistics easily, either by clicking on the link or by placing your mouse cursor over the relevant items on the graphics. Mouse-over dialog boxes tell you much relevant information without even needing to click. Move easily from one domain to another by selecting the domain from the selection list. Change the date criteria easily by opening up the date control and highlighting the dates you want.

Google Analytics provides a wealth of analytical information. Some of it, while relevant, can be hard to understand. What is a bounce rate anyhow? Convenient links provide more details. Data is organized into four major areas: visitor information, traffic content, sources and goals. The goals area is most useful if you are using their Google Adwords service. With it, you fine-tune your Google Adwords campaigns to help you bring in more traffic. This is where Google makes its money. If by offering you free analytics it can persuade you to open a Google Adwords account, or use it more frequently or effectively, it is good for their bottom line as well as yours.

I wish Google Analytics had a mode that allowed the public to see my statistics too. If it did, it would more resemble SiteMeter and StatCounter’s features. Perhaps this will come in some future version.

I have a feeling that Google Analytic’s free service is worrying SiteMeter, StatCounter and similar services. I got a recent notice from SiteMeter saying they will be rolling out an upgraded statistics package soon. With Google nipping at its heels, I would not be surprised if it offered expanded free services.

If you have been using SiteMeter and similar services, I think you owe it to yourself to add Google Analytics metering too.

Why KML may revolutionize the world

Almost two years ago, I gushed about Google Earth. Two years later, this product from the engineers at Google continues to amaze and astound many of us, particularly those of us who are geography geeks. I thought at the time (and still think it is true) that Google Earth is a revolutionary product, every bit as significant as the web browser. Two years later, I am beginning to understand that its underpinnings, something called KML, has the potential to fundamentally change the world as we know it.

Scott McNealy the Chairman of the Board of Sun Computers said some ten years ago, "The network is the computer". This is now their corporate motto. Scott was ahead of his time, but in my opinion, the network did not become the computer until 2005 when Google Earth was released. Here at last was a killer application wherein the network really was the computer. Google Earth could not work at all without the ubiquity of the Internet. It also required Google’s very big and very fast pipes to the Internet. Nor could it exist on computers in somebody’s basement. The staggering amount of imagery rendered by Google Earth was measured in the terabytes. To serve all that imagery to so many clients simultaneously required very big and redundant computer centers. In short, it required the sort of infrastructure that only a few companies such as Google could provide. It also needed software that allowed easy access to geographical data. This was the Google Earth program that you installed on your computer. However, the Google Earth program was useless without the network infrastructure. The network was the computer indeed.

Google assembled and licensed a staggering amount of surface imagery of our planet. Much of the low-resolution imagery was provided free of charge by my employer, the U.S. Geological Survey. Google was also astute enough to realize that people had to have an easy way to describe points on the earth, link those points to URLs, describe geographical boundaries, features on the earth, and topics of interest. Creating this dataset was too big a job even for Google. However, if given the right tools people could describe these geographical points of interest themselves. The trick was to describe these geographical features in a way that Google Earth could render. Google, rather than reinventing the wheel, looked at what was out there. It settled on KML, or Keyhole Markup Language as the geographic markup language that Google Earth would render. (In time, Google bought Keyhole, which was in the digital imagery collection business, and which invented KML.)

If you are a geek like me, KML is just an instance of an XML schema. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a platform neutral way of sharing data along with its meaning. HTML (the markup language used to describe web pages like this), or rather its modern manifestation called XHTML, is also an instance of an XML schema.

The important thing to understand about XML and KML is that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to write either of them. You can do it in a text editor if so inclined. You just have to know the schema, which amounts to the rules to be followed to mark up data for a particular kind of use. Thanks to the popularity of Google Earth, KML has become a de facto standard for describing many kinds of geographic data. There is now a very large community of KML enthusiasts out there. Many of them are busy marking up their own unique geographic content in KML. Load someone’s KML file into Google Earth and you too can show your friends the precise location of things that interest you, like Aunt Martha’s grave or your favorite hiking trail.

Google Earth then is really nothing more than a rendering engine for geographical information described in a KML syntax. In the same way that HTML describes how web pages should be presented by a web browser, KML describes how applications can describe geographic data. In addition, just as Mosaic (which quickly morphed into Netscape) became the first popular web browser, the Google Earth software just happened to be the first application for rendering geographic data described in KML. Among those now providing competition for the Google Earth program are World Wind and Geoportal.

When you innovate as fast as Google, it is hard to get ahead of them. While you may not have tried Google Earth, you are probably familiar with Google Maps. With Google Maps, you only need a web browser but you still have an amazing ability to intuitively examine the earth and find points of interest. Google Maps of course has competition too, principally from Yahoo Maps and MapQuest.

There is no question that Google Earth is ultra slick. Web browsers are ubiquitous but relatively unsophisticated. Until Web 2.0’s vision is realized, we will continue to need to download and install specialized software for many applications. This places a limitation on KML because to use it effectively you need to install a sophisticated program on your desktop computer.

If the network is the computer then Google Maps itself is really just a mapping application rendered by a web browser. Mashup sites like Frappr allow you to overlay your points of interest to you on top of Google Maps. What if a web mapping sites like Google Maps could display a user provided KML data source? Then there would be nothing to install and you could easily see the location of Aunt Martha’s grave using a browser.

As I discovered yesterday, you can now do this with Google Maps. In its search box, just point it to a web accessible KML file and it will render those points in Google Maps. (If you know the secret, you can pass the KML file as a URL parameter.) To me this is very exciting. I manage this big web site for the USGS. For years, we have been wanting to add a scalable mapping application to our site. It is not that it cannot be done, it is just that providing an interface like Google Earth is hard to do, particularly when your agency is resource constrained, as ours is. We are still hoping to roll our own scalable mapping interface one of these days.

Fortunately, we USGSers in the water business were at least astute enough a year or so back to figure out that we could create KML files that describe the locations of some of our stream gauging stations. You can find some of them here. This was not particularly hard for us to do because we know the exact latitude and longitude of these stations. Moreover, marking up KML is simple. Now you can use Google Earth to find the location of our gauging stations. In addition, the clever folks in our Waterwatch area enhanced the KML to show more than just location data, but actual useful information. They figured out a way to show how current stream flow conditions compare with historical periods of record. You can get a sense at a glance from color-coded dots in Google Earth just how much water is flowing. Black dots, for example, mean the stream gauge is at an all time high for its measured period of record.

All this is great if you have Google Earth, but many will not take the time to download the software. That is why being able to render KML in Google Maps is to me quite exciting. For example, try this link and you can see USGS stream gauges for the state of Virginia where I live. The color-coded dots give an intuitive "at a glance" sense of just how much water is flowing across the state. Moreover, you can zoom in, zoom out, pan and add road and satellite imagery too.

You may find this mildly interesting, but unless you are a hydrologist or a flood forecaster this information is probably only of passing interest. Suffice to say that USGS is not alone in providing data in KML. The amount of data provided in KML is truly voluminous.

Since it appears that KML can be married ubiquitously to a web browser, what is most amazing is what this says about the potential future of KML. Since KML is just an instance of XML, it is extensible. This means that KML can be married with and include all sorts of other kinds of data. Sources of data are everywhere. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau has huge amounts of demographic information about us and much of it could be marked up with KML. If these data sources would publish their data in KML, not only could they display their data on web sites like Google Maps, but also it could push the development of platform independent KML analytic tools. I can see web sites or open source tools that will collect KML from all sorts of locations and do data mining for you, finding interesting and hitherto unseen connections for your consideration. The relevant information could then be exported as KML, displayed, stored and most importantly shared.

Therefore, KML has the potential to foster data analysis for the masses, allowing us each to become unique assemblers of new knowledge by gleaning onto lots of other sources of data, but letting our computers find new and relevant patterns between the data.

Whether my vision will be realized remains to be seen. I would be very surprised if others are not already working to turn my vision into a reality. If this can be done then the simple Google Earth tool may one day be seen as something akin to Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, bringing us to the shores of a new land of knowledge that for now is hard to fathom, but whose realization may now well be within our grasp.