A Penny for your thoughts: New Year wishes from mechanical turkers

I wanted to learn more about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service (wikipedia), and perhaps also figure out how I feel about it.

Named after a historical faked chess-playing machine, it uses the Web to allow people around the world to work on short low-pay ‘micro-tasks’. It’s a disturbing capitalist fantasy come true, echoing Frederick Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management‘ of the 1880s. Workers can be assigned tasks at the touch of the button (or through software automation); and rewarded or punished at the touch of other buttons.

Mechanical Turk has become popular for outsourcing large scale data cleanup tasks, image annotation, and other topics where human judgement outperforms brainless software. It’s also popular with spammers. For more background see ‘try a week as a turker‘ or this Salon article from 2006. Turk is not alone, other sites either build on it, or offer similar facilities. See for example crowdflower, txteagle, or Panos Ipeirotis’ list of micro-crowdsourcing services.

Crowdflower describe themselves as offering “multiple labor channels…  [using] crowdsourcing to harness a round-the-clock workforce that spans more than 70 countries, multiple languages, and can access up to half-a-million workers to dispatch diverse tasks and provide near-real time answers.”

Txteagle focuses on the explosion of mobile access in the developing world, claiming that “txteagle’s GroundSwell mobile engagement platform provides clients with the ability to communicate and incentivize over 2.1 billion people“.

Something is clearly happening here. As someone who works with data and the Web, it’s hard to ignore the potential. As someone who doesn’t like treating others as interchangeable, replaceable and disposable software components, it’s hard to feel very comfortable. Classic liberal guilt territory. So I made an account, both as a worker and as a ‘requester’ (an awkward term, but it’s clear why ‘employer’ is not being used).

I tried a few tasks. I wrote 25-30 words for a blog on some medieval prophecies. I wrote 50 words as fast as I could on “things I would change in my apartment”. I tagged some images with keywords. I failed to pass a ‘qualification’ test sorting scanned photos into scratched, blurred and OK. I ‘like’d some hopeless Web site on Facebook for 2 cents. In all I made 18 US cents. As a way of passing the time, I can see the appeal. This can compete with daytime TV or Farmville or playing Solitaire or Sudoko. I quite enjoyed the mini creative-writing tasks. As a source of income, it’s quite another story, and the awful word ‘incentivize‘ doesn’t do justice to the human reality.

Then I tried the other role: requester. After a little more liberal-guilt navelgazing (“would it be inappropriate to offer to buy people’s immortal souls? etc.”), I decided to offer a penny (well, 2 cents) for up to 100 people’s new year wish thoughts, or whatever of those they felt like sharing for the price.

I copy the results below, stripped of what little detail (eg. time in seconds taken) each result came with. I don’t present this as any deep insight or sociological analysis or arty meditation. It’s just what 100 people somewhere else in the Web responded with, when asked what they wish for 2011. If you want arty, check out the sheep market. If you want more from ‘turkers’ in their own voice, do visit the ‘Turker Nation’ forum. Also Turkopticon is essential reading,  “watching out for the crowd in crowdsourcing because nobody else seems to be.”

The exact text used was “Make a wish for 2011. Anything you like, just describe it briefly. Answers will be made public.”, and the question was asked with a simple Web form, “Make a wish for 2011, … any thought you care to share”.


Here’s what they said:

When you’re lonely, I wish you Love! When you’re down, I wish you Joy! When you’re troubled, I wish you Peace! When things seem empty, I wish you Hope! Have a Happy New Year!

wish u a happy new year…………

happy new year 2011. may this year bring joy and peace in your life

My wish for 2011 is i want to mary my Girlfriend this year.

I wish I will get pregnant in 2011!

i wish juhi becomes close to me

wish you a wonderful happy new year

wish you happy new year

for new year 2011 I wish Love of God must fill each human heart
Food inflation must be wiped off quickly
corruption must be rooted out smartly
Terrorism must be curtailed quickly
All People must get love, care, clothes, shelter & food
Love of God must fill each human heart…

Happy life.All desires to be fulfilled.

wish to be best entrepreneur of the year 2011

dont work hard if it is possible to do the same smarter way..
Be happy!

New year is the time to unfold new horizons,realise new dreams,rejoice in simple pleasures and gear up for new challenges.wishing a fulfilling 2011.

Remember that the best relationship is one where your love for each other is greater than your need for each other. Happy New Year

To get a newer car, and have less car problems. and have more income

I wish that my son’s health problems will be answered

Be it Success & Prosperity, Be it Fun and Frolic…

A new year is waiting for you. Go and enjoy the New Year on New Thought,”Rebirth of My Life”.

Let us wish for a world as one family, then we can overcome all the problems man made and otherwise.

My wish is to gain/learn more knowledge than in 2010

My new years wish for 2011 is to be happier and healthier.

I wish that I would be cured of heartache.

I am really very happy to wish you all very happy new year…..I wish you all the things to be success in your life and career…….. Just try to quit any bad habit within you. Just forgot all the bad incidents happen within your friends and try to enjoy this new year with pleasant……

Wish you a happy and prosperous new year.

I wish for a job.

I would hope that people will end the wars in the world.

Discontinue smoking and restrict intake of alcohol

I wish that my retail store would get a bigger client base so I can expand.

I Wish a wish for You Dear.Sending you Big bunch of Wishes from the Heart close to where.Wish you a Very Very Happy New Year

I wish for 2011 to be filled with more love and happiness than 2010.

Everything has the solution Even IMPOSSIBLE Makes I aM POSSIBLE. Happy Journey for New Year.

May each day of the coming year be vibrant and new bringing along many reasons for celebrations & rejoices. Happy New year

I have just moved and want to make some great new friends! Would love to meet a special senior (man!!) to share some wonderful times with!!!

My wish is that i wanna to live with my “Pretty girl” forever and also wanna to meet her as well,please god please, finish my this wish, no more aspire from me only once.

that people treat each other more nicely and with greater civility, in both their private and public lives.

that we would get our financial house in order

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us. Wish u very happy new year and take care

Wish you a very happy And prosperous new year 2011

Tom Cruise
Angelina Jolie
Aishwarya Rai
Arnold
Jennifer Lopez
Amitabh Bachhan
& me..
All the Stars wish u a Very Happy New Year.

Oh my Dear, Forget ur Fear,
Let all ur Dreams be Clear,
Never put Tear, Please Hear,
I want to tell one thing in ur Ear
Wishing u a very Happy “NEW YEAR”!

May The Year 2011 Bring for You…. Happiness,Success and filled with Peace,Hope n Togetherness of your Family n Friends….

i want to be happy

Good health for my family and friends

I wish my husband’s children would stop being so mean and violent and act like normal children. I want to love my husband just as much as before we got full custody.

to get wonderful loving girl for me.. :))

Keep some good try. Wish u happy new year

happy new year to all

My wish is to find a good job.

i wish i get a big outsourcing contract this year that i can re-set up my business and get back on track.

I wish that I be firm in whatever I do. That I can do justice to all my endeavors. That I give my 100%, my wholehearted efforts to each and every minutest work I do.

My wish for 2011, is a little patience and understanding for everyone, empathy always helps.

To be able to afford a new house

“NEW YEAR 2011″
+NEW AIM + NEW ACHIEVEMENT + NEW DREAM +NEW IDEA + NEW THINKING +NEW AMBITION =NEW LIFE+SUCCESS HAPPY NEW YEAR!

let this year be terrorist free world

Wish the world walk forward in time with all its innocence and beauty where prevails only love, and hatred no longer found in the dictionary.

no

Wish u a very happy New Year Friends and make this year as a pleasant days…

I wish the economy would get better, so people can afford to pay their bills and live more comfortably again.

i wish, god makes life beautiful and very simple to all of us. and happy new year to world.

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man and I wish a very very prosperous new year.

i wish i would buy a house and car for my mom

I wish to have a new car.
This new year will be full of expectation in the field of investment.We concerned about US dollar. Hope this year will be a good for US dollar.

this year is very enjoyment life

Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right

to get married

Wishing all a meaningful,purposeful,healthier and prosperous New Year 2011.

WISH YOU A HAPPY NEW YEAR 2011 MAY BRING ALL HAPPINESS TO YOU

RAKKIMUTHU

In 2011 I wish for my family to get in a better spot financially and world peace.

Wish that economic conditions improve to the extent that the whole spectrum of society can benefit and improve themselves.

I want my divorce to be final and for my children to be happy.

This 2011 year is very good year for All with Health & Wealth.

I wish that things for my family would get better. We have had a terrible year and I am wishing that we can look forward to a better and brighter 2011.

This year bring peace and prosperity to all. Everyone attain the greatest goal of life. May god gives us meaning of life to all.

This new year will bring happy in everyone’s life and peace among countries.

I hope for bipartisanship and for people to realize blowing up other people isn’t the best way to get their point across. It just makes everyone else angry.

A better economy would be nice too

I wish that in 2011 the government will work together as a TEAM for the betterment of all. Peace in the world.

i wish you all happy new year. may god bless all……

no i wish for you

I wish that my family will move into our own house and we can be successful in getting good jobs for our future.

I wish my girl comes back to me

Wish You Happy New Year for All, especially to the workers and requester’s of Mturk.

Greetings!!!

Wishing you and your family a very happy and prosperous NEW YEAR – 2011

May this New Year bring many opportunities your way, to explore every joy of life and may your resolutions for the days ahead stay firm, turning all your dreams into reality and all your efforts into great achievements.

Wish u a Happy and Prosperous New Year 2011….

Wishing u lots of happiness..Success..and Love

and Good Health…….

Wish you a very very happy new year

WISHING YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY & PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR…….

I wish in this 2011 is to be happy,have a good health and also my family.

I pray that the coming year should bring peace, happiness and good health.

I wish for my family to continue to be healthy, for my cars to continue running, and for no 10th Anniversary attacks this upcoming September.

be a good and help full for my family .

Happy and Prosperous New Year

New day new morning new hope new efforts new success and new feeling,a new year a new begening, but old friends are never forgotten, i think all who touched my life and made life meaningful with their support, i pray god to give u a verry “HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YEAR”.

Be a good person,as good as no one

wish this new year brings cheers and happiness to one and all.

For the year 2011 I simply wish for the ability to support my family properly and have a healthier year.

I wish I have luck with getting a better job.

Greater awareness of climate change, and a recovering US economy.

this new year 2011 brings you all prosperous and happiness in your life…….

happy newyear wishes to all the beautiful hearts in the world in the world.god bless you all.

wishing every happy new year to all my pals and relatives and to all my lovely countrymen

Twitter Iran RT chaos

From Twitter in the last few minutes, a chaos of echo’d posts about army moves. Just a few excerpts here by copy/paste, mostly without the all-important timestamps. Without tools to trace reports to their source, to claims about their source from credible intermediaries, or evidence, this isn’t directly useful. Even grassroots journalists needs evidence. I wonder how Witness and Identi.ca fit into all this. I was thinking today about an “(person) X claims (person) Y knows about (topic) Z” notation, perhaps built from FOAF+SKOS. But looking at this “Army moving in…” claim, I think something couched in terms of positive claims (along lines of the old OpenID showcase site Jyte) might be more appropriate.

The following is from my copy/paste from Twitter a few minutes ago. It gives a flavour of the chaos. Note also that observations from very popular users (such as stephenfry) can echo around for hours, often chased by attempts at clarification from others.

(“RT” is Twitter notation for re-tweet, meaning that the following content is redistributed, often in abbreviated or summarised form)

plotbunnytiff: RT @suffolkinace: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
r0ckH0pp3r: RT .@AliAkbar: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
jax3417: RT @ktyladie: RT @GennX: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection #iran
ktladie: RT @GennX: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection #iran
MellissaTweets: RT @AliAkbar: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
GennX: RT @MelissaTweets: RT @AliAkbar: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection

The above all arrived at around the same time, and cite two prior “sources”:

suffolkinnace: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection   18 minutes ago from web

Who is this? Nobody knows of course, but there’s a twitter bio:

http://twitter.com/suffolkinace # Bio Some-to-be Royal Military Policeman in the British Army. Also a massive Xbox geek and part-time comedian

The other “source” seems to be http://twitter.com/AliAkbar
AliAkbar: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
about 1 hour ago from web
url http://republicmodern.com

This leads us to   http://republicmodern.com/about where we’re told
“Ali Akbar is the founder and president of Republic Modern Media. A conservative blogger, he is a contributor to Right Wing News, Hip Hop Republican, and co-host of The American Resolve online radio show. He was also the editor-in-chief of Blogs for McCain.”

I should also mention that a convention emerged in the last day two replace the names of specific local Twitter users in Tehran with a generic “from Iran”, to avoid getting anyone into trouble. Which makes plenty of sense, but without any in the middle vouching for sources makes it even harder to know which reports to take seriously.
More… back to twitter search, what’s happened since I started this post?

http://twitter.com/#search?q=iranelection%20army

badmsm: RT @dpbkmb @judyrey: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLZ RT! URGENT! #IranElection #gr88
SimaoC: RT @parizot: CONFIRMÉ! L’armée se dirige vers Téhéran contre les manifestants! #IranElection #gr88
SpanishClash: RT @mytweetnickname: RT From Iran:ARMY movement NOT confirmed in last 2:15, plz RT this until confrmed #IranElection #gr88
artzoom: RT @matyasgabor @humberto2210: RT CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! #IranElection #iranrevolution
sjohnson301: RT @RonnyPohl From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection #iran9
dauni: RT @withoutfield: RT: @tspe: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
interdigi: RT @ivanpinozas From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
PersianJustice: Once again, stop RT army movements until source INSIDE Iran verifies! Paramilitary is the threat anyway. #iranelection #gr88
Klungtveit Anyone: What’s the origin of reports of “army moving in” on protesters? #iranelection
Eruethemar: RT @brianlltdhq: RT @lumpuckaroo: Only IRG moving, not national ARMY… this is confirmed for real #IranElection #gr88
SAbbasRaza: RT @bymelissa: RT @alexlobov: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
timnilsson: RT @Iridium24: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
edmontalvo: RT @jasona: RT @Marble68: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
stevelabate: RT army moving into Tehran against protesters. Please RT. #iranelection
ivanpinozas: From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection
bschh: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection (via @dlayphoto)
dlayphoto: RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protestors! PLEASE RT! URGENT! #IranElection

In short … chaos!

Is this just a social / information problem, or can different tooling and technology help filter out what on earth is happening?

The House that Jack Built

<Farmer> <sowed> <Corn> <kept> <Cock> <woke> <Priest> <married> <Man> <kissed> <Maiden> <milked> <Cow> <tossed> <Dog> <worried> <Cat> <killed> <Rat> <ate> <Malt> <in> <House> <builtBy> <Person foaf:name=”Jack” /> </builtBy> </House> </in> </Malt> </ate> </Rat> </killed> </Cat> </worried> </Dog> </tossed> </Cow> </milked> </Maiden> </kissed> </Man> </married> </Priest> </woke> </Cock> </kept> </Corn> </sowed> </Farmer>

FOAF super-connectivity daydreams from 2002.

“indirectly inspired by John Pilger’s ‘The New Rulers of the World’, FOAFCorp and www.theyrule.net/

This is the man, all tattered and torn, ...

Obama for middle-managers

(inspired by the ‘Yes we can’ powerpoint slides…)

We Will

  • act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth
  • build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together
  • restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost
  • harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories
  • transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age
  • begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people
  • work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet
  • [To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent], extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist
  • [for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents], defeat you

We Will Not…

  • give [those ideals] up for expedience’s sake
  • apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence

Family trees, Gedcom::FOAF in CPAN, and provenance

Every wondered who the mother(s) of Adam and Eve’s grand-children were? Me too. But don’t expect SPARQL or the Semantic Web to answer that one! Meanwhile, …

You might nevetheless care to try the Gedcom::FOAF CPAN module from Brian Cassidy. It can read Gedcom, a popular ‘family history’ file format, and turn it into RDF (using FOAF and the relationship and biography vocabularies). A handy tool that can open up a lot of data to SPARQL querying.

The Gedcom::FOAF API seems to focus on turning the people or family Gedcom entries  into their own FOAF XML files. I wrote a quick and horrid Perl script that runs over a Gedcom file and emits a single flattened RDF/XML document. While URIs for non-existent XML files are generated, this isn’t a huge problem.

Perhaps someone would care to take a look at this code and see whether a more RDFa and linked-data script would be useful?

Usage: perl gedcom2foafdump.pl BUELL001.GED > _sample_gedfoaf.rdf

The sample data I tested it on is intriguing, though I’ve not really looked around it yet.

It contains over 9800 people including the complete royal lines of England, France, Spain and the partial royal lines of almost all other European countries. It also includes 19 United States Presidents descended from royalty, including Washington, both Roosevelts, Bush, Jefferson, Nixon and others. It also has such famous people as Brigham Young, William Bradford, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Anne Bradstreet (Dudley), Jesus Christ, Daniel Boone, King Arthur, Jefferson Davis, Brian Boru King of Ireland, and others. It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and also includes lines to ancient Rome including Constantine the Great and ancient Egypt including King Tutankhamen (Tut).

The data is credited to Matt & Ellie Buell, “Uploaded By: Eochaid”, 1995-05-25.

Here’s an extract to give an idea of the Gedcom form:

0 @I4961@ INDI
1 NAME Adam //
1 SEX M
1 REFN +
1 BIRT
2 DATE ABT 4000 BC
2 PLAC Eden
1 DEAT
2 DATE ABT 3070 BC
1 FAMS @F2398@
1 NOTE He was the first human on Earth.
1 SOUR Genesis 2:20 KJV
0 @I4962@ INDI
1 NAME Eve //
1 SEX F
1 REFN +
1 BIRT
2 DATE ABT 4000 BC
2 PLAC Eden
1 FAMS @F2398@
1 SOUR Genesis 3:20 KJV

It might not directly answer the great questions of biblical scholarship, but it could be a fun dataset to explore Gedcom / RDF mappings with. I wonder how it compares with Freebase, DBpedia etc.

The Perl module is a good start for experimentation but it only really scratches the surface of the problem of representing source/provenance and uncertainty. On which topic, Jeni Tennison has a post from a year ago that’s well worth (re-)reading.

What I’ve done in the above little Perl script is implement a simplification: instead of each family description being its own separate XML file, they are all squashed into a big flat set of triples (‘graph’). This may or may not be appropriate, depending on the sourcing of the records. It seems Gedcom offers some basic notion of ‘source’, although not one expressed in terms of URIs. If I look in the SOUR(ce) field in the Gedcom file, I see information like this (which currently seems to be ignored in the Gedcom::FOAF mapping):

grep SOUR BUELL001.GED | sort | uniq

1 NOTE !SOURCE:Burford Genealogy, Page 102 Cause of Death; Hemorrage of brain
1 NOTE !SOURCE:Gertrude Miller letter “Harvey Lee lived almost 1 year. He weighed
1 NOTE !SOURCE:Gertrude Miller letter “Lynn died of a ruptured appendix.”
1 NOTE !SOURCE:Gertrude Miller letter “Vivian died of a tubal pregnancy.”
1 SOUR “Castles” Game Manuel by Interplay Productions
1 SOUR “Mayflower Descendants and Their Marriages” pub in 1922 by Bureau of
1 SOUR “Prominent Families of North Jutland” Pub. in Logstor, Denmark. About 1950
1 SOUR /*- TUT
1 SOUR 273
1 SOUR AHamlin777.  E-Mail “Descendents of some guy
1 SOUR Blundell, Sherrie Lea (Slingerland).  information provided on 16 Apr 1995
1 SOUR Blundell, William, Rev. Interview on Jan 29, 1995.
1 SOUR Bogert, Theodore. AOL user “TedLBJ” File uploaded to American Online
1 SOUR Buell, Barbara Jo (Slingerland)
1 SOUR Buell, Beverly Anne (Wenge)
1 SOUR Buell, Beverly Anne (Wenge).  letter addressed to Kim & Barb Buell dated
1 SOUR Buell, Kimberly James.
1 SOUR Buell, Matthew James. written December 19, 1994.
1 SOUR Burnham, Crystal (Harris).  Leter sent to Matt J. Buell on Mar 18, 1995.
1 SOUR Burnham, Crystal Colleen (Harris).  AOL user CBURN1127.  E-mail “Re: [...etc.]

Some of these sources could be tied to cleaner IDs (eg. for books c/o Open Library, although see ‘in search of cultural identifiers‘ from Michael Smethurst).

I believe RDF’s SPARQL language gives us a useful tool (the notion of ‘GRAPH’) that can be applied here, but we’re a long way from having worked out the details when it comes to attaching evidence to claims. So for now, we in the RDF scene have a fairly course-grained approach to data provenance. Databases are organized into batches of triples, ie. RDF statements that claim something about the world. And while we can use these batches – aka graphs – in our queries, we haven’t really figured out what kind of information we want to associate with them yet. Which is a pity, since this could have uses well beyond family history, for example to online journalistic practices and blog-mediated fact checking.

Nearby in the Web: see also the SIOC/SWAN telecons, a collaboration in the W3C SemWeb lifescience community around the topic of modelling scientific discourse.

Problem statement

A Pew Research Center survey released a few days ago found that only half of Americans correctly know that Mr. Obama is a Christian. Meanwhile, 13 percent of registered voters say that he is a Muslim, compared with 12 percent in June and 10 percent in March.

More ominously, a rising share — now 16 percent — say they aren’t sure about his religion because they’ve heard “different things” about it.

When I’ve traveled around the country, particularly to my childhood home in rural Oregon, I’ve been struck by the number of people who ask something like: That Obama — is he really a Christian? Isn’t he a Muslim or something? Didn’t he take his oath of office on the Koran?

It was in the NYTimes, so it must be true. Will the last one to leave the Web please turn off the lights.

Nokiana: the one about the CIA, Syria, and the N95

Matt Kane resurfaced on Bristol‘s underscore mailing list  with this intriguing snippet, after some travels around the middle-east: ” … discovered N95s (not mine) cannot be taken into Syria”.

I asked for the backstory, which goes like this:

Quite a palaver. Got the train from Istanbul to Syria (amazing trip!). At the border they didn’t search the bags of “westerners” but asked us all to show our phones and cameras. They glanced at them all quickly, checking the brand (“Nikon, ok. SonyEricsson, ok”). One guy had an N95 and they led him off the train. His sister informed us that they’d said it wasn’t allowed in Syria, and that if she knew her brother he’d not give it up without a fight. Despite being on contract, he argued with them for an hour and a half, even calling the embassies in Damascus and Ankara. In the end he gave it up, with a promise that they’d send it on to the airport from where he was leaving. A few days later we’re chatting with a barman and spot his phone – an N95, and yes, he got it in Syria! A few days after that we found out the full story from our hotel owner in Damascus. Apparently the CIA gave a load of bugged N95s to high-ranking Kurdish officials in Iraq, many of which were then smuggled into Syria and given as gifts to various shady characters. After the Hezbollah guy was assassinated in Damascus a few months ago, the Syrians set about trying to root out spies, which led to this ban on bringing N95s into the country. Apparently.

This is the first I’ve heard of it, but searching throws up a few references to rigged N95s as “spy phones”.

Somewhat-unrelated aside: I don’t believe the relevant functionality is exposed in the N95’s widget APIs yet. I had trouble making it vibrate, let alone self-destruct after this message. But at least widget/gadget/app security is getting some attention lately. It can’t be too long before “spy widgets” on your phone become a real concern, particularly since the exposure of phone APIs to 3rd party apps is such a creative combination. I should be clear that AFAIK, Nokia’s N95 widget platform is free of such vulnerabilities currently, and any “spy phone” mischief so far has been achieved through other kinds of interference. But it does make me glad to see a Widgets 1.0: Digital Signature spec moving along at W3C…

Obama

I was really very impressed by Obama’s speech this week. And somewhat suprised to hear a major US politician speak on complex, subtle issues in thoughtful, nuanced terms. For non USAmericans, I think it’s often hard to empathise with US-style patriotism; in particular, the seeming impossibility of seeing the US as anything other than a shining beacon of goodness, as the world’s policeman. Watching the warmongering, flag-waving television news in the US in 2001/2 terrified me, and left me feeling like an alien in a strange land. But this speech did give me a vivid sense of an America that one could admire, even aspire to live in, and one that was a lot more honest with us all about its failings and difficulties, as well as justifiably proud of its many strengths. I really think this was a landmark speech, and one that shows the US at its best.

I was reading around the various responses, and so here’s a quick link-dump. Daily show; The Onion; Andrew Sullivan; Juan Cole; Fox News.

And also Daily Kos quoting of all people Mick Huckabee:

And one other thing I think we’ve gotta remember. As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say “That’s a terrible statement!”…I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack — and I’m gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you — we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told “you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus…” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Quite so. And Huckabee deserves praise for acknowledging this. A similar perspective would bring some rationality to foreign policy discussions too. Understandably, most of the commentary we’ve seen on this speech have been on US domestic politics. But one point that seems to have gone underemphasised in the commentary I’ve read (even beyond The Onion!) is that for all the folk inside the US sympathising with Wright’s “God Damn America” outburst, there are hundreds or thousands or more out here in the rest of the world who are frustrated, angry and outraged by the actions of successive US governments. Giving the world a US president who seems capable of acknowledging this and beginning to address it would be a breath of fresh air. Elect him already! :) (and not that guy who jokes about killing my friends, please…).