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…).

Language Expertise in FOAF: Speaks, Reads, Writes revisited

Speaks, reads, writes
Stephanie Booth asks:

 I vaguely remember somebody telling me about some emerging “standard” (too big a word) for encoding language skills. Or was it a dream?

That would’ve been me, showing markup from the FOAFX beta from Paola Di Maio and friends, which explores the extension of FOAF with expertise information. This is part of the ExpertFinder discussions alongside the FOAF project (see also wiki, mailing list). FOAFX and the ExpertFinder community are looking at ways of extending FOAF to better describe people’s expertise; both self-described and externally accredited. This is at once a fascinating, important and terrifyingly hard to scope problem area. It touches on longstanding “Web of trust” themes, on educational metadata standards, and on the various ways of characterising topics or domains of expertise. In other words, in any such problem space, there will always be multiple ways of “doing it”. For example, here is how the Advogato community site characterises my expertise regarding opensource software: foaf.rdf (I’m in the Journeyer group, apparently; some weighted average of people’s judgements about me).

One thing FOAFX attempts is to describe language skills. For this, they extend the idiom proposed by Inkel some years ago in his “Speaks, Reads, Writesschema. In the original (which is Spanish, but see also English version), the classification was effectively binary: one could either speak, read, or write a language; or one couldn’t. You could also say you ‘mastered’ it, meaning that you could speak, read and write it. In FOAFX, this is handled differently: we get a 1-5 score. I like this direction, as it allows me to express that I have some basic capability in Spanish, without appearing to boast that I’m anything like “fluent”. But … am I a “1” or a “2”? Should I poll my long-suffering Spanish-speaking friends? Take an online quiz? Introducing numbers gives the impression of mathematical precision, but in skill characterisation this is notoriously hard (and not without controversy).

My take here is that there’s no right thing to do. So progress and experimentation are to be celebrated, even if the solution isn’t perfect. On language skills, I’d love some way also to allow people to say “I’m learning language X”, or “I’m happy to help you practice your English/Spanish/Japanese/etc.”. Who knows, with more such information available, online Social Network sites could even prove useful…

Here btw is the current RDF markup generated by FOAFX:

<foaf:Person rdf:ID="me">
<foaf:mbox_sha1>6e80d02de4cb3376605a34976e31188bb16180d0</foaf:mbox_sha1>
<foaf:givenname>Dan</foaf:givenname>
<foaf:family_name>Brickley</foaf:family_name>
<foaf:homepage rdf:resource="http://danbri.org/" />
<foaf:weblog rdf:resource="http://danbri.org/words/" />
<foaf:depiction rdf:resource="http://danbri.org/images/me.jpg" />
<foaf:jabberID>danbrickley@gmail.com</foaf:jabberID>
<foafx:language>
<foafx:Language>
<foafx:name>English</foafx:name>
<foafx:speaking>5</foafx:speaking>
<foafx:reading>5</foafx:reading>
<foafx:writing>5</foafx:writing>
</foafx:Language>
</foafx:language>
<foafx:language>
<foafx:Language>
<foafx:name>Spanish</foafx:name>
<foafx:speaking>1</foafx:speaking>
<foafx:reading>1</foafx:reading>
<foafx:writing>1</foafx:writing>
</foafx:Language>
</foafx:language>
<foafx:expertise>
<foafx:Expertise>
<foafx:field>::</foafx:field>
<foafx:fluency>
<foafx:Language>
<foafx:name>English</foafx:name>
</foafx:Language>
</foafx:fluency>
</foafx:Expertise>
</foafx:expertise>
</foaf:Person>

The apparent redundancy in the markup (expertise, Expertise) is due to RDF’s so-called “striped” syntax. I have an old introduction to this idea; in short, RDF lets you define properties of things, and categories of thing. The FOAFX design effectively says, “there is a property of a person called “expertise” which relates that person to another thing, an “Expertise”, which itself has properties like “fluency”.

The FOAFX design tries to navigate between generic and specific, by including language-oriented markup as well as more generic skill descriptions. I think this is probably the right way to go. There are many things that we can say about human languages that don’t apply to other areas of expertise (eg. opensource software development). And there many things we can say about expertise in general (like expressions of willingness to learn, to teach, … indications of formal qualification) which are cross domain. Similarly, there are many things we might say in markup about opensource projects (picking up on my Advogato mention earlier) which have nothing to do with human languages. Yet both human language expertise and opensource skills are things we might want to express via FOAF extensions. For example, the DOAP project already lets us describe opensource projects and our roles in them.

The Semantic Web design challenge here is to provide a melting pot for all these different kinds of data, one that allows each specific problem to be solved adequately in a reasonable time-frame, without precluding the possibility for richer integration at a later date. I have a hunch that the Advogato design, which expresses skills in terms of group membership, could be a way to go here.

This is related to the idea of expressing group-membership criteria through writing SPARQL queries. For example, we can talk about the Group of people who work for W3C. Or we can talk about the Group of people who work for W3C as listed authoritatively on the W3C site. Both rules are expressible as queries; the latter a query that says things about the source of claims, as well as about what those claims assert. This notion of a group defined by a query allows for both flavours; the definition could include criteria relating to the provenance (ie. source) of the claims, but it needn’t. So we could express the idea of people who speak Spanish, or the idea of people who speak french according to having passed some particular test, or being certified by some agency. In either case, the unifying notion is “person X is in group Y”, where Y is a group identified by some URL. What I like about this model, is it allows for a very loose division of labour: skill-related markup is necessarily going to be widely varied. Yet the idea that such scattered evidence boils down to people falling into definable groups, gives some overall cohesion to this diversity. I could for example run a query asking for people with (foafx idiom) “Spanish skills of 2 or more”. I could add a constraint that the person be at least a “Journeyer” regarding their opensource skills, according to Advogato, or perhaps mix in data expressed in DOAP terms regarding their roles in opensource project work. These skills effectively define groups (loosly, sets) of people, and skill search can be pictured in venn diagram terms. Of course all this depends on getting enough data out there for any such queries to be worthwhile. Maybe a Facebook app that re-published data outside of Hotel Facebook would be a way of bootstrapping things here?

Apparently the UK government are revisiting the idea of net censorship, in the context of anti-terrorism.

UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith as reported in the “Guardian, Government targets extremist websites“:

Speaking to the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme before her speech, Smith said there were specific examples of websites that “clearly fall under the category of gratifying terrorism”. “There is growing evidence people may be using the internet both to spread messages and to plan specifically for terrorism,” she said. “That is why, as well as changing the law to make sure we can tackle that, there is more we need to do to show the internet is not a no-go area as far as tackling terrorism is concerned.”

This could go really wrong, really fast. Will we be allowed to read Bin Laden texts online? Hitler, Stalin? Talk to people who sympathise with organizations deemed terroristic? Who live in countries in the ‘axis of evil’? Doubtless the first sites to be targetted will be the most outrageous, but we’re on a slippery slope here.

It’s pretty much impossible to stop the online radicalisation of angry young men. But driving that process underground, and criminalising anyone on the fringes of the scene, will make it all the harder for calm voices and nuanced opinions to be heard. ‘Us and them’ is exactly what we don’t need right now.

Open social networks: bring back Iran

Three years ago, we lost Iran from Internet community. I simplify somewhat, but forgivably. Many Iranian ISPs cut off access to blogs and social networking sites, on government order. At the time, Iran was one of the most active nations on Orkut; and Orkut was the network of choice, faster than the then-fading Friendster, but not yet fully eclipsed by MySpace. It provided a historically unprecedented chance for young people from Iran, USA, Europe and the world to hang out together in an online community. But when Orkut was blocked at the ISP level in Iran, pretty much nobody in the English-speaking blog-tech-pundit scene seemed to even notice. This continues to bug me. Web technologists apparantly care collectively more about freeing Robert Scoble’s addressbook from Facebook, than about the real potential for unmediated, uncensored, global online community.

Most folk in the US will never visit Iran, and vice-versa. And the press and government in both states are engaged in scary levels of sabre-rattling and demonisation. For me, one of the big motivations for working (through FOAF, SPARQL, XMPP and other technologies) on social networking interop, is so young people in the future can grow up naturally having friends in distant nations, regardless of whether their government thinks that’s a priority. If hundreds of blog posts can be written about the good Mr Scoble’s addressbook portability situation, why are thousands of posts not being written about the need for social networking tools to connect people regardless of nationality and national firewalls?

Some things are too important to leave to governments…

Update: a few hours after writing this, things get hairy in Hormuz.  Oof…

Microblogs and the monolingual

Twitter-like microblogging seems a nice granularity for following thoughts expressed in languages you don’t speak.

In 1988 I passed my French language GCSE exam; it’s been downhill all the way since. A year ago in Argentina, I got to the stage where I could just about express myself in Spanish. But it’s been fading. Nevertheless I’m on the websemantique (french) and web-semantica-ayuda (spanish) lists (this is the good influence of Chaals from W3C and SWAD-Europe days), and will try to follow and occasionally respond (usually just a perhaps-relevant link). It’s a good exercise for English speakers to do, to remind them how many folk experience the primarily English-language dialog that dominates the technology scene.

So just now I happened to notice CharlesNepote‘s name on Twitter, from the websemantique list. And in reading his twitter stream, I realised this: twitter posts in a foreign language are easier to follow than either full blog posts, email threads or realtime IM/IRC chat. It’s a nice level of granularity that can bridge language communities a little, since someone with fading schoolkid or tourist knowledge of another language can use and reinforce it by reading microblogs in it.

A related SemWeb use case: yesterday in #foaf we had someone asking about RDF who would rather have spoken Italian. It should be easier to find the members of a multi-language community who can help in such cases. We have SemWeb vocabulary that lets people declare what language they speak, read, or write; and there are ways of expressing interests in topics, or membership of a community. What we’re missing is stable, reliable and queryable aggregates of data expressed in those terms. I think we can change that in 2008…

Dawkins QOTD

My impression remains what it has always been, however: the Postmodern Emperor is not only bereft of clothes. He doesn’t even have a skin.

– Richard Dawkins, in comments thread for his review of the excellent Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

EMR (Joost UK only)

OK, what happens if I put an URL in the Blog text: box?

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398037/

And how can I tag this to be in my “conspiracy theory” category? http://danbri.org/words/category/world/conspiracy-theory

Do blog posting APIs support categories? I hope at least Atom’s does…

Joost thumbnail

From Joost : EMR

Stuck in a dead-end job and living alone with his cat, Londoner Adam Jones (Adam Leese) spends his free time obsessing over the latest conspiracy theories on the internet.Joostâ„¢ the best of tv and the internet