Journal(s) of Misrepresentation

It is often said that the Internet has democratized the world. Maybe not in terms of governance, as we all know various governmental organizations collect huge amounts of data about our web use, but in terms of information.

When I was a teacher I saw many students relying on Wikipedia for information. I do the same myself of course, but I am at least wary about the accuracy of the information. They were not, and were shocked when I suggested to them that maybe all that is written is not true.

One worrying aspect is that the more critical a person is the more they are likely to distrust newspaper and TV reporting. This leads to more trust being put into Internet communication. The younger the user the more likely they are to get their news and information through digital media, but the more likely they are to trust it too, and this has consequences.

One of the consequences of this belief coupled with Internet freedom of information is the blurring of boundaries between reliable information in science and more fanciful or non- proven claims. Anyone can start an online journal, webpage or blog and for practically nothing set up a fake foundation, center of excellence or anything else they fancy, become the Director and Editor and publish to the world.

And you or I might find their work and not know how to interpret the information offered.

Sorting the truth from the lies

Sorting the truth from the lies

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about cold nuclear fusion. A small group of scientists is working to create nuclear fusion without using heat. A breakthrough would mean clean, practically free energy. I mentioned it here too as part of my Health of the Planet series.

In 2011 the Journal of Nuclear Physics announced such a breakthrough. It was reported in the national press in Italy, on CNN and the BBC. A Journal of this quality reporting such findings! Peer reviewed, high quality articles etc etc….

But as I was saying earlier, we should look beyond the gloss and at the substance, and it turns out that this wonderful journal is in fact produced and edited by the very scientist/entrepreneur that has made the breakthrough that he is telling us about.

It is not really a rigorous scientific journal, it is really a personal blog, and as such contents are possibly a little bit liable to bias (maybe).

Last week saw wide reporting of an experiment conducted by journalist John Bohannon and published through Science, an online and paper and much more reliable source of information.

To cut the story short Bohannon wrote a paper about a kind of miracle drug for cancer treatment. The paper contained many of the same errors that you or I might include, as non scientists. It came from a false research center too. Then it was submitted to just over 300 online journals. Fake results, flawed experiments, fundamental errors of high school biology, all included.

Half of the journals published the article as it was. High quality peer reviewed online journals (supposedly) accepted the article, it passed their stringent review systems and made it to publication.

You can read a much more detailed account of the event here in the original Science article. Tales of China and payments for publication, love letters from editors etc, it is all here.

So the problem becomes noise. With all of this noise, information, reporting and news, how can we pick out the real important stuff? Everybody’s voice becomes equal, the fact that 99% of scientists believe in something no longer means anything. The 1% of scientists (I know it is a big word) who do not believe that humans are contributing to global climate change have the same weight of voice as the others, and here in the US you can see the results.

Free market, free thinking, free Internet, free publication, free speech. Free propaganda and free misreporting too, unfortunately.

Blog Action Day 2013

Blogs all across the world are talking about human rights today. For the fourth year in a row I am taking part in Blog Action Day.

Blog Action Day's logoThis year the topic is human rights.

I am going to share with you might thoughts on the relationship between the Internet and human rights.

Imagine what it would be like if every day, a cloaked figure followed you around, observing your every action and taking notes. It would be a bit creepy wouldn’t it, not to mention the privacy issues.

Back in 2011, I wrote a post asking whether everyone should be entitled to use the Internet and whether in fact it should be a human right. Founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg believes that it should be; make your own decision as to whether this is only because he wants more business for his site.

So, imagine what it would be like with Mark Zuckerberg following you around all day, taking notes on what you do, invading your privacy… hold on, if you are on Facebook, he kind of does.

See how I linked that. ;-)

I am no stranger to complaining about Facebook, but it isn’t the only culprit, Google is also a huge threat to online privacy. It stores all information it collects about you for at least 18 months. Why? In the words of Hungry Beast, because “Google wants to know who you are, where you are and what you like, so it can target ads at you.Check out Hungry Beast’s video to scare yourself.

So to get to the point, I don’t believe access to the Internet need be a human right, (not yet anyway) however I do believe that the right to privacy online should be. The United Nations logoArticle 12 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Why does this not cover our online lives too? Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple (and others) be allowed to monitor us so much?

I shall keep this short and sweet and leave you with those thoughts.

How Much Freedom Does the Internet Bring You?

On the surface Internet living seems to bring a great deal of freedom to many different parties. Last month for example I posted from the USA, Italy and the UK, we can work from home, buy direct and have access to all kinds of information.

This might make us feel that the web itself creates freedom, or that it is free to operate as we wish. I am not so sure that this is the whole story however, and others agree.

How much freedom of speech really exists?

How much freedom of speech really exists?

Last week Security technologist Bruce Schneier gave a talk as part of the TEDx Cambridge series. Schneider is very interested in security and perceptions of security as this previous TED video shows, but last week’s talk was different.

He took the problem of Internet freedom as his topic, and raised some very interesting arguments. The following quotes are taken from his speech as reported on our local Boston.com website:

“Which type of power dominates the coming decades? Right now it looks like traditional power. It’s much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. China has an easier time blocking content than its citizens have getting around those blocks.”

We can see that there is some evidence to support this case, if we look at this article that appeared in the Huffington Post a couple of years ago. It recounts the tale of Google pulling out of China because they no longer wanted to censor their searches. Google chose to redirect users to their non censored search engine based in Hong Kong. The Chinese government managed to block the results anyway, so users were left in the same position as before, no access to the information.

If we take a broader look though we find that it is not just China but other countries that are making repeated requests for Google to censor their content. CNN report the revelations of the recent Google Transparency report, where Canada, France, the UK and the USA feature strongly in the league of requested censorship. The report is here, easy to follow and a 5 minute thumb through might change your ideas regarding freedom and regulation on the web.

Just yesterday Linkedin announced that they challenging the US government over data requests. US organizations are allowed to publish the total number of data requests, but cannot break the figure down to reveal the number made by security services. Linkedin say this legal situation makes no sense, and many other companies agree. Read about it here.

“Cyber criminals can rob more people more quickly than real-world criminals, digital pirates can make more copies of more movies more quickly than their analog ancestors. And we’ll see it in the future. 3D printers mean control debates are soon going to involve guns and not movies.”

Just this week The Independent ran a story about Europe’s criminal intelligence agency that is fighting unprecedented levels of crime across several fronts as gangs capitalise on new technology. We are not talking about a few individuals hacking into the odd bank account here and there, we are looking at the new form of organized crime. A multi billion dollar industry in Europe alone.

The gun reference is of course to the distribution of plans for a 3D printer manufactured gun. Read about it here.

Caution in cases of political dissent

Caution in cases of political dissent

Much has been written about how Facebook and other interfaces have the power to democratize society, and their potential to promote revolution. The so-called Arab Spring is often given as an example, but as well as dissidents using Facebook to organize protests, the Syrian and other governments also used Facebook to identify and arrest dissidents.

There are plenty of examples. Here is an article about 3 Moroccan activists who were arrested for their comments criticizing governments at that time. One used a Wikileaks type platform, another Facebook and the third Youtube. They were all arrested and charged with various and sometimes unrelated crimes.

I wonder where they are now?

Bridging the digital divide

In this day and age, people have come to expect at least a modest speed for their internet connection. In many urban parts of the UK, speeds of around 10MB per second are commonplace, with some homes experiencing five times that amount. Home internet access has become a prerequisite for many school pupils in their learning, but not all of them are so lucky.

For many children based in rural areas or internet blackspots or for those whose families cannot afford to pay a premium for access, getting the information they need in order to complete their homework or simply boost their knowledge is extremely challenging. This is something that was raised by Estyn, the Welsh education watchdog, and they’re not alone.

Call for more investment

Those in rural areas, even if they’re just on the edge of major conurbations such as Greater Manchester and Leeds/Bradford, will find getting even basic broadband a pain, which has seen people in high-powered positions call for investment in improving connectivity where there is none. David Nuttall, the MP for Bury North in Greater Manchester, is one such voice.

Of the £990,000 allocated to the region, Mr Nuttall is calling for a large chunk of that to go towards people in his constituency who are experiencing problems with their speeds and, in extreme cases, access.

Those who live in areas which have very slow broadband access speeds are seriously disadvantaged in this digital age”, he said in an interview with the Bury Times.

Although in recent months we have seen some progress — for example in Nangreaves thanks to the hard work of local residents — there is still much to be done”, he added.

Solution from above

An optical fibre broadband cable

Whilst fibre optic broadband the fastest form of broadband, satellite broadband offers much faster speeds for those in rural communities, without optical fibre cables.

Until something is done about access to fast broadband nationwide, those affected are left to ponder what, if any, alternatives are open to them. One could come in the form of satellite broadband, which can work as more than just a stopgap solution.

Many people don’t realise the role satellite broadband has in filling in rural not-spots and connecting the last 5% of homes and businesses that will never get fast broadband over wires”, said Andrew Walwyn, CEO of EuropaSat.

The latest generation Ka band satellite broadband services offer defined, predictable service levels at reasonable cost, with no geographical discrimination. Using a small set-top box and an outside mini dish it’s now possible to deliver up to 20 Mb fast broadband to any property in the UK or indeed Europe.

Fighting spam and recapturing books with reCAPTCHA

A CAPTCHA is an anti-spam test used to work out whether a request has been made by a human, or a spambot. CAPTCHAs no longer seem to be as popular as they once were, as other spam identification techniques have emerged, however a considerable number of websites still use them.

CAPTCHA pictures

Some common examples of CAPTCHAs.

CAPTCHAs can be really annoying, hence their downfall in recent years. Take a look at the different CAPTCHAs in the image above, if you had spent 30 seconds filling in a feedback form, would you be willing to try and decipher one of the above CAPTCHAs, or would you just abandon the feedback?

The top left image could be ZYPEB, however it could just as easily be 2tPF8. If you get it wrong, usually you will be forced to do another, which could be just as difficult.

The BBC recently reported how The National Federation for the Blind has criticised CAPTCHAs, due to their restrictive nature for the visually impaired. Many CAPTCHAs do offer an auditory version, however if you check out the BBC article (which has an example of an auditory CAPTCHA), you will see that they are near impossible to understand.

reCAPTCHA

Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist who was instrumental in developing the CAPTCHA back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. According to an article the Canadian magazine The Walrus, when CAPTCHAs started to become popular, Luis von Ahn “realized that he had unwittingly created a system that was frittering away, in ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles.

Anti-spam reCAPTCHA

An example of a reCAPTCHA CAPTCHA.

In order to try and ensure that this time was not wasted, von Ahn set about developing a way to better utilise this time; it was at this point that reCAPTCHA was born.

reCAPTCHA is different to most CAPTCHAs because it uses two words. One word is generated by a computer, whilst the other is taken from an old book, journal, or newspaper article.

Recapturing Literature

As I mentioned, reCAPTCHA shows you two words. One of the images is to prevent spam, and confirm the accuracy of your reading; you must get this one right, or you will be presented with another. The other image is designed to help piece together text from old literature, so that books, newspapers and journals can be digitised.

reCAPTCHA presents the same word to a variety of users and then uses the average response to work out what the word actually says – this helps to stop abuse. In a 2007 quality test, using a standard computer text reader, (also known as OCR) 83.5% of words were identified correctly – a reasonably high amount – however the accuracy of human interpretation via reCAPTCHA was an astonishing 99.1%!

According to an entry in the journal Science, in 2007 reCAPTCHA was present on over 40,000 websites, and users had interpreted over 440 million words! Google claim that today around 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved each day.

If each CAPTCHA took 10 seconds to solve, that would have been around 139 years (or 4.4 billion seconds) of brain time wasted; I am starting to see what Mr von Ahn meant! To put the 440 million words into perspective, the complete works of Shakespeare is around 900,000 words – or 0.9 million.

Whilst the progress of reCAPTCHA seems pretty impressive, it is a tiny step on the path to total digitisation. According to this BBC article, at the time von Ahn is quoted saying:

“There’s still about 100 million books to be digitised, which at the current rate will take us about 400 years to complete”

Google

In 2009 Google acquired reCAPTCHA. The search giant claimed that it wanted to “teach computers to read” hence the acquisition.

Many speculate that Google‘s ultimate aim is to index the world, and reCAPTCHA will help it to accelerate this process. That said, if that is its goal, it is still a very long way off.

We won’t be implementing a CAPTCHA on Technology Bloggers any time soon, however next time you have to fill one in, do spare a thought for the [free] work you might be doing for literature, for history and for Google.

Music Royalties and Spotify

The BBC World website is reporting that Thom Yorke, the singer from Radiohead, has pulled some of his music off Spotify and Rdio because he says that their royalty payments are too low.

To be exact he tweets:

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Radiohead are not new to this type of provocation however. In 2007 they released an album “In Rainbow” that could be downloaded only from their website. The interesting line was that the listener could pay whatever they wanted for the download, there was no fixed price.

They came in for a lot of criticism as this article in the NME shows, with some people claiming they were making it more difficult for new bands to make any money from their releases.

Well Thom does not agree. The album was “bought’ 3 million times in its first year of release and Yorke himself says that the band made more money from this one album than all of the others put together.

So this leads to the obvious question about Spotify, how much do they pay?

Busking pays more than Spotify

Busking pays more than Spotify

As a musician myself I have a good knowledge of how the payment systems worked in the days before digital downloads. When my band released albums or singles and we received radio play we were paid. In the UK about 15 years ago an artist was paid about $30 a minute for a play on national radio. This means about $90 to $100 for a song, minus the 20% that the PRS take for collecting it and distribution. It’s good money. One single that gets 10 plays on John Peel or other fringe shows could make $1000, enough to make another.

Now Spotify is different of course because a play is personal, not to an entire country. This article on the Music Think Tank blog explains how royalties are worked out, but I will try to explain here as simply as I can.

Spotify make money from advertising and subscriptions. They pay 70% of their income out in royalties for the music they play. They pay out pro-rata, so if 1% of all streams happen to be your music, you get 1% of that total payment. Simple enough (maybe).

So lets look at the numbers.

In 2011 Spotify generated $20,333,333 per month.

They distributed 70% which is $14,233,333.

They had 1,083,333,333.333333 streams per month.

Let’s say I got 20 streams a month, about 0.00000184615% of the total royalties payout.

I make $0.26 a month, that is 26 cents. $0.01 per stream, minus the 15% that the digital distribution company takes for putting the tracks up and the 10.2% publishing fee.

About a quarter of a cent per play, in round terms, anyway not a lot of money by anyone’s standards.

Of course the more people use Spotify, the less an individual stream is worth.

In the US Pandora, another streaming site is pushing Congress into passing legislation that will cut this rate further, by 85%.

Even Pink Floyd have been complaining that artists are being duped.

I for one keep making music and releasing it to the world, I don’t expect to get rich though!

UPDATE: This week the BBC has a follow up article about Thom and Spotify. Check it out here.

UPDATE: Spotify has now revealed it pays artists $0.007 per stream. That’s a lot less that previously thought.

Is a lazy website key to online success?

Speed matters. Once upon a time, if a business had a website, it was revolutionary. Now in many cases if a business doesn’t have a website, it will usually suffer as a result.

When the internet was in its infancy, speed wasn’t really on the agenda. If your site loaded super fast (remember we are still in the days of 56kbps/dial-up internet access here) great. If it didn’t, people would be prepared to wait.

Nowadays there are so many different websites offering such similar information, if your site is slow, your traffic (or as I prefer to call it visitor numbers, or even better: people) will suffer as a result. There are countless studies into this, almost all of which conclude that the slower a site is, the fewer visitors it has.

Furthermore, speed is starting to become an evermore important search engine ranking factor – if your site is slow, you are less likely to rank at the top.

Okay, you get the point: today speed matters.

The problem with many websites is that they have so much to load. When you load our homepage, it isn’t just a few lines of HTML that your browser requests from our server, it also fetches a handful of local CSS, JavaScript and PHP files, in addition to bunch of images and some large chunks of external code, which are used to generate social media buttons.

This all takes time, and every extra byte and file that is requested will slow down the page load time.

Slim Down

One way to reduce the size of the page is to reduce the amount of files – and the size of those files – that are fetched. We make every effort to ensure that our locally loaded scripts are as condensed as possible, so your browser doesn’t have to request dozens of files, just one or two.

We have also combined several images into one file (a CSS sprite), again, so your browser has to fetch fewer files. Take a look at the image below for an example.

CSS sprite social media

Technology Bloggers social icons CSS sprite.

The trouble is, we only have control over internal files. I can’t go and reduce the Tweet button script and add it to one of our existing files, as it is controlled by Twitter, and served via their servers.

Lazy Loading Images

Sometimes slimming down isn’t enough, so one way to prevent the initial load becoming verbose is to delay the loading of images not in view. We use a WordPress plugin called Lazy Load, which only loads images just before they come into view. So if the page has five megabytes of images to load, and four are below the fold, then when the page loads, you will only have to wait for one megabytes worth of images to load; if you don’t scroll down, the other four never get loaded.

Lazy loading images can significantly help improve page load time, as images are usually the biggest files that a website loads, so only loading the vital ones really speeds things up!

Lazy Loading Social Buttons

As I mentioned above, one of the biggest strains on loading is external code, specifically social buttons and sharing buttons.

For a long time now, the ability to offer you the potential to share content and follow us via social media has come at a high price – in terms of loading time. However after a lot of coding and hours of tweaking, our social buttons are now just a tiny (in size) image.

If you take a look at our sidebar, the social buttons sill look very similar to before – Facebook like, Twitter follow and Google Plus recommend all still there – however they now only load the external scripts if you mouse over them. This removes a huge delay when you first load a page, and means we can provide these buttons on every page of the site, with a much smaller speed loss.

At the top of articles, the social buttons there now also load lazily, and only fetch code from the networks when you mouse over the button images.

Lazy loading sharing buttons.

Technology Bloggers delayed loading social buttons.

Lazy loading social media buttons has dramatically improved the speed of Technology Bloggers, and still enables you to share content when and how you choose.

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What is your view on delayed loading?