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Archive for October, 2006

Behind closed doors…It’s the ultimate social networking scenario: who’s been having sex with whom? I remember a health class exercise to demonstrate the power of viral transmission of STDs: the teacher secretly told one of us we were “infected” and then asked each of us to shake hands with three people in the class. The “infected” person had to use their middle finger to scratch each of the people they shook hands with, thereby “infecting” them. They then had to scratch any subsequent hand they shook. At the end of the exercise, 8 people in our 12 person class were “infected”, showing us how quickly diseases can spread.

This is illustrated with my little stick people below (the red ones are “infected”):

Beginning of the game First handshake
Beginning of the game After the first handshake
Second handshake Third handshake
After the second handshake After the third handshake

Now, let’s take it to a real world: the adult entertainment industry. Those in adult entertainment, by the nature of their jobs, are “connecting” with all kinds of people. Once you throw a disease into the mix, as our teacher did hypothetically in my Health class, it’s vitally important to track who else is in their network in order to keep the disease from running rampant through the group.

This situation came to light when adult film star Darren James tested positive for HIV in 2004 (see Porn Faces Reality from the Village Voice of 30 April 2004). Like the rest of the industry, James tested every 30 days (if not more often), tests generally supervised by the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM). The AIM not only handles medical testing and care for porn stars, it also acts as the independent authority, verifying and distributing results to producers, agents and other filmmakers. They are the Verisign of the porn industry.

Because they have the “industry standard” position of overseeing most, if not all, of the adult industry’s testing, and are connected enough to the film production to know who’s been acting with whom, the AIM was in the “all seeing” position of being able to draw a similar chart to the ones I have above: Who had Darren James slept with?

They pulled the records of everyone James had worked with since his last clean test and then those of everyone that list had worked with. (Two degrees of separation.) Once notified, these 53 performers voluntarily quarantined themselves until they could be tested and verified. From the articles I’ve seen, only one person in this network has tested positive.

Very much like Friendster and LinkedIn will show you your network, and the people you are connected to through them, and so on, AIM acts as a “network manager”, keeping track of who’s been with whom in order to track (and hopefully prevent) the progression of diseases.

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But this is all old news. Similar to how the porn industry drove the development of the VCR and quality improvements on online video streaming, this is yet another necessity-born technology that is now benefitting the mainstream. Wired News is reporting that the medical brains behind AIM have brought the technology model to the rest of us.

SxCheck is a joint project between Stanford Computer Science graduate student Doug Whiteman and AIM, and is intended to be an AIM for the masses. “The SxCheck process is simple. You decide which STIs you want to be screened for, order your test online, go to a local blood draw station, and access your results on the website. It differs from its sister AIMCheck in one way: Your results are not sent to producers and agents,” says the article.

Whiteman hopes that having results available web-based will allow people to share them with potential partners before having sex. He expects that ultimately we’ll embed our SxCheck status on dating sites and use them as criteria for judging partners. While I think he may be a bit optimistic on how much we’ll share and how quickly, the independent authority idea could be useful.

Stimulating dialogue on the subject also can’t hurt. “We don’t want to force anything down anyone’s throats, and by no means are we reinventing the wheel,” Whiteman says. “We want to encourage people to get tested and share their results, to promote dialogue and understanding.”

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Intellectual Property

10 days ago, Jimmy Wales at the Wikimedia Foundation issued the world the following challenge:

Dream big. Imagine there existed a budget of $100 million to purchase
copyrights to be made available under a free license. What would you
like to see purchased and released under a free license? Photos libraries? textbooks? newspaper archives? Be bold, be specific, be general, brainstorm, have fun with it.

The main list of suggestions has been growing and is listed here. (Slashdot, Digg, Metafilter, Meneame, and Heise all began lists of their own to support the effort, though they’ve been combined into the main list.)

Suggestions thus far include a range of topics: textbooks, dictionaries (in particular the OED), satellite imagery and geodata, technology standards like mp3 and PDF, encyclopedias, academic and research journals, news archives and first-person historical artifacts, sheet music, pictures on the web, Microsoft software and online translators. (There was also lots of talk about drug formulations, though those are patent protected rather than copyrighted.)

A few that struck me (all direct quotes):

  • Some photos taken by Ernesto “Che” Guevara when he travled around the world (at least one photo from each country he visted) or all photos depicting him.
  • Photos of endangered or recently extinct species
  • Legal documents: West Publishing holds the copyrights on the legal reporters (volumes of caselaw) that contain the published opinions of state and federal courts in the United States. (In some cases, West can’t claim copyright to the opinions themselves, but does claim copyright to the pagination system and the headnotes that to some extent are the basis of the most common forms of legal citation). Making this information publicly available could make it easier for people who do not have easy or affordable access to Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis to research legal points.
  • Classified Information: I suppose the CIA probably wouldn’t overtly start handing over juicy secrets for cash, but there are some private intelligence agencies that might have some pretty interesting dirt that could be made public.
  • Something like a chunk of the video archive of the BBC might be nice to have. (This is already in progress… see here)
  • Make wikipedia easier for elderly people and people with age related disabilities to partake in. Think of all the knowledge that the elderly contain ‘because they were there’ that they cant share because of an obfusticated geek designed interface prevents them.
  • The song “Happy Birthday to you…” is still under active copywrite which is why you will never hear it on TV, Radio, etc. If there is any cash spare this would be a good one to purchase.
  • Medical quality photographs and diagrams of the human body and its organs etc both in health and disease (all too often we have to fall back on a single image from Gray’s Anatomy when any article could benefit from more than one diagram and photographs with different focus/perspectives)
  • All the archives about the murder of JFK

Is there anything you’d add?  $100 million free a lot of information, knowledge and processes to the world.  What do we need to know?  The site is still open!

Wikipedia logo

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I’ve seen CSI, can’t they just lift the prints from the glasses?

(picture from the Guardian)

This article from Friday’s Register, Beer Fingerprints to go UK-wide, tells us that South Somerset District Council‘s pilot scheme of fingerprinting patrons of local pubs seems to have led to a 48% drop in alcohol related crime between February and September 2006.From the article: ‘Offenders can be banned from one pub or all of them for a specified time – usually a period of months – by a committee of landlords and police called Pub Watch. Their offences are recorded against their names in the fingerprint system. Bradburn [principal licensing manager at South Somerset District Council] noted the system had a “psychological effect” on offenders.’

Apparently the Government is so impressed that they’re willing to fund the scheme for ‘councils that want to have their pubs keep a regional black list of known trouble makers’. The Home Office have agreed to fund similar systems in Coventry, Hull and Sheffield, while general funding for the rest of the local authorities is to come from the Department for Communities and Local Government‘s Safer, Stronger Communities budget. The article says that the DCLG is distributing the funds through local area agreements (description sites from the central government side and from local government).

This news article fills me with so many questions I’m not sure where to begin.

  • Why is no one else reporting on this activity?? I’ve had a look at South Somerset’s, the DCLG’s and the Home Office’s sites and wasn’t able to find any news on this scheme (though that may be the fault of the search technologies they’re each using. The results I didn’t get, in general, weren’t particularly relevant). I’ve also checked Google news — nothing their either.
  • Where is the fingerprint data going? What kinds of Data Protection Act considerations have been made? How easy will it be to find out that your no-good lazy husband was in fact having a pint when he said he’d be at work late? And what about that female fingerprint in the database just before or just after him?
  • The previous point of course brings up all kinds of data-sharing questions within the government too. As seen in the Climbié debacle, the Government isn’t fantastic at sharing information when it needs to. Does that help or hurt this scheme?
  • How much has business fallen for these pubs? Is all of South Somerset okay with this?

If anyone knows more about what’s going on here, I’d love to be caught up. How bizarre to find this story slid in under the radar.

DCLG logo Home Office logo Down it goes

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History Matters – pass it on is run by the main heritage organisations in England and Wales including the National Trust, English Heritage, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology, Heritage Link, Historic Houses Association and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

They’re gathering a blog of what England and Wales are doing on the 17th of October (today) to be stored in the British Library. They want details, the more mundane the better, to help historians of the future understand what day-to-day life was like in 2006.

This should be a rich storage of minutae — I’ll be curious to see what people admit to!

To contribute an account of your day, you can find the project at http://www.historymatters.org.uk.

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It seems to me that in this field there is an eternal tension between technologists who can make things, users who take them into their own lives, and companies/management who are essential for it all to happen.

Wallflower at the Web party was in yesterday’s New York Times (re-posted here, no registration required) explores the management/techie tug of war that seems to have driven Friendster into the ground. It highlights three main pitfalls:

1. They focused on developing exotic features at the expense of basic functionality (their lag times were HUGE, and the site had numerous errors), but the added features only dragged down performance further

2. Their initial board members were Silicon Valley big names who didn’t get the concepts and weren’t representative of their user base, which lead to a disruptive series of CEOs (each with their own agendas) jerking around the engineers

3. They were offered $30 million by Google in 2004 – and held out for more. Now that they’re ready to sell, they can’t even get $20m (contrasted, of course, with Myspace‘s $580m price in when sold to News Corp. July 2005)

It’s well worth a read.

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Interesting to note, by the way, that Jonathan Abrams (CEO of Friendster) started the social networking site because he wanted a facility to raid his friends’ address books for potential dates. ‘”Basically, Jonathan wanted to meet girls,” said Mark J. Pincus, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who provided Abrams with some of the seed money to finance his project at the end of 2002. “He told me himself, he started Friendster as a way to surf through his friends’ address books for good-looking girls.”‘ (Also quoted from above article)

It’s a pity that the execution has had its ups and downs, because the theory is still a method of choice for finding dates. Just this weekend I’ll admit I went to a party, out to meet people through those I already know — friends-of-friends are far more reputable and interesting than random people in the pub! In my opinion, one of Friendster’s strengths was the way its model fits into the ways in which we interact anyway, particularly (in this case) when looking to meet people to spend time with. Much of the functionality seems to have been picked up by Myspace (which hasn’t claimed a purpose, just allows users to interact as they want), but with Friendster’s recent influx of VC cash I’ll be interested to see if they manage to grow into and exploit their chosen niche.

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For the wish-list: I’d love to find a comparison/breakdown of the infrastructure and uses of :

  • share nothing clusters
  • SMP (Symmetrical Multi-Processing)
  • grid computing (Globus-based)
  • map/reduce implementations

(This list is subject to grow)

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Interesting note: Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, was on BBC Breakfast this morning, talking about healthy eating and whose responsibility it is to help make Britain slim.

(Note that yesterday’s news featured recent findings that Britain is now the fattest country in Europe.)

King accepted some responsibility on behalf of supermarkets for helping us all eat well (which shows the UK socialist perspective that says that the government — and big companies — should be looking out for the common good. I’m sure Sainsbury’s is looking to earn some “good guy points” by trying to help out with the public health issue of obesity). But when asked if Sainsbury should be steering people away from bad food, he replied, “There is no such thing as bad food, only bad diets.”

This statement caught my attention. Does it hold water? Does it work here because the UK doesn’t have Twinkies or Cool-Whip? While the US may boast (to my view) a larger market for food that is pretty devoid of nutritional value, what about UK favourites like Jaffa cakes or pork scratchings that seem to offer little to a functioning human body? (Not to mention are disgusting)

Putting aside the fact that I’m sure Sainsbury’s make significant profits from their junk food and probably wouldn’t want to jeopardise that by steering away the munchie-prone, I’m not sure the recommendation actually has the public’s best interest at heart.
Mr King has implied that we can enjoy our mayonnaise with chips, our pasties and our clotted cream. As long as they’re diluted by enough fruits and veggies, Sainsbury’s will rest secure in the knowledge that they’ve done their bit to look out for our wastelines. It’s nice to know that they’re looking after us, but somehow I don’t feel great at the prospect of a full diet of fat and junk, plus then the good stuff. Funny equation he’s recommending.

It’s probably the American capitalist in me speaking, but maybe we should leave nutritional recommendations to the Food Standards Agency and let the grocery companies get on with their own agendas: generating profits. Just a thought.

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