Category Archives: Technology

why I’m leaving Facebook

Starting today, I’m going to remove all my personal information from Facebook and “unfriend” everyone. I’m responding to a pair of status messages that appeared on my profile over the last few weeks, though I didn’t put them there. (John calls them “phantom status messages.”)

fb-screenshot-1

According to the site itself, the messages were both submitted “via Text Message”, which is odd because I haven’t authorized the Facebook Texts service. I submitted a bug report to Facebook Support, but so far they’ve done nothing aside from ask me to resubmit my request if I’m “still experiencing security issues.”

Facebook screenshot 2

Just to be clear:

  • My account hasn’t been “hacked”. I changed my password as soon as the first phantom status appeared, and that didn’t stop the second message two weeks later. Since the phantom messages came from the Facebook Texts service, they didn’t require my authentication anyway.
  • My computer doesn’t have a virus. (If you know me at all, you’re chuckling at the idea.) Even if by some magical circumstance it did, the virus would have to send Facebook a text message somehow, and they’d still have to accept it.

That leaves two possibilities that I can see:

  1. It’s a bug. Some bit of Facebook code is misrouting another user’s text messages to my profile by accident.
  2. It’s a security exploit. A malicious user is exploiting some crack in Facebook’s text-message-handling code to drop messages in other users’ accounts. This is less likely, but not impossible; it would probably start with innocuous messages to test the exploit.

Facebook Texts

Either way, I no longer trust my Facebook account. The phantom messages have been benign so far, but all it would take is one generic hurtful statement to become a real nightmare. (Not to mention what this implies about Facebook’s security in general.)

I still plan to keep the account itself open, because I need it for work (to develop Facebook apps) and for space advocacy (as a page admin). I just won’t be posting to it, and it won’t be “friends” with anyone. I’ll miss the easy keeping-in-touch it provides, but that’s not worth the potential hassle.

on deadlines and priority: a physical analogue

deadline vs priorityLooking at my to-do list today, I noticed for the millionth time how two key attributes of a task seem to be either redundant or in conflict: its due date and its priority.

It always seemed to me that you should only need to assign one or the other. If you have a deadline, then what does the priority affect? If the item is high enough priority, isn’t the due date ASAP?

Today, though, I had a flash of insight. The due date defines how much I have to work on the item in order to get it done in time, almost like the velocity of the task. The priority, however, defines how resistant the job is to being derailed by other tasks, more like the inertia or mass of the task.

Put that way, the two values aren’t redundant at all. In fact, you can put them together to determine the overall momentum of a project, based on the combination of the deadline-driven velocity and the priority-based mass. It might even be possible to come up with a formula for determining the outcome of a collision between two tasks, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the project manager.

progress means not having to finish things

WikiReader in the wildA few years ago, I started a project to build something I’d wanted for a long time: a simple device that could read Wikipedia articles and Project Gutenberg texts. I called it a WikiBub. The point was to create something dirt simple on the cheap, instead of the usual “convergence device” that does everything (and is priced to match).

Five years later, I can check it off my to-do list. I never got the hardware working, and I didn’t even get past the rough-sketch stage of the design, but other people met my goals for me. The WikiReader (pictured) matches the original WikiBub idea perfectly: it’s simple, cheap ($99), open to hacking, and designed to do one thing (reading Wikipedia) well.

Of course, the idea of a simple-to-use ebook reader without eyestrain or battery issues is no longer new; the Kindle took care of popularizing that one. I also moved on to another hand-held reading device you may have heard of, which (mostly) took away my need for a dedicated reader. Still, it’s nice to see something so true to the WikiBub spirit. I hope it flourishes.

tomayto tomahto

Speak & SpellI often see a word in print long before I hear it pronounced. That’s fine for most words—”antidisestablishmentarianism” isn’t actually that hard to deconstruct—but it can get me in trouble sometimes. For years I thought misled was pronounced “mizzled”, and I never did decide how envelope should sound.

Now that’s going to be a lot easier, thanks to a little programming trickery by John Tantalo. He created a handy bookmarklet that takes standard International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) transcriptions (as found on many Wikipedia pages) and runs them through a text-to-speech (TTS) system to speak them aloud.

Checking a few known pronunciations against Wikipedia’s IPA for them, I see that either the TTS server or the listed IPA needs some work. I suspect the latter, because the IPA for the Niger River entry (/ˈnaɪdʒər/) sounds great, while the IPA for Nagios (/ˈnɑːɡi.oʊs/) sounds way off (as I write this at least). Still, most entries work great, and I expect this tool to encourage more authors to include IPA as it gets used.

it’s not what you expect

iPhone rumor from 2006In 1998, Apple came out with an all-in-one computer. At the time, all-in-one computers were stripped down CPUs crammed onto a monitor case. The term made people expect something ugly, cheap, and difficult to upgrade. What they got instead was the iMac. It was revolutionary, and it inspired copies all across the industry.

In 2001, Apple came out with a portable MP3 player. There were plenty of MP3 players on the market, but none of them were particularly impressive. Initial reviews told people to expect an Apple offering that was too big, lacked features, and was way too expensive. What they got instead was the iPod. It was revolutionary, and MP3 players were never the same.

In 2007, Apple came out with a smartphone with an integrated iPod. By this time, people realized they should expect something revolutionary, but revolutions are tricky to predict. Rumor sites and pundits worked themselves into a frenzy telling people to expect an iPod with phone capabilities crammed in, or a phone with an iPod tacked on. What they got instead was the iPhone. It was revolutionary, but not the way anyone expected.

In 2009, Apple might come out with a tablet computer. As before, everyone and their dog is trying to guess what it might be like. We’re being told to expect a big iPhone, or a web tablet, or some kind of ebook reader. What I expect instead, based on all that’s gone before, is the unexpected.