Curiosa


The conference I am participating in yesterday and today use the standard name tags: white paper with name.  But they printed the family name first, and then the other names.  This is amazingly confusing!

It got me thinking about the cultural bias we have when thinking about names.  Some of my name assumptions are:

  • First name comes first.
  • First name exists, and is OK to use when I have been introduced and talked to someone (except if I am abroad, as foreigners have different rules)
  • Family name comes last, and is sometimes changed when getting married.  Family name often indicates where in the country you come from, as shown by the name of the shape and etymology
  • Nickname is an ugly habit, used to spite people (I know this is different in the US, but I grew up with “the potato” and his son “small potato”, and trust me that these were not friendly names)
  • Middle names are a mess.  This is partly a function of the Norwegian legislation which for many years lumped an optional second first name (unless a hyphen was used between them), additional first names, and the second family name together in a single middle name category.
  • Naming children after grand parents is the proper way of naming children.  I am named after my maternal grand-mother.  My parents run out of grand-parents in the naming game, so my youngest brother (child number 5) is named after my great grand father.  It is also possible to name children after dead siblings.  Other people name their children according to fashion (celebrities,  royals, even using foreign names)

Cultural use of names differ enough that the semantics of name fields is a mess, as illustrated by the LDAP specifications.  In Feide we have added a new field with the full formal name (norEduLegalName), an attribute that has not been specified before.  The flip side of this, is that the importance of displayName, showing the preferred form of the name, gets more important.  Quite a few people have embarrassing middle names where the social cost of changing the name is too high (my mother has a second first name, named for her grand father, this name is somewhat hidden for casual use).

I am celebrating a prime birthday today, enjoying my 41 years on earth.  The importance of prime numbers is often underestimated.  Prime numbers serve as the privacy valves (and security valves) of the Internet.  A prime number is a natural number that has exactly two distinct natural number divisors: 1 and itself. Or to use a somewhat sloppier wording: a prime cannot be divided.

I am prime.  This implies that I cannot be divided, so stop the chain saws.  My attention will be divided as usual, and that argues for my attention not being prime. There are infinitely many prime numbers.

Public-key cryptography is what we wrap all things secret in, the ultimate secure wrapping of our on-line lifes.  Public key cryptography makes use of the difficulty of factoring large numbers into their prime factors, which is why we love our primes.  The fact that it is easy to do a calculation from components, but really really hard to go the other way, makes it possible to keep secrets (since the calculation of the crypto secrets cannot be reversed).  And girls keep secrets in the strangest ways.  Some of us use crypto.

January is the month for reporting on last year, and the biggest change in the way I used Internet last year was the headset.  I never leave home without it, either a discrete white one for my cell phone, or a clunky one with a good microphone for my laptop.

Why do I bother to drag a headset around?  Because podcast and phone conversations are really important to me.  And I have started to watch video systematically, and include video search in my information searches.  When I had to stay around for 20 minutes after my swine flu vaccine shot, I could watch an interesting YouTube video about learning metadata standardization on my cell phone.

When are headsets useful:

  • Headsets make the Internet available in noisy situations, and my life is sometimes noisy.
  • Headsets make me available to the world, and filters information for the others since they avoid the noise in my surroundings
  • Headsets support person to person communication, and I like talking to people
  • Headsets support feelings, since the sound of your voice gives me a lot more information than text and emoticons
  • Headset comes with the cell phone, which is a body part

Late summer 2009 the swine flu scare caused us to investigate a scenario where 40% of the work force and students in higher education has to work from home because of quarantine rules and parents staying home to care for children.  Main advice: buy headsets for everyone! Video is not all that important, but sound is critical.  Other issues that we investigated includes services for shared authoring and phone meeting infrastructure.  Luckily the scenario never materialized, but the advice stands: buy a good headset!

One thing that bugs me: the lack of federated authentication and good authorization mechanisms for conference facilities.  Phone conferences and many video conferences are set up by sharing secrets.  Other multi-party conferences are managed by social networking facilities where people have to be contacts or friends to be able to join a conference.  Some facilities rely on the good ol’ Security-by-obscurity for access, where being wide open is useful but risky.  Another thing that bugs me is gatekeepers for video conferences, they are just plain nasty and non-communicative.  And some of the video conference user interfaces should be taken out behind the barn and shot, to get them out of their misery.

Our local bus company is part of the t:kort public transport ticket system.  In order to get a bus card, I had to part with quite a lot of information, among this was my home postal address.  And then I lost my bus card.  Someone nice found the card and handed it in to the bus company.  And they kept it, until I dropped in on them to get a new card.  Why they did not send it to me I do not understand.  They had never thought of it, but it would be “difficult”.

And this gets me to the point: why do they register information about me that they have no intention of using?

Having said that, their inept web pages, the really sorry circles you have to jump through and the overall weirdness of their customer support may influence the overall impression I have.  My first run-in with them was when I was unable to order online their card (and I am not a novice Internet user), and phoned them.  The reply was that if I navigated a list of 16 steps, I could order online and then wait for 3-4 weeks as the card was printed and delivered from Germany.  Or I could travel down to their office and get the card in hand within 5 minutes.  In their office they were also willing to take money, since payment is separated from the card with some interesting checking (including the process that will keep refusing you to input money to the card unless you have the correct birth date registered at 2 different locations).  For a while it was impossible to get a card for children, or to pay into someone else’s card.

Let me get back to the point: why register information when it is not used?  Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and no-one will bother to check if it is used or even complain about lack of use.

My house was tagged with a little RFID tag yesterday.  It sits quietly inside the door jamb, under a sticker with the logo of the cleaning company.   When I got the CTO job, a condition from the family was to get cleaning help, and we got a company to come and clean the house.  They do a good job, and they work hard.

I suspect that the reason for the tag is to be able to change our bill if the cleaning of our house consistently runs over time, and to keep track of employees who slack off compared to others.  The latter is related to privacy, the first is economics.

The company sent us a letter two weeks before the sticker was applied.  The main topic of the letter was informing us about the sticker, since it sticks to stuff in our house and they would like us not to remove it by accident.  The main text was about how this RFID was not in any way an invasion of our privacy, and that it had been cleared with the Data Inspectorate.

On one hand, this was encouraging, since privacy obviously was a major topic that needed more text than the simple fact of redecorating our entrance hall.  On the other hand this was discouraging as the privacy invasion is on the part of the company employees who will now be monitored on how much time they use in each house, and this was not the focus.

 

This summer’s most popular web site at our place is yr.no with the weather forecast.  Yr just hit a billion weather forecasts since the start in 2007 (given that the site is in mainly in Norwegian, and there are only 4.8 million Norwegians, this is amazing).

One of the main factors in the success of yr.no is their open access to data sources.  yr.no hands out XML streams (and GRIB for the oceanic) for 7 million sites world wide, and they provide access to all data from all Norwegian weather stations.  Scripts for including yr.no as a gadget on your own web site are available, with good user instructions. In addition to a good end user interface this helps build a reliable site for weather information.

My advice to other public agencies: provide data that may be presented, reused and reconstructed – and build a simple interface to your own information.

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