June 19, 2009

Want a job? Hand over your Facebook password

Posted: 06:11 PM ET

How would you like to apply for a job and have your prospective employer ask for the usernames and passwords for all your social-networking accounts?

That's what's happened to applicants for jobs with the city of Bozeman, Montana, who were surprised to discover they needed more than a work history and references.

"Please list any and all, current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo,, MySpace, etc.," reads a background-check waiver form that applicants had to sign. (There's no mention of Twitter.) The form then contains three lines where applicants are to list their logins and passwords.

The request raised questions about privacy rights in Montana, whose constitution states: "The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest."

Is discovering a job applicant's cheeky status updates or stupid YouTube videos a "compelling interest" for the city of Bozeman?

Chuck Winn, Bozeman's assistant city manager, thinks so.

"Before we offer people employment in a public trust position, we have a responsibility to do a thorough background check," Winn told CNET on Thursday. "Shame on us if there was information out there available about a person who applied for a job who was a child molester or had some sort of information out there on the Internet that kind of showed those propensities and we didn't look for it, we didn't ask, and we hired that person," Winn said. "In many ways we would have let the public down."

Hmm. Maybe I'm out of touch here, but do people really list their pedophiliac tendencies on Facebook?

According to CNET, Bozeman city offices have been flooded with angry calls and e-mails since this news broke earlier this week. In an unscientific online poll by a Montana TV station, 98 percent of respondents opposed the city's request on privacy grounds.

The furor led city officials to reconsider. After a closed-door meeting Friday, Bozeman officials suspended the practice, according to several Montana media outlets - who first announced the news on Twitter.

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Filed under: social-networking sites

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Downloading mom fined $80,000 per song

Posted: 11:17 AM ET

After deliberating for only a few hours, the jury in Jammie Thomas-Rasset's federal retrial found the 32-year-old Minnesota mother liable for willfully infringing the copyrights of 24 songs she downloaded off the Web and awarded record labels $1.92 million.

24 cases of copyright infringement will cost a Minnesota woman $1.9 million, a jury has decided.

24 cases of copyright infringement will cost a Minnesota woman $1.9 million, a jury has decided.

Thomas-Rasset stood accused of using the file-sharing service KaZaA to download and share music illegally after RIAA investigators at MediaSentry linked several complete song downloads to Thomas-Rasset's computer. While the RIAA initially offered to settle the case for $5,000, Thomas-Rasset insisted she had never heard of KaZaA and decided to fight the charges in court.

The RIAA has sued thousands in its legal campaign against file sharing, but, according to her attorneys, Jammie Thomas-Rasset's case was the first such copyright infringement case to go to trial in the United States. When faced with the astronomical penalties detailed in the Copyright Act, from $750 to $150,000 per infringement, most of those sued accepted settlements from the RIAA for only a few thousand dollars.

Despite a vigorous defense from lawyers Kiwi Camara and Joe Sibley and tearful testimony by Jamie Thomas-Rasset, the jury concluded that she willfully infringed on 24 copyrights and awarded labels $80,000 per infringement.

While I was not particularly shocked by the guilty verdict, the jury's decision to award damages of $1.92 million is rather mind-blowing. The financial ruin this fine will likely cause Ms. Thomas-Rasset is substantially greater than the criminal penalties she might have faced had she stolen the physical CDs.

How do you feel about the verdict? Should the civil penalties outlined in the Copyright Act apply to private citizens who are not downloading and distributing copyrighted material for financial gain?

And before I plow through dozens of comments declaring, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," consider lawyer Joe Sibley's closing arguments to the jury, paraphrased here:

If the labels can sue Thomas-Rasset, they can sue any of you. "This could happen to any of us." If a kid, or a friend's kid, downloads some songs on a computer at home, any person could just as easily be on trial with the same evidence against them.

Ars Technica provided excellent coverage of the four-day trial:

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Filed under: file sharing • Internet • piracy

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I waited three-plus hours for my new iPhone

Posted: 07:57 AM ET

So I arrived at my chosen Atlanta-area Apple store about 30 minutes after its early 7 a.m. opening. There are two lines here: one for people like me who preordered their phone online, and one for those who didn't.

The reservation line stretches around a corner - far enough that I can't see the actual store front. The other line is reportedly shorter, but moving much slower, and a store employee tells us that the bulk of their "specialists" are working this line.

One cool thing: They have a little cart going around with snacks and drinks.

UPDATE: Now there is some confusion over whether I actually have a reservation for a new phone, as I didn't receive a reminder e-mail with the store's name. But I did call a friend several days ago who works at this store, and who conformed that I'm on the list for a 32-gig black iPhone 3GS.

UPDATE 2: Security came up and split the line - making it wrap backwards around a railing - to keep us pre-orderers from interfering with a nearby, yet-to-open kiosk.

UPDATE 3, 9 a.m. ET: An Apple Store employee is carrying around a 3GS for people in line to fondle. The application response time is very fast. The camera app launched quickly, without the lag that seems to plague my 3G, and switched to video mode seamlessly. The auto focus is so cool. Simply touch the screen on what you want to focus on, and a small white box appears around your finger.

The snack cart continues to make the rounds. And I'd guess there are at least 70 people on front of me. Looks like I'll be awhile.

UPDATE 4, 9:40 a.m. ET: I can just make out the faint Apple logo on the front of the store from my place in line.

UPDATE 5, 9:55 a.m. ET: Probably 30 people still in front of me. People are grumbling that they should have just got in the shorter, no-reservation line.

UPDATE 6, 10:45 a.m. ET: An Apple "specialist" in a blue shirt has come to take me to my new iPhone!! I can't wait to get my grubby hands on it. We'll soon know how good that screen coating is at keeping fingerprints at bay.

FINAL UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. ET: I got my phone! And I only had to wait in line for about three and a half hours - which might sound like alot, but last year I waited something like seven, and there was no snack cart. The mood in the line was getting a bit cranky after awhile but quickly improved as we neared the store.

Once I entered the store a nice man named Phil escorted me around, helped me find the accessories I wanted (Contour Hardskin, just like I have on the 3G - though I might get a blue one later - and a matte screen protector), and then we started the activation process.

The activation process took about 10 minutes because there were lots of little steps. The store employee put in my account info, we waited for it to download, I agreed to some terms and waited for it to update. Then my total came up. I handed him a credit card and it came back slightly melted because I refused to wait till December for my new toy. Then he unwrapped the new phone, plugged it into iTunes and, surprisingly quickly, I was ready to go.

I used my new phone to shoot some video of the line as I walked out. Some people laughed and others jeered as they thought I was flaunting my new toy.

Now I'm going to sit in the mall's food court and sync the new phone so it has all my stuff (it already has some contacts, because I quickly set up my Mobile Me e-mail and other services).

I will say this: I got my new iPhone before a friend who had hers shipped to her home. She's stuck in meetings and missed the UPS guy. Shoulda shipped it to work 🙂

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Filed under: iPhone

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June 18, 2009

Some report problems in downloading new iPhone OS

Posted: 11:36 AM ET

According to Web reports, some iPhone owners have had trouble updating their devices with the phone's new 3.0 operating system, which Apple made available for download Wednesday.

Complaints flooded Twitter and other social-networking sites Wednesday from people who said they received an iTunes error message stating the “iPhone activation server is unavailable.”

CNET reporter Stephen Shankland finally succeeded in upgrading his iPhone Wednesday afternoon after some 30 tries, according to a report by his CNET colleague Erica Ogg, who had this take on the issue:

This, of course, is a repeat of what happened last year, when Apple's iTunes servers couldn't withstand the barrage of traffic when customers tried to update to iPhone 2.0 software at the same time new iPhone 3G buyers were attempting to activate their phones.

The problem appeared to have eased by Thursday morning, judging by reports on Twitter.

Did you have issues downloading your new iPhone software? And if you succeeded, how do you like your upgraded phone?

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Filed under: iPhone

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Will hypersonic flight take off?

Posted: 08:51 AM ET

I recently spent a miserable 10 hours on a flight from Europe to the U.S. and it made me think of how wonderful it would have been to be able to take the Concorde and cut that time in half.

My misery, and a conversation with a colleague about it, inspired an article on the status of supersonic flight six years after the Concorde fleet was retired from service.

Those planes flew at twice the speed of sound, but what if you could travel even faster?

Research continues into hypersonic flight, defined as least five times faster than the speed of sound. The first human to travel at hypersonic speeds was Russian Major Yuri Gagarin 1961 during the world's first piloted orbital flight, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.

Future generations might one day zip around the globe in planes that reach those speeds with the help of supersonic combustion ramjets. Also known as scramjets, these engines use external air for combustion, according to NASA.

But there are lots of obstacles to overcome.

“It really comes down to the faster you go, the higher the temperatures associated with the external shape of the airplane,” said Peter Coen, principal investigator for NASA’s supersonic fundamental aeronautics program.

To illustrate, the temperature on the surface of an object that is traveling at five times the speed of sound reaches 1,800° F, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.

“That really requires an airframe that has the life that would be associated with commercial success. That material has not been envisioned yet, never mind invented,” Coen said.

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Filed under: Aviation • NASA

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June 17, 2009

My new Facebook username

Posted: 03:51 PM ET

At 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Facebook handily provided a second-by-second countdown for members waiting in anticipation to create a username. I know because I was signed in, of course. The social-networking giant had clearly anticipated that people like me would be standing by, worrying that someone else would beat us to our first choices. After all, more than 50,000 users indicated they "like" the announcement about the username feature.

As soon as the prompt popped up, I immediately typed in my choice (Hint: It's a variation on my name, containing the word "monster") and clicked the word "Available," hesitating briefly when Facebook informed me that this choice of username was irreversible. Was it available? YES! I went to sleep satisfied with my new identity, and with the knowledge that I had a unique URL pointing to my profile - almost like a personal Web site someone else had just designed for me.

Some people don't think usernames are so important, but as a relatively early participant in the online world I've put a lot of stock in them - so much that I have emotional attachments to certain names. In fact, since I first got an America Online account in 1996 (dial-up modem, pay per hour), I have created at least 16 different usernames for various online accounts.

At the end of the last century, I felt pretty secure with the usernames that I had created, as if they somehow belonged to me in a way that transcended the AOL welcome screen. These were my Internet identities and, in many cases, the only way that people out in the virtual world knew me. They were variations on my name or my interests, and no one else could send messages from them on AOL. My usernames defined me in several teenage and Jewish-themed chat rooms (not to mention the Star Trek role-playing chat room I got roped into joining a couple of times).

But today, AOL is no longer the dominant player in e-mail, and the same usernames I'd chosen for AOL weren't available anymore when I transitioned to other services such as Gmail. In fact, by the time I figured out that my cutesy screen names on AOL seemed less useful than firstname.lastname on Gmail, and had been claimed by others. Unless you sign up with a popular e-mail or social media service early, you may find yourself at a loss of how to represent yourself, because the identity you've always known and loved belongs to someone else.

There is something disconcerting about knowing that, while early in online circles I've stood behind the name "Bizzie," I am NOT "Bizzie" on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, or even In fact, I have no idea who those people are. Should I? Do we all have something in common? Is this yet another means of forging connections between total strangers around the world?

In any case, while the username feature on Facebook does open the doors to all kinds of bizarre monikers, drifting away from its traditional "real name" approach, the essential Facebook interface with all of your "real life" information is essentially the same. Plus, I like the bonus of having a personalized URL with a "monstrous" nickname that seems to keep reemerging partly because of social media.

What do you think about the Facebook username feature? Are you using your real name, or something totally different?

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Filed under: Facebook

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'Ghostbusters' and 'Guitar Hero'

Posted: 10:20 AM ET

The big screen classic is hitting consoles this week along with a new title in the "Guitar Hero" series. CNN's David Daniel has more on the latest video game releases:

Filed under: video games

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Download Internet Explorer 8 and feed the poor

Posted: 09:56 AM ET

As a longtime Firefox supporter and a web designer who is often frustrated by Internet Explorer's lax adherence to web standards, I was not particularly excited when Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) was released earlier this year. However, Microsoft's new IE8 marketing campaign has managed to grab my attention.

According to a Microsoft press release:

For every completed download of Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft’s Browser for the Better campaign will donate the financial equivalent of eight meals to Feeding America’s network of 206 local food banks, which supplies food to more than 25 million Americans each year.

In order to participate, users need to download a complete copy of IE8 from the Browser for the Better website by August 8, 2009.

Given that most web surfers (approximately 66 percent of the browser market) already use some version of Internet Explorer, this seems like the perfect opportunity for many people to upgrade. And those of you married to Firefox, Safari or Chrome can still participate.  I'm confident your favorite browser will forgive your brief infidelity if IE8 doesn't satisfy. After all, it was for charity.

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Filed under: computers • Google Chrome • Internet • online news

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June 16, 2009

Tracking Iran news and censorship online

Posted: 10:17 AM ET

One of the biggest news stories of the day - both in technology and world affairs - remains Iran's presidential election.

As you've probably heard by now, Iranians are using Twitter to tell the world about local demonstrations on both sides of the dispute, and to communicate with each other. This morning, Iran reportedly banned foreign journalists from covering street protests.

With such importance on social media's coverage of a major news event, it made me wonder: How much are Web sites and online communications censored in Iran? And elsewhere? And how will the spread of social media worldwide lead to a change in the way international news is told?

These questions are too large to answer with a short blog post, but I'll provide a few bits of information here:

CNN's Octavia Nasr writes that Iranian bloggers say the Ministry of Information filters words like "violence," "unrest" and "democracy." Nasr also says the U.S. prevents some video communications from coming out of Iran.

The OpenNet Initiative ranks countries based on their openness online. Check out their map.

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan has a good recap of Iran tweets and social-media news.

CNET and the New York Times have good stories on how censorship works in China.

Social media continues to spread around the world. The BBC says Facebook just launched a Swahili version.

Twitter's blog says it rescheduled site maintenance to ensure Iranians could continue communicating about the elections through the micro-blogging service. Twitter seems to recognize its growing impact on global affairs and communication.

The Washington Post has several sites you can use to follow real-time news on Iran. Twazzup, PicFog, Flickr and a local photo blog are a few.

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Filed under: Internet • Twitter

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June 15, 2009

'Hunch' knew what I would decide

Posted: 09:23 AM ET

When you first hear about Hunch, a new site that says it helps people make decisions, it's easy to be skeptical.

But, before you write the site off entirely, consider the fact that Hunch is really more about information than decisions. Hunch essentially is a site that makes searching the Internet fun.

In a recent interview with, Caterina Fake, the site's founder, was careful to say that Hunch is not a search engine, it's "something new." That's true. But it does what Google, Bing and Wolfram Alpha all want to do: it learns something about you and then answers your questions, without sending you to a middle-man Web page that contains a giant list of hyperlinks that may or may not have what you're looking for.

Hunch isn't perfect, but, as Fake points out, it should get better over time, since its computers learn from all the people who use it.

I tested the site ahead of its public launch Monday, and it seemed to know me pretty well. I asked the site which Atlanta neighborhood I should live in, and Hunch's top response was my actual neighborhood. I asked Hunch what blogs I should read and the site spat back a couple of sites I do read and one, called Notcot, that I hadn't seen before, but do find to be neat.

It missed on some other topics, though. For instance, Hunch told me that, if I ever wanted to pick another line of work, I should be an electrical engineer. No chance there.

It's also important that Hunch is pretty fun to use. Using the site feels like taking a bunch of online quizzes, which already are popular on online social networks.

Check the site out and let me know what you think. Also listen to this short clip from my interview with Fake, who also is a co-founder of Flickr. It's my favorite part of our conversation. In it, she explains why she thinks the Internet is so powerful.

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Filed under: Caterina Fake • Flickr • Google • Hunch • search engines

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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