Expanding upon its recent humanitarian efforts, Google is making a concerted effort to go green.
Last week, the search engine company launched an industry initiative with Intel to promote energy efficiency in computing to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. The "Climate Savers Computers Initiative" focuses on addressing the energy waste from PCs, and includes plans for a certification program to recognize energy-efficient computers (here's hoping they get Microsoft on board). And now, in addition to announcing its intention to go carbon neutral by the end of this year, Google is launching two more projects with a green tinge.
First, Google Earth is teaming up with a Brazilian Indian tribe with the aim of countering deforestation in the Amazon. The project aims to capture vivid images that could deter loggers and miners from cutting down trees and digging for gold in the tribe's reservation. It hopes to help police the reservation site and provide evidence to authorities if and when destruction occurs. Second, Google has just launched what the Financial Times calls its "first significant philanthropic initiative": an $11 million contribution to speed the development of the plug-in hybrid electric car, though this isn't the first time Google has expressed an interest in alternative energy.
What does all this green investment mean? Does Google really care about the environment, or is it simply trying to reassure the 80 percent of U.S. consumers who believe it's important to support green companies? And as the FT highlights,
Unlike other philanthropists, [Google.org's leaders have] opted to keep the bulk of their financial pledges outside a non-profit structure, a move designed to give them more flexibility in deciding how to spend money for social good, including the option of doing so through for-profit ventures.
Of course, it's possible to earn profits while supporting environmental causes. But if Google really wants to prove its environmental bona fides, Sergey Brin and Larry Page may want to reconsider jetting around in their personal Boeing 767.
Want to know how much your consumption habits are contributing to global warming? Climate Counts, a new nonprofit organization, now lets you see how companies rank in the fight against climate change before you go shopping.
On its recently launched website, Climate Counts scores 56 companies from 0 to 100 based on how they measure their greenhouse gas emissions, their plans to reduce them, their stance on legislation, and how fully they disclose these activities. The methodology focuses heavily on public disclosure of activities and policies, so the emphasis is on which companies talk the climate change talk, but not necessarily on which ones follow words with actions.
Canon comes out on top with a score of 77, while Amazon.com, Wendy's, Burger King and CBS find themselves at the very bottom of the climate-friendly ladder. The New York Times reports that Climate Counts gave Amazon.com a zero because researchers could not find relevant data about its role in climate change. Amazon's response? Climate Counts just didn't look very hard.
I'm not sure what kind of impact the group thinks it can have on consumption patterns, but I highly doubt it'll be convincing die-hard Pepsi fans (score: 26) to switch to Coke (score: 57) anytime soon. At best, these endeavors are good for the embarrassment factor they create. Maybe now, companies at the bottom will feel a need to step up their efforts—or at least make their policies easier to find.
Check out this gorgeous map of the Internet, compiled by thousands of
geeks researchers studying the Web's connectivity. The dense nodes in the center represent the core of the Web through which most traffic flows. The study's novel finding: Taking away these core connections wouldn't crash the net. The 'mantle' and 'crust' of connections would keep humming, albeit a little slower, through peer-to-peer connections.
Back in April, Christine flagged the effort by Google and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to map the atrocities committed in Darfur using images from Google Earth. That undertaking is now joined by the Eyes on Darfur project, which allows Web surfers to view before-and-after high-resolution satellite images of destroyed villages in Darfur and eastern Chad, as well as monitor a dozen villages currently at risk. Launched this month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Amnesty International, the project aims to add images from commercial satellites to the online database every few days in order to monitor vulnerable areas and create a record of abuses committed.
Of course, Sudanese President Omar Bashir probably doesn't even care that the world is watching. This is, after all, the same guy who appointed Ahmed Harun in charge of dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Harun, formerly Sudan's minister of the interior, was indicted in April by the ICC for allegedly coordinating murders and rapes of civilians in Darfur through funding and inciting janjaweed militias over the past several years. It's a gross irony that he's now in charge of helping and protecting the same people he's been accused of terrorizing. But then, that's just business as usual in Khartoum these days.
Yet U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon seems cautiously optimistic that his new agreement with Bashir on a peacekeeping force will finally put a stop to the violence. With Eyes on Darfur, we'll be able to see for ourselves just how well that deal is working.
Yesterday, we learned that within Washington's Republican powerbase, bloggers don't wield very much influence. That's according to Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, who yesterday in a moment of frustration over the fledgling immigration bill proclaimed:
Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”
One has to assume that Lott was talking about conservative America, because the liberal talking heads over Air America sure as heck aren't "running" anything. Passport sends its condolences to Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin, Andrew Sullivan, and the rest of our conservative blogger pals, who have apparently been trumped within their party by the technologies of the last century. Sorry guys. Here's hoping the GOP joins 21st century sometime soon.
Last month, Passport blogged about an online newspaper in Pasadena, California, that hired two journalists in India to cover the meetings of the Pasadena City Council, which are broadcast over the Internet. Many U.S. reporters are understandably outraged. They believe that important nuances will be neglected if Indian reporters don't understand the local culture and institutions, and aren't physically present to report the news. Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten has even written a humorous article in which he attempts to cover a meeting of the legislature of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, after viewing a webcast, to show how ridiculous it must be to report from a hemisphere away.
But just how well are the two Indian journalists—one of whom is a journalism graduate from the University of California, Berkeley—actually doing? I visited the website of the newspaper and found a couple of decently written articles by Nisha Ramakrishnan, whom I confirmed was one of the Indian journalists. They were nothing like the joke of an article that Weingarten wrote. Perhaps an Indian journalist can write better about city government in the United States than a top U.S. journalist can write about state government in India?
Still, the offshoring of journalism can only go so far. When it comes to politics, much of the juicy news comes from the informal discussion that happens before and after official meetings, when the webcam isn't recording. If someone says something confusing or shocking at a meeting, it's important to be able to chase the person down right afterward and ask for a clarification. And how in the world would you be able to write about a local fire? For these reasons, American journalism won't die. I say let the experiment with offshored journalism continue.
British entrepreneur Nick Denton is best known as the founder of Gawker.com, a Manhattan media-watching site that's become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. But his Gawker Media empire has other sites too, including Wonkette for Washington gossip, Gizmodo for news about the latest tech gadgets, and Deadspin for sports fans.
Another Denton venture, Gridskipper, is for travel enthusiasts. The blog is aimed primarily at urban twentysomethings who take (or at least want to take) globalization literally on a personal level, jetting off to find the best tapas in Sydney or the coolest design galleries in Paris.
Until now, the website has just offered travel tips and addresses for hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops. Now Gridskipper has added a mapping feature to six cities on its site: Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, Paris San Francisco, and Sydney. So the next time you decide you really need to buy a skull sweater at Lala Berlin when you're in Germany, Gridskipper will show you exactly where to find it.
Yesterday, McAfee Site Advisor released its yearly report on "The State of Search Engine Safety." Perhaps inspired by the Department of Homeland Security, the study provides a colorful graph illustrating the level of risk associated with the most popular keywords: Red means "high danger," yellow "medium danger," and green is for the secure stuff.
You would think that porn sites are the biggest magnets of spyware and viruses, but it's actually innocent-looking words like "BearShare" and "screensaver" that are most likely to cause you trouble. Also, beware of "mp3" or "ipod nano," as the con men of the web find file-sharing software and technological gadgets to be potent honey for gullible flies.
Gossip lovers are another frequent target: The combination "Brad Pitt + Jennifer Aniston," for example, often leads to dangerous web ambushes. The work of overeager Jolie fans, perhaps?
China has developed first-strike cyberwarfare capabilities, according to an annual Pentagon report (pdf) on the status of the country's military:
The PLA has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks. In 2005, the PLA began to incorporate offensive CNO [computer network operations] into its exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks.
Experts say that the emphasis on first-strike capabilities represents a shift in Beijing's cyberwar thinking. As recently as two years ago, the PLA was focused on defensive technologies that would allow it to deter attack, thanks in part to the fact that the country was primarily running off-the-shelf, Western software. "Now there's no mention of that," says University of New Hampshire cyberwar expert Andrew MacPherson. "[M]uch more of the discussion is about first-strike capabilities."
Tensions with Taiwan might explain the change in Chinese strategy. Theories have been floating for years that taking down Taiwan's technological infrastructure would be a key element to any Chinese military campaign against the island and its American allies. And the Pentagon's report makes this point:
A limited military campaign could include computer network attacks against Taiwan’s political, military, and economic infrastructure to undermine the Taiwan population’s confidence in its leadership.
MacPherson goes even further, suggesting that, if backed into a corner, China may try to take down the Internet writ large: "Maybe [China] would be willing to unplug from the Internet if they saw the advantage to their side was great" by launching a virus assault on a global scale. It seems an unlikely scenario, but scary none the less.
Has China's Communist Party reversed its position on Internet cafes? Beijing has been notoriously suspicious of the country's 120,000 Internet cafes for years, and has staged high profile crackdowns on many. Just two months ago, the government announced a moratorium on the opening of new Internet cafes for one year.
Today, however, a party official seemed to signal that the current policy is hopeless. Zhang Xiaoliang, chief of the Communist Youth League Central Committee's rights protection division, said that access to the Internet is—wait for it—a right. Well, sort of. Here's what Zhang said today:
A healthy environment and healthy online content should be offered to all kids [...] You can't stop kids using Internet cafes just because they are poorly managed."
Of course, it has to be the right kind of Internet, which is, presumably, a highly censored Internet. Still, beginning Friday, China's Law on the Protection of Minors will declare:
Nonprofit Internet service infrastructures within communities shall be free or offered at a discounted price, as well as provide a safe and healthy online service for minors."
So all kids should not only have access to the Internet, but it should be free or at least very inexpensive. I guess it's a start.
A new social networking craze has hit the Internet: faith-based social networking sites, which have emerged as alternatives to popular, general social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. For instance, Xianz, which developed as a response to the loose behavioral codes on other social networking sites, explicitly markets itself as "The MySpace alternative for Christians!" At just one year old, it boasts 35,000 registered members and 500,000 unique visitors.
Shmooze, a Jewish social networking site, and its affiliated networks, have 200,000 members, and Naseeb, a Muslim social networking site, has more than 300,000 registered members. While they may not compare to MySpace's million members or more, their numbers in terms of both the number of sites and their memberships, reveal a growing virtual social bloc. And they may provide more than just "networking." Naseeb in particular frequently highlights the words "SOULMATES" on its home page, with an accompanying picture of a happy couple who met through the site. So apart from providing a virtual space for like-minded believers, free of bad language and obscene imagery, these sites can also be spaces where "Fairy tales do happen ..."
One of the essays in FP's 21 Solutions to Save the World package that has attracted the most attention online is Mikko Hyppönen's solution for preventing the growing problem of online banking fraud, specifically the "phishing" technique of luring trusting users to fake bank websites and then stealing their information. Hyppönen proposes to create a special Web domain just for banks, and make securing such a domain so costly and difficult that only genuine banks would be able to obtain one. I asked Hyppönen, who is chief research officer at F-Secure, to respond to critics of his idea. Here is his response.
Hyppönen: We've been pushing for an initiative to get a secure top-level domain (like ".bank" or ".safe") for some time now. We've received lots of questions and just plain criticism over the whole idea—most notably, from Larry Seltzer in his prominent blog.
So let me collect the most typical challenges to the idea, and answer them in turn. (below the jump)
The U.S. military has seen the enemy, and it is Web 2.0.
Explaining a ban on 13 popular websites, including MySpace, YouTube, MTV, and Pandora, Gen. B.B. Bell, head of U.S. Forces Korea, complained that the popularity of these "Web 2.0" sites "impacts our official DoD network and bandwidth ability, while posing a significant operational security challenge."
Those are certainly valid concerns, but blocking access to soldiers' social sites hinders the communication between troops and their families and friends back home that is vital for morale. And in a larger sense, the Pentagon might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater with this move. Too often, the military and the White House complain about the lack of positive stories coming out of Iraq, whether because of liberal media bias, or just the plain news value of bombings over new schools. Yet here's an organic opportunity to air the accomplishments, and yes, struggles, of those in the battlefield with the entire world. And they're shutting it down?
Of course, this kind of transparency shouldn't come at the cost of national security, and locations of troop movements ought to be off-limits. But that's the kind of thing to be handled case by case. After all, even President Bush has sung the praises of personal blogs and social networking as a source for positive news from Iraq. Maybe the military could take a cue.
What do you do if you are a struggling website peddling local Pasadena, Ca., news, but can't afford to hire more U.S. reporters? Outsource the job of covering all things Pasadena to Bangalore. That's exactly what James Macpherson, publisher of Pasadena Now, has done, offering to pay two India-based journalists he found on Bangalore's craigslist site a combined $20,800 annual salary in order to watch Pasadena City Council meetings on the Internet and cover the local government beat. It's a strategy Reuters has also adopted, hiring Indian journalists to write Wall Street stories based on wire reports and news releases.
Macpherson defends his offshoring move by telling the Associated Press, "Whether you're at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you're still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview." He's got a point; a lot of journalism is done from a desk, thanks to technologies that put more information than you'll ever need at your fingertips, and the world's an email or phone call away. But he overlooks a crucial hurdle: simple time differences. I'll be impressed if his new Indian reporters successfully pull off local investigative pieces, as Macpherson intends, from 12.5 hours away. Not impossible, obviously, but harder for fast-moving news stories. But perhaps the news cycle in Pasadena isn't so rushed.
The following proposal was put before Google shareholders at their annual meeting held yesterday. The motion was voted down out of fears that adopting an anti-censorship policy would effectively shut down Google's business in China.
- The company will not engage in pro-active censorship.
- The company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures.
- Users will be clearly informed when the company has acceded to legally binding government requests to filter or otherwise censor content that the user is trying to access.
- Users should be informed about the company’s data retention practices, and the ways in which their data is shared with third parties.
- The company will document all cases where legally-binding censorship requests have been complied with, and that information will be publicly available.
- Data that can identify individual users should not be hosted in Internet restricting countries, where political speech can be treated as a crime by the legal system.
David Drummond, senior vice president for corporate development at Google, explained to PC World that "this proposal would prevent us from operating Google.cn." So we can assume that at least one of the proposed rules is being broken by Google right now.
I hope the story doesn't end here. The six-point list would make an excellent addition to the code of conduct of any business that operates online. If businesses don't want to adopt it internally, a grassroots campaign could pressure them to do so. For instance, an index that ranks how well the top 100 online companies comply with these anti-censorship measures could shed some interesting light on who's selling out freedom of speech to make a profit. The resulting harsh spotlight might force a few companies to clean up their acts. More coverage at Slashdot.
(Full disclosure: Apparently, I'm a sellout, too. I own a handful of Google shares. But I'm disappointed that these measures were not adopted.)
Since the 2004 campaign, more and more U.S. politicians have latched on to YouTube as a way to "go viral" and reach the increasingly powerful "netroots". Witness Democratic presidential long shot Bill Richardson's clever new job interview ad, which has already been viewed over 50,000 times since Tuesday. And as Kevin Drum cynically observed yesterday, the real prize for the attention-starved New Mexico governor will be when the New York Times writes "another thumbsucker about the power of new media, complete with chin scratching quotes from [new media gurus] Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis."
Well, here's something altogether new for the gurus to ponder: politicians who wish to be journalists. Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey recently debuted his own YouTube channel, where he has so far advertised not himself, but ... YouTube. Here's Markey's interview with YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley:
Almost everyone agrees that having sex with children is wrong and should be illegal. But what about sex with virtual online children? Second Life, an online virtual world in which people live out a "second life" as a cybercharacter, is working with German police to identify members who pay for sex with virtual children. A German news program's investigative report discovered "age play" groups that center on abuse of cyberchildren. An investigator also found a group that trades both virtual and real images of child pornography.
Creepy. It raises the question of whether, in the United States, virtual child pornography is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech. One of the primary reasons for prohibiting traditional child pornography—as stated in Supreme Court rulings—is that its creation intrinsically involves the abuse of children. But the production of virtual child porn doesn't necessarily require the abuse of real children.
Outlook just quarantined the following message in my in box, which came from a spoofed worldbank.org email address:
Urge Wolfowitz to resign!
World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz's girlfriend, Shaha Riza, for whom Wolfowitz arranged not only jobs, incredible pay raises, automatic "outstanding" ratings in performance reviews, but also -- apparently -- a security clearance, ...
Attachment is Shaha Riza's salary account. It's unbelievable!
Attached was a highly suspicious file named account.mdb, a Microsoft Access document that likely contains some nasty macros. On the one hand, it's somewhat impressive that spammers are following current events and targeting people likely to be following them. On the other, this virus would probably have been much more effective back in April when the story first broke and everyone wanted to know more details about Riza's salary package.
If you think RSS feeds are giving you the same stories that you can find on a news site, think again. It's true that the ubiquitous little orange square that one increasingly finds on websites can be a gateway to a world of content. But is using RSS a reliable way to stay informed about the world itself?
Not yet. A new study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda concludes that RSS feeds work very poorly for anyone who uses news for more than infotainment. The study looked at 19 of the world's top news sites to determine which news outlets use RSS well—which outlets give users the range of information on their feed readers that most closely approximates what can be found on the home website.
Among the best: The LA Times, BBC World Service and Fox News.
Among the worst: Al Jazeera, The Guardian and the New York Times.
Rather than RSS, the study found, casual news consumers users should just stick with Google's Top Stories. The problem is that many news outlets don't want to share all the news that's on their site—especially stories that are not staff-written or produced. One reason may be that such stories, such as those by AP or Reuters, don't carry the "brand" of the news organization. But without those stories, many RSS feeds are not truly delivering news 24/7 and, in addition, lack the breadth of news their home sites deliver.
As a result, RSS users have no idea what they're missing. The study illuminated how difficult it was to get even all of the staff-generated stories from "today" via RSS feeds. And without going back to the home site and checking, a user doesn't know exactly what is NOT being sent via the RSS feeds. What's more, the study uncovered, just because two separate news outlets both have feeds labeled "International" hardly means that they have decided to send the same type or quantity of news through their feeds.
For complete examinations of these and other findings, take a look at the full study here.
Susan Moeller is director of ICMPA and associate professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park.
Pop psychologists and canine aficionados theorize that you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of dog they own. And there's a corollary to this theorem: that people with similar taste in dogs make great couples.
Now, it just got easier for dog owners to meet and, perhaps, to fall in love. The aptly-named SNIF Labs—Social Networking in Fur, that is—is finally set to begin beta-testing a hotly anticipated new product that turns dogs into walking personal ads.
When two dogs wearing [SNIF's special radio-enabled] tags come within range of each other, the tags start to swap dog and even owner information. Once owners are back home and using the company's social-networking service, they can trade information about their dogs and themselves online.
"Social networking" is the concept that powers smash website successes like MySpace and Facebook. (There's even one called Dogster.) But this new tool strikes me as having a far greater potential for abuse if it isn't implemented very carefully. The company says it has enacted numerous technological safeguards in order to allay privacy fears, such as that SNIF tags would enable stalkers or identity thieves. But, of course, it won't be long before unscrupulous spammers figure out a way to exploit this new technology for their own ends. It'll be interesting to see how they do it.
Does culture explain why Indians don't blog more? Earlier this year, I read an article in the Jan. 22 edition of Red Herring magazine about the dearth of Indian bloggers. At one point the article says:
Blogger Shard Sharma believes blogging has not taken off in India because of cultural inhibitors. He says Indians grow up to be reticent adults because all their school lives they are told to keep their opinions to themselves.
I disagreed. I couldn't help but think of Amartya Sen's book, The Argumentative Indian. But the theory that culture can influence a country's blogging patterns is intriguing, so I decided to do some research about why Indians don't blog more.
I contacted experts in India and read as much as I could on blogging in the subcontinent. Four reasons emerged that accounted for why Indians weren't expressing themselves online more.
1. Lack of computers and broadband access. Obviously, if people don't have computers and high-quality Internet access, they can't blog.
2. Illiteracy. Obviously, if people can't read and write, they can't blog.
3. Freedom of speech. Compared to China, Indians have more freedom of speech. In China, the Internet may be one of the few places where people can genuinely express themselves. Indians, on the other hand, have many other alternatives.
4. Cultural inhibitors. I'm sensitive to the fact that it's very taboo to blame anything on culture. However, an executive at Ibibo, an Indian blog-hosting company that is offering cash prizes to get Indians to blog more, said there is a perception in India that blogging is for people with "superior writing skills." VeerChand Bothra, who's with Indian blog portal BlogStreet.com, said that Indians prefer not to discuss their private lives, but they enjoy talking about politics, cricket, the economy, films, religion, society, and globalization.
So, perhaps, just perhaps, culture could be part of the explanation. I posited the "superior writing skills" hypothesis in the latest edition of FP, and I've appreciated the attention my short piece has received. (More after the jump)
It seemed like a good idea at the time, no doubt. Ian Proud, the head of the political section at the British Embassy in Thailand, agreed to guest-blog for The Nation, an English-language daily in Bangkok.
He got more than he bargained for, though. It's since been taken down, but Proud's picture was initially published on the blog. That set off a string of comments from Web surfers alleging they had seen him in Bangkok's notorious red-light districts:
Simon Peltier wrote, "I saw him walking arm-in-arm with a girl that could only be described as '2 dollar whore.' I bet that girl got a visa no problem."
Other postings claimed to be authored by the diplomat, but weren't, Proud said in a telephone interview Wednesday, noting one in particular that said: "Yes, I did go with prostitutes during my tenure here with the Briyish [sic] Embassy, but that does not make me a bad person."
"My syntax is a lot better than that for a start," Proud said, not denying familiarity with the red-light districts but insisting he did not patronize them on "a regular basis."
"I'm not going to complain that I've never been there. But at the same time, the suggestion that I'm some sort of upholder of the sex trade in Bangkok ..." he trailed off. "It's pathetic, frankly."
Well okay then.
Google has teamed up with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to map out the atrocities occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan, where conflict has been raging since 2003 when Janjaweed rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. As of today, the 200,000 users of Google Earth (which can be downloaded for free) can navigate to Africa, zoom in, and see the "Crisis in Darfur" initiative, which indicates areas that have been ravaged, refugee camps, destroyed villiages, and much more. Users can also gather data and other information from the map. Crisis in Darfur is the first project of a long-term collaboration between Google and the museum to map out areas of genocide. Next in the works is a mapping project of the Holocaust.
Tono, a rural village in Japan that lacks an obstetrician, has adopted a creative strategy for helping pregnant women: using cellphones to transmit real-time data to doctors some 40 miles away. When the doctors determine that the woman is ready to deliver, the woman leaves for the nearest city with a maternity ward. But cellphones aren't just helping high-tech Japan with its critical shortage of obstetricians, they're also set to fundamentally transform medical access in the developing world.
In February, the U.S. government and a number of companies in the mobile phone industry launched Phones-for-Health, a $10 million initiative to improve health systems in the developing world. The public-private partnership aims to harness the impressive cellphone penetration rates in developing countries to bolster health initiatives. Health workers in the field will carry cellphones containing an application that lets them enter health data on patients, which they then send to a central database. There, it can be analyzed and mapped by the system and made immediately available to health officials on the Internet. As Paul Meyer, chairman of Voxiva, the company that has designed the underlying software, explains,
Health workers will also be able to use the system to order medicine, send alerts, download treatment guidelines, training materials and access other appropriate information ... Managers at the regional and national level can access information in real-time via a Web-based database."
Eventually, cellphones could even be used to store individuals' medical records, including x-rays and 3-D medical scan graphics. This technology is just coming to the United States, but hopefully it will only be a matter of time before people in poorer areas can use it to access, record and clarify their own medical histories where hospitals and clinics do not.
For Thailand's "Council for Democratic Reform"—that is, the military junta that seized control of the country last September—no politics is good politics, it seems. Last week, the Thai government, no doubt nervous about widening opposition to military rule, banned Google's YouTube because of a video mocking King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The latest shoe to drop: Temporarily banning politics from Pantip.com, the country's top chat site, after it made the mistake of hosting chatter about the YouTube ban. Al Jazeera reports:
The site initially posted a notice saying that its political forum, known as the Rajdamnoen Room, was suspended at the ministry's request for "national security" reasons. The notice was later withdrawn. [...]
[O]n Monday, pantip.com urged members to post messages condemning Google for not removing the video clips that mocked the king.
More than 1,000 people had posted messages, including one that said Google's reaction had "really hurt the people of Thailand" and showed a lack of respect for the country's culture and traditions.
No doubt Pantip.com is hoping to avoid sharing the fate of the 45,000 other sites (most of them pornographic, but some political) that are reportedly blocked in Thailand. Ultimately, this all raises the question: If the Thai government intends to make good on its (shaky) promise to hold parliamentary elections in December, how is campaigning supposed to work in such a chilly media climate?
There's an emerging economy that's growing fast right now. But it's neither China nor India. In fact, it's not even a real economy. It's the virtual economy of the QQ coin.
The QQ coin is virtual play money that was created by the Chinese Internet business Tencent Holdings. (QQ is the name of Tencent's mascot, a penguin.) Originally, the QQ coins—which cost one yuan each—were intended to be used to buy virtual products, such as magical swords for online games and virtual flowers for Internet pals. Skilled video-gamers could also win QQ coins for their top scores.
Now, though, websites are using QQ coins as payment for real-world items such as CDs and makeup. For the Chinese, it's a practical way to make purchases since credit cards aren't very common in China yet.
But as the QQ coin makes the leap into the real world, it's creating all sorts of real-world concerns. Successful gamers can make real money by winning online assets and then selling them for cash to poorly performing gamers. (Imagine if top basketball teams could sell their winning points!) Additionally, traders can make real money off virtual currency speculation by selling QQ coins for cash at discount prices that vary based on supply and demand. Recently, one former Chinese executive got sent to prison for virtual embezzlement.
One bigger concern is that when virtual currency gets linked to real currency through an exchange rate, it could potentially cause a real-world monetary crisis. The Chinese government has tried placing capital controls on QQ coins, but that has just led to scarcity, driving up their real-world value by 70 percent in recent weeks.
All this makes me wonder, is it possible for a real-world poor person to become a virtual millionaire, or better yet, become a real-world millionaire by selling virtual money?
Today's Tuesday Map is mesmerizing, but I'm still not sure if it's useful or meaningful. It's twittervision, a Google Maps mashup of Twitter posts, in real time. So what's Twitter, then? It's the latest bizarre Internet craze, a "Web 2.0" site (or MoSoSo application) that allows you to post short blurbs—called "tweets" by those in the know—from your phone or computer updating your friends (and/or everyone else) on the latest thought in your head or minutiae in your life.
Twittervision adds the geographic dimension, and the result is much more interesting: a moving map that never stops telling what people are doing RIGHT NOW, around the world. The about page on twittervision boasts: "Samuel Morse, meet Carl Jung," but I prefer to think of it as the pulse of the global digerati. Click on the map below to check it out for yourself.
So I was fiddling around on Google Maps, inspired by an entry I saw on kottke.org, which linked to driving directions from New York to Dublin: "Step 23: Swim across the Atlantic Ocean, 3,462 mi." That would put you at Le Havre, France, from which you'd presumably drive in the Chunnel to Dover, England. From there, you drive to Holyhead, Wales, hop a ferry to Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, and then drive up to Dublin.
I wondered what would happen if I asked for directions from, say, Washington, DC to Helsinki? Again: "Step 21: Swim across the Atlantic Ocean, 3,462 mi.," again landing in Le Havre, then driving through Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark, crossing a bridge to Sweden, and hopping a ferry to Helsinki. I started trying out other combinations: Miami to Berlin, Atlanta to Bucharest, Denver to Rome. They all direct you to drive to Boston, then swim 3,462 miles across the Atlantic to Le Havre. Google estimates it will take you 32 days and 7 hours to get from San Francisco to Athens.
I started testing out directions using destinations outside Europe. Los Angeles to Beijing, Dallas to Mexico City, Chicago to Casablanca. No cigar ... no directions available. So it looks like Google points us only to select countries in Europe. And to get anywhere else on the continent, all roads first lead to France!
You might call Amir Alexander Hasson, who's featured in the current issue of FP, an ambitious man. He wants to outfit the two billion people living in rural areas of the developing world with an email address, a phone number, and Web access. To accomplish this monumental task, he founded United Villages, a non-profit organization that is pioneering mobile Wi-Fi stations that can be driven from village to village in developing countries, bringing the bounty of the world wide web with them. They're already up and running in India, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Paraguay.
You might also expect Hasson to be the first one to cite the dramatic changes that the Internet brings to lives of the poor people who are now wired thanks to his efforts. But in a nice little BBC write-up of Hasson's work today, Hasson (perhaps unwittingly) points out one of the big contradictions of the "bring the Net and the revolution will follow" thesis:
There's only 0.003% percent of the web that rural India cares about," [Hasson] told BBC News.
"They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes."
In other words, rural Indians have the world at their fingertips, and they're not taking advantage of it. It's exactly the point that Pankaj Ghemawat addresses in "The World Isn't Flat." The world is only a fraction as integrated as we like to think, and Web traffic, economic investment, and phone calls are still far more likely to be local than not. The conventional wisdom says that where the Internet goes, development follows, but what if people just want to get cricket scores?
The World Economic Forum has released its annual Network Readiness rankings, which assesses how well a country can engage in and benefit from developments in information technology. Denmark nabs the top spot this year, followed by Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
The United States, which topped the list last year, fell to seventh place this time around. Authors of the report cited problems in the justice system, the low rate of mobile phone use, and the low quality of science and math education as reasons behind the slide. They also singled out the lack of government leadership as harming American dominance in tech development.
Remember a few years back, when European and Asian countries were developing their third-generation (3G) technologies for mobile phones, which were leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S.? The United States is still playing catch-up. It seem that allowing market forces to run amok may not always result in the best technology. A more regulated environment for mobile technology in Europe and Asia allows for more unity in technological advances, whereas in the United States, competing standards can cause logjams. The same logic applies to some other aspects of IT as well, such as broadband penetration. It turns out government involvement can be a good thing, if it's efficient and well-informed.
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