What!? Facebook Users Sue Over Privacy Concerns

In what seems completely ridiculous to me, five Facebook users have sued the company in a California court, alleging violations of privacy. The plaintiffs claim their private information was harvested by Facebook without receiving compensation for the information. This suit baffles me for two reasons. First, users sign up and provide their personal information of their own volition, after agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service and privacy policy. How then did Facebook “harvest” the information if the users provided it? Second, what “compensation” did the plaintiffs expect? The site’s purpose is to connect people, not pay them for private information. If its purpose was the later, why would anyone join?

I can only hope that the judge has enough common sense to dismiss this frivolous lawsuit.

‘1984’ Comes to Life in UK Surveillance Plan

In an attempt to improve the lives of children in 20,000 “problem” households, the UK government plans to install surveillance cameras in the homes to provide 24-hour monitoring by the government. The program is focused on ensuring children are attending school, eating well, and sleeping enough. Parents will also be monitored for substance abuse problems, and support will be provided. To enforce the program, the British government has created a private guard to perform home checks and ensure that families are abiding by their “behavior contracts.”

The plan, dubbed the Family Intervention Project, is expected to cost £400 million (just shy of $678 million today) and is being put forth by the UK’s Children’s Secretary. In response, the opposition party has blamed the moral decay this program is intended to correct on the ruling party, and said the program is “too little, too late.”

What amazes me most about the program is that 2,000 families are already participating. Given the already-pervasive use of camera surveillance throughout Great Britain, I suppose this announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is strange how much this plan mirrors the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984 though.


The Human Firecracker

John Fletcher, or “Ghengis [sic] John the Human Firecracker,” regularly dons a firecracker-laden suit and sets himself alight to raise money for charity, but as he reveals to The Wall Street Journal, after roughly 12,000 performances involving nearly 300,000 firecrackers, the show may soon come to an end.

Check out Carrie Porter’s article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “When You Perform in a Firecracker Suit, Every Show Ends With a Bang.”

SMART Tossing – Sign of more to come?

It appears that a new act of vandalism is taking Amsterdam by storm. As smaller and smaller fuel-efficient vehicles are introduced, some are becoming the target of a rather odd prank: being tossed into the Amsterdam canals. As local newpaper De Telegraaf reports, the phenomenon appears to focus on the SMART brand, because the cars are light enough to be lifted over guardrails and deposited in the canals throughout the city. As a result, the activity has been termed “SMART tossing” (see the original article at DutchAmsterdam.nl: “Amsterdam craze: tossing Smart cars into the canals.“).

As the push towards ever-more-fuel-efficient vehicles continues, might this bizarre form of vandalism do the same? SMART has already released its “smart fortwo” models in the US, but I haven’t heard of anything like this being reported here in the States. Perhaps we don’t have enough canals. Now that the story made it to NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, maybe it’s just a matter of time until some NPR-listening hooligan tosses his neighbors SMART car into a pond.

Owners of small cars beware!

A Quiet Neighborhood Disrupted: Man crashes car, then flees through Bloomfield neighborhood

Last night, I was watching television with some friends when we heard what sounded like screeching tires followed by a small crash. At first, we didn’t think anything of it, as the noise was so slight. Before we knew it, however, the sound of police sirens filled the humid night air. As the activity in my normally-quiet neighborhood seemed to be picking up, a few of us decided to wander in the direction of the noise to see what the comotion was about.

When we reached the end of my street, we found at least five police cars scattered around Woodland Avenue, some blocking traffic, others shining their teardrop lights into nearby fields. Those officers charged with traffic control quickly set up flares and began forcefully directing cars to turn around. Shortly after the requisite fire truck arrived, two people walked down from the direction of Mills Lane and approached a police officer. At the same time, a man riding a scooter approached us and reported that two officers had detained a white male on Mills Lane. While the scooter rider recounted what he had seen, the two individuals who approached the police officer were overheard discussing an individual they had seen run through their yard.

It would appear that after crashing his car, the driver fled through my neighborhood and was aprehended somewhere along Mills Lane. Woodland Avenue is not terribly well-lighted, and the area where the vehicle crashed is particularly windy. What possessed him to run, though, I do not know. Fortunately for police and the community at large, the man ran in the wrong direction, directly into a dense condo development.

Continuous Partial Attention

Today’s On Point (a production of WBUR and NPR) featured a segment on business jargon, its evolution, and what jargon says about its creators, users, and the economy.

One of the phrases discussed was “continuous partial attention,” meant to reflect the effect of myriad technologies which grapple for our attention on a daily basis. As I regularly find myself in situations which induce this state, I found the term quite apropos and worth at least a cursory mention (anything more would require more attention than I can muster).

This was just one of the many examples discussed during the hour-long program. You can listen to the entire discussion here.

Grand Theft Auto With A Twist

This week brought one of the stranger news stories of the year, which began when a would-be car thief broke into a van parked on a quiet, residential street in Brooklyn. Upon entering the vehicle, the thief noted a slight smell of gasoline, but continued his work anyway. However, when he prepared to “hotwire” the vehicle’s ignition, he noticed some wires that didn’t belong. The man traced those wires to the rear of the van, where they connected to various 5-gallon and 12-once plastic containers filled with a clear liquid later identified as gasoline.

At this point, rather than leave the vehicle where he found it or call police, our elustrious car thief thought he’d move the vehicle out of the residential area. (Personally, I would have called 911 rather than risk blowing myself up, but that’s just the self-preservationist in me.) Somehow the man managed to disable the bomb, start the vehicle, and move it to a deserted part of 37th Street near the Brooklyn waterfront. Then, as if this story wasn’t strange enough, he called police and told them of his find, fearing that he may have uncovered a July 4 terrorist plot. For his efforts, police declined to charge the man with stealing the van.

On learning where the van was originally parked, police quickly discounted the terrorist angle. Instead, the focus shifted to a man already in custody, one Yung “Mark” Tang. Arrested in January while transporting explosives from Massachusetts to New York, Mr. Tang is known to have a penchant for explosives; he reportedly tried to blow up a tenant during a landlord-tenant dispute. The van was located near where he had lived with his estranged wife prior to his arrest. As the van had been parked in the residential neighborhood for more than a month, police think it is plausible that this bomb was another example of Mr. Tang’s handywork. Additionally, the bomb’s design is similar to those previously used by Tang, lending further credibility to the police’s suspicions.

In addition to charges faced relating to his arrest in January, Mr. Tang faces charges related to a 2002 explosion in New York City. If he is formally linked to the bomb-laden van, more charges will undoubtedly follow.

Luck, more than anything else, has helped police thwart Tang’s violent ambitions. His arrest in January came after he pulled off of a Connecticut highway to rest while traveling from Boston to New York. After police questioned why he was sitting in a kindergarten parking lot at 2:30 am, Tang’s van was found to have stolen plates and it was determined that his license was suspended. His detention for charges related to the van led to a search of the vehicle, which revealed explosives and other bomb-making materials.


Credit Crunch Knows No Bounds: Town Hopes to Secede

The credit crisis has had wide-ranging effects, from a shortage of mortgage funds to excess housing supplies to a lack of student loan money. But none seems stranger than the plight of a small, north England town. The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, located on the North Sea, would rather be Scottish. Having changed hands 13 times in conflicts between England and Scotland, the town doesn’t necessarily identify itself with either country anyway. Its distance from London and proximity to the Scottish capitol Edinburgh further confuses the issue. And both countries haven’t always been sure where the town belongs; laws and other official dealings written in the 1500s cite the “Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Wales and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.” It is a combination of this uncertain history and the current economic malaise that pushes this small port town towards secession.

As it turns out, Scotland has better social welfare programs. The health care is superior, Scots’ university tuition is covered by the state, and the unemployment benefits are more generous. In a time of economic uncertainty, people increasingly look to the government for support, and the residents of Berwick would rather turn to Edinburgh than London. That the town has one of the lowest average wages in England and highest unemployment rates further sweetens the Scottish appeal. It doesn’t help that Berwick, being substantially closer to the Scottish capitol, feels that London is out of touch with its situation. Given these economic and political conditions, some Berwick residents are pushing for drastic changes.

Already this year, realtor Euan Aitchison has sold 25 Scottish properties to Berwick residents. Most of these properties are so close to the current border that it is no more than a 10 minute drive back to Berwick. This has allowed many of the transplants to maintain their jobs in England while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of Scottish residency. But if certain members of the Scottish and UK parliaments have their way, these efforts may soon be moot. A motion has already been introduced in the Scottish Parliament calling for the town to return to Scotland, while UK Parliamentarians have vowed to prevent the town from moving. Debate in both Parliaments is sure to be lengthy and contentious, even though 79% of the town’s residents support the border change. Even if the change is approved by the necessary legislatures, executing the move faces substantial hurdles. For starters, the English and Scottish legal systems are quite different, as are the educational systems. Nonetheless, the town’s residents are drawn to the idea by the benefits. A simpler solution may be to provide Scottish-style services to the residents of North Northumberland, as Berwick’s Liberal Member of Parliament Alan Beith has suggested.