I don’t think I’ll be connecting Cortana to Facebook.

I’ve been using Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system for three years, and, overall, I’m very happy with it. A year ago, the company introduced Cortana, its virtual personal assistant. One of the features of the program is that it can connect to your Facebook account in order to suggest things of interest to you. I was curious about this, but, testing enabling the feature, I was met with this dialog box from Facebook.

bing

That’s a lot of personal information, and I wasn’t prepared to just hand it over without some very robust assurances of my privacy. However, the “Cortana and your privacy FAQ” only mentions Facebook in this single paragraph:

If Cortana is on, you can control whether Cortana uses information from your Facebook account for personalization. For more info, see the “Sign in or out of Facebook” section in Cortana’s settings. Note that if you turn Cortana off after connecting Cortana to Facebook, you’ll continue to receive Facebook personalization in other experiences on your phone. To disconnect Facebook after turning off Cortana, go to Settings > Applications > Store, tap Suggestions, tap and hold Facebook, and then tap Remove facebook suggestions to remove Facebook suggestions.

That doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going to happen to my data. So, I emailed Microsoft.

Hi. The settings for Cortana suggest that I might want to connect my Facebook account to it to improve its relevance. However, the button for doing so results in the access request shown in this screenshot,

The privacy policy documents I’m able to access don’t cover any of the following (or if they do, I haven’t found where):

  • the application’s exact reasons for requiring each of those pieces of data
  • how far that data will be distributed through Bing and connected systems
  • what options I have for revoking Bing’s access to that data
  • how long the data will persist in your systems following such a revocation.

Without this grade of information, I regret to say that I’m unwilling to allow your application access to my data within Facebook, as much as I’m curious as to what results it could produce. Would you please consider producing a guide document that explicitly sets out the information I listed above?

Many thanks,

Scott.

Two weeks later, I got back the following underwhelming response.

Hi Scott,
Thank you for your inquiry. We apologize for the delay in sending this response and appreciate your feedback and thoughts on the experience when linking Cortana and Facebook. Choosing to sign in to Facebook in Cortana settings lets Cortana and Bing give you more personalized recommendations and allows Microsoft to access certain Facebook information. For example, connecting your Microsoft account to your social network account lets you see status updates or messages from people you have friended or are following on the social network in your Outlook.com inbox; include them in your Microsoft account address book; and view their birthdays in your Microsoft account calendar.  If you choose to connect your Microsoft account to your account on a social network, we will cache certain information about your social network account on our servers so that we can display updated information from your social network account. You can find additional details at the following site: Cortana and my privacy FAQ.
In general, we feel that our privacy statements and terms of use offer a thorough description of our practices and unfortunately cannot elaborate further. We understand that some information you’d like to share and some you’d rather not. If you are not comfortable with the data sharing practices of this feature, we’d recommend that you skip this feature and use those with which you are comfortable.
Kind Regards,
Microsoft Privacy
(The varying font size is in the original, and a giveaway that its author was using a form response.)
I’m not “not comfortable with the data sharing practices of this feature”. How could I be? Microsoft won’t tell me what they are. Even their privacy statement doesn’t answer any of my questions.
So I guess I’ll just have to live without this particular feature.

Audio management on Windows

This is my toolkit of Windows software for managing the audio files in my collection.

Format and metadata management

  • Medieval CUE Splitter – occasionally I encounter albums ripped to one big FLAC file. This program splits them into individual tracks based on their accompanying “cue sheet” file. It has a very useful batch processing mode for queing up a number of conversions in a row, and also allows you to specify the format of how it titles the files it makes.
  • FLAC to MP3 Converter – because my iPod can’t play FLAC files. Thanks, Apple. Does exactly what it says in the name – a simple, do-one-thing graphical interface for the LAME engine.
  • Mp3tag is what I use for editing the data (title, artist, genre, image, et cetera) in audio files, individually or in bulk. Despite the name, not just for MP3 files.

For playback while working with my files (and often in general) I use Boom, which is a designed-for-simplicity interface for the superb, but almost intimidatingly powerful and configurable foobar2000.

General file management improvements

  • ReNamer allows you to perform mass rename operations on files (essential for poorly-packaged music), according to rules that you set up (for example, “change underscores to spaces” or “add [some text] to the beginning of the file name”). Those rules can be in regular expression format, allowing massive efficiency if you’re conversant with it.
  • UltraCopier replaces Windows’ copying mechanism, providing massively improved error handling, the ability to queue up operations, pause copying, and much more.
  • xplorer2 replaces the Windows Explorer itself and offers numerous powerful additions to the desktop experience, but I only really use two: firstly, sorting folders and files together. No more “all the folders are separate at the top”. I’m completely at a loss why this isn’t a built-in option in Windows itself; if I have a lot of files and folders named by year, I want to see them appear in order. And secondly, being able to filter the view. Hit Ctrl-H, type something, and only see the files that match what you typed. Invaluable. Both of these features are available in the free version of xplorer2.
  • Beyond Compare is a spectacular tool for comparing the contents of folders and files.

Nonplussed

A screenshot of the YouTube account of user jawed, co-founder of the service and uploader of the first video, showing his first comment in eight years, attacking Google Plus integration.

Jawed Karim, co-creator of YouTube, was sufficiently unimpressed by Google Plus integration to appear after eight years’ silence to post this scathing comment.

I finally acquired a Google Plus (“G+”) account a month ago. I’d been holding out from the start, because of the “nymwars”, Google’s refusal to allow users anything but a “real name”. Until very recently, I operated everywhere simply as Hex – meaning that if I joined G+ I ran a very high chance of them suspending my account. Because Google have tied G+ into all their systems, that would have also taken down my Gmail account, and so on – a total disaster. So I left it well alone.

Recently, however, I came to the point where I felt happy to go real name everywhere. So, there was no further reason for me not to check it out; and off I went. My immediate reaction: it’s very attractive, and clearly extremely well-engineered. The design is clear, actions like adding people to your circles are very well thought-out, and so on. Unfortunately, it really does seem to be a ghost town.

I did the usual thing of adding all the friends I could find; a month on, add-backs are trickling in at the rate of a couple of a week. Out of 115 (all but two of whom are already on this site), 19 have added me back. Out of them, only the two, who are both self-exiles from Facebook, are posting at all.

I can’t help thinking that this is because my social group isn’t largely composed of engineers. And even though I do know a number of programmers of various stripes, they use Facebook, just like everybody else.

The other thing about my experience of G+ is that I have no desire to have “circles” of people that I don’t know. It was clearly designed to be able to be used as a general publication/subscription platform; but there is simply no advantage for me as a normal user – if you accept that such a thing exists – over the standard Web for consumption of content (and contribution to it in the form of comments). If anything, self-published content is almost always richer by virtue of the context it sits in. I would rather travel around looking at art in a variety of historic or quirkily individual small galleries than having one single, giant, ultra-modern white room gallery with a hundred separate but identical wings.

There are also clearly aspects of G+ that can be seen to be trying to force social aspects through engineering. I was surprised to discover that it’s not possible to post something on someone else’s profile. Why? Well, I can’t help but think that it’s a way of artificially boosting visible user activity. If you want to share something with someone, it appears on your profile, making it look like you’re using it more. A cynical interpretation? Perhaps. But Google’s continuous efforts to boost G+ user numbers by any means possible in the face of a manifest failure to genuinely compete with Facebook at any discernible level only lead me to take a skeptical approach to all of G+’s features.

The implementation of G+ as a mandatory identity system for YouTube is disturbing over and above being another artificial inflation of user count. How many of the people attaching their YouTube account to a G+ account will be aware that all their old comments will now have their real name attached to them? I obviously don’t condone abuse of the kind that anonymous comments on YouTube are notorious for, but is it fair to retroactively decloak users? I’m sure that many would, on being presented with the new requirement for a real name, wish to ditch their past history. But that isn’t an option. If you want to continue using your Google account, it comes at the price of yielding your identity, future, present, and past. There is no amnesty for past misbehavior. You are in Google’s trans-temporal glass identity cube.

Worse still, I discovered to my immense disquiet that G+ exposes your connections to other users on it the outside world by default. How many people are aware of that, and how many of the forcibly identity-merged users will be? Suddenly, a horrible comment from 2011 by lolbuttsman74 will be a horrible comment by John Smith of Peoria, Illinois, with 155 people in his circles and in the circles of a further 74, all of whom you can go and look at. It’s not even going to be a level playing field; some people, and presumably the worst actors simply will not connect their accounts to their identities. Meaning that all of a sudden various insult contests in YouTube comments will become between an identifiable real-world person and a ghost account or freshly-registered pseudonym, who might be happy to use the other participant’s real-world information against them. I can’t see that ending too well.

Why I quit programming

I’ve been asked by a few people in the last year or so why I no longer program computers for a living. Here’s an illustrative blog post by someone random from my old world. That he has actually felt the need to make the point he is making more or less explains why.

How much of the current drama could have been avoided– indeed, how much of the daily drama in the Perl community could be done away with entirely– if people would simply follow the same basic social norms they follow without thinking in the real world?

In short, I prefer my community to be one that consists of people who know how to communicate like normal human beings.

Seeing the Matrix

@prefix sioc: <http://rdfs.org/sioc/ns#> .
@prefix dc: <http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/> .
@prefix foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/> .

:This a sioc:Post;
    dc:title "Seeing the Matrix" ;
    dc:created "2011-02-04T15:19:25Z" ;
    sioc:has_container <https://technotesbyscott.wordpress.com/>;
    sioc:has_creator [
        foaf:name "Hex" ;
    foaf:homepage <http://twitter.com/hex> ;
    ];
    sioc:content "Something I hate about our current 
crop of social network sites is that they treat you 
like a child. Web browsers have had \"view source\" 
since the beginning; and since a social network 
interface is in effect a specialized browser for a 
sub-Web of information, I want a \"view data\". Much 
like blogs give you a feed of data - which most 
people will never look at, but it's what allows you 
to subscribe to blogs in your reader of choice - I 
want to be able to see the raw content without 
dressing up, as RDF, JSON or any other format. Why? 
Because data is interesting. It might not be pretty, 
presented looking something like the way I've 
written this post, but it's useful. You can do 
things with data. At the moment, in the social 
network you use, the data is there; but it's 
submerged in a morass of non-useful information that
makes it appear in a sequence of pretty boxes. You 
have to do a lot of tedious things to extract the 
raw information. What would I do with that data? I 
don't know. But what I do know is I'd be a lot more 
likely to try and make something interesting if I 
didn't have to waste hours on stripping away all the 
chaff." .