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Organic LEDs Head to the Race Track

One car in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in France, will be sporting a new kind of sponsor logo: one lit up by flexible organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that are integrated directly into the carbon fiber body of the car’s rear view mirrors.

It will be the first real-life application of a flexible OLED device, according to engineers at the Holst Center, an R&D organization in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which created the light for the French racing team Oreca.

Today’s commercial OLED products, which are still expensive and few and far between, use inflexible glass to protect the organic elements.

But this weekend's race should provide an ideal testbed for flexible OLEDs, because of the extreme conditions of the race, says Ton van Mol, who heads up OLED research at Holst. Not only does the car have to go fast, he says, but it also has to last for 24 hours. OLEDs have gained popularity in research circles as lower power alternatives to other lighting and display sources like LCDs—the race car’s OLEDs run on just 6 to 8 volts—and because they can be made into thin, flexible sheets, which makes them ideal for area lighting, or even a “flat lamp” to carry around in a purse. Ideally, they could eventually be printed using a roll-to-roll process, like newspapers, which would make production relatively cheap.

But because they’re organic, OLEDs are very sensitive to water and oxygen (i.e. air), and they degrade fast. So they need excellent barrier layers built in to protect the organic layers from the outside world—layers that need to work a million times better than the aluminum barrier in potato chip bags, van Mol says. That makes them very, very expensive.

While glass is easy to use and works well as the barrier—hence its use in products like OLED TVs and a few new Samsung smartphone displays—it misses the point, because it’s not flexible. So Holst researchers are working to perfect flexible, multilayer barriers in their OLED stacks to keep them well protected.

Integrating OLEDs straight into the French team’s car (rather than sticking them on to the surface) is made possible by Holst’s collaborator in the project, Switzerland-based Huntsman Advanced Materials, which figured out the encapsulation technology using composite materials from its Araldite brand. The OLEDs on each mirror will actually read “Araldite.”

And, says van Mol, because the race is 24 hours, meaning half of it is in the dark, the Oreca car will be the only one that can show off its sponsor logos throughout the whole race.

That is, of course, “if it lights,” van Mol says. (He's not actually worried on that account.)

There’s still much work to be done on perfecting the barrier layers, in addition to other challenges like increasing OLED efficiency and lifetime, and reducing costs. But in the meantime, it’s off to the races for Holst’s OLED lights. Hope they shine bright.

Note: Costs of press visit to Imec research centers in Leuven, Belgium, and Eindhoven, The Netherlands, were covered by Imec.

Imec gets a bigger fab, kicks off lab expansion project

European nanoelectronics research center Imec is growing up.

Yesterday, the Leuven, Belgium-based center officially opened an extension of its cleanroom, which gives it an extra 1200 square meters of "ultraclean" space for state-of-the-art chip fabrication.

The added area is also vibration controlled, in preparation for receiving the latest extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL) tool—ASML's pre-production NXE:3100 scanner—by the end of 2010.

Yesterday also kicked off the construction of additional lab spaces for Imec’s research on silicon and organic solar cells, and for projects on cutting edge biomedical electronics.

And later this year, the company will start building a new, 16-story office building designed by Austrian architecture firm Baumschlager-Eberle. It will house 450 people, an auditorium, and smaller labs.

Rising above the trees at the entrance to the city of Leuven from the Brussels road, the new Imec tower (artist rendering above) will serve as an "icon" of the tech center, Leuven’s mayor, Louis Tobback, told local dignitaries and Imec partners at yesterday’s ceremony. It will be a symbol of the "self-confidence" of the region, and of course, he added, it will also demonstrate who is mayor.

From the press release:

With these extra 18,000m2 cleanroom, lab and office space, imec will have a research campus of 80,000m2 that can stand the comparison with any other high-tech research center worldwide. As such, imec aims at playing an important role in the growth of the Flemish high-tech economy.

Vice minister president (second in charge) of the Flemish government, Ingrid Lieten, was on hand to cut the ribbons at the cleanroom’s opening, along with Imec president and CEO Luc Van den hove, Mayor Tobback, and Intel Labs Europe director Martin Curley, among others (photo at top).

The expansion announcements opened Imec’s two-day Technology Forum, held in Antwerp, Belgium.

Below, Van den hove, Lieten, and Tobback at the fab. 


The already-hard-at-work part of the fab is shown above.

Note: Costs of press visit to Imec research centers in Leuven, Belgium, and Eindhoven, The Netherlands, were covered by Imec.

Germany Embraces 4G

Germany has taken a first big step toward next-generation wireless Internet by becoming the first country in Europe to auction off a sizeable chunk of spectrum to deliver the new high-speed services.

Now users in Europe’s largest mobile communications market will have to wait and see if the operators deliver the goods with 4G (fourth-generation) services, such as LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and WiMAX. Operators’ track record with the much hyped third-generation UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) isn’t anything to brag about. The rollout has been slow and coverage is still patchy. As for the “broadband” speeds and “killer applications,” well, we’re still waiting for them.

The mobile communications spectrum auction in Germany, which ended with little fanfare last week, raised nearly €4.4 billion ($5.4 billion). While the German government can be happy over every additional euro it receives, the total falls far short of the €50 billion generated in the UMTS auction held at the height of the Internet bubble in 2000. Even experts expected more. The accounting firm KMPG, for instance, estimated that the auction would pull in €6 billion to €8 billion.

A big reason for the lower spectrum prices was competition or better a lack thereof. Only the four existing operators participated in the auction. Unlike the 3G auction, this one had no newcomers craving spectrum – the life line of mobile operators – to drive up bidding.  Operators in the 4G auction behaved like gentlemen: They bid but they didn’t go on a binge.

The German government auctioned a total 358.8 MHz of paired and unpaired spectrum in the 800 MHz, 1.2 GHz, 2 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands. In all, it sold a total 41 blocks to Germany’s for existing operators: Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica’s O2 and Royal KPN’s E-Plus. The first three of these operators gobbled up the 800 MHz frequencies, the so-called “Digital Dividend” bands, which had been used for analog TV. The lower frequencies are coveted by operators for two big reasons: wider geographic coverage and better in-building penetration. Both of those benefits convert directly into cost savings – fewer base stations to cover larger cells and no need for picocells and other systems to amplify signals indoors.

E-Plus acquired additional spectrum to increase capacity in urban areas. It’s not clear what 4G strategy the operator is pursuing, if at all. The 2 MHz spectrum it acquired points to a possible WiMAX deployment. The spectrum license are “technology neutral,” meaning that operators can pick their technology. But selecting a 4G technology may not be the issue: Rumors are afloat that E-Plus may be put on the block and that Telefonica could be interested.

By comparison, the plans of the other three are pretty clear: they’re headed down the LTE path. All three see broadband mobile Internet as crucial to sustainable growth.

But the German government, after learning a lesson from the slow and patchy rollout of 3G services, has thrown owners of the new spectrum a bit of a curve ball. They have to deploy wireless networks in step-by-step phases. In the first phase, the must build networks covering 90 percent of the population in villages under 5,000. The second phase requires similar coverage in villages from 5,000 to 20,000 and the third phase from 20,000 to 50,000. Only after they’ve gotten their feet dirty out in the sticks can they move into the more lucrative large urban areas.

The German government is serious about increasing broadband connectivity in rural areas over the next couple of years. And this policy is clearly one way to achieve this.

It will be interesting to observe over the coming weeks and months how operators plan to tackle this rollout – how they plan to blend LTE into their existing UMTS and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) networks and how much infrastructure sharing will occur among them.

One thing is for sure: Demand for high-speed mobile Internet services is growing, thanks in no small part to the iPhone; the devices have made using these services easy and fun – both sorely missing in UMTS. But as the iPhone has also clearly shown, particularly in the United States, it’s one thing to create demand; it’s another to satisfy.

That’s where operators see their core need for LTE. They don’t need any one or any more killer applications. Rather, they require greater capacity, which they have now received, and technology, LTE, that makes optimum use of precious limited spectrum.

I was among the first users of GSM, UMTS and HSPA in Germany. I loved the first, could have passed on the second and am definitely happier with the third. But I must confess, I’m really looking forward to the fourth.


Hacking a Ferrari

A souped- up version of Doom II, the classic 1994 first person shooter from id Software, is out today for download on the Xbox Live Arcade.  In addition to 5.1 surround sound and high-definition graphics, it's sporting online deathmatching and cooperative play (and how cool is that?).

When I was interviewing id co-founder and tech whiz John Carmack for my book Masters of Doom, he told me that he had a passionate side project during the Doom II development: souping up his fleet of Ferraris. As any car geek knows, Ferrari doesn't look too highly on gearheads hacking their rides - but this is Carmack we're talking about. And he put as much of his engineering chops to work on his cars as he did his games. In honor of the Doom II re-release, I thought I'd share a Q/A I did with Carmack about his early Ferrari hacking days - how it worked, and how much it cost.

David Kushner: When did you first start modifying your Ferraris?

John Carmack: After Doom shipped, I had just been looking at getting the bigger Testarossa. My Ferrari 328 at the time probably had 400 something horsepower. It was a fast car, faster than any normal thing that you’d be able to buy on the showroom. But there probably was a bit of that “well, what’s the next step?” We could continue doing some things to my 328. We could have put on intercoolers and changed the pistons and done all that, but it was at a pretty nice drivable state for everything after we worked out all the tuning issues. Eventually I pretty much looked it over and said okay I want to get a Testarossa, that was always my intention from the beginning there. I’m going to get a Testarossa and have Bob [my mechanic] do the twin turbo inter-cooled engine work on it and get that all the way put up. Eventually we found a car. I had shopped some at the local Ferrari dealer, where I had bought my 328, and I was looking at a Testarossa from them but Bob found me one that he got shipped in for a cheaper price.

I drove it for a little while but it was the intention that as soon as I’m ready it’s just going to get parked and get all the engine work done on it. I did twin turbo intercoolers. At that time we left the engine block alone. It was a completely new intake and exhaust system which put it up to 800 horsepower, and we kept it like that for a while. I think we put the nitrous on there. Eventually we had an engine meltdown at high speed, so at that point were like okay, now we’ll take it apart and do all the really good stuff with the engine. We changed the piston, the valves, everything. When that got all straightened out and cleaned up and everything, we had went through tons of experimental work. It was a science project stretched over years, with often 6 months at a time of it being laid up in the shop.

DK: How much did you put into the cars?

JC: The 328 I bought for, like, $70,000. The original work for getting the turbo on it was like $15,000, but I had to have that engine rebuilt once which was like $30,000. All the trips into shop adds up to at least probably another $20,000. The Testarossa, when it originally went in and had engine work done, was like $30,000, but each engine rebuild was at least $30,000, and it’s been rebuilt three times. The Testarossa, which I originally bought for $90,000, I probably put $150,000 into it. We could have stopped at lesser points, but a lot of it was just like okay, we’ve got this new brand of turbos coming out, so we want to change this…and those weren’t like forced moves, it was more like okay, let’s see what the next step is. Go ahead and try it.

The other cars, the F40s that I had, I bought for $250,000, and I didn’t make any modifications to them. Then eventually when I got the F50, that was $670,000. The original turbo charging work wasn’t that much, maybe $30,000 or $40,000 dollars but it’s still getting some teething problems worked out. We’ve been taking that one conservatively because I really don’t want to have that engine rebuilt. I suspect that rebuilding that engine is going to be more like $60,000 just because there are not that many of them and ordering the different things would just be troublesome.

Creating Fact-Based Energy Policy

Confusion is a major obstruction to developing clean energy policy. “Fact” and technical opinion come from a wide range of biased sources with no independent validation. As a result, our political leaders are forced to make decisions in an environment of enthusiasm, bias and hype.

As noted in my April 22 blog, one way to minimize confusion is through strategic scenarios; create the future target then a plan to get there. Today’s blog shows how disciplined systems engineering provides trustworthy facts. We cannot eliminate ideological differences. To create sound policy, value differences still need to be resolved in the political arena. But classical systems engineering provides the factual basis and management processes to push back against bias, enthusiasm, and hype, enabling policy-makers to make informed value choices.

The purpose of an engineering development plan is to achieve a goal based on what we know today. Generally there are four sequential phases: technology development, engineering development, full scale development, and production.

Design reviews and decision milestones separate development phases. Design reviews serve as critical evaluations of fact that provide the client with the information necessary to make sound choices. In a classic design review, program engineers present their technical results to the client and their expert consultants. The consultants critique the presentation in front of the client. Program engineers defend the numbers. By observing the give and take between protagonists and antagonists, the client is able to grasp the nuances and make sound judgments about esoteric problems he does not really understand.

For clean energy systems the client role is multi faceted (American people, Congress, president, program administrators) and needs to be represented by surrogate teams. We need to experiment with open design reviews that can be accessed by the general public. While major design reviews occur between development phases, minor design reviews should occur after demonstration projects to understand lessons learned. Clarifying a factual basis simplifies decision-making by minimizing bias and hype.

Today, there is no plan, no set of phases, and no discipline. We are transitioning wind from demonstration to production with no design reviews. No one has a clue about system level costs or by how much carbon dioxide emissions will actually be reduced. There are no published after-action reports from failed demonstration projects. No one has shown how wind would make any contribution at all to a low carbon grid (see Wind Energy Contribution to a Low Carbon Grid). Grid operators seem to be afraid to say something negative and thereby spook their political masters.

As an engineer, I find this to be embarrassing and irresponsible. We can do better. Managers of society’s great engineering success stories had a firm grasp on both planning and budgets. Today, people who have never built a system before are advising the president that “we don’t need a systems integrator; the markets will do it.” At the very least, President Obama needs to designate a systems integrator with the authority to enforce good engineering processes. It is imperative that we find a way to conduct effective open design reviews.

Alex Pavlak is a PhD Professional Engineer with experience in systems architecture and the economics of wind power systems. He has had various management responsibilities in the development of major military systems. He has spent 15 years in alternate energy and holds several patents pending on wind turbines and static solar concentrators.

Collection of Private Wi-Fi Data Just Google's Latest German Gaffe

Germany hasn’t been an easy market for Google. In fact, maybe only China has proven to be a bigger challenge for the owner of the world’s largest search engine.

Google’s latest snag in Germany: collecting private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

As in other markets, the company uses a fleet of vehicles to take pictures for its Street View photo archive. The vehicles take snapshots of street views, which are later integrated into Google Maps.

The data protection supervisor for the city-state of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, accused Google of sniffing some network data, like the Service Set Identifier (SSID) and the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, to help the company keep a better fix on locations for its Web products.

Google first denied that it was sniffing private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Then, oops, the company realized it was – ouch.

In a blog, the company said, bluntly, that it had made a mistake: “In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental Wi-Fi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic Wi-Fi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”

OK, big companies make mistakes. But Germany isn’t a market where Google can afford to make many, especially in the area of data privacy. Modern Germany is tough on data privacy – and technology that can undermine it – ever since World War II when, among other things, punch-card data processing systems allowed Nazis to categorize and track concentration camp victims.

Many Germans were upset about Google’s plans to introduce Street Views in the first place. Last year, German officials demanded that the company delete tons of retained snapshots, citing that people’s privacy was being violated under German law.

The issue went all the way up to Chancellor Angela Merkel who announced in February that Germany wouldn’t hamper the release of Street View in Germany. In a podcast later that month, she anyone in the country who considers the service “to be an invasion of their private sphere can make use of the right to object."

The Consumer Affairs Ministry has drawn up a template letter - available for download from its website - for this purpose. The internet giant has agreed to blur license plates and faces of individuals who do not want to have their photos appear online.

Street View, which offers panoramas of thousands of streets on the Internet, already covers large areas of the U.S. and the U.K. It seamlessly stitches together photos taken by camera cars, which capture 360-degree images. Google has been gathering images of streets and public spaces in Germany since 2008.

Sort of related but not entirely, a German court surprised – and excited – numerous data protection advocates in the country with a decision on wireless connections. A few days before the Street View sniffing incident gained public attention, the court ruled that private users are obligated to ensure that their wireless connections are adequately secured against the danger of unauthorized third-parties abusing it.

But long before Street View, another hot issue in Germany was Gmail. The burning point wasn’t the service itself – Germans are big fans – but rather its name. In more than 60 countries around the world, Google calls its email service Gmail: Germany isn’t one of them.

A German court ruled in 2007 and, after some tough fights, again in 2008 that entrepreneur Daniel Giersch holds the "Gmail" trademark in the country. The decision ended Google's long legal battle for the name. Google launched its Gmail service around 2004; Giersch has been using the Gmail name in Germany since 2000.

How long Giersch holds out to Google is anyone’s guess. This month, the Independent International Investment Research (IIR Group), owner of the Gmail name in the U.K., agreed to sell the name and settle a long-running trademark dispute. IIR Group initially sought $500,000 per year, in addition to a slice of the advertising pie, in exchange for standing aside. Both companies are mum on the terms of the settlement. Probably a good idea, considering that Giersch and whoever else in the world owns the Gmail trademark have to be interested in Google’s net worth.

Interphone Report on Cell Phone/Cancer Connection Doesn't Settle Anything

Ten years, 13 countries, 13 thousand participants, and $24 million, and we now have it. The Interphone study, the comprehensive effort to either put our cell phone fears to rest or label them a carcinogen, officially concludes that “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma (a specific brain cancer thought to be promoted or triggered by cell phone radiation) was observed with use of mobile phones.” It also says “There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure”  and those tumors are more likely to show up on the side of the head on which the user typically holds the phone.

In a press conference announcing the results, Elizabeth Cardis, one of the researchers involved, said, "We have not demonstrated that there is increased risk but neither have we demonstrated that there is an absence of risk. These findings of increased risk in the heaviest users suggest a possible association but we don't have enough scientific evidence."

So, essentially, the Interphone report says what you want it to say. If you don’t want to see a link between cell phones and cancer, you don’t. If you do, you can find one. Look at the headlines (courtesy of Microwave News).
—"Brain Tumour Link to Mobiles"
—"Mobiles Do Not Increase Risk of Brain Tumor"
—“Talking on the Mobile Just 30mins a Day Linked with Heightened Risk of Brain Cancer "
—"Mobile Phones Do Not Increase the Risk of Cancer"

Why the confusion? Well, some data was plain weird—among light cell phone users, the cancer risk appeared lower than among folks that didn’t use cell phones at all—calling into question the methodology used. And the “conclusions” were subject to negotiation—negotiation that took four years and led to compromises in how to report the results.

One such compromise moved some interesting data from the main report into an appendix. This appendix shows a clear and statistically significant correlation between years of cell phone use, total talk time, and total number of calls and brain tumor risk.

Perhaps a bigger problem in my book: the study is clearly dated—it defined “heavy” cell phone use as more than 30 minutes a day; these days, that’s practically nothing.

On the other hand, more and more people are using wireless headsets, which could lower the risk.

On the other other hand, children are using cell phones more often and at younger and younger ages—starting in elementary school instead of high school. And children, with smaller ears and thinner skulls, absorb more radiation from cell phones than adults, not to mention that, if there is a danger from that radiation, their developing organs would likely be more vulnerable.

On the other hand, kids don’t talk much these days, they text. Which takes the phone away from their vulnerable brains. (But the phone is in their pockets, constantly buzzing—should I be worried about what affect that’s having on my kids’ future health? Is anybody studying that?)

The one thing the participants in the Interphone study agreed upon—more research is needed. After all, other scientists have noted, no other of today’s known carcinogens could have been definitively tagged as such in their first ten years—even cigarettes. Of course, while we wait another ten years or so for more answers, we’ll keep using our cell phones.

There is something the industry could do while we’re waiting, however—make SAR numbers more visible to cell phone shoppers. The SAR, Specific Absorption Rate, is a measure of how RF energy is absorbed by the body. In the U.S., the FCC limits legal SARs to 1.6 watts per kilogram. But some phones come in way below this. You wouldn’t know it, however, when you’re in a store shopping for a phone—it’s typically not one of the specifications on display.The last time I bought a cell phone, I spent several minutes on the phone with customer service as the representative poured through spec sheets on the phones I was interested in, trying to find the numbers. (No one had ever asked him to do that before; he was surprised to learn how much they differed.) All things being equal, I figured I’d pick the phone with the lowest number—it couldn’t hurt.

And just that’s about all I can do, for now, besides text instead of calling the next time I need to reach my kids, and finally finish setting up that Bluetooth headset that’s been sitting on my desk for months. And wonder if, a decade from now, I’ll regret signing up for that family plan.

In the meantime, though, I need to go in the pantry and think about what canned foods I can do without—did you catch the latest about BPA?  


Bitter Pills

CNBC is airing a series called "American Greed," which chronicles epic scams online and off.  They recently ran an expose of Berkeley Nutraceuticals, the company behind Enzyte, a “natural male enhancement."  

Since releasing Enzyte in 2001, the company created both a cultural and economic juggernaut.  It started with their ubiquitous pitchman:  Smiling Bob.  With his thumbs up sign and strained grin, Bob was a viral phenomenon online and off.  Campy ads showed Bob bowling and gardening, rife with cheeky double-entendres about the “big lift” he got from Enzyte.   With $240 million in annual revenues, Berkeley was the great American success story in the $18 billion herbal supplement industry.  The empire fell apart when the company was embroiled in a host of scams, and the story raises questions over the engineering of such pills.

It underscores the wild west that still exists in the "science" of this enormous industry - which gets a huge amount of its sales online.  Yes, there are some regulations - but nothing prohibiting outlaw rule.   Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act in 1994 to help protect consumers.  This includes having the Federal Trade Commission regulate the ads we see and hear for supplements.

The protection, however, pales in comparison to real pharmaceuticals.   The regulation occurs after the products hit the shelves.  All the Supplements using existing ingredients can be sold without approval by Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA can only intervene if and when a product is proved to be harmful.  Supplement makers had even more leeway with ads.   While supplement makers couldn’t claim their products cured diseases, there remained plenty of wiggle room:  letting the bill pills as wonder cures from baldness to erectile dysfunction. 

Rich Cleland, assistant director division of advertising practices for FTC, which is now processing a civil case against Berkeley Pharmaceuticals, says the potential for hustlers is rife.  “There’s always someone hawking a product to them that will promise to do with them miracles and lot of people have made lot of money doing that,” he tells me, “These are smart people, they know what people are susceptible to. They know that consumers want a quick fix, they want an easy solution, they want the pill - and scam artists prey on that.”  So what’s a nutritional pill popper to do?   “We tell people it’s in your hands,” Cleland says.

Michael Herndon, a spokesperson for the FDA, paints an even gloomier picture.  “Except for rules described above that govern ‘new dietary ingredients,’ there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products. Likewise, there is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. It is up to each firm to set its own policy on disclosure of such information.”


Players Vs. Haters

Are violent videogames bad for kids?  It's an old question with a new twist.  Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would consider whether a California law banning the sale of violent games to minors is unconstitutional.

As the New York Times and others weigh in, it's worth stepping back and asking a question:  What defines a generation?  The music.  The films.  The politics.  Yeah, all that.  But, these days, you can’t really know a generation without also understanding – and playing - their videogames.  As Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.” 

Of course, videogames have been deeply meaningful to generations before.  They're how the brightest young minds of the future – from Microsoft to Facebook – cut their teeth, and play with new technology:  the young engineers who played text-only games in computer labs in the 1960s, the suburban kids weaned on the Atari 2600 in the 70s, the arcade gamers of the golden age of the 1980s.  As personal computers began infiltrating our homes over the next decade or so, diligent braniacs began coding and distributing their own games in legion.  

Little did we know the seismic shift at play.   Videogames had largely been the province of corporations like Nintendo and elusive programming “priests,” as some called the lucky few.  But with the proliferation of Apple IIs and Commodore 64s and other personal computers, you didn’t have be like Jeff Bridges and materialize inside Tron to get inside a game.  All you had to do was learn the code.   By the mid-1990s game programmers were pioneering the business, culture, and lifestyle that defined the coming revolution online. 

As videogame programmer John Carmack told me while I was researching my book, Masters of Doom, “in the information age, the barriers just aren’t there.  The barriers are self-imposed.  If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization.  You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.”

Pizza, Coke, and PCs became the fuel of the Gamer Generation, as they took over the new world of the Internet just after the turn of the millennium.  How fitting that the first decade of this explosive new time could be rendered in binary – the 00s.  After 40 odd years as outsiders, gamers finally became the Players in the realist sense.  The heroes of the Zeroes were them, the solitary whiz kids and dynamic duos – the Google guys, the YouTube guys, the Twitter guys – who disrupted so much of what we took for granted:   information, knowledge, communication, entertainment.  

The coders took their giant pixilated cleaver to the ground, and split the generation gap wider than ever before with a sizzle and zap.  On one side were the geeks, gamers, hackers, Instant Messengers, texters –  the digital natives, as sociologists and marketers termed the strange new species.   On the other side of the chasm stood most everyone else – the parents and pundits and politicians, the Player Haters.

Both legions eyed each other dubiously, if not fearfully.  The Players saw a generation who denied, ignored, and misconstrued them and new power they held so dear:  the incredible instantaneous ability to get almost anything you wanted online the instant you wanted it.   The Haters saw trouble, and plenty of it – pirates, predators, plagiarists, a ruthless and anonymous ­mob.  The Supreme Court's decision won't end the meta-game between the Players and the Haters, but it sure will make it a lot more interesting.

Taking online privacy personally

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for online privacy. Over on Facebook, the “Instant Personalization Program” meant that I was suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of websites, not just Facebook but on participant websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs. And that was intentional; an unintentional glitch in the Facebook system meant that for several hours users were even broadcasting private chats and then some, and I was glad I don't use Facebook chat.

I went over to nix “Instant Personalization." You can do that. Sort of. But if any of my Facebook friends visit the participant websites without opting out, the sites will get my Facebook information anyway. To stop that I have to go to each individual partner site and block it at that point.

I didn't take the time to do that, because while I was figuring out how to get out of instant personalization, I noticed that my personal email that I had intentionally not published to my Facebook profile was now out in the open. Not only that, it couldn’t be tucked back out of sight; Facebook’s new policy is that email, profile pictures, networks, and pages are permanently public. After solving that problem by creating a new Gmail account that from now on will be my official email on Facebook, I realized that my activities and interests fields, which previously had been set to be only seen by friends, had been reset to be visible to everyone. I reset those back to "friends only", wondering how long that change will stick before Facebook “upgrades” it again.

So far, I haven’t been easily disturbed by the curtains pulled back by the Internet on my virtual home in cyberspace. Heck, I don’t have any curtains on my real home; I like to walk down the street at night and notice my neighbors sitting around the table, or in front of the TV, or, most likely, since I do live in Silicon Valley, in front of the computer; I don’t mind if my neighbors see me doing the same; I'll even wave if I see them looking.

But the folks looking at me on Facebook aren’t my neighbors. They are, as Facebook dials down my ability to control my privacy, more likely to be complete strangers. And I’m getting mad.

I’m not the only one worried about the new Facebook privacy policy. From the looks of the comments in my Facebook news feed, a lot of my friends are upset as well. In fact, in the wonderland-world of the Internet, the way I typically find out about the latest nasties Facebook is implementing is through rants appearing on my news feed on Facebook.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center and 14 other organizations filed a joint complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Senators Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing their concerns over recent privacy changes and indicated that they are looking “forward to the FTC examining this issue.”

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely, and providing clear instructions as to how to adjust your personal settings when that is possible.  Will all this have any effect on Facebook’s privacy policies? I doubt it.

And just as I was trying to figure out just how much loss of privacy I am willing to tolerate to find out what my cousin is making for dinner tonight and to make sure I don’t miss my friends’ culling of the best articles, TV clips, or YouTube videos of the past 24 hours, the alarm bells started ringing over Spokeo and I had to go over to that site to see what all the fuss was about.

Spokeo touts itself as an online phone book. It works quite well for looking up numbers; it’s fast and accurate. But along with the phone number, Spokeo instantly pops up a little additional information—street name (but not house number), age, ethnicity, marital status, length of residence in the home, home value, occupation, interests (which it seems to collect from magazine subscription info). That’s for free. Before an initial outcry earlier this month, that free information also included a home photo and credit rating. For a monthly subscription fee (as low as $3), it’ll give you the complete address, email address, information on religion and politics, photos, videos, blog posts, and, it says (and I don’t doubt it), much more.

Now, it’s not that I didn’t know this information was living somewhere out there on the Internet. It didn’t bother me in bits and pieces. Remember AnyBirthday? This short-lived web site was one of the first to provide instant birth date information from just a name and a city. I loved it; there were people in my life that I should have been calling with birthday greetings but forgot their birthday information years ago but was too embarrassed to ask. There were people I know who I thought were fudging their ages and now I could tell for sure (not sure why I cared, but it was interesting). And I didn’t mind that people in return could find out how old I was.

How about when Google Street View first came out? There was privacy panic, and indeed a few folks recorded for posterity coming out of strip clubs in the middle of the working day were justifiably upset.  But I liked the way my house looked, and made a game out of trying to figure out just what day and time the images were recorded, based on the state of the front yard, what cars were around the neighborhood, and the like. (Though the number of blogs that posted a copy of the Street View photo of Steve Jobs’ car in his home driveway was beyond ridiculous.)

And Zillow—never mind that the real estate data on that site is often vastly off target, it’s fun looking up the house I once owned, the one I currently owned, and others in the neighborhood to see what they’re worth, at least in the Zillow world.

But pulling lots of this information together used to take a lot of effort or a hefty fee, it wasn’t available to the idly curious. It’s a lot creepier when it’s free and easy.

Theoretically, you can opt out of Spokeo. I haven’t decided to do that yet, some of the information is weirdly inaccurate, like my astrological sign (how hard can that be?), and I’m wondering if maybe it’s better to know what’s out there about me on the Internet than to try to hide from it. But I did try to go to the page that supposedly allows the opt-out, and, at least that day, the page was unavailable. And reported that none of their attempts to block a name on Spokeo were successful.

Snopes also pointed out that, with all the information floating around the Internet, blocking one aggregator like Spokeo won’t insure your privacy. “Removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never–ending game of Whack-a-Mole.”

Snopes nailed it. We all are playing Whack-a-Mole. On Facebook. On Spokeo. And on whatever pops up tomorrow. However, while Whack-a-Mole used to be one of my favorite arcade games, I’m not enjoying this online version. But I don’t see any way of opting out.

Photo: Subcircle


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