Independence Day, Aliens and Invasions

Tuning in and out of the movie ‘Independence Day’ that was being shown on one of the TV channels for what must be the hundredth time, two thoughts came to mind:  the first was “I hope Oscar Wilde was right” and the second was “how many more times will the Washington Monument, New York and Los Angeles be destroyed in a movie?”  The connection?  Well, in 1889, Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”.  If that is true, during the next extraterrestrial invasion, whilst the White House, the Empire State Building and some skyscraper in Los Angeles will be vaporised, the real furry creatures from Alpha Centuri will be stopped by day three and their plans foiled, all in widescreen, Dolby sound and the best CGI available.   They will be defeated by some maverick hero or heroine (with a laptop that never needs recharging) who will then resolve the personal arguments from a dysfunctional relationship with their dad, lover or boss (or even all three) and earn the eternal gratitude of Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, Geena Davis or even Cherry Jones who will be the President.  After the final handshake in front of a burning White House, a couple of thousand people with jobs like ‘Second Assistant animator Lead sequence LA Unit’ will be name-checked and the world is safe, at least for a couple of months until ‘Real Furry Creatures from Alpha Centuri Two – the Revenge’ happens.

Whilst I enjoy science-fiction movies like ‘Independence Day’, the more you watch the more you realize that the plots must be the ultimate form of recycling.  The play is basically the same:  the aliens build a vast fleet of ships, travel to Earth, park over a few cities, then at some appointed hour send out either waves of fighters or some high-energy beam to destroy what is beneath them.   But their plans always go awry because they will be defeated, either by some common earth virus (War of the Worlds, HG Wells, 1898) or a more hi-tech version, a computer virus as in Independence Day (1996).   Based on this, if the depiction of alien invasions are true, it is easy to conclude that the world has nothing to fear from an extraterrestrial invasion because the real furry or scaly creatures that invade are probably the bunch of nerds and not the warriors of their solar system.  None of their commanders would have attended the equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point, they have never heard of space-suits or have any idea of military tactics whatsoever.  Their IT department may be able to get their ships across space, but have no idea of a firewall or anti-virus software and the whole alien network of computers will blue screen via the aid of a WiFi connection from our beloved un-recharged laptop that smoothly interfaces with ‘Doors 8 Professional’ or whatever the interstellar version of Windows happens to be.  Be honest:  either the aliens are stupid or the screen-writers think the audience is. 

Compare your typical ‘Alien Invasion’ movie or television series with real life.  When America or NATO goes after more oil, sorry, contributes to the promotion of world security and human rights, they spend weeks drawing up sometimes secret plans, identifying the targets based on the risks posed to their forces and the enemy’s ability to fight back.  Only then do you see the streaks of Tomahawk missiles launched from the comparative safety of an ocean a couple of hundred miles away.  In theory, the average enemy radar operator will only know about the invasion when the screen goes black, communications with Headquarters has just been cut, the runways have just disintegrated into a pile of rocks and that very strange fast moving shape crossing the sky is either a Lockheed F117a carrying a 2000lb JDAM bomb or a UGM-109E Tomahawk missile, both aimed directly at his head.  Its common sense:  shoot the man with the gun first then destroy the telephone to stop his accomplice calling for reinforcements.  Then after you have taken out the military, communications and transportation, you invade and your national oil company restarts crude oil exports, sorry, you set about rebuilding democracy and hold elections before going home just as the pre-determined exit strategy stated at the start of the campaign.

But this is not how your average alien life form plans an invasion.  Despite having the technology to move huge spaceships complete with fighters, fantastic weapons and force fields across the Universe without being noticed, they arrive and park over a few major cities.  How do they choose where to park?  There are 204 sovereign countries in the world, 193 of which are members of the United Nations, yet It’s always the same three in the US, New York (home of the United Nations) New York, Washington (the capital) but why Los Angeles?  If it’s done on size, yes, but what of Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia?  Then when we move on to the rest of the world, London, Paris and Berlin are understandable, but what of Brussels and Strasbourg, the homes of the European Community?  Go to Delhi, yes, but how about Mumbai as well?  When it comes to Russia – Moscow, is a given, but what about Saint Petersburg and Volgograd.   Notice how they never go to Caerdydd (Cardiff) as that’s the capital of Wales (home of Torchwood and everyone knows the Welsh boys really kick ass) whilst places like Indianapolis are ignored because who wants to put up with that humidity and quite frankly, what’s the point?

So your average alien conveniently chooses the target cities based on the availability of stock footage and recognisable cityscapes.  Then what?  Well, you place the cross-hairs on the most recognisable buildings or monuments, fire the big ray gun under the ship and the city disintegrates in a slow motion collage of flying cars and smashing windows.  The Empire States Building vaporises, La Tour Eiffel melts.  No matter how wide the blast radius is – often a few miles, your spaceship is safe because the damage is always confined to a few storeys and always spreads as a disc and never a sphere, so there is no risk in being right in the epicentre of the explosion below you.  Next, as a few ragged survivors fight their way out of a desolate, abandoned, crumbling and ruined city that looks suspiciously like a back-lot somewhere in Los Angeles or modern day Detroit, the aliens then….

But we never find out.  Because it’s at this point that our heroes have reached either an abandoned military base or top secret command centre, stolen some alien technology and used a captured spaceship or a laptop to disable the alien force field and attack the mother ship.  And none of the other space ships counter-attack or retreat to a safe distance to re-group and come back with a vengeance.  They remain in place until it’s their turn to be destroyed and crash with all the best CGI the animators and film technicians can produce with the allotted budget.  At least the aliens could have put up some sort of rearguard action or turned off guest access to their WiFi network first.  On top, no-one ever explains how our heroes are able to communicate with the rest of the world and defeat all of the ships in a co-ordinated attack, especially when the phone network is down and the world has been enveloped in an electro-magnetic pulse.  We also take it on faith that we can integrate our Linux, Windows or Mac laptops with the alien’s computers when most people cannot even open a Word 2007 document with Word 2003. 

Never mind,  the next time I look up into the sky and see a strange light I cannot identify, I am going to cross my fingers and hope Oscar Wilde was right.  That life imitates art and that any invasion will be defeated by someone who needs relationship counselling whilst I watch in 70mm and 7.1 Dolby.  Just in case, I have made a mental note never to live in New York, Washington, Los Angeles or any city with a distinctive skyline.

And? So? What happened?

One of the advantages of living in a westernised county today is that most people have access to news and salacious gossip.  From the numerous 24 hour news channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines and the wonders of the interwebs, nothing remains private and we all have the ability to  develop a fair idea of what is happening to whom and where, even if we can not work out why.  We are even told what to think about it if we listen to the commentators and pundits who break items down even further and then use some little facet of the story to promote their own agenda.  But such is the nature of twenty four hour news is that in order to keep their viewers or readers, the story has to change.  Today’s eagerly sought out and avidly read front-page story will be tomorrow’s wet fish wrapper or on its way to be re-cycled into bathroom tissue, either in a industrial process or just by being hung on the back of the door.

But just sometimes, like when the television network cancels your favourite TV show mid-season because it didn’t attract enough viewers in the 24-35 year old young Oliviatanian female demographic as promised to the advertisers, you are left in suspense as to what happened next. It was years before I discovered that Mrs Carter’s daughter (the one that everyone knew was the butchers) acknowledged her real father and became a TV news anchor, because when I was listening to my mother and her friends discussing the local events, the causes célèbres changed daily and I was too young to remember to ask “so mommy, was Mr and Mrs Carters’ marriage guidance counselling ultimately successful and did Jane discover a sense of self worth, overcome the psychological damage of having red hair when the rest of her family had black and transcend the contradiction of a vegetarian mother who liked the butcher’s sausage?”  Watching the news or trying to follow a public story is like reading through a book and discovering that the final chapter is missing.  And they never go back and follow up.

A while ago, Kraft-Cadbury was accused of being racist amid clamour for the company’s products to be boycotted, all because they used the slogan “move over Naomi, there is a diva in town” to advertise a chocolate bar.  This became a big story, reported all across the world from New Zealand west to California.  What was not reported (although one UK based newspaper did have an item buried away in the advertising columns of its media section) was the fact that the Council of the Advertising Standards Authority totally rejected that the complaints that the advertisements were ‘an insult to black women’ and concluded that there were no grounds for an investigation.  Then there are the stories and reports that appear and disappear just as fast, for example, a couple of newspapers carried an item that the Sun is due to enter a period of inactivity.  The last time this happened, from 1645 to 1715, was called the Maunder Minimum and is linked to the Little Ice Age in Europe.  Does that mean that if we follow the advice of the global warmists we will exacerbate the effects and that the ice age facing us will be worse?  The answer is probably in the missing chapter of the book or left spiked on the editors desk because they must give us more background on someone’s love child.

If your news program has followed the posse and like all of the competing stations you have devoted virtually a whole show to the fact that a daughter of some celebrity was pregnant and sent your reporter to stand outside some locked gate at 11:00 at night to say this is where the conception took place, please remember to come back to the story a few months later and tell us if it was a boy or girl, the birth weight, how long the mother was in labor and if she had an epidural.  If you are going to gossip, please follow through and tell me the whole story.  Just for the sake of completeness or to use that awful word, ‘closure’.  At least my mother and her friends would start a conversation with “Remember I told you about Reverend Lovemuch and the sheep, well ………”

To be fair to the newspapers and reporters, there is only so much time and only so much you can cover in any news cycle.  Some stations even acknowledge this: one local news program in the US gives the viewers a choice of which of three reports they want aired at the end of the show, but that just leaves those interested in the other two stories throwing their remote controls at the television and wondering about the proposal to place a tax on ‘bedroom’ activities or the sad eyed donkey found wondering the streets.  Exactly the same way in which a cancelled TV show left me wondering what will happen now another planet has appeared in Earth’s orbit but I am never going to find out because the show was so bad that not even SyFy will pick it up for another season.  So the five year story arc is left unfinished just after I suffered twenty two episodes of plot establishment.

Now I do understand that times change and the world moves on.  Obviously if the US has just invaded Canada or if a Republican and a Democrat or a Conservative and a Labour politician both  actually agreed on something, then that would be the new big news and would dominate the agenda for the next few days.  But if you have just shown a video of strange unexplained contrails over Southern California, can you at least say that these were just the normal condensation trail of a commercial aircraft when they are identified a couple of days later?  Otherwise everyone who didn’t bother to look it up on aviation websites would still be wondering at the back of their minds if this was yet more proof that Earth was being invaded by real furry creatures from Alpha Centuari and the conspiracy industry will be claiming the lack of follow-up as evidence that the ‘World Government’ was trying to hide the fact that it was actually in league with extra-terrestrials. 

So here is a suggestion.  Instead of some little seen cable channel doing a “Where are they now” program, how about as part of the normal news output, journalists actually state what happened in the end.  Don’t leave us halfway through the story, for example, the Three Bears were in the middle of investigating a home invasion and discovered that a trespasser had broken into their house, vandalised the furniture, stolen their supplies and were in the middle of a potential hostage situation with a girl trapped in the bedroom on Wednesday and then on Thursday only tell us about some homicidal transvestite wolf with oversized teeth terrorising girls in red hoodies.  Even fairy stories have an “and they all lived happily ever after” so why not say that the three bears underwent counselling for their shock and Goldilocks was captured and is now serving 6 years for house breaking , theft and trespass.  And please don’t make me have to read a little paragraph in column eight on the bottom of page 14 or watch 44 minutes of the news at eleven telling me how the Governor was once found in bed with a donkey to find out that the ‘mysterious’ lights in the sky and loud bangs you spent 44 minutes telling me about yesterday was not an invasion but just a celebration that the local football team had actually won a match.

W-BDSM reporters find empty building

It was a slow Tuesday in the News Room.  No-one had been shot, stabbed or maimed, all the politicians had run out of mistresses and thanks to Planned Parenthood, there were no more little Terminators running around.   As usual, the weather proved as unpredictable as ever and refused to provide a flood, tornado or record-breaking extremes, remaining really pleasant.    Even the traffic was smooth, because for some reason no-one had caused a three car pile-up whilst shaving, drinking Starbucks and applying mascara at the same time.  That story about the parrot who sits on the shoulder of the skate-boarding, cute dog with the droopy ears would have to wait because the dog was in the ‘Rehab’, which everyone knew was really the vet’s office and he was being ‘fixed’ following that incident with the Mayor’s pedigree poodle.  The senior producer of the 60 minute long  ‘Evening News at 10’ was getting desperate as there was only three hours until broadcast when the spotty faced intern ran into the office shouting “just seen this on Facebook …………..”

Three hours, 2 minutes and 30 seconds later, after live pictures from the ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ helicopter flying overhead, the award winning Jane ‘Auto-cutie’ Carter-Butcher seamlessly handed over to reporter Chuck Conners stood outside the very quiet, dark and obviously closed little shop owned by Patel Singh in a nearby resort.  Chuck Conners looked at the camera and in a solemn voice said “The W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available Team is here tonight to bring you an exclusive report.  At 4:30 this evening, tragedy and potentially fatal injuries were prevented when Mr Patel Singh selflessly applied a band-aid to Nancy Skipsey who had cut her finger on a kitchen knife whilst cooking breakfast at her home 50 miles away.  Mrs Skipsey, who stopped at this store on her way to ………. “    Back in the newsroom, the Senior Producer turned to the intern and said “that was close.  I was running out of excuses to get Chuck and the guys from Outside Broadcast van a night out in that 5 star hotel and casino just down the road from Patel’s shop”

Now I don’t know if this has actually happened, but those of you who have watched television news shows recently could imagine that this just possibly true.  For almost every report, the studio based anchor will go live to some poor reporter stuck out in the field, irrespective of the fact that the news they are reporting on happened twelve hours ago and there is absolutely nothing to see.  How many times have you seen reporters outside the registered office of some multinational company in London or New York on the weekend when the story is about some environmental issue 3000 miles away on another continent?  One would swear that the reporters or unions have a contract that states a minimum of travel and overnight stays in top hotels will be provided as part of the salary.   Unless twitter, Facebook or MSNBC are your sole news providers you will recognise this is becoming more and more apparent.

The development of light-weight cameras and communications technologies may have enabled Chuck to stand outside Mr Singh’s store for the 10:00 news, but is it really necessary?  And why would I want to look at photographs of 1 St James Square in London when I could be looking at a burning oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico and listen to the news anchor tell me the same thing.  If it comes to that, why can’t broadcasters use the footage obtained by a brave and often unknown journalist and distributed by the various news agencies instead of flying some celebrity reporter halfway around the world to report from some hotel in the ‘Green Zone’?  Admittedly, governments in particular have become more aware of the power of the media, especially in war, so they corral reporters in some ‘safe’ location.  If you acknowledge that, there is no point having Jane Carter-Butcher finish her nails, stand on a balcony and report as news the same press release as the 20 other channels are doing for their own 6:00 news show, reporting a war happening  miles away.

There is another point as well.  If you are dispatching a news-team to cover a natural disaster, instead of getting in the way, consuming what could be scarce local resources and fuel, empty the van of its three tons of equipment, fill it with relief supplies and help the aid effort.  Or you could take a leaf out of Greenpeace’s book:  when they carry out a protest, they film it themselves and release the footage.  You don’t hear of news channels saying that in order to limit their carbon footprint, they are not sending a camera crew, reporter and associated equipment to Cancun or Venice to cover the latest Climate Change Conference either

No.  ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ is proud that it has the latest in Satellite uplinks and a helicopter.  They also need to prove that they cover the community as part of their licence.  So whilst they may want to be seen to be ‘out there’ and show off their van with the ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ logo to the locals, please can we do it with a degree of thought.  Because I am positive that one day, whilst Chuck reporting from outside an empty house that was once owned by some notorious criminal in case the Station’s parent company is going to take their toys back, the little banner going across the screen will be saying “Extra-terrestrials have landed on the White House Lawn”.  But we will not have coverage of that because Chuck and his colleagues have been sent elsewhere so instead we have yet more scenes of empty buildings or deserted parking lots hours after the action.

And in case you wondering, ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ anchor Jane Carter-Butcher is actually award winning.  She took the prize for best meat dish at a local carnival and thanked her mother, who in Jane’s words “really knew how to skin the butchers sausage.”

Don’t find a hitman on Facebook or MySpace

When she next logs in to her social networking sites, there is a young mother from Philadelphia who will perhaps see that amongst the advertisements for baby powder, Pampers,  “29 secrets for a flat belly” and “secrets of low-cost car insurance in Philadelphia”, there just may be a few for Joe’s Gun Stop, with a special offer coupon for a Beretta 92FS nine millimetre or a used Walther PPK, together with one for “Uve, Gotten, Nochance Defence Attorneys, a professional law firm”.  Because I am sure that anyone who is silly enough to try and solicit someone to kill the father of her baby on Facebook doesn’t understand that this is public and that her travels across the interweb are tracked, not by the supposedly big evil governments of the world, but by companies trying to segment the market and serve more meaningful advertisements. 

When I walk into my local bar, the barman will not waste time in trying to sell me the new beer he’s just got because he knows that is not what I drink, but he will offer me a new cognac.  It’s the same when you have dinner party, you don’t serve nut cutlets when you know that your guests are dedicated to saving the planet by eating cows.  Similarly, if you are that type of company, you are not likely to start advertising your new line of whips, handcuffs and leather hoods in the “Bible Discussion and Study Meeting Chronicle” although you may take a chance on the “Catholic Times”.  Knowing your audience and market is not a bad thing because if a person constantly orders take-out pizza online, they may just be interested in a new pizza palace that’s opened half a mile away or an offer for gym membership if they care what the calories are doing to their stomachs. (cue “29 secrets for a flat belly”) This also helps prevent having half of the world’s dead trees stuffed through your mailbox in an attempt to sell you hearing aids and mobility scooters.

Although a few people will know about companies called ‘Behavioural Market vendors’ and how they maintain data on millions of people collected from numerous sources, from public records through to internet use, the majority will not care.  And the majority of people will not care that every time they use the internet or click on a website, they are leaving a trail of where they went and what they looked at.  But they will start shouting about the lack of privacy on Facebook or Myspace and condemn the evil corporations whilst at the same time letting third market companies such as the profitable and very low profile BlueKai or Acxiom collect even more information about them and refine their databases.  Acxiom alone has about 1500 pieces of information on nearly everyone in its database, including 96% of all Americans.  The datasets are available to anyone to buy and use for their next marketing campaign, allowing them to select their target audience more accurately.  Add in the fact that the electronic address of your computer is tied to a locality and hey, 200 potential BDSM club members who are young and fit because they belong to the local gym and don’t order pizza.

This brings me back to our miscreant mother from Philadelphia.  She must have been pretty silly to think that she could solicit a murderer on Facebook and get away with it.  Not because we all know someone who knows someone or that there are just those mean-spirited people who trawl Facebook for pictures of their children’s’ teachers enjoying themselves, but because just somewhere a marketing database will be adding ‘potential gun purchaser’ to her profile and now, as well as all those advertisements for baby products, ‘Chucks Carnage Contractors’ will be sending her the resumes of Stiletto Stalone and Machine-gun Murphy.  Talk about a full inbox. 

I do wonder, however, why there are so many behavioural specialists and profilers in law enforcement.  Because assuming you can get the purchase requisition through the buying department in the first place, I am sure that some company somewhere could provide you with a list of “Male, University educated Saudi Arabians born in 1957 who live in Pakistan and have purchased pizza, pornography, a subscription to the Nuclear Power newsletter, nitroglycerine and timers”.  It also works for selecting politicians:  Instead of a Criminal Records Check, you could automatically rule out “Austrian Catholic-educated ex-choirboys interested in amateur painting” as your next potential head of state because you just happen not to want to merge your country and don’t want to invite the Americans, British and Russians to the capital for the next 40 odd years.  Just imagine how far this could go:  Want to market specialist laundry services to Californian born and Washington-based college interns working in the Whitehouse with an interest in cigar humidors perhaps? 

We leave electronic fingerprints behind us every time we surf the interwebs.  Try it.  Clear out your internet browser, do a search and then see how many ‘cookies’ are left behind.  One researcher did that and found that looking up the word “Depression” on a dictionary site left behind 223 pieces of code that enabled drug companies to advertise anti-depressants.  It has happened to me:  Some friends wanted to load some maps of the area around my home in France to their GPS and the next day the ads on one of the American newspapers I read was for a  ‘Automobile Récepteur GPS’ together with a list of ‘marchands avec Offre exceptionnelle’.  Absolutely fantastic, but not really what I wanted as my friends had already left and had used a paper map instead.

So the next time you need a hitman, don’t place an advertisement on Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’.  You wouldn’t dream of placing a notice in the paper saying “Murderer wanted for Hire, apply to Apt 16 Rue De Joyeux Morte, Saint Armand. tele 12.65.65.45” with your full name.  Because you know that you are likely to get a visit from some very nice policeman with a very big gun and some handcuffs.  The same is true on your social networking site, because even if the prying neighbour missed it when she was distracted with the pictures of that first grade teacher drinking a glass of wine, you can bet your last coin on the fact that companies like BlueKai or Acxiom will see it and flood you with suitable advertisements.  And you will scream and twitter about Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’ selling your data when really it was your fault for forgetting to clear your browser’s history in the first place and the real people collecting all that data on you is a marketing company, not the Government or the very nice guys who run social networking sites.

There is a famous quote by Albert Einstein:  “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”  I think I would want to modify that slightly: “Three things are infinite: the universe, marketing opportunities and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”

You know is a Fake Mcdonalds Pic

You have all watched the scene in countless crime dramas where our heroes look at an emailed picture of the kidnap victim and say something like “that the bush outside is a ‘bigusbloodyobviousplotdevicium’  that only grows in three places in the States, two of which are in Alaska and the third is …”  No attempt to say that “the sun was at 27 degrees and the shadows prove it had to be taken at 34°1119N 118°85W” will convince you that the FBI didn’t know our victim is in Altadena, California,  as this is close to production company’s studio and the other two places only exist in screen-writers heads.   But what I really marvel at it not the lengths our heroes went to in order to establish the location, using vast database lookups for the angle of the sun and botanical identification, but why on earth they didn’t just look at the metadata on the picture in the first place.

“Huh?” I hear you say. Well, let me explain.   Early photographers used to scratch the place and time on their negatives, but with the advent of digital cameras, this has become automatic with a few lines of code in the image that gives the date, time, camera, exposure and other information about the photograph.  Add in the fact that newer cameras and smart-phones add in location details and the exact serial number of the device used, there should never be any doubt over where our victim is being held, but this simple lookup will obviously make the 44 minute show last only 12 minutes and then there would be less time for the sponsors to try and sell you the new wonder cure for the latest made up disease that only affects America.  And don’t try to say this is too new:  JEIDA published Version 2.1 of the relevant standard the 1990s and this has been universally adopted by camera manufacturers.  The International Press and Telecommunications Council also first defined a standard for media files in 1979.

The reason I mention this is again McDonalds are on the back foot trying to quash a rather silly and obvious slander – and it’s not even Wednesday yet.  A photograph of a sign on a supposed McDonald’s restaurant door claims that (paraphrased) “they charge an extra $1.50 to Americans of obviously African decent due to associated crime”.   This fake picture first appeared a few years ago, yet during this week, over the space of a couple of days the image was sent all over the world to the associated hue and cry with the obvious reference to racism.  It wouldn’t take a genius to establish that this photo was faked and they could probably establish not only when, but where and by whom the photograph was taken.  No?  Let’s debate that.

My mother used to write the names of the people on the back of photographs, that’s why I knew that Jane was the daughter of Mrs Carter and that the butcher was involved somehow, for my mother had put a big question mark and wrote the butcher’s name in brackets after Jane Carter.  Underneath she had written “Church Picnic”, the time and date, the location and that the photo had been taken on Nancy’s camera and not her own (my mother had far too much time on her hands).  As I said, this information is now included automatically in photographs and facial tagging systems can now add names to pictures published electronically.   Another relevant fact that at least two companies are currently compiling databases of the metadata on all the images published on photo-sharing sites like Photo Bucket and Flicker, right down to the actual serial number of the camera, claiming it’s a service to allow users to identify their stolen cameras.

Pretty soon you could join the dots.  The next time there is a photograph of a half naked Senator flexing his muscles in a gym, a quick subpoena of the records would no doubt be able to show that either yes, it was taken by a camera belonging to Candy Melons of the Ladies of Professional Virtue Agency during the 43rd House sitting on the Preservation of Dried Grass Cuttings, World Warfare and Medicare Bill, OR, more than likely, it was taken seven years ago with Chuck’s camera phone late on a Friday night in order to have a joke with the guys as to how the Senator wasn’t working hard enough to develop his six-pack and look how puny he is.  But we all know that the former is more salacious and as they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, especially if it’s a politician or a successful international company involved.

But can you imagine what will happen to the data collected by these companies?  Let’s assume that either of the companies involved signs a contract with one of the photo-sharing sites.  How soon will it be before as a service to its customers, the site automatically publishes the properties of the photographs?  Then, when you shared the pictures of you with the ‘Happy Cows in California’ with your friends, they will know that really it was taken three miles from your house on one of those rare sunny days in Wisconsin and you never went on a trip.  Or the photograph on your Facebook page of your date was a stock picture downloaded in order to impress your friends.  And the whole issue of who the photographer was or where it was taken would dissipate because everyone will know that the picture was taken with Chuck’s camera in the foyer of some small town hotel and not in Monte Carlo as claimed.

Something however makes me doubt that.  Because what will happen is that the various start-up companies who collect and store this data will become take-over targets and the information will be sold.  The next time you log into one of the photo-sharing sites and upload an image, you will get loads of emails from camera stores saying “we notice that your Yakihama 1.3mp camera is now so last year and how about the new super 300mp model from CanCasio.”  Or worse, you get raided in the middle of the night by the FBI-CIA-DHS demanding to know why the image of the Senator in bed with the donkey that you sold to the GOP was taken by you in one of the White House bedrooms and exactly how did you get there?

However, if the use of this data can put an end to the endless fake photographs of non-celebrities and silly made up stories of big business, then we should be grateful.  It’s a small price to pay for the end of some of the more blatant lies that circle the globe and the question will not be why is there a photograph of X in Y with Z because we will all be able to tell that X was in A and the picture was taken by Z’s Public Relations manager.   And I’m off to buy an Exif information remover before the world discovers that my camera is not just last year, but last century.

Facebook, photos and the CIA

When I was still living at home with my mother, I always knew the gossip and who went out with whom.  If I listened carefully, I could probably of worked out who shopped where, what they purchased and understand that their dress-sense was inappropriate for church and they didn’t fool anyone by dyeing their hair because the cuffs and collars didn’t match.  I knew all this because my mother was a member of a social networking site, established centuries ago and honed to a level of detailed reporting that Facebook or Twitter would envy and any marketer would give his right arm for.  It was called ‘friends’ and they would sit in my mother’s house, drinking coffee and eating cakes, spreading the ‘news’ and explaining exactly about Mrs Carter and her liking for the butcher’s sausage.  Occasionally, photographic evidence would be used to support the latest salacious nugget of information, because Mrs Skipsey just happened to have a picture of Mrs Carter’s daughter Jane in the background of a snap taken at her son’s friend’s birthday party and doesn’t Jane look like the Butcher more than Mrs Carter’s husband.  Then for good measure Mrs Skipsey would name everyone else in the picture and more gossip would follow.  Or, sometimes, if the gossip was really juicy, my mother would receive a phone call from one of her friends and of course feel obliged to pass it on.  Admit it, you have all seen this.

So why on earth has everyone in the world suddenly started criticising Facebook because they have the technology to identify who’s whom in pictures uploaded onto their clients’ pages?  Some of the more outlandish comments I have seen claim ‘Government snooping’ and the ‘end of privacy’ or ‘world government wanting to know everything about us’.  No.  I disagree.  Facebook launched the technology in order to help their users identify who is in the background, because if you are like me you have lots of old photos in a box where you haven’t the foggiest idea of who was sat at the table with you at Josephine’s wedding.  Facebook just goes through the photographs for you and the computer says “I think that is Jane, the one everyone just ‘knows’ is the butcher’s daughter.”  This is not a governmental or commercial conspiracy – its just gossip, only faster and electronic because nowadays most people work and haven’t got time to eat my mother’s cakes.

Like everyone, the government knows exactly who I am.  They know when I travel, what I earn, what car I drive and who lives in my house with me.  I have a passport and a driving licence, so they have my photograph and fingerprints.  And because I travel extensively in the US and Europe, more than one Government has this or similar information, even a scan of my iris for Border Control.  My employers have details of my academic record and the names and addresses of people I worked with.  Some prospective employers may even have details I tried to hide when I applied, depending on exactly what they asked my referees.  Add in credit checks and drug screens and you soon have an awful lot of information about you out there.  You know that when a very nice policeman pulls in behind you and runs your plates he not only knows who you are, but that your car is 5 years old and is only a base model and not the sports version like the badge you stuck on says.  He will also know that the car is really owned by the finance company and that you are a customer of abc insurance.  He may also be aware that this car was last seen outside xwz location yesterday.  But so would have my mother and her friends.

Some people worry about photographs – so what?  Everyone knows that you cannot walk into a bank or shop without being recorded on CCTV and traffic control cameras are everywhere. Anyone with a computer can connect to streaming pictures of freeways all over the world and I have in the past looked at the UK and Indianapolis simultaneously to compare weather conditions.  Images exist and just because Facebook tells you that in your tourist snaps of Paris the man sat behind on the steps of Notre Dame was M. Claude Boules it is only the same as if you happened to hear his name called anyway.  About a month ago, a friend mine from the United Kingdom sent me a photograph of me taken at an event I attended in San Francisco.  The photograph was a group publicity shot and the photographer had identified who was in attendance for the history of the event.  My friend had come across it through an indirect search and it was coincidence that we knew each other; otherwise my name would have been insignificant.  This is also the way with images and the photographs you put on Facebook, only significant to those who know or care about those photographed. 

I am purposefully avoiding the data companies hold on me, but my airline knows where I fly and my credit card company knows as well – together with my choice in rental cars and hotels.  My local supermarket knows what I buy, so the company could more than likely make a guess as to what I have for dinner most evenings.  So if they want to suggest that I eat my cow with a marinade made from the various sauces I buy, so be it.  It will save me the bother of having to look it up or running out to the drive-thru because I am sick of eating plain steaks.  But remember, when the response rate to direct marketing is less than 5%, it means that 95% is ‘junk’ mail, so if by using some clever data analysis they stop sending me invitations to subscribe to Vegan’s World magazine, I’m all for it.  And remember, a lot of us give this information away ourselves in the first place through surveys and not ticking the privacy boxes on forms.

Having a level of detail about you in the public arena is unavoidable, even if it’s the photograph of getting drunk with a college roommate 20 years ago, because the roommate remembers your name and tells the people who look at it when cleaning out the attic decades later.  Most photographs end up in a box with the subjects forgotten.  Yes, these photographs may now be electronic – so what. Unless of course you just happen to be a Senator trying to impress the ladies with your physique, but that is a whole different story.  And it’s not Facebook who will pull out that photograph of you at two years old naked in the kitchen sink, it will be you mother or your brother or even Facebook;s users, not the company.

Even with all the electronic media now available, I would still put a bet on my mother and her friends being able to spread the news about Mrs Carter and the greengrocer faster than Facebook any day.  The East Germans knew this before the end of the cold war, because instead of installing listening devices and using spy cameras, they recruited thousands of local gossips.  But the data collected just sat there because its just gossip and really, nobody cares.  My mother may talk about Mrs Carter, but in the next town it was Mrs Morris and everyone knew the Butcher didn’t have a bike.   And when it does come to government analysis, you know that with 18 different agencies in the US alone, there is no way they can look at the data.  Because even when a government has access to the latest technologies and numerous data gathering resources, it still takes almost 10 years for them to work out that the target is just outside a military base.   So in all, I would fear my mother and Mrs Skipsey well before I fear Facebook, simply because I can chose not to Facebook in the first place.

Naomi, Cadbury and the Tristan conspiracy

I wonder how many of you know or even care that Naomi Campbell, one of the world’s top models and a dedicated charity worker, parodied herself in a series of commercials for Dunkin Donuts?  Did you also know that in late 2010 the Kraft subsidiary Cadburys decided to expand its range of Bliss chocolate, focusing on the female market? Both these facts are relevant because Kraft now stands accused of racism, amid a clamour for a boycott of its products.  Oh, and the story has been picked up by news agencies and papers across the world, from New Zealand to the Americas.  Well, of course, not all of the story, just the more sensational bits that allows you to accuse a big bad multinational of being immoral and picking on some poor hardworking person.  But please, before rushing to judgement and adding to the scandal, spend five minutes examining the facts, and that includes you, Al Sharpton, because I am sure some people have your number on speed-dial for any perceived racist case in the same way as they keep the Doctor’s office on hand.

Cadbury is seeking to position the Bliss chocolate bar as the “perfect treat for the ladies” and the advertising campaign has personified the confectionary and has the Bliss bar attending traditional pampering scenarios, such as spa days – a spoilt rich indulgent lady.  They have carefully built brand values and have said this bar is well, a Diva.  But by Diva, I mean spoilt rich prima donna, not the traditional meaning of the fat (ooops, I mean differently sized) lady who sings at the end of an opera to tell everyone to go home.  But I am sure that some advertising and PR type called Tristam remembered the commercials that featured Naomi Campbell parodying herself playing – yes, that right – a Diva who threw a tantrum because she broke a heel on her stilettos.  As a result, a series of adverts were produced with a photograph of the Bliss bar with the line “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”.  Job done, a witty advertising poster and Tristam can go and drink his Chablis in the latest trendy bar with all the others.

But no.  Naomi’s family took offence.  Not that they had called her a diva and not that the poster had mentioned any of the reasons why Naomi has earned the reputation for being a diva. (for you who may be unaware at this stage, let me tell you: she several convictions for assault, she is an ex cocaine user and is banned from flying with British Airways for life following an incident at Heathrow concerning so called lost luggage and an assault on two police officers.) I will admit the poster did feature the chocolate bar surrounded by diamonds, but most people would have seen that as a reference to the opulence of the Bliss bar itself, not as yet another one of the stories surrounding Naomi, as to exactly why she received so called ‘blood diamonds’ from the ex-president of Liberia who is currently in detention following trial on charges of war crimes by the United Nations, a trial that for all her humanitarian charitable works, Naomi had to be subpoenaed in order to give evidence and actually told the court that this “was a great inconvenience to her.”

So why are they not commenting on this but accusing Cadburys of racism?  Because Ms Campbell is of Afro-Jamaican decent and because chocolate is brown, then obviously you are calling her a what? A luxury Bliss chocolate bar that’s good enough to eat?  Perhaps former boyfriends like Mike Tyson, Robert De Niro or Flavio Briatore could tell you, but I am absolutely positive that being likened to Dove or Galaxy for example would not be used as a racist term when there are a quite a number of more abusive words and maybe a few words that have no basis in race whatsoever that anyone wishing to insult Ms Campbell could have used instead. (Well, maybe if it had been Hersheys, but that’s that different matter).  

Real racism is vile and I applaud the efforts to eradicate it, including Ms Campbell’s who has campaigned against bias in the fashion industry.  Yes there are real racists out there, but racism is where you refuse to accept that a person can be equal or better than you because of skin pigmentation or where their ancestors were from.   Racism is when you are made to use separate bathrooms and denied equal civil rights.  Recall Apartheid in South Africa?  Well, just remember that it ended in 1994 , only 20 years after the race riots of the 1970s in America.   I can once remember being surprised that some friends of mine refused to purchase their dream house because they saw the couple next door were Americans of African decent, pointing out that this would affect future resale values and that was just two years ago in a state in the American Mid-West.  Yes, racism does exist, but this whole new ‘manufactured’ spat between Kraft-Cadburys and Ms Campbell has nothing to do with racism, not really.

There are a few clues, one of which is the fact that the reporting of Ms Campbell’s perceived ‘outrage’ appeared in a piece in New Zealand and another in the UK within five hours of each other.  The second clue is the fact that when TV shows obscure the Ford badge on what is obviously a Ford F150 pickup because they didn’t have clearance to use the Ford name; you can bet that the lawyers working for Cadburys ad agency made sure that the advertisement had all the permissions going.   Forgive me for shouting collusion here, but have any of you heard of ‘The Outside Organisation’?  No? Well they just happen to be Ms Campbell’s PR agents and have represented her for quite a few years, in fact there is a case study on how they managed the media when Ms Campbell was explaining to the International Court of Justice in The Hague just how she was given two blood diamonds.   So, is it just possible that people working for ‘The Outside Organisation’ just happen to know people working for Cadburys advertising agency?  Perhaps, just perhaps, the Tristams of this world are going to earn their bonuses this year because Kraft can rest assured that product awareness has widened and The Outside Organisation must be grateful that their client is now getting sympathetic press at last.  But Racism?  Give me a Kit Kat, sorry, a break.