Category Archives: Life and things

GDPR is bigger than Y2K

Fishing at seaThe 25th May is approaching! That’s the date the EU’s new legislation aimed at protecting the private data of all EU citizens using the internet comes into force.

“GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation. It is a legislation that aims to protect the privacy of all EU citizens. GDPR forces organisations to make major changes in the way they handle their customers personal data, affecting their business processes as well as software. It’s a whole system of principles, rights and obligations which you will need to be familiar with. GDPR will apply from 25 May 2018.” That’s a quote from an excellent article explaining the legislation, and the obligations of website administrators, in simple language. The actual legislation, in typical EU fashion, is lengthy. Here it is, for your edification. Pardon me if I don’t wait for you to catch up.

This comes after many breaches of people’s privacy, not so much hacking incidents, but more where data such as email addresses have been collected and sold or given to third parties to be used for such things as spam. The recent furore over Facebook and  Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook sent users’ data on to another company without their knowledge, is a case in point. I’m sure all computer users would agree that collecting information about them and passing it on without prior consent is wrong. In very simple terms the GDPR requirements mean that if a person (eg me) uses a website, and that website collects any data about me, I need to be told what data, and why, and I have to consent.

Fine. But it turns out ‘very simple’ isn’t very simple.

The thing is, we willingly share information about ourselves if there’s something in it for us. Our phones tell use what the weather’s like where we are, or where to find a restaurant – if location tracking is on. Information such as your age and sex can be used to target advertising so you’re shown dating sites for the right age group. Amazon famously uses your (collected and stored) browsing and purchase history to suggest other items which might be of interest. But that’s on Amazon’s own website. If the company on-sold the data, it’s another story. Then there are online retail sites (including Amazon), which require names, phone numbers and physical addresses. And it could be argued that if you don’t realise Amazon and Facebook and Google and Microsoft are all collecting data about you, you’d better get out from under that rock.

Mind you, if I’m buying something like an ebook I resent having to provide a physical address. It’s not needed to carry out the transaction, and I’ve been known to walk away rather than divulge.

But that’s the obvious stuff. There are other items of data that are collected to make the wheels of the internet turn smoothly, or for quite inocuous, statistical reasons. Many sites collect data such as IP addresses for Google analytics so the administrators can see which countries their visitors come from (it’s just a count – nothing more).

If I want to leave a comment on a website, then typically I’m asked for my email address and maybe my own website. That information is stored on the site’s server, and is visible to the administrators. If I elect to follow a site, my email address is collected. If I join a mailing list, ditto – and perhaps also my name. Etc.

The GDPR regulations state that visitors should opt in to collection of their data. They should be able to opt out at any time, and be able to delete any information that may have been collected at a given site.

It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

And that brings me back to Y2K.

In the mid-1990’s the IT world had an ‘oh shit’ moment. Back when computers were first developed hardware was very, very expensive, so every effort was made to use the bare minimum of resources such as data storage. For that reason dates were stored as 6 digits – DDMMYY everywhere but the US, where it was MMDDYY. Then somebody realised that when we reached the year 2000, all our date maths would be out the window. Let’s say you started a 10-year loan on 1/5/95. It would be due to terminate on 30/4/05. But if you subtract 95 from 05, you don’t get 10. This meant retrofitting a gazillion systems using 6-digit dates to 8-digit dates (DDMMYYYY). It was huge. It required a multitude of analysts (to find where the dates were used) and programmers (to fix the code). But it was done. The century rolled over with barely a hiccup – but at a cost of billions of dollars. ($100 bilion in the US alone)

But that Herculean effort pales into insignificance in comparison with GDPR.

These requirements don’t just affect websites in the EU, they affect all websites which could be used by EU citizens. That includes this site, gretavanderrol.com, my crummy little website where I list my books and prattle on about my last holiday (and a few rants). Please do not imagine for a moment that compliance is easy. WordPress, the software upon which my site is based, is a huge enterprise. Half the world’s websites (especially the small ones) are hosted by WordPress. At some stage the company will catch up with some of the requirements, and include them in its basic framework, but not before 25 May 2018, when the law becomes enforceable. Added to that, there are literally thousands of WordPress plugins, (apps if you will) specially written to fit into the WordPress framework. Some of them use cookies, or collect information about visitors, and if I use the plugins, I’m responsible.

Even for a simple little site like mine I’m expected to list any cookies that the software might place on a visitor’s machine. Here’s what WordPress says about cookies for people leaving a comment [1].

“When visitors comment on your blog, they get cookies stored on their computer. This is purely a convenience, so that the visitor won’t need to re-type all their information again when they want to leave another comment. Three cookies are set for commenters:

  • comment_author_{HASH}
  • comment_author_email_{HASH}
  • comment_author_url_{HASH}

The commenter cookies are set to expire a little under one year from the time they’re set.”

I have to make sure you can see a list of every cookie my site stores and what it’s for. You have to give consent before you can comment on my blog, and you must be able to remove your consent, and delete any information I might have stored about you, which means deleting your comments, and also deleting any record of your visit, such as your IP address.

Needless to say, enterprising software developers are writing plugins to help website owners cope with the requirements – some are free, some are not. I tried one plugin which checked for use of cookies. It was free for a site with less than 100 pages. I don’t have a lot of pages – but I use the site for my blog, and every post was counted as a page. That put me into premium class, and would have cost me $10 per month, which is frankly more than I pay for hosting the site. One plugin required me to make a change to the header in the HTML. I assure you most site owners wouldn’t know what that meant, let alone how to do it. And all the way through, there are disclaimers that this plugin will not make your site compliant. Perhaps you should talk to a lawyer, and hire a developer.

And if you opt to ignore the legislation? The penalties are (to say the least) substantial. Here’s a quote from GDPR Associates. “There will be two levels of fines based on the GDPR. The first is up to €10 million or 2% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher. The second is up to €20 million or 4% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher.”

I’m glad I never bothered with a mailing list. Anyone with a mailing list must go back to all subscribers and have them either subscribe again, or be assumed to have unsubscribed.

A ‘contact me’ form must explain what you’ll be doing with the contactee’s email address. I’ve deleted my ‘contact me’ page. But I have copied a boiler-plate privacy policy. I cannot imagine how the EU thinks it’s going to police this policy, especially on non-EU websites like mine. But I do get visitors residing in the EU, and I suppose all it needs is for one person to register a complaint. Me, I’m collecting up my toys and retreating to the comfort of WordPress.com. Not only is it cheaper, it relieves me of some of the responsibility of complying.

The thing is, while I can see why it’s being done, I don’t think much thought has been given to the ramifications. It’s like a fishing boat trawling for sharks. Trouble is, it swallows up everything – dolphins, turtles, tuna, mackerel, whiting, sardines, clown fish – the lot. Guess which species I am?

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GDPR is bigger than Y2K

The 25th May is approaching! That’s the date the EU’s new legislation aimed at protecting the private data of all EU citizens using the internet comes into force.

“GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation. It is a legislation that aims to protect the privacy of all EU citizens. GDPR forces organisations to make major changes in the way they handle their customers personal data, affecting their business processes as well as software. It’s a whole system of principles, rights and obligations which you will need to be familiar with. GDPR will apply from 25 May 2018.” That’s a quote from an excellent article explaining the legislation, and the obligations of website administrators, in simple language. The actual legislation, in typical EU fashion, is lengthy. Here it is, for your edification. Pardon me if I don’t wait for you to catch up.

This comes after many breaches of people’s privacy, not so much hacking incidents, but more where data such as email addresses have been collected and sold or given to third parties to be used for such things as spam. The recent furore over Facebook and  Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook sent users’ data on to another company without their knowledge, is a case in point. I’m sure all computer users would agree that collecting information about them and passing it on without prior consent is wrong. In very simple terms the GDPR requirements mean that if a person (eg me) uses a website, and that website collects any data about me, I need to be told what data, and why, and I have to consent.

Fine. But it turns out ‘very simple’ isn’t very simple.

The thing is, we willingly share information about ourselves if there’s something in it for us. Our phones tell use what the weather’s like where we are, or where to find a restaurant – if location tracking is on. Information such as your age and sex can be used to target advertising so you’re shown dating sites for the right age group. Amazon famously uses your (collected and stored) browsing and purchase history to suggest other items which might be of interest. But that’s on Amazon’s own website. If the company on-sold the data, it’s another story. Then there are online retail sites (including Amazon), which require names, phone numbers and physical addresses. And it could be argued that if you don’t realise Amazon and Facebook and Google and Microsoft are all collecting data about you, you’d better get out from under that rock.

Mind you, if I’m buying something like an ebook I resent having to provide a physical address. It’s not needed to carry out the transaction, and I’ve been known to walk away rather than divulge.

But that’s the obvious stuff. There are other items of data that are collected to make the wheels of the internet turn smoothly, or for quite inocuous, statistical reasons. Many sites collect data such as IP addresses for Google analytics so the administrators can see which countries their visitors come from (it’s just a count – nothing more).

If I want to leave a comment on a website, then typically I’m asked for my email address and maybe my own website. That information is stored on the site’s server, and is visible to the administrators. If I elect to follow a site, my email address is collected. If I join a mailing list, ditto – and perhaps also my name. Etc.

The GDPR regulations state that visitors should opt in to collection of their data. They should be able to opt out at any time, and be able to delete any information that may have been collected at a given site.

It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

And that brings me back to Y2K.

In the mid-1990’s the IT world had an ‘oh shit’ moment. Back when computers were first developed hardware was very, very expensive, so every effort was made to use the bare minimum of resources such as data storage. For that reason dates were stored as 6 digits – DDMMYY everywhere but the US, where it was MMDDYY. Then somebody realised that when we reached the year 2000, all our date maths would be out the window. Let’s say you started a 10-year loan on 1/5/95. It would be due to terminate on 30/4/05. But if you subtract 95 from 05, you don’t get 10. This meant retrofitting a gazillion systems using 6-digit dates to 8-digit dates (DDMMYYYY). It was huge. It required a multitude of analysts (to find where the dates were used) and programmers (to fix the code). But it was done. The century rolled over with barely a hiccup.

But that Herculean effort pales into insignificance in comparison with GDPR.

These requirements don’t just affect websites in the EU, they affect all websites which could be used by EU citizens. That includes this site, gretavanderrol.com, my crummy little website where I list my books and prattle on about my last holiday (and a few rants). Please do not imagine for a moment that compliance is easy. WordPress, the software upon which my site is based, is a huge enterprise. Half the world’s websites (especially the small ones) are hosted by WordPress. At some stage the company will catch up with some of the requirements, and include them in its basic framework, but not before 25 May 2018, when the law becomes enforceable. Added to that, there are literally thousands of WordPress plugins, (apps if you will) specially written to fit into the WordPress framework. Some of them use cookies, or collect information about visitors, and if I use the plugins, I’m responsible.

Even for a simple little site like mine I’m expected to list any cookies that the software might place on a visitor’s machine. Here’s what WordPress says about cookies for people leaving a comment [1].

“When visitors comment on your blog, they get cookies stored on their computer. This is purely a convenience, so that the visitor won’t need to re-type all their information again when they want to leave another comment. Three cookies are set for commenters:

  • comment_author_{HASH}
  • comment_author_email_{HASH}
  • comment_author_url_{HASH}

The commenter cookies are set to expire a little under one year from the time they’re set.”

I have to make sure you can see a list of every cookie my site stores and what it’s for. You have to give consent before you can comment on my blog, and you must be able to remove your consent, and delete any information I might have stored about you, which means deleting your comments, and also deleting any record of your visit, such as your IP address.

Needless to say, enterprising software developers are writing plugins to help website owners cope with the requirements – some are free, some are not. I tried one plugin which checked for use of cookies. It was free for a site with less than 100 pages. I don’t have a lot of pages – but I use the site for my blog, and every post was counted as a page. That put me into premium class, and would have cost me $10 per month, which is frankly more than I pay for hosting the site. One plugin required me to make a change to the header in the HTML. I assure you most site owners wouldn’t know what that meant, let alone how to do it. And all the way through, there are disclaimers that this plugin will not make your site compliant. Perhaps you should talk to a lawyer, and hire a developer.

I’m glad I never bothered with a mailing list. Anyone with a mailing list must go back to all subscribers and have them either subscribe again, or be assumed to have unsubscribed.

A ‘contact me’ form must explain what you’ll be doing with the contactee’s email address. I’ve deleted my ‘contact me’ page. But I have copied a boiler-plate privacy policy. I cannot imagine how the EU thinks it’s going to police this policy, especially on non-EU websites like mine. But I do get visitors residing in the EU, and I suppose all it needs for one person to register a complaint. Me, I’m collecting up my toys and retreating to the comfort of WordPress.com. Not only is it cheaper, it relieves me of some of the responsibility of complying.

The thing is, while I can see why it’s being done, I don’t think much thought has been given to the ramifications. It’s like a fishing boat trawling for sharks. Trouble is, it swallows up everything – dolphins, turtles, tuna, mackerel, whiting, sardines, clown fish – the lot. Guess which species I am?

 

 

 

Still using those travel sites?

I guess most of us have used one or other of the travel aggregators to find a tour, or a hotel when planning a trip. I certainly have – Expedia, Booking.com, Trip Advisor. And I thought they were pretty good – until I learned about the problems associated with them.

As you all know, I went to New Zealand for a one-week trip not so long ago. My friend and I started planning some time ago – as in before Christmas. She’s a very, very busy lady, so she was happy enough to leave the details to me, being as how I’m not a very busy lady. So I looked up a few things and booked an apartment in Christchurch via Booking.com. We didn’t have to pay a deposit and if things changed, we could cancel for free up to a few days before the trip. We could make changes, too.

Time passed (as it does) and circumstances changed just a little. A couple of weeks before the trip we needed to change the dates for our accommodation. Instead of Saturday to the following Sunday, we would do the same Saturday, but check out on Thursday. I went into the website and chose the option to modify my booking. I left the ‘from’ date unchanged, and modified the ‘to’ date. The hamsters ran around for a second, and then I got a message telling me the property had no rooms on those dates. But (hang on a sec) they had these others which might suit. One of them was the room I’d already booked. But what the hey, I’ll play your silly game. I picked the room, and the hamsters started running… and running… and running…

I aborted and tried again, several times. Having been a programmer, I know that very often the cause of errors is sitting at the keyboard. But I couldn’t get the change of dates to happen. So I contacted the proprietory, explaining the change I needed to make. I received a prompt reply, stating that I HAD to make the change through Booking.com.

So I cancelled the booking. The hotel lost a 5 night stay.

Peter booked the new apartment for us via Expedia. To start, he booked two separate rooms at the same hotel, not realising the property offered two-room apartments. The apartment was cheaper than two rooms, and more convenient, so he changed the booking. Once again, the website was a crock. So Peter rang the help line, once again a call centre in the Phillipines. The person taking the call had little knowledge and no authority. He was told he would have to cancel the first booking and book the other room. The payment he’d already made would be credited to his credit card in 7-10 days. Pete was not happy. It had taken a nanosecond for Expedia to accept the payment, and yet it would take over a week to process a refund? Especially since he’d explained he was effectively just changing the booking to a different room. A clerk at the property would have said, sure, we can change that. It was a simple request.

When pushed, Expedia refunded the original payment promptly. But why should we have to push?

Next, I booked a tour to Arthur’s Pass via Viator, which is a part of Trip Advisor. There was an option to include a ride on a jetboat, but, knowing my friend’s not all that keen on boats, I went with the trip without the jetboat option. When I told my friend about it, she asked me to add the jetboat. No problem. I found my booking on the website and tried to include the option. My experience was much the same as I’d had with Booking.com. After a couple of tries, I rang the ‘help’ line.

I waited on the line for at least forty minutes before a pleasant (but not very bright) young man from the Phillipines picked up the call. After several goes at getting him to understand I just wanted to add the jetboat option, and yes, I would pay by credit card etc etc the booking was finally changed. I tried to tell him about my issues with the website but he couldn’t get me off the phone fast enough.

I contacted the tour company when we arrived in New Zealand to confirm the booking, and confirm the change to pcickup location. Even that wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been, but never mind. All good.

We were duly picked up at the right time and place, and enjoyed our trip up to Arthur’s pass. But the jetboat ride didn’t happen. It was nobody’s fault, the river was too high to take the boat out. I received an email from Viator before we left New Zealand, acknowledging the jetboat had to be cancelled. A partial refund had been sent to my account.

Partial?

They’d refunded $55. What the hell? I’d paid rather more than that. So I sent an email stating that it wasn’t good enough. Why was this a partial refund?

A few days later, I received an update. They’d refunded another $15, making the refund $70. By this time I was livid. I’d paid $96 for the trip and I told them so, reiterating that we hadn’t cancelled, we’d showed up, and they had no right to retain any of the money. I have now received the full refund.

So… all these aggregators are great at taking your money, not so great at giving it back. I’m sure they use the excess funds on the short term money market (just like the banks). In the case of Viator, if I hadn’t complained, I’m sure they would have left the refund at $55. Quite a few people wouldn’t have noticed.

We have found that the aggregators are good at giving lists of properties. From there, take your pick and contact them direct. Hotels pay to be listed on these sites – you might find as Pete did recently that Booking.com offers a room at (say) $120 – but the hotel will ask for $110.

One thing’s for sure – I’ll never book anything through Booking.com, Expedia, or Viator ever again.

And on a positive vibe, here’s a couple more photos of lovely New Zealand.

 

Let’s find a cure for ALS #ThinkBlue4ALS

Prof Stephen Hawking, universally acknowledged as a great physicist and a leader in the study of black holes and cosmology, died recently at the age of seventy-six. These days, seventy-six isn’t particularly old – but it’s remarkable if you suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. Prof Hawking was diagnosed with this dreadful disease at the age of twenty-one and was given only a few years to live. Here’s my thoughts on his disability and his life, written just after his death.

ALS is a type of motor neuron disease which attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary movement, such as walking, talking and the like. Over time, victims lose the ability to walk, talk, eat and even breathe. Although the disease can strike at any time, the incidence is highest in those between fifty-five and seventy-five. To be struck down at such a young age was particularly devastating. There is no cure. Please refer to this fact sheet for more information on the disease, its symptoms, and current research.

Not long after Prof Hawking’s death the ABC aired a program about an Australian with this horrible disease. He used a conventional string puppet to illustrate the condition. One by one the strings used to manipulate the puppet’s limbs are cut, until there’s just a mind trapped inside a useless body. That’s how Prof Hawking lived for fifty years. It’s horrifying to imagine.

Research needs funding. We’ve seen the powerful ice bucket challenge, but this is something new.  As part of an effort to raise money for ALS research, a group of authors got together and pledged a quarter of their earnings from the sale of selected books, each of which have the colour blue in their covers.

You can help us by buying the books on offer and sharing this wonderful cause with your family and friends. You can also help by making a direction donation to the research effort. Go to Greta van der Rol’s page on the ALS Team Challenge page and make a donation – anonymous if you wish.

My chosen book for the promotion is Morgan’s Choice.

Somewhere out in space, humanity’s past is about to catch up with its future.

When Morgan Selwood’s spaceship is stranded in unknown space she is relieved to be rescued by humanoid aliens. But her unusual appearance and her extraordinary technical abilities mean that everybody wants a piece of her. Who’s it to be? Autocratic Admiral Ravindra, who press-gangs her to help against a shadowy threat from the stars, or the freedom fighters who think she’s a legend reincarnated, returned to help them throw off the yoke of oppression?

Morgan doesn’t much care which it is until the uprising and the atrocities start. While civil war rages across the planet the shadowy threat from the stars emerges as an implacable killer bent on destroying all intelligent life. Morgan will need every bit of her superhuman, bio-engineered intelligence to save the man she has come to love and his people from annihilation. And spare a little to save herself.

Buy the book at  Amazon B&N Kobo  iBooks

There’s a dozen excellent books on offer, science fiction romance and paranormal romance.  You’ll find all the books here. You might find something else you’d like – and know you’re supporting a wonderful cause

You can find out more about our support team here. Please share to anybody who might wish to help. The more the merrier.

 

 

The trouble with possums

This is a female. See the pouch under her belly?

It’s been quite the saga with our local possums lately. For my non-Australian readers, possums are native Australian marsupials about the size of a cat. They are mainly vegetarian, eating leaves, fruit, flowers and grass. But they’re not averse to insects and bird’s eggs, and have become opportunistic foragers in towns. They’re nocturnal and sleep away the daylight hours in a dark place such as a hollow log.

And that has become an issue. With increasing urban sprawl, trees are being cut down in record numbers. This has led to a serious shortage of hollow branches for parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras and the like, which use them for nesting, and for possums and other nocturnal creatures who need them as homes.

When we arrived in Hervey Bay we found a large hollow log in one of the out-buildings. It seems a previous owner of the property had been a wildlife carer and I think the log had been used as a nesting box for something like a sulphur-crested cockatoo. We like birds, so we put a lid on the log, fitted a perch, and hoisted it up onto a palm tree near the house.

What are you doing in our house? Note the board to try to limit the size. And the chewed edge.

All was well. The nest box received almost immediate interest and a couple of lorikeets moved in. But after some time this up-market accommodation attracted the attention of a possum, which moved in and has been there ever since, despite our attempts to discourage it by reducing the size of the opening. The tenant just chewed the edges to fit. So we gave up and constructed bird boxes. They were never as popular as the real thing, though. And I confess I enjoy watching the possums in the evening. One regular visitor was a female who brought her latest baby on her back to see if there was anything on the bird table. I often put a mandarin or a piece of orange out for them.

Mum and Bub

A few months ago we returned from a trip to find the possum peering at us in daylight, from inside the log. That’s unusual because they’re nocturnal, and also, they attract the fury of many of the small birds – butcher birds, noisy miners, magpie larks and the like, who gather around the box and yell. The reason for the possum’s appearance became apparent when we noticed the base had fallen from its house. So Pete took the log down (sans possum), fixed it, and put it back.

All was well.

As I sat in my office some weeks later, I heard a very loud crash from outside. It was unusual enough to cause me to check on the reason. The whole possum house had fallen to the ground – with the possum inside. I saw a little pink nose and a swarm of mosquitoes which must also have had their slumber (or their dinner) interrupted. Pete and I looked up the tree and decided we weren’t going to try to get the log back up there. After some discussion we closed the hole with a piece of tied-on wood (keeping poss inside) and took the whole shebang to a different tree in a more heavily wooded part of the garden and hoisted the log up there. Not as high, but safe and sound within the large pool enclosure.

All was well

Not long after that we noticed thumps and noises from the ceiling just before dawn, and again after nightfall. Possums have learned to live in suburbia. They had to. Ceilings are a popular housing site, and a homeless possum had found its way into ours. There are two problems with that. Possums are not house-trained, and they have been known to cause electrical fires (by damaging wires etc). So, much as I like wildlife, poss had to be evicted.

But before we got around to arranging that, we had a truly memorable morning. I was awake early, jolted out of snoozing by a loud thump from the direction of the kitchen. I didn’t bother investigating because it was probably some critter on the window ledge. Around 5am, with light graying the sky, Pete got up for a pee. He saw an animal dart into our bedroom and under the bed. “There’s a cat in here. Or a possum.”

That was that for an early morning snooze. Picture this, if you will. A couple of people well past their best years, dressed in their night attire, chasing a small furry animal around the house. The possum bolted out of the bedroom and into the lounge. We both followed, closing doors as we went. We opened the front door and the back sliding glass door, then we played sheep dogs, gently herding the little creature out into the garden. It immediately charged up the nearest fence, up onto the roof and dived into the ceiling cavity.

It’s not the same possum as the one in the log. Like I said, there’s a housing crisis for possums. This might have been a juvenile, no longer wanted by mum and looking for its own abode. We several times had junior possums using the nest boxes we’d built for the birds, but they soon outgrow them.

The obvious question was how did it get in? There’s a cat flap in the laundry door, set up so a cat can go out, but not come back in. We don’t have a cat so tended to ignore its existence. We think the possum levered a corner of the flap up. They have long, powerful claws for climbing, and they don’t need much wriggle room. Judging by the paw prints, it wandered around the kitchen, jumping up on benches and fridge magnets to get on the little ledge which was the protruding part of the fridge, just outside the cupboards around it. The thump I heard from the kitchen was the possum jumping down. I suspect it came to the bedroom because it occupied the upstairs apartment and was looking for the stairs.

Pete taped up the cat flap to prevent further visits.

We had one more bit of morning excitement before we got our act together. One morning after I’d brought him his cup of tea (yes, I do), Pete said, “Have a look in the en suite.”

Okay. I did as I was told. There was a reddish mess dripping down the cistern. Thinking Pete must have hurt himself, I asked, “What’s that?”

“Possum shit.”

I looked up at the vent for the exhaust fan which is above the toilet and saw some remnants up there, too.

That, dear reader, was the final straw.

I cleaned the mess up. It wasn’t poo. Possums do little pellets like rats and rabbits, and there was nothing like that in sight. I *think* the possum must have cut itself or something. Either way, it had outstayed its welcome.

Like all native species, possums are protected, so we could evict, but not harm. We borrowed a cage trap from a friend and baited it with an apple. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Pete went up on the roof and put wire mesh over all the gaps into the roof cavity – except the one we knew the possum used. By this time, we had decided there was more than one possum up there. The poss(es) went out foraging after nightfall, and Pete went up and plugged the last hole.

There are no more night time noises in the ceiling.

 

 

Fair play and censorship. Where do you cross the line?

Fair Play

Two matters have struck a chord with me this week. The first is the cricket. The vice-captain of the Australian cricket team coached a bowler to roughen one side of the ball using sand paper, and the captain condoned it. It’s called ball-tampering and has happened in cricket over the years. This article explains in simple terms what it’s all about. In essence, there’s a line between fair handling of the ball, and ball tampering, which is cheating. The Australians crossed that line.

I expect many of you are sick of the whole thing, especially put in the context of what’s important in life. But I think it has to be considered against what Australians believe about themselves. As a sporting nation we punch above our weight, given our relatively small population, although we haven’t been quite as successful over the past decades. As a result, Australian teams are expected to win. Australians also have a perception that we Aussies are always fair, that we win by playing better. We’re also very quick to point the finger at other teams we suspect of cheating. So the cricket-loving public has been outraged by this overt cheating by an Australian team. Not just one player messing about with the ball, but a leadership plot to cheat.

It’s interesting to compare the two interviews Steve Smith gave about the matter. In the first one, just after the incident became public knowledge, the overall impression was shrug, we got caught. Sorry about that. Won’t happen again. He clearly did not appreciate the storm that was about to hit him.

When Smith appeared on the news last night the full horror of what he and Warner had cooked up had hit him. Sponsors have abandoned the team, all three have been sacked, and Warner and Smith banned for a time, they have lost personal sponsorships, as well as their contracts with the Indian IPL. Smith was chastened, in tears. I actually felt sorry for him. Smith, to me, has always looked like the top car salesman who is given the job of sales manager. The two jobs require very different skills. Smith is a great batsman, but not a leader. I’m not surprised at the news that Darren Lehmann has also resigned. If he didn’t know what was happening, he should have.

Shock jock commentator Alan Jones is not my favourite person for lots of reasons, but his open letter to Cricket Australia boss, James Sutherland, is balanced, sensible, and well worth reading. Apart from anything else, Jones has been coach of an Australian (rugby) team, so he knows a bit about what happens in a dressing room. For what it’s worth, having been initially rather like the Red Queen (off with his head) I now tend to agree with Alan Jones (please don’t tell him).

Australian cricket will always have to carry this stain on its reputation, just like the infamous underarm incident. Come what may, Cricket Australia has its work cut out to recover the trust of Australian cricket fans.

And now for something much more important.

Censorship.

I’ve spoken in the past about backdoor censorship, where book sellers refused to accept books with what they believed to be unacceptable erotic content. Censorship is stupid relates to a 2017 episode which led to Draft 2 Digital (a popular integrator for Indie authors like me, which formats books and sends them on to sales sites like Kobo and Amazon), tightening up its guidelines on ‘unacceptable’ content. And in The Vexed Question of Censorship in 2013 I waxed lyrical about censorship in general – and this:-

“Recently we had a case where Kobo withdrew ALL the indie (ie self-published or small publisher) titles sourced from Draft 2 Digital, a knee-jerk reaction to erotic material being made available for children. It was Dinosaur porn, you see, and everyone knows kids love dinosaurs. (rolls eyes) Plenty of people remarked on the hypocrisy of the table thumpers, pointing out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not withdrawn. It seemed erotica from large publishers was acceptable.”

What’s happening now is almost sinister. It seems Amazon is trawling through its titles, removing reviews and down-grading rankings for books with erotic content. The process is called ‘stripping’. The ostensible reason is the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or FOSTA, where internet sites can be prosecuted for allowing material that might promote prostitution (and no doubt other things). Read more about it here. My Facebook newsfeed is full of discussion by affected authors. For them, Amazon downgrading a book’s ranking and removing reviews means reducing that book’s visibility andtherefore  potential sales. It’s not just Amazon. I’ve mentioned the Kobo example, and Apple has always refused to sell what it deems to be unacceptable erotica or porn. It seems Google is in on it, too.

I accept that any book-seller has the right to dictate what they will or will not sell. But Amazon  and the other big sellers use automated programs, not people, to process the millions of titles they have on their sites. The results can be totally unfair and ugly. One author I know said, “My teenage books are stripped. Two teenagers falling in love, no sex, nothing freaky, just paranormal. No rank because it’s romance. It’s bloody bollocks.” Another author who normally writes science fiction romance had her perfectly innocent non-romantic Young Adult novel pulled because it had the word ‘sister’ in the book’s description. Presumably the automated process put that story down as incest. This reminds of an email filter management imposed at a place where I once worked to stop emails containing rude words being delivered. Any email with obvious swear words like ‘fuck’ were held. But it swept up possibly innocent words like ‘tit’ (as in blue tit) and allowed words like ‘dick’ and ‘cock’. Processing language is not a precise science.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. A couple of years ago Kobo had a similar purge, tightening up its rules on acceptable content. It’s interesting that these often-draconian measures are applied to writers of (erotic) romance, but any small author who has written romance novels might well be caught up in the ritualistic cleansing.

While Amazon prides itself on customer service, that doesn’t extend to authors. It never enters into discussion about decisions it makes. However, the online sales giant has stated that it is targeting romance titles, especially erotic stories. At least this time, it’s not just small Indies in the cross-hairs. Even EL James’s new books – Fifty Shades of Grey written from Christian Grey’s point of view – have been hit.

I don’t write erotica, let alone porn. (I wouldn’t know how.) I doubt any of my books would be affected, but nobody’s books should be censored in this way.

While we’re on the subject, it seems Microsoft has been forced to appoint itself arbiter of acceptability, as well. Its position is also based on the FOSTA legislation. You will probably have received an email from Microsoft explaining the new terms and conditions, which you very likely did not read. The new terms of service include this clause under Code of Conduct.

  1. Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity).

From there we proceed to what happens if you’re naughty.

  1. Enforcement. If you violate these Terms, we may stop providing Services to you or we may close your Microsoft account. We may also block delivery of a communication (like email, file sharing or instant message) to or from the Services in an effort to enforce these Terms or we may remove or refuse to publish Your Content for any reason. When investigating alleged violations of these Terms, Microsoft reserves the right to review Your Content in order to resolve the issue. However, we cannot monitor the entire Services and make no attempt to do so.

Microsoft to ban offensive language from skype xbox office and other services talks in more detail about what may or not may be affected by the changes, which come into force in May. But what it means for most of us is that if you write ‘fuck’ in an email, or use the word in a Skype call, Microsoft has the right to deny service. And if you write erotica and store the document on their One Drive system, they can delete it. However, as Microsoft makes clear, it does not intened to vet everything everbody writes. It can’t – the task would be beyond even that giant company’s resources. You’ll be safe – unless you’re ‘investigated’.

I THINK any requirements coming from the FOSTA bill are only appropriate in the US, since it is American law. But the global nature of the internet (in Western countries, anyway) means some of this stuff will rub off on us. I’ve heard that though the US Senate has approved the bill, it may be unconstitutional, in which case it’s likely to be bogged down in the courts. But even so, the damage will have been done. I don’t see the corporations removing their new requirements.

So much of this stuff is subjective. What one person calls a good sex scene is somebody else’s porn. That word “offensive” is so politically correct these days. I find gratuitous, graphic violence offensive, but that never seems to be targeted in these purges. Is ‘bugger’ a swear word? Will my books be banned because some character said ‘fuck’?

And to what end? How is any of this going to help prevent sexual trafficking or paedophiles?

I don’t know. I really don’t. Giant corporations, at the behest of the Government, set up as the arbiter of morals, telling people what they can and can’t write, what they can and can’t read, what they can and can’t say. That’s another line the US Government has crossed, and I don’t like it one bit.

Since we entered the twenty-first century, we seem to be going backwards in so many ways.

Makes me glad I’m 67, not 17.

It’s Easter. For some, it’s a particularly important Christian festival, for others, it’s a four-day long weekend, or a celebration of Spring. Whatever it means to you, enjoy the holiday.

The Problem with Privacy

I suppose the biggest news of the week has been that Cambridge Analytica has sold the data of fifty million or so Facebook users. Am I shocked? Not really. Do I think it was a good thing to do? Not at all. Am I surprised? You guessed it.

I was reluctant to join Facebook at first. I mean, who was going to use this system? Not somebody like me. It’s pretty obvious I changed my mind, and I have no regrets. My FB profile is public. To some extent, that’s because I write books, and if readers (YAY) want to connect with me, they can. But I’m careful about what I post. It’s usually pictures I’ve taken, or links to a blog post or two. I rarely, if ever, post pictures of people, and there’s very little private information in my FB profile. No address or phone number, no interests, no work history. All of that allows FB to target its ads. So old farts like me get ads about meeting suave seniors in my area, lots of weight-loss products (the nerve), retirement homes, beauty products, clothing, shoes… Those last three really show how little they know about me. 😀

I don’t play any of the games. I confess I occasionally weaken and do a quiz, but FB does warn you what you’ll be giving to the people who wrote the (usually stupid) quiz for the privilege of coming up with a stupid answer. If it wants my friends list, I suddenly decide I’m really not that interested in who I was in my previous life. Because that’s the thing. Innocently accept some of these external apps and you’re gifting a pile of info about OTHER PEOPLE to the authors. To me, that’s the bit that stinks.

Everybody’s heard the saying, “If it’s something you wouldn’t want your Grandma to know – don’t put it on the web”. It’s a good suggestion. And I am eternally grateful that mobile phone cameras weren’t around when I was in my ‘stupid’ years. You know what I mean – I look at the photos of passed-out young women during the Spring carnival etc. and shudder.

Will Facebook survive? Of course it will. Like the banks, it’s too big to fail, and it serves a useful purpose. In my case it allows me to keep contact with other writers who I met years ago in the now-defunct Authonomy. I’m also in contact with family and friends in distant parts, and FB can be a terrific source of what’s happening in the world through shared links. Provided you check what you’re told. On FB, Snopes is your friend. Here’s an example.  Bulldog bites pedophile’s penis off as he tried to rape sleeping chlidren. This story was shared on FB. Attracts all the feels from most of us, and comes complete with pictures. A lot of people were sucked in. I had my doubts about any bloke climbing through a window with his pants off, or for the dog waiting until he was undressed before attacking, so I looked it up in Snopes. And here’s the answer. Caution is always wise on any social media. Those stories about Russian hackers? Quite a few were fake accounts on FB, spreading misinformation.

There are risks, of course. Bullying and troll behaviour is rife. It hasn’t affected me, but I recently heard about one young cover designer who was driven to attempt suicide by a concerted attack on her – in cyberspace. It’s not an isolated case, and the perpetrators can hide behind a computer screen, secure in their anonymity.

However.

If you provide personal information to companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple – and let’s face it, you can’t avoid it – there is a trade-off. They can show you ads that might interest you, based on your browsing behaviour. (Ha. Just recently that would be self-defense courses – doing some research for the WIP). Amazon shows me books I might want to read, based on my previous searches. That’s useful. Google will show me restaurants where I am, and gives me directions on how to get there.

Social media is like most powerful gadgets – used with caution, it’s fine. If you have kids, please, please pay attention to what they’re doing on a computer.

And here’s a picture of an outback suset