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And so I offer you this Mel Torme Christmas story

Every year on Christmas Day, I link to my favorite Christmas story, which stars Mel Torme. This has been a rough year in many ways, but reading that story always makes me happy, and I hope it will do the same for you. Merry Christmas!

Snopes’ world

These are busy times for fact checkers.

The last line of defense against the torrent of half-truths, untruths and outright fakery that make up so much of the modern internet is in a downscale strip mall near the beach.

Snopes, the fact-checking website, does not have an office designed to impress, or even be noticed. A big sign outside still bears the name of the previous tenant, a maker of underwater headphones. Inside there’s nothing much — a bunch of improvised desks, a table tennis table, cartons of Popchips and cases of Dr Pepper. It looks like a dot-com on the way to nowhere.

Appearances deceive. This is where the muddled masses come by the virtual millions to establish just what the heck is really going on in a world turned upside down.

Did Donald J. Trump say on Twitter that he planned to arrest the “Saturday Night Live” star Alec Baldwin for sedition? Has Hillary Clinton quietly filedfor divorce? Was Mr. Trump giving Kanye West a cabinet position? And was Alan Thicke, the star of “Growing Pains,” really dead?

All untrue, except for the demise of Mr. Thicke, which was easily verifiable.

“Rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue,” said Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’s managing editor. “People don’t know what to believe anymore. Everything is really strange right now.”

That is certainly true at Snopes itself. For 20 years, the site was dedicated to urban legends, like the purported existence of alligators in New York City sewers, and other benign misinformation. But its range and readership increased significantly during a prolonged presidential election campaign in which the facts became a partisan issue and reality itself seemed up for grabs.

[…]

But the role of fake news and misinformation in Mr. Trump’s surprise win quickly reached a fever pitch, prompting questions about the extent to which Facebook, where many of these bogus stories were shared, had influenced the election. Reluctantly, the social media giant was forced to act.

The plan is for Facebook to send questionable links to a coalition of fact-checking sites, including Snopes. If the links are found to be dubious, Facebook will alert users by marking stories with a “disputed” designation.

Mr. Mikkelson, speaking from Washington State, declined to claim this new initiative was a potential turning point in the quest for truth on the internet, or even in the history of Snopes.

“I said, ‘O.K., we’ll give it a try,’” he said. “It doesn’t really involve us doing anything we wouldn’t already be doing.” As for Facebook, he thinks it had to do something but had few good options. Blocking content outright, for instance, would be a public relations minefield.

You know, I’m so old I was once subscribed to the soc.urban-legends Usenet feed, from whence David and then-wife Barbara Mikkelson got their start in this business. I’m glad that Facebook has enlisted Snopes’ services to try and separate truth from lies, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that it will make much difference. People are going to believe what they want to believe, and when those too-good-to-be-true stories align with their politics, good luck with that. But you still have to do something, so we can hope this will help even a little bit.

It isn’t Christmas without Mel Torme

Every year on Christmas Day, I link to my favorite Christmas story, which stars Mel Torme. It is often shamelessly ripped off a lot, which is a Bad Thing that one Should Not Do. So click over and read it, and may your heart grow three sizes today. Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine.

Wednesday video break: A visit from St. Nicholas

Still my favorite rendition of this classic poem:

And now I’ve got to dash away as well. Merry Christmas to all, and I’ll see you on the flip side.

Tracking city performance

Cool.

HoustonSeal

The City of Houston launched a website Monday pulling from a massive database of 311 service requests that allows visitors to create custom graphs counting everything from bad tasting water and missed yard waste pickups to storm sewer odors and traffic signal timing.

The site also includes links to the most recent quarterly performance report to the mayor, the site’s Data Portal website where it hopes to inspire civic-minded programmers and a partnership with a community group, Open Houston, dedicated to innovation.

“Through the Performance Insight report and the Performance Improvement Portal, citizens are now able to see how the City measures its own performance, participate in civic innovation projects and join in an ongoing conversation about government improvement,” read a city press release.

City officials also touted the soon-to-be expanded site as an important transparency measure.

“There are currently over 200 datasets available through the online portal, and the City is finalizing an Administrative Procedure that will lay the groundwork to make all non-exempt data publically accessible in the future,” the release said.

The website is here and the data portal is here. That has a bunch of GIS data sets, which even now are sending out a siren call to folks like Greg Wythe. I don’t know how much this site will be used by most normal people, but it’s an impressive piece of government transparency. Check it out.

Tuesday video break: With how much care are your stockings hung?

Christmas Eve, y’all. You know what that means.

I’ll post the Mel Torme story tomorrow. Until then, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

First Hackathon project released

Cool.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Budget Bootcamp, a new city website application that provides easy access to city budget information, is the first Houston Hackathon project to become reality.  Budget Bootcamp is hosted on the Finance Department’s website and provides citizens an educational walkthrough of the City’s budget data – both for the recently adopted Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, as well as all adopted budgets since Fiscal Year 2010.

“We’re proud to announce the implementation of Budget Bootcamp,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Following the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget on June 19th, this data visualization provides our citizens a great educational tool for understanding City finances. The Hackathon was a fantastic way to engage citizens and expose the City to new ideas and uses of our data.”

“Budget Bootcamp has something for every budget policy-wonk. Whether you want to break down our revenues for FY14, see the trends over time, or see how the city’s taxpayer-supported General Fund transforms from revenues into department expenditures, this application is a terrific step in terms of financial education and transparency,” City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.  “We’re excited to implement additional Hackathon projects developed over the coming months as well.”

The City of Houston hosted a 24 hour “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 17-18 at the Houston Technology Center and at Start Houston. The event offered software developers, designers, and data analysts to collaborate on data and software projects. Over 24 hours, Houston’s “civic hackers” pitched ideas, formed teams, and developed innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and City problems.

The City is expecting to implement a handful of additional Hackathon projects in the coming months, as well as continuing to invest in the Houston Data Portal that was set up for the Hackathon.

Further details about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon event can be found at the event website: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/

See here for the background. You should click on that Budget Bootcamp link if you want to understand the city’s finances better – the spreadsheet they’ve created really breaks it down for you. Now if someone is working on better bike maps, I’ll be very happy.

The Houston Hackathon

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City of Houston will host a 24-hour “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 17-18 at the Houston Technology Center and at Start Houston. A hackathon is a day-long event in which software developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate intensively on data and software projects. Over 24 hours, Houston’s “civic hackers” will pitch ideas, form teams and develop innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and city problems.

“Houston leads the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth, and we want to leverage local talent to produce outcomes,” Mayor Parker said.  “Everyone involved has worked very hard to define high-impact projects that solve our problems and that can be completed in 24 hours.  We want to use the applications and insights that are created at the Hackathon as soon as possible.”

Mayor Parker also announced the launch of the City’s Open Data Initiative, a program that puts public city data in the hands of citizens. The open data originating from dozens of city systems will be critical for the civic hackers in using technology to build tech solutions that solve city problems.

“We’re really excited that Houston is taking this historic step toward liberating data,” said City Council Member and Hackathon Co-Chair Ed Gonzalez.  “Hackathons are a great way to engage citizens and start a dialogue between City officials and our talented analytical and software developer communities.”

Preparation for this initiative and the Hackathon involves publishing data on a publicly accessible website.  Over the last three months, the City has identified more than 25 “weekend projects” that a team of software developers, designers, analysts and others could reasonably complete, ranging from a Houston bike app that displays all bike lanes, trails, B-Cycle kiosks, and bike shops to dashboards that show citizens how the city is performing and where it can do better.

While Houston’s Open Data Initiative is modeled after programs in New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Palo Alto, Houston will also include a STEM outreach component designed to teach children across the city about career options.  “Sometimes, just talking to a successful software developer can inspire a child to pursue a career in technology,” Council Member Gonzalez said.

The city is expecting strong turnout from citizens, corporate participants, and members of Houston’s startup communities.

More information, including some sample projects and the form to enter, is here. The open data portal on which these and other apps will be built is here, though it appears to be not quite finished yet. Making this kind of data publicly available, and in a standard format, is the key. It should spur innovation even in the absence of a hackathon, though that’s a pretty good way to kick things off. I’m especially delighted to see the shoutout about bike maps, since I have whined before about how crappy the current maps are. I look forward to seeing what comes out of this.

BeCoveredTexas.org

The insurance exchanges are coming. Whether we get some form of “Medicaid” expansion or not, this will be a key part of bringing health insurance to many currently uninsured Texans.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, the state’s largest health insurance provider, is launching a statewide campaign on Tuesday aimed at getting Texans enrolled in health plans through an online marketplace created by federal health reform.

Texas won’t have its own state-specific health insurance exchange; Republican leaders here have rejected that option as part of their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Blue Cross Blue Shield’s “Be Covered Texas” initiative aims to draw as many of the 6 million uninsured Texans as possible into a one-size-fits-all federal health insurance exchange, an Orbitz-style website where they can determine if they qualify for subsidized insurance or purchase private plans ahead of the 2014 deadline to carry insurance. Open enrollment begins in October.

“The Be Covered program is about converting the uninsured in our state to insured status,” said Bert Marshall, the company’s president. “It’s about getting educational materials in the hands of community partners and other people who may be influential to the populations that are currently uninsured.”

Blue Cross officials said that they were not sure how much the initiative would cost but that they would spend what it takes to reach out to every county in Texas. The company stands to benefit from the outreach; it will offer coverage through the exchange in addition to its current private insurance portfolio. But Marshall said that to the extent that the campaign can “significantly erode or eliminate the uninsured, that is a good thing for all Blue Cross members.”

Marshall said Texas’ decision — so far — not to design a state-based insurance exchange “creates a level of uncertainly for us, as all decisions are being made out of Washington, D.C.” He added that Blue Cross would like it if Texas embraced another aspect of the Affordable Care Act — accepting federal financing to expand Medicaid to cover more poor adults.

You and a lot of other people dude. BeCoveredTexas is not the exchange itself, as we won’t have one till the federal exchange is ready, it’s a guide for what to expect from the Affordable Care Act. Here’s its About statement:

Be Covered Texas is a grassroots campaign introducing uninsured Texans to the new health insurance options available under the Affordable Care Act. The campaign provides user-friendly information and on-the-ground guidance to help families understand the new health care law. We work with community-based organizations and partners large and small to reach people where they live, work, learn, worship, text and tweet. The campaign will join with partners to educate their members, to hold neighborhood events linking families to services, and to help Texans Be Covered.

Getting the word out about the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, especially to the population that will be eligible for subsidized coverage, is a huge and daunting task. As Wonkblog has pointed out, many of the potential beneficiaries of Obamacare are completely unaware of what their options will be and what is about to be available to them. Be Covered Texas, and every other organization that undertakes this task, has their work cut out for them.

Check your DNS

Your computer may be infected with a virus that will cause it to lose connectivity to the Internet in July.

For computer users, a few mouse clicks could mean the difference between staying online and losing Internet connections this summer.

Unknown to most of them, their problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of infected computers around the world. In a highly unusual response, the FBI set up a safety net months ago using government computers to prevent Internet disruptions for those infected users. But that system is to be shut down.

The FBI is encouraging users to visit a website run by its security partner, http://www.dcwg.org, that will inform them whether they’re infected and explain how to fix the problem. After July 9, infected users won’t be able to connect to the Internet.

Most victims don’t even know their computers have been infected, although the malicious software probably has slowed their web surfing and disabled their antivirus software, making their machines more vulnerable to other problems.

Last November, the FBI and other authorities were preparing to take down a hacker ring that had been running an Internet ad scam on a massive network of infected computers.

“We started to realize that we might have a little bit of a problem on our hands because … if we just pulled the plug on their criminal infrastructure and threw everybody in jail, the victims of this were going to be without Internet service,” said Tom Grasso, an FBI supervisory special agent. “The average user would open up Internet Explorer and get ‘page not found’ and think the Internet is broken.”

So what they did was install a couple of servers to provide correct DNS lookups to the affected computers, but in July those servers will be shut off and anyone relying on them will not be able to surf. You can go to http://www.dcwg.org to check and see if you’re one of the infected ones and get cleaned up if you are.

FBI officials said they organized an unusual system to avoid any appearance of government intrusion into the Internet or private computers. And while this is the first time the FBI used it, it won’t be the last.

“This is the future of what we will be doing,” said Eric Strom, a unit chief in the FBI’s Cyber Division. “Until there is a change in legal system, both inside and outside the United States, to get up to speed with the cyber problem, we will have to go down these paths, trail-blazing if you will, on these types of investigations.”

Now, he said, every time the agency gets near the end of a cyber case, “we get to the point where we say, how are we going to do this, how are we going to clean the system” without creating a bigger mess than before.

Keep an eye on this, because something like it is sure to happen again soon.

Pinterest

Rachel brings up a topic that I admit had not occurred to me.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Pinterest.

Chances are, if you’re a woman, your hand is up right now.

Chances are, if you’re a man, you are either rolling your eyes because you’ve heard of it and are sick of hearing about it or you are a little confused.

Pinterest has exploded onto the scene as the new up-and-comer, particularly after it was announced that Pinterest is driving more traffic to websites than Google Plus, You Tube and LinkedIn combined. I’ve been watching the Pinterest frenzy with some interest, as it’s one of the first self-expression networks that women dominated before men even knew what was happening.

Naturally, that has caused some (male) pundits to discount Pinterest’s staying power.

Regardless of where you stand on whether or not Pinterest is the Next Big Thing, there’s no doubt that it’s A Big Thing Right Now which means it’s time for all you politicians to climb on the bandwagon, rosin up your social skills and start putting it to use. Here are a few tips to get you started.

I admit, I knew nothing about Pinterest beyond knowing that it exists and noticing that the only people I knew who seemed to be using it were women. But like Rachel, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of a platform like this for political purposes. Seems to me that in an election year that has been and will be about denying access to birth control, denying access to health care for women by de-funding Planned Parenthood, and generally treating women and their doctors as being incapable of making their own decisions, and given that the voting bloc Democrats need to be bringing to their side are “disproportionately young, female and secular”, it doesn’t take a social media guru to see the possibilities in a female-oriented community whose goal is to “connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting”. Annie’s List, I’m especially looking at you. Here’s one way of doing it, if you can’t think of anything offhand. You’re smart, you can figure it out from there. Everyone knows how to use the tools from the last election. The first people to figure out how to use the tools for the next election will have a huge advantage in it.

From the “More things you need to be slightly paranoid about” department

Nothing like a new domain suffix to remind you of the potential for creative malfeasance.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as www.KUgirls.xxx and www.KUnurses.xxx. But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs.

Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business.

“Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

The university spent nearly $3,000 in all. It plans to sit on the .xxx names and do nothing with them.

The brand-new .xxx suffix is an adults-only variation on .com. The .xxx name went on sale to the public for the first time this week, promoted as a way to enable porn sites to distinguish themselves and a means of making it easier for Internet filters to screen out things parents don’t want their children to see.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle notes that UT and A&M have also been taking this precaution. I guarantee you, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes an unwanted news story for a politician. Hijacking a rival’s domain name is a sport of longstanding, and even today campaigns that should have had more on the ball get caught flatfooted – go click on rickperry.com for an example of what I mean. It won’t just be politicians who get snared by this, but when one does it will result in some embarrassing news cycles. If you’re a domain owner, now is a good time to see if your “.xxx” counterpart is still available or if it’s already too late.

You may now be wondering if I have done this for myself. I have checked and verified that as of this moment, offthekuff.xxx is unclaimed. Turns out that the cost of this particular insurance policy – the protection money, if you will – is $100 a year. That’s a tad bit more than I want to spend, so I’m taking my chances until the registry fee becomes a bit less extortionate. I think I can afford that risk as a non-candidate, but those of you who aren’t ought to look into it.

A Survey of Uses and Users of Online Sources of Political Information

I have been asked to pass along the following survey of uses and users of online sources of political information by researcher Tom Johnson, who tells me that “the vast majority of our survey respondents [so far] have been conservatives” and they’d like to get a few more responses from liberals to balance things out a bit. The survey should take between about 15 – 20 minutes to complete, and if you really want to do them a favor, pass along the link to it on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other gadget you’re using these days. Thanks very much.

One more time, Merry Christmas, Mel Torme

Every year on Christmas Day, I link to my favorite Christmas story, which stars Mel Torme. Apparently, this story is so popular now that it gets ripped off a lot, which sure seems to be contrary to the Christmas spirit if you ask me.

Speaking of the Christmas spirit, you couldn’t find a better example of it than what Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, recently demonstrated.

When Lawson offered $30 gift cards to the first 20 people to comment saying they needed help this Christmas, her readers chipped in to take things even further.

Through her blog, she connected 689 generous readers with 450 families requesting holiday help. Collectively, they spanned the globe, from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Singapore, and came from across religious traditions — atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“For me, this renewed the feeling of Christmas, that there really is a Christmas spirit and that people are good in such amazing and deep ways,” said Lawson, whose daughter, Hailey, is 6. “On Christmas Day, when my daughter is opening her toys, I’ll think of all the people who were able to give their kids presents and didn’t have to say, ‘There is no Santa’ because they couldn’t afford it.”

Read the posts in question here and here. May we all feel as good about our own Christmases this year. See you tomorrow.

Social media guidelines in San Antonio

Interesting.

There’s no standard policy or set of procedures governing how public entities or their employees should use social networking sites. Agencies are in various stages of evaluating what constitutes proper online conduct.

Bexar County is writing a social media policy that would address personal networking. There’s nothing about it in the county’s computer resources use policy, last amended in June. The city of San Antonio put out an administrative directive in January that explains how employees should represent their departments and themselves online, spokeswoman Di Galvan said.

“The city of San Antonio was one of the first to have a social media policy that’s been implemented in the state,” Galvan said. “We tried to find other policies and really couldn’t find any that addressed a municipality. Employees want guidelines, and that’s what we provided to them.”

[…]

The city hasn’t defined exactly what would be considered inappropriate. The directive puts it this way: “Ensure your profile and related content is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a City professional, appropriate with the public trust associated with your position, and conforms to existing ethical standards.”

The city has comparatively strong rules for how its departments must manage their social media networks — and it has 58 such networks. The Police Department doesn’t have one yet, but the Fire Department does.

Just curious – does the city of Houston, or Harris County, have any such guidelines for their employees, or for how its departments must manage their social media networks? I think both are a good idea. One simple thing that ought to be a part of the latter is to ensure that various departments’ social networking sites are prominently linked from their departments’ home pages. A quick tour of the City of Houston and Harris County department pages shows a few that are and many that aren’t. You can find the Houston Public Library on Facebook, and you can find the Harris County Sheriff’s Office on Facebook, but you can’t find either of them linked from their respective department homepages. I must note that this is no different from San Antonio, where you can find the San Antonio Convention Center on Facebook, but you wouldn’t know that from its official homepage. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Saturday video break: That was the year that was

For one last look back at 2009, via the folks at Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, here is Videogum‘s roundup of the year’s best viral videos.

Top that, 2010.

Charging for Twitter

I’m sure something like this will eventually happen.

Twitter Inc.’s co-founders say the rapidly growing online communications company will eventually charge fees for its services, but it’s unclear which ones and what will drive revenue.

“There will be a moment when you can fill out a form or something and give us money,” said Evan Williams, co-founder and chief executive officer.

“We’re working on it right now,” Williams said at The Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference.

Williams and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone mentioned possible revenue-generators, including a service that would authenticate the source of information. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts could pay to make sure that impostors don’t send messages under its name.

Still, after nearly one hour of questions from journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher and from the audience, the co-founders gave no clear picture of Twitter’s business model. Stone demurred when asked what would be the company’s key revenue driver in two years.

More venture capital? I like Twitter, I find it useful, I’ve enjoyed using it to keep up with what various friends are doing, but I don’t know about paying for it. Some things are just meant to be free, I guess. Good luck figuring this out, that’s all I can say.

Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.

Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.

Texas lawmakers on Twitter

Elise Hu has compiled a list of elected officials in Austin who use Twitter, for those of you who are into such things. It’s a shorter list than I would have expected, but I’ll bet it grows before the legislative session is over. A few locals I can add to the list:

http://twitter.com/BillWhite2010
http://twitter.com/billwhitefortx
Houston Mayor Bill White

http://twitter.com/anniseparker
City Controller and Mayoral candidate Annise Parker

http://twitter.com/roymorales
Roy Morales, HCDE Trustee and candidate for Mayor

http://twitter.com/maverickwelsh
Maverick Welsh, running for District H

http://twitter.com/edforh
Ed Gonzalez, running for District H

http://twitter.com/susancriss
Galveston District Judge Susan Criss

http://twitter.com/JulianCastro
Julian Castro, candidate for Mayor in San Antonio

I’m sure there are others – feel free to chime in with names in the comments – but those are ones I’m following. And if you obsess about celebrities instead of politicians, Twitter has you covered there as well.

Texas lawmakers on Twitter

Elise Hu has compiled a list of elected officials in Austin who use Twitter, for those of you who are into such things. It’s a shorter list than I would have expected, but I’ll bet it grows before the legislative session is over. A few locals I can add to the list:

http://twitter.com/BillWhite2010
http://twitter.com/billwhitefortx
Houston Mayor Bill White

http://twitter.com/anniseparker
City Controller and Mayoral candidate Annise Parker

http://twitter.com/roymorales
Roy Morales, HCDE Trustee and candidate for Mayor

http://twitter.com/maverickwelsh
Maverick Welsh, running for District H

http://twitter.com/edforh
Ed Gonzalez, running for District H

http://twitter.com/susancriss
Galveston District Judge Susan Criss

http://twitter.com/JulianCastro
Julian Castro, candidate for Mayor in San Antonio

I’m sure there are others – feel free to chime in with names in the comments – but those are ones I’m following. And if you obsess about celebrities instead of politicians, Twitter has you covered there as well.

Non-profit social media

Ever wonder if your favorite Houston non-profit does social media? The Commit for Life blog rounds up the various social media sites for the local orgs. Check it out, and tell them who they might have missed. (My contribution to the Who They Missed list: The Children’s Museum on Twitter.)

And may all your Christmases be white

Not gonna happen here in Houston, but no matter. Merry Christmas to all anyway. Thanks to Mark Evanier for the link.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night

How “Twas The Night Before Christmas” should be read:

Like the title says, happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

As always, Merry Christmas, Mel Torme

It’s time again for a link to my favorite Christmas story, involving Mel Torme and his classic tune “The Christmas Song”. Whether you’ve read it before or not, go read it now. It’s always worth the time. Merry Christmas, Mel Torme, wherever you are.

Keep Houston Rich

In case you haven’t come across it yet, Keep Houston Rich is a blog about our fair city’s diversity. From its About page:

Houston is a city rich in spirit and, thanks to the oil industry, home to plenty of millionaires. But that is not all that makes our city rich.

Houstonians are a diverse group and some of the nicest people on the planet. Who better to demonstrate the city’s rich diversity than its own citizens!

I don’t know where he finds them, but the posts are all video clips, some from recent Houston history and some from present day events. Some of them bring back amazing memories, like the one about Hakeem Olajuwon blocking John Starks’ shot to win Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals – go here, scroll to the bottom of the page, and remember what fun that all was. Scroll around the site for more cool stuff like that – you could easily waste an afternoon over there. And isn’t that what the Internet is all about?

The Twitterati

I may be a Twitter user, but I would not claim to be a member of The Twitterati. But that’s okay, because you don’t need to be to use it. The Chron story is a pretty amusing piece of fluff about Twitter and its local addicts, but it left me scratching my head about one thing: How can the Chron, of all things, write such a story without ever once mentioning Dwight? Turns out, he was featured in the bonus photo feature, so all is well with the universe. If you haven’t succumbed to Twitter’s charms, I really can’t explain it to you – use it and you’ll (probably) get it, that’s all I can say. You can even get SciGuy’s updates there now. Just be aware that it can be a massive time suck, and adjust accordingly. Happy tweeting!

Things Younger Than McCain

Not exactly a single-serving site, but sort of one in spirit: Things Younger Than John McCain. Like, for instance, the Golden Gate Bridge. And Cheerios, and the shopping cart, and the concept of an area code, and…you get the idea. Honesty compels me to report, however, that Abe Vigoda is not among them.

“When Obama Wins”

When Obama Wins fortune cookies really win end with “in bed”. Among other things. Remember that post on single-serving sites? When Obama Wins is your new bicycle. That is all.

Diet Coke and Mentos: The sequel

The Domino Effect. Totally awesome.

The Academy Awards needs to have a category for this sort of thing. Thanks to Mike McGuff for the link.

Single-serving sites

It seems weird in this day and age to register a domain and create a webpage that does exactly one thing, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone from doing it. And I have to admit, some of them are useful, if limited in scope. I can think of about a million people who should not only bookmark this page but who should make sure it’s the first thing programmed onto the chip that will eventually be implanted into their heads some day. And where would Mark Evanier be if he couldn’t check on Abe Vigoda’s status? By however miniscule an amount, the world would be a lesser place without stuff like that. Thanks to Oliver Willis for the link.

The Stupid Filter

From the Ideas Whose Time Have Come department:

A team of American scientists are developing the “StupidFilter” – an open-source filter software that will be able to detect “rampant stupidity” of web-content in written English. Similarly to the way spam recognizing software detects suspicious e-mails, the “StupidFilter” will look for pre-fed words or sign combinations that characterize stupidity, assigning particular tokens with different weights based on how often they occur in hand-picked examples of idiotic comments. The developers are using weighted Bayesian analysis along with some rules-based processing, similar to spam detection engines, in order to efficiently distinguish unacceptable messages among the submitted texts.

Their website is here, and no, this is not a joke. It is, however, just about the form of the content, and not the meaning of it. As the FAQ says, it’s entirely blind to irony. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Aren’t you just trying to eliminate comments and discourse that you consider to be stupid?

As much as that might be nice, no. The StupidFilter does not understand, in a meaningful sense, the text that it parses, and our graders select comments that are formally stupid — that is, their diction, not their content, marks them as stupid. It is not our intent to eliminate debate or disagreement, but rather to programmatically enforce a certain quality of expression. Put another way: The StupidFilter will cheerfully approve an eloquent, properly-capitalized defense of mandatory, state-subsidized rocket-launcher ownership for all schoolchildren.

So you’ll still have to deal with that kind of stupidity on your own, though I daresay there’s a decent correlation between the type of content this thing will catch and actual pain-inducing stupidity. In other words, it still represents progress, and I intend to hunt down a Movable Type plugin for this when it’s ready. Thanks to John for the link.

Death of Facebook predicted: Film at 11

Via Dwight, Cory Doctorow says Facebook is doomed.

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I’m inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook’s-law parallel: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” Perhaps we can call this “boyd’s Law” for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.

Here’s one of boyd’s examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn’t like her boss doesn’t really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it’s perfectly valid to demand to be “friended” in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend’s buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.

In the real world, we don’t articulate our social networks. Imagine how creepy it would be to wander into a co-worker’s cubicle and discover the wall covered with tiny photos of everyone in the office, ranked by “friend” and “foe,” with the top eight friends elevated to a small shrine decorated with Post-It roses and hearts. And yet, there’s an undeniable attraction to corralling all your friends and friendly acquaintances, charting them and their relationship to you. Maybe it’s evolutionary, some quirk of the neocortex dating from our evolution into social animals who gained advantage by dividing up the work of survival but acquired the tricky job of watching all the other monkeys so as to be sure that everyone was pulling their weight and not napping in the treetops instead of watching for predators, emerging only to eat the fruit the rest of us have foraged.

Keeping track of our social relationships is a serious piece of work that runs a heavy cognitive load. It’s natural to seek out some neural prosthesis for assistance in this chore. My fiancee once proposed a “social scheduling” application that would watch your phone and email and IM to figure out who your pals were and give you a little alert if too much time passed without your reaching out to say hello and keep the coals of your relationship aglow. By the time you’ve reached your forties, chances are you’re out-of-touch with more friends than you’re in-touch with: Old summer-camp chums, high-school mates, ex-spouses and their families, former co-workers, college roomies, dot-com veterans… Getting all those people back into your life is a full-time job and then some.

You’d think that Facebook would be the perfect tool for handling all this. It’s not. For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.

I use Facebook more as a lark than anything else, and I can’t say I’ve experienced anything Doctorow describes. Besides, after nearly six years of blogging, it’s not like I’m anonymous any more. What do you think about this?

Now, Facebook being bad about privacy, that I could see killing it. Fortunately, they seem to have gotten the message. More or less.

Facebook and Plaxo spam

So recently I got a friend invite from this “person” on Facebook. In case you can’t see it, the page (one “Page Peel”, har har har) is a dot com site, looking suspiciously like the sort of thing I’d flag as junk in Movable Type if it were attached to a blog comment. I suppose it was just a matter of time before this sort of thing infected the soc-net sites.

And as if to prove that it ain’t just Facebook, shortly after I got that “friend” invitation, I received a pair of requests for connection on Plaxo Pulse from people I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve responded to requests from people I do know who use Plaxo as their contact manager, but this is a different animal entirely. I’m not a Plaxo user myself, and I need another login/password to remember like I need a hole in the head, so I can’t tell more about these odd invitations. I just hope they’re an aberration and not a trend.

Is this happening to anyone else out there? Or am I just the lucky one?

Finally, on a tangential note, my Facebook friend (whom I do know in real life) Sarah Lindner of the Statesman has a nice article on Facebook for old farts those of us who are over thirty. Check it out.