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posts for july 2011.

today i did a short excursion to the botanical garden in zürich. the sun was shining and i got some nice pictures. there also was a cat to pet, though after some time it walked away… anyway, it was a nice trip, and here are some of the results. the cat never was in the right position to take a nice photo, so unfortunately there is no photo of the cat…

the trip to the morteratsch glacier was my first hike where i took all my lenses. i also played around with the macro lens, though it is not that easy if there is a bit of wind which makes the plants you want to photograph move slightly (wrecking focus), and if you don’t have a tripod and have to hold the camera yourself, and of course your body is always moving very slightly. since for macro photography every millimeter counts (especially without high f-stops, which increase the focus area, but which really require a tripod and a calm subject), this is not a good combination. i still think i got some nice shots. here are a few impressions:

today, i finally did a hike i already wanted to do for a long time: i visited the morteratsch glacier in the engadine. there is a train station nearby, called morteratsch. from there, a trail leads to the ice front. it used to be that the train station was at the ice front, but that was more than 100 years ago, and since then the glacier retreated quite a distance – almost two kilometers. here are a few impressions from the hike to the ice front:

shortly before i reached the ice front, and just a few moments before i could see anything, i heard a loud noice. some ice collapsing, something breaking off, i don’t know. happens all the time, and it is always a good idea to know what you are doing when going on a glacier. for example, never go too near to places where ice seems to break off :-) anyway, even though i only was at the very bottom of the glacier – i’ve seen much more of some glaciers in canada –, there were many interesting views of ice formations, of mixtures of ice, dirt, rocks and water. glaciers are so beautiful!

while looking through the photos, i found a polar bear hiding in one of the photos. can you find it?

i thought a lot about social networks recently. i want to write some of these down here.


during the last few decades, computers and internet made deep changes to our society, to how we communicate, to how we live. electronic communication has existed for a very long time, starting with bulletin board systems (starting in the 1970s), usenet (starting 1980) and internet relay chat (starting 1990). later, after the advent of the internet to public (in form of the world wide web) around 1995, new services emerged, like the ICQ instant messaging service and, one of the earliest “modern” social networks. later, myspace became well-known, as well as business-oriented networks such as linkedin, and later facebook (starting in the united states, later going worldwide) and studivz (started in germany and german-speaking countries).

facebook is the most known representant nowadays, but there are many more social networks out there – the wikipedia list for example contains 709 entries. depending on in which area you live, some social networks are much more popular amoung your local friends than others. (an article about a study analyzing the situation in germany some time ago can be read here.)

social networks play a more and more important role. you need to be connected to your friends to find out what’s going on. to see who’s going with whom, who’s a “friend” of whom, what’s in and what not, where and when are the parties. this does not only applies to the young generation anymore, especially not to just a small subset, but to a large part of society. it is not uncommon in some areas that even your parents or grandparents are on social networks. social networks allow you to see what happens to your family, friends, to people you know but don’t have much contact with anymore. you find out who of your high school friends is marrying whom, you see photos from vacations of people you haven’t seen since kindergarten, you find out that someone you knew from university got a job, or find out that some guy you met on a vacation ten years ago now became father. a lot of these things you would have missed without a social network, maybe found out about later by chance, but more probably never heard about them at all.

so definitely, social networks play an important role.


there are two fundamentally different criticisms one can write about.

the first one is about on the change of privacy, on the extended focus. things you say, you do, are now not just noted (and more or less quickly forgotten) by the people being present at that moment, but often dragged into your social network, shared with all your friends there, which might include distant friends you met at kindergarten, colleagues at work, many people with whom you are studying, your neighbor, your extended family, or whoever else can see what happens on your profile. you do something stupid, someone takes a photo of it, puts it into the network, tags you and everyone can see what you did. you wrote something stupid or very private, accidently on someone’s wall instead in a private message, and suddenly many people know about it. and not only that, depending on the privacy settings of the social networks, maybe the whole internet can read or see these things. but i don’t want to write about these topics today.

the other big problem, from my point of view, is the data ownership. think about it. why should a company create such a social network? provide lots of computing power to allow people to communicate, to search for friends, to exchange photos, etc., and that essentially for free? companies want to make money. in fact, need to make money, to pay for the servers, for the programmers, for the support people. of course, there are ads, which make some of the money. without ads it is essentially impossible to run a huge network. but ads are not everything. what is also very important is the collection of information. information on people, their age, gender, preferences, interests, friends, what they like or not, what they find interesting. if the state would try to get this information, people would protest against it. but on the internet, they give it to a company essentially for free. of course, it is true that many of these information pieces are available on the net anyway, at least for people like me. but then, if you have to collect them yourself, this costs a lot of time. if i have a profile at some social network and enter everything there into a form, they get all the information in a well-defined format which can easily be processed.

consider for example facebook. if you have a facebook account, they usually know your name, birthdate, email adress, gender, sexual interest, where you live, work, what your marital status is, who your friends are, which websites you like. some people also use facebook as their search machine, so facebook also knows what you search for. and depending on how websites included the facebook “like” button, facebook knows which websites you visit. if you’re logged in at the same time, they can combine that information with your profile to see what you’re doing on the web. since some time, facebook also tries to find out your location, by encouraging you to tell it to them, and also tell your friends’ locations to them. so they can also track you in the real world. besides these things, facebook is also known (and often criticized) for their very liberal view of privacy, and for storing all information without really allowing to delete it.

or consider google+. if you have an account there, google knows your personal information such as name, email adress, birthdate, … but besides that, google knows much more about you. google is the number one search engine in many parts of the world, and so most people use it to search for something. if you use their search engine while you are logged in at google+, they can connect that information. moreover, google analytics is a free service aimed at website administrators, which allows them to see how many people look at their website, what they do there, where they come from, etc. but it also allows google to see what people do. and if you have a google account (not just google+!), they can actually see what you are doing on the web. a huge amount of websites uses some google service or another. many google services are included by using some javascript, which is loaded from a google server, and so google can see where you are on the web and what you are doing there.

think about it. if the state would send out secret agents which would follow any person, look at what they do, where they are at any moment, what they look at. like in 1984. would you like that? i guess, most of you wouldn’t. but yet, many people allow google and/or facebook to do exactly that, without spending a thought about it.

a possible solution.

so now what? should one simply try not to use facebook or google? stick to smaller social networks, smaller services, which cannot track you that well? especially using smaller social networks would destroy a lot: many of your friends or people you know might not be in your network anymore, maybe forcing you to have accounts for many different social networks. this would make life much more complicated (which people do not want to), and is in practice just annoying. so this is not a solution.

if one wants to use social networks at all, one does not want such fragmentation. but one also does not want certain entities, such as big corporations or even the state, to collect all that information at one place. so the best solution would be to distribute the information in some way, splitting it up so that single entities such as google or facebook or the state cannot access most of it, but you can still see information about your friends, still contact them, communicate with them.

there is in fact a social network designed like this: diaspora. everyone can run their own diaspora server, you can have friends on any other diaspora server, you see what they do, you can communicate. every server can only see what’s going on the server, and what’s going on with the friends of the people having an account on that server, as far as these friends allow the people with an account on this server to see their actions.

unfortunately, when the first alpha version of diaspora was released, it had many vital security problems, making it essentially not useable for anyone with the slightest sensitivity for privacy and security. i don’t know what the current status is, i hope it dramatically increased. but even though the reference implementation is not good, everyone can create their own implementation, which could then communicate with servers running the reference implementation, or also any other diaspora implementation. this is what makes diaspora very attractive: you are not forced to use or trust specific implementations and servers. still, diaspora is probably far from perfect. i guess that one could write books about how to design a very good open social network. i wouldn’t be surprised if there are even research projects working on such topics.

anyway. in my opinion, the future belongs to such open distributed social networks. as soon as such a network becomes useable enough, i will migrate to it.

(originally, i wanted to discuss properties of such open distributed social networks in more details, discuss which aspects are important, discuss security of information, etc. but i’m afraid if i would really do this, the result would be way too long for a single blog post. and it will take a lot of time to write this down in detail and to reach a good enough description and discussion of most aspects; time which i simply don’t really have.)

(and a note about myself: i’ve been using several different social networks in the past, most prominently facebook and studivz. except facebook, i’ve deleted all my accounts. i’d also like to delete the facebook account, since i don’t really trust and like facebook, but the lack of alternatives currently makes me staying there. i haven’t tried diaspora yet, but that’s still on my to-do-list, though i want to wait until that projects reaches a more stable state.)

this friday, our math institute did an excursion to the üetliberg. we took up the cable car at felsenegg, had a drink or ice cream in the restaurant there, and then walked over to the uto kulm, where we had a nice dinner. from there, we took the train back down. the weather was very nice in the beginning, even though rain was predicted and there was a lot of rain in the morning and the night before. while sitting at the restaurant near felsenegg, clouds came up, giving a nice shade for the walk. inbetween, it also rained a few drops, but that was almost welcome as a refreshment. after being at the uto kulm for a bit of time, having a nice apero outside, we were able to enjoy a nice rainbow over zürich. as we went inside, it started to really rain outside. in the night, when we left, it was dry again. i’d say, perfect weather for an excursion! only for the photos, there could have been more sun :-)