Byting the Hand that Feeds Them

Who is watching you online ?  A better question is, “Who isn't watching you?”  You see it on the newsfeeds every day. NSA has been grabbing tons of consumer information without any legal authority. Every week it seems you hear about security breaches at large corporations like Target and other major department stores.  Banks are being held up at the point and click of a mouse for millions of dollars, yet most consumers are blissfully unaware.  Not only that but they line up to give up their privacy to free email services, social networks and smart phone providers.  Like it or not, software applications have used artificial intelligence algorithms since the late 90's. Word processors infer the meaning of everything you type. Many smartphones do the same. 

What does all this mean to your privacy? 

Let's start by looking at how Google tracks you. The other day I was about to send an email via Gmail 
English: Gmail logo
English: Gmail logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
and I mentioned in the body of the letter that I had attached a document. I forgot to attach the document and pressed send. Imme diately Gmail paused to ask me if I meant to attach a file. Gmail was reading what I had written!! If you use Chrome to surf the web you will also notice that the ads on Gmail also correspond to items you have recently viewed online.  What it boils down to is that Gmail and Chrome are scanning everything you write and then passing this information onto to Google before you even press send.

Google tracking is not limited to your “free” Gmail account and browser. Virtually every service Google offers tracks your movements and keystrokes.  Last July, when there was a huge flap about Google privacy policy changes.  It was about this time that a small software company came out with a plug-in for Google Chrome that would sound  an alarm every time Chrome sent tracking information back to Google. This program created quite a stir because once you loaded it the alarm would go off constantly because Google was tracking almost every keystroke.

Currently Google is being sued by a number of foreign countries for invasion of privacy. However, you don't have to frequent foreign shores to hear about how Google is abusing its power.  Even Google’s competitors have jumped on the anti-privacy band wagon. Microsoft started an anti-Google campaign last Christmas touting, "Don’t Get Scroogled." They even managed to cash in on this phenomenon by selling Scroogled T-shirts and coffee cups.  Microsoft used some of these profits to purchase TV ads nationwide that publicly took potshots at Google’s privacy policies. 

This did not deter Google in the least.  Recently Google removed a user's capability to control their privacy setting on android devices running Android 4.42. I won’t bore you with the list of apps that Google uses to track you. Suffice it to say that virtually all of them track you in some way.

Bear in mind that when it comes to data mining it’s not just Google who’s doing it on a land office basis. Yahoo, Bing (owned by Microsoft) and most search engines track you as well. Also any free services you acquire from the internet come complete with spyware of one form or another. These algorithms track how often you use their apps, they can load adware on your devices, or even hound you to buy other apps and services.   They can also be programmed to record your geographic location and what other functions you may be using. This is especially true of smart phone and tablet apps. You should read the disclaimers before you install any free app. Most will blatantly inform you that they have access to your contact data base, ip address, system access and more. That means that the app can control vital functions of your smart device!

It's all a game until someone gets hurt.

Even gaming consoles have been coopted into the data mining arena.  Recently Microsoft released its
Image representing Windows as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase
 new XBOX One game console.  Guess what? It requires you to login to Microsoft before you can play any games! Earlier I alluded to Microsoft's Scroogled marketing campaign against Google.  But the reality is that Microsoft has been spying on you for even longer than Google. Think about it. All Microsoft applications call home every time you boot up.  Every version of the Windows operating system calls home every day to check for updates and to make sure all your Microsoft software is bought and paid for! They also use their crash recovery monitor to send system information back that tracks the programs that are running at the time of the crash.

Let's not forget the fact that Social Media sites track your conversation, your contacts and your itinerary in realtime. What you may also be unaware of is the fact that every social network you subscribe to literally owns the information you key into their database. Every post, URL, picture, podcast and video that you upload belongs to them lock, stock and barrel. Their systems scan every keystroke and match it with ads that run on their system. They are scrutinizing every personal and private entry you make. On top of that, your employers and all your "friends" can see your posts! This can unfortunately include criminals disguised as beautiful blonds and little old ladies who just want to be friends.  

Be very careful what you post on any social network. Do not disclose your age, personal address, when
Google Chrome OS on VMWare
Google Chrome OS on VMWare (Photo credit: berrytokyo)
 you are on vacation, when you’re not home, where you bank, or any kind of private or financial information. Cyber criminals are monitoring social networks more than ever. So much so that the FBI has raised the threat level for social networks to their highest level.  Add to this the ongoing threats from hackers using widely available free hacking tools, deceptive email tactics and phishing strategies and you have an internet onslaught that’s wilder than the wild, wild west.

To make things even worse our own government is spying on us. The NSA has been busilygathering hundreds of terabytes of data from search engines, all social media sites, Microsoft, Apple Yahoo, Bing, cell phone companies and thousands of other online entities. This has gotten so out of hand that the congressional oversight committee that monitors the NSA recently stated that they had gone too far in gathering data and want them to stop gathering information without a specified threat.

Surveillance camera
Surveillance camera (Photo credits:
In addition, it not just the internet that is eroding your privacy, its anything connected to internet.  Smart devices are popping up like weeds. Everything from internet enabled appliances to cars are fair game.  Even personal property is not beyond reach.  Case in point: The Boston Bomber was caught because people were taking pictures of the racers coming to the finish line. Internet security camera s are all the rage with home and business owners. Often times one or more of these cameras are pointed outside covering the entrance to their properties. The next time you’re at Wal-Mart, look up before you enter and smile you’re on Wal-Mart Candid Camera.  And just to make it really interesting, people are now starting to wear smart eye wear (such as Google Glass) to record their surroundings. There are smart watches and tiny spy cameras everywhere. Some large retailers have been caught tracking their patrons store movements via the customers smart phone IP addresses and if you have an app for that store running, more than likely you will receive a text, email or popup suggesting you check out their latest special on whatever they are trying to push on you, the unaware consumer.

How to minimize your loss of privacy when using the internet. 

·         Don’t use Chrome, Internet Explorer or Safari as your browser. Choose a more secure alternative such as; SRware or
·         Don’t Use Google, Yahoo or Bing, (and others) as your search engine of choice if you want to avoid being spied on. Best alternatives; Duck Duck Go Start page Ixquick  and Blekko
·         There are even plug-in apps such as Abine’s DoNotTrackMe It works with Chrome and Firefox and does a decent job of minimizing ad tracking software. This can block web tracking, cookies and email tracking. Another woth mentioning is Web of Trust This plug-in does not stop track of any kind but it does warn you about URL’s that have bad reputations so that you will avoid them.

·         You'll also need to avoid using the top five social networks if you want to retain your privacy.  (Facebook, YouTube, Google Plus, Twitter and LinkedIn) Here is a list of social networks that provide much greater privacy. Everyme23Snaps, Notabli, Nextdoor, Yammer, Couple, Path, Family Wall, Edmodo, and Photocircle.

·         Tablets, Smart phones and other smart devices – Make sure you are running an antivirus/malware application on your smart device. Make sure its on all the time. Only use apps that have been around for a while. They should have lots of downloads and say they do not use adware. Also buy the apps you use unless you are just trying it out.

·         Don’t use free email – A paid email service like Hushmail can provide no-ad private email for very little money. If you must use it, try using a masking application like DoNotTrackMe or use encryption software like the kind provided by TrendMicro or Voltage.

The bottom line is that you have two choices when it comes to online privacy: Switch your browsing, networking and emailing to services that ensure your privacy, or keep working with the services that keep byting the hand that feeds them.  

If you liked this article, share it with your friends and co-workers. If you have a comment related to this article, enter it in the section below. I always enjoy researching and writing my social media predictions for the coming year. I hope this one was informative and enjoyable for you. May the coming year be enlightening and profitable for you and your family. 

Until next time, that's my opinion, I look forward to hearing yours. Happy New Year to you and yours!

Hector Cisneros is a partner, COO and social media director for WSquared Media Group based in Jacksonville, FL. You can connect with him on TwitterFacebookGoogle+LinkedIn, and YouTube. He is also the co-host of Blog Talk Radio’s “Working the Web to Win,” where he and Carl Weiss make Working the Web to Win simple for every business. Hector is a syndicated writer for Ezine Online and is an active Blogger, (including ghost writing) and he is a published author of two books, 60 Seconds to success (on sale at Amazon and B&N) and Internet Marketing for the 21st Century which you can get free by clicking on the link at 

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The Best of the Best in 2013

By Carl Weiss

With Christmas only a day away, that means that New Year’s Eve can’t be far behind.  So as a little something extra for your Christmas stocking I thought a little retrospective on some of the topics we covered this year would be in order. 

Our Top 10 List

As far as our listeners were concerned, cybercrime was a hot topic.  In 2013 we produced a number of episodes on the many faces of cybercrime, including Bringing Down the Bitcoin Bandits and Chinese Hack Attack, both of which explored the ramifications of the dark side of the internet such as multimillion dollar black market websites and state sponsored hacking.  If you have been keeping a weather eye on the newsfeeds lately then you know that everyone from major retailers (Target) to banking institutions have been targeted by hackers recently.  Since these crimes are so hard to prosecute this only leads hackers into more brazen acts of online piracy that is only going to escalate in 2014.

Of course, our online privacy isn’t only being compromised by the bad guys it is also getting eroded
Google Appliance as shown at RSA Expo 2008 in ...
Google Appliance as shown at RSA Expo 2008 in San Francisco. It was only a computer case with no parts inside.-Daniel A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 from every corner of the web.  Google has been the subject of a number of international lawsuits from governments who say that the world’s most powerful search engine is taking liberties with the way it collects and disseminates information gleaned from people surfing the web.  The NSA has also been accused of overstepping its rights in the way that it collects data from the web as well as cellphone providers.  If anything these accusations are not going to go away any time soon and it won’t be long before a number of other online providers are pulled into the fray. (For more details, check out Is Privacy a Thing of the Past in the Cyber Age?)

Speaking of Google, 2013 saw the unleashing of The Humdinger Called Hummingbird, the most extensive algorithm update in the past 12 years.  Unlike most of the updates commissioned in the past which were targeted toward people trying to game the system, Hummingbird represents a sea change in the way that Google ranks sites.  Gone are the “Set it and forget it days,” when website owners could commission a new site every three years and expect it to climb onto page one with little effort.  Nowadays Google demands the full multimedia treatment, where things like blogging, social networking and even video content plays a large part in who gets onto page one.  They have also made Google+ a nexus where everything from Google Maps and reviews to Google Local has been rounded up and placed under one roof. 

That doesn’t mean that Google is the only entity who has been making major changes.  Facebook has also been busy tweaking the way their social network does business by adding video ads to the mix.  They have also made running a Facebook contest not only easier but cheaper.  In fact, they are giving them away at present.  (If you want to learn how go to How to Run a Facebook Contest for Free.) 
Other social nets including LinkedIn and Twitter mad our top ten list this year with Leveraging LinkedIn and Trick or Tweet covering many of the latest features added to these networks. 
Lights, Cameras Viral Video

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...YouTube also was wildly popular with listeners this year.  Both our Send in the Clones and Candid Camera for Everyone episodes covered the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the world’s largest superstation.  With 4 billion videos streamed per day in 2013, YouTube broadcasts more televised content than all the other stations on the planet rolled into one. 

2013 also saw the introduction of a number of new technologies, that we covered in Next Tech, including Google Glass, smartwatches such as Pebble and Samsung, and the rise of the 3-D printer.  (Did you know that they are planning on sending a 3-D printer to the International Space Station?)  As wearable technology becomes ever more prevalent it won’t be long before we are all forced to compete with everything from enhanced humans (A Borg in Every Boardroom)  to office automatons (Birth of the Bionic Man).   In January 2014 we have already scheduled an episode called Putting Your Best Bot Forward that will introduce you to the latest in bipedal robots that recently competed for a $2 million prize sponsored by DARPA.

So if you think that 2013 complicated your life by introducing a number of “out there” technologies, all I can say is fasten your seat belts because 2014 will test your sense of the incredible in more ways than you can imagine.

Carl Weiss has helps clients deal with technology on a daily basis.  He is president of W Squared Media Group, a digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  He also owns and operates Jacksonville Video Production, a digital video production company. 
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Internet Predictions for 2014

by Carl Weiss

If you think the Internet in 2013 was a roller coaster ride, wait until you see what shapes up in 2014. While Google will still dominate search, that doesn't mean that the also-rans aren't going to try to chip away at their market share.  One of the biggest upheavals in 2013 by Google was the unveiling of Hummingbird, the single biggest algorithm change since it's inception.  Many website owners who found their Google ranking either reduced or lost in Cyberspace after the introduction of Hummingbird may switch allegiances to Yahoo and/or Bing if they feel they are being treated better by the competition.  Several other moves by Google have also rankled many, such as their decision to bundle Local into Google+.  This not only forces anyone who wants to use Google Local or Google Maps for marketing purposes to log into G+ every time they want to access either, but it forces their customers to log in as well if they want to post a review.  Add to that the fact that has Google not only poisoned the organic ranking well, they also spiked pay-per-click by making it mandatory for new Adwords clients to keep their account on auto-pay.  This means that once your ppc funds run out, Google will hit your credit card whether you like it or not.  Not nice Google!

When it comes to the big boys playing rough, Google isn't alone.  Other online behemoths such as Facebook have also shown a propensity to do whatever they can to get their hands on your wallet.  As a number of Facebook users have discovered when they access their news feed, video ads start playing automatically when they scroll.

A recent blog on states that, "In its news release, Facebook frames the video ads as a way to help “brands tell stories on Facebook to ensure the best experience for people. In prior earnings calls with Wall Street analysts, Facebook was more forthcoming about the profit potential behind these videos.  Facebook shareholders, including staffers and executives with stock options, have their own reasons to like this product. Advertisers are expected to pay a significant premium for video ads, lifting Facebook’s financial performance and buoying its stock, which was trading below its initial offering price until this past fall. Today, the stock is trading up roughly 90 cents to around $54.70, a 44 percent premium over the initial offering price."

Not nice Facebook! 

Do Nice Guys Always Finish Last

A number of  other big players stumbled in 2013, such as Microsoft with Windows 8.  Many users of their 8.1 operating system have reported problems accessing SkyDrive cloud storage.  Says PC World, The problems for the affected users began after installing Windows 8.1, the update to Windows 8 that started shipping in mid-October. The complaints include nagging and persistent error messages, slow performance, difficulty uploading files, lost and corruptedfolders and documents, and sync troubles, including duplicate files and processes caught in a loop. 

While Microsoft said that "The company is aware of a small number of people discussing these issues on forums," this is hardly a way to bolster the acceptance of Windows 8, which has not been well loved by the masses.  Could this open the door to a competing PC operating system?  Stay tuned.

One of the biggest complaints that consumers in the US have deals with the high cost of cable TV.  Many households pay $150 or more per month to watch the Boob Tube.  With a limited number of choices for cable and satellite TV, the operators of these services have felt that they could charge whatever the market would bear.  I hate to be a bearer of bad news to the cable moguls, but their hegemony could soon be a thing of the past.  Already, several online providers of on-demand movies and TV series are alive and kicking, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, just to name a few.  With fees as low as $8 per month, many consumers have already cut the cable and gone online.  In 2013 alone, the number of cable subscribers in the US fell by nearly 1 million.  Over the same period Netflix saw the number of subscribers jump by nearly 4 million.  As other entrepreneurs ink deals with movie and TV production companies, how long will it be before the cable and satellite TV moguls are forced to either compete or perish?  I predict that 2014 will see a significant shift in viewer loyalty as more online options become available to the masses.  How serious is the threat?  Serious enough for Time Warner Chairman Jeff Bewkes to admit in a Forbes interview that his industry needs to, "Offer online video now or someone else will!"

We're Not in Kansas Any More, Toto!

When it comes to the King Kong of online complaints, the blue ribbon would have to go to the government's website.  If it wasn't enough that the $650 million website keeps crashing the security of the site is also suspect.  I think the blog by a reporter with sums it up best:

Although I spent several hours "talking" my application to a representative on a toll-free hotline – divulging my entire family's Social Security numbers and dates of birth – when I called three weeks ago, they said they had no record of my application and asked me to send a photocopy of my driver's license to a government processing center in London, Kentucky.
When I called back last week, I spent another half hour on the phone with After the first representative placed me on hold and eventually hung up, I called back and asked for the supervisor.
"Is my application file in your system?" I asked.
"We don't have any answers," the supervisor replied. "It takes two weeks to do identity proofing. You'll get a reply by mail or a pre-recorded phone message."
When you realize that the federal government has stated that unless at least 7 million consumers sign up for the service that it will not be viable and that signing up for the program is been all but impossible, I predict that in 2014 the feds will be forced to either go back to the drawing board or drop the program in its entirety.

Why Gamble with Your Financial Freedom?

The feds weren't the only government entity to experience technical difficulties in launching a new online service.  The State of New Jersey has also been having problems getting its recently legalized online casino gambling service up and running.  After launching the new service, with the proviso that only New Jersey residents be allowed to play online for cash, the system immediately experienced a number of glitches that resulted in about 75 percent of people who tried to play online being rejected.

Steve Callender, the general manager at the Tropicana Atlantic City, commented, “I would say a quarter are getting on.  We don’t have a situation where people who are outside the state are getting on.”

At least part of the problem revolves around the fact that a number of major banks, including AMEX and PayPal have refused to fund gaming transactions.  While the 6 casinos that have been authorized to offer online wagering say that are trying to fix these problems, they all admitted that the fix will take months to resolve.  Personally I think this once more provides proof positive that business and bureaucracy do not mix.

Other issues to keep a weather eye on in the coming year includes the prevalence and severity of cyber attacks taking place on individuals, corporations and governments.  2013 saw a number of landmark cases by the FBI, including the shutting down of the drug superstore Silk Road, whose 29 year old webmaster was busted in Seattle after making millions online.  The bad news is that no sooner had this site gone dark when several other web entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the void.  (For more on this story, see my blog Iron Fist in a Silk Glove.)  

Last year saw the Chinese military hacking into all kinds of government and corporate entities.  At one point the hacking became prevalent that if you were a government agency that wasn't being attacked then the rumor was that "You weren't important enough."  While government cyberspying is anything but new, it was the land office scale of the Chinese hacking that rankled many in Washington.  So blatant was the attack that it wasn't long before the physical location of the attackers was learned.

In a quote from the LA Times, “Mandiant Corp., a U.S. computer security firm based in Alexandria, Va., said in a report last month that it had traced an epidemic of attacks on dozens of U.S. and Canadian companies to an office building in Shanghai occupied by an espionage unit of the People's Liberation Army.

Before the year was out, another international player in the government hackathon emerged: Iran.  That's right, the same government that we negotiated a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  In a quote from

"An Arab hacking group with ties to the Iranian government claims to have seized classified information from servers belonging to the Israeli and Saudi governments, as well as the Saudi Bin Laden Group, a construction conglomerate run by the family of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. The hackers released a statement in Arabic that took aim at both the Israelis and Saudis, two nations that have grown closer in recent weeks over their opposition to the West’s recently signed nuclear accord with Tehran."
While many Americans first reaction might be one of, "How does this tit-for-tat cyber attack by Iran on Israel affect US national security?"  You have to be aware that these same hackers may also have been actively caught trying to compromise the security of some of this country's biggest financial institutions.
In a quote from a blog on haaretz.com - "Over the last year, the U.S. has accused Iran of cyber attacks against its banks, while Saudi Arabia has placed the blame on Iranian hackers for a serious cyber assault on computers of its national oil company, Aramco."  
So the issue is hardly put paid and I predict that international hacking in 2014 could bring this country to the brink of war should any key link in the national infrastructure become breached.    Far from discouraging other countries from committing acts of cyberwarfare, the US government's lackadaisical attitude toward cybercrime and cyberattacks in general encourages hostile and even friendly governments into jumping on the hacking bandwagon.  Sooner or later, this policy will create a crisis where either the financial institutions, power infrastructure or communications backbone of this country  will become critically compromised, resulting in the kind of public outrage that hasn't been felt since Pearl Harbor.  
Carl Weiss is president of W Squared Media Group a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida.  He is also co-host of Working the Web to Win on and owner of Jacksonville Video Production.
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The Byte Before Christmas

By Carl Weiss

With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore.

Twas the byte before Christmas,
When all through the house
Not  creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

Now that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, let’s take a look at what is shaping up to be a very merry Internet Christmas in 2013. 

Shop Til You Drop

As has become the tradition in this time of giving, not everyone has gotten the “Peace on Earth & Good Will Toward Men” tweet.  With the exception of the usual shopper melees that have become so ubiquitous that the KFC franchise posted a tongue-in-cheek salute to them on YouTube,  a  notable incident included a brawlinvolving more than 40 people at an Alamo Christmas tree lighting ceremony in San Antonio.  (Bad Santa!)

Who’s Been Naughty

Of course shoppers weren’t the only people infused with the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge this year.  Everyone from Bitcoin bandits who recently hacked their way into more than $1 million in ill-gotten gains, to at least one Seattle restaurant that ejected a patron for sporting Google Glass, to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggestion that frustrated users of “avoid the lines” by shopping on the website during off-peak hours.

Speaking of Scrooge, Microsoft has upped the ante on its Scroogled campaign, which has for the past two years poked fun at Google’s privacy policy, when they decided to cash in on the phenomenon by selling Scroogled T-shirts, hats, hoodies and mugs.  Many of the items for sale sport the meme “Keep calm while we steal your data.”  When one Google spokesperson was asked their opinion of the all-too-public slur by Microsoft that has been broadcast online and on TV, the response was one of, “Microsoft’s latest venture comes as no surprise, since competition in the wearables space is really heating up.”

When it comes to playing nice with the other children, Microsoft is no saint.  After partnering up with Apple, Ericsson, Sony and Rim and operating under the name Rockstar Bidco in order to collectively purchase a portfolio of more than 6,000 patents from the bankrupt Canadian telecom Nortel in 2011, Microsoft has been busy litigating Google for patent infringement.

An blog stated that, “Google probably knew this was coming. When it lost out in the Nortel auction, the company's top lawyer, David Drummond, complained that the Microsoft-Apple patent alliance was part of a "hostile, organized campaign against Android.".

Who’s Been Nice

christmas tree
That doesn’t mean that a quick search of the Internet was unable to locate anyone with the Christmas spirit.  Far from it.  I found everything from an article in the Washington Post that touted a DC restaurant that turned its patio into a Christmas tree lot for charity, to 14-year old Hailey Poutiatine who  puts on a concert each Christmas Eve in Spokane, giving the donations to the Christmas Bureau

In fact, when it comes to finding who’s been naughty or nice, the web is hard to beat.  Among other reporting agencies, Consumer Reports has for the past four years published a Naughty & Nice List of company policies and practices. 

·         Amazon. The world's 11th largest retailer, with more than $61 billion in annual sales, recently raised the requirement for free Super Saver shipping on eligible items by $10, to $35.
·         United Airlines. One practice travelers can usually count on when flying with commercial airlines is pre-boarding for families with young kids. Not at United. "Families with infants or with children who are under the age of 4 may board the aircraft when their group number is called."
·         Lands' End. The catalog merchant has an unconditional "Guaranteed. Period." policy that entitles customers to return for refund or exchange any product at any time, for any reason. That largesse extends even to personalized items that have been hemmed or monogrammed.
·         Southwest Airlines. Airlines typically allow flight cancellations within 24 hours of booking without financial penalty. Southwest offers greater flexibility if you need to switch flights. You can modify your itinerary without time restriction and simply pay the difference in cost between fares.
Christmas Around the World  (I’m not making these up, I swear.)

One of the benefits of working the web has to do with the fact that you can reach out and touch Christmas traditions from all around the world.  Some notables are as follows:

Chritmas cracker
Chritmas cracker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Great Britain – The Brits celebrate the yule by wearing silly hats and making bad jokes 
as they pop Christmas crackers and pal around with Father Christmas. There’s something to be said about the British sense of humor. Not to mention their cuisine.

Greenland – Speaking of cuisine, here’s a Christmas dinner yule never forget.  At Christmas time in the frozen arctic nation they prepare and eat a special feast which includes mattak (raw whale skin) and kiviak, which is made by wrapping a small arctic bird called an auk in seal skin and then burying it for a couple of months.  Yum! 

Japan– All they want for Christmas is their KFC.  No sushi for me, mama san.  Please pass the bucket of the Colonel’s best.  Due to a combination of limited cooking facilities in many Japanese homes combined with the marketing prowess of KFC, fried chicken on Christmas Eve has become all the rage in Japan.  Meri Kurisumasu!

China – In China, Santa is known as Sheng dan lao ren.  While most of the Christmas decorations and artificial Christmas trees sold worldwide are made in China, most Chinese would not know what they are all about, since the only place they are likely to see them are in major department stores in big cities.  A Christmas tradition that is becoming more common in China is giving brightly wrapped apples on Christmas Eve.  Apparently the word for Christmas Eve (Pine An Ye) in Cantonese is similar to the word for apple (Ping Guo).  Talk about being inscrutable.   Seng Dan Fai Lok!

If you are interested in finding out how other cultures celebrate Christmas, check out the website Christmas Around the World.

While the Internet can claim to have truly brought all the people of the world together for this giving season, I’m not sure what old Clement Moore would think of a geopolitically corrected rendition of his perennial holiday poem:

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Meri Kurisumasu to all, and to all a good night!”
Please pass the kiviak…

Happy holidays from all the elves at W Squared Media Group.  Join Carl on his weekly Working the Web to Win radio show that airs live at 4 pm EST every Tuesday.

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Can Google Cure Death?

By Carl Weiss

Image representing Larry Page as depicted in C...
Everyone knows that there only two things in life of which we can all be assured: Death and Taxes.   Now one of the billionaires behind the world’s most popular search engine wants to take a crack at eliminating the first of these woes.  That’s right, Larry Page of Google has made it his stated goal to cure death.  With a war chest in the billions, I guess if anyone can take a legitimate crack at the Grim Reaper then he can. 

Not that the search for an alternative to death is new.  Before he died in 210 BC, the first sovereign emperor of China, Zhao Zheng spent much of his time and considerable wealth searching for the elixir of life.  So did the legendary Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon, who scoured Florida in 1513 for the mythical Fountain of Youth. While both these and other historical notables had an almost obsessive desire to cheat death, none of them had access to modern  medicine, DNA research or medical miracles such as transplantation, bionics or bioprinting that are reshaping the very notion of what it is to be human.  Page on the other hand does have these and other technologies at his disposal.  And he is incorporating them into a new medical technology company called Calico.

Short for “California Life Company,” Calico sounds more like a shelter for cats than a research company.  But when you think about it, cats are supposed to have nine lives.  And so does Page’s latest venture.  Considered the brainchild of Bill Marris, Google Ventures managing partner, he became the catalyst for Calico when he noted that hundreds of companies were focused on curing a variety of medical conditions and diseases.  Yet there were no companies that focused on the root cause of disease or what caused the body to progressively fail over time.  That we understood the mechanisms involved in death, largely due to progressive genetic degradation as the body aged was not an issue.  What was at issue was whether it was possible to not only identify the specific causes of aging, but to develop treatments that would effectively slow, stop or even reverse them.

It was with this stated goal in mind that Arthur Levinson, chairman and ex-CEO of the biotechnology company Genentech was tapped to head Calico.  Currently chair of Apple Computer’s board of directors, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave Levinson and Calico his blessing by recently stating, “"For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who think it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no one better suited to lead this mission and I am excited to see the results."

That other people share the belief that trying to “cure death” is a topic best relegated to the lunatic fringe along with such things as Bigfoot research is obvious.  It didn’t help matters that Larry Page was quoted in a Time Magazine interview as saying, “We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.”

This caused other journalists to respond in kind, such as Digital Trends Andrew Couts, who wrote, “Okay, so Page doesn’t think curing cancer would be that big of a deal – a notion that I’m certain offended a great many people, researchers and victims alike. For me, however, the fact that the tech world’s elite wants to cure death – and think that they can do it – comes as little surprise: Of course they want to live forever – they’re super successful rich people!”

A clock with a 24-hour dial.But all sarcasm aside, some of the serious questions posed by Calico that need to be addressed are the following:
1.      Is it possible to reprogram or reset the body’s biological clock?
2.      If not, can the next generation of medical technology significantly extend life?
3.      Does bionics represent the ultimate solution?
4.      If it is ultimately possible to truly cheat death, what are the consequences?  

Why Can’t We Live Forever?

To start off with we have to look at the strides in longevity that have been made by mankind over the centuries.  People born in the year 1800 had an average life expectancy of 35, while those born today have a life expectancy of 75-80 years.  So what’s to keep this trend from continuing so that in the year 2200 the average human could live to 150-160 years of age? The reason we live longer than our ancestors has mostly to do with the fact that we have learned how to combat disease, treat life threatening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and that we better understand the nutritional requirements of the human body. 

The problem is that even if we were to cure all disease and through a combination of radical surgical procedures including transplantation and artificial organs, be able to effectively treat all known physical maladies, this would not be sufficient to keep us alive indefinitely.  Like it or not, in each and every one of us is a ticking time bomb that ensures cell death. 

When you get right down to the basis of life, be that of a human or a simple bacteria, all revolve around mitosis, the simple act of cell division.  Research has shown that healthy cells are programmed to reproduce for a limited amount of time before they die.  In fact, if you take cells from something old and transplant them into something young, the older cells will still die at their preordained time.  This is why as people age their bones become brittle, their skin wrinkles, the hair thins and the body becomes less able to ward off disease.  We are all in a sense programmed to self-destruct.

The phenomenon known as the Hayflick Limit has been known since 1961 when Dr. Leonard Hayflick, Professor of Medical Biology at Stanford University, first discovered that human cells divide a limited number of times in vitro. Author of the book “How and Why We Age,” first published in 1994, Hayflick demonstrated that during continued mitosis the end of the chromosome called the Telomere progressively degrades.  This means that through repeated division, the enzymes that duplicate DNA produce copy errors that ultimately affects cell replication.  He also showed that when this mechanism broke down it resulted in either cell death or malignancy.  That’s right sports fans, cancer cells while deadly can live forever.

Enter the Methuselah Mice

Of course that didn’t stop other researchers from looking for a way of slowing the process down.  While many have espoused the ingestion of compounds known to halt the production of cell damaging free radicals, others think that telomerase, an enzyme that mends the protective covering on cells could be the answer.  The problem is that to date no studies have yet proven that either of these concepts has been able to significantly increase the lifespan of mammals. 

However, a series of experiments with mice began in 1986 by Roy Walford and Richard Weindruch reported that by restricting their diet by 30 percent that mice could live up to twice as long as those fed a normal diet.   Before you start pulling in your belt and breaking out your Adkins Diet Plan, let me also point out that the same experiment was performed with rhesus monkeys begun in 1987 by the National Institute on Aging, which while reporting health benefits did not demonstrate increased lifespan.


What immortality in essence boils down to is correcting the built-in genetic copy error while preventing immortal cells from replicating uncontrollably into cancer.  When you consider that until recently such things as gene splicing and gene therapy were the stuff of science fiction then it’s entirely possible that eventually it might be possible to program our genes to turn off the self-destruct mechanism.  If that doesn’t work there are other paths to immortality.  

Take entrepreneur and author Ray Kurzweil for instance. 

Described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine which ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.”  Ray was the principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.  Ray is the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world’s largest for innovation. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. And in 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office.

Among other claims, Ray has also postulated that by 2045, an event known as "the singularity" will occur, allowing humans to fully integrate their psyches with machines. Were that to happen, all any of us who could afford it would have to do to cheat death would be to upload what we call our personality into that of a robot and voila, instant immortality.

So enamored with this concept was he that Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov has already begun construction of a robotic replica of himself so that once the technology of mind transfer has been worked out he can be the first billionaire on the block to merge with a machine.  Since he is currently 32 years old this will make him only 55 years old in 2045, which gives him a certain amount of wiggle room should the technology take a bit longer to become a reality.

What Happens if We Get it Right?

Just like the Wright Brothers being the first to fly with wings, or Neil Armstrong standing on the surface of the Moon, if mankind puts its mind to a problem then there is a high probability that we can solve most any problem.  The real problem as I see it isn’t a matter of technology.  The problem is more about practicality.  In other words, what happens if we get it right?

Think about the ramifications of immortality.  Currently there are more than 7 billion people living on planet Earth.  Even taking into consideration such things as accidental death and homicide, if we all woke up tomorrow morning with the realization that we would never die, how long would it be before we all starved to death?  Considering that it currently takes our global population of mere mortals less than 40 years on average to double, this would ensure the fact that within a generation or two we would all face starvation since I don’t know of any technology that would enable us to keep 20 billion people fed and we haven’t yet invented starships capable of interstellar travel.

Of course, like most other technologies, it will in all likelihood take a number of years for the benefits of immortality to reach the masses.  In which case, this means that only the wealthy will be able to afford such a luxury.  This could also prove problematic since this would enable the super-rich to consolidate their power which is usually the way in which most revolutions have been fomented since human civilization began.  

Even for those in possession of immortality, it could prove more of a curse than a gift.  A number of fictional works have been penned over the years about the perils associated with eternal life.  In the Picture of Dorian Gray, the main character barters his soul for eternal youth only to pay the price in depravity and despair down the road as everyone around him ages and dies. 

As usual with human knowledge, wisdom in many cases takes a back seat. If the Wright Brothers had foreseen what would become of their invention, where forty short years later entire cities were being carpet bombed and millions of civilians killed, would they have stuck to building bicycles?  Who knows, but for what it’s worth if it came down to a choice between curing death or taxes, I for one would rather see all of us a little richer rather than a whole lot older.

Carl Weiss is president of WSquared media Group, a digital media agency in Jacksonville, Florida.  He is also co-host of Working the Web to Win which can be heard on Blog Talk Radio every Tuesday at 4 pm Eastern and seen on YouTube.

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