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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Today\'s Scuttlebot: A Trip to North Korea and 10th Grade Technology

The technology reporters and editors of The New York Times scour the Web for important and peculiar items. For Wednesday, selections include a look at Tumblr, its chief and what they have to prove, the merger of two cellphone trade shows and Google's chairman planning a trip to North Korea.

Japanese Man Vacations on Syrian Front Lines

Toshifumi Fujimoto's vacation pictures, posted on his Facebook page, show him in poses familiar to any tourist. He lines up with interesting people, tries local activities and shows the sights. Except in the case of Mr. Fujimoto, a Japanese tourist, that means images of what appear to be Syrian rebel fighters engaged in battle, of himself firing an assault rifle and of the corpses of some of the 60,000 people the United Nations has said have died in Syria since a civil war began there early last year.

Mr. Fujimoto, 45, is, according to an interview he gave the news agency Agence France-Presse in Aleppo, Syria, usually a trucker hauling loads between Osaka and Tokyo or Nagasaki. For the last week and on a previous trip, he has been a tourist snapping pictures with his Canon D-SLR cameras and a compact video camera in Aleppo - the very heart of the Syrian conflict. (A link to his Facebook page is here, with the warning that it contains very graphic images.)

He told the news agency, via Google Translate, that he had sneaked across the border from Turkey and taken up a position where the fighting is heaviest. “I always go by myself, because no tour guide wants to go to the front,” Mr. Fujimoto said. “It's very exciting, and the adrenaline rush is like no other.”

He dresses in camouflage fatigues, but without a protective jacket or helmet, which he said were too heavy and could dull the excitement of the gunshots. “I'm not a target for snipers because I'm a tourist, not like you journalists,” he said. “Besides, I'm not afraid if they shoot at me or that they might k ill me. I'm a combination of samurai and kamikaze.”

Toshifumi Fujimoto, a tourist from Japan, held his cameras in front of damaged buses in Aleppo's old city in December. Agence France-Presse - Getty ImagesToshifumi Fujimoto, a tourist from Japan, in front of damaged buses in Aleppo's old city in December.

Mr. Fujimoto has also been to conflicts in Yemen and Egypt and said he would like to spend time with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He makes no money from his photography and pays for his trips himself. He explained his motivation to Agence France-Presse:

Fujimoto is divorced, and says: “I have no family, no friends, no girl friend. I am alone in life.”

But he does have three daughters, whom he ha sn't seen for five years, “not even on Facebook or the Internet, nothing. And that saddens me deeply,” he said as he wiped away a tear.

So he's bought a life insurance policy, and “I pray every day that, if something happens to me, my girls might collect the insurance money and be able to live comfortably.”

Soccer Team Walks Out on Racist Fans in Italy

An exhibition match between one of Italy's leading soccer teams and a lower division club was abandoned on Thursday after a black player responded to racist chanting from fans by kicking a ball into the stands and walking off the field in Busto Arsizio, outside Milan.

Video of the incident, which took place in the small stadium of Pro Patria, a team in one of Italy's lower leagues, showed Kevin-Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian-German midfielder for the visitors, A.C. Milan, stopping play and launching the ball in the direction of fans of the home team who were chanting like monkeys. He then pulled off his shirt and walked to the locker room, followed by his teammates.

Fans in the same p art of the stadium had directed monkey chants at another Ghanaian player, Sulley Muntari, just minutes earlier, another YouTube clip showed.

The Pro Patria players said later that they had tried and failed to convince about a dozen fans to stop the racist abuse, The Associated Press reported. “When we tried to reason with them and went under the stands, they didn't even consider it,” Devis Nossa, a Pro Patria defender said. “They certainly weren't our usual fans.”

On Twitter, Mr. Boateng promoted the hashtag #StopRacismforever and posted supportive comments from fans and fellow-players, including Patrick Viera, a former star of the French national team, the Turkish midfielder Nuri Sahin and Marco Materazzi, an Italian defender who helped his country win the 2006 World Cup.

Stephan El Shaarawy, an Egyptian-Italian A.C. Milan player, wrote on the social network: “I'm really speechless, it was a shameful afternoon. I'm sorry for the intelligent people present at Busto but it was right to leave.”

Barbara Berlusconi, an A.C. Milan director and the daughter of A.C. Milan's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, said: “You need zero tolerance for episodes like this,” the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

A statement on the incident on the Pro Patria Web site headlined, “Tolleranza Zero,” began:

Today was supposed to be the festival of sport. The crowd for the friendly match Pro Patria vs. AC Milan was composed of women, children, families, young athletes and real fans. This festival was ruined by a small number of uncivilized people who have nothing to do with football and with the values ​​of sport, especially fair play, which are part of the DNA of the club Aurora Pro Patria 1919.

A.C. Milan's manager, Massimiliano Allegri, said later that he supported the decision by his players, and hoped that the match would eventually be replayed:

These racist episodes have to end. Walking off was the correct decision to make after the racist chants. We are sorry these events have happened, more so for the other supporters - the families and children who had come here to spend a pleasant afternoon. We hav e promised Pro Patria that we will come back for these people.

Despite globalization and European integration, which has led to increasingly multicultural teams, racist abuse, particularly directed at black players, remains a problem across the continent. Three months ago, a black player representing England in a youth tournament heard loud monkey chants at a match in Serbia. Although the Serbian Football Association accused the player of lying when he said that the chants started every time he touched the ball, very loud monkey chants could be heard on video shot from the stands at the end of the match.

The other main story on the home page of the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday was a report from a training ground in England that showed a black Italian player, Mario Ballotelli, fighting with his manager. Mr. Ballotelli, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, has endured racist chanting from Italians fans for years. Even when he represents his country, some fans of the national team chant: “There is no such thing as a black Italian!”

Live Video: FTC Announcement on Google

The Federal Trade Commission is discussing the results of its antitrust investigation into Google's search business.

Data Dump: Are Potential Panelists Scorning Google?

Suppose a stranger showed up at your house, a shiny new modem under his arm. He says he wants to attach the device to your computer so he can see everything you do online - how you update your Facebook friends with news about your cats, how you use Twitter to flatter your boss, how you single-handedly are keeping the cult of Kim Kardashian alive. He says he will use the information to help make the Internet run more smoothly. All mankind will benefit.

It probably wouldn't take you long to slam the door. You might consider moving your couch up against it too, just to be sure.

But what if he said he was working for Google, a company that has promised to do no evil, and offered you five shiny new dollar bills to sweeten the deal?

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people are confronting this question. Google has hired a research company, GfK Custom Research, to send out old-fashioned letters seeking cooperation for its Screenwise Panel project, a trac king effort intended to help not only Google but “experts at universities” conduct “important research on trends in the way people use media.” Full-scale participation, the letter promises, will reap even more loot: $50 a month “or even more.”

As usual with Google, it wants information to flow in only one direction: toward Google. The history of Screenwise is thus a little vague. It was never officially announced but the tech media noticed a sign-up page early last year, and some sites wrote about it at the time. As Search Engine Land noted, “the timing of this program seems odd, especially considering the backlash that Google has faced over the upcoming changes to its privacy policy.”

The Street View controversy, where Google secretly scoop ed up Internet traffic from households and then fought a full disclosure of its activities, also did not seem to bode well for another data collection program, even if this one was completely opt-in.

Initially, perhaps, people loved the idea of participating in Screenwise. The sign-up page reportedly crashed because of heavy traffic. That was the last anyone heard of it. Even Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which keeps an attentive watch on privacy issues at the search engine, figured Google had abandoned Screenwise.

But it merely changed tactics. Despite that supposed flood of interest in signing up, the program still needed many more participants. It appears that people did not love the idea quite as much as it seemed. And so Google started quietly seeking more people to join.

I heard about the new Screenwise from my sister-in-law, who got a letter addressed to “current resident.” With so many devices in her family, Google was offering to pay about $100 a month. That was tempting, but Carolyn had some privacy qualms. Knowing that Google is tracking via Gmail and Chrome just about everything you are doing is one thing; actively encouraging this through a special modem is another.

As Carolyn was debating whether to proceed, Screenwise called her. “It was kind of a high-pressure conversation,” she told me. “The woman on the line insisted that all they wanted to know was how much time we were on the Internet each day, not what we were doing there. Right.” Later, Carolyn wondered how Screenwise got her phone number. She decided the money was not worth it.

Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said the company does “panel research to help better serve our users by learning more about people's media use on the web and elsewhere.” She added that the Screenwis e panels “are completely optional to join and we've invested significantly to ensure that panelists' security and privacy are protected.”

Another reason Google might be having trouble getting enough participants could have to do with the name on the letter. It is signed, “J. Michael Dennis, Ph.D.” Since that graduate degree is pointedly emphasized, some recipients are probably searching for Mr. Dennis on Google. They will quickly find that not only is he a questionnaire expert but that his dissertation was on “The Politics of Kidney Transplantation.”

Mr. Dennis told me he could not comment about his work for Google. Are people worried that they will tell someone on Google Chat that they are going to take a nap and wake up the next day in a bathtub full of ice, missing a vital organ - just like in the popular urban legend? Maybe people will willingly surrender their privacy on the Internet but want at all costs to keep their kidneys.

Screenwise Panel Letter (PDF)

Screenwise Panel Letter (Text)

Daily Report: Avis Also Buys Zipcar Ethos

The $500 million acquisition of Zipcar by the Avis Budget Group represents a perhaps inevitable evolution for a company that has been more successful as a collectivist concept than as a profit-making venture, Andrew Martin reports in The New York Times.

Zipcar was one of the first businesses to use the sharing business model on a large scale in the United States. It has since been adopted and adapted by other start-ups like Airbnb. Last year, Randall Stross noted in his Digital Domain column in The New York Times: “Several car-sharing start-ups, including Getaround, RelayRides and JustShareIt, are eager to connect car owners with renters this way. The companies use different formulas, but participating owners receive, generally speaking, about two-thirds o f the rental proceeds.”

For Avis, the purchase represents a new direction in a fiercely competitive car rental market, and an about-face for Ronald L. Nelson, the company's chairman and chief executive, who had resisted entering the car-sharing segment.

“I've been somewhat dismissive of car sharing in the past,” Mr. Nelson said on Wednesday in a phone call with analysts. He said he had come to the realization that car sharing could complement Avis's more traditional car rental business and help it unlock new business opportunities abroad and with younger consumers. Avis's rivals, Hertz Global and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, already offer hourly rental services that compete with Zipcar.

Avis paid $12.25 a share in cash, a 49 percent premium over the closing price of Zipcar on Monday. The price, however, is well below Zipcar's value in April 2011, when it went public at $18 a share.

Among the beneficiaries will be Zipcar's early investors, including th e tech titan Steve Case. He and his investment fund own about 19 percent of Zipcar's outstanding shares.

The idea for Zipcar dates to 1999, when a 42-year-old woman named Robin Chase learned about car sharing from a friend who had just returned from Berlin. A mother of three with an M.B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Chase wrote up a business plan and secured financing. Zipcar was started in 2000.

Dennis Berman of The Wall Street Journal warned that the Zipcar technology had its limits: “The odd thing is that Zipcar came very close to perfecting its technology and customer experience. Its problem was that it just couldn't find a cost-efficient way of luring ever more members. Over the last three years, for instance, Zipcar kept adding customers, but the rate of growth was declining. There just weren't enough people who wanted to use a Zipcar, des pite Mr. Griffith's estimate that his was a $10 billion market.”

Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily took it personally. “Zipcar has made more inroads into this oligopoly than anyone. And now, it is part of it. Call me a cynic, but with the biggest disrupter gone and all the others still fledgling, it's hard for me to believe Avis â€" not a tech company by its DNA â€" will continue to push the envelope on making the service even better.”