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Getting a better perspective on threats to knowledgee — and us

This is what we thought the world-threatening artificial intelligences would look like. We were wrong.

This is what we thought the world-threatening artificial intelligences would look like. We were wrong.

A few years ago a lot of people were sharing some articles about the rapidly declining ratings of Fox News and either a) cheering that at last real news was overtaking propaganda, or b) urging people like me to stop ragging on Fox News because if we just ignore it it will finally die. I argued at the time that is was the wrong way to look at it: ignoring bullies didn’t make them go away when we were kids (because getting other people to laugh at what the bully did to us was all the positive feedback they needed), and because the dwindling number of people watching Fox News were more than eager to share the misinformation to their friends via social media, et cetera. I was right, but also just a little bit naive. I got a new perspective recently when I changed my primary email reader on my laptop.

The reasons I switched from the program I’ve been using for years isn’t important. The interesting bit was what I learned after setting up one specific account in the new reader. It’s an email account that is on a domain I own. The sole purpose of this account is to be the home account of one of my side Twitter accounts. I have an twitter account in the name of one of the fictional characters in my novel series. At the time I set it up I had vague plans to promote the books through it. Anyway, the mail services for that domain are outsourced, and for various reasons when I set up my new email reader to pull that account, the junk mail filters at the outsourced place are being ignored. So ever single bit of spam coming to that account gets downloaded to my laptop. This account has never been shared with anyone other than Twitter. The email account doesn’t appear on any contact anywhere, I don’t believe that I have ever sent an email message from it. But still, it gets hundreds of spam messages every day — and at most one legitimate piece of email, because once a day Twitter sends a message to the account with “hightlights” from the people that the twitter account follows, or to tell me someone replied to a tweet, or whatever, right?

So this account is just getting flooded with spam, and you would expect that most of said spam would be Nigerian-Prince-style scams, right? Nope. Don’t get me wrong–there are some messages about “Get in on this 10 Million Dollar deal!” or “Regarding your credit account” or “We tried to deliver your package” that try to get you to click on a link and enter your password for a service they can hijack or get you to confirm credit card information. And there are the ads for Viagra or quack remedies for various illnesses, yes. But that’s less than half. The other half are emails with subject lines: “Obama treason confirmed!” or “Birth Control Makes Women Violent” or “Planned Parenthood Still Selling Infant Organs” “You Won’t Believe What the Gay Agenda is Pushing Now” or “Hilary Crimes Finally Proven” or “You Won’t Believe this Obama Outrage!”

That’s right, a half year since Obama left office and the sexual-predator-in-chief was sworn in, there are bots out there cranking out anti-Obama and anti-Hilary propaganda, and mailing it to millions of people. And clearly, someone must be clicking on some of these mails.

I already knew about the literally millions of twitter-bot accounts that retweat Donald’s nonsense or hate speech and propaganda from alt-right news sites. I knew about the millions of twitter-bot accounts pretending to be Bernie Bros tweeting out slightly more dog-whistling hate speech and anti-Hilary disinformation. I’ve included in recent Friday Links posts some stories about the role of algorithms and those bots in skewing the way the people see and understand the news: The Threat From Artificial Intelligence May Already Be Here and Maybe the AI dystopia is already here.

I had thought I understood what was happening. But it took seeing thousands of these spam messages from several months worth of spam to one account to finally connect a couple of dots I hadn’t been thinking about it. The various alt-right faux news sites, plus Fox, the millions of twitter-bots, and so forth function like spam in more ways than one. One avenue of success similar to spam is that only a fraction of a percent of any message needs to be seen by the targertted person for it to hit. Most of them aren’t seen by any individual because some are caught in various filters such as junk folders. But as long as some get through, the person is still exposed to the misinformation.

But another aspect of spam’s effectiveness we don’t think about is this: the less tech-savvy someone is, the more likely they are to see the misinformation. And studies have shown that the more educated a person is, or the more knowledgeable they are in a variety of subjects, the more likely they are to be liberal. Conversely, the less knowledgeable, the more likely they are to be conservative. So there’s an asymmetrical distribution of the misinformation, with more of the people who see it being likely to view those ridiculous headlines and subject lines as confirmation of their current beliefs, rather than react with skepticism.

The other aspect is contagion. Certain types of malware and scams depend on people forwarding them on to other people. We all had that one relative who always, without fail, used to click on every single chain email and so forth forwarded to them by anyone they knew, and who in turn would forward it to all of their friends and family (no matter how many times we tried to explain to grandpa that he was forwarding viruses half the time, right?).

The person who sees the false headline and believes it may share the false news link to all their friends by posting it on Facebook or forwarding the message or whatever. And many of the people they know are sharing similar bits of misinformation, creating the impression that everyone they know agrees with their worldview and/or validates the misinformation.

It’s not just that they live in an information bubble, or that they inhabit an echo chamber, its that they are surrounded my scores of overlapping misinformation bubbles that invade and reinforce each other.

And the fourth area comes back to that bit I said about not being able to convince my one grandparent to stop forwarding the bad stuff. After awhile I just had to give up and quarantine all of his emails. Similarly, it’s not just that the misinformation drowns out the good information, but we’re socially conditioned not to argue with some of the vectors of misinformation. And because we get tired of having arguments with all those racist cousins, so we simply mute them or whatever. Then they assume that because we’ve stopped arguing, that we now agree with them.

I wish I had a solution to this. It would be so much easier if the enemy were an army of Cylons coming at us. Instead, twitter-bots and the like are turning our neighbors and relatives into the army that is trying to take away our rights, take away healthcare, and so much more.

We’re living in the future, but a lot of people don’t get it

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.  “What you'll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.
“What you’ll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

Some years ago I was attending a meeting of the committee that ran one of the local science fiction conventions. I had just joined the staff, and it was my first full meeting. One of the topics debated that day was a proposal that the committee obtain an email address that several committee members could check, because people kept asking why they didn’t have an email address. The only means that were available to the public (and thus people who might want to attend the convention) for contacting the organization was to either mail a physical letter to the club’s post office box, or to leave a voice mail message via a phone number that didn’t actually ring a phone. A system that was troublesome because if you didn’t check the voice mail box often enough, it would fill up with messages and no one could leave a new message.

During the debate, one person admitted that he had voted “no” each previous time the question had come up, but he had recently realized that it was as inconvenient for him and his friends that he didn’t have an email address of his own, as it had been inconvenient for he and his family that his elderly great-aunt refused to get a telephone. He wasn’t the only member of the committee to admit that they had been resisting adopting that “new technology.”

And this was a bunch of sci fi nerds.

Admittedly, it was sci fi nerds in the 1980s. Personal computers were still complicated gadgets that cost more than a car (the first IBM PC/XT had 128kilobytes of RAM and cost $5000, that’s the equivalent of $12,000 in 2017) and often had parts you had to solder together yourself. But my point is that even people who think they are forward thinking and tech savvy often have big blind spots about technology.

Such as the current dismay I keep seeing expressed online because so many politicians on both sides of the aisle have been talking about rural broadband. “Is this really a pressing need?” As a matter of fact, yes. It is nearly impossible in the modern era to apply for a job if you don’t have access not just to email, but a robust enough internet connection to fill out the often very-poorly scripted online applications. When my husband and I were recently looking for a new place to live, not only were the only reliable places to find available properties online, but often the only way to inquire about a property was to fill out a web form. Even after that point, we had to each fill out applications for background checks via a different website and system than we’d used to contact the property manager.

(click to embiggen)

The primary means to access services such as unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and so forth, is over the web. And that means needing more than a basic internet connection, you have to have a decent amount of bandwidth, or things time out. When new medical equipment is handed out, they doctor’s offices don’t have the time to show you how to use it, they give you a web address to access videos online. That’s how I learned to properly inject myself with insulin (including how to troubleshoot the injection pin and so on): they sent me to a webpage to watch the videos and read the warnings and disclaimers myself.

Internet access, particularly high speed/high bandwidth access, is no longer a luxury. Society, both businesses and institutions, have embraced the new technologies. Just as phones ceased being a luxury decades ago, then cellphones ceased being a luxury about a decade ago, and now smart phones have also crossed that line. For a number of people, particularly poor people, their smartphone is their only reliable way of accessing the services they need to get and keep their jobs, to take care of their kids’ needs, and so on.

Douglas Adams observed in an article in 1999:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Which is accurate, but also just a bit dated. Technology doesn’t just move forward, but the rate at which things change accelerates. Adams’s rules could use a couple of additions. For instance, we might add “Any new and exciting thing creating jobs when you’re in your 20s is a dying, obsolete industry by the time you turn 40.”

And there are the people who don’t understand how mass production and the commodification of products makes things that once were terribly expensive available for a fraction of the cost. This comes up a lot in relation to iPhones, in particular. In certain circles it is popular to hold up the ownership of an iPhone by someone who is struggling financially as proof that the person is only struggling because of bad priorities. This doesn’t take into account the many, many ways that someone can obtain slightly older versions of currently expensive gadgets extremely cheaply. We’ve already established that have a phone, specifically a mobile phone, has become a necessity in our modern society. Getting a refurbished unit of some previous year’s model or a non-refurbished unit of a model from a couple of years ago for free or close to it as part of a cell phone contract is quite common. And then there are various sales and special offers one can find.

That doesn’t even get into the hand-me-down process. Lots of people, when they upgrade a device such as a phone or tablet or laptop, rather than try to sell it somewhere, wipe their data and give the device to a friend or relative who can’t afford a new device themselves.

Luxuries aren’t what some people think they are. Sadly, the people least likely to understand this also don’t realize that being able to look with condescension on others for having or wanting nice things is a form of luxury on its own.

Hacking and phishing and spying, oh my!

thesecurityawarenesscompany.com/

thesecurityawarenesscompany.com/

I’ve got a slightly different weekend update than usual, today. Neither of these are related to specific stories I posted yesterday, they’re all stories that I came across later in the day Friday that should be shared fairly quickly. The first one is not just your typical phishing attack story, though:

Wide Impact: Highly Effective Gmail Phishing Technique Being Exploited The tl;dr version: this particular hack involves the hackers sending emails from a hacked account, to people in that account’s contact list. So it starts with you getting an email from someone you already know. But it’s much more clever than that! They take text from previous messages that person has sent, and it isn’t random. They find messages where the person has sent attachments, and they construct the new message from it. So if it’s someone you know, the phrasing of the subject and the text sound like something that person would write. The attachment in the new message is merely a screen capture, and it hides a link to their fake Google login in page. So you click on the attachment from a friend, and you’re told to view the attachment you need to log in to Google, and they get your username and password. And within seconds, they’re going through your account and sending more hacked messages to your friends.

They’ve even constructed the login page so that if you take the precaution of looking at the address bar in your browser before you start to sign in, you see “https:accounts.google.com” so you think you’re at the real Google. You’re not.

Once they’ve got your password, they can read all your email and do other things to your account.

The linked article has screenshots and advice for how to recognize this kind of attack, as well as steps for what you can do to see if you’ve already been hacked. Check it out!

And this one is less about hackers: Security backdoor found in end-to-end encryption system used in WhatsApp. The Guardian reports that security experts have found that since buying WhatsApp, Facebook has added a back door. In updates, Facebook denies that his is a backdoor to government agencies and claim they will fight any attempts from governments to access accounts.

Which is meaningless.

The existence of the backdoor means that when Facebook loses that fight (because of court orders, for instance) that the backdoor will be used to read the supposedly secure communications. The original design of WhatsApp and similar end-to-end services didn’t have a backdoor because if one exists, it will be exploited eventually. Also, Facebook’s description of the service currently lies and says that they can never read the messages. With the backdoor there, yes they can.

Joy.

While we’re on the subject of cyber security: Cellebrite, a Major Dealer of Hacking Tools, Has Itself Been Hacked. This is one of the companies that makes tools that allow people to hack your phone. After indulging in a moment of schadenfreude that these hackers have been hacked, we then have to worry about what is in that 900GB of data that was stolen from them. Since the dump “contains what appears to be evidence files from seized mobile phones” among other things, who knows whose personal information has been stolen. Supposedly Cellebrite only sells their tools to law enforcement agencies and the like, but it has been previously shown that those agencies include some very shady regimes. And in the case of their mobile hacking devices, those things could be resold or stolen from those agencies and be in anyone’s hands.

And let’s do one more: E-Sports Entertainment Association hacked; profiles of 1.5 million customers exposed. The leaked data includes real names, phone numbers, and birthdates. Very useful for identity theft. Not much you can do about it once the information has been stolen.


ETA: Several people are questioning the Guardian story about Whatsapp: The backdoor that never was, and how to improve your security with WhatsApp. The argument seems to be that while there is a security problem, it isn’t technically a backdoor. The article I linked has information on things you can do to avoid your Whatsapp messages being compromised. I’m going to leave it to the security experts to argue this out.

Living in a bubble–more thoughts on social media

“Broadcasting: The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about.”  (Vintage Social Media Twitter parody © 2010 6B Studio

“Broadcasting: The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about.” (Vintage Social Media Twitter parody © 2010 6B Studio)

Lots of people have been talking about bubbles, lately. People who lean left politically are accused of living in an elitest bubble out of touch with hardworking ordinary folks. People who lean the other way are accused to living in a faux news echo chamber devoid of information about the real world. I’m not going to argue that both of those perceptions are equally incorrect. I’m sorry, I can prove statistically that one side ignores more facts than the other. But it is true that everyone has blind spots, and everyone is susceptible to confirmation bias.

But there is a difference between an unconscious blindspot and willful ignorance.

For example, there’s a complaint I’ve heard a million times from many people, most recently it is usually directed at social media, but I remember as a kid hearing it directed at newspapers: “I already know the world is full of bad things, I don’t need to read/view/listen to {fill-in-the-blank} to be reminded.” Another popular variant is, “How can you look at {fill-in-the-blank}? It’s just a cesspool of hate and drama!”

So, for instance, not too long ago I was commenting about a really wonderful comic series that I had discovered thanks to Tumblr, and several acquaintences felt compelled to explain why I shouldn’t look at Tumblr because everything they saw there was inter-personal drama and hate and outrage. And they didn’t seem to understand when I said, “You must be following the wrong blogs, because I never see that?”

Okay, so never is a slight exaggeration. There have been a couple of blogs that I followed because the person running it posted several cool things that I really liked, and then later the blog devolved into the person posting angry rants about people I’d never heard of, but you know what happened next? I unfollowed that blog. Similarly on a lot of other internet services. I make liberal use of blocking, muting, and unfollowing functions.

On social media that is sometimes a tricky thing. But social interaction always has the potential for awkwardness. We meet someone in a particular setting, have a wonderful time chatting about something we’re both enthusiastic about, and everything seems wonderful. Then, after we’ve known them for awhile, sometimes an incident happens and we discover this person we thought was the life of the party is actually just another version of that awkward uncle that everyone tries to avoid getting stuck sitting next to at family gatherings because he’ll spout off his embarrassing racist or sexist or religious opinions, right? And just as you can’t simply tell Uncle Blowhard he’s not welcome at the next Christmas Eve get-together without upsetting a bunch of other family members, you can’t always block a social media contact without experiencing a little blowback. So sometimes there is a trade-off to be considered.

That’s not the only kind of trade-off you have to consider. While I am a firm believer in making choices about how you spend your time, I’ve always been frankly baffled at people who make the blanket decision to never pay any attention to the news. Sure, no one wants to hear about bad things all the time… but blocking all news altogether is like putting on a blindfold before you drive somewhere because you don’t want to see any of the bad drivers. You’re exponentially increasing your odds of having not just an unpleasant experience, but a disasterous one!

And before you say my analogy is flawed, remember: humans are social animals. Working together and taking care of each other is a survival trait of our species. Unless you’re living as a hermit in some distant part of the wilderness and not using any resources ever produced by another person, and never interacting with another person, you’re taking part in society. You’re on the road, behind the wheel.

Does this mean that I think you are an irresponsible member of society unless you pay attention to as much news as I do? No. A responsible driver doesn’t just watch the road, they also take pains to eliminate distractions. Just as I unfollow blogs that I don’t find valuable, I try to exercise some discretion in what news and politics and science and other types of information I do pay attention to. And I think other people should do that as well.

But I do know that it’s unwise to blindly ignore entire swaths of the world. And it’s a mistake to pretend that ignorance is a virtue.

More social media thoughts

© 2010 6B Studio

Vintage Social Media. © 2010 6B Studio

One of the things I listen to semi-regularly is The Blabbermouth podcast sponsored by Seattle’s own snarky weekly alternative paper, The Stranger. In my most recent Friday Links post I included an article from the Stranger about former Stranger contributor Lindy West’s decision to leave Twitter, as well as linking to Lindy’s article written for the Guardian explaining why she had decided to leave Twitter. Lindy’s writings for various publications have appeared in many editions of my Friday Links over the last few years. She’s funny and insightful and writes about topics I like.

She was on the Blabbermouth podcast after writing about her decision to leave Twitter, and one of her comments there hit on a topic I’ve found myself thinking about a lot. “One of the things that makes Twitter so useful is because it’s the place everyone is.” I made a similar observation about LiveJournal last week. It was so useful for many years because it was the place everyone was. To different degrees and Facebook and Twitter have supplanted that particular aspect, but they’ve done so in very different ways.

Facebook has become, for many of us, a place we’re obligated to be on if we want to have any hope of getting news from family members. Facebook in particular has some serious drawbacks in this regard. A few years ago I missed my niece’s wedding because rather than send out invitations of any sort, my niece mentioned the date on Facebook. And she expected everyone who she wanted to be there to see it and attend. When I tried to explain later that Facebook only shows some of the things you post to some of your friends, she didn’t understand, because other people saw it and showed up. One of the professional writers I follow on Twitter recently pointed out that her official Facebook author page has 8000+ followers, and those followers have lately been sending messages asking when a particular new book is coming out. But the announcement answering the question which she put up on that page was only shown, according to Facebook’s own states, to 136 of those 8000 followers. If she wants more of them to see it, she needs to pay Facebook to promote the announcement. And maybe for something you’re trying to sell that’s a not unreasonable expectation, but the same sort of distribution algorithms are applied to people’s announcements of deaths in the family, weddings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And both Twitter and Facebook have issues of mixing all of our communities together, so we wind up offending each other whether intentionally or not with various political and religious comments.

Not that this is something new because of social media. We have a tendency to blame the new technology for dysfunctional behavior that are simply manifestations of human nature. For instance, two times recently things have come up that reminded me of a particular instance of dysfunctional family communication:

Back in the late 80s, when I was still mostly closeted as a queer man, I was informed by at least three relatives (one of my grandmothers, an aunt, and my mom) that one of my cousins (specifically, a first-cousin-once-removed1) who I hadn’t seen in years (but we had spent a lot of time together as kids) had died. Which was a bit upsetting on its own, more so because we were the same age, so he was in his late 20s. But the other upsetting bit was that both mom and my grandma told me, in very hushed tones, that they had heard it was from complications of AIDS, which of course we weren’t supposed to mention to anyone outside the family2. My aunt went much further, telling the lurid tale of how the cousin had been incommunicado and secretive for a few years, and then how his mother (who lived in northern California) had gotten a call from a hospital in San Francisco, and she had barely made it to his death bed before he died, and isn’t that a horrible scandal?

As if I needed more reason to be worried about how my family might take the news that I thought I might be gay, right?

Over the years, any time I happened to mention a story from my childhood involving that particular cousin, various family members would either say what a tragedy it was he had died so young, or change the subject, or in at least one case act as if they didn’t remember his existence4.

Then a few years ago this same aunt posted an old photo on Facebook of a whole bunch of us cousins from a big family get-together that happened in the 70s, and she tagged all of us that were in it with our Facebook accounts. Including D–. To say I was confused is an understatement. So I sent a friend request to this person with the same name as my supposedly dead cousin. And he accepted and the next thing I know I’m looking at photos of him and his husband, along with recent pictures of a holiday get-together with some other members of that branch of the family, including a few who had talked to me personally about his tragic death years ago.

What actually happened? (You’ve probably already guessed.) He came out of the closet back when we were both in our 20s. His immediate family did not react well, at all. At least one of his parents begged him to essentially go back into the closet. When he refused, a decision was made to disown him and treat it as if he had died, and some of the family members went along. Others thought he really had died (and since many of us lived far away and hadn’t been in touch for a while, it was easy for us to believe). He lived his life maintaining contact with those few immediate family members who were supportive.

As time went on and attitudes shifted, less effort was made to maintain the ruse. Until now another form of denial has set in, where almost none of the family members (who are still alive, anyway) who went along with the original ruse wants to even admit it happened.

I came out of the closet in my early 30s, and so far as I know no one on this side of the family told people I had died5. But there was a period of about six years or so when I was estranged from most of my closer family members. The main parallel to my cousin’s situation is that a narrative has been adopted with a bunch of the family that I’m the one who cut everyone off for reasons none of them could fathom, and it was only after my first husband died and I became involved with Michael—who many of them now adore6—that I came back.

Cousin D– and I have had some interesting conversations since all this. It’s been particularly weird this last year during all the election hype where some family members have been saying and sharing extremely homophobic things, while expressing shock and dismay that we don’t feel loved or safe around them because of it8.

All of which is to say: it isn’t just social media algorithms that hide information. It isn’t social media that makes humans react irrationally to news or opinions or decisions we don’t agree with. It isn’t social media that makes some people gaslight others by insisting something we experienced together never happened, or didn’t happen the way we remember it. It isn’t merely because of social media that we put ourselves in bubbles where we never see information that challenges our assumptions. Social media and modern communication in general can make some of that happen faster and have further reach. But our tools have these sorts of functions (hiding information, proliferating misinformation, et cetera) because those are things that we humans sometime chose to do to ourselves and to each other.

And when I say “we” I am very intentionally including myself. There’s more to say on this topic, but I think I’ll try to tackle that in a separate post.


Footnotes:

1. I was lucky enough to have all four of my great-grandmothers live until I was at least in my teens (one actually lived until I was in my 30s!). And all of my great-grandparents had rather large families that tended to try to keep in communication. So I knew most of the siblings of all of my grandparents, as well as their kids and their grandchildren. Some family gatherings when I was a child were huge!

2. The reasoning being that because dying of AIDS meant that he was probably queer, and having a queer family member was something to be deeply ashamed of. There was also an uncle who died of complication of AIDS in this same time period, but anytime that Uncle B– was mentioned after that, someone was quick to point out that he had contracted the virus through intravenous drug use3, which was also a shame and a tragedy, but clearly, since we were allowed to talk about Uncle B–‘s death and the drug use, but not this cousin, not nearly as shameful.

3. At least that’s the family story. Uncle B– served time in prison more than once in his tragically short life, and he was a much smaller than average man, and if you know anything about prison rape culture, you know there was more than one probable vector for B–‘s infection.

4. There was one particularly weird moment about 15 years back when we were going through great-grandma’s photo albums that had been in storage for a long time. We happened upon a picture of the cousin and someone asked who that was, and I said, “so-and-so’s youngest son, D–” and my aunt listed off the names of all of the cousin’s siblings and said, “That’s the only kids they had! They never had a son named D–.”

5. On that side of the family. On my dad’s side of the family people weren’t allowed to mention my name within earshot of several family members. I had this confirmed by multiple sources, but mostly just ignored it for a variety of reasons, not the least being that I was already persona non grata long before I came out for the incredible betrayal of telling the judge overseeing my parents’ divorce that I didn’t want to live with my physically abusive father.

6. I honestly don’t understand why their brains don’t explode from the cognitive dissonance. They do genuinely seem to love my husband, and claim to love me, but they actively pray that we’ll somehow magically be cured of our queerness and leave each other to marry nice christian girls. They also mention us by name as proof they aren’t homophobic while explaining how we’re going going to burn in hell for eternity and deserve any hate crimes that might befall us7

7. That was literally the last post I saw on Facebook from one relative before I blocked her in November—not even being metaphorical.

8. I understand the concept that we can disagree about things and still be friends. But that depends entirely on the nature of the disagreement. When the disagreement is whether I get equal protection under the law, or whether I’m allowed to get health care or any other service, or whether it is okay for me to be the victim of hate crimes, or even whether I have a right to live9, then no, you aren’t my friend.

9. When you post or endorse statements that homosexuals are deserving of death, or if you claim that merely allowing us to live openly and enjoy some legal rights is going to cause god to destroy the nation, you are giving encouragement to gay-bashers to kill us. And then when juries refuse to convict our murderers (which happens a lot) on various flimsy grounds, that just proves my point.

Exploding phones and misjudging customers

Okay, now I may begin to feel sorry for Samsung. I mean, it was sort of cool that a company which has been making money be copying Apple’s look (and producing demonstrably inferior equipment) was losing tons of money and taking a hit to their reputation because of exploding phones, but now it’s even worse: Samsung Recalling Almost 2.8M Washers Due to Impact Injuries. During the spin cycle the drums become detached, crashing into other parts of the machine, causing parts of the outer body to break off and fly away hard enough to have caused broken bones in some cases. Exploding washing machines!

In case you missed the earlier news: one of Samsung’s new phones started exploding, catching fire, and similar things, prompting the TSA and agencies in other countries to ban them from air travel. Samsung did a recall and replacement of some of the models, and the replacement phones also caught fire, resulting in a complete recall of all models: It is the consensus in the tech world that Samsung execs rushed the Galaxy Note 7 into production with a seriously shortened test cycle because of rumors that the iPhone 7 would be a dud–which made them think they could grab a bunch of the market. The reasoning being that rumors were the size and shape of the iPhone 7 wouldn’t change much from the 6s… because people only buy new phones because they come in new shapes, not because of improved cameras or other interior features.

Other people were predicting bad iPhone sales because Apple removed the headphone jack. What has actually happened is that millions of the new iPhones sold the first weekend, and since then Apple has been selling the phones literally faster than they can manufacture them. Apple did report the first year-over-year revenue drop (but still 9 billion dollars of profit) for the most recent quarter, but the new iPhone went on sale at the very end of that 90-day period, so the new phone sales had little to do with the numbers.

Samsung appears to have done worse than shot itself in the foot with this attempt to take advantage of an opportunity that was never there.

There’s a certain type of tech person, the sort who gets a full-time job writing about technology for general interest news sites, for instance, that looks at technology from an extremely skewed point of view. They aren’t the only people who do this, but let’s stick to them for the moment. They seem to be incapable of looking at a product as anything other than a bulleted list of features. And they are especially bad at imagining that anyone in the world would ever use a particular product differently than they do.

I know this because there have been plenty of times that I fall into that mental trap (and the related one of not remembering that people aren’t going to like and dislike the same sorts of things in stories/movies/et al as I do).

Even though way back in the day I had been addicted to my old Apple ][e, I was less impressed with the original Macintosh. Then I got a job testing software and hardware and writing customer documentation for a company that sold software that ran on DOS-based PCs (Windows didn’t exist, yet), and I became obsessed with being about to control every little thing on my PC. I would tweak configuration files to modify which utilities and portions of the operating system would be loaded into which parts of the memory, for instance. I looked at Mac users as people who didn’t really understand the equipment they were using.

Then Windows came along, and over the years the PC world became more and more like the Mac. I don’t just mean the GUI interface and pointing-and-clicking, but more and more of the nitpicky details of how the system was configured were hidden away from the user—not just hidden, but the systems worked in ways that it was not longer necessary to know that stuff to use the product.

The really big change for me, though, was meeting my husband. In all of my relationships before Michael, I was the person who knew the most about computers in particular, and technology in general. Michael knew at least as much as me, and had an even better knack at troubleshooting and coaxing seemingly broken equipment into working again. And… he started managing my computer. And I found, suddenly, that I had a helluva lot more time to actually work on my writing when I wasn’t acting as the in-house IT department.

Then, because he was tired of spending so much time troubleshooting my Mom’s computer (a series of used PCs coupled with her habit of clicking on absolutely any link she received in an email thus infecting the computer literally with thousands of pieces of malware), we bought her an iMac. And I picked up an old used Macbook that ran the same version of the OS as her machine, so when she couldn’t remember how to do something, I could fire up my machine and walk her through it over the phone. And then I started using the Mac laptop as my convention machine because it was, frankly, easier to use than my Windows laptop.

And during that long journey, I discovered on a new level something that I had constantly found myself (as a technical writer) arguing with engineers at work: the customer cared about what the machine allowed them to do, not how the machine did it.

Right now, people are griping about the headphone jack being removed from the iPhone (interestingly, Motorola dropped it from some smart phones earlier this year, several other phone makers have announced phones without headphone jacks coming soon, but no one is complaining about them). And they’re complaining that Apple is changing its laptop lines to use only USB-C ports supporting USB and Thunderbolt (again, something that a bunch of Chromebooks did earlier, and at least one PC laptop maker has announced they’re doing next). And I understand those gripes, I do.

But so for not one single person—not one—has presented any argument that isn’t the logical equivalent of arguments that were used to protest the removal of floppy disk drives from computers. They are the same arguments that were raised in protest when Apple replaced serial and parallel ports on the iMac with USB years ago. They are the same arguments people made about why compact discs shouldn’t be replaced with downloaded music files. They are the same arguments people made when cassette tapes and vinyl records were replaced with compact discs. The same arguments that were made when VHS tapes were replaced with DVDs. And the same arguments that were made when cable replaced antennae on the roofs of houses and apartment buildings.

And I suspect they are logically equivalent to the arguments that were made when electricity replaced oil lamps.

My five-and-a-half year old Macbook Pro has an ethernet port that I have never, ever used or needed. The Macbook I owned for a bit over three years before that also had an ethernet port that I believe I used exactly once. My current Macbook Pro has an SD card slot that I never used until late last year when I bought an adapter that allowed me to fit a micro SD card in flush with the side of the computer (rather than sticking out as the SD cards do) so I could have a supplemental drive to move some files onto because I’m having trouble getting by on the size of hard disc I currently use. The laptop also has a combo mini video port/thunderbolt 2 port which I use about once every couple of weeks to connect my second backup drive to. I have never, ever used the video port of the port. Nor have I ever used the optical audio port built into the headphone jack.

But I paid for the circuitry and more to support all of those ports as part of the price of the laptop. And I had to pay for those because a small fraction of the other owners of these laptops want them.

I am anxiously waiting for my new Macbook Pro to ship. It will have four USB-C ports. I’m going to have to buy three adaptors in order to use my current accessories with the new machine. Wait, actually, only two. I keep forgetting my external drive uses both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. But those are the only adaptors I will need. And I’m only going to need them for a while, because some of these accessories are even older than my current laptop, and they probably should be replaced pretty soon, before they die on their own at an inconvenient time.

jfydsJust as the original USB was a huge improvement over the serial, parallel, and SCSI ports they replaced, USB-C is a big improvement over the others. If you want technology to get better, you have to let go of the older parts. It doesn’t matter how noble horse drawn carriages look nor how jaunty a coachman appears when snapping a buggy whip, no one born in the last 60 years is willing to give up their cars, light rail, heaters and defrosters inside the cars, or streets free of random piles of horse shit because someone misses buggy whips.

No one likes change before and while it’s happening…

“Remember when floppy disks could save/destroy the world?”

“Remember when floppy disks could save/destroy the world?” (click to embiggen)

Several years ago I went on a rant about what a horrible idea it was to switch to digital music. I had a whole slew of reasons why keeping my music library on disc was a better idea. I liked my portable music player and headphones. I could carry a bunch of albums with me, and I could be sure that those discs would play in either my computer, or in the stereo or most stereo music players that most people had. I didn’t have to worry that they would get erased, or that a new player I had would have compatible software.

So it was ridiculous that people where carrying around iPods! Or any other digital music player, for that matter! What if the digital format in question was abandoned or obsoleted? How would you play your music on another player when this one wore out? Did owning music even mean anything when it was just a file on your computer?

Now, to be fair, I had converted a small number of my music discs to digital to play on my computer1, so I didn’t have to walk across the room while I was in the middle of writing something to change music. That was all right, but it was an alternative. It would never replace my real music library.

Then my husband bought me a pretty pink iPod Nano for my birthday.

And I became quickly addicted as I realized I could convert dozens of big heavy discs to files on the tiny iPod… Read More…

Confessions of a keyboard addict

Cat with a manual typewriter.I learned to type on my mom’s Easter pink Smith-Corona Silent-Super typewriter. I was ten years old, when Mom decided that I since I couldn’t keep my hands off it, she should teach me the proper way to use it. So she set me up with her old How to Type book it wasn’t long before I was whizzing along, hitting about 60 words per minute on the little mechanical wonder.

When I was twelve, my paternal grandmother gave me her 1952 Remington Letter-Riter. It was a much heavier typewriter than the Silent-Super in every way. Pushing the keys took more effort, and the typewriter was built like a tank. It also had a slightly different keyboard arrangement, more traditional than the Silent-Super. Older mechanical typewriters didn’t have a 1 (one) key. If you needed to type a 1, you’d use a lowercase l (el) instead. There also wasn’t an exclamation point. To type !, you would type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe. There was no + (plus) sign or = (equals) sign, though it did have a key for ½ (half) and ¼ (quarter).

This is the 1952 Remington that once belonged to my grandmother, and then has been mine since about 1973 (click to embiggen).

This is the 1952 Remington that once belonged to my grandmother, and then has been mine since about 1973 (click to embiggen).

If you click on the image, you might also notice that the symbols on the top of the number keys are different than a modern computer keyboard, as well. You got quotation marks by pressing shift-2 instead of being on its own key, while the apostrophe was shift-8, and underscore was shift-6. The @ symbol and ¢ (cents) sign were on their own key, over where modern computer keyboards usually put the quotation and apostrophe key.

This is not the Silent-Super I learned on, as Mom’s was lost under less than pleasant circumstances. This is one my hubby bought me for my birthday that I’m still restoring. (Click to embiggen)

This is not the Silent-Super I learned on, as Mom’s was lost under less than pleasant circumstances. This is one my hubby bought me for my birthday that I’m still restoring. (Click to embiggen)

The Silent-Super had a 1-key and exclamation point. The arrangement was otherwise the same, though the size and shapes of the keys—particularly the tab, backspace, and shift—were different. My grandmother had a newer typewriter that had a lot of special keys, such as a £ (pound currency) symbol, a ÷ (division) symbol, + and =, (greater-than) and even a \ (backslash). She was an accountant and that typewriter was aimed at financial offices. Anyway, I also occasionally typed on her machine, with its own slightly different layout, and I could got just as fast on any of them.

In high school I finally took an actual typing class, which was the first time I typed on an IBM Selectric keyboard. It wasn’t a manual typewrite. It was still mechanical in that a physical object had to strike an inked ribbon and sheet of paper to make the letters, but the force was delivered by an electric motor instead of my fingers. It was much more like a computer keyboard in that way. The amount of force to press the key was practically nothing compared to the manual typewriter. It is still the funniest thing to see when I run a Writers Round Robin event at a convention: people too young to have used a typewriter really freak out at how hard you have to press the keys to make the letters appear.

I didn’t need the typing class to learn to type, I was already proficient at touch typing, but back in the 70s you actually had to have passed a typing class to get into some journalism programs and the like when you moved on to university, so I took the class for the credit. The teacher was a little shocked with I did more than 100 words per minute on the first speed test. Since it was early in the course, I wasn’t typing real words, I was just typing groups of four letters from the home row from a slide she was showing us, something like: “jfjfj kkkk dddd jkjkj fdfd jkl; fdsa”

I told her I already knew how to type, so she grabbed a sample letter to copy and made me take the test again, this time reading the letter and transcribing it. I still was over 100 words per minute.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to various computer keyboards. The old clack-clack IBM Model M that many people still love, being just one of many. And many of them have some keys in unusual places. Some have keys that others don’t. And I take to all of them pretty quickly. I would be slightly surprised when some people complained about a couple of moved keys. It usually took me only a few minutes to acclimate to a new layout.

I was a little surprised, when my husband finally got me to use an iPod Touch, at how quickly I adapted to thumb-typing on a small keyboard where I couldn’t feel the keys at all. My favorite app for a long time was WriteRoom for iOS (it had its own automatic cloud sync back before services like Dropbox were around), and I would write scenes on the bus on my way to work each morning. One time while I was doing that, a bunch of the bus passengers all started turning around and staring at me. So much that I noticed and looked up.

It took me a couple of minutes to figure out what had happened. Somehow the settings had changed, and the iPod was making key noises through its speaker. I had my headphones on playing musc (also from the iPod), and couldn’t hear the keyclicks. I found the setting and turned it off. I said, “Sorry about that” sheepishly. One of the other passengers chuckled and said, “I just never heard anyone text that fast and that long before!” So I explained that I was actually writing a book. “On your phone?” And then I had to explain that it wasn’t even a phone.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, some years later, at how quickly I took to the iPad’s virtual keyboard. When Michael and I bought our first iPad (the iPad 2, we waited for the second model), we weren’t certain we would actually use it and not treat it as a temporary toy. So we only bought one to share. I would take it to work one day, he would take it the next, and so on. It wasn’t long before it was clear that both of us needed our own.

At the time, my employer-provided Dell laptop had become a faux laptop. The battery wouldn’t hold a charge for more than about 10 minutes (we never did get new batteries as promised, of course). So it was useless for taking to meetings. And I frequently need to take notes at meetings or look things up to answer questions, so that was a bummer. Except I started taking the iPad, instead, and I could look up some work things without even logging in a VM. But the part that surprised me was how easy I switched to typing long, detailed notes during the meeting on the virtual keyboard. I do find it slightly annoying switching between numbers, other symbols, and back to letters. Mostly because the key to move from numbers to symbols is not in the same location as the key to move from letters to numbers. But otherwise, I’m okay typing on the virtual keyboard.

I do have a bluetooth keyboard that I use if I know I’m going to do a really long typing session. My hubby gave me a nice solar-powered one a few years ago. It is really nice, but it requires me carrying around a bag, since it is bigger than the iPad.

So I’ve been looking at keyboard cases off and on. My husband has had a couple of them. I think his favorite is a fairly high end Logitech. I’ve tried his, and they’re pretty good.

My new keyboard case. Yes, the fact that the backlight could be set to purple was a selling point.

My new keyboard case. Yes, the fact that the backlight could be set to purple was a selling point.

But I wasn’t convinced that I should spend the money on one for myself. But I keep wishing when I’m at conventions and similar events, that I had a more portable version of my Bluetooth keyboard. Then last week, I noticed that one of the models I’ve had in my private wishlist had come down in price a bit, and NorWesCon is coming up, so I bought it. It isn’t bad. Several reviews of it complained about the backspace being so tiny and the placement of a few other keys, but it only took me three tweets before I was hitting it correctly.

The keyboard itself feels fairly solid, but the case as a whole is a little flimsy. I suspect that if I carried it back and forth to the office in my backpack with this case that the keyboard would get enough wear and tear to account for the small number of reviews complaining about the keyboard dying after only a few months. I don’t currently plan to carry the iPad in the case most of the time. I can do the type of typing/note taking I do on the iPad at work just as easily with the virtual keyboard. It is definitely easier to type on than the virtual keyboard, and the keys feel nice enough. Not as good as my solar Logitech, but perfectly usuable.

It’s not as if I don’t already have multiple keyboards for just about every device. Because I am a keyboard addict.

Clickbait, clickbait everywhere, and not a byte to think

clickbait-will-shock-you-meme-698x698Clickbait is everywhere. It could be argued, of course, that anything posted by any of us who blog or tweet or comment is clickbait. We post it because we want it to be read, right? But when I say “clickbait” I mean headlines that are intentionally provocative and sensational, usually misleading, or at least failing to deliver what is promised. Neil Gaiman tweeted a particularly amusing clickbait headline that uses both him and George R.R. Martin to lure you to the web site: Is Neil Gaiman in town to help GRRM with edits on THE WINDS OF WINTER? And the opening paragraph of the story (which absolutely does not tell you anything about either Neil, George, nor the next Game of Thrones book) even admits that the story is nothing but clickbait. As Neil’s tweet observed, “At least it’s a clickbait headline that has the decency to squirm and grin and admit it…”

Other clickbait is less honest. Such as just about any headline about Apple. A lot of people have been griping about how underhanded Apple is being, or how they’re punishing users for going to cheaper alternatives with the “Error 53” stories. Some of the headlines cram entire editorials and a half dozen inaccuracies in the one headline, such as “Apple remotely bricks phones to punish customers for getting independent repairs.” Only one word in that headline is not an outright lie. Yes, only one.

But why are phones from Apple giving some users an Error 53 and refusing to work? What could possibly be the cause? Oh, if only there was some explanation… oh wait, there is:

“We protect fingerprint data using a Secure Enclave, which is uniquely paired to the Touch ID sensor,” said an Apple spokesperson in response to complaints from users. “When [an] iPhone is serviced by an authorized Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the Touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to Touch ID remain secure. Without this unique pairing, a malicious Touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, Touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.”

I tracked down this information, but I didn’t have to, because I already knew the answer as soon as I saw the first headline. I knew because I actually read about the new features of my phone when they added Touch ID two years ago. They described the security feature, and how the Touch ID sensor was paired with the security chip. And this information wasn’t buried in fine print somewhere. They actually talked about it in the keynote speech where they introduce the iPhone 5s, for goodness sake! Plus it is on the iPhone section of the Apple web site. They have videos about the Touch ID feature up that include all of that information.

It was obvious immediately when I read the first Error 53 story what was going on: if you change the home button, it isn’t the same one that was paired with the security chip, so it will stop working.

This is not Apple punishing third party vendors or being underhanded. Even iFixIt, a site infamous (and very disliked by Apple Corporate) for putting up detailed instructions on how to fix things yourself without going to Apple says it makes sense that the phone’s operating system should try to detect tampering and react in some way to protect the users’ data. They don’t think completely disabling the phone is the best outcome, but admit that something along this line should happen.

I do agree with the suggestions some have made that what the phone should do is simply disable Apple Pay and the TouchID features when this mismatch is detected, rather than disable the whole phone.

To get back to that sample headline, here are the inaccuracies: Apple isn’t remotely bricking any phones. One of the events that will trigger the phone to do a self-diagnostic is upgrading the iOS software, which is why some of the phones aren’t getting the error right away. It’s all happening internally, not a remote command being issued by Apple. The error isn’t just happening when unauthorized dealers do the work. iFixIt reports a couple of cases of this happening after authorized dealers made the repair, and in some of those cases it was subsequently fixed by the authorized repair place re-doing the repair. There is a very clear and understandable security reason why the system should check for any tampering related to Touch ID in general (since most users use that to protect all their personal data on their phone), and Apple Pay in particular (since the user’s money and banking information are involved).

What would deserve outrage was if the iPhone didn’t do anything in these circumstances. Not the other way around.

But writing accurate headlines about Apple doesn’t generate the clicks.

Tap, tap, tappity-tap-tap-tappity-tap!

A Smith-Corona Silent-Super typewriter in the Easter Pink color scheme, virtually identical to my Mom's former typewriter, the one I learned to type on.

A Smith-Corona Silent-Super typewriter in the Easter Pink color scheme, virtually identical to my Mom’s former typewriter, the one I learned to type on.

My husband got me several cool presents for my birthday, but the best one just arrived late last week. It’s the typewriter pictured here.

I’ve been trying to acquire a Smith-Corona Silent-Super portable typewriter in the bright pink with white keys for years. See, my mom owned that model of typewriter since her teen years, so I grew up with that typewriter in the house. And at the age of ten, when Mom decided that she was not going to be typing up any papers for me when I got to that stage in school, she sat me down with her old typing text book and started teaching me to type. I achieved a typing speed of a bit over 60-words a minute on that machine by the time I was in middle school, and being able to hit such speed on a mechanical typewriter is why my computer typing speed is about 105 words per minute.

And the Silent-Super was a dream. It was regarded by many as one of the best typewriters ever made. Mom’s was in great shape, with a touch so light and well-balanced, you felt almost as if you could have typed just by blowing on the keys. Read More…

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