Archive for the ‘technology’ category


The descent of Twitter

22.09.2018


Dawn Huczek/Creative Commons 2·0

This Tweet was probably half in jest:

   Then, within days, it played out pretty much exactly like this when Frank Oz Tweeted that he did not conceive of Bert and Ernie as gay. Or how Wil Wheaton can never seem to escape false accusations that he is anti-trans or anti-LGBQ, to the point where he left Mastodon. In his words (the link is mine):

I see this in the online space all the time now: mobs of people, acting in bad faith, can make people they don’t know and will likely never meet miserable, or even try to ruin their lives and careers (look at what they did to James Gunn). And those mobs’ bad behaviors are continually rewarded, because it’s honestly easier to just give them what they want. We are ceding the social space to bad people, because they have the most time, the least morals and ethics, and are skilled at relentlessly attacking and harassing their targets. It only takes few seconds for one person to type “fuck off” and hit send. That person probably doesn’t care and doesn’t think about how their one grain of sand quickly becomes a dune, with another person buried beneath it.

   It highlights just how far ahead of the game Stephen Fry was when he abandoned Twitter for a time in 2016:

Oh goodness, what fun twitter was in the early days, a secret bathing-pool in a magical glade in an enchanted forest … But now the pool is stagnant …
   To leave that metaphor, let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know … It makes sensible people want to take an absolutely opposite point of view.

   Not that long ago I was blocked by a claimed anti-Zionist Tweeter who exhibited these very traits, and I had to wonder whether he was a troll who was on Twitter precisely to stir hatred of Palestinians. With bots and fake accounts all over social media (I now report dozens of bots daily on Instagram, which usually responds with about five messages a day saying they had done something, leaving thousands going back years untouched), you have to wonder.
   Years ago, too, a Facebook post I made about someone in Auckland adopting an American retail phrase (I forget what it was, as I don’t use it, but it was ‘Black’ with a weekday appended to it) had the daughter of two friends who own a well known fashion label immediately jump to ‘Why are you so against New Zealand retailers?’ I was “unfriended” (shock, horror) over this, but because I’m not Wil Wheaton, this didn’t get to the Retailers’ Association mobilizing all its members to have me kicked off Facebook. It’s a leap to say that a concern about the creeping use of US English means I hate retailers, and all but the most up-tight would have understood the context.
   This indignant and often false offence that people take either shows that they have no desire to engage and learn something, and that they are in reality pretty nasty, or that they have one personality in real life and another on social media, the latter being the one where the dark side gets released. Reminds me of a churchgoer I know: nice for a period on Sundays to his fellow parishioners but hating humanity the rest of the decade.
   Some decent people I know on Twitter say they are staying, because to depart would let the bastards win, and I admire that in them. For now, Mastodon is a friendly place for me to be, even if I’m now somewhat wary after the way Wheaton was treated, but the way social media, in general, are is hardly pleasing. Those of us who were on the web early had an ideal in mind, of a more united, knowledgeable planet. We saw email become crappier because of spammers, YouTube become crappier because of commenters (and Google ownership), and Wikipedia become crappier because it has been gamed at its highest levels, so it seems it’s inevitable, given the record of the human race, that social media would also descend with the same pattern. Like in General Election voting, too many are self-interested, and will act against their own interests, limiting any chance they might have for growth in a fairer society. To borrow Stephen’s analogy, we can only enjoy the swimming pool if we don’t all pee in it.

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Social media mean less and less

16.09.2018


Above: I must report and block dozens of Instagram accounts a day, not unlike getting over the 200-a-day mark on Facebook in 2014.

For the last few days, I made my Twitter private. It was the only time in 11 years of being on the service where I felt I needed that level of privacy; I only made things public again when I realized that I couldn’t actually contact people who weren’t already following me.
   However, it was relatively blissful. Accounts with automated following scripts were blocked as I had to approve them manually. I had far fewer notifications. And I only heard directly back from people I liked.
   It actually reminded me of the “old days”. It’s why Mastodon appeals: since there were only a million people on there at the end of last year, it felt like Twitter of old (even if it has already descended far enough for actor Wil Wheaton to get abused, compelling him to leave).
   The quieter few days also got me thinking: I had far more business success prior to social media. I was blogging at Beyond Branding, and that was a pretty good outlet. I emailed friends and corresponded like pen pals. Those weren’t fleeting friendships where the other party could just “like” what you said. If I really think about it, social media have done very little in terms of my business.
   I’m not saying that social media don’t have a purpose—a viral Tweet that might get quoted in the press could be useful, I suppose—but I really didn’t need them to be happy in my work and my everyday life.
   Since giving up updating my Facebook wall in 2017, I haven’t missed telling everyone about what I’m up to, because I figured that the people who needed to know would know. Twitter remained a useful outlet because there are some people on there whose interactions I truly value, but as you can surmise from what I said above, the number of notifications didn’t matter to me. I don’t need the same dopamine hit that others do when someone likes or re-Tweets something of theirs.
   Interestingly, during this time, I logged into Whatsapp, an app I load once every three months or so since I have a few friends on it. I saw a video sent to me by Stefan Engeseth:

   When I look at my Instagram stats, they’re back to around 2015 levels, and with these current trends, my usage will drop even further as we head into 2019.
   And I really don’t mind. The video shows just why social media aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, and why they aren’t ultimately healthy for us.
   I can add the following, that many of you who read this blog know: Facebook is full of bots, with false claims about their audience, and engages in actual distribution of questionable invasive software, charges I’ve levelled at the company for many years, long before the world even heard of Christopher Wylie. Twitter is also full of bots but actually disapproves of services that help them identify them; they have double standards when it comes to what you can and can’t say; and, perhaps most sadly, those people who have viewpoints that are contrary to the mainstream or the majority are shat on by disorganized gangs of Tweeters. That’s not liberty. Instagram is also full of bots—like when I was on Facebook, when I reported dozens to hundreds of bots a day—and there seems to be no end to them; it also lies when it talks about how its advertising works. Given all of these problems, why would I provide these services with my precious time?
   I engage with these social media in more and more limited fashion and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m completely away from these big tech names in due course.
   It’s not as though young people are active on them, so the idea that they are services where you can get the next generation of customers is bogus. If you say you’re on Facebook, you might be considered an old-timer now. I asked a Year 11 student here on work experience what he used. Facebook wasn’t one of them. He said most of his friends Snapchatted, while he was in to Reddit. He didn’t like Facebook because it wasn’t real, and we have a generation who can spot the BS and the conceit behind it.
   It does make the need for services such as Duck Duck Go even greater, for us to get unbiased information not filtered by Google’s love of big corporations, in its quest to rid the web of its once meritorious nature. Google is all about being evil.
   As we near the 2020s, a decade which we hope will be more caring and just than the ones before, it’s my hope that we can restore merit to the system and that we find more ethical alternatives to the big names. I can’t see as great a need to show off fake lives on social media when it’s much more gratifying, for me at least, to return to what I did at the beginning of the century and let the work speak for itself.

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More lies: Instagram’s separate (and now possibly secret) set of ad preferences

02.09.2018

This post was originally going to be about Facebook lying. It still is, just not in the way originally conceived.
   Those who follow this blog know that, on Instagram, I get alcohol advertising. Alcohol is one of the categories you can restrict on Facebook. Instagram claims that it relies on your Facebook ad preferences to control what advertising you see. That is a lie, and it’s still a lie even as of today (with an ad for Johnnie Walker in my feed). I turned off alcohol advertising in Facebook ages ago, and it’s made no difference to what I see on Instagram.
   What it doesn’t tell you is that Instagram keeps its own set of advertising interests, which can be found at www.instagram.com/accounts/access_tool/ads_interests, but it’s only accessible on the web version, which no one ever really checks out. When I last checked on August 18, you could still see a snippet of these interests, and they are completely different to those that I have on Facebook (where I go in to delete my interests regularly, something which, I might add, I should actually not have to do since I opted out of interest-based advertising on Facebook, which means that Facebook should have no need to collect preferences, but I digress). You cannot edit your Instagram ad preferences. They are, like the Facebook ones, completely laughable and bear no resemblance to my real interests. Advertisers: caveat venditor.

   As of now, Instagram no longer lists ad interests for me, though those alcohol ads still show up.

   So, Instagram lies about Facebook ad preferences affecting your Instagram advertising, because they don’t.
   And as late as August 18, because Instagram kept its own set of preferences, it was lying about its reliance on Facebook ad preferences.
   And today, Instagram might still be lying because while it doesn’t show your preferences on Instagram any more, Facebook ad preferences still have no effect on Instagram advertising. As far as I can tell, even though the Instagram ad preference page is blank, it still relies on a separate set of preferences that is now secret and, as before, not editable.
   But we are talking Big Tech in Silicon Valley. Google lies, Facebook lies. You just have to remember that this is par for the course and there is no need to believe anything they say. Even in a year when Facebook is under fire, they continue to give ammo to its critics. This makes me very happy now that there is a body—the EU—that has the cohones to issue fines, something that its own country’s authorities are either too weak or too corrupt to do.

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In line with what I discovered in 2011: Google tracks your location even after opting out

16.08.2018

The Associated Press had an exclusive this week: Google does not obey your opt-out preferences.
   I could have told you that in 2011. Oh wait, I did. And I pointed out other instances where Google ignored your request to pause your history, continuing to track you either through its main site or its properties such as YouTube.
   This latest story related to Google tracking people’s movements on their Android phones.
   The AP found that Google lies: what it claims Location History does on its website is not what it actually does.
   In 2011, I proved that Google lied about its Ads Preferences Manager (no, it doesn’t use apostrophes): it said one thing on its website and did another. In 2014 and 2015 I showed Google lied about what it would do with your search histories.
   Instagram does that these days with its advertising preferences, saying you can control them via Facebook when, in fact, it stores another set altogether which you have no control over. If I get time I’ll post my proof. It makes you wonder if the same dishonest programmers are running things, or whether it’s part of Big Tech’s culture to lie.
   This is nothing new: they all lie, especially about unwanted surveillance, and have been doing so for a long time. It’s just that mainstream media are finally waking up to it.

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The porn blackmail scam—ignore it if you receive it

24.07.2018

I’m not saying I can’t be conned—because by my own admission, I have been—but sometimes when you’re very sure of your position, scammers’ lies don’t work.
   Here’s a fascinating one that came in today, a lot more aggressive than the usual request for helping someone move millions of dollars of bullion out of the country. I can imagine people getting sucked in to this, because I have a friend who really was filmed without his knowledge and then (unsuccessfully) blackmailed. I’m posting it in case others have received something similar.

From: Klemens Munger
To: [Redacted]
Subject: jack.yan – [redacted]
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2018 04:27:08 +0000

I am well aware [redacted] one of your passphrase. Lets get straight to the purpose. You may not know me and you’re probably thinking why you are getting this e mail? No one has paid me to investigate you. In fact, I setup a software on the X videos (pornography) website and guess what, you visited this website to have fun (you know what I mean). When you were watching video clips, your web browser initiated functioning as a Remote Desktop having a keylogger which gave me access to your display screen and also web camera. after that, my software program gathered every one of your contacts from your Messenger, FB, and email . And then I created a double-screen video. 1st part displays the video you were viewing (you’ve got a good taste haha . . .), and second part displays the view of your webcam, and its u. You have got a pair of choices. Lets analyze these solutions in details: Very first choice is to dismiss this e-mail. In such a case, I will send out your actual video to all of your contacts and visualize regarding the awkwardness that you receive. Keep in mind if you are in an affair, exactly how it will affect? Other alternative will be to pay me $7000. Let us describe it as a donation. In such a case, I most certainly will right away remove your video. You will keep daily life like this never happened and you will not hear back again from me. You’ll make the payment by Bitcoin (if you don’t know this, search for “how to buy bitcoin” in Google search engine). BTC Address to send to: 1AarwsrgvhQ5CNuhWGMjmv34yPQTXWEaxh [case SENSITIVE, copy and paste it] Should you are wondering about going to the cop, surely, this message cannot be traced back to me. I have covered my moves. I am not trying to ask you for a huge amount, I would like to be paid for. I have a unique pixel within this e-mail, and at this moment I know that you have read this email message. You have one day in order to make the payment. If I don’t get the BitCoins, I will certainly send your video recording to all of your contacts including close relatives, coworkers, etc. Nonetheless, if I receive the payment, I will erase the video immediately. If you want proof, reply with Yea and I will send out your video to your 13 contacts. It is a non-negotiable offer, that being said please don’t waste my personal time & yours by replying to this message.

   There’s plenty of evidence this is automated.
   Think carefully: if he knows this much about you, then why isn’t he addressing you by name?
   And I haven’t used that particular password for nearly 20 years, so there’s a chance he came across this through the hacking of a defunct website. I also seldom use the same password for different websites (there are a handful of exceptions).
   It’s also helpful that I haven’t ever committed a sex act in front of my computer, but I have a feeling that others might think this was a real threat given how many people visit porn sites daily.
   If this was genuine, as it was for a friend of mine, it would come with a screen shot of the video that he claims to have (and that was a two-part image as he claims, so it’s based on scams that have taken place).
   I won’t go into depth on why else I know this is bogus, although most of you who follow me regularly will be able to spot the scammer’s pretty obvious mistakes.
   And do you really think I only have 13 contacts? (Why is the number usually so low with these scams?)
   Finally, out of curiosity, since I take my privacy seriously, I checked to see if there was a tracking pixel. There wasn’t, at least not in the software I use.
   It’s a good idea to turn your images off when it comes to webmail (as they are on Zoho for me) in case future ones come with one. My email client filtered this as junk, as it surely is.

After I wrote the above post, I came across this page, where the scam is discussed. They only wanted $360–$600 a few months ago. The price has gone up, which suggests that it has worked. It appears that the defunct-password technique only surfaced this month.

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Forced to take prime-time nostalgia trips

20.07.2018


‘There’s an old Polish proverb …’ I believe it’s ‘Reality television can’t stop the motorways in Warsaw from getting icy.’

I’ve always known what sort of telly I liked, and often that was at odds with what broadcasters put on. In the 1970s, my tastes weren’t too dissimilar from the general public’s, but as the years went on, they diverged from what New Zealand programmers believed we should watch.
   Shows I liked would prematurely disappear (Dempsey & Makepeace), only to return very late at night a decade later. Some only ever appeared late at night (Hustle), then vanish (in New Zealand, seasons 5 to 8 have never appeared on a terrestrial channel, and they have also never been released on DVD).
   We had a British expat visitor on Wednesday. He arrived here in 2008, and had no idea that TV1 had once been the home of British programming, and TV2 was where the Hollywood stuff went.
   By the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was watching either DVDs or finding a way to get to BBC Iplayer et al, because less and less of what was on offer had any appeal. We had boxed sets of Mission: Impossible, The Persuaders, and others.
   When the country switched to Freeview, I couldn’t be bothered getting a decoder. We were fine with online. Eventually, I did buy a TV set with Freeview, but only because the previous one conked out.
   On Thursday night, it became very apparent just how bad television had become here.
   Every English-language and Te Reo Māori terrestrial channel had unscripted drama, i.e. “reality” shows, or the occasional panel show or real-life event, other than Prime, showing the MacGyver remake.
   Who in the 1980s would have predicted that MacGyver would be the only scripted series on air during prime-time here between 7.30 and 8.30 p.m.?
   I realize the economics of television have changed, and there’s no such thing as a TVNZ drama department any more.
   Shows which might have had the whole country watching would be lucky to pull in a quarter of the audience today.
   But it is a sad reflection that the televised equivalent of the weekly gossip rag is what rates. The effort needed to produce quality drama is expensive, and not enough of us support it.
   I also imagine scripted Hollywood shows are cheaper than British ones, hence what we see on our screens is American—and why some kids these days now speak with American accents. Yet to some New Zealanders, Chinese-language signs on Auckland high streets are a bigger threat to the local culture. Really?
   In this household, we vote with our attention spans—and over the last month that has meant DVDs of Banacek and, in true 50 shades of Grade fashion, The Protectors. Sometimes, you feel it’s 1972 in this house—but at least the telly was better then.

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The EU lands Google with another fine—but will Google change?

19.07.2018


Zain Ali

The EU gets it when it comes to fines. Rather than the paltry US$17 million certain US states’ attorneys-general stung Google with some years ago for hacking Iphones, they’ve now fined the search engine giant €4,340 million, on top of its earlier fine of €2,420 million over anticompetitive behaviour.
   That US$17 million, I mentioned at the time, amounted to a few hours’ income at Google.
   As the EU’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager noted on Twitter, ‘Fine of €4,34 bn to @Google for 3 types of illegal restrictions on the use of Android. In this way it has cemented the dominance of its search engine. Denying rivals a chance to innovate and compete on the merits. It’s illegal under EU antitrust rules. @Google now has to stop it’.
   Google forces manufacturers to preinstall Chrome if they want to install Google Play. The EU also notes that virtually all Android devices have Google Search preinstalled, and most users never download competing apps, furthering Google’s dominance of search. Google pays manufacturers and cellphone networks to preinstall the Google search app on their phones, and prevented manufacturers from installing Google apps if their versions of Android were not approved by Google.
   DuckDuckGo, my search engine of choice, welcomed the decision. It noted:

   This last Tweet is particularly damning about Google’s deceptive practices (or, as I call them, ‘business as usual’ for Google):

   That’s consumer confusion on top of restrictive contracts that promote market dominance and anti-competitive behaviour.
   This is a very petty company, one that shut down Vivaldi’s Adwords account after its CEO gave some interviews about privacy.
   Of course I’m biased, and I make no apology for it—and anyone who has followed my journey on this blog from being a Google fan to a Google-sceptic over the last decade and a half will know just how Google’s own misleading and deceptive conduct helped changed my mind.
   Google’s argument, that many Android manufacturers installed rival apps, clearly fell on deaf ears, and understandably so. While I’m sure Android experts can think up examples, as a regular person who occasionally looks at phones, even those ones with rival apps still ship with the Google ones. In other words, there’s simply more bloat. I’ve yet to see one in this country ship without a Chrome default and Google Play installed, often in such a way that you can’t delete it, and Google Services, without getting your phone rooted.
   I did read this in the Murdoch Press and thought it was a bit of a laugh, but then maybe my own experience isn’t typical:

The impact of any changes mandated by the EU decision on Google’s ability to target ads to users—and to its profitability—is an open question. The two apps targeted in the EU decision, Google’s search and its Chrome browser, are extremely popular in their own right. Consumers are likely to seek them out from an app store even if they weren’t preinstalled on the phone, said Tarun Pathak, an analyst at research firm Counterpoint.

   I just don’t believe they would, and I made it a point to get a phone that would, happily, have neither. By buying a Chinese Android phone, I escape Google’s tracking; by seeking out the Firefox browser, I get to surf the way I want. That choice is going to create competition, something that Google is worried about.
   The Wall Street Journal also states that despite the earlier fine, Google’s shopping rivals said little or nothing has actually happened.
   With all of Google’s misdeeds uncovered on this blog over the years, I’m really not surprised.
   The EU is, at the very least, forcing some to examine just how intrusive Google is. It might soon discover how uncooperative Google can be.

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The decline continues: Facebook pages no longer accept YouTube links

18.07.2018

Many of you know that I no longer use Facebook for my personal stuff. However, there are still work things to do, although I’ve noticed Facebook pages get more and more useless by the day. Here are the stats for my Facebook page:

   Strangely, I can see the stats on a page that’s not even mine, and for which I have no role:

   And now, you can no longer post links to YouTube videos on to pages. Facebook just gets stuck, trying to ‘import’ the link. I’ve tried this from different accounts and had to give up, opting to upload directly into Facebook, which is probably their (unannounced) plan anyway.

   YouTube’s uploading took ages, too. Or, rather, it took ages to find an uploading link. Dailymotion and Vimeo have, by far, superior interfaces.
   Yet, ladies and gentlemen, these are among the top three websites in the world. You truly have to wonder why, in the face of overwhelming evidence of tracking in one case, and privacy breaches in another.
   Facebook had been pretty hopeless as a traffic referrer anyway, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others woke up to the fact it is worsening as a business platform.

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A three-decade time capsule hanging on my door

15.07.2018

There was an Epson bag hanging from the back of my bedroom door, hidden by larger bags. I opened it up to discover brochures from my visit to a computer fair in 1989 (imaginatively titled Computing ’89), and that the bag must have been untouched for decades.
   I’ve no reason to keep its contents (if you want it, message me before Thursday, as the recycling comes the morning after), but I wanted to make some scans of the exhibitors’ catalogue for nostalgia.
   Let’s start with the cover. It’s sponsored by Bits & Bytes. Kiwis over a certain age will remember this as the computer magazine in this country.

You can tell this is a product of the 1980s by the typesetting: someone couldn’t be bothered buying the condensed version of ITC Avant Garde Gothic, so they made do with electronically condensing Computers and Communications. In fact, they’re a bit light on condensed fonts, full stop, as they’ve done the same with the lines set in Futura.
   While the practice is still around, the typeface choices mark this one out as a product of its time.
   Inside is a fascinating article on the newfangled CD-ROM being a storage medium. Those cuts of Helvetica and Serifa are very 1980s, pre-desktop publishing. It should be noted that Dr Jerry McFaul remained with the USGS, where he had been since 1974, till his retirement. The fashions are interesting here, as is ITC Fenice letting us know that he’s speaking at the Terrace Regency Hotel, a hotel I have no recollection of whatsoever. I can only tell you that it must have been on the Terrace.
   The other tech speakers have a similar look to the visiting American scientist, all donning suits—something their counterparts in 2018 probably wouldn’t today. In fact, the suit seems to be a thing of the past for a lot of events, and I often feel I’m the oldster when I wear mine.
   The article itself makes a strong case for CD-ROM storage, being more space-saving and better for the environment: it’s interesting to know that the ‘depletion of the ozone layer’ was a concern then, though 30 years later we have been pretty appalling at doing anything about it.



   The second article in the catalogue of any note was on PCGlobe, supplied to the magazine on 5¼-inch diskette.
   Bits & Bytes would have run the catalogue as part of the main magazine, and did a larger run of these inner pages, back in the day when printing was less flexible.
   It’s a fascinating look back at how far we’ve come (on the tech) and how far we haven’t come (on the environment). Next year, we’ll be talking about 1989 as ‘30 years ago,’ yet we live in an age where we’re arguing over Kylie Jenner’s wealth. Progress?

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How Silicon Valley and the Soviet Union are alike

07.07.2018


Anton Troynikov’s banner on his Twitter account.

I really enjoy Yakov Smirnoff’s old jokes about the Soviet Union, and the Russian reversal that is often associated with him. In the 21st century, I’ve used the odd one, such as, ‘In Russia, Olympics game you!’ and ‘In America, internet watch you!’. I’m sure I’ve done wittier ones, but I’ve yet to post, ‘In America, president Tweet you!’
   Today on Twitter, Anton Troynikov, while not doing exactly the above, had a bunch of Tweets about how similar the USSR was to Silicon Valley today. Although he’s not pointing out opposites, it’s humour in the same spirit. In Tweeting, he outdid the few modernized Russian reversals I’ve used over the years.

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