Neil Young Incognito in Scotland

In front of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1976, with a harmonica and a banjo.

You can’t have a cupboard if there ain’t no wall
You got to move there’s no time left to stall
They say the old laughing lady dropped by to call
And when she leaves, she leaves nothing at all

Have a good weekend!

Scummy Marketing

I’m sure you’ve seen them. The ads for the online “information products.”

I wish I could say I’m surprised to see the writing community filled with this stuff, but I’m not. I’ve been around the ‘Net long enough to know that all communities have them.

Pages and page of copy, filled with elaborate descriptions of the problems that the product addresses and specific descriptions of what the product actually provides you… somewhere on the next page maybe.

Every few paragraphs have a call to action to buy the product. A big button, usually a colorful one on a white background, invites you to Act Now™. There’s no price next to the button, of course, because if you have to ask, there must be something wrong with you. You don’t recognize real value when you see it!

There are tons and tons of bonuses. It’s almost as if the product can’t stand on its own and the seller wants to smother you with so many extras that it’s no longer possible to calculate the value of what you’re buying. But that can’t be why; they must be generous.

And of course, there is only a limited time to enroll. You may have even found out about this product or “online course” before you’ll be allowed to buy it. But they’ll send you an email or twelve to remind you when “registration is open.”

As a matter of fact, so many people signed up before that they had to stop selling it. And now they’ve improved it, and they’re going to open it up in a few days, but only for a limited time.

Why wouldn’t they leave a wildly successful and fully automated online product open 24/7? Why would you ask? You don’t recognize real value when you see it!

And the real topper, something I’ve only seen recently, is the lack of a total price. All of these products offer the cost broken down over two or more payments and then a discounted single payment price.

But what I recently saw was something like:

Pay only $295 over 6 payments or one payment with a 12% discount.

(I made these numbers up. I think the actual price was much higher.)

Nowhere on the page was the total price displayed.

This is what sleazy car dealers do. It’s how scummy mortgage bankers operate.

It’s what someone who hopes that you will buy their product without ever noticing the real cost does.

That’s not what a member of a community does. It’s the action of someone who wants to profit from a community.

A leech.

Why I Am Not On Facebook Anymore

Last week I mentioned not using Facebook. I’ve been away from the platform long enough now that I am ready to write about why I am taking a (temporary?) break.

I mentioned leaving in the context of ISPs being permitted to continue selling our data, so I should start by saying that protecting my personal data is not why I left the social media site.

Selling our data is a part of how Facebook makes money. This mission has, over time, made the website more clingy and less useful. But it’s not why I left. It sure as hell made it easier, but it’s not the main reason.

I’m perfectly ok with the fundamental proposition that Facebook offers: we’ll let you communicate with your “friends” (we’ll even redefine the word, so you have lots of them!) in return for remembering what you say to them and what you share with them.

Makes perfect sense, right?

This deal has become a little fuzzy, of course. If you don’t use an ad-blocker, you may have seen ads and “suggestions” on Facebook that relate to products you purchased or even just browsed on other sites. This is because that deal with Facebook has expanded beyond their borders.

The expansion of the deal is also why you should be using an ad-blocker. Sites have been complaining bitterly about their use “costing them revenue.” Well, until they figure out how to generate that revenue without sharing my every move on the web to every other site that uses ads, I’m going to keep using one. Hint: charge a small subscription and find out just how important your site is (not.)

The main reason I stopped using Facebook is that I was spending a lot of time on it while deriving almost no enjoyment.

If Facebook was a book, I would I have put it down. If it were a TV show, I would have stopped watching. If it were a movie, I would have left the theater.

And these are things I’ve been consciously doing over the past few years to regain time, so I can focus on the things I do enjoy.

So why not quit Facebook if it’s no fun?

When I asked myself that question, failed to answer it, and then found myself back on Facebook, I realized that some form of social media detox might be in order.

Almost every article about a “detox” bothered me in one way or another. I am not in love with that particular link, but it does cover how social media does provide us with positive reinforcement, and how it provides it to us on an intermittent schedule.

It’s a slot machine, and slot machines work. (Except in New Jersey, but that’s another story.)

60 Minutes is going to air a segment this weekend about how people can’t put down their cell phones. (Breaking news, right?) Even the teaser for the show mentions social media apps and uses the term “slot machine.”

Some people can dip into Facebook, look around for a few minutes, and then leave. I might not be one of those people, for the same reason that I’m not the person you should seat next to a quart of ice cream or plate of brownies.

But at the same time, Facebook is not a neutral tool. When someone keeps coming back or never leaves, Facebook has succeeded. Last year, the average user spent 50 minutes a day on the site (and/or in one of the phone apps.) That number comes from Facebook, on one of their earnings calls. It’s a metric they use as a measure of success.

It’s also almost a year old. Maybe we’ll soon hear that it’s gone up. If not, we’ll probably hear about a “bad earnings call.”

Their goal, keeping your attention so they can sell it to advertisers, is accomplished with a system that promotes, by accident or by design, relentless controversy and negativity. The site is something less than a neutral tool.

It’s been a little over two weeks since I suspended my account, and I don’t miss it.

I undoubtedly missed some deeply insightful opinions last week about the Gorsuch nomination, the attack in Syria and then on Syria, and of course, the weighty affair of the Pepsi commercial.

Or, I missed a lot of screaming, yelling, and confirmation bias. Much of which I likely would have participated in.

Depends on how you look at it, I guess.

I miss “seeing” friends, some of who I only have because of Facebook, but even doing that has become more and more difficult because that’s not the site is for. I miss a Facebook that existed for a brief period between when they opened the doors to people outside of college and started making money. It showed me what people shared in chronological order.

Am I going to delete my account? I doubt it. Things may change, and I want to use it again.

But at the same time, I’ve quietly done this a few times before and I know that I have already been “punished” by their algorithms. By not participating, the “importance” of my posts is diminished, and I will have to start posting regularly again before people start to see what I share again.

This is a contest I am not interested in.

Your Personal Data Will Be Sold

(assuming it isn’t being sold already)

Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that makes it possible for your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to save your Internet usage history and sell it or mine it for data to use for advertisements. By the time you read this, the President may have already signed it into law.

There are a few aspects to this bill and the debate surrounding it that I find deeply upsetting. (To put it politely.)

First, to quote the story above: “which also prevents the FCC from ever putting such a rule in place ever again.”

This bill is, more than anything else, a finger in the eye of the previous administration and its FCC. Obama’s FCC, which was run by a former cable lobbyist, made significant if maddeningly slow progress in bringing the U.S. in line with the rest of the world when it comes to the Internet (and television) access.

We pay too much, and we have too few choices, especially for a country that claims to be a bastion of consumer choice, freedom, and open markets.

One of the FCC rules, which was supposed to go into effect this coming December, was that our ISPs could not sell or mine our data without giving us a chance to opt out.

Note: without a chance to opt out. The rule didn’t forbid collecting the data; it merely required them to ask first.

This bill not only removes the opt-out requirement, but it also makes sure it can never be added again without a whole new law.

Because we know how much True Conservatives* like new laws.

Second, a recurring argument in the debate was that this bill “puts service providers on the same footing” as Google and Facebook and “makes the advertising market more fair.”

This assertion is complete bullshit.

When it comes Google, or Facebook, or any other Internet website/search engine/social media provider, you have a choice. You can not use them. I, for example, rarely use Google and am currently not using Facebook. (More about that in a later post.)

Moreover, when you do use one of those services, the exchange of data for services is clear: when you search on Google, they remember the search and how you used it. In return you get the best search engine there is right now.

On Facebook, you can share and find things. In return, Facebooks knows what you shared and what you found.

Of course, some people (like me) don’t necessarily like these arrangements, but they are clear and visible transactions. Information in return for service.

But in the case of ISPs, you have no choice. If you are lucky like I am, you might have a choice between two ISPs, but you can’t choose one that won’t snoop.

You also cannot choose what you share with them. If you use the Internet, they see it. Think about that. Every website you visit. Everything you watch.

This, by the way, is why Google wants you to use Chrome and log into it. If you do and save your favorite sites and browser history, maybe so you can access it on another device, they can see it. But why they want you to do it (and why I won’t) is evident, there are advantages for you as a user, and you have a choice.

There is no advantage to you at all if your ISP snoops and you and sells the information. None. Zero.

If you believe, as some politicians will tell you, that they will lower the price of your service in return, you have not been watching them for the past 15 years.

And, of course, you are already paying your ISP. A lot. Too much by any reasonable measure. Why should the government hand them another way to make money off of you?

Well, come to think of it, there is an advantage for the government; if the ISPs have the data, it can be subpoenaed.

It could even be sold to the government without a subpoena if they shuffle the paperwork correctly. (Think that’s far fetched? You must have not being paying attention a few years ago.)

My advice is the same as ProtonMail’s, right here. Use a VPN. Protonmail should be making theirs public soon. If you don’t want to wait, this review of VPNs is excellent, if a little verbose.

You might not think you have anything to hide, but apparently the U.S. government (even if you don’t live here) and your ISP do.


*Now extinct, BTW

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

More Ransomware

On Monday I wrote about ransomware and how more and more instances of it have been surfacing over the past few years.

Yesterday, this popped up on my radar.

Scammers were exploiting a bug in IOS (iPhone and presumably iPad) Safari to make it appear as if a user’s device had been hijacked, and that they had to pay to get access back. The ransomware was installed on some porn sites.

Ars Technica has a less technical description here.

As the first article calls it, this is more “scareware” than “ransomware.” It’s possible to get control of Safari back, and Apple just patched the exploit with the latest IOS upgrade. I had another site inadvertently do this my iPhone via some crappy web coding.

(By the way, if your site uses pop-ups, I will very likely never visit it again. If your mobile site uses pop-ups, fuck you. I will positively never visit it again.)

The interesting bit here is the social engineering. Cracking (what the unethical kind of hacking is more properly called) has also been more about social engineering than clever tech. This is a prime example.

Be careful out there, and if you find yourself paying a “policeman” with gift cards, think again.

And put your pants back on. Please.


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