A small but justifiable rant about international computer phone scammers

In these days of cellphones and social media our landline barely rings. Cool. But when it does, nine times out of ten it’s someone with a strong accent, further clipped with VOIP distortion, purporting to be from Microsoft.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medYup, these barely intelligible strangers insist they have detected a virus on my computer. Of course they want to help me fix it. And of course it’s blatantly not Microsoft. The scam’s been around for years. I’m told these con artists use FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to get you to let them totally control your computer. Yup, your bank details, tax records, medical history – whatever you’ve got there. They can also trash anything they want.

Problem is, I am a science geek. This gives me passable knowledge of what computer OS’s and malware actually do. And I hate phones. Bad combination when someone rings up at dinner time trying to dupe me with computer talk. Fools.

The reality is that (a) Microsoft don’t ring people up, (b) yes, your computer’s identifiable via your internet protocol (IP) address. But only your internet service provider (ISP) has both your phone number and IP data, and if they’ve shared that then – under New Zealand law, certainly – your solicitor’s going to turn that ISP into a pile of pulped dog meat. Finally, (c) Windows doesn’t track viruses or report them. Anti-virus (anti-malware) software does – but as far as I’m aware, all of it will tell you there’s problem unless you’ve told it not to. Certainly, nobody rings you out of the blue.

Tactics I’ve used include:

1. Hanging up instantly. This really is the best.

2. Asking when they think I was born, was it yesterday? (One of them said ‘I do not know your birth date, Sir.’)

3. If I’ve got time I’ll string them out and then disingenuously ask whether the ‘Windows’ key is the same as the ‘Apple’ key. Usually they hang up at this point.

4. I’ll say something in Anglo Saxon. The scammers seem to know these words, too. Sometimes they ring back to tell me off for being rude. But my vocabulary of old Anglo Saxon words is always better than theirs.

Have you ever had these scammers ring through? How have you dealt with them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Black Friday, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and the origin of OMG

I have never quite understood why Friday 13th is viewed with such foreboding.

HMS Invincible - invented by Jack Fisher and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

HMS Invincible –  the first battlecruiser, invented by Jack Fisher (along with ‘OMG’) and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

From the science perspective it’s no different from any other day. The Earth revolves on its axis, creating the illusion of the sun rising and falling – but one revolution, surely, isn’t any different from another. Arbitrary dates and divisions we make up in western society, surely, are just that? (OMG, I sound like Spock.)

Lots of people beg to differ, though. We are, it seems, often paraskevidekatriaphobics – including, it seems, the man who invented OMG. I’ll explain. On 1 November 1914, a German cruiser squadron under Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee shattered a British force under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off Coronel.

The British Admiralty – under their volcanic First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – responded decisively.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

First ever use of OMG, in a letter from Sir John Fisher to Winston Churchill, 1917, published two years later; from my copy of Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919). Click to enlarge.

Fisher was an incredible character – deeply devout, creative, brilliant, egotistical, paranoid and prone to pursuing feuds, the man who invented not only the battlecruiser but also the term OMG that we know and love today. Seriously! I have the original publication. “O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)” And as First Sea Lord, he wasn’t going to stand for any rubbish from the Germans.

On the back of von Spee’s Coronel victory, a massive force, including two battlecruisers, was ordered to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s cruiser squadron. But then it turned out that Invincible needed dockyard work at Devonport and would not be ready to sail before Friday 13 November. Fisher discovered the point and declared to Winston Churchill, then his political counterpart in the Admiralty, ‘Friday 13th! What a day to choose!”

Churchill thought so too, though for other reasons than those of a superstitious sailor. Britain was at war, and as far as he was concerned there was no excuse for dockyard slackness.  The ships, he insisted, would leave on Wednesday 11th – even if it meant sending dock workers with the Invincible.

They did. And it turned out to be very bad luck for von Spee, who was caught and annihilated off the Falkland Islands on 8 December.

Do you believe in Friday 13th – or other omens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Why are we told blondes are dumb?

Why are we told blondes are dumb? Or have more fun? Or are preferred, as Anita Loos once said, ‘by gentlemen’?

Why, indeed, are people generally barraged with stereotypes about body shape, form or looks? Or attributed behaviours that are supposed to follow a particular physical characteristic?

There is no actual truth to any of these tropes. Yet socially imposed appearance ideals have been part of human societies through history. Often as prelude to the targets being convinced to buy some product that will ‘fix’ or ‘produce’ the ‘look’. It leverages from a raft of factors, including pressure to conform and anxieties over self-image, and is why men spent up large on wigs and women accepted being crushed in corsets, way back when. And it’s gained industrial dimension these days thanks to the way it’s been commercialised – a collision between industrial-age economics and the anxieties of the psyche.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

A recent photo of me – entering my ‘distinguished hair’ phase, according to my wife. As a kid I was naturally blond, went dark naturally as a teenager. Did that change my intellect? Of course not…

These days the pressure is mostly directed at women, but men get it too – witness the hair restorers and muscle building products on the market. And in past centuries – I’m thinking the dandified eighteenth in particular – it was men who led the image charge, primping and preening themselves in ridiculous ways.

As far as I can tell, today’s ‘dumb blonde’ trope – epitomising the phenomenon of socially imposed image and expected behaviour – emerged in its current form during the mid-twentieth century, building on earlier ideas but pushed on the back of the movie promotional machine. It was popularised by Hollywood stars from the early twentieth century, starting with Jean Harlow, but epitomised by Marilyn Monroe, who wasn’t naturally blonde (hydrogen peroxide is rocket fuel!) – and became both victim and a exploiter of the machine.

Blonde sold. Dumbness sold, particularly when run for laughs. Monroe played the part to a T in Howard Hawks comedies, presenting child-like innocence and vulnerability over an aura of seething availability. The mix keyed into the male psyche in fundamental ways. And all this was set in a mid-twentieth century world that by today’s standards was awash with sexism. Check out The Flintstones or Bewitched.

Monroe was a master at the game – Norma Jean Baker ‘playing’ Marilyn Monroe, perpetuating marketing imagery. The legend was sealed by her death – an event that transfixed two generations and was not superseded as regular magazine fodder until Princess Diana – another blonde – died in that Paris motor accident.

By the time Monroe was flourishing, the notion of ‘dumb blonde’ had  left the context of movie marketing and become a truth. Blondes, it seemed, were ‘dumb’ – an epithet also extended to fair haired men, the ‘dumb blond ox’ image.

None of it had any basis in reality. I know. As a kid I had fair hair, but that didn’t make me stupid. I could already read, write, do arithmetic and so on when I went to school. This was an age, alas, when both ability and left-handedness were punishable offences in primary schools, but I at least avoided the epithet ‘Snow’, the derogatory army term that teachers of the day invariably gave to fair-haired boys.

Needless to say, the specifics of the image we’re told bestows status or behaviours tells us an awful lot about the nature of the society we live in.

Can we do anything about tropes of this kind? US author August McLaughlin went blonde joke free for a year.

For myself, I think humour is as powerful a tool for reversing stereotypes as it is for perpetuating them. I’d reverse the jokes – spin them back on themselves. It’s time to turn the tables on negative social tropes, for us to think laterally and lampoon the whole phenomenon – underscoring just how dumb these tropes actually are.

Here’s what I mean. It’s severely geeky and I didn’t make it up. Be warned.

“Two male mathematicians are having lunch in a restaurant. One bets the other that the waitress, who’s blonde, won’t be able to solve the differential equation y=2x+1. Then he disappears to the men’s room. The second mathematician calls the waitress over and says ‘When my colleague asks you a question, tell him the answer’s y=x<exp2>+x. Just that. OK?’ She nods. A few minutes later the first mathematician returns and asks the question. The waitress smiles. ‘Why, it’s y=x<exp2>+x,’ she explains, and walks off. As she departs she adds: ‘Plus a constant.’”

I am sure everybody has their own stories about being classified by imagery – and the injustice of it. I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

(Confession – when I was a teenager, and still fair-haired, I failed a maths exam by NOT putting a constant at the end of my differentiations. Sigh.)

Lamenting the loss of anticipation in our instant world

A squib of a post today. A question. It’s this. We live in an instant world.

Want to know something? Get it instantly with Google on your hand-held. Take a photo. Look at it instantly. Want to buy something? Get it instantly on “the plastic”.

It’s all come from the computer revolution. Want something? The computer delivers – information, purchases, communication.

But it is also an age of instant disposability. An age in which we have forgotten to wait. An age in which the sense of anticipation is lost in the face of what we might call instant digital gratification.

Does this reduce the colour and depth of our society? A mixed blessing? Your thoughts please!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

What’s wrong with progress? Nothing, except the way we think about it.

I am always bemused about the way we frame everything, often unconsciously, around the notion of ‘progress’.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Progress – bigger, faster, heavier… more. This sucker is four times the size of the trucks I used to deal with when I was working for a trucking company and can take 100 tonnes of spoil in one hit. That’s me on the right.

The concept of progress has been part of our lives ever since the Age of Reason burst upon the western world and we started down the path of that led from rationality to industry to nuclear weapons and climate change. Progress.

Not every society has that view – but western society does. We see ‘progress’ in a lot of things. It’s how the world, supposedly, works.

Things ‘progress’ from primitive to sophisticated; it is often used to explain or justify human constructs – ‘you can’t stop progress’, usually uttered as a wrecking ball slams through the last piece of rain-forest.

The implicit meaning is ‘directional change for the better through time’. It suffuses the way we think, and is so much an automatic assumption that often we don’t think about it.

Karl Marx used the concept of ‘progress’ as a pivot for his theories about social change – the notion that society changes directionally towards an ultimate final point. He’d taken that in turn from his inspiration, Georg Hegel. As Barbara Tuchman points out, one outcome was that Marx became the butt of one of history’s greatest jokes. His concepts of verelendung and zussamenbruch simply didn’t work. History is not determinist. Yet, as far as I can tell, this same principle of progress to a final end point also framed the thinking of Francis Fukuyama when he declared, in 1992, that history was over with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had won, we’d hit the final ideological nirvana and there would be no further change.

The problem, I think, is that we misunderstand the concept of ‘progress’. We mix up two different ideas.

Progress describes the process of human learning and invention – the way we discover things, and the way we apply those discoveries. Look at computers. In 1995 I bought a computer running Windows 98 with a 266mHz PII CPU. In 2006 I bought a hand-held iPAQ (not an Apple product) whose ARM processor outspecced it. That’s progress, and very good progress too.

As I write this, I still have the iPAQ.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

But this concept of progress doesn’t describe everything humans do. Still less the way the universe works. The wider universe doesn’t automatically change in a direction at all, still less in a better one. We might define some of those changes as an improvement from our perspective. But not all.

Take the climate. It’s always changed naturally. Did it ever change in an ‘improved’ direction? Not really. It just changed. The state – ice age, dry, wet, and so forth – was  always transient. Of course now it’s changing in a specific direction, thanks to us, which is certainly not an improvement. Not for us, anyway.

It seems to me that the supposition that things change directionally has skewed our view of the way things work and – paradoxically – held up our understanding. We mask the deeper secrets of the universe from ourselves by viewing it through an obscured lens. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play jokes on us, the way history played jokes on Marx.

What’s your take on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013