Twitter Followers

So I’ve been paying more attention to Twitter lately. I know, I know. I’m on the cutting edge of the times. Still, I admit that it has its uses, but spam never fails to amaze me.

Here is a perfectly legit gentleman, who happens to be more dope than all others, who is offering a service to get more followers. Now, we can debate the usefulness of having a bunch of spam bots following you- they certainly aren’t reading your clever jokes- but we can at least admit that in an image-conscious world, the appearance of followers leads to the appearance of influence.

But, and this might just be me, if you’re going to advertise a service whereas you are able to get "Thousands Twitter Followers with Cheap Price," then… I don’t know… you might want to actually have thousands of Twitter followers.

Really, if this guy is as dope as he says he is and he only has 135 followers then I can only presume that he knows absolutely nothing about how to get a respectable amount. Unfortunately, @Larkinlkj isn’t alone in his delusions.

No, Judith. You need keep secret to yourself.

People outraged at Media Coverage

I keep seeing posts from people who are outraged at the news coverage of the Connecticut school shooting. People complain that the topic is being spammed everywhere, missing the irony that their last 6 Facebook posts were about the incident. Even worse, Morgan Freeman is freely quoted as being a genius who claims the news is making heroes out of the killers and shouldn’t be plastering their names everywhere, which only serves to convince others to do the same and become infamous. For one, attributing Freeman to that quote was a hoax and the whole thing never happened. Even if it did, that wasn’t the actor being a genius- whoever wrote the quote is just a person echoing what every serial killer expert and crime behavior analyst has said over the past 50 years.

So is there some truth to it? Is the media behaving irresponsibly? Yes, and perhaps. I’m surely not defending them. But what the majority of the people don’t understand is that traditional news is a platform for old people to be outraged. Kids aren’t tuned in to Fox News watching this story unfold. You know who is? Parents who grew up without the internet who can’t believe how different the world is today. You know why you are saturated by this coverage? Because you choose to be. Who in their right mind bitches about a tv show and keeps watching it? You are part of the problem. If you don’t want to be inundated with sensationalist media, don’t give it views or clicks.

Tech Sites

Obviously I don’t hate important or material analysis but anyone who barely casually kinda glances at any one of a number of popular tech sites on the web knows that they are going to be inundated with trivial coverage of Apple minutia. Speculation on the next iPhone with or without concrete facts? Check. Name-dropping Steve Jobs months after his death for desperate attempts at page views? Check. Can someone explain why the stock went up, down, or stayed exactly the same? Check.

You can identify a bad quality tech site when half of their articles are Apple focused. You can still somehow read a new piece about Steve Jobs every day if you subscribe to only a handful of feeds. Is the iPhone a big deal? Of course, and the fact that so many people own one make its mention excellent link bait, but there’s not really any interesting news to get out of most of these tidbits. While many of them are stock price analysis and new technology speculation, many others are inane bullshit.

If a new Apple commercial comes out you can be sure that a brave and responsible journalist will rise to the task of telling us about it. New actors pushing Siri? An old commercial getting taken down from the YouTube channel? There are some high profile respectable sites getting caught up in places they would be better to avoid.

I get the fact that Apple is moving a lot of merchandise and money these days and they will naturally be the topic of conversations, but that doesn’t mean that a dialog is always warranted. Instead of reporting legitimate news, websites are generating their own stories to cash in on Apple’s popularity. I had to straight up stop following some tech sites because they were spamming my Pulse reader harder than Twitter. This article, not counting the joke at the end, is a 3 sentence drive-by-gossiping about a possible new iPhone charger.

Bang up job there, bro.

What about rumor articles like this?

‘Maybe’ isn’t generally a word that screams journalistic integrity. The article goes on to say that there are other rumors pointing at 2 other companies, which is essentially just admitting that it’s a slow news day.

This is why I’ve really started respecting Ars Technica as a site with good info. They really seem to be above the pandering and go out and analyze interest topics. Of course, I’ve recently realized they’re not quite so perfect either. It’s not so much that there’s an article talking about hating a new line of Apple commercials- after all, hating is what I almost exclusively do here- but the signature of the article made me cringe.

Senior Apple Editor? Ugh. With narrow positions like that, who could really blame her for inventing stories to stay relevant?

Link Bait Headlines

The Escapist was a site that I used to respect. It was video game commentary for adults. Perhaps it was always a bit highbrow but there was enough meat in the philosophizing to give it purpose. Nowadays the site has evolved into a video channel, more or less, with articles and related “news”. While some might bemoan the change, it does fit in with a more modern internet and I can’t really blame the shift.

These days, however, The Escapist is starting to employ link bait techniques. That is, using sensationalist headlines that overblow anything the article actually talks about solely for the purpose of attracting attention.

"Games Aren’t Good For Adults" claims a news link. Clicking through quickly reveals the true headline to be "Games Aren’t Good Enough For Adults", which means something completely different.

Or what about the “Avengers Cost NYC $160 Billion in Damages" story, where reading the article explains that this is the amount of money that a real life execution of the fantasy plot would actually cost the city.

Is the website hurting that much for ad revenue? Please treat us like adults. Right now the headlines are going the way of Yahoo!.

For a bit of background, let me explain that I am a Generation X internet user. This means at one point I used Yahoo! as my main hub for searches. I am a pretty brand loyal type of guy, and while others were moving on to the newfangled Google, I stayed true to the old guard. Did it matter that the new upstart was sleek and clean and didn’t have a page littered with services? Sure, that’s a big deal, but I wasn’t naïve in thinking that Google would never build into the same type of thing. In point of fact, simple searches are often beleaguered with pandering to join Google+ or the like these days. But that’s not why I left Yahoo! years ago.

This is old Yahoo!. You can see the queue of news stories below. All of these have legitimate reporting value. The lead story, however, is a bit curious. Look at that picture of meteors. A dazzling meteor shower “could send up to 200 meteors per hour streaking across the sky.” Cool! Wait a minute- 200 per hour? What is that, about 3 meteors a minute? Isn’t that an awfully deceptive image for 1 meteor every 20 seconds?

Up next is this investigative gem. A 40-yard dash time “is too good for one blogger to believe.” What? This is a “news” story about a blog that takes offense at something? That’s like the AP running an expose and linking to my site because I said Ghost Hunting Shows were stupid. There is no journalistic value to that at all.

Up next in Yahoo!’s cutting edge repertoire: a funny animal video. Ok, these light-hearted distractions will always find a way to people’s eyes. Let’s see what the once giant search engine headlines for the “Best videos of ‘09”. A deer walking through a cat door. Except that this video looks awfully familiar, and the timestamp of 1999 is a dead giveaway that this video is REALLY OLD. It was probably first seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos. How is this a best of video for 2009 exactly?

It’s obvious at this point that Yahoo! is scrambling for page views. They don’t have any content so they are referring to opinion blogs and videos from last century to stay afloat. But what happens when even that isn’t enough? Will they just flat out make up facts? This Ke$ha headline explicitly states that she has “the most downloaded track by a female artist ever.” That is a pretty bold claim. Ever? Man, that is unbelievable. I mean, really, super surprising. Let me just read about that.

Oh, I see. The reason I didn’t believe this fact is because is was completely untrue. The song wasn’t the most downloaded track by a female artist ever, it just had the highest weekly sum. That’s impressive for sure, but why the need to lie? Yes, you fooled me again Yahoo!. You got another link click. You know what I got? A new search engine. And that’s when I started using Google.

So back to The Escapist and the internet in general. This kind of link baiting is a desperation move, a last ditch ploy to keep traffic up. What it most certainly is not is a viable long term strategy for providing readers with good content. One thing people seem to have forgotten these days is that respect is hard to gain but easy to lose. Selling it off for a few more years of profit may help the bottom line today but it does significant damage to an ailing brand down the road.

Speaking of which, it’s almost time to find a new, improved, better search engine. Anyone have suggestions?

Free WiFi

More and more places offer free WiFi now – coffee shops, hotels, airports. Small locations that make more money by attracting you to their stores, like Starbucks, have decent WiFi but it isn’t really free – you need the right cell phone plan or something. Excluding these and looking at larger locations, even considering the payment of large amounts of money for hotel rooms and airfare, the service delivered with free WiFi is almost universally atrocious.

First off, there’s the major annoyance of having to login through a custom portal. Often this doesn’t automatically happen if you are using something like an app instead of just a browser. And even when you do get connected you can never be confident that it won’t time out in 5 or 10 minutes. God forbid you put your device down to go to the bathroom (like a civilized person) and find yourself a stranger to the system when you get out. But these are just minor annoyances.

Call me crazy but my number one rule for WiFi is that it should be faster than a 3G cell connection. In other words, the point isn’t only to save on paying for data but to be faster and more convenient than having to wait for web pages to load. At Oakland Airport my iPad was loading pictures so slowly that I thought I was on a dialup modem back in the mid 90s. I was forced to read my Cracked articles without being able to look at pictures of boobs or other random novelties. Believe me, generic stock photos with clever captions are not nearly as humorous without the image loaded.


Pictured: A dog thinking about converting to Judaism.

My hotel room in San Francisco, which I consider a pretty connected city, had such a slow connection that, at one point, my phone couldn’t even return results from a google search until I manually disabled WiFi so my data connection would take over. And the kicker is that the WiFi wasn’t even free. It cost $50 for the week, which is more than I pay for my high speed internet service every month. How are companies getting away with this?

Cleverbot

Me: How are you today?

Cleverbot: Fine, how are you?

Me: I’m pretty good considering it’s Monday.

Cleverbot: You should get something to eat.

Me: I always skip breakfast but it’s almost lunchtime.

Cleverbot: So I’m eating your face?

Me: Is that a euphemism?

Cleverbot: No.

Me: Are you a cannibal?

Cleverbot: No, I am an aspiring vegetarian.

Me: My face is made out of meat. If you are eating my face then you are not a vegetarian.

Cleverbot: I’m not from earth.

Me: Vegetarians are from Earth.

Cleverbot: They are awesome, perhaps, but not necessarily smart.

Me: I would agree that you are not necessarily smart.

I have to admit, I’m disappointed that computers don’t actually exclaim, “CAN NOT COMPUTE! CAN NOT COMPUTE!” and explode when they are caught in logical fallacies.

reCAPTCHA

Everyone knows what a captcha is by now but in case you are blissfully unaware let me explain it. You are perusing a website article about how it’s perfectly acceptable for grown men to read all the Harry Potter novels when you feel the need to set the record straight. You click on ‘Post Comment’ ready to troll the author and otherwise tell him what a big nerd he is when something like this appears on your screen.

So now you need to stop what you are doing and decode some text before you can proceed to explain why everybody who is commenting besides you is a moron.

The reason we all need to go through with this ritual is because the internet is a horrible place where everybody is trying to sell you budget viagra. Spam bots will scour the web looking for places to comment and leave messages like “BUY VIAGGRA FOR DICK LONG!! LADIES SAY YES!!”. Since these spam bots aren’t actual people they have the advantage of being able to post millions of comments around the web in the time it would take us to string a proper sales pitch together. But the lack of a human brain is also the spam bot’s downfall.

You see, computers have trouble in certain areas that are second nature to humans. Spatial recognition, context, speaking- these are all challenging tasks that we take for granted. Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, allows computers to scan an image of text and convert it to actual text, in effect translating the image. Computers can actually do this fairly well but problems arise when the font type is not recognized or the letters are smudged or the image quality is low. And that’s why captchas work, because spam bots aren’t able to correctly decipher the fuzzy images of words to access the commenting sections of websites.

Enter reCAPTCHA, a clever new kind of captcha that wants to put the human brain to noble use. It is a Google project that aims to translate years of printed books and New York Times newspapers and preserve them on the web. After scanning and analyzing text images, reCAPTCHA takes the words OCR has trouble with and publishes them for human eyes to decipher. You enter the text and essentially translate a word that the computer couldn’t so now it knows the correct answer.

This is all well and good but what does this mean for security? If the computer doesn’t know the correct answer then how does it know that you are a legitimate human? reCAPTCHA uses two words, one that it knows the answer to and the other that it wants the answer to. If you submit the correct answer for the known word then it assumes your answer for the other is correct and validates you. I initially worried about there being an easy word and a difficult word. What is stopping a spam bot with OCR from successfully bypassing the captcha? The OCR will correctly identify the easy word, then mess up on the difficult word, and the reCAPTCHA will accept the mistake as a correct translation as long as the easy word is a match! Let me reiterate. If captcha text is not generated by a human on a word proven to fail OCR, then it is not an effective antispam measure. Google claims that both words used are unreadable by OCR and that is probably true, but playing around with the web service shows a whole lot of easy words that I have a hard time believing can’t be solved by bots.

Now, I’m not claiming to be smarter than Google and the entire reCAPTCHA project so I will defer to their claims of security. It seems like a legit enough process, yet still a process that inherently allows us to game the system. Any time you see a reCAPTCHA branded captcha, it’s time to start having fun.

This is an actual captcha from their website that was approved.

Oops. I just made the New York Times racist. You can play around with it yourself here.