Backfire on The Oatmeal

I’ve long been a fan of The Oatmeal, the often irreverent web comic drawn and written by Matthew Inman. Once upon a time, the comics were wry discussions of common points of friction in life, like bad grammar or exercising or packing for a trip, or happy excursions on interesting tidbits of wonder or joy, like the love of a pet or the amazing mantis shrimp or the incredible life of Nikolai Tesla. The comic has become so popular that Inman is a veritable one man viral campaign. His merest suggestion of support for a cause can raise millions of dollars in days.

Sadly, the comic has declined in recent years, in my opinion, because it has succumbed that disease that has run amok today, namely everything is political. So now the comics tend toward rants, mostly liberal, against the dangerous others, primarily Donald Trump and his voters.

In the last day or so, another Oatmeal comic has gone viral on the psychological phenomenon of the “backfire effect.”1 It’s a series of panels that are supposed to show that we are evolutionarily hardwired to believe new information that supports our core beliefs and reject new information that challenges them. His conclusion is that it’s okay to let our emotional selves react, but then we should engage our logic and change our minds so we can all be happy agreeing together.

I have a few problems with this.2 First, just because you can make a citation doesn’t make new information true. Yes, sometimes we are actually wrong about a basis fact of reality, e.g. That event occurred in 1945, not 1946. But even as Inman points out, those sorts of facts rarely impinge upon core beliefs. Instead core beliefs—those at the very core of self-identity and understanding—are complex. So a citation can never be simple. It’s often an interpretation or hypothesis or a claim that can admit no easy proofs.
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Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

Hacking the Front Door

I’ve been getting deeper into the Internet of Things or smarthome recently with connected lightbulbs and doorknobs and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a connected door lock. The advantage is being able to get in the house if I leave my keys inside but have my phone (which I always do) or letting Melanie or the kids in if they lock themselves out.

But I think I’ll be waiting a bit longer before going that route.

Gadget makers love the Internet of Things. Just look at connected refrigerators, connected tampons, and connected pregnancy tests as some examples. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, the security of these devices is often inadequate. This week at DEF CON, two researchers, Anthony Rose and Ben Ramsey, emphasized this point by demonstrating how they easily compromised 12 different Bluetooth Low Energy smart locks using cheap hardware that cost around $200 altogether.

If a lightbulb gets hacked, that’s annoying, but not consequential. If my front door gets hacked, it can be devastating.1

  1. Although to be fair, there are a lot easier ways to break into a house than hacking the front door, like picking the lock, busting the lock, busting a window, etc.

My Review of the Ring Video Doorbell and Camera

When we bought our house it didn’t have a doorbell and we never installed one. We made the reasonable assumption that with a house this small, you could usually hear a door knock anywhere in the house. But when I saw the Ring Video Doorbell, I realized there are other reasons I might want one.

The Ring Video Doorbell isn’t just a doorbell, as you might imagine from its name. It’s an internet-connected doorbell and video camera with a speaker and microphone built-in that lets me monitor and answer the door wherever I am through a smartphone app.

(Update 1/9/17: Updates and new details throughout the following blog entry.)
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Facebook Wants to Be the internet

The more you hear Mark Zuckerberg talk about the future of Facebook, the more you realize that his vision is not that Facebook become the biggest community on the internet or the biggest web site on the internet, but to become the internet itself.

The key point, and the one thing you really need to accept to understanding where Facebook is going, is that Zuckerberg sees internet access as key to making his company — and society — stronger. The internet creates jobs, brings people together, can educate those in underserved communities, and even allow for things like remote surgery to save lives. It’ll probably also make Facebook some money, too. If you take all of that as his starting point, the rest of Facebook’s initiatives begin to make sense.

Beware of Counterfeits when shopping on Amazon

CNBC reports on the growing problem of Chinese counterfeiters gaming the system on Amazon. Just because it says “fulfilled by Amazon” doesn’t mean that it’s authentic.

Always a problem, the counterfeiting issue has exploded this year, sellers say, following Amazon’s effort to openly court Chinese manufacturers, weaving them intimately into the company’s expansive logistics operation. Merchants are perpetually unsure of who or what may kill their sales on any given day and how much time they’ll have to spend hunting down fakers.

Some of the signs of fakers include lots of reviews that say “I received this item at discount in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.” And just because an item is cheapest and/or is listed as the bestseller in the category, doesn’t make it the real deal. As always, caveat emptor.

If you want to weed out the sub-standard products, you will want to get familiar with Fakespot.com.

Social Media Break

Last Friday, I resolved to take a short break from social media. I didn’t like what was happening to me there and I needed to step back and assess. As I come back, I’m going to be different.

I’ve been involved in Internet commentary of one kind or another for nigh on two decades now. I once said I started this blog in 2001 because I needed a different outlet than yelling at the TV news, and in that sense, it’s been a healthy outlet at times. But at other times, I’ve let my disgust or fear or insecurities show themselves in angry outbursts and unkind, uncharitable attacks. Unfortunately, social media did not improve that impulse.

Over the past year, as we’ve been bombarded by outrageous news story after story, I’ve found myself veering toward despair. There’s the Sophie’s choice between Trump and Hillary. There’s the Outrage of the Week, whether it’s Gorilla Mom or Stanford Rapist or the Orlando Shooting/Gun Control/Homophobia/Islamaphobia debate. My comments on Facebook have started to tend toward angry and mean and dismissive and abusive. My inability to convey my point in a logical manner was extremely frustrating. People just didn’t seem to get what I was saying.

A Brief Break and a Change

I knew it needed to stop. So I took a long weekend break. And I don’t know when or if I will return to writing on Facebook about contemporary events. In fact, I’ve begun to pare down my Facebook news feed to exclude those who post the sorts of things most likely to elicit my poor responses. That excludes friends who also write about the good things in their lives, sadly.

I’m not quitting social media. Just pulling back a bit.

Some might say I’m hypocritical, but I’m not going to stop writing about controversial subjects entirely. To cut down on the problematic interactions, I write here as much as I’m able, and not on social media.

I will reserve social media for more pleasant interactions. Pictures of the kids. Posts about places we go. Links to interesting stories about books and movies. That sort of thing.

Because in the other direction lies an ulcer and a bitter, old man. I don’t want to be him.

Facebook ruining another social network

In its efforts to ruin every social network it can get its hands on (or influence), Facebook is preparing to turn on a newsfeed algorithm for Instagram, which it bought for $1 billion a few years ago. This has led to an avalanche of Instagram posts from businesses, brands, and people who want you to turn on notifications so you will continue to see their images.

Why is Facebook doing this? As they said of their own site, most people have so many friends and so many brands they’ve followed that Facebook will now use the mind-reading software they’ve apparently invented to only show you what you really want to see. Because, if I was tired of seeing something, I couldn’t just unfollow the account I was tired of seeing. Thanks, Facebook, for treating us like incompetent boobs.

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