Elixis Technology

Las Vegas IT

The World’s Most Specific Shirt

Elizabeth Technology February 29, 2024

You’ve probably seen some variation of the shirt.

You’re wondering how it’s so wildly specific. You click it, and scroll down, and somehow… somehow the company seems to have made shirts specifically for you, the boyfriend of a Registered Nurse who was born in June, who’s a little crazy with a heart of gold.

And then you notice on other channels, people are getting shirts that say ‘Never mess with a Union Welder born in November with Blue Eyes’. ‘My Boyfriend is a Crazy Libra who loves Fishing and Mountain Biking”. Okay… it’s specific… but no harm, right?

What’s happening?

The Ads

First, some context. Facebook takes information like birth date, gender, likes and dislikes, etc. to hyper-tailor ads directly to specific individuals. On the advertiser’s side, Facebook allows their advertising customers to modify ads depending on group – companies can make multiple ads for their product to better build a brand image for any one customer’s specific demographic profile.

Picture that a company makes hair gel for adolescents as well as young adults, for example. The adult is looking to impress their coworkers, but the kid just wants to prevent helmet hair. The gel does both, but the ad will change the target customer’s view of the product – is it for skateboarders, or is it for professionals? Only a super generic ad could appeal to both, and generic ads do much worse than targeted ones. Luckily, Facebook’s fine-tuned ad program can determine which set of ads the viewer should be seeing, and the company can make two ads, one for skateboarders, and one for young professionals.

However, that’s time consuming, so many ad vendors allow mix-n-match campaigns, where lines are taken from one ad and put in another. An adolescent’s ad would work for most teens if the wording was a little different – see Axe’s body spray ads. Sometimes the company doesn’t even have to make the new lines themselves, they just include a modifiable blank field in the ad space and they’re good to go.

That’s where things go sideways! A blank line in an insurance ad can tell the user that they’ll be eligible for a rate as low as X$ based on their age and gender. A blank line in a kennel ad knows they’re looking for a medium dog over a small cat based on their search history. A blank line in a T-shirt ad tells them that Facebook knows they’re a Gemini, an accountant, of Swedish descent, a regular fisher, an occasional beer-drinker, and more.

Art and More

Even worse, bots that work on similar mechanisms have been caught scraping art from artists and slapping it on cheap T-shirts. Since copyright enforcement is dependent on the copyright owner filing for takedown, shirts with that artwork might get sold before the artist even knows something’s amiss. The shirts are frequently poor-quality rips directly from the artist’s social media account, triggered by comments requesting wearable merch or complimenting the work – the bot determines demand and then harvests it, without human intervention, just like the ad T-shirts.

Sure, the artist can request a takedown each and every time the bots snag their art, but it’s a slog, and the company itself never seems to actually do anything meaningful about the violations. It’s also bad for the artist’s reputation: fans complaining to them about the quality of a shirt they bought may be the first time the artist hears about the art theft, and then explaining to someone that they’ve been scammed is only going to make them angrier. It becomes “How could you let this happen” instead of “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize” – everyone loses except for the ad bot’s shirt company.

The ‘Why’

Before companies like ZapTee and CustomInk, getting a custom shirt meant going to a print shop and paying a hefty price for the final product. As such, shirt companies just didn’t make shirts like these ad bots do. It was unfeasible. If it didn’t sell, it was a waste of production. The closest you could get was “I’m a Proud Mom!” or “Rather be Fishin’”. If you were an artist, and your work was too fringe for major manufacturers to work with, you might have had to buy the screen-printing supplies yourself, build your own website or storefront, source blank shirts, and do things the hard way.

Now, all of that is easily outsourced to these printing companies that specialize in customizable products. The tech has improved so much that they can make money on single shirt sales, where before orders had to be in bulk. It’s honestly incredible. However, customers don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms behind these shirts. The specifics on the shirt are just blank space fill-ins, based on information Facebook gives to the ad. They think they’re seeing a unicorn out in the wild when they see something that relates to them. They’re thinking back to the times where companies couldn’t do this, where everything was geared towards two or three consumer profiles. “Wow, a shirt for Peruvians!” instead of “Oh, Facebook knows I’m Peruvian”.

Or in the case of the art-rippers, they see merch from an artist they really like and respect, and buy it without wondering if it’s official because – once again – they’re thinking back to a time when companies didn’t steal art (not officially, anyway) for shirts. Independent artists had to beg, barter, and network their way onto the front of a T-shirt, there wasn’t any other way to sell art-shirts en masse before silk-screen tech got cheap. Therefore, there’s no way unofficial or stolen art merch exists, it just doesn’t happen!

The Marketing

A company named Signal decided to take out ads mocking Facebook’s hyper-specific targeting by simply filling in a MadLib with demographic spots.

The result is, shockingly, just like the T-shirts! Facebook already knows you pretty well. A trend of ‘hyper-targeting’ took over once social media websites realized that people guard their info from companies but share it willingly with friends, publicly. As a result, it can pinpoint things like your favorite movie, your favorite color, what items you’ve bought online (and post about), your perfect vacation, and how dark you like your coffee, to name a few, all harvested from comments and posts you share with your friends. Ads then generate shirts out of what the site gathers. You can turn off targeted advertising in Google, but that doesn’t mean they’re not gathering information. It just means you’re not seeing the direct results of that. The only way to fight the hyper-targeting is to be vague and lie to the platforms, or stay off of them altogether.

If you or an artist you know gets their work ripped by bots, combatting it is unfortunately pretty difficult. The best you can do is sometimes just cave and make your own branded products via something like RedBubble or FanJoy. Give customers an official way to support their favorite artist, and most of the time, they’ll take it! Making your social media work obnoxiously and obviously watermarked helps, as does making the preview pic low-quality. Fans need to know that you have official channels, and if they buy from anywhere else, they’re not supporting you. If they like it so much that they want to wear it, they should want the artist to keep making more of it! Make that link between your official purchasing channels and their support of your work clear.

Sources:

Reddit.com/r/TargetedShirts

https://www.vox.com/2018/4/11/17177842/facebook-advertising-ads-explained-mark-zuckerberg

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50817561

What is an RFID Chip?

Elizabeth Technology February 27, 2024

Definitions

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, and it’s usually used in the context of a chip! There are active and passive types: an active RFID chip has a tiny battery with it, while a passive one is powered by the energy of the reader’s signals alone. Active chips can be read from much greater distances, but the battery makes them heavier and more expensive. Meanwhile passive chips have to be blasted with the RFID signal to be read.

How do they work?

RFID chips are great because they’re small, and they don’t take line-of-sight to read like many other cataloguing techs do.

There are three major parts to an RFID chip: the microchip, an antenna for receiving and broadcasting signals, and substrate to hold it together. RFIDs work with radio waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation. They actually got their start during the end of WWII, where a Soviet engineer created a passive listening device activated by radio waves, which would then store a small amount of information about the transmission. It wasn’t really the same as what we use in security tags and inventory systems today, but it was a tiny passive chip with information stored on it passively, and that’s close enough! 1973 saw a real attempt at the kind we have today, and ever since, they’ve been shrinking in size.

RFID chips can also come with read-only or read/write memory, depending on the style of that chip. Essentially, it has a very small amount of memory on it, just enough to store things like batch number, serial number, or address, in the case of pet tags. They’re not very complex: in the case of an active tag, the reader simply dings the RFID chip, which then responds on a compatible wavelength with the relevant information via that antenna.

Some chips broadcast constantly, while others broadcast on a regular interval, and some wait for the RFID reader to ding them before they send their data. In a passive chip, the RFID reader has to ding the chip so hard that it absorbs enough EM radiation to respond – energy hits the antenna, travels to the chip, and powers it enough to activate the antenna for signalling, which then causes the chip’s signal to travel back up the antenna and transmit to the reader. Neat!

Utility

An RFID chip’s low profile and small size makes them great for inventory management. Since the chip doesn’t need line-of-sight like barcode scanners do, production doesn’t have to worry about maintaining a certain orientation towards cameras for their items, they can just pass them over an RFID scanner and they’re good to go. Radio waves can pass through solid objects!

The RFID chips are also good at tracking inventory while in the store: you’ll notice many big box stores have an exit with detectors alongside the doors, which prevents unscanned or active chips from getting out the door. It also sometimes triggers on nametags and items the cashier had to scan in the cart, but most of the time it works as intended.

RFID chips are great for livestock and pet chipping – they’re small, and not only are they less painful than a tattoo, the data is also unlikely to migrate or blur like ink could in a pet’s ear. The initial wound is also smaller, which makes infection less likely. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but they carry a lot more information for less relative risk to the animal.

On the human side, RFID chips are frequently used in employee identification badges – the theory is that it’s harder to copy and easier to read than a barcode scanner for restricted areas. Some people go so far as to get them implanted, but the ethics of that are… iffy, to say the least, even if they want the implant. The long-term effects in humans just aren’t that well-known, and while pets are a good indicator that nothing should go wrong, pets also don’t have to worry about getting their phone hacked because their pet tag carried a virus along.

RFID chips are now popular in credit cards! The chip in the card is (in theory) safer than the regular magnetic stripe, and it’s supposed to be much harder to copy. Of course, early versions still had their issues, but now they’re difficult to signal from a distance.

Flaws

RFID chips aren’t free from flaws.

Security can be a problem, especially for active chips, which can be read from hundreds of meters away. Most vendors have some sort of protocol in place, but for a hot minute, RFIDs in cards were a potential security nightmare. Remember all those anti-RFID chip wallets? That’s because readers were able to access the chip as though they were being used for a purchase. It just wasn’t very safe before protocols were established.

Secondarily, a bunch of folks went out of their way to prove that the more complex RFIDs could become transmission sites for computer viruses – one guy had one implanted in his hand, and if the virus could infect that hand, then the virus could get anywhere he could wirelessly. The perfect crime! Airgapped networks were no longer safe if RFIDs were on the table.

Incompatible readers can make inventory transfers more painful than they need to be, as well – the ISO sets standards for which channels get to be used for what purposes, but the companies have to comply with them first. They also have to have the right kind of reader – is it scanning for active or passive chips? The two have very different needs. An active reader might not be able to find a passive chip!

There’s also the sticky issue of privacy and destruction. How do you get rid of the tag on the product once it’s no longer needed for inventory? RFIDs can be destroyed by microwaves, but that doesn’t help if they’re attached to an electronic, which can also be destroyed by microwaves. They can be wrapped in foil a couple of times, and stop transmitting long distances – on some objects, that makes them unusable. It takes special equipment and some professional skill to actually scan a building for RFIDs, but it’s not totally impossible.

It just takes work, the kind of work a stalker or government agent might be willing to put in if they needed info on a person so badly that they’d want to see what items they had in their house. This is also more difficult than it sounds because most chips go by something vaguely specific, like a batch or serial number with no product name attached, but it’s not impossible. It would just take quite a lot of effort when stalking via binoculars is much easier.

It’s also still possible to clone RFIDs – passports with RFIDs in them could be an especially large problem for both the original holder and the government of that country. The obvious option, credit cards, are still cloneable too, although with modern banking it’s often not worth the investment for the scammers.

However. With tech improving every day, it may be possible to limit what chips respond to which scanners, which would make it much more difficult to invade privacy. Chips get smaller and smaller every day, so it’s entirely possible a password- or signal- protected RFID may some day come into power.

Sources:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224328848_Impacts_of_RF_radiation_on_the_human_body_in_a_passive_RFID_environment

https://www.atlasrfidstore.com/rfid-insider/active-rfid-vs-passive-rfid

https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/high-tech-gadgets/rfid.htm

https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-coronavirus-vaccine/fact-check-magnet-test-does-not-prove-covid-19-jabs-contain-metal-or-a-microchip-idUSL2N2N41KA

https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-vaccine-microchip-gates-ma/fact-check-rfid-microchips-will-not-be-injected-with-the-covid-19-vaccine-altered-video-features-bill-and-melinda-gates-and-jack-ma-idUSKBN28E286

Reasons to Recycle Your Phone

Elizabeth Technology February 22, 2024

1.Lithium batteries are not biodegradable.

In general, modern materials don’t really degrade much. When was the last time something you owned rusted away completely? And if it did – did it really? The spot below the cheap, neglected grill in my friend’s back yard has no grass growing on it. The rust is still there to interfere with that grass’s growth, even though it’s technically degraded. That grass may eventually come back if the rain ever washes enough of the contaminated dirt away, but until then, the ground is inhospitable. Now picture that with metal that’s not designed to spoil, and chemicals that are much harsher. Batteries are by far one of the most concerning items to trash. They tend to corrode and release acid if not disposed of properly, and the bigger the battery, the bigger the concern for acid to leach into whatever it’s laying on top of. You don’t want something you threw away to make a mini-superfund site, surely?

2. They also don’t behave well when the internals are exposed to air.

You cannot just dump a phone in the trash when you’re buying a new one. Besides the environmental effects (which can be anywhere from acid leaching to heavy metal poisoning, depending on battery type) there’s also a real danger of starting an unquenchable fire in a garbage truck. If it’s one of the fancy ones that can compact garbage as it picks it up, the battery being punctured can set off a fire inside the bin. If you’re unlucky, and others have thrown out paper trash or flammables, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. Recycle the phone! If not the phone, then at least the battery!

3. The phone contains rare earth metals.

These are metals that are common in the Earth’s crust, but very difficult to actually mine out and purify economically. After a point, mining them might make phones too expensive for the average consumer – so it’s important to harvest what parts are harvestable! Besides that, the phone itself isn’t going to bio-degrade because it’s completely inorganic. Rather than let all those precious minerals and non-degrading materials go to waste, recycle!

4. The hard drive may not be wiped the way you hope it is.

It’s very possible to recover deleted documents off of a hard drive months after ‘wiping’. Wiping a traditional hard drive completely is difficult, and solid states only make it harder. The hard drive still has a phantom copy of the old doc until it’s written over with something else, or grazed with a magnet. Doing this thoroughly is difficult, which is why you should recycle through a reputable hardware recycler. This is especially important for things like email apps, which frequently don’t ask users to log in after the first time they’re used on the phone!

5. Having a secondary market is essential for the health of the industry.

If the number of workable phones is low, people are forced to buy the new model because it’s all they can find. This is why planned obsolescence is so insidious. They’re deliberately cutting down the market for their users so they can sell more new phones at a high price. If this was a perfectly efficient world where consumers had perfect information, this would lead to the company dying, because nobody wants to pay 700$ for something that breaks in three years. But it’s not – it’s a world where people drop an extra $200 on a phone for its camera. It’s a world where the phone carrier forces you to upgrade as part of their contract. It’s a world where branding is the fashion. It is not perfectly efficient, and as long as the manufacturers recognize this, they will make attempts to money-grub.

Keep those second-hand phones in the market and force manufacturers to keep making phones at least as well as their old products. This is still recycling! It’s keeping the phone from its final death in a landfill, and extending it’s life for as long as possible.

6. Broken Phones Still have Valuable Parts

If the phone’s so broken that it’s not possible to re-sell it, consider recycling it anyway – lithium batteries have many uses, and as mentioned before, those rare earth metals aren’t getting any less rare. Recycling the phone by sending it somewhere to get it broken down is also valid recycling. If you can squeeze just a little bit more use out of a device by dropping it off or passing it on – why wouldn’t you?

Besides, the facility will know how to handle that battery!

Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/mobile-phones-elements-periodic-table-endangered-chemicals-st-andrews-a8739921.html

https://www.npr.org/2020/11/18/936268845/apple-agrees-to-pay-113-million-to-settle-batterygate-case-over-iphone-slowdowns

You Don’t Need New Clothes From Shein

Elizabeth Technology February 20, 2024

The fast fashion and consumer gadget industries are pumping out literal tons of cheap products for insanely low prices. While having the ability to order a super cheap pair of corduroy pants for a costume would ordinarily be cool, it’s costing more than money to make and buy these clothes, and consumers have been relying on this industry for content instead the actual clothing, which is making it worse.

First, a better-known fashion brand decides corsets are back in and makes one for a show. If this idea is accepted, then other fashion houses get in on the trend and start bringing corsets out to the runway to compete. Eventually, celebrities wear them, and because celebrities are wearing them, ordinary people want to wear them too.

The catch is that not all of them have designer money, and other companies profit off of that by making cheaper ‘dupes’ of the initial design. Not close enough to get sued over, but clearly inspired. Many people go this route, but some are looking for an even cheaper product – they may want to keep up with the trends on a student budget, for example, and know they don’t need high or even medium quality clothing because they’re used to this routine. They know something new will pop up on social media before they really put it to the test. It just needs to look good now.

Less reputable stores sense the demand via a number of channels and start producing a corset top that might or might not be just like one of the fashion brand ones if it were made of polyester and had plastic bones instead of metal ones, producing absurd amounts at a time using underpaid labor from a different market. These are much closer, at least on paper, to the original piece of clothing – Shein has been caught multiple times outright stealing designs. Eventually, demand runs out, the item is no longer trendy, and instead of recycling the fabric or trying to time the end of the line better, all of the remainder of the product that didn’t sell now goes to a landfill, and production of the next item begins. There’s always a next item! There’s usually multiple. Social media has made it easier than ever for things to trend off of a whisper of a hint from an influencer, and because the products are so cheap, it’s easy to buy and then dump entire wardrobes’ worth of clothing every two months on the consumer side, which keeps the ball rolling. 

Temu sells other consumer goods like plastic strainers or desk knickknacks, and Alibaba, which has been around for longer than either Temu or Shein, seems to sell everything under the sun, some more legit than the rest. The machine continues to profit because even when something manages to survive four or five trips through the washing machine or dishwasher without disintegrating, it’ll get tossed anyway to make room for the next product. The textiles are dirt-cheap, the labor is dirt-cheap, the shipping and the disposal are both wasteful but without consequence. The final result is a market fueled by demand for things that can be let go as garbage with the least friction possible.  

The invention of “Shein Hauls” is one of the worse things to come out of TikTok. The clothing itself is so cheap to buy that it doesn’t make sense to spend the gas to return it once it’s arrived. None of it looks very good off camera. As long as we show interest in online content buying huge amounts of clothes or trying cheap gadgets, these sites have a market.

Sources: https://www.bu.edu/sph/news/articles/2022/the-aftermath-of-fast-fashion-how-discarded-clothes-impact-public-health-and-the-environment/

The Train That Breaks Itself

Elizabeth Technology February 15, 2024

If you’ve paid any attention to big tech in the last several years, you’ll probably know that Apple is on the verge of switching to USB-C for phones. It’s easier and more accessible for the average EU citizen to acquire than Apple’s lightning chargers. It’s not just Apple that’s being forced to change for the sake of the customer – the shareholder system at large is constantly at odds with the end user’s rights to buy a complete, sturdy product that wasn’t designed to break a few months down the road so that an official BrandProduct shop can charge over the market rate to fix it. Thanks to the EU’s legal interventions, Apple (and many others) cannot continue to sell a product that only they can make chargers and power supplies for, that only they can update, that they can choose to brick whenever they feel like the user needs to move on to the next phone, etc.

The Newag train scandal is particularly egregious given this context!

Big parts of Europe rely heavily on trains for both passenger and freight transit, and trains are expensive to make and repair; once the state has invested money into infrastructure and the trains themselves, they won’t simply be switching brands on a whim. This already gives the company a massive amount of leverage over their contractors.

 Newag is one such train company. Allegedly, as Apple did, Newag figured that regular repair and maintenance were good places to squeeze a bit more money out of the customer, and set up a bit of code within the train’s computer brain that would cause it to error and stop working if anyone but a Newag shop touched it to fix it. Keep in mind train repair shops are already incredibly niche, and repairs to trains come out of taxpayer money – to be thriftier by going to an independent shop is an obligation when the money isn’t your own. Worse, even if the shop didn’t need to fix anything in the train’s computer, Newag’s trains are GPS-enabled, and if the train spent too long at an independent train-repair station, it would still mysteriously stop working.

Of course, Newag denies this heavily – they even went as far as trying to sue the company that discovered this quirk, Dragon Sector, into shutting up about it. Then, they suggested it was the result of cybercriminals and not Newag itself, which could make sense if this were ransomware stopping the train entirely and not just when the train didn’t stop at a Newag shop or get it’s special unlock code. The odds are stacking up against the company, as the evidence is too clearly pointing towards predatory practices for them to get out of an investigation.

Sources:

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2023/12/manufacturer-deliberately-bricked-trains-repaired-by-competitors-hackers-find/

Online Investment In Dud Projects

Elizabeth Technology February 13, 2024

During the 2010s, a number of huge enterprises got investor money, started a project, maintained it with great success until the investors started wanting their money back, and then the service of the project started absolutely sucking – if it actually managed to live through the ‘you must turn a profit’ phase of its growth, which many did not.

The internet had a hand in this. By giving a large crowd of people a place to say they’d definitely use any service that does X, investors can see demand for a product that doesn’t yet exist, which makes a return seem easier to achieve. A secondary effect is that they don’t have to understand what the service does, they just have to know that customers want it – a formidable barrier for innovators of times past is now an escalator for inventors who can simply dazzle a crowd with buzzwords and get demand out of them. Customer/investor hybridizing sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter were notorious for this until they also changed their terms of service.  

Smaller Ones

More attainable goals on crowdfunding websites are not less likely to run into issues than their larger funding counterparts, they’re just smaller. The stakes are usually lower, but often still painful if they fail. After all, if you pay 1,500$ to get an extra special package of products and services for a startup that goes belly-up before anything goes out the door, you’re out the money, even if it probably didn’t bankrupt you. IndieGoGo and Kickstarter generally can’t recoup that loss for you if the side taking the money didn’t formally announce a failure or otherwise initiate a refund.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell when a project is going to fail, especially if you tried to get in early. While some projects can raise red flags on first sight (unrealistic wholesale/retail product pricing ratios, overemphasis on a personality to sell the product, or unrealistic production means for example), many others look fine. The best way to avoid spending money with nothing to show for it is to look at other examples of failed projects and see if you spot any uncomfortable similarities.

Early NFT projects, for example, were totally uncharted. The product itself was so new that nobody knew what signs of scams or failure would look like. A number of NFT projects promised access to something of value (a game, a cartoon, a virtual world/networking site, etc.) for the purchase of the NFT, but once they were fully funded, a bunch of them would rug-pull their investors and bounce with the money. Some didn’t bounce (by which I mean they stayed in contact with NFT buyers), but still failed to produce anything. The Bored Apes project at least managed to make a couple episodes of the cartoon they promised, but because the show was pitched and directed by people specializing in tech, not animation, it didn’t exactly come out like Rick and Morty.

But say you wouldn’t have fallen for the NFT hype – it doesn’t have to look like a bad investment to be one. In a more recent, more material example, James Somerton’s film production company sucked up a ton of money (achieving nearly 10x its initial goal for fundraising) and then had huge wait times for the films promised, and the person in charge – James himself – was quiet for months, only rarely updating with news about the delays. James, a video essayist, was really well-liked up until a couple of months ago when some terrible news about his content came out, so his backers were extra lenient. They made excuses for him, and many possibly forgot they’d contributed to his project at all because of the length of the wait. Now, it seems unlikely he’ll get anything out the door at all because of recent controversies, and that money is probably not going to be refunded.

Similarly, video game projects from first time game-makers have a high chance of failure, oftentimes because they don’t know the true scale of the work required before they start developing it and promise more than they can deliver. Internet personalities will sometimes have an idea for a game that is far beyond the skill of the studio they partnered with to make it (which happened to the Yogscast group on Youtube) or become so invested in what they already had built beforehand that they won’t let anyone else touch it (which happened to the game Yandere Simulator). For beginners, starting wrong and having to tear down and rebuild is okay when it’s a private project, but when it’s someone else’s money, the idea of ‘losing’ progress makes them more likely to double down on a road that won’t produce a good finished product. Failed games that ‘should’ have been simple to make instead spent months in development hell with nothing to show for it.

Why Even Bother Talking About It?

As the next generation sidles up to the plate, it’s important to make sure they actually know what they’re doing when they whip out a credit card to buy or ‘invest’ in something. A lot of kids raised on electronics don’t understand the fundamentals behind the internet. Think about it – what does playing RoBlox have to do with learning how to type in a professional voice? Does buying skins from Fortnite tell kids that digital assets are only worth the joy they bring? Does watching Cocomelon on Youtube teach kids about online safety or that adults can lie to them? Just granting access to the tools necessary to learn important lessons isn’t the same as teaching, and can have disastrous consequences when they learn something the hard way. Without actual, guided teaching about spotting scams, these kids learn only what is necessary to have fun online, lose their data, get scammed, get viruses, and suffer for an assumed level of knowledge that they don’t actually have because they were only taught how to click and tap on things. It’s worth talking about. It’s worth teaching. It’s necessary. It probably always will be.

Identifying Buzzwords In Online Hype

Elizabeth Technology February 8, 2024

What is a buzzword? Oxford defines it as a word or phrase, often a bit of jargon, that’s fashionable at a particular time, or in a particular context. It’s the word that tabloids slap into titles in hopes of getting clicks, the term used even where it doesn’t apply because it’s exciting. Spotting buzzwords used as a selling point is not easy. The buzzword in question is often popular only because it’s relevant somewhere, and it can be tough to tell who’s using it correctly!

One tell is if the person using it fails to define the word. Instead, if they seem to repeat themselves about how the tool is used rather than what the word means, it’s an orange flag! The people selling a product may not necessarily understand the technology fully, but they should have a rough idea of how it works, at least well enough to explain why what they’re selling is different from what’s already on the market.

NFTs, for example, fail this test. Almost anything can be made into an NFT, which is non-fungible because it comes with a unique ‘serial code’ on ‘the blockchain’, not because of some immutable property of the item being made unfungible. Nobody who sells them wants to tell you this because it makes it obvious how fragile their value is. The thing’s name alone is confusing, it’s description even moreso, which surely helped bury the lede on how truly useless the average NFT is.

In the health influencer circles, the buzzword of the day has moved on from ‘toxins’ to ‘inflammation’, because the public caught up; in tech circles on social media, it’s gone from cryptocurrency to AI. Once the public catches on, the companies using the word right are able to keep using it, but the companies who aren’t are caught out and have to move on to a new word.

Word In Motion

Secondly, how is the buzzword actually being applied? How is the technology or technique being used to improve the product? What technological advancement had to be made for this new never-before-seen item to work? Was such an advancement made, even in secret? If they can’t even say they have a new process being kept a secret, there is a chance that it’s a Juicero. The Juicero product was a “juice press” that simply squeezed juice out of a proprietary bag, one which could be squeezed by human hands to almost the same effect. There wasn’t anything new about it, it was cobbled together out of products that already existed and failed to be more than the sum of its parts. All the slick marketing and health buzzwords in the world couldn’t have saved it once that came out.

If they do say it’s a secret, but no other expert in the field can figure out how they did it, it’s possible it’s a Theranos situation, where nobody could fully explain how the product worked because it didn’t work. Same for the dozen or so ‘mechanical gill’ products that promise to turn water into breathable air for humans in a product the size of a pair of bicycle handles, which is not currently chemically possible. If it looks and sounds too sci-fi to be true, it probably is. If it’s promising to cure every ailment you have, it likely won’t. If you can’t figure out where the value is stored in the investment, it’s probably not a good investment in the first place!

Tulips and Stanley Cups

Elizabeth Technology February 6, 2024

In the 1630s Netherlands, tulips became the next hot commodity. They’re very pretty, super easy to garden with, and easy to transport thanks to their bulbous root structure. They were also fashionably new to the region at the time. It’s a classic tale of speculative bubbles, where huge amounts of land and sacks of money were traded for individual bulbs right up until the market crashed in 1637. The crash wasn’t as bad as you might think given the cost of investing – those rumors came from an author who wrote about it in 1841, perhaps confusing satirical writings into his book, where manuscript data suggests it was mostly just another trendy item with some big outliers that made the news. It happens today, too! People spent millions on NFTs, and then the market crashed, but the average person buying ‘less valuable’ pictures of cartoon apes with hats and glasses could recover, and the market at large was fine.

Even so, the more realistic tales of the tulip craze are a great window into human psychology. Tulips are pretty; people like pretty things; they will brag about the exclusivity of the pretty things they bought; they will spend a lot of money to signal that they can afford pretty things that last a while; I can buy these things and then resell them for more than they’re strictly worth; I must keep interest in the product high or else my investment will lose its value.

Why the Cup?

NFTs were always worthless. Come on, a picture? Just on the blockchain? But some items fit into this tulip niche where supply is not limited except by an unexpected surge in demand. Most recently, the Stanley Cup!

It is what it says it is – it’s an insulated cup. Much like the original tulip, it’s useful and it comes in pretty colors. Even more like the tulip, it’s being bought and resold at absurd prices, and less savvy investors are taking it as a sign that they can buy a pallet of cups and then resell them at an absurd price.

Images of eBay listings going for hundreds of dollars echo the tulip craze: the thriftier folk looking to get in on the trend may stake out their local Target or Walmart to get a good price on the cup as soon as it comes in, and only a narrow band of people who have money to burn will ‘invest’ in limited edition versions at the eye-watering prices being used to drum up interest in articles. Some take it a step further and collect all of the individual colors of the cup they can find or order, putting up shelves to display dozens of the product theoretically made to reduce the number of disposable cups that someone needs to use and buy. Much like tulips, the visibility of the consumption is part of its allure. The ability to collect, the need to use, the casual display of the cup on a counter, just barely in the video, the showstopping framing of the cup as it’s unboxed or washed with a handful of other cups. The durability of the powder coating, the durability of the straw, the durability of the sliding mechanism, the durability of the label – sure, you could buy some lame local flowers Yeti tumblers, or you could buy the cup that’s on the Tonight Show! The cup for the busiest bees! The brand is truly central to the craze. On TikTok, there’s even a video of a person laminating the (disposable barcode) label so she could tape it back onto the cup without fearing it would tear.

It’s about spending more money than is strictly necessary to obtain a product that has cheaper substitutes, the fact that the tulip is a tulip and not that it’s red or striped, the fact that the Stanley is heavy and powder-coated and Stanley brand, not the fact that it’s good at what it does. You can tell this is the case because the Yeti product is almost identical, but gets sneered at, and – if it’s just for cool beverages – the Hydroflask/Nalgene trend already had this cycle of hype and hypedeath on social media amongst teenagers a couple of years ago. Unlike Hydroflasks, the Stanley’s variety of colors is creating little pockets of scarcity that aren’t actually there, and may keep this craze around for longer as the urge to collect the hot item of the month is never actually satisfied until the buyer has all the colors.

The insanity will one day end, and who knows what resellers or collectors will do with the cups at that point. Just like tulips, the product couldn’t have gotten a foothold if it wasn’t at least decent enough to carry around and look at, and just like tulips, there will likely remain a niche community awaiting the return of the cup madness with fifty different cups on their wall. Remember Hydroflasks? We’ll see it again. It’ll come back around.

The Future Of Microtrends

Hot commodity items find their way into thrift stores and onto secondhand seller sites moments after the first comment on an influencer video declares them overrated. The product is demanded, the product runs out, the company makes more, and then it’s over. This need to be seen and recognized as in-the-loop on TikTok and Instagram leads to people obsessively buying things and then discarding them after they are no longer hot. Companies love this – they get a little better at artificially creating runs on a product every time it happens. The best thing to do is simply not partake in a trend that revolves around buying something. Recipes, dances, and DIY costumes are all plenty of fun and don’t involve buying overpriced fast-fashion or a second-third-fourth reusable cup. Just step away a second. Do you want the product because it’s good and you’ll use it, or because it’s good and it’s trendy?

Sources: https://www.history.com/news/tulip-mania-financial-crash-holland

Why Is Everyone So Disappointed in the CyberTruck?

Elizabeth Technology February 1, 2024

Safety Concerns

You’ve seen the body. You’ve probably seen the interior dash. If this thing gets into an accident, it will win over any other vehicle or passengers, including its own. It is a return to the old steel-body cars but worse, with small crumple zones and a 3 mm thick steel plate for a shell. It’s undeniably sturdy. The car itself could survive a lot, which sounds cool and futuristic for a car that one day might not need passengers, but anything inside of it is subjected to its design in the event of a crash.

Secondly, pinch points! One video of the CyberTruck’s motor-driven hood-closing mechanism shows it cleaving through a carrot without stopping (Out Of Spec Reviews on TikTok and Youtube). There is no pinch detection in the front, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t motorized! Isn’t this the car of the future? Why is there no pinch detection? Human fingers are tougher than carrots, yes, which is why when it comes to safety demos, you don’t want it to cut through the carrot to demonstrate that it definitely won’t hurt your precious fingies. The guy in that video then put his fingers further down into the seam (so the sharp point at the window area wouldn’t break the skin) and the trunk simply shut over them, leaving him stuck. He couldn’t reach the button on the front that would tell the truck he wanted to open it again. It didn’t break anything, but getting unstuck alone would have been painful. At least there is a phone app allowing you to remotely free yourself, but without proper pinch protection, it’s at best capable of trapping someone, at worst capable of biting off fingers, if it’s someone with the keys but not the app.

One major and one minor complaint for safety seems about right for a major deviation from the norm for cars, and the pinch detection should be relatively easy to include in later models – that’s not all people are concerned about, though.

Electronics

While stringing electronics together seems to make sense, it’s actually not a great idea! We stopped making Christmas string lights that way because of the massive inconvenience of finding a dead bulb when the strand went out, because you had to find it to get the whole string working again. Unfortunately, from consumer complaints online, it seems like this philosophy is working similarly for the Cybertruck, alongside another major issue – dead screens!

Dead Screen errors on these Cybertrucks make it impossible to drive thanks to the huge amount of functionalities relying on the screen as a controller. In fairness to Tesla, most cars with screens instead of proper center consoles with buttons have that problem, so this isn’t Tesla-specific, but when your car is called The Cybertruck, some level of advancement beyond the competition is expected. The truck of the future shouldn’t be so much like the Disney Park Star Wars zone in both appearance, wait to access, and functionality.

 Lastly, the battery life. This is the biggest sticking point, which sucks because it’s tough to tell who is reporting reliably and who’s just pointing and laughing at the car because they don’t like the brand. Trucks are, generally speaking, meant for hauling stuff. The design of the Cybertruck’s truck bed is already straining supporter goodwill given how little it holds, but the truck has a front trunk to boost its storage space, so as long as what you’re hauling can be split into two separate loads, this isn’t such a huge point of contention. A lot of people don’t buy trucks out of a need to haul stuff every weekend, after all. What really has fans ticked off is the inconsistent range of the battery under load! The car itself is heavy, but so is every electric vehicle. Unlike that screen thing above, the Tesla sells itself on being the better electric car, so to not beat Ford and Rivian’s range while hauling or towing makes its marketing feel like it was fudging its numbers. Especially in the cold! Electronics run out of juice faster in the cold thanks to a number of chemical processes slowing down under the hood – the Cybertruck, according to early reports from consumers, can’t hit 80% of its expected range in the cold if it’s hauling too. Those are not ideal conditions, obviously, but if we’re going to keep getting freak snowstorms as far south as Texas, car manufacturers must adapt, or at least do some additional testing in the cold to avoid stranding customers who took ‘470 miles in ideal conditions’ as simply ‘470 miles’, full stop.

All in all, the Cybertruck is simply another electric truck. It looks cool, it’s made (perhaps too) tough, and it suffers many of the same issues as its competitors. For fans who were used to Tesla leading the way, this is a let down.

Optical Memory

Elizabeth Technology January 30, 2024

Optical storage is defined by IBM as any storage medium that uses a laser to read and write the information. The use of lasers means that more information can be packed into a smaller space than magnetic tape could manage (at the time)! Better quality and longer media time are natural results. A laser burns information into the surface of the media, and then the reading laser, which is less powerful, can decipher these burnt areas into usable data. The surface is usually some sort of metal or dye sandwiched between protective layers of plastic that burns easily, producing ‘pits’ or less reflective areas for the laser to read.

This is why fingerprints and scratches can pose such a problem for reading data; even though you aren’t damaging the actual data storage, like you would be if you scratched a hard drive disk, fingerprints prevent the laser from being able to read the data. Scratch up the plastic layer above the dye, and the data’s as good as destroyed.

Destroying data can be even more complete than that, even. Shredding the disc in a capable paper shredder (ONLY IF IT SAYS IT CAN SHRED DISCS) destroys the data, as does microwaving the disc (don’t do that – most discs contain some amount of metal, and that can damage your microwave badly enough to be dangerous).

CDs

“Burning a CD” replaced “making a mix tape” when both CDs and downloadable music were available to teenagers, and for good reason. The amount of content may be roughly the same, but the quality is significantly higher.

Most CDs are CD-Rs – disks that can only be written on once but can be read until the end of time. A CD-ROM is just a CD-R that’s been used! The average CD-R has room for about an album’s worth of music, and maybe a hidden track or two, about 75-80 minutes depending on the manufacturer of the disc. Alternatively, if you’d like to store data instead of high-quality audio, you’ll get about 700 MB of data onto a single disc.

To burn a CD, you’d need an optical drive that’s capable of also lasering information into the disc, which wasn’t always the standard. The laser will burn the information into the metal-dye mix behind the plastic coating the outside of the disc, which permanently changes how reflective those sections are. This makes it possible to visually tell what has and hasn’t been used on a disc yet, and CD-Rs can be burnt in multiple sessions! Data is typically burnt from the center outwards.

But everybody knows about CD-Rs. What about CD-RWs, their much fussier brethren?

CD-RW

The primary difference between a  CD-R and a CD-RW is the dye used in the layers that the optical drives can read. CD-RWs are burnt less deeply than CD-Rs, but as a result, they take a more sensitive reader. Early disc readers sometimes can’t read more modern CD-RWs as a result!

To reuse the disc, one has to blank it first (the same drive that can write a CD-RW in the first place should also be able to blank it), which takes time. After it’s been wiped, new data can be put onto the disc again. CD-RWs wear out quicker than other memory media as a result of their medium. That wafer-thin dye layer can only handle being rearranged so many times before it loses the ability to actually hold the data. It’s pretty unlikely that the average user could hit that re-write limit, but it’s more possible than, say, a hard drive, which has a re-write life about 100 times longer than the re-write life of a CD-RW.

DVDs

DVDs store significantly more data than CDs do, even though they take up about the same space. Where a CD can hold about 700 MB, a DVD can hold up to 4.7 GB. This is enough for most movies, but if the movie is especially long or has a lot of other extra features, it has to be double layered, which can store up to 9 GB. Why can it hold so much more in the same space?

The long answer is that there are a number of small differences that ultimately lead to a DVD having more burnable space, including a closer ‘laser spiral’ (the track a laser burns, like the grooves in a vinyl record), as well as smaller readable pockets. It all adds up into more data storage, but a more expensive product as well.

DVD +R DL

That double-layering mentioned earlier isn’t present on every disc. Sometime in the later 2000s, double layer discs hit the market at about the same price as single layer discs (although that changed over time). The first layer that the laser can read is made of a semi-transparent dye, so the laser can penetrate it to reach the other layer.

Most modern DVD drives can read dual layer, but if your computer is especially old, it would be wise to check its specs first – DVD readers programmed before their release might not understand the second layer, and readers that can read them might not be able to write to them. DLs are a great invention, it’s just a struggle to find good disc readers when everything is switching to digital.

Compatibility

CD players aren’t usually also able to play DVDs. CDs came first, and the reader would have to be forwards compatible. Obviously, this would have taken a time machine to actually assemble. Picture expecting a record player to read a CD! The gap between the two is almost that large. Nowadays, the manufacturing standard seems to be a DVD player with CD compatibility tacked on. You should double check before you buy a disc reader to be sure it can do everything you want it to, but it’s less common to see CD-Only tech when a DVD reader is only slightly more expensive to create, and can work backwards.

FlexPlay Self-Destructing Entertainment

Remember FlexPlay self-destructing entertainment? The disc that was meant to simulate a rental and could have generated literal tons of trash per family, per year? The self-destructing medium that the disc was coated in turned very dark red to thwart the disc reader’s lasers! The pits aren’t directly on the surface of the DVD, they’re under a couple of layers of plastic. All FlexPlay had to do was sandwich an additional layer of dye between the plastic and the metal/dye that’s being inscribed upon. When that dye obscures the data below it, it’s as good as gone! The laser can no longer get through to the information and read it. Even Blu-Ray tech was thwarted by the dye.

Blu-Ray

Blu-Ray discs have higher visual quality than DVDs because they hold even more information. The blue-ray technology enables the pits to be even closer together, so more optical data can be crammed into the same space. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light, which shrinks the necessary pit size! A single-layer Blu-Ray disc can hold up to 25 GB of information! Blu-Ray discs are most commonly used for entertainment media rather than storage. Disc readers have to be specifically compatible with that blue laser technology, rather than just programmed for it. An ordinary DVD player may be able to play a CD, but it wouldn’t be able to fully read a pit in a Blu-Ray disc before that pit’s passed the reader.

Right now, the state of the art is Blu-Ray: most good Blu-Ray readers are backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs. However, many companies still sell ordinary DVDs alongside their Blu-ray releases due to cost. If you have a DVD player, you can probably hold off on upgrading, at least for a little while longer.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/technology/optical-storage

https://www.dell.com/support/kbdoc/en-us/000149930/what-are-the-different-cd-and-dvd-media-formats-available

http://www.osta.org/technology/cdqa13.htm

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whats-a-dvd-and-how-does/

https://kodakdigitizing.com/blogs/news/cd-vs-dvd-how-are-they-different

http://recordhead.biz/difference-blu-ray-dvd/

https://www.dell.com/support/kbdoc/en-us/000147805/guide-to-optical-disk-drives-and-optical-discs