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True Crime Isn’t Always True

Elizabeth Technology May 24, 2022

With the rise of True Crime podcasts, some cases become little cultural touchstones. Beginning podcasts and long-time Youtubers alike flit to cases like the Black Dahlia murder, the death of Natalie Woods, the Tamam Shud man, the mystery woman found partially cremated at a beach with all of the tags removed from her clothing – these cases are super interesting, and there’s a lot of detail to cover. This means that if, say, Buzzfeed unsolved covers Tamam Shud, there’s still uncovered content left for other podcasters to harvest, and Buzzfeed likely heard about the case from other podcasters, fans, and content creators in the first place.

However. There is a danger to having cases be popular touchstones, especially when they feature real people and real events. The lore of the case becomes more important than the case itself. Fans are watching carefully to see how your show does it, how you cover the police report, how you describe the body. They’re also watching to see if you break rank with the other true-crimers as far as the facts go. While cross-verification is important, it only happens if everyone is looking at the original sources. Not everyone does. They want to move fast when a case breaks, and for older cases, they can make their episode faster if they rely on other teams who have already done the research. If the first team to look at a case overlooked a detail, and the second team to look at it didn’t notice because they didn’t pore over the original source, that detail may as well poof out of existence in podcast world! A great many people after that are going to do the equivalent of citing links off the bottom of the Wikipedia page without verifying the information inside (Wikipedia is a great resource, but you do still have to consider the sources!) People who break rank after that and notice it get scrutinized, because surely, some of the big teams would have noticed first, right? When it’s revealed the big guys overlooked it, it’s just another opportunity to release more content clarifying.

Gathering accurate data is hard, so many people would rather piggyback off the people in front of them who do it first. The goal is to present an entertaining story, as well, and sometimes strategically omitting details makes it more ‘interesting’ if less accurate. Remember to take anything you hear off a podcast with a grain of salt, and just because people keep repeating it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true!

Elisa Lam – The Big One

Elisa Lam was famous for a short video that showed her entering an elevator that refused to shut for a minute or two while she moved slowly and strangely, like she was dancing. Her body was later recovered in a water tank at the top of a hotel she had been staying at after multiple people complained that the water pressure sucked and the water itself smelled/tasted funny. That elevator security video was the last video of her alive, and it went viral after the police released it while she was still only known as missing. These are the bare minimum, true facts about the case.  

Other information came later, when it sparked discussions online, because it looked like she was peaking around the elevator doors to look for something – like something was after her. Some people began to speculate that Elisa had been followed, killed, and then dumped in the water tank by an unseen party, others believed she’d been targeted and possessed by something that told her to kill herself, and helped her lift the heavy doors of the water tank – either way, the death just felt wrong and weird.

This is not true, of course, and there’s no evidence to support another party’s involvement. What is true is that Elisa had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression (which we know from her blogs), and she was under a lot of internal pressure to do well in school. She was in college, and a major mental health event had forced her to drop some of her classes, which hurt her a lot. Some of the people around her said she tended to skip her bipolar medication accidentally or purposefully (we know she didn’t have the prescribed amount necessary to control symptoms at her death at least, from the autopsy report) – which is more likely responsible for the dancing and the looking around. While certain disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, don’t cause hallucinations in and of themselves, the medications used to treat them sometimes can as a side effect, and withdrawal often caused Elisa to struggle with hallucinations herself. The Wikipedia article features some interviews of people who said they saw her, and found her behavior strange – eyewitness accounts on such a public case aren’t often useful, but she was removed from the audience of a taped show due to erratic behavior, which was recorded and lines up with what other hotel guests said.  

As far as being found in the cistern, the truth of the matter was that the tank wasn’t actually too heavy for one person to open, and it might have been open already when she got there anyway. She also didn’t close it behind her, and employees looking into the maintenance hatch were able to see her immediately. The door, while small, was not too small to fit an adult inside – the process of removing her from the tank required some equipment too big to fit through the hole, which is why they had to cut the tank open. People could move in and out of it just fine. Getting up to the top of the tank to access the door is the real mystery, as people don’t know how she did it to this day, but it was 19 days before they found her. The hotel was actually found not liable for her death because it was so unexplainable – if it were a matter of tripping and falling in, they’d be liable, but as it is, all we have is theories. Theories that state Elisa went out of her way to get into the tank, and whatever she used to get height to get into it was moved in those 19 days.

The Murder of Kitty – AKA the Bystander Effect Murder

If you’re an American, you’ve probably heard the case of Kitty Genovese, which is often touted as a case of the bystander effect leading to the death of a woman. Allegedly, 38 or so witnesses heard or saw her screaming for help… and nobody did. American psychology textbooks would use this case as an example for the next few decades, and as True Crime grew as a genre, Kitty’s murder would be featured in podcasts galore, often as a warning to women. (Warning of what? That’s for the podcasters to decide!)

There’s a handful of problems, however. Everybody who cites the case goes back to the original Times story where it’s stated that these witnesses heard or saw her and did nothing, even stating that people shouted down to the murderer, who was scared off and then circled back when they retreated to their apartments. Multiple people allegedly stated they didn’t want to get involved. However, the real number of people who actually saw what happened and also didn’t do something to stop it was two – one couple thought it was a lover’s quarrel, most of the others who could have seen what was happening from their windows didn’t even wake up. Kitty worked at a bar and was returning home after work, and it was the wee hours of the morning in a quiet, day-shift community. Not to mention, it was March in New York. Most people had their windows closed because it was still getting cold at night.

Two people failed Kitty, not 38. Kitty’s case was one of the ones that finally got the 911 system pushed out to New Yorkers, as the instructions for calling the police weren’t consistent or as easy as the simple 911. One of the people who didn’t do anything actually called a friend for advice, which seems bizarre now, but he was likely in shock as he did actually see the stabbing take place – it might have been the only number he could remember in the moment.

Bianca Devins

The true crime community spends almost no time at all sincerely listening to the family of the deceased because it’s just not what pulls in viewers. If anyone’s offended by the lighthearted treatment of their loved one’s death, you won’t hear it from the people doing the treatment in the first place. If you know of the Bianca Devins case (use discretion when looking her up – many of the results are of the crime scene and that’s not how her family wanted her remembered) you’ll know that her family specifically requested that the pictures of her taken after her death were not shared, and the True Crime community did it anyway: gruesome details are shocking and horrifying and engaging. This is treated with a sort of dramatic irony because it’s a misconception that Bianca wanted to be internet famous. ‘Well, she wasn’t famous in life, but she will be in death’. The problem is that she didn’t want to be internet famous.

Besides the obvious issues with the treatment of her case, there’s also several issues within the basic description of the girl that true crimers reach for: that she was pretty, that she had tons of Instagram followers, that she was liked by everyone who knew her, a textbook popular girl. It’s only partially true, however. She often fought agoraphobia as well as general anxiety, and while she was known for being exceptionally friendly and standing up for the little guy among those who actually knew her, she did spend quite a lot of time lurking online, not promoting herself. Only her friends had her Instagram handle. She was just a pretty girl who liked to lurk in forums and got catfished by an older man who then murdered her, and people took leaps from there.

Dyatlov Pass (May Be A Bit Graphic – Read at Own Risk)

The true facts about the case are that a group of young hikers ventured out onto a trail, set up camp for the night, and then were found dead later after they seemingly cut their way out of their tent and fled into the night.

This is where the story gets a bit fuzzy. The bodies of the hikers were found scattered around the site, in various states that didn’t seem to make sense together. Most of them were not dressed correctly for the weather, 6 were officially declared to have died of hypothermia, and the rest seemed to have died from physical trauma, including to the chest and head. Adding to the mystery was radioactivity discovered on their clothing. Their tent was slashed open with something sharp – some theorists say it was from the outside looking to get in, but it’s generally accepted (and marks inside the tent from incomplete cuts also suggest) that the group inside the tent, for some reason, cut their way out and then fled into the subzero night.

There are numerous theories, from Sasquatch encounters to supernatural forces at work to murder sprees to blizzard conditions and infrasound to smoke, and the real reason why they cut their way out of the tent may never be known. But. Other true facts about the case aren’t nearly so mysterious.

Firstly, finding the bodies with soft pieces (eyes, tongue, etc.) missing isn’t unusual for bodies discovered out in the wild. Animals go for what’s easy to eat first, as morbid as that sounds! As far as physical trauma goes, the area was rocky and difficult to climb – an avalanche was declared the official cause because the damage to the relevant bodies was too severe for another human to have done it. Before you get excited, two of the hypothermia deaths were discovered next to a large cedar tree, which had broken branches all the way to five meters above the ground, quite some distance away from the original camp, and the lethal injury deaths were found in a ravine filled with rocks (and rock-hard ice in the coldest part of winter). Slipping or having the snow avalanche out from under you, without the proper clothing, is a better explanation than space weapon or radiation monster.

Secondly, speaking of the radiation, two of the people at the scene had worked or were working for facilities with radioactive materials. The radiation levels on the clothes are often severely overstated when podcasts talk about this case, they want it to sound like those pieces were scattered everywhere and that they were glowing. The truth is a handful of articles, when closely measured, showed radioactivity. The radioactivity was vaguely above baseline, as well. Thirdly, we’ll never know what really happened for them to slash their way out of their tent, but there are multiple good theories, ranging from the official statement “they heard an avalanche a ways away and they panicked” to the slightly less believable “the loud, howling wind’s infrasound triggered their fight or flight reflex”. It’s entirely possible for otherwise competent hikers to make mistakes, as well! Acting like these totally normal people who did regularly hike would never make mistakes is convenient for people trying to sell a mystery, but it’s not realistic.

If you’d like to see more, this is the video I originally saw on the incident, one of the things that inspired this article in the first place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8RigxxiilI

I’m not certain how believable it is that it was the stove’s fault (Lemmino, the video’s author, suggests the camp stove is to blame), but from the picture, the description of cooked food, and their state of undress, it’s at least passable as a theory that the stove got too hot or reignited in the night and smoked them out. Choosing to walk a mile away afterwards to get to a forest sounds to me like something you’d do if you feared an avalanche coming down where you just were, but neither of us can prove definitively either of these things happened – either theory would prevent them from coming back to their tent for their stuff right away, either for the smoke or the instability of the snow. The remaining hypothermia deaths being found at different distances away from the tree with the snapped branches suggests that the three of them were trying to get back to the tent, while the other two stayed behind next to the fire – all of them, being dressed improperly, froze to death.

Sources: https://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/27/archives/37-who-saw-murder-didnt-call-the-police-apathy-at-stabbing-of.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-55994935

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8RigxxiilI (and sources)

Tumblr’s True Stories Are Stranger Than Fiction

Elizabeth Technology May 17, 2022

Now that Tumblr’s back in good graces thanks to Musk’s purchase of Twitter, it’s time to unearth some of Tumblr’s ancient history. Why are so many of the verifiably true Tumblr stories so very weird?

A Tumblr user suggests it’s okay to remove bones from grave sites because she didn’t actually dig them up herself.  

Another Tumblr user justifies the use of child labor by saying it’s normal for their home country.

 Yet another has removed her toe and sent it to a user to be made into a jar.

With all the fake stories on Tumblr, surely these are fake too, right?

No. They’re not. All of these are verifiably true, at least as verifiable as anything online can be.

The Bone Witch

Aside from religion, most people just want their bodies to be treated with respect once they die, and a lot of laws reflect that – graverobbing is illegal. Stealing things off of bodies is illegal. Improper disposal of a body is illegal. I probably don’t have to explain that even if it wasn’t, taking something off of a deceased person you don’t know is both weird and deeply impolite. While some cultures and religions expect family members to keep some of the deceased’s remains (and some people do outside of any cultural or religious purpose for comfort, especially for cremation – see those mini-urn necklaces) all of that is done with respect for the dead and permission of the living family, if there is any.

This is not what the Tumblr Bone Witch did. The post, now known as Boneghazi, started as a callout post where one user accused another of digging up graves. She’d spotted the user offering up human bones in a Facebook group for other indigenous religion practitioners. The accused replied to clarify that no, they weren’t digging up graves – bones had washed out of the cemetery (the bone collector lived in Louisiana where flooding is common) and Bone Witch had picked them up, fearing they would be crushed or swept away.

However, instead of returning the bones to the cemetery… the Bone Witch kept them, by their own admission. I can specify that the bones were then placed on an altar for religious reasons, so it’s not as bad as it could have been, but it was still not ideal – who says they’d agree to be put on an altar? What if they were Catholic, and didn’t want to be used in that way? Besides, Louisiana-specific witchcraft and voodoo, by most accounts, doesn’t offer human remains on the altar, instead preferring animals (which are sacrificed quickly and as painlessly as possible, and often eaten afterwards), money, and food items, so offering these bones was out of the norm already. According to sources online, if you do offer human bones, you don’t make them stranger’s bones, at least in the style of witchcraft practiced in New Orleans. The religion (like most religions, actually) doesn’t endorse robbing the graves of strangers.

To make it worse, the grave site they’d been pulling the bones from was Holt Cemetery. For context, in New Orleans, you want to be interred in an above-ground tomb if you can help it because the in-ground plots flood, and the ground can behave unpredictably, resurfacing coffins and bones if it gets bad enough. If you and your family are poor, you can’t afford the concrete and the plot of land needed to do that. Historically, this affected the black communities in the area far worse than it did the white ones. These people couldn’t choose to be buried somewhere else. The bone witch was taking from the most vulnerable grave sites in the state.

But then the bone witch offered them up in a witchcraft Facebook group, as long as the other party paid for shipping. The altar was one thing, not to excuse it – shipping parts of the bones out was an entirely different one. There is A) taking the bones from their resting place after they’d already been disturbed by weather and B) potentially moving them out of Louisiana altogether!

Back online, the Facebook group where that offer happened was imploding. In an effort to be accepting of unorthodox witchcraft, the leaders of the group came to the realization that they’d been supporting an argument that boiled down to ‘these corpses are okay to steal from because they were buried somewhere that made it easy’, upon prodding from several POC witches in the group who were not okay with bone theft. One of the original founders resigned after apologizing for picking the wrong side, but the group still could not be saved.  

And the police agreed. When people who recognized their username spotted the post, they contacted the police, and their house was raided in the search for remains. They did get arrested, were unable to pay bail, had a hearing, and then left the state.

The Toe Taxidermy

A Tumblr user’s removed human toe was sent to a taxidermy hobbyist who then preserved it. Weird, and potentially criminal if postage laws weren’t followed, but not disrespectful since everyone involved agreed enthusiastically to it, so in my opinion it’s not as bad as the bone witch.

The post that blew up was the one where the toe haver communicated to the toe giver that the toe had arrived safely, and the toe giver was very excited. She was going to make a pendant out of the toe and then send it back. At that point, the post began circulating free from it’s context, which does make it a little better, but not a lot: people assumed this was a gift from a girlfriend, a gift from a boyfriend, an amateur’s idea, etc. And that it wouldn’t end well. In reality, the original user had her fourth toe removed for medical reasons many years back, and the receiver made art with assorted taxidermy pieces alongside wet and dry specimens. This was a commissioned project because the fluid the toe was stored in was about to expire and she was sentimentally attached to the toe.

Again, a little weird – still much, much better than the bone witch.

The Sixpenceee Child Slavery Case

Sixpenceee was known as a post thief and a scammer long before people knew them as ‘The Blogger Who Had A Child Slave’. They live somewhere in Southeast Asia. I couldn’t find a source specifying either Bangladesh or India, although both are mentioned, and the laws of both places directly clash with what Sixpenceee stated about school to justify the labor. India, for example, provides free and compulsory education up to age fourteen, where Bangladesh provides five years of grade school and five years of high school.

One day they posted that they had a child living in their house as help. People were confused – child labor? They surely didn’t mean that, did they? No, they did – they specified that school became expensive (the phrasing implied the schooling itself was no longer free) after grade school and as a result, many kids from poor families stopped getting an education very young. Some children in this situation are pushed into child labor: factories, domestic positions, etc. so really, it was good for the kid they had helping their family that he had gotten a domestic position instead of a factory one. In another post, they talked about their uncle’s ‘domestic servant’, a young girl named Priya (young as in approximately eight years old) who was overjoyed to be working in a house with AC and indoor plumbing instead of a factory, where children may be crushed to death.

They then attempted to gaslight people who recognized this as child labor by saying that a lot of South and Southeast Asian countries did it and it wasn’t weird. That’s a logical fallacy. Just because it’s not weird doesn’t mean it’s right. Sixpenceee is known to have a savior complex from another project they started online called ‘SixPenceee Heals’ where they charged money to ‘be a shoulder to cry on’, before they got called out about it and then stopped advertising their service. The same thing is happening here. Bizarrely, some of the posts under their #India tag are a child marriage awareness project and posts about the pipe slums, so they know the kids don’t have another option, they just choose to defend the slavery anyway.

As you’d expect, it’s not sunshine and rainbows for everyone who got a maid position instead of a factory one. There is a lot of potential for abuse and human trafficking, and a lot of the domestic servants are women. The family may or may not plan on actually paying them a livable wage, instead exchanging room and board for real money and locking that maid into a position they can’t leave.

Sixpenceee continues to post, and continues to block any user who questions them about their child servant to this day.

Sources: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanhatesthis/a-tumblr-user-mailed-another-tumblr-user-her-severed-toe-to  (read at own risk – pictures of the toe in question inside)

https://www.vice.com/en/article/vb4m4a/boneghazi-how-a-grave-robbing-controversy-tore-an-online-witch-community-apart

(original post is still up on Tumblr, if you’d like to search their username)

https://sixpenceeeharms.tumblr.com/post/161256846293/koopashell-coffee-clerk-inkskinned (note – this is a callout blog post. As Tumblr is a social media site, and you can block people from viewing your account, screenshots of controversial posts are easier to spread than the original post is, because the original poster can prevent users from interacting with their posts. While screenshots can be faked, (and you should consume all such content with caution) the original poster has made it as difficult as possible for people to find the original post where they defended having a child slave, perhaps even deleting it, and direct links can be blocked by the blog owner anyway. So screenshots it is.)

Gray Markets Online? It’s More Likely Than you Think!

Elizabeth Technology April 28, 2022

Believe it or not, virtual items can become real money when it comes to games. A new economy of buying cosmetic items in-game soon turned into a gray market of sorts, where real, actual money was traded for the real, actual labor that went into getting the items. Grinding, the process of repeating tasks over and over (and over and over and over and…) to gain experience and in-game currencies isn’t exactly fun. Not as fun as completing quests and such, anyway. It’s also not usually possible to run a script to do it, if the grinding is something like hunting down enemies, or fighting other players. Look away and the AI might do something unexpected and kill your character!

As a result, people would rather pay money to have the fun parts of the game made easier and more fun with the advantage of other people’s labor. Plus, allowing users to trade or sell skins makes them less reluctant to buy them in the first place – if you discover a skin doesn’t work with your preferred weapon, the time and effort you spent getting it can still be converted to money, so it’s not all bad.

World of Warcraft

The game allows in-game trading, but real time is often worth real money. Side-trades and in-game negotiations to make in-game items worth real money have been a factor of MMORPGs ever since their early days. In some cases, trying to get rare or ultra-rare items without other players helping you was a nightmare, but real money could persuade other players to trade their loot where virtual items couldn’t.

As a funny side note, WoW players are not always the most ethical when getting items from other players. ‘Duplication glitches’, leading someone to a PvP area because ‘it would make trading easier’ and then killing them in-game, the list goes on. Really, the in-game trading makes things a little less brutal!

However, you’re not allowed to trade things with real money – you have to buy gold and then exchange that for items, and then if you get the gold, that you can exchange for real money after the transaction has been completed. In a way, it’s sort of like cryptocurrency, as an unregulated currency that has real worth due to people converting it in and out of US currency to buy things they can’t with traceable money.

The gray market economy for WoW has fallen a little as other MMORPGs (and other game styles in general) have become more popular, but it’s far from collapsed – as long as the game lives, the market lives too.

CS:GO

The skins market in CS:GO is honestly kind of incredible. You get skins worth thousands of dollars just by virtue of being hard (or impossible) to earn. It’s sort of like NFTs but if NFTs weren’t being endlessly generated, thus making each exactly as unique as it is common. You get your skins primarily from loot boxes while playing the game, and you can buy skins off of Steam MarketPlace, but actually finding someone who has what you want is tough. So you go elsewhere, where browsing by category, rarity, etc. may be easier.

The skins market is split across a number of websites, and each website promises different things. ‘We’re the oldest skins website’, claims one. ‘We have over 160,000 skins’, claims another. ‘We’re trustworthy’, and ‘safe skin trades’ says a couple of others, which wasn’t something I’d worried about until I saw those taglines. That’s about the time you note that these outside websites aren’t officially endorsed by CS:GO, meaning that game support can’t help you if something goes wrong with your trade – only the website can enforce penalties. While WoW trading has some problems, the ability to chat and barter in-game makes it harder to get scammed out of stuff because support can see those logs.

CS:GO, just like WoW, allows you to grind in-game to get the stuff you want. You can fuse skins in-game to get a rarer skin, but the process of doing so is tedious and doesn’t promise any one skin at the end of it. As a result, offsite trading is generally people’s second choice to get a skin they want, after however long they’d spent in-game trying to get it. It also doesn’t force you to convert real money to gold, but whether that’s a plus or not is up for debate every time the WoW gold market hits highs. Plus, the currency not being in-game makes actually proving something fraudulent happened more difficult.

Roblox

Roblox, an open gaming platform made up of official and user-generated minigames, uses Robux to function, an in-game currency worth roughly a tenth of a US cent. Like the games before, it also has skins, trading, chat, etc. but by virtue of its size, it’s got more gray-marketry going on than many games like WoW and CS:GO, even games that are older. By virtue of its young-leaning audience, it’s also got a ton of scams, everything from impersonal clickable ads advertising free Robux to personal attempts to mislead kids via ‘duplication glitches’ like the WoW ones listed above.

Roblox as a site can’t do much to combat this except copyright-strike ads using the term Robux and warn kids that trading off-site for stuff with Robux can be dangerous – unfortunately, for very determined youngsters with limited adult supervision, that doesn’t always ward them off of sites that will steal their account and/or Robux.

Overall

The real shame about gray markets is that they offer services that users demand, but their efficacy is based entirely on how the community and game itself respond. CS:GO players, for example, will warn people off of certain sites in the subreddits or just in general, if asked, unless they’re part of a scam.  Reputation matters, and people want to be able to buy stuff without gambling for it. CS:GO and WoW understand that, even if they wish their players wouldn’t. Most of the people on those games are old enough to understand the risks associated with trading offsite.

And then you have Roblox, which paints itself as kid-friendly and ends up flying under the radar by doing so. Scamming someone in Roblox feels like scamming them in Mario Maker, it just seems like it shouldn’t be possible. Having an in-game currency that can be bought with real money, combined with a platform that allows players to trade, means it’s not only possible – it might be inevitable. Any game with these two conditions is capable of supporting complex scams beyond the ‘click here for free gold’ ones.

Currency, the community, and the visibility staff has of trading all come into play for gray market culture. When in doubt – search up forums and see what their opinion of a site is. It won’t be completely foolproof, but it will help you separate the eBay analogs from the AliExpress ones.

Sources:

Games and Permanent Marks

Elizabeth Technology April 13, 2022

Should games be messing with file registries?

Before you read this, there are game-behavior spoilers for games from 2017 and back.

Games like being creative. They especially like doing interesting things to punish you for making poor choices or mistakes, although how the game defines ‘punishment’ is completely up to the developers. For example – sometimes, punishment for taking on an enemy you weren’t prepared for is simply dying a frustrating death, but you still get to keep your stuff and levels (like the Halo games). Sometimes, punishment means losing some levels, some of your stuff, and any consumables you used in the fight, because dying to the boss doesn’t mean going back to a checkpoint, it means going back to a spawn point (like Dark Souls).

Some games go even a step further than that – they write your failures or poor choices somewhere besides the game, so you can’t escape your failures unless you find those files.

It’s not a new phenomenon, although it has gotten a little more popular as of late. An old RPG by the name of Zork! would curse you if you tampered with a corpse, and you’d never be able to pick up treasure again. It would keep the curse stored in the Windows Registry, so not even reinstalling could help you. Fun!

The Famous Undertale “Genocide Route”

Undertale is a cute game with many twists, the first one being that you don’t actually have to kill any of the enemies – you can, and you’ll still beat the game, but you don’t have to. You may not realize this upon first playthrough, though, so when you beat the game, look up discussions or lore, and realize oh man I killed some guys you can go back through and play it pacifistically to get the ‘true’ ending. No penalties, you made an uninformed mistake and can fix it now that you know better.

However, this doesn’t apply if you decided to start maliciously slaying everything in and out of your way (the way other RPGs expect you to grind for experience points)! It really doesn’t feel good, not just because the characters are cute, but because the game is designed for random encounters, so actually finding every killable enemy in an area takes much longer than playing the game normally – even as your damage increases. At that point, you get a different final boss fight that’s even harder than the original Flowey fight (which isn’t spoilers), and you carry the mark of what you just did with you forever (intentionally vague). And the game really does mean forever. Even if you complete the total pacifist run afterwards, at the very last second, the game shows that it still knows what you did. Even at reinstall.

The game’s check that you killed everyone is in a folder that is separate from the game’s main ones. While it isn’t hard to find if you know it’s there, it was unsettling to the people who’d played the genocide route, uninstalled, reinstalled, and then discovered the game still remembered their crimes.

Anti-Pirating Techniques

In-game DRM, most popular in games from the late nineties up to the mid-2000s, prevents the game from functioning as intended. Some prevent the game from starting at all, others actively shame you for  downloading an illegitimate copy, but most sit somewhere in between. In the Spiro games, for example, you can still play… but you’ll never get to finish the game if it thinks you have an illegally made copy. The game becomes increasingly difficult to play, and when you get to the end, the game crashes and wipes your save. In Alan Wake, the game just slaps an eye patch on your character and guilts you without actually touching any playable aspect of the game. Restarting doesn’t make either of these things go away, but reinstalling might… if the legit copy was just faulty, or if you actually did replace your… faulty… copy with a legitimate copy of the game.

The DRM is part of the game, so it’s not technically a permanent mark on the computer, but a permanent mark on the game itself. Don’t pirate indie games!

Doki Doki Literature Club

If you’ve been online in the game-sphere in the past 7 or so years, you’ve probably seen the Japanese-Dating-Sim-inspired DDLC (or Doki Doki Literature Club) mentioned at least once. If you haven’t, this section will contain some vague spoilers. DDLC is infamous in the indie game scene for jerking very hard to the left, and executing that turn so well that it permanently shaped the way that flavor of indie game was made. The game actually pulls from the Windows or Mac directory to get your real name, but that’s not all. It actually invites you into the game’s files at the finale, and it organizes itself so neatly that removing a character is as simple as removing a folder with her name on it. It’s not quite that simple if you were to actually look inside the files (the game is actually doing a check to see if you’ve removed that file, and if you have, it removes the relevant character, because actually sorting character information like that is practically begging for bugs) but it is a very interesting way to handle the last scenes of the game.

Games That Uninstall Themselves

Some games actually refuse to leave any trace at all, insisting that you don’t replay them without at least a little bit of introspection in between runs.

Or, they realize they’re already on track to be uninstalled, and simply do it themselves. Meme games, meme horror games, and art games sometimes fit this description, but it’s honestly pretty rare. It makes it tough to get back into the game, because reinstalling games is annoying, so the games that do this either understand they’re special or understand they’re annoying. DDLC did this too, and so do a handful of Japanese games. One of the big ones is Nier Automata – if you don’t let characters delete themselves, you don’t get the ‘true’ ending.

If you like spoilers, or you just like seeing how games handle the concept, TVTropes actually has a whole page of games that self destruct, delete your data, or otherwise tamper with themselves as a game mechanism: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeletionAsPunishment

Games That Install Things That Aren’t Really Part of the Game

The My Little Pony fangame Luna Game was sort of famous for this, if famous is the right word – within the incredibly niche community of MLP Horror fans, there existed this platformer that pretty much only played for long enough to serve up some jumpscares and then leave, granting you one final jumpscare with an edited creepypasta-style .jpeg that opened right after the game quit itself out. Later editions would open up the notepad and tell you something ominous.

Eventually, horror games realized this was associated with the sort of games that were easy to make and scariest for 12-year-olds who weren’t allowed to play scary games yet, but were afraid of breaking the family computer by downloading ‘a virus’ and getting caught.  As such, notepad txt files and simple jpegs aren’t really used this way anymore. When games want to show off their monsters, they put a gallery with still images of it in the game itself!

And, once again, DDLC did something higher with this concept – after the game deletes itself, it leaves a note for you, one that’s actually sincerely tied into the game and not a jumpscare or warning. While there’s a lot of room for creativity, there’s also a lot of room for things to go wrong. Some antiviruses, for instance, don’t take kindly to the ‘wrong’ kind of file opening while a game is playing. Other computers just don’t let the game put the files in the way it wants them to, meaning it can’t pull them back out the way it will need to at the end of the game.

Overall, there are many ways to add to a game within a game, so maybe twists and turns from fiddling with source files isn’t the only way to add scares or intrigue to the game!

Sources:

https://classicreload.com/zork-i.html

Relics of Tech Media Past

Elizabeth Technology March 30, 2022

Floppy Disk

A floppy disk is sort of a precursor to the modern USB, but it takes a special slot in a device to read it now that they’re outdated. They don’t have enough memory to compete with USBs! Normally their internal memory is measured in kilobytes, where it’s difficult to even find a USB under 4 GB. Even so, their influence is still seen today. The save logo for Microsoft Word (and many other programs) is still the classic outline of a floppy disc.

They came in many shapes and sizes as manufacturers tried to optimize for their individual devices. The 3.5 inch was the most commonly used, but smaller sizes like the 2 inch were manufactured for early portable camera usage. Strange crossovers with other media formats, like optical drives, were also seen, but didn’t usually see much success even if they were backwards compatible, adaptor friendly, etc. etc. Once floppies were pushed out of the computer standard, it was easier to buy an adaptor than an adaptable floppy disk.

CD 

CD stands for Compact Disc, and it still packs a punch for its size. CDs used to be the only way to get any real quality sound at a cheap price, and for a while they reigned supreme. Optical drives were able to hold more data in any given space than magnet-based storage, and were usually sturdier to boot. Ultimately, the convenience and improving download speed of digital music won out (so much that cars now sometimes come without a CD slot). They don’t degrade very fast, if at all, so they’ll stick around even if new media devices stop supporting them, much like their spiritual sibling, the cassette tape.

VHS  

VHS tapes are well-remembered by many. Upon launch, part of their release standard was that the VHS’s quality must be at least as good as broadcast TV! However, there are many issues with VHS as a storage choice. VHSs degrade over time, and there’s basically no way to stop it. The film is magnetic, so the media is subjected to the same issues that any magnetic media suffers from: heat, cold, strong impacts, etc. can all kill a VHS prematurely. Radiation also negatively impacts VHS tapes, the same way it does movie reels, but the average user is less likely to run into radiation than they are their own hot car.

While the whir of the VHS reader is nostalgic, other media options have better fidelity, and better long-term storage ability. You’ll notice in the jump from VHS to Blu-Ray, a lot of the details on old Disney films were lost. To get the clarity back to Disney standards, the film they had needed to be ‘scrubbed’. Cinderella’s dress ruffles and nose sometimes go missing, and even finer details like the prince’s eyelashes phase in and out of existence, because the fuzz was part of the physical film it was stored on.

Eight-Track

Eight-track is a fantastic example of tech evolution. It was successful, just not as successful as it’s more recent buddy: the compact cassette tape. Eight-tracks had limited room for any one specific song because of how they played the music back, so particularly long songs would be cut in half across the tracks. It couldn’t rewind. It was also a little less sturdy than cassette players. However, it didn’t have to be flipped to play all the way through an album. Initial release models could hold about 80 minutes of recorded sound, which for a non-flipping device is pretty good! Compact cassettes managed about 60 minutes per side, and were a natural progression of the tape-based sound family. Super Eights were great for the time, but like a lot of these items, they just died out when better tech came along.

Magnetic Tape

The older sibling of the VHS, magnetic tapes were used to store information for computers. This was actually developed before magnetic drums were, and they first saw use in 1928 Germany, vs. the magnetic drum in 1932 Austria and the magnetic disk in 1955. Magnetic tape was inexpensive for the time, and since computers weren’t exactly playing Minesweeper yet, they didn’t have to do too much to keep their spot as a reliable memory medium. The tape’s ability to record and access data quickly was incredibly important for the development of modern computers.

Besides computer memory, magnetic tape also revolutionized many media industries. The radio industry gained the ability to play clips of talk shows and the like 24/7 because of magnetic tapes, for example. The improved recording ability meant that DJs could record content for later use! Media that was previously only stored in gramophone technology could be recorded with magnetic tape with minimal quality loss, which had previously been a huge struggle.

Some legacy machines are still using magnetic tape to this day, and I’m not just sarcastically including VHS.

Super Eight

The Super Eight film medium becoming available is a significant point in recording history. In the movie ‘Super Eight’, the camera the boys shoot their short film on is an 8mm capable camera. Super Eight film was an advancement over the standard 8 mm film available for home filming at the time: the exposure area was wider, and it’s sound-recording ability was better. This doesn’t hold up to things like the VHS recorder, which are both reusable and more convenient to use, but it was still a landmark moment for consumer recording and filmmaking. Images were crisper, clearer, and held better color!

Reel Film

 Some movies still use the classic “film caught on light and burnt” visual as a scene transition. This used to happen in real life when film was reel-based, because the film was very thin, delicate plastic. If it got snagged in front of the very hot projector bulb, that scene was burnt out of the movie, and the reel was ruined. This is understandably very frustrating for theater owners who now have to refund tickets and sort out getting a replacement.

Reel movies are still used by some theaters today, despite how delicate they can be. An interesting side-fact about film is that it’s also easily distorted by radiation – which is how filmmakers found out there was nuclear testing going on North of Utah. Their film would come in hazy, because the radioactive particles stuck in the packing-hay from the area were creating haze in unused film.  

Sources:

http://www.dvorak.org/blog/whatever-happened-to-bubble-memory/

https://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/memory-storage/

https://legacybox.com/blogs/analog/when-did-cassette-tapes-replace-8-track

https://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/memory-storage/8/252

https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a187287.pdf

Where Did Ringtones Go?

Elizabeth Technology February 28, 2022

I was watching the latest Spiderman movie, and when he receives a call from his friends, the sound designers put in the low buzz of a phone on vibrate, not some ringtone. However, Deadpool has a ringtone, if only referenced in the comics. You see it as a lingering gag in movies from the 2010s, the joke being the main character having something horribly inappropriate for the situation as their ringtone.

What happened to ringtones?

Early 2000s

Phones becoming available and cheap for everyone was probably a good thing. What wasn’t was adding internet capability to those devices. I got my first phone just after that step, meaning that I had access to the internet on my Razor lookalike. It wasn’t good. While it had a browser and it could load most sites, those sites almost always broke when they fully loaded. Designing for mobile screens just wasn’t a consideration yet! Plus, my flip phone meant I was looking things up on the incredibly tiny Google search bar using T9 typing. I didn’t use it a lot.

Especially because data was also very expensive if you couldn’t get hooked up to local wifi. I recorded my most-used ringtone off of the family computer after getting home from middle school, and it sounded about as good as you’d expect. While you could download stuff off of mp3 websites, other, easier ways to get a novelty ringtone – like recording it – existed.

The Ads

Ads for ringtones you could buy via texting a number scattered the Disney and MTV channels, usually ads for snippets of songs from their artists, but sometimes characters like Yoda, or the tweeting of birds. Depending on your age, you might remember the ads for Family Guy ringtones asking you to text a number with a tag for each ringtone, linked here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWPNZ_agAZs). Jamster offered numerous ringtones in almost every flavor you could imagine, but it functioned as a subscription service – you paid 9.99 a month after signing up. Jamster is somehow still around, apparently relying on subscribers not checking their next statement too closely to keep running.

Outside of Jamster, which was almost certainly the biggest ringtone and wallpaper bundle retailer out there in the mid-2000s, you could also buy a number of songs off of the AT&T store, one of the few websites to load effectively on tiny flip phone screens. This was better than Jamster in that you still had access to pop songs, but you didn’t have to pay a subscription to get them. It was, however, still pretty pricey, at about 2.50$ a pop for the clip of the song. If you’re thinking “that costs more than the full song on iTunes did and does”, you’d be correct!

Hence recording the ringtone off the family computer, the third option that ate memory instead of money and also didn’t sound very good.

2010s

It’s tough to pin down an exact date that ringtones became both uncool and unfunny, but that decline definitely started in the very late 2000s and got exponentially worse from there. Ringtones turned into ordinary beeps and buzzing for professionals, and the iPhone was introduced, crushing Blackberry and changing the market forever with an item that was customizable in other, better ways. Phone cases! Wallpapers on a screen big enough to actually have some detail! Apps. You didn’t need a custom ringtone if you had an iPhone, even though it was one of the best-equipped phones to actually have one. They become punchlines, something that’s funny if Deadpool has one but not so much if your 12-year-old cousin has the same one unironically.

Besides general uncoolness, other factors came into play. Namely, robocallers! Once telemarketers (and scammers) completely disregarded the notion of calling at a good time, they just started calling every number they had with a recorded message instead. Calling people was cheap, now – it would be stupid not to use the shotgun approach. This combined with VOIPs becoming more easily available was a match made in hell. People unlucky enough to somehow end up on these early call lists would get calls every day, at almost any hour, and would be forced to mute their phone. While this is incredibly annoying, and it still happens today, there’s no real way to deal with it on a mass scale, so the people receiving scam calls started muting their phone and stopped picking up the line for numbers they didn’t recognize. The same goes for spam texts, which were less popular when only a handful of people had a smartphone, but have become epidemic now – if you’re getting five spam texts a day, you can’t have something loud and obnoxious letting everyone know at work or school!

Cultural Norms

Perhaps the reason it was so frequently a joke was because it really was happening. Your phone goes off in the jury box and you have to hastily shut it off, but until you do, an entire courtroom is hearing your phone play a tinny, sped up version of ‘SexyBack’ by Justin Timberlake. Your phone goes off in the movie theater, because you forgot to mute it, and everyone hears an ear-piercing ringing until you can fumble it out of your pocket and decline the call. You get a call while changing your pet’s litterbox, and you don’t want to touch your phone with your dirty hands, so you listen to the first thirty seconds of a Ke$ha song repeat itself until either you wash your hands or the caller stops calling.  

As robotic spam calls in the middle of the day became a serious problem, more and more people simply couldn’t justify keeping a ringtone, even though the iPhone was out and it had enough space to play a full song (which is another thing: ringtones only play the catchiest snippet of the song until you get sick of it!). The concept itself seems weird, looking back – you pick a song you like, but you can’t listen to the whole thing because of space limits. Even when you could, you’d have to pick up the call eventually, or get cut off because the call stops trying to connect after six rings. If you want to listen to the songs you like, now you can just go to Youtube of Spotify, because data is so cheap. Ringtones were a fun little blip in the time between cheap data and powerful phones, but without those conditions being met, they’re just sort of annoying.

Sources:

https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/29/22857413/motorola-razr-internet-button-flip-phone-data-cellular-charges

https://www.eff.org/files/redacted_ascaps_opposition_to_atts_msj_ringtones.pdf

Will there Ever be Another Billy Mays?

Elizabeth Technology February 23, 2022

Or are they all doomed to MilkShake Duck, Crash, and Burn?

Billy Mays Here

I’m sure you’ve seen his ads at least once. Billy Mays was one of the most famous salesmen for everyday household products like the Shamwow and bathtub-ring remover, an amazing salesman famous for both his delivery of his lines and the variety of stuff he’d promoted during his career.

He sold everything. He did it while yelling. His consistently cheery demeanor and intro became a trademark unto himself, a trustworthy salesman in an era where companies weren’t sure they needed a face. He was a staple of phone-order TV products in the period right before everyone had a website they could pitch instead, filling a transient niche. He sadly passed away due to a heart attack in 2009, and nobody has ever been able to take his place.

The Milkshake Duck

A Milkshake Duck refers to a tweet where the poster is presenting a fictional duck that drinks milkshakes, a duck that everybody on the internet loves. The second part of the tweet implies that the tweeter found out the duck is racist only after that duck became famous. Milkshake Ducks are people who become famous for something cute or funny, only for the spotlight to show things from their past they may not have wanted the entire public to see. An unfortunately large number of SNL performers have done blackface, for example, but nobody ever knows until they’re in front of the camera and people want to find out every little detail about them.

Billy Mays appeared during an incredibly unique time in TV history, a time when Twitter was new and celebrities had to really screw up before they’d get called on it. Obviously, this has now changed – while it’s still possible for celebrities to suppress bad news about themselves, it’s much harder to do that when the reporting is crowdsourced by people at varying levels of anonymity.

The question of could we get another Billy Mays is complicated tremendously by this problem.

You have to be a little insane to keep up the constant pep and showmanship Billy Mays had for his commercial. You have to be willing you put your name behind things wholeheartedly, like he did – he claimed he used every product he showed, and many of those products are genuinely good. If they’re not, they’re not poorly made – they’re just not made for everybody. You have to be a ‘Type A’ personality. All of this combines into a person that, simply put, is likely to have gotten into some trouble at some point in their life.

For close comparison, look at the people we saw get big in similar ways after his untimely passing: the Shamwow guy had complaints of domestic violence against him. The MyPillow guy is a notorious conspiracy theorist, but in the racist way, not the fun way. Commercials for products like the Scrub Daddy sponge and other assorted ‘As Seen On TV’ stuff have, instead, gone back to using actors who don’t speak to demonstrate their product with a narrator over the top.

Milkshake Ducks are more common than ever, and the kind of product still using infomercials can’t make it work if they pick the wrong person. It may actually tank all of their marketing to be associated with the wrong person.

Flex Tape

The only man who’s come sort of close to him in recent memory is the Flex Seal guy, Phil Swift. Flex Seal is essentially spray rubber, which has existed, but wasn’t well known outside of construction and underwater sports markets.

All that stuff earlier still applies – he’s a little unhinged. Billy Mays was always shouting, but he always maintained a professional demeanor underneath it. The Flex Seal guy will sometimes pull out a chainsaw and look a little too eager to use it, which is to say – exactly eager enough for people to remember. Nobody could replace Billy Mays because his delivery was unique for the time and imitators have cropped up in his absence, but Phil Swift takes his presentation and tweaks it just enough.

However, while Phil Swift is a close match in this one regard, he doesn’t do the same cross-product stuff that Billy Mays did. Mays had a marketing company that other companies would reach out to, but Phil is employed by Flex Seal specifically. He only does Flex Seal. Finding someone who hits all of the critical points has been difficult at best and impossible at worst. Even when they do find someone, a la Phil Swift, they’re often not willing to go beyond one company like Mays had been. Mays was truly rare – I don’t expect we’ll see another one as technology continues to isolate advertising, both online and on traditional TV.

Sources:

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/613382/billy-mays-conquered-infomercial-world

Old-Style Pixel Art vs. Emulators

Elizabeth Technology December 24, 2021

Old Nintendo games look very different from what people remembered them as. They’re not crazy, or blinded by nostalgia – the games really did look a lot better.

The secret is the CRT monitor.

The CRT – and Pixels

A pixel is defined as the smallest controllable unit of an image on-screen. This has changed some over time! In old digital clocks, the bars making up the numbers would act as its pixels. In CRTs, it was little cubes where the red, green, blue, and white projection lights lined up to give that cube the right color.

Old-style living-room CRTs usually had a resolution of 480p. When you see a number followed by ‘p’, like 480p, it’s referring to the number of rows of pixels lined up top-to-bottom, so any screen could theoretically be 480p – it’s just more impressive the smaller the screen is. 480p was the standard for many late 90’s/early 2000’s games, because CRTs were widely available. CRTs weren’t bad, for the time! Rear-projection models could get huge, but the kind that blasted the image directly onto the screen was limited to a size of about 30”.

CRTs also had the unique ‘CRT grid’. Because of how CRTs work, the individual pixels didn’t connect to each other neatly like they do on modern screens – a small outline of darkness surrounds each pixel. The pixel inside said outline isn’t perfectly ‘square’, either, like they are on modern displays. If you get up close to a CRT screen (don’t, it’s bad for your eyes) you’d be able to see the three colors being projected onto the glass of said screen, and they form a squarish blob or a series of colored lines, depending on brand. When you back up, it looks like a picture, and your brain automatically fills in the gaps left by the un-connected parts. This is a huge part of why these games don’t look as good as they used to! Current monitors don’t have gaps visible to the naked eye between pixels.

Old Games

Game designers were able to factor this in to give the illusion that the image was much clearer than it was – Pikachu in 480P looked incredible back then, but terrible today in that same 480p. Nostalgia hasn’t clouded vision, Pikachu really did look a lot less blocky. The CRT’s rounded off pixel-corners meant that developers could fill those pixels in right to the edge and still get a polished, rounded appearance – your brain, as mentioned previously, is also filling in gaps for you, as a sort of optical illusion. They couldn’t make a perfectly smooth curve, so they let you do it.

Aerith from Final Fantasy in CRT vs. Aerith on a modern screen

In absolute terms, games looked slightly worse before they got much better. 3-D games especially. Two-dimensional sprites could be fudged – there’s only so many positions for the characters to be in, so animate a jumping sequence, an attacking sequence, etc. and you’re good to go. Those games often still look great on modern monitors. 3-Dimensional games had to build a doll that the player could control and view from every angle, which was a lot for early computers. Their saving grace was that CRT – characters could be flawed and un-specific without being unreadable. With CRTs in the mix, many people didn’t notice that the PS1 games looked very different from PS2 games at the time, unless they were fancy and upgraded their screen without also upgrading to the next console. With the benefit of hindsight, games that were only a few years apart do look really different: Resident Evil 4 doesn’t look too bad on a modern screen, while Resident Evil 2 looks noticeably dated in comparison! But at the time, Resident Evil 3 looked marginally better than 2, and 4 only looked a little better than 3.

Most gamers never noticed that their old games were secretly ugly until many years down the line, in the modern era. Even that’s not a really fair statement – they weren’t ugly when they went in. It’s like trying to watch one of the old-style 3-D movies without the glasses, they were designed to be played on CRTs. We’re just noticing this now because emulators and ROMs for dead or missing games are more available than ever!  

Emulators

Via ZombieKaiba On Tumblr

Nowadays, with our perfectly square pixels, Pikachu looks much more… square. In fact, everything from old games does. Old games had very limited computer power to work with, so little hacks and tricks like this kept the games running smoothly. Blocky Pikachu is barely noticeable, but leaving him without fine detail frees up enough space to add extra plant textures to the island. Unfortunately, ROMs bring the old game to life without its limitations – the CRT monitor’s grid isn’t easy to recreate in a visually appealing way.

The original games with this art style weren’t meant for modern screens. The consoles are producing the same images now as they did back then, it’s just much clearer. I’m sure when we get to a point where projection or VR games are common, these old “3-D” games will look like trash compared to real 3-D, and it won’t be an accurate representation of the way we played those games.

Right now, the best option to get those nice-looking characters back is to recreate the CRT’s grid over top of the image, which many ROM creators are reluctant to do – many players would rather have a slightly uglier game in high-res than a more attractive game in low-res.

As a result, players are unintentionally led to believe the game really was that ugly. It just wasn’t.

At least the audio still sounds the same!

Sources:

https://animoto.com/blog/news/hd-video-creation-sharing

https://discover.therookies.co/2019/05/09/a-brief-history-of-3d-texturing-in-video-games/

What’s the Deal with Linux?

Elizabeth Technology December 17, 2021

You’ve probably heard of it. What does it do? Why is it so different from Windows or Mac? Why don’t offices use it if it’s so versatile?

First: Battle of the OS

              Let’s start from the point that Windows 1 was launched. Microsoft’s new OS (Operating System) is designed to be fairly user friendly. It’s not perfect, but it accomplishes its task: making computers accessible to the layman, to small businesses, and to people who don’t have any experience with computer languages. Apple soon comes out with its own OS, designed to be better than Windows for immediate usability, and also makes a big splash. Microsoft outcompetes other OS’s in the business world by offering Excel for free! with purchase of Windows. Have you ever heard of IBM’s Lotus spreadsheet software? It was an extra charge on top of the OS software. Microsoft’s Excel was not. Lotus goes extinct.

 Apple in turn offers a better version of Excel (one that can do more complex things, thanks to the Macintosh OS). This pattern continues for some time.

 Other OS’s are still around, but many fizzle out shortly after they launch: Microsoft is a big company with a lot of excellent programmers in its ranks, and when Microsoft improves something, IBM and Apple were usually the only ones who could keep up. Everyone else had relied on specializing to specific companies, which is both time-consuming and inefficient, and gradually little companies died out.

 Enter: 90’s. UNIX has been around since the 70s (and spent part of that time free due to an anti-trust law), although it’s commercial use kept shrinking as Microsoft’s share of the market grew. It just couldn’t do as much as Windows, and you weren’t allowed to modify it, so if somebody wanted to spend the money, they’d usually lean towards Microsoft when it became widely available. A Swedish college student really appreciates the base form of UNIX and decides that with a few tweaks (that slowly turned into a lot of tweaks), he could make a version that was good enough to satisfy most people. The rest is history; Microsoft comes to dominate the business world, while Apple follows close behind for the residential computer market, and Linux lives on, ready to port to any number of available devices.

Why Use It?

  1.  It’s free! Completely free. Anybody can download the base form of it and modify it. If someone has the right experience, they can push a computer to the limits.
  2.  It’s open source. Open source means that anybody can access the inner workings, create tools with it, fiddle with the coding, etc. so for people who want to ‘make’ their own OS experience, this is a fantastic tool that doesn’t have other invisible programming getting in the way. This can quickly turn into a curse if you’re hoping to just hop right in with limited experience, but it’s possible. There are also plenty of pre-made versions with a little more meat on their bones for folks who want to download something for a custom computer or smart device, but those usually cost money; like anything else, it’s a tradeoff. Most smartphones use a modified form of Linux.
  3.  Linux is lightweight on hardware. By it’s very nature, raw Linux doesn’t have as much software as a fully completed OS, so when you’re looking to make a robot or get a really old computer up and running, Linux may be the answer to your problems. It allows you to trim the fat where you need to without losing room for features you need. It’s actually a pretty common software/firmware choice for that reason – certain car brands with smart features rely on Linux, along with smart TVs, and a lot of Cloud Infrastructure.

Why not?  

What does it do worse?

  1. A lot of people are faster on Windows or Mac than they are on Linux. People who have always used Macs are faster at using Macs, and the same goes for Microsoft computers. This comes down to experience, and it’s not really a downside to Linux so much as a natural part of training employees. However, when a company also needs a lot of ordinary tools, like Excel or Word, buying Windows computers and bulk licenses is frequently cheaper than making and training employees on the tools yourself.
  2. There’s only vendor support for your Linux tool if it A) was bought from a vendor and B) they offer vendor support. In-house projects have the power of the programmer that made it, and online support from forums, which relies on the free time of experts. That can become scarce right when it’s needed most, and it’s certainly not guaranteed if the project is too deep for an expert to want to toy with for free. If the company gets itself into trouble with the project, or if something goes terribly wrong, the only options become fixing it themselves or hiring an outside firm experienced in Linux. This is a very ugly option to a lot of companies, so vendor-supported tools are usually the first choice.
  3. Linux is only more secure if you know what you’re doing – it’s very possible to overextend a feature and create problems for yourself/your company.
  4. As for home use, it’s not just like Windows unless you make it that way. Hobbyists and professionals alike like Linux for its flexibility, but if you’re an average person who just wants to change the way movies play on your device, it might be easier to see what other people have built for your favorite OS and go from there.
  5. Linux is famously incapable of playing games straight out of the box, so that’s a bummer.

Really, most of the downsides to Linux are that it’s not pre-made, which is also it’s biggest strength.

Sources: https://www.howtogeek.com/196493/what-concepts-were-used-before-operating-systems/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix

https://opensource.com/article/18/5/differences-between-linux-and-unix

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux

Talking Angela: An Accidental Misinformation Campaign

Elizabeth Uncategorized November 29, 2021

Games

The early 2010s was an era of mobile-gaming greats, with such classics as “Where’s My Water?” and “Cut the Rope” appearing on millions of smartphones. ‘Thingamajig’ style apps started appearing: these are the apps that allow you to interact with a single character or device on-screen, usually with a limited set of tools.

The more complex ones were like Talking Tom, a cat character who you could smack and give cake to. Talking Tom could also repeat things you said into the microphone, which made him very popular. The next generation of these ‘Talking X’ characters included Angela, who, unlike Tom, had a typed chat feature. She couldn’t generate her own replies, but she could give responses from a pre-made library that were roughly relevant to what the player had typed. The AI was fairly simple, but it kept kids entertained, and that was good enough. The app was PG-E with a child mode because it had in-game purchases. Naturally, the content was pretty tame even with child mode off.

It did ask questions about the user’s name and age as well as conversational topics, but that was with that child mode off. In the event that a parent forgets to set child mode to ‘on’ or the kid gets around it, Angela still couldn’t ask anything invasive. Her AI gave her pre-made responses, she couldn’t ‘learn’ beyond adding player inputs to her answers. There was just no way she could somehow get obscene or explicit. Or threatening, really.

Rumors

That’s where the problems start: Talking Angela being able to respond at all gave some people the impression she was actually talking to the player. The chat was on an open keyboard and not a preselected menu of answers, and if child mode was off, children tended to overshare.

Parents look over, see that their child has told some chat feature that they’re in their living room, they’re eight years old, and their name is X, and understandably panic! Talking Angela slipped right by lessons of Stranger Danger because she’s a cute cartoon cat. This information wasn’t sent anywhere – basically nothing got sent anywhere unless the player made a purchase via iTunes – but it was still scary to parents.

Parents takes screenshots and posts them to their Facebook group warning other parents, yadda yadda. It’s a fair reaction! They don’t know who’s running Talking Angela, they don’t know for certain it’s not recording the logs (it wasn’t). However, people took this a step farther. Some began saying that Talking Angela was being puppeted by a bad actor on the other side of the screen. Others said she started asking strange questions outside of her normal script.

Talking Angela quickly turned into a creepypasta.

Full-Blown Creepy Stories

Edited photos of text logs are usually pretty easy to spot. People with no experience think they’re easy to recreate, but tiny details like the time and font of the text make fakes obvious to all but the most gullible of conspiracy groups. Even so, edited pictures are enough to compel a lot of people, even if they don’t make logical sense. The most common non-text one is where Talking Angela has a reflection of a man in her eyes. Closely following are text-based edits of explicit questions to the user, questions about the user’s address and exact locations, responses warning the user that she’s on her way – basically, anything you wouldn’t find in a child-friendly chat-app was supposed to have happened to somebody.

Talking Angela made it to the top ten most popular games as a result of this, and you’d think the number of people trying it out themselves would disprove the insane stories. Nope, they made it worse, and the rumors spread to the app page itself as well as forums all over the internet. Somewhere along the line, a kid ‘went missing’ due to Talking Angela. Pictures of this alongside the eye pictures and the pictures of Angela herself circulated far and wide. Snopes, alongside a host of other internet skeptics, took on the case.

Disproving and Lies, Obviously

That kid never existed. There was no “Eli Moreno” matching the details given in the Talking Angela rumors. It was all lies! Snopes alongside basically every other reputable news site that had heard of it announced that this was provably false. It is. Nothing about it makes sense.

We know now that apps already know where you are. Even with ‘Exact Location’ functionalities turned off, they have your location history, which tells them that within a certain radius you’re probably at house X. The app store knows where you’re at as long as you have your phone on you.

So, Talking Angela wouldn’t have needed you to tell her where you are, firstly. Secondly, because App stores are always harvesting info from you to sell ads, they’ll also have an approximate age range and likes/dislikes list for you as well. Check out Google’s version here: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/162744?hl=en as well as Apple’s: https://observer.com/2018/10/apple-data-download-how-to-get-copy/. Wonder why you’re getting ads for cat food when you’re low, even though you didn’t search for it? They already know. They already know you. They don’t need some dinky little AI chat to get this info from their users or their kids.

Functionally, most aspects of Talking Angela’s predator hoax don’t make any sense either. Like those edited pictures where Angela’s eyes somehow behave like a two-way mirror over a digital connection. The front facing camera is at the top of the phone, the rest of the device doesn’t behave like a camera. The app asks permission from the user to turn the camera on anyway, but let’s assume Talking Angela has somehow disabled the phone’s native privacy features. It makes no logical sense for someone to be ‘visible’ in Talking Angela’s eyes – how would that even work? The eyes aren’t the camera, so the app-maker would have to both enable the theoretical predator’s camera and then program that video feed to appear in the cat’s eyes. The predator would also have to have their own camera on and unblocked, which isn’t necessary to view the user’s camera. If someone smart were programming this as a way to prey on children, surely, such an obvious sign that something’s wrong with the cat wouldn’t be intentionally programmed in? A total lack of understanding smartphones colored many of these rumors.

Not to mention the streaming costs of having video allegedly going both ways. Somehow, this doesn’t cost as much data as a Facetime call does, even though that’s how much data that function would consume – if it were real. In reality, Talking Angela behaves the same with or without internet, which wouldn’t be true if the cat was being controlled by someone remotely. And as several people have pointed out, Talking Angela has millions of downloads; it would take hundreds if not thousands of weirdos and creeps to filter out adults from snatchable kids. There’s just no way.

Sources: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/talking-angela-warning/

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/21/talking-angela-app-facebook-hoax-developer-outfit7

(Inspiration taken from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-IlDT7U2Hc )