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AI Isn’t The Thing Killing Artist Jobs, And It’s Not A Replacement For Them Either

Elizabeth Technology November 8, 2022

Picture that you’re a carpenter. You’re designing a long desk for a client. They want it made out of mahogany, and they want it to be solid. Preferably, they’d like it to be 70’s style. They don’t want the edge to still have the bark on it. You quote them for the time and materials going into the project, and they start backpedaling. Your expertise costs too much for them, and there’s a machine making tables out there for 50$ a pop. Sure, it’s not the right wood, it’s not solid wood, it wiggles, and if you want to order another one it’s going to be different from the first one because the results are very inconsistent, it also snatches designs (with questionable legality) from other carpenters to mash into this mess, including designs that leave knots in strange places in the veneer – but it’s only 50$. If you look closer, it’s not even sanded – it doesn’t know what sanding is, it just knows “tables are smooth” so the sanding is someone else’s job once the machine understands the table to be ‘smooth’ by its own metrics, some of which the end requestor can’t see. It’s using veneer to make this table, though. It’s difficult to sand without punching through. The customer doesn’t know how hard fixing it is going to be.

None of this makes the machine’s table as good as the table you could make, but because the machine is there and it looks functional, upper management (that doesn’t understand the problems with it) are using it to justify haggling for an insultingly low fee from you, the skilled tradesperson, because “a machine is going to take your job if you charge too much”… even though this same thing happened with cheap, overseas sweatshop labor that promised mediocre products at an incredibly cheap price, and it didn’t poof your job out of existence then. They aren’t convinced of your worth, so you guess the machine won. You can’t make the table at that rate without losing money. Their strange table arrives, upper management pretends to be happy because there’s a bit of pride involved, and everyone is slightly unhappier than they would have been if a machine had never been lumped in with human carpenters or posited as a replacement. This machine has screwed up the calculus that goes into ordering tables, because it does in fact make tables, but it takes a human touch to make them really good and exactly like you wanted. Heck, even those poor folks machining IKEA furniture could make something better, albeit at 80$. No, the machine is dirt cheap, and so it won.

Some companies may take note and go with a human carpenter, some may not – either way, this machine is not the death of carpentry. It’s changed the environment, and human carpenters will once again have to prove their worth in the face of industrialization, but it’s far from the end.

This is what’s happening with AI art.

It’s not as communicative as real artists, it’s not capable of building an unusual or interesting scene the same way people are (it is essentially creating an average out of everything it’s been fed in order to meet your prompt). If you like what you got but you want something tweaked, good luck; you’re not going to get the same picture twice with just the stuff you wanted fixed out of an AI. It’s inconsistent to a fault. It also can’t produce a new style that isn’t composed of other styles. ‘Every style is made of other styles’ you may say – yes, but not like this. Rothko, Monet, and Klimt may all be pulling from old masters, but you’d be really stretching it to say they’re all alike. AI, as it stands right now, can’t make a new style the way artists can. Is it possible for a machine to produce something new off of terabytes of harvested data? Maybe – but not today. Not tomorrow, either.

And yet, some are heralding it as the end of the traditional artist because it sometimes spits out stuff that looks good, just don’t look at the hands or teeth. AI art is not what’s killing art jobs, it’s the companies that mistake the AI for a cheap ticket out of paying for labor that are killing art jobs. When they realize what they’re getting, they’ll have a choice to make – go back to paying the artists, or settle for slightly uncanny, difficult-to-standardize art made by AI.

Some will go for the worse product, and some will not. The future is unpredictable, and maybe the wobbly table machine gets much better, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it starts charging a fee to use, etc. Humans may not be able to do it as cheaply, but they’re at least promising some sort of quality and consistency, and they can respond to minor and major tweak requests without redoing the entire piece.  

The AI art does not win by default just for existing.

Qwerty Board – Why?

Elizabeth Technology November 3, 2022

The Typewriter

A typewriter works (roughly) like this: you press a key. On the other side of the keyboard, a key hammer, via a series of internal springs and levers, lifts to the paper. Right before it does, a ribbon with ink on it is pushed up by mechanisms inside of the machine, tied to the ones you’re activating when you hit the keys, and the end of the key hammer smacks the ink, imprinting it into the paper in the same shape as the hammer’s head, which is the same as the key you pressed.

Does this sound complicated? It is! And all of it is purely mechanical.

Initially, the typewriter’s keys were laid out in two rows, alphabetically. The design had some small updates, but it had one very consistent, very annoying issue – striking two keys next to each other with too small of a gap between the key presses meant those keys would hit each other and get stuck, which was annoying to stop and fix. The Qwerty board not only separated the most commonly used letters to avoid the keys getting stuck, it also did so in order to slow down the typist. The first iteration of the keyboard was too efficient to use efficiently!

The New Keyboard

There’s a term for using old designs for new items, or why we kept the qwerty keyboard even as computer keyboards removed the mechanical issue at the heart of qwerty design – it’s known as a skeuomorph! Skeuomorphs are items that take design features from older versions of themselves to make the newer version less confusing, scary, or difficult to learn. For example, the first phones with buttons arranged the buttons in a circle to make the transition easier from the old rotary phones.

Typists of the time were used to qwerty, and so qwerty is what ended up on the electronic keyboards in front of the first consumer computers. Specialist keyboards like stenography machines and split kinesis boards are entirely different beasts and developed on different evolutionary pathways.

Alternate Layouts

Dvorak is interesting, and the most common letters are in the home row, so the hands travel less while typing. Despite this, it’s not significantly faster – it forces the typist to use both hands on almost every word, and takes practice just like Qwerty.

Colemak keyboards are much the same, in a different orientation. Even more of the typing takes place on the home row on a Colemak keyboard, so much so that it might be a disadvantage!

This leads to the Workman keyboard, which is designed not to be mostly on the home row and instead, the keys are clustered together according to commonality – this results in less movement than the Colemak keyboard. While less space between keys sounds like it would lead to less movement, it doesn’t! Not with home-row centered typing. The H + E combo on the Colemak in particular was awkward to hit. The ‘E’ key is in about the same location as the ‘K’ key is on a Qwerty board. With a bit more space between the most commonly-typed-together letters, the Workman keyboard is quickly picking up a fandom.

For now, though, Qwerty is the default!

How to Clean Your Electronics

Elizabeth Technology October 25, 2022

Water is obviously out. You can’t use water on your electronics without the risk of them shorting.

1) A VERY Soft Cloth

Quality microfiber cloths are about as good as it gets for hard and plastic screens. Make sure you get the kind specifically rated for glass lenses or electronics (car microfiber cloths have a little more leeway in softness as car paint is not as soft as screen plastic, and as such we don’t recommend them) and voila, you’ve got a solid option for cleaning your screen that’s reusable, washable, and easy to store. One big note to make is that you do need to wash it – if you’re not careful, and you pick up a lot of grit or dust, you can end up sanding your screen or electronics with said grit or dust.

Swiffer products, like their dust mop, can be useful for keyboards and harder plastics, but as they can sometimes be scented (which can leave residue), are often not washable, and are usually meant for floors and hard knickknacks, the microfiber cloth is a much better choice.

2) Lens Wipes

If you spilled something a bit viscous on your screen or keyboard, and you don’t want to risk soaking your device, look to lens wipes! Few things are better solvents than water, so simply wetting a microfiber cloth can often do the trick, but if you’re worried about it dripping or otherwise ruining your device, pre-dampened lens wipes may save the day. The only downside is that they tend to be small!

A bit of 70% isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) applied to a microfiber or other soft cloth can also be used to clean a screen, generally – just keep the cloth damp, not soaking.

3) Compressed Air

Compressed air is great for many things! It can often get crumbs out of crevices that cloths and dusters can’t reach, which keyboards are full of. However, it also comes with some tips – you can blow off keys with it if you’re holding it too close to said keyboard, so keep to the distance listed on the bottle. You also shouldn’t hold it upside down. If you do, the pressurized liquid at the bottom of the container will come out, and not only can it sometimes leave residue, but it’s also going to freeze whatever it touches, which is hazardous to you. And possibly the machinery, depending on what you’re hitting.

What NOT To Use

1) Non-lens Cleaning Wipes

If a wipe is wood based, or otherwise meant for something besides lenses, there’s a chance it could scratch your screen. Doubly so if it’s advertised as having ‘scrubbing power’! It’s not a guarantee – some screens are softer than others – but with how cheap microfiber cloths are, and how expensive your computer screen probably was, it’s just not worth it to use a Clorox wipe over a microfiber cloth. Over time, it might haze the screen, or scratch it immediately.

2) Windex and Other Household Cleaners

Not every solvent gets along with every plastic, but Windex especially is not great for screens. Windex works best on glass and polished metal – anywhere else, and it may slowly dissolve what it’s been sprayed on. You’re not supposed to use it on wood because it can sometimes eat varnish! If you spill something viscous on a screen and need a solvent to get it off, use something designed for cameras, water (but not so much your microfiber cloth is soaking or dripping!!), or the lens wipes mentioned above. Isopropyl alcohol is generally safe for devices, but be sure to use a soft, non-wood based cloth or wipe to use it.

The Fun World of Firefox Browser Addons

Elizabeth Technology October 20, 2022

With the recent announcement that Chrome is gutting ad blockers, it’s never been a better time to switch to Edge (which we recommend because it is especially easy to use) or Firefox. Edge is better for business – but if you want a smoother, less ad-riddled home browsing extension, why not check out Firefox?

Ad Blockers

Because Google sells quite a few of the slots you see online, it’s become disincentivized to let you avoid them on their browser – so Chrome will no longer block ads because that would be blocking Google from making that sweet, sweet ad money off of your views. And ads are everywhere. You scroll past them in between posts on TikTok and Tumblr. They appear on the sidebars and banners of news websites. They autoplay when you open Youtube, and speckle the progress bar with yellow. They’re obnoxious. And simultaneously insidious – you may watch a clip of a seemingly normal Instagram video only to realize after they begin pitching the product hard that it’s not a recommendation, it’s an ad, and you simply missed the little sponsor logo in the corner. Ads track you. Ad companies watch you view their ads and then determine from your behavior whether or not you’re interested. They watch the content you watch, and determine your age, gender, nationality, political affiliation, hobbies, and more from your online behavior. Even if you don’t mind ads, this tracking is often enough to justify an ad blocker in and of itself.

That said, ads can be pretty annoying. Especially if it’s disguising itself as regular content. Edge, a popular alternative to Chrome, still has an ad blocker, but does it have a sponsored post blocker? Because Firefox has both! Firefox can filter out sponsored posts from your websites alongside the normal ads you see everywhere. If you’re sick of sponsored content making up an unfair percentage of your feeds, Firefox has you covered.

Password Managers

Edge, Chrome, and Firefox all have versions of their own ad blockers as well as third party versions that can be downloaded to the browser – Firefox, however, will allow you to synchronize this across devices without a fee. While we like and recommend LastPass, it’s only free if you’re using it on one device, and you have to pay to sync it on multiple devices, which can be a bummer.

This is a mixed bag of a tool. On one hand, having all this stuff stored safely inside your Google account sounds great and convenient, and usually it is – except in the case of hacking. If someone socially engineers their way into your Google account, suddenly all of your other passwords are stolen too. Nightmare! A Firefox account, which does not have its own email service, is less likely to get hacked if only because it’s less immediately valuable. By dividing your email service from your browser password service, you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket.

As far as security, a really good fake webpage that trips your browser or password manager to auto-fill the password would get almost any password service, built in or not! Turn off auto-fill if you can.

Other Goodies

Firefox has tons of other useful addons as well! Tired of getting distracted on Reddit, but can’t seem to stop typing in the URL almost unconsciously? Download Impulse Control and wrest your eyes back on task. Trying to keep cookies under control? Download the extension that shortens the path to deleting your browser history right to your window. Ads still squeezing in, or threatening to break your page if you don’t turn off your ad blocker? A browser extension called DeCentralEyes promises to serve more local content that won’t slow down your page or give a ton of info to bigger third-party ad sites. You can remove ‘recommended’ content on YouTube to see only the people you’re subscribed to on your front page, and skip out on YouTube sponsorships with a separate extension from that one. Overall, you can completely tailor your experience on Firefox, and you’ll have quite a bit of privacy from the business running the browser itself while doing it.

If Chrome isn’t going to offer you privacy or add-free browsing or a customizable experience, consider Firefox!

(Those extensions: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/youtube-recommended-videos/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=hotness

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/sponsorblock/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=hotness

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/decentraleyes/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=rating

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/clear-browsing-data/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=hotness

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/impulse-blocker/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=featured)

Please don’t scan random QR codes

Elizabeth Technology October 4, 2022

The Past and Present of Random Links

Before the age of built in antivirus and user-friendly web design, it was entirely possible to wander onto a webpage that would just start downloading something malicious out of nowhere. Popups that did this were a serious problem, and many browsers responded by working in a sort of zero-trust philosophy. Firefox, for example, will tell you when a site has tried to open a pop-up, and asks you if you still want to open it. This does occasionally catch honest secondary windows (like payment portals and the like) but the great thing about that is that because it asked, you can say ‘yes, I wanted that to open’ and you’re not stuck with some horrid flashing popup dominating your screen every other time.

Aside from popups, some websites were able to either trick users into downloading things by mimicking a real website, or simply start downloading things themselves as soon as they were clicked. Separate antivirus programs were needed to combat phishing downloads alongside other website trash, as browsers can’t always differentiate between intentional and unintentional downloads. In this era of the internet, misclicking or accidentally misspelling a website URL could be catastrophic for the computer. Big hosting companies protect their hosted websites now by preventing others from registering domains that are almost the target URL, but not quite (a form of domain squatting) but this wasn’t always the case.

Furthermore, hyperlinks can be used to trick people into clicking things they’d otherwise have avoided. Remember Rick Rolling? Every trick that anyone has ever used to Rick Roll you can also be used to get you to click on, and download, something you don’t want on your computer. Disguised hyperlinks. Obfuscated URLs that re-route a couple of times to get you to lower your guard. Clickable buttons, in place of links. Social engineering. The list goes on!

The False Sense of Security

The modern web as most people browse it is a safer place than it used to be. Google’s SEO is partly to blame – users who report unpleasant website experiences or demonstrate that the website isn’t good by leaving within so many seconds of it loading will lead to that website appearing lower in the search results, until eventually Google stops letting it pop up near the top at all. Hosting services are also partly to blame – they have a monetary interest in keeping their websites whitelisted, and malicious websites screw that up for them. Plus, it’s sort of scummy. Would you want to do business with a company that passively allowed one of its clients to wreck another potential client’s car? Probably not!

Antivirus and default browser settings take care of much of the rest. But these things don’t mean the nastier parts of the web have stopped existing, they just mean it’s harder to get there without doing so intentionally. Users don’t fear clicking on links that lead to sources or Ko.Fi services because it’s been so long since that was a problem. Forum users click through links with no fear. While not a perfect breeding ground for scam links to come back (most people still know and remember the warning signs) it is a perfect breeding ground for something new built on old foundations – QR code scams.

QR Codes

A QR code is a sort of bar code that’s recorded in two dimensions (vertical and horizontal) instead of one. Almost every modern phone (and many of the outdated ones) come with a QR-reading feature built in. QR codes and code readers have a high tolerance for missing or damaged information, making it a fantastic resource for quick and easy link-loading – where a barcode is unreadable if a bar is missing, a QR code can often still be read if squares are missing or obscured. Advertisements, verification texts, digital menus, libraries, virtual queues, etc. all benefit from how simple it is to whip out a phone and point the camera at a black and white square for a few seconds. It’s even easier than typing in a link, and you can direct users to specific pages with gangly URLs without worrying how that URL is going to look on printed material – the user isn’t going to see the URL anymore, they’re going to see the QR code!

This lead to things like QR code stickers that would lead to individual GIFs or art project websites out in public, a form of easy-to-remove graffiti that still showed off some art in today’s hyper-online world. QR codes gave restaurants and their diners an easy way to see a digital menu without having to type in a URL. It also made Rick Rolling easy again.

You’re probably already seeing the issue here: when users can’t see the URL, they have no way of knowing where they’re going to end up when they scan it. A hyperlink’s true destination is visible to a user when they press and hold on mobile, or hover their mouse pointer over it on desktop – the same is not universally true for QR codes (some phones and programs show the link before asking you to continue, but many do not). The scam potential for these codes is off the charts because many do not understand them as ‘links’ but as ‘scannable objects’.

Discord Scam

For example, the recent slew of Discord scams! Essentially, what happens is a scammer compromises an account, either by password brute-forcing or by social engineering, and sends messages to everyone on that person’s friend list saying things like “ummm idk if this is really you or not but it was your name and it says you sent a girl gross stuff like wtf? Check the #shame tag and you’ll see it. I’m blocking you just in case, I can’t be friends with a predator”. They then send a link inviting you to join the Discord server mentioned in the message, and block you so you can’t continue to chat with them. As this is a compromised account and may be pretending to be someone you actually speak to on the regular, this can be very alarming. The first instinct is to join the server so you can defend yourself against whatever allegations have allegedly been made in that server! It presents you with a QR code to join the server that this compromised account has sent to you so you can clear your name and get your friend to unblock you, but when you scan it, it tricks your phone into giving over the login credentials for your Discord, compromising your account and continuing the scam.

This is the sort of scam that happened all the time before people grew wary of random DM’ed links! Here we are again, re-learning not to trust people that talk like bots and the things those bot-people/compromised accounts send us.

Sources: https://mamoru.tumblr.com/post/688687077511086080/new-discord-hacking-scam 

Nomad Bridge Hack – Decentralized Currency Is Not Always Safer Than Plain Money

Elizabeth Technology September 29, 2022

The Base Of Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies generally work off a blockchain which records its movements. This has both pros and cons, but the biggest pro and con is that there’s no centralized agency that monitors the coins. They monitor themselves instead! Given the base coin technology was made correctly, you can kind of just set it and forget it, and transactions using secure, well-made cryptocurrencies will work out as they should so long as both parties are being honest and not trying to scam each other. That’s not always the case, but in a perfect world, the flaws belong to the people and not to the tech. You can’t hack a Bitcoin, for example, it has to be deliberately sent. Almost all Bitcoin scams involving theft are social engineering attacks for this reason – if a scammer can get into a Bitcoin wallet, either by brute forcing the password or tricking the owner into giving it to them, they can still steal the coin by sending it elsewhere, and it can’t be called back.

However, this really applies best to Bitcoin and older cryptocurrencies that have had a minute to mature and improve the tech. New tech using blockchain are riddled with flaws. Take NFTs, for example – on some of the platforms hosting them, a security flaw allowed ‘smart contracts’ to be planted in someone’s wallet, which would then move the real NFTs out of the wallet once the owner clicked them. NFT chains can’t show if something was paid for, they only show if it was moved, and so those NFTs would be sold along as though they’d never been stolen because nobody would be able to tell. It’s sort of ridiculous.

The coins are impenetrable – everything else is not.

The Nomad Bridge Hack

Bridges, in cryptocurrency speak, are like currency exchanges. They allow people with one type to spend it like another by depositing the crypto they have to be used as collateral for the one they want. Blockchain technology is difficult to break when it’s one continuous piece, but when it’s not, it’s just like any other kind of banking technology. Meaning it also needs layers and layers of security so a failure on one layer doesn’t mean total system failure.

The problem is that typical banks have had a ton of time to work out security, but crypto is new, and it always wants to build itself something special, just for crypto, because that makes it more special than all the other modes people have used for payment. As a result, they’re rediscovering issues that banks have already worked out, like the exploit that drained Nomad of all of its money. Or the different exploit that drained Wormhole. Or the other different exploit that drained the Ronin bridge.

In Nomad’s case, a bad update allowed any tokens with the default value for transactions to go through as though they were valid. Once one person figured it out, others began copy-pasting his transaction info and substituting the destination address for their own. This allowed them to transfer currency to their own wallet without having to put up any collateral, like they normally would. A handful of people tried to altruistically take money so it’d be safe in a wallet and they could give it back later, but the vast majority was snatched before the platform could react.

Currently, Nomad is attempting to trace the coins and get them back, but this is the major disadvantage of cryptocurrency – they can’t just reverse the transaction, and the coins don’t record whether a movement was legal or not. There’s also no central body to make the thieves give the coins back, because the currency was made specifically so it wouldn’t need that. It’s unclear if Nomad is actually going to be able to get those coins back. Right now, 9 million dollars’ worth of the stolen coins have been returned (probably due to the 10% bounty that Nomad set trying to encourage people to give the money back) but the rest is still up in the air.

Sources: https://blockworks.co/nomad-token-bridge-raided-for-190m-in-frenzied-free-for-all/

The Panopticon Comes for Your Playlist

Elizabeth Technology September 13, 2022

Artists can see what playlists you add their songs to on Spotify.

That hasn’t really been a problem – most were polite enough to simply look the other way, understanding that users aren’t always aware of that feature and that a playlist can get pretty personal once you’re not assembling something for a party or a road trip.

Having the info and admitting that you actually look at it pretty closely was not something you’d want to post publicly. You may want to analyze where the song is ending up most often, as it can give you a hint as to where listeners are hearing you, who they associate you with, and how much they like you, but you do not need to post that info. That’s for you, the artist, not everyone else. If it was supposed to be for everyone else, they would have made it that way.

However, now TikTok is here, and Indie artists are not only posting where their songs are ending up, but criticizing their listeners for what they’re calling the playlist. The panopticon has come for your playlist titles.

The Panopticon

The panopticon is a concept for a prison in which the cells are arranged to circle a central guard tower that has visibility of all of them, and the prisoners cannot see where the guard is looking. As a result, most of the prisoners begin behaving as though they’re always being looked at, with all of the stress and lack of perceived privacy that entails, even if they’re not doing anything wrong and not planning to either. The digital panopticon may even be slightly worse as it’s constantly giving you signals that it is watching and hey, don’t you want these cool curtains we showed you? You looked at them. Your mouse hovered over them. Algorithms for ads and algorithms for content are aiming to make a profile out of you, so they can subtly manipulate your behavior into buying or consuming more. To do that, they must watch.

But it doesn’t stop there. Real people are often contributing to the panopticon, both willingly and unwillingly! Social media is constantly threatening to doxx people, even when the person in question, realistically, doesn’t deserve that sort of response. Look at West Elm Caleb – algorithmic recommendations on TikTok lead to all of the people he’d slighted seeing each other’s videos, because the algorithm weighs video makers close to viewers heavier than ones who are far away. He was dating a lot of women local to his area, so those women, who were total strangers in most cases, ended up seeing each other on TikTok and commiserating over this guy ghosting them. That would have been a simple ‘haha, this guy sucks’ moment for them as a group, something friends IRL have all the time… if it hadn’t all happened in full view of the completely public TikTok trending page, where anonymous strangers could watch.

Strangers online who’d seen those videos overreacted, trying to get him fired from his job, trying to find out his real location, trying in general to make his life miserable over ghosting some people. Most of the women who’d made or commented on videos with personal experiences about this guy didn’t want that to happen to him, but it was already too late! Others decided they had been slighted, and that he needed to be punished so other ghosting men would watch their backs or something. Sometimes witch hunts just happen because they’re fun for everyone but the alleged witch.

Even if they’d still made the same videos and comments, and even if they’d still been public, this wouldn’t have happened if the collective internet wasn’t so enthralled with ‘making examples’ out of total strangers in order to showcase how the anonymous hivemind, the social media panopticon, is always watching, always waiting for missteps so it can punish. Aberrations from the norm will not be tolerated. It took collaborative internet sleuthing to find this guy off the incredibly limited description ‘West Elm Caleb’, which only says that his name is Caleb and he lives in West Elm, but by golly did TikTok manage to do it. His internet footprint wasn’t anything special or distinctive, but it was enough to make his life scary for a few weeks until everyone lost interest again.

Social media is always watching, and even if they’re not, so much of you can be saved and then looked at later for review that they may as well be.

The Content Machine

Back to Spotify! As I said, TikTok is what turned this ability to see what playlists your songs have been used in into a problem. You can’t stop posting on any service using an algorithm, because that would make you a bad content creator, and bad content creators don’t get any favor with the algorithm even if said ‘bad’ creator is well-liked – just not constantly producing. Indie bands and music artists struggle more than most to get people to give their stuff a listen, and so they resort to producing content the algorithm will like just so they have a consistent content schedule and have a better shot at being seen – and then listened to.

A few musicians on TikTok realized that Spotify could be used for that easy schedulable content, and started doing that. At first, the videos were simply showing funny or potentially worrying playlist titles, sort of a wink and a nudge that the song was sad and putting it in ‘sad songs to listen to when you remember her’ might warrant that person seeking out actual help instead of just making a playlist about it.

And then I saw this one.

Always Watching and Scrutinizing

The text over the video at the start reads “Looking at the playlists y’all put my songs on until I find ones that isn’t made by a self proclaimed real life supervillain ( teenager who sometimes does a little pose in the mirror and pretends they are evil)” . The caption reads “YOU HAVE NEVER HAD A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE I SEE YOU ALL”. This post is about their song ‘Bad Luck!’.

Is this not completely bizarre? Even your playlist titles need to be ready-to-view and socially acceptable because an artist in the playlist might ‘call you out’ on it if you’re not unique enough, if you’re being too edgy, or if you’re otherwise being ‘cringe’. You thought that title was for you and your music sorting purposes? Think again, he can see it, and he’ll post about it online!

But it doesn’t matter if he thinks it’s cringe because it’s not for him. The playlist titles cater to the taste of the playlist creator, not him. He just happens to be able to see it, and as both a social media content creator and an eye of the panopticon, he must make an observation about it, consume it and synthesize an opinion and then give the opinion to other eyes, his TikTok following, so more consumption and opinion synthesis can be produced to fuel the algorithm and the machine behind that.

The Other Part of It

Besides that – which really is enough to end the argument by itself – if he’s going to make a video noting that a bunch of people who listened to his song put it in a themed playlist for when they want to listen to music and imagine a theme to go with it, why not… just admit that that’s the song he wrote? That the song ultimately fits the supervillain theme, instead of calling the listeners unoriginal? Even if they got the idea from each other, not all of those playlists are the same. The kids listening all have different ideas of what this playlist should be, otherwise they’d be passing around one playlist titled Supervillain Arc (because Spotify allows you to search for public playlists by name), not each making their own.

While some songs get added to playlists because the listener only heard a snip of it off TikTok and misinterpreted the song (hello Strawberry Blond by Mitski), at this point, the number of streams (which you can see in the video) should tell him that it hasn’t been removed from the supervillain playlists for a reason. Spotify playlist titles aren’t for the artists, they’re for the creator of the playlist, right? So their perception that this song belongs there, in their cringey uncool posing-in-the-mirror supervillain X3 playlist, is their call. Not the artist’s.

As a side note, it’s also not fair to dunk on kids and teens for having questionable taste in music, music mixes, and playlist titles – especially since they often end up being right about what’s actually groundbreaking and cool and history-making. Little Richard, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, more modern groups like Metallica, or even more modern groups like MCR and Paramore have had majority teen audiences in their time. Every time, the critics have had to begrudgingly admit that the teens were right and this phenomenon is actually cool, only to have to re-learn this lesson the next time something cool came around. Having a teen audience is a fine sign you’re writing something good – why be annoyed by it?

Metadata: What is it?

Elizabeth Technology August 30, 2022

The BTK killer was caught with metadata. Geotagging can unintentionally help poachers find endangered animals, and metadata can reveal hidden layers in images. Metadata. What is it?

What Is It?

Metadata is the data about the data. Generally, it falls into three families: Structural, descriptive, and administrative. Structural metadata is what it sounds like, it’s data that has to do with the structure of the data. When you take a picture, the information about the device (what kind and what camera, time, etc.) is stored in that picture. Video length and picture quality are also forms of structural metadata.

Descriptive metadata is data attached that may or may not have to do with the data inside the document: it’s data purely to make locating things easier. An ISBN is metadata about the book – it’s the book’s identification number, and it’s an identifier that humans have attached for the sake of control and ease of access. The Dewey Decimal system attaches even more data by describing what kind of book the number’s attached to.

Administrative metadata contains information about who created files, when they were moved, and when they were edited. When you type in an up-to-date word processing program, most of the time, the computer will know which user profile did the typing. It’s also the information about copyrights and where the picture came from originally, which is useful for tracking down leaked photos from services like Patreon. Keeping the art and comics exclusive to Patrons is what keeps it viable. This is administrative metadata.

EXIF DATA

EXIF data is data that’s stuck to an image, but it depends on file type – not all kinds of images have EXIF data.  With the right program, you can see into the EXIF data, because the file essentially has layers hidden within it. This is great for the scenario above, where a Patreon content creator may be trying to track down a picture leaker. First, they gradually narrow down who receives a certain tag on their comic, and make those groups progressively smaller. Eventually they get to the specific tag and user who’s been posting their content elsewhere. There are other, more foolproof methods, such as putting something visually different (but minor!) in the comic so it can’t be deleted (EXIF data can be) but it’s certainly a good option. It also helps with criminal investigations and copyright claims for similar reasons.

Geotagging

When you post a photo online, you should also check your phone’s settings to be sure Geotagging is off. Geotagging is another form of metadata, and it’s where the phone attaches a location to the image. Families on vacation taking a picture of a rhino and posting it right away can lead poachers to its location. The same applies to the inside of your house. Don’t post pictures of valuables if people can find out where the picture was taken!

Instagram and Facebook both scrub the EXIF data from pictures before uploading them, but places like Flickr and Shutterfly do not. It’s a double edged sword – you’ll have to keep geotagging off for Flickr, but you won’t have to worry about the copyright info disappearing from the pic. Facebook strips all the location and photography info, but hidden copyright is gone too. Choose wisely – and maybe use a watermark.

Side Note: Don’t %#*& With Cats – and Metadata

It only took one unscrubbed photo from the Cat Strangler featured in Netflix’s documentary “Don’t %#*& With Cats” for his location to be compromised. Internet sleuthing leads to witch hunts more often than it does good convictions (see Sunil Tripathi) but in this case, metadata was one of the few pieces of the puzzle the online folks had that wasn’t circumstantial.

For those of you who haven’t seen the documentary, a Facebook group begins tracking down a serial animal abuser. The Cat Strangler eventually escalated to killing a man, and while seems like the police had been ignoring the Facebook group before, it’s more likely that the evidence was just… not that great. A blanket bought off of eBay that ships overseas isn’t the rock-solid proof the documentary portrays it as, but the metadata was! The Cat Strangler’s repeated comments in the actual group were also compelling evidence. That was incriminating, and it was info the police could use. Ultimately the group did help track the man down, and evidence gathered helped get him convicted, so it didn’t all go to waste.

Deleted Docs and Recovery

The reason data recovery is even possible is because stuff isn’t deleted deleted until it’s been written over with something else. Free space isn’t empty space, it’s just space the computer is allowed to write on. This is why you need to start the data recovery process as soon as possible after a major loss. The data’s not necessarily gone unless the failure was catastrophic, and you may have a chance to recover it. This is metadata in action!

As mentioned above, metadata can also be used to identify the age, previous locations, and editors of a document. If a document is older than the event it’s supposed to be covering, you know for sure something’s wrong.

Document recovery tools and data forensics are two groups that go hand-in-hand. This article is very technical, but it goes over a lot of interesting information: here. It does a better job than I could of describing what the tools do. In basic terms, a metadata-based recovery tool finds where the file used to be stored using the directory. It then copies that entire chunk, including hidden bits, and reconstructs the file based on that. This isn’t a perfect explanation, so if you’re interested, go ahead and read that study.

Side Note: BTK and Metadata

Metadata once famously led to the capture of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. He’d used a floppy disk that had previously held a document from the church he worked at. The last person to modify it (which would have been the person to delete the document) was “Dennis”. Between that and DNA evidence found at a scene he confessed to, he was trapped! He’d sent the floppy in after they told him he’d be anonymous still, and the police weren’t technically lying. They expected him to use a fresh disk, in which case they’d have never been able to track it back to the church.

Sources:

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/the-floppy-did-me-in/283132/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshiels/2016/09/07/deadly-virtual-postcards-lead-poachers-to-rare-endangered-trophy-animals/?sh=56014dcc23ad

https://eudl.eu/pdf/10.4108/eai.13-7-2018.163091

The Kinect’s Path To Market

Elizabeth Technology August 23, 2022

The Xbox Kinect was famous for a couple of things: it could see you without a remote, unlike the Wii, it could take commands without a controller, unlike the PS4, and it nearly caused riots when Xbox demanded it stay on, always.

Xbox. You can’t just do that. But first, lets look at why it was launched in the first place!

Innovation

The Kinect didn’t need a controller to register your movement, something other consoles still struggled with. Even when PS4 wanted to incorporate more active games into their lineup, they went with a remote that looked a lot like the Wii remote. It fit nicely into the hand, but as some users discovered, cheesing the game by only moving your arm was too easy. Besides, if you executed a dance move perfectly except for your wrist, you wouldn’t be rewarded for it. The Kinect set out to fix the problem by cutting out handheld remotes completely, and provide a bigger space for users to interact with the game. The main problems with this were room detection and movement detection – other consoles didn’t bite because the prototype was fiddly at best. The machine didn’t know how to “see” the human figure, and instead it would try to analyze a movement based purely on camera alone.

If the machine doesn’t understand the way a human can and cannot move, it’s much more likely to mis-detect pieces of furniture and light sources as people phasing in and out of existence. This makes gameplay jerky and difficult, and it’d take time to fix. Luckily for the development team, Microsoft doesn’t mind waiting – in fact, they’re happy to have something that can compete with the Wii in their development lab. They knew right from the start it would be difficult and expensive to do all the research necessary to make the Kinect work. In fact, it was shelved once or twice while software caught up! But it would be worth it. Right?

Competition

The Wii was very popular, but Nintendo’s habit of underproducing cut sales. Weeks at a time went by where nobody could find a Wii except from scalpers, who charged two or three times more than the original selling price for a unit. The PlayStation version was a much better seller, but unlike the Wii, the PlayStation was not built around motion games. Its movement-game library was lacking, even though their motion controller was completely fine. The Kinect was going to revolutionize the market with a fresh take on dance games, a commitment to fitness, and a constant stream of new games that would make the Kinect the Christmas gift of the year!

The technology was new – nobody else had taken the initial contractor up on their motion sensing. Xbox had exclusive access to something incredible. They pared down the size and made it more responsive. It could adjust to the room it was in! Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and it was all designed to fit neatly on top of the console or TV. It really was a revolutionary product.

However…

Nintendo was able to produce a whole library of games for the Wii, and Playstation’s modest selection was fine for the price of the PlaySense controller. Xbox only released 5 titles at launch, assuming third party developers might step in. They didn’t. Programming around the Kinect seemed like a nightmare, a time-consuming task that they’d rather not buy into. This was long before VR was a thing, and developers would need a lot of time to even learn this new engine, let alon make something using it. But Xbox could still make that work, right? They’d make their own games on the regular, just like they did for the source consoles, the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One. Especially since they’re thinking about making the Kinect mandatory for the XBone, right? You wouldn’t force people to pay extra for a dance game they didn’t want, right??

New Console

The Kinect was completely optional for the 360, but at announcement, not for the Xbox One (also known as the XBone, a nickname intended to peeve off Microsoft). People who didn’t intend to use the device were angry that they were paying extra for ‘nothing’, and people who did want it were angry that the console might not work without it. Either way, it was a bad idea to try and push the two out together to boost a failing product.

The Playstation’s latest launch did no such thing, and shared many of the features of the Xbox One, including all the new entertainment features like a DVD drive and access to Youtube.

Anecdotally, when this was first announced, I remember many people on forums claiming they’d leave Xbox for PlayStation if nothing was done to correct this injustice. Whether or not they actually were going to or even had the ability to wasn’t important. The statements themselves drove newcomers just entering the console market off into PlayStation’s waiting arms. Playstation was a gaming console, where the XBone came with a lot of strings attached. Or it would have.

Failure Approaches

Companies were already facing backlash for “always on” before this – Xbox shouldn’t have thought it was exempt. The latest Assassin’s Creed was declared unplayable by a sizable portion of their audience, and EA’s “always on” Sims release turned many people off the franchise. In my opinion, they’re right to be angry! Internet connectivity is not guaranteed everywhere, so limiting access to a game because of location is very, very annoying. Instead of getting to continue a story they like, they’re now limited to watching other people play through it, people with better internet than them, on forums and Youtube.

Always on is supposed to allow for updates on the regular, but a side effect is that the game won’t boot until it’s fully updated if you had the console off for a length of time. It’s very annoying to sit down, expecting to be able to play a video game, only to have to wait an additional 40 minutes while it catches up. Because, you know – computers are supposed to be turned off every once and a while. You’re going to restart your Xbox to keep the red ring of death away.

The Kinect would be off to a rough start. But surely for the people who did have access to good internet, this would be a smash hit, right? Always on means games are always bug-free (in theory) and besides, the Kinect was revolutionary!

However, the Kinect could respond to voice commands. It needed to be listening to pick up on those commands. This meant that the Kinect would always be listening, and the camera was always on, too. In a world before the Amazon Alexa and Google’s Cortana, this seemed incredibly invasive! If your console’s in your bedroom, is Microsoft listening to you, even then? Yikes.

What Happened?

The Xbox One, or the XBone, was forced to drop the mandatory internet connection and included Kinect before release – people just weren’t ready to have Xbox’s version of the Amazon Alexa yet. Additionally, PlayStation had gamed them by announcing the exact opposite of what Xbox announced: Where Xbox said “internet required”, Sony said none needed. Where Xbox said “Always Listening!”, Sony said unnecessary. And when Xbox said “Digital only, no sharing!” Sony said of course you can share games. Sony knew what Xbox was doing to itself and simply let it happen. Xbox was forced to retreat and retract ‘features’ to keep up with the newest PlayStation.

That ‘sharing games’ thing was a big point of concern. People saw a future with no retro games and no more local co-op. And Xbox framed this as a good thing! It’s connected to your library so you’ll have it anywhere you go. Yeah, that’s cool! But Xbox would have effectively shut down their part of the game-reselling industry to make it happen and killed a lot of joy in the process.

Long story short, Xbox’s decisions killed some of the hype for the newest console – the Kinect got caught by the fallout.

Legacy

The supply of Kinect game titles is very small. Trying to shove it into a package with a console that was already on thin ice with consumers was always destined to fail. It wasn’t a bonus; it was a liability! On top of all the other liabilities that they wanted the XBone to have! If workers took their work home, was the company going to have to make a policy of no Kinects? Is Microsoft watching your children and you just out and about in your house? It sounds paranoid, until “Always On” was used to sell ads elsewhere. Not from Kinect, but other companies.

It had far more negatives than positives at the time, and that on top of everything else the XBone was doing wrong led to Kinect’s demise. It just wasn’t fun enough to replace the controller games that everyone – including game makers! – were used to. It wasn’t fun enough to ward of criticism of “Always On” tech. It just. Wasn’t. Fun. Enough.

Besides, the Oculus Rift and other Virtual Reality headsets almost always use controllers. Between the helmet sensing motion and the handles sensing your movement, it was easier to program for, so as soon as they were available they soaked up any demand there might have been. No skeletal tracking, with the added benefit of VR immersion. The Kinect can’t put you in Skyrim like a headset can, even if it lets you interact with the game like you were. It’s a baby step, instead of a gigantic leap. The Kinect was simply too big a step for the time.

Sources:

https://www.svg.com/101430/everything-microsoft-wrong-xbox-one/

https://www.businessinsider.com/xbox-one-kinect-privacy-issues-2013-5

https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/kinect-for-xbox-one-discontinued/

https://www.polygon.com/2020/1/14/21064608/microsoft-kinect-history-rise-and-fall

https://www.pcworld.com/article/2042445/microsoft-reverses-policies-on-xbox-one-rentals-online-check-ins-and-region-restrictions.html

Click Options And Why

Elizabeth Technology August 11, 2022

The Double Click

Double clicking used to be the default for interacting with items on the desktop. If you wanted to open an application, you’d need to double-click it. But what purpose does that serve?

Double-clicking allows for more functions to come out of one mouse button. The mouse you’re using right now (unless you’re using something like a gaming mouse) most likely has a maximum of three buttons and a minimum of one, depending on what brand you’re using.

Right now, if you single click on a word in this sentence, nothing will happen. If you double-click the word, the word will become highlighted. If you triple-click it, the entire sentence will become highlighted. Then, using either keyboard shortcuts or the right click function, you can copy it, if you so desire. The same applies to word processors – if you do this in Word, you’ll be able to alter the entire paragraph, delete it, etc. without moving your hand down the entire height of the paragraph, the way you’d have to if you were drag-clicking to highlight.  The multi-click function here is providing additional functionality to your mouse. Pressing and holding the button, combined with moving it, can provide alternate functionalities as well. Many computer mice allow you to press down on your scroll wheel and click-and-hold the right button as well, allowing you even more options.

An easily visible divide between the first generations to use computers at home or work and the latest is whether or not they double click links to open them. The first several home editions of Microsoft Windows required that users double-click some things and not others, but since double-clicking would open anything anyway, many users became accustomed to just double-clicking everything. Even today, Windows requires you double click a program to open it (unless you alter that yourself in your settings) and single clicking only selects the icon. Single-clicking has become the default for many items online as well as many applications. Double clicking requires more fine motor skill, but since users can adjust the length of time they need to click the second time for it to register, it’s not the speedbump it used to be.  

Single Click

Single-clicking is the new default. Not only does it make it a bit easier for users with motor-control issues to use websites and apps, it also makes it easier to translate websites to mobile. Double tapping is an option, of course, but it’s much more finicky than double-clicking because the screen is so much smaller. Simply tapping once can accidentally activate buttons when the user is trying to scroll, yes, but it’s a better option than the alternatives. Tablets, which are often an in-between mish-mash of desktop pages and mobile’s touch functionalities, also benefited from the move to single-clicks.

Similarly, on desktops, double-clicking when you have three buttons on your mouse already was unnecessary unless there’s a possibility you meant something else when you clicked it. Most things except for in-app functions like highlighting words now take single-clicks and double clicks, but the single will work fine until you get back to your desktop.

Apple Conundrum

Apple’s dedication to streamlining their devices has lead to the magic mouse, a wireless mouse with no outwardly visible buttons and a charging port placed deliberately on the bottom of said mouse to keep you from leaving it plugged in while you use it. Where Microsoft and third-party mice have two or three buttons at least, Apple mice trend towards one! Being able to click the scroll wheel might be extra, but the right-clicking function opens a menu relating to the item being clicked on. Apple instead has users press the control button as they click something to open the analog menu in Apple devices. A side effect of this is that you can’t do the equivalent of right-clicking with only one hand.

This accomplishes the goal of simplifying the mouse, but it does so at the cost of simplicity overall – Microsoft’s left-right mouse clicks are sort of the default. An Apple user could come to a Microsoft mouse and discover through trial and error that the right-click behaves like ctrl-click does, but a Microsoft user is not likely to have the same results – I had to Google it myself to find that out!  

The mouse is a powerful, valuable tool. It communicates with the desktop in a way that even touchscreens can’t. To reduce its functionality to left-clicking only feels like missed opportunities when so many buttons can be packed into the same device without sacrificing usability or accessibility.

The Worst of Every World

I propose instead of even that single click, Apple could introduce the hover-to-click option. This would be unequivocally worse than any other option. It would add a delay to every single click, it would make web browser games unbearable, and it would require the introduction of more button-pressing on the keyboard side to do things. But, it would also remove Apple’s need for the one Magic Mouse button on desktop computers, and leave it instead in a strange purgatory where it is, more or less, a laser pointer.