Some thoughts about online discourse

Um, some conservatives DO dispute E=mc^2

A few times on my Facebook news feed, I’ve noticed a graphic with a photo of astrophysicist and (awesome) science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson and this quotation of him (emphasis and ellipsis in original):

Climate change has taken on political dimensions… That’s odd because I don’t see people choosing sides over \(E=mc^2\) or other fundamental facts of science!

It appears that Dr. Tyson has not checked out Conservapedia, a right-wing competitor to Wikiepdia. (I certainly don’t blame him for this—he’s got to have much better things to do than read a web site full of stupid garbage.) Conservapedia takes issue with relativity overall, and says of \(E=mc^2\) (emphasis in original):

Political pressure, however, has since made it impossible for anyone pursuing an academic career in science to even question the validity of this nonsensical equation. Simply put, \(E=mc^2\) is liberal claptrap.

(The whole \(E=mc^2\) Conservapedia article is actually pretty funny. My wife, who is a physicist, thought it was a joke.)

Conservapedia is a project of Andrew Schlafly, son of prominent conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Indeed, you can see from my link above (adorned with rel="nofollow", of course!) that the most recent edit to the \(E=mc^2\) article was by Mr. Schlafly himself.

Tech support scam

Today, I was the target of a tech support scam.

I received a phone call from someone purporting to work in tech support. The caller said they were calling about my Windows computer. Thinking they might have the wrong number, I replied that I didn’t have a Windows computer. The caller then hung up, without even apologizing or saying goodbye.

The abrupt ending of the call made me suspicious, and so I did some research. It turns out that this is known scam. I found information from both the Federal Trade Commission and Microsoft about this scam:

According to these sites, the scammers sometimes try to convince you that your computer has a virus or malware, and then trick you into installing malware or divulging your password or credit card number. Sometimes the scammers claim to be working for Microsoft or tech support providers.

I ran the caller’s number through a search engine, and found reports from others that are consistent with Microsoft’s and the FTC’s descriptions of the scam.

I decided to post about my experience in order to spread the word about these scams. In closing, here’s some of the FTC’s advice for those cold-called about computer security issues:

If you get a call from someone who claims to be a tech support person, hang up and call the company yourself on a phone number you know to be genuine. A caller who creates a sense of urgency or uses high-pressure tactics is probably a scam artist.

Yes, this.


Edited to add:

One thing I love about the new NYT website redesign


Many people are complaining about the redesign of the New York Times website. Some of these complaints are from people having trouble finding things on the site, which is prone to happen anytime you change a user interface. Other complaints deal with the smaller font size, which I find annoying as well. (I am a frequent user of the ⌘+ key combo.)

But one thing I love, love, love about the redesign, which I hope is copied by other news sites, is that articles appear on a single page, and I don’t have to click “Next” repeatedly. It really bothers me to have to have to click “Next” to read the remainder of an article.

Chromecast: Pretty neat

A few weeks ago, I received my Chromecast in the mail. This is a small $35 device sold by Google that vaguely resembles a USB flash drive and fits into the HDMI port on your TV, and connects to your WiFi. For what it does, it is a very nice device.

Chromecast plugs into your TV

My television comes with built-in software to watch Netflix and YouTube. Alas, that software is slow and is a pain to use. Entering a search term using the arrow keys on my remote control, one letter at a time, is absolutely frustrating. However, Chomecast has much nicer software for watching Netflix and YouTube, which you can control using your computer or mobile device. For example, I can launch the Netflix app on my iPad, pick a show off of my instant queue (or whatever they are calling it these days), and send the info on my selection to the Chromecast, which starts streaming the show to my TV. (Chormecast uses your home WiFi network to stream video and get commands from your devices.) The same is true of YouTube, and I guess Google Play movies, which I have never used. I love watching YouTube videos on my TV, selecting them from my subscriptions using my iPad. (I can also use my laptop or Droid 4 smartphone.)

Chromecast plugs into your TV

Chormecast also allows you to send any Chrome browser tab on your computer to your TV. This doesn’t work quite as well as the built-in apps. For one thing, there is a delay of a few seconds between something happening in the browser tab on your computer and the display of the tab on the TV. (Fortunately, the sound also gets delayed, so watching a video in a Chromecasted tab will mean the sound and video will be in sync on your TV.) Second, this is bandwidth-intensive when watching a video, since the computer has to stream the video from the Internet and then restream it to your TV over WiFi. So, it’s better to use the built-in apps to watch Netflix and YouTube.

Nevertheless, casting tabs still works good enough. The other night, I Chromecasted a NYT article on the president’s Syria speech, and played the embedded video of his speech. It worked fine.

Now, this device is not really that necessary. My TV has built-in apps for Netflix and YouTube. Likewise, as you can see from the photo above, it’s perfectly possible for me to hook my computer up directly to the HDMI input on my TV, which would allow me to send the whole screen to the TV, not just what I can get in a Chrome tab. But Chromecast is much easier to use than my TV’s built-in apps, and less awkward than stringing HDMI cables back to the couch. For $35, this nice little device is a good help.

Facebook’s news feed was not a novel idea

Today in Slate, Farhad Manjoo celebrates the 7th birthday of Facebook’s news feed feature.

Get this: Before news feed, which launched seven years ago this month, you could post a picture or some other personal detail somewhere—your Facebook or MySpace or Friendster page, Flickr, Blogger, LiveJournal—and be reasonably sure that it would remain just there, unseen by pretty much everyone you knew. The only way someone might find it is by checking your page. Sure, some people would do that—but everyone had scores of connections online, so no one was checking each of their friends’ pages. The net effect was solitude.

Sorry, but this is complete bunk. Every LiveJournal user has a friends page, which shows all recent entries by their LJ friends. When I joined LiveJournal in July 2001, over 12 years ago and before Facebook even existed, LiveJournal had this feature already. Granted, as LiveJournal never attained the market penetration that Facebook has, posting something to your LiveJournal was never as effective at spreading your news as posting to Facebook today. But that’s due to Facebook benefiting from a network effect on a scale that LiveJournal never did.

I wouldn’t dispute that Facebook’s news feed is an important feature that has allowed for those network effects. Without the news feed, the site would just be a glorified directory and messaging service. But it’s an absurd revision of Internet history to say that Mark Zuckerberg and his friends, as smart as they are, came up with the idea from scratch.