Learning to Deal with the Modern World (you know, the www)

Many years ago I created a Yahoo email account with an alias. I thought that was the wise thing to do in order to protect my privacy (as I said, it was many years ago). I still use it for junk email. For example, I give it to websites that don’t seem to deserve a lasting relationship.

Last week, I tried to look at the account and couldn’t. I was sure I had the correct password but Yahoo didn’t agree.

Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me reset my password using any of the standard online methods. The reason given was that they thought my account might have been “compromised”.  Hence, I was told to contact Yahoo Customer Care.

Unfortunately again, the only contact information they provide is a phone number. If you have some time to kill, you can call it yourself (it’s 1-800-318-0612). The first recording you hear is the usual one about “heavy call volume”, but it goes on to say that the volume is so heavy that they may not be able to answer your call. Ever, I guess. 

If you choose to wait, you hear the usual announcements, including one that suggests that if you’re having a password problem, you might visit https://help.yahoo.com/identity, where you’ll be able to fix the problem and get on with your life. Being an optimist, I tried that, thinking it might be a special password handling page. The end result, of course, was that they told me to call 1-800-318-0612 (the “we may not be able to answer your call” number). This is the kind of thing you could do to a rat if you were a really mean psychologist and wanted to drive it crazy. 

What Yahoo means by “not being able to answer your call” is that after a while, if you haven’t hung up already, they hang up on you. 

But today I was invited to leave my phone number so they could call me back. They said there were 289 calls in front of me, but the average wait time was only 20 minutes and they’d keep my place in line. Since I’ve used the call-back feature with other companies and found it to be relatively pleasant, I gave it a try.

Unfortunately yet again, four hours passed and they didn’t call. I was beginning to think that Yahoo doesn’t really care about “Customer Care”.

Then I did what I should have done earlier: use Google (not Yahoo?) to search for “Yahoo email password problem”. It turns out they’ve had a few. But among the sad stories was a link to the famous Get Human site. Yet something else I should have done before! Why didn’t I remember to use Get Human?

Among Get Human’s helpful suggestions was to contact Yahoo via Facebook or Twitter. This is an option that hadn’t occurred to me at all. First, I went to Facebook. Although I didn’t try to get in touch with them that way, I did read some of the emotional messages people have left on Yahoo’s page. “I can’t get access to Yahoo email and we use it for our business and you don’t have an email address and never answer the phone!” and “I would use some other email but hundreds of sites already have my Yahoo address!” and “You should rot in hell!” (or words to that effect). One person even made the ultimate complaint: “Yahoo’s customer service is even worse than Comcast’s!”.

I then visited Twitter. Easily locating the official Yahoo Mail Team page (@yahoomail), I quickly fired off my own (brief) cry for help, being polite but not supplying any personal details, since I didn’t know where my tweet would appear.

Well, it was quite a surprise when someone on the Yahoo Mail Team responded within the hour. They sent a very nice message, inviting me to visit a certain link that would allow me to submit an incident report to their technical support group. Which I did.

Whether I ever hear from Yahoo or not, this experience wasn’t a total waste of time. First, I reminded myself to try Get Human as soon as things go bad this way. Second, I learned that big companies like Yahoo apparently pay more attention to the relative few who contact them by Facebook or Twitter than the hundreds of poor souls who call them up and then sit on hold listening to lame music, “Your call is very important to us” and, in Yahoo’s case, the occasional “Yahoo-oo-oo!” rebel yell. 

Lastly, I was reminded that our dependence on these massive companies for so much leaves us vulnerable. You can get an email address in a minute or two without spending a dime, build much of your life around it, and then have it disappear with no warning and for no apparent reason. Or keep lots of stuff on your hard drive or in the cloud and have that be “compromised” or become suddenly unavailable. People are working on better internet security methods, but there’s still a lot to be said for storing stuff the old-fashioned way, like on paper, and also for keeping your eggs in more than one basket.

Update: Ok, they sent an email with a temporary password to my main Yahoo account. I clicked on the link and tried to create a new password. They didn’t like it because they said it was too similar to my account name. In fact, it wasn’t similar at all, except for sharing a few letters of the alphabet that were arranged differently. So I get past that hurdle and create a new password and then discover that I’ve now changed the password for my main account, not the account I was having trouble with. So I logged off that account and went to the troubled account and repeated the process, starting with the temporary password. That was easy. 


Tracking Rumors on the Internet

New York Magazine reports that researchers at Columbia University have created a website that tracks Internet rumors. It’s called Emergent. The well-known Snopes site has been doing something similar for almost 20 years, but Emergent aims to provide more statistical information, showing how many times a rumor has been referenced online, and who has been spreading or debunking it. It also categorizes some rumors as neither true nor false, but “unverified”.

The only rumor I could find that both Emergent and Snopes deal with at the moment is the one about the Florida woman who had surgery to add a third breast. Snopes goes into great detail and concludes that the rumor is false. Emergent agrees that the rumor is false (even referencing Snopes), but doesn’t offer evidence. It merely links to sites that have reported the rumor or debunked it. Emergent, however, has nice graphics showing how the rumor has been trending and which references to the rumor have been shared the most. 

The New York Magazine article points out that rumors often spread because they confirm people’s pre-existing notions, while there is usually much less motivation to deny them. So sites like Emergent and Snopes are probably fighting a losing battle.

Nevertheless, the more truth there is on the Internet, the better. And having done my own very, very small part in spreading an occasional rumor, I will try to remember to check Snopes and Emergent before passing along juicy news that confirms my own cherished beliefs (unless it’s a really, really good one that just has to be true).

It May Not Be Absolutely Good, But It’s Pretty Darn Neat

Philosophers disagree (as usual) on whether there is anything in the world that is absolutely good. By that, I mean “good, period” or “just plain good” or “not good for any reason other than its very nature”. For example, some philosophers have argued that pleasure, knowledge, beauty, virtue, friendship or human life are absolutely good.

Immanuel Kant thought that the only thing that is absolutely good, with no qualification at all, is a “good will”. Not a “will” in the legal sense, of course, but in the sense in which a person can will to behave in a good way. That sounds circular, since one might reasonably ask: “Aren’t you defining a good will in terms of wanting to do good things?” Kant’s answer, however plausible or not, is that a good will is one that conforms to the “Moral Law”, which can be expressed this way: 

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

According to Kant, following that rule will guarantee that you have a good will, and having a good will is the very best thing in the whole world. 

Now, I’m only bringing this up because I bumped into something a few days ago that impressed me so much that my almost immediate thought was: “That is such a good thing that maybe it qualifies as absolutely good.”

Unfortunately, my less than immediate thought was “No, it’s not really the kind of thing that could be absolutely good, but it’s still awfully damn wonderful”. That is, it’s only good in the sense that a hammer or a bag of popcorn can be good – it’s a terrifically good thing of its kind because it serves its purpose really well.

And here it is:

It’s called Departure Vision. Our local commuter railway, New Jersey Transit, now has a simple webpage that allows you to see the very same departure screen that in years gone by you could only see right in the train station! That means you don’t have to pull out a big folded paper schedule or use your phone to peruse the full online schedule when you want to see when the next train is. You simply bring up this Departure Vision page, select the station you’re traveling from, and there it is:


My semi-sincere apologies to anyone who thinks this really good thing is extremely disappointing or anti-climactic. Clearly, you don’t know how often I and thousands of other people have wanted to know if we had enough time to catch the next train. 

Much more seriously, writing this post about a really nice, relatively simple thing some unknown people did has allowed me to avoid thinking about Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, the House of Representatives or other bothersome subjects for a fairly substantial period of time. Maybe reading it (and visiting the Departure Vision page) has had a similar benefit for you. I hope so. That wouldn’t be absolutely good, and it clearly wouldn’t be as good as Departure Vision itself, but it would still be pretty good in a small kind of way.



After a Major Event, Life Goes On, But Surreptitiously

gnote1A major event? Yes, finally replacing my aging but handy Blackberry with a new Android smartphone (good-bye, Verizon, you bloodsuckers!).

Some might say it’s only a phone. It feels more like a lifestyle. You can’t do that anymore. Do this now. How do I do that? Guess! Or download an app. Which app? That app! Wait, what did I just do? I must have touched something. Oh, no!

Come on, why do you zoom in on Google Maps by pinching your fingers together instead of spreading them apart? Isn’t spreading them apart a more expansive gesture? And why can’t I spread my fingers apart in the prescribed way? It’s probably a genetic defect. Those of us who can easily carry out the correct two-finger spreading motion are now better-suited to getting around and finding mates. The rest of us will tend to stay put and die alone. If only I could remember the Alternate Zoom Technique:

In addition to pinching the screen to zoom, you can also double-tap on your map, hold, and then scroll down to zoom in, or scroll up to zoom out.

Coincidentally, the New York Times reported more from the Snowden Files today:

When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.

In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up….

[Among] the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.

Fortunately, I don’t play with angry birds. But Google Maps is said to be one of the best sources of information for the intelligence agencies. The Times quotes a secret report from Britain’s G.C.H.Q. suggesting that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system”. Thank you. No problem.

We know that corporations collect whatever information they can about us. Now we know that the NSA and GCHQ are doing the same.

But assuming that we don’t want to stop using our phones or the internet and we can’t get our governments to stop this spying, we can take some solace in the fact that these people are collecting so much data, they don’t know what to do with it. Most of us will never stand out in the crowd.

However, if you happen to be planning a terrorist attack, or want to tell the President he or she is a jerk, you should definitely avoid Angry Birds. Or communicate the old-fashioned way:




If it weren’t 11 degrees outside (-12 C), this post might be called “Spring Cleaning”. But “Housekeeping” is probably better.

As we all know, comments on Internet sites are a touchy subject. Sometimes, it’s hard to read them without feeling dirty afterward (and not “dirty” in a good way).

This blog doesn’t attract a lot of comments (or readers, for that matter), but according to WordPress’s statistics, my 259 posts have received 161 comments (probably half of which were my responses). Most of them have been fine, but a few have been obnoxious. I’ve had a few repetitious exchanges in which no communication occurred. I’ve also been called a “racist”, “ridiculous” and “juvenile” and told to fuck myself (which wasn’t offered as helpful advice).

WordPress offers several ways to deal with comments. I could ban them completely, for example, or only allow them on certain posts. Freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas generally being a good thing, however, I’ve decided to continue allowing comments on all posts, but severely edit those that are especially rude or silly. So a 500-word comment that I find especially objectionable might show up as “What you said …” or “You’re really …” or “How about … ” or “Why don’t … ” and be followed by “The comment above was too rude or obnoxious to print in full.” The ellipsis can be our friend.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve removed three posts regarding my recent experience with jury duty: “On Not Being a Juror”, “On Whether I Am a Judgmental Racist” and “Maybe the Defendant’s Lawyer Should Have Kept Me on the Jury”.

For some reason, these three posts continue to draw attention. Maybe they’re being passed around by students at prestigious law schools. Or maybe they appeal to a bunch of white supremacists in Idaho. The only comment they’ve received wasn’t complimentary, as you can tell from one of the titles. But since they express a few opinions of mine that some people consider right-wingish, I’ve decided to remove them from public view. I’d rather not feed the prejudices of real right-wingers, at the risk of leaving brilliant law students uninformed.


Stupid Remarks Continue to Offend and Entertain

We who make, report, attack or defend stupid remarks have helped make the Internet what it is today, whatever that is. As my 160 (!) followers would attest, I’ve made my own tiny contribution to this ongoing effort. That is, they would attest if any of them actually read the stuff I painstakingly write here at WOCS. (Unfortunately, Internet statistics don’t lie.)

Furthermore, I promise to keep contributing as long as Republicans keep talking.

Keeping with this practice, although in a relatively non-political vein, I’m now going to discuss a few stupid remarks that have recently been reported, criticized and even defended.

First, it’s hardly worth noting that someone on FOX TV said that Santa Claus is white and Jesus was too. As a friend recently pointed out, saying things like that is what people on FOX do for a living. What was more remarkable was the story about a New Mexico high school teacher who criticized a black student’s decision to dress up as Santa Claus, implying that it would have been better if he had dressed up as an elf, reindeer or candy cane. 

According to the school district, the teacher apologized and was placed on “administrative leave”, so there is some truth to this story. Even though the student was deeply embarrassed, I hope the teacher was making a joke (the kind of jocular remark colloquially known in some quarters as “breaking balls”, as in “Hey, Ralph, don’t you know Santa Claus was white!” “No, I thought he was Italian.” “Boom!”). If the teacher wasn’t trying to be funny, we’d have to conclude that yet another education professional has lost his or her mind.

Another recent controversy involves a person with a very long beard who is part of a TV show called “Duck Dynasty”. He got into trouble when he said that it’s more logical for a man to want to put his penis in a vagina than in another man’s butt, suggesting that vaginal intercourse should be more pleasurable for a man than gay anal intercourse. He added, in an apparent attempt at explanation, that sin (in this case, gay sex) isn’t logical. It seems clear from the context that he wasn’t joking.

Now, it isn’t surprising that this person believes gay sex is sinful. Lots of misguided people believe that and say it all the time, even people who aren’t on FOX or in Congress. Nor is it interesting that he thinks sin is illogical. After all, if there are such things as sins, you could wind up in Hell by committing one (that, as Randy Newman once sang, would put you in a terrible position).

What I thought was interesting about this particular stupid remark was that the speaker may misunderstand evolution (even though he apparently spends a lot of time outdoors). It does make sense that vaginal intercourse is pleasurable for both men and women, because men and women who enjoy it tend to have children who will enjoy it too (and so on, and so on, until the nth generation). But that’s no reason to think that a person with a penis might not get a lot of pleasure, and even more pleasure, from putting it somewhere else or doing something else with it. Behavior evolves because it contributes to the survival of one’s offspring, not because it’s more pleasurable than other behavior. People on TV should grasp standard biological principles like this.

A third stupid remark hasn’t received much attention, so far as I know. But it’s also interesting in a way. A woman who works for a “leading internet and media company” sent this out on Twitter yesterday: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” In this case, the speaker claimed to be making a joke.

When I read about this, I had the impression I’d heard the joke before. Then I remembered watching a video of Sarah Silverman telling a similar joke at a benefit concert:  “Last month I did two benefits. One was for AIDS… It was great, but tonight’s benefit is going to be better. I won’t have to worry about who I hook up with. (pause) That’s terrible! (pause) WHOM I hook up with!”. She got a very big laugh.

What would the reaction have been if it was funny Sarah Silverman who tweeted the Africa AIDS remark? People on Twitter might have thought it wasn’t up to her usual comedic standards instead of calling her a stupid racist. I wonder if Justine Sacco’s co-workers in the London office of IAC thought her tweet was yet another example of Justine being her wild and crazy self (as when, earlier this year, she tweeted “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”).

It’s doubtful, but perhaps Justine Sacco goes to Africa on her vacation every year to work with AIDS patients. But, so far as most of us are concerned, she might as well be a talking, albeit insensitive, dog (ok, I’ve finished writing this post, will someone take me for a walk now?).

Breaking news update!!! Steve Martin has apologized for tweeting a lame joke about the African-American spelling of “lasagna” yesterday. Communication continues to be a dangerous thing, even for talented communicators. (The TMZ site, by the way, actually labeled this story BREAKING NEWS.)

Woof, woof!



Friday Night “Soul Music” Potpourri

There is an ongoing discussion at Brian Wilson’s website called “The Battle of the Bands”. Every week someone selects four songs from YouTube that have something in common (say, songs about food or songs with great bass lines). At least one of the songs has to be related to Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. Then the 20 or so regular participants rank the four songs (gold, silver, bronze and tin).

Opinions are offered, other videos are posted, stories are told and at the end of the week, the votes are tabulated. It’s an enjoyable pastime, since the participants are into music and extremely well-mannered (although they tend to be a little long in the tooth, like a certain blogger).

This week’s theme is Soul Music. The artists represented are Etta James, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke (singing the Beach Boys song “Sail On, Sailor”),  and Barbara Mason (doing her big hit “Yes, I’m Ready”).

I voted a couple days ago, giving gold to Otis Redding. This afternoon, one thing led to another (I believe that’s the definition of “the Internet”) and I ended up listening to and sharing several YouTube videos more or less associated with “soul music”. You might find some of them of interest. 

First, some related philosophical observations:

“There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.” – L. Armstrong 

“You blows who you is.” – L. Armstrong

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – F. Nietzsche

Whether it’s gospel-influenced, doo wop, R&B, soul or whatever, this one is pretty damn amazing. The Chantels, featuring lead singer Arlene Smith, from 1957/58:

James Brown sings it’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” in Paris. He launches into a bit of a medley around 6:40 or so:

Which doesn’t really lead to Bill Medley talking about Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Carole King or Eric Burdon, or “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” or some famous songs he had the chance to record but didn’t:

The #1 “blue-eyed soul” record that he and Bobby Hatfield did right after they split from Phil Spector:

Which leads in a way (“she’s been my inspiration”) to an extended version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her”, including instrumental intro and outro:

I really disliked that song when it was on the radio in 1967, and was very surprised when the Beach Boys put it on their terrific “Wild Honey” album later that year. But sometimes we progress. This is the late Carl Wilson doing the lead vocal:

The Beach Boys covered Stevie Wonder, and in 1980 the Los Angeles punk rock band X covered the Doors (whose “Soul Kitchen” referred to a soul food restaurant in Venice, California):

Which doesn’t lead at all to Jimmy Cliff, but this is real good and clearly soulful (although rhyming “over” and “White Cliffs of Dover” is geographically suspicious in a song called “Many Rivers to Cross”. Those cliffs aren’t known for their waterfalls.):

Too bad there’s no money in propagating this Internet stuff.