Happiness: A Reminder

My personal life is a bit in chaos right now, and it doesn’t help that here in America we have been going through over a year of added stress with election stuff.  I feel I need a reminder of what is REALLY important, and so I am rerunning (and updating) a trio of posts I made a few years ago on the subject of positive psychology and something we all crave: HAPPINESS!

Happiness 101 (Originally posted May 2010)

I learned the secret to life from my cat: Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be. Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff. They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

The American Dream Is Killing Us

I recently ran into a blog post that summarizes everything that is wrong with America. It is called The American Dream Is Killing Us and it points out that our American view of success and how to get it has been wrong for decades now, and yet many Americans (especially “boomers” who actually lived during an era when it was true) still stick to this fiction: With enough hard work anyone can be successful.

That hasn’t been true since the 1980s. According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant. Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings. Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest. The result is we are working harder for less.

The reality is that success requires luck, not hard work. The vast majority of rich people got that way by inheriting wealth, and the vast majority of poor people got that way by inheriting poverty.

Because of our belief that “With enough hard work anyone can be successful”, the rich are praised as good people and the poor are vilified as bad people. This belief is so common and so entrenched in our society, it has literally become the religion of most Americans!

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World delivers a similar message. The theme of Karate Kid, and many, many other American movies and TV shows, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, “All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month.” So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down

All of it comes back to having those massively skewed expectations of the world. Even the people you think of as pessimists, they got their pessimism by continually seeing the world fail to live up to their expectations, which only happened because their expectations were grossly inaccurate in the first place.

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”. In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you. Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

The solution to these false beliefs regarding effort and success is to redefine effort and success.  The correct solution  can be found in an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid:

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you can’t always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert. This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy. Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great. Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it. Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”. It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head. One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose. Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret. Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?” The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing. Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy. Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

Happiness 102 (Originally published March 2011)

Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure. Who would ever think that?

🙂 🙂 🙂

Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable. It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it. Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package. Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.

In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy. Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance. Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work. Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.

Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time. There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“.

My own attitude pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video. All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work. The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.

So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.

My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy. I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work. There are three reasons why people enjoy their work: 1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape. OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?

“Meaningful” hard work

Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say. The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run. (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).

Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting. Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.

Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)

Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something. Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say? Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.

But does it necessarily have to be service to others? In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it. And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery. Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not. So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards. We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.

Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people. Humans are social creatures, doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others. It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.

Finding a Purpose

We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli: money, praise, status, material goods, etc. The reality is that it does not. We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting. In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.

What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.

Motivating Hard Work

Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment. Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work. There are many misgivings about motivation. The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy. In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all. Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:

The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.

Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay. In the last essay the idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative effect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction. Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing? Not if you understand how they relate to happiness. Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process. Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.

Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.

We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point. The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a purpose, and pursuing this purpose our own way.

Are these two ideas contradictory? From an abstract point of view, yes they are. How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue? And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.

Any questions? Yeah, you in the front row…

“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff? What does it have to do with gaming?”

Actually, it has everything to do with gaming:

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review (Originally published March 2011)

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time. After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog. In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book? So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer. She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time. McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming. She believes the world is better off with more gamers. Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more. I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games. I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book. The first is the one that resonates the most for me: Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.

Consider what I wrote earlier about “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games. Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories. From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking. Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?

No, not according positive psychologists. Dan Gilbert himself says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.  See the video posted earlier.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality. McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds. She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality. The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes. She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading. I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work. More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues. McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil”.

In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil. The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities. Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world. But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them. Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21. That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming. The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of? She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess:

  1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.
  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.
  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.
  4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional. Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is. Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis. I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem. Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are. The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance. McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

So is the whole point of all of this that video games make us happy so we should just play video games all day?

Well, no it isn’t. The point of all of this is that what we think makes us happy and what really makes us happy are often very different things.

Things we think will make us happy are never as good as we like, especially if we spend a lot of time and effort we don’t enjoy to get it.

Things we think will make us miserable are never as bad as we imagine them to be.

So stop stressing. Stop worrying that you made the wrong decisions. Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

How the young Tech Savvy Generation is Changing the World

coffee

I’ve been writing about how Internet has been affecting society for a couple of years now. One angle I have not touched on is that it is affecting younger generations way more than older generations.

Kids raised on the internet are now in their 20’s and early 30’s and their understanding of the world is radically different than generations before.

Social scientists in the US like to artificially divide Americans into “generations”. There are three dominant ones today: The Boomers (those that grew up in the 50’s and 60’s), Generation X (those that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s), and the Millennials (those that grew up in the 90’s and 00’s).  I am part of Generation X, the smallest and least powerful of the three.

All three generations have their technical savvy and non technical members, so what I am about to say is a generalization and not true of everybody:

Boomers are generally conservative and Christian. They love the suburbs, and beer, big houses, and driving trucks or SUVs, and watching cable TV.

The “average” Boomer is online but rarely use the internet. They do email and Facebook and Wikipedia and a few select sites.  It is a small part of their lives, and a lot more of their time is listening to the radio and watching TV, because that is what they have done all their lives.

Millennials are generally liberal and never go to church. They prefer city life, living within walking or biking distance of everything. If they have to drive, its economy cars or hybrids. They drink fancy coffee and box wine, and get all their media via streaming services.

The “average” Millennial is online practically all the time, thanks to smart phones and tablets. They are very internet savvy, and practically live online.  It’s where they work, its where they go to school, it’s where they play, it’s where they meet people. The internet is their world view.

In between is Generation X, the “average” is hard to pin down because it is so widespread.  It is somewhere between.  Gen X grew up before the internet like the Boomers, but has a stronger adoption rate than they do. Most of the big names involved in creating the Internet are Gen X, but this recent video of celebrities that are clueless about the internet contain mostly Gen X celebrities.

Some Gen Xers like myself think and live like Millennials, and some think and live like Boomers, and as a result our generation really has not developed its own identity other than our affection for console gaming.

The internet savvy Millennials are 100% in control of pop culture today, while politics is controlled by the former hippies now ultra conservative Boomer generation.  The fact that the Millennials do not seem to care about race, religion, sexual orientation, and are socially liberal on issues regarding sex, drugs, and punishment is hopeful, but their near universal apathy towards politics is worrisome.

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Shifting Demographics: What Election 2016 is REALLY All About!

As I write this, the status of election 2016 is that Donald Trump is, barring a party coup, going to be the GOP nominee, while Hillary Clinton is probably going to be the Democratic nominee, but Bernie Sanders continues to be a thorn in her side.

The next President of the United States is going to be a “Boomer”, and it is safe to say they will be the last “Boomer” President (Bill Clinton and George W Bush were both Boomers, too, Barack Obama is Generation X)

Conventional wisdom says that generations are always liberal when they are young, and get more conservative as they age, and that is a true trend in history, but there has never been a generation quite like the Millennials:

 Only 21% of Millennials are married, while 42% of Boomers were married at their age;

Almost 1 in 4 (23% to be exact) have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, making them the most educated generation (more demographic breakdowns of college graduates can be found here);

Millennials are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation, with 19% being Hispanic, 14% African-American and 5% Asian;

source

Millennials are the most diverse, highest educated, and least likely to have a traditional family.  The odds are pretty good they are going to be the most socially liberal generation ever.  It also does not help that Boomers are driving Millennials to embrace democratic socialism.

Donald Trump’s main appeal is to those mostly white males who are afraid of systemic change as a result of demographic change.  White Christian males have been the dominant force in America for generations and they are losing ground demographically every year.

Hillary Clinton is an “old school” Democrat, who often leans Conservative (most troubling even Neo-conservative) on many issues.  Her lack of appeal to Millennials could prove her biggest weakness.  Fortunately for her, Millennials don’t vote.

Bernie Sanders is a proven Liberal, who has run his campaign towards appealing to Millennials, and has succeeded. Many of the media wonder why he stays in the race even though his chances of a nomination are quickly approaching 0%.  The answer is he is grabbing the youth and exciting them into politics.  Sanders knows that Millennials are the future of this country, and it is time they take an interest in their own future.

Regardless of the outcome, Sanders’ message is going to win in the long run. Sanders is too old to run again, so this is his one shot. Ideally, some young Sanders supporters will start running for office and start challenging the Boomer status quo.

cyberpunk

The Cyberpunk Age is already upon us

Back in the 80’s before the internet, many of us Gen Xers would read books. One of the big fiction trends was “cyberpunk”, books often set in  dystopian but connected worlds. Neuromancer by William Gibson in 1984 was considered the first.  Later prominent novels were Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

These books took the early networking tech that was already developing at the time and expanded on it, thrilling our imaginations with future worlds we could only dream about.

Today we no longer have to imagine, the “cyberpunk” world has become our reality. These authors got a surprisingly lot of ideas right.  They also got many parts wrong, so reading these books today feels anachronistic.

One thing these books got wrong is that their heroes had unusually good prowess with digital information, and that prowess usually saves the day in the end. Prowess with digital information is proving not to be unusual at all, in the Millennial generation and whatever we are calling the generation after it (why not call it the cyberpunk generation?) prowess with digital information is the norm.

I saw my 2 year old nephew sit at a computer with a mouse and point and click away on a game as easily as a fish takes to swimming.  I didn’t even see my first computer mouse until high school.

Kids today are creating a new digital society and have little interest in preserving traditional ways. This is a world wide and nearly universal trend among the younger generation vs the “cold war” world view of their parents and grandparents.

The “fears” of the older generations are driving politics right now, but personally I’m excited about the changes.

The digital age is not a perfect one, but that’s another story. No age has ever been perfect.

Why Playboy’s New “No More Nudes” Change is a Bad Sign For America

Since Hugh Hefner started publishing in the 1950’s Playboy Magazine has featured nude pictures of the worlds most beautiful women. The tradition is ending in March 2016 with a new updated style. There will still be pictures of beautiful women, but no longer fully nude.

In other words, Playboy is moving away from competing with Hustler and Penthouse, which has been getting more and more X-rated porn oriented, while Playboy sticks to tasteful artistic nudity, and has pushed its way into competing with Maxim, Esquire, and GQ which often get “A-list” celebrities to get nearly undressed but leave their “bits” covered.

I am not saying the move doesn’t make financial sense. They probably will get a bigger audience for their magazine, so I’m not actually against it.

What is worth talking about is the reasons behind the move and what it says about today’s society.

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Blame the Internet

There are two reasons why this needed to happen, and the first is obvious. If you want to look at naked pictures there are plenty of sources online. The demand for professionally photographed, and perfectly airbrushed nude pictures has pretty much dried up due to online competition.

Playboy.com has taken down their nude picture library, with the accompanying pay-wall, and offered their article archive free, and has seen visits go up four fold.

For now, at least, that is the economic reality of the internet. (it will probably be changing soon but that is a whole different essay)

Welcome to puritanical America, where nudity = sex = evil

The other reason is “puritanical” America. Without nudity, Playboy can be sold on the iPad and Kindle, and in every grocery store magazine rack instead of behind the counter of a small number of convenience stores, thus becoming much more widely available.

Playboy is an international magazine, and in most parts of the world, it is not sold among the porn magazines.  That is because, most of the planet understands there is a difference between nudity and sex.  Here in America, we do not seem to understand this, somehow we have developed a unique mindset where nudity = sex.

And it is not just the prudish people who don’t get this. The reason why there are practically no public clothing optional beaches and pools in America is because too may people think that public sex is also OK in these places. (it’s not, get a room)

But it is also the prudish people, and the pervasive anti-feminist culture that believes that sexy outfits are a sign of consent.  I keep having to remind people, if a naked woman says “NO”, it means “NO”!

Then there is the even more dangerous belief that sex = evil.  This seems to be a belief shared only by around half of America, and it is almost exclusively the social conservative half.

The key difference between “social conservative” and “social liberal” is that social conservatives are pro violence and anti sex, and social liberals are anti violence and pro sex.

Social conservatives, tend to be pro guns, pro military, pro war, pro death penalty, pro police militarization, pro tough punishment for law breakers, etc. = pro violence.

Social Liberals tend to be pro-choice, pro gay rights, pro legalization of drugs and prostitution, pro birth control availability, pro women’s rights, etc = pro sex.

It is the social conservatives who censor sex from media, and because “nudity = sex”, nudity also gets censored as well.

Because the mainstream media has to appease the social conservatives, magazines with non-sexual artistic nudity gets sent behind the counter, and off of Facebook and Instagram, and off the app store.

Artistic nudity has always been a sign of a freer and open society.  Is our society getting more open with the internet? Or more closed off due to mainstream censorship?

Cocks Not Glocks

There is a lot to say about sex vs. violence in America. A lot of it is sad and pitiful, like how social conservatives keep lifting important restrictions on guns, but put as many restrictions as they can get away with on abortions, even though both are constitutionally protected.

But I at least got some relief on this front when a group from University of Texas Austin decided to protest a law allowing open carry of guns on campus by openly carrying dildos on campus.  If that is not the perfect symbol for sex vs violence, I don’t know what is.  If “ammosexuals” can display their signs of manhood openly, why can’t normal people?

The Bigger Problem

I have had a few misrepresent what I am saying here (not in the comments but elsewhere) so I thought I would add some clarification.

Now that Playboy has gotten rid of the nude pictures, it CAN NOW be sold openly in grocery stores and in major app stores, etc. where it couldn’t before. Available in more places will probably mean more sales.

This is just a symbol of a bigger problem.

Society allows certain stuff as MAINSTREAM and relegates everything else to HIDDEN status. Of course the internet has made accessing the hidden stuff much easier, but mainstream is still where the bigger audience is that is willing to spend money.

What we hide and what we make mainstream is a measure of openness in society. Quoting from the Guardian piece I cited earlier:

This hatred for the body, enunciated by key Christian thinkers including St Paul, expresses itself in art as a contempt for women, a portrayal of the supposed poisonous truth behind the lie of beauty.

When you realise this is what they were rebelling against, it is impossible to keep up the unhistorical, hackneyed view that sees artists like Titian and Rubens as old sexist masters slavering voyeuristically over naked women.

Not only do medieval images exclude or demonise the nude, but late medieval portraits in northern Europe cover as much of women’s flesh as they can with tightly fitting headresses. The bodies of women are dangerous, they can bewitch you.

By contrast the loving, luscious nudes of the Italian Renaissance can be properly understood not as 500-year-old icons of the patriarchal gaze but liberating, even empowering images of women set free from religious hatred. […]

Surveying art history, it just does not seem that nude images have ever been the best way to oppress anyone. Societies that praise naked beauty tend to be democratic – the nude was invented in ancient Athens and revived by Italian republics – and forward looking.

Cultures that fear and suppress naked art are more likely to be religiously hidebound and to control and fear women.

So what do we hide today? Where do we draw the line dividing MAINSTREAM and HIDDEN?

The line is drawn at female nipples.

Hide nipples and you can be mainstream, show nipples and you are relegated to the hidden pile.

Historically, women are better off during eras where nudity is not a big deal. Unfortunately, in America today it is a big deal, otherwise prime time broadcast TV and Facebook wouldn’t be so scared of it.

And it shows in today’s society: Abortion restrictions, lack of equal pay, lack of women in the growing tech sector, crap like gamergate still going on with the goal to suppress women, rape culture, etc.

I’m not saying that allowing nipples on TV will suddenly solve all our gender issues, I’m saying that we need to move the line to change social attitudes towards women that will make gender issues easier to deal with.

Because also in the HIDDEN pile is more explicit stuff that objectifies women, sending the wrong message. Lumping positive images of female sexuality in with the negative makes it equal in societies eyes leading to the oppression of ALL female sexuality.

An open society, would have allowed Playboy level nudity to become mainstream, instead Playboy has to drop the nudity to become mainstream, that is my bigger point.

#FreeTheNipple

Unplanned Obsolescence and “Lost” Art

dating1

The above picture is the oldest picture from the oldest version of Date Ariane. The modified date is listed as August 6, 2004.

As I was finishing the Renpy version of Date Ariane, I decided to dive into my archives and attempt to play the oldest version I could find.

It wouldn’t run on any browser, not the way it is supposed to anyways. The game was written for Internet Explorer 4 using some HTML coding that only worked on IE4. Over the years I updated the code to run on as many browsers as I could, but the first version is now completely obsolete.

It gets worse: Date Ariane was written using Microsoft FrontPage which basically has ceased to exist. This week I upgraded to Windows 10, and FrontPage loads on Windows 10 but it is unstable. I have been forced to switch to KompoZer, a nice open source HTML editor, but I can’t mass edit a thousand web pages at a time which makes further upgrades to Date Ariane Online version way more difficult. Besides that browser security issue is already a reason to throw in the towel and stick with Renpy version from now on.

But it is a little sad that a piece of my history, a “work of art” I created, is likely lost to the future.

I’m not the only one facing unplanned obsolescence

Obsolescence is becoming an issue on the web now.  Recently security flaws were found in Flash Player, one of the most used programs on the web. You Tube, once the biggest supporter of Flash has now basically stopped using it. Worse yet, Mozilla turned off Flash by default until Adobe released a secure version, which they have now done, but who knows how long it will last.

So now as the world scrambles to move to HTML5 or some other substitute to flash, what happens to the millions of flash based videos, and online games which someday soon may no longer run?

Preservation efforts for the internet?

We humans like to preserve the past.  There are whole industries devoted to film preservation thanks to the unstable nitrate most of the old films were originally filmed in. More than half of the movies made before 1950 no longer exist.

This is why film gurus get excited about discovering a lost reel to a classic movie thought lost.

Similarly we are slowly losing our musical heritage as most master tapes before 1990 or so are on a medium which also degrades over time. Most all of it has been digitized, but many music gurus will tell you music is better in the original analog, and the original analog sources are decaying.

We see it also in video games. Many of my old games will no longer run on my computer, and the ones that do run in a tiny 800 x 600 window, since that is how they were designed. Some classic games like Age of Empires II or Leisure Suit Larry, have gotten the HD treatment, but hundreds never will.

Will much of the internet content suffer the same fate?

Yes, I know about things like The Wayback Machine which archives lost text and picture content, but what will preserve online games?

The “medium” problem

When the medium by which we distribute content changes, it becomes necessary to find ways to bring old content to the new medium. Entire libraries are being digitized, although paper books have largely proven to be a resilient medium, sometimes finding that rare volume is a lot easier online.

Except that “mediums” themselves are radically changing every few years it seems, so we are constantly having to convert, especially as popularity wanes in the old medium.  Sometimes we lose some things in the conversion, even as recent as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons.

Communication mediums eventually get replaced, by better mediums that we all convert to.  But in so doing we lose some of the “art” of the old medium.

twitter

For example: “Twitter”

Here is one I bet you didn’t see coming: Apparently Twitter is dying.  Yes, one of the most popular web sites on the planet is seeing a sharp decline in active users.

My solution to fixing it is pretty revolutionary: Drop the 140 character limit.  We can thank twitter for the abundance of short link generators. Those links leave Twitter and go to other web sites that allow long essays. Why can’t Twitter users write long essays on Twitter itself and have it show up as a title with a “read more” button, instead of a link to another site?

Yes, I know the 140 character limit was what made the site famous, but the novelty has worn off, and prevents people like me who can’t write in 140 characters to not even bother using the site.

If twitter dies then so does the hashtag. (Yes I am aware that other sites support hashtagging, but they also support other types of tagging, which are more useful except they can’t be printed on a t-shirt)

That’s a whole chunk of internet culture lost if it happens.

The Tech Apocalypses

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? Part 5
(read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

cyborg

Between national news and recent personal experiences, I believe we are on the verge of one or more technical apocalypse. This could come two possible forms:

Either, technology advances to the point that it bypasses the need for humanity, or we grow more and more dependent on tech and internet connectivity and then a series of events causes the whole infrastructure to collapse.

We could also see first one and then the other.  I see both of these as very real possibilities, though I can’t say how likely.  I just want to briefly explain what we are up against.

The Vulnerability of Tech

On Christmas, my website vanished. The culprit seems to be a corrupt zone file which is used to tell the internet where my website is located. I got the site finally back up and then it vanished again due to extremely high traffic on the server. Not sure if that high traffic was directed at my site or the 30 other sites on the same server, but it took a move to a different server to get the site back up.

Two seemingly unrelated incidents in a week is suspicious, or just really bad luck. It is causing me to rethink my web strategies for the future, wondering if there is a better less vulnerable way to do what I do.

But that is just my sad story. How about the intentional takedown of both XBOX Live and PSN on Christmas Day causing much havoc in many households as many new games and consoles could not be played. Before that we all witnessed our first real cyber war between Sony and North Korea. Before that the very organization in charge of internet infrastructure was hacked. Before that was the #gamergate trolls and their malicious tricks directed against female gamers and their supporters. Before that hackers broke into private accounts of female celebrities posting private pictures.  These are just the headlines in the last 4 months.

We are looking at a new form of warfare / terrorism that is only going to get more common.  All tech is seemingly vulnerable. Even the supposedly anonymous and untouchable corners of the web have proven vulnerable in recent weeks.

Our dependence on internet connected tech is only going to get larger in the near future, which is going to make such actions more damaging.

The Vulnerability of Human Labor

We are at a point technologically where artificial intelligence, a sci-fi dream as long as I can remember, is becoming a reality.  This year we saw a chatbot pass the Turing Test, cars that can drive themselves are here as well. Those in the know say that the real innovation is machines learning themselves, which is becoming more real everyday.

From someone who studied this stuff for years this is all very exciting, but the big dark cloud behind the silver lining is what is motivating these developments:  companies want to replace human laborers with robots. When cars (and trucks and busses) that drive themselves prove to be cheaper and more reliable than human drivers, what happens to the 3 million people in the US that make a living as drivers?  Most likely their jobs will disappear.

That’s just one example, hundreds of service occupations are vulnerable to automation in the near future. Because we have grown dependent on service jobs here in the US, what is the future of employment?

And where is this all going to go?  We have intelligent systems being developed to read through reams of legal documents to help lawyers with cases, we also have intelligent systems being developed to write reams of legal documents.  Eventually we are going to cut out the middleman and let all the intelligent systems handle all the legal decision making.

Then what?  A “small claims court” app where you can file a claim and have a judgement in minutes messaged to your phone?  So much for the need for lawyers.

Demand for doctors is likely to be in decline as well for similar reasons.  Neither will disappear completely, but job security will not be what it once was.

There will always be a demand for labor, but if these efforts to automate are successful, the demand is destined to go down, even while the human population continues to rise.  How do we create a society where an increasingly large segment of the population is unemployable. What kind of economy is possible if most of the population can’t afford anything?

Maybe we will build an intelligent system to micromanage a stable economy adjusting taxes and welfare automatically to keep the economy healthy for all.

Sounds like a good idea, until the the intelligent economic manager decides there are just too many damn humans to support (which is already true) and figures out a way to get rid of some.

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It may sound implausible, but recognized geniuses like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are warning about this happening in the near future if we do not take precautions now.

The Clash of Two Futures

Foretelling the future is damn near impossible. I cannot say how much of either of these visions of apocalyptic futures are likely to be true, but I can guarantee both will happen to some degree.

The need for drivers will drop with driverless cars, that is inevitable.  It is also inevitable that some will try to prove their vulnerability by purposely causing automated cars to crash, possibly in retaliation for lost jobs.

Hacking intelligent systems is no doubt going to happen, and exploitation of vulnerabilities will result in an intelligent systems arms race.  Eventually hackers will build intelligent systems to ruin and destroy other intelligent systems, to what effect it is too abstract to see.

Part 6: Internet memes and fake news cause problems for democracy

The Conservative Case for Net Neutrality

UPDATE: In support of the July 12th Battle For The Net, I am rerunning this post from 3 years ago to remind people what Net Neutrality is really all about. For more info on the protest, go here: https://www.battleforthenet.com/july12/

To write the FCC: https://dearfcc.org/

I am completely baffled at the conservatives here in America’s ability to get the Net Neutrality debate ass backwards.  Every statement from both conservative and libertarian sources gets it completely wrong.

Without Net Neutrality, government sanctioned monopolies will have the right to levy their own taxes on successful private businesses.

That is the TRUTH, that is why many Conservatives are supporting Net Neutrality.

I have posted this question to any politicians who are opposed to net neutrality: “So you are in favor of government sanctioned monopolies levying new taxes on successful businesses?”  I have yet to hear back from any of them.

The anti-net neutral argument made in practically every article I posted is that “Netflix takes up 33% of the internet bandwidth, so it is only fair that they pay ISPs to help support their traffic.”

Any good Conservative should see the fallacy of that argument, and every tech savvy person should also. So what if Netflix uses 33% of the bandwidth? They are providing a service people like and are willing to pay for as an added feature of their internet service.  Not only that, they are spending millions to make it easier for ISPs to handle their traffic by reducing the load on long distance lines, but that has not stopped ISPs demand for additional fees.

If ISPs levy additional fees on Netflix, then Netflix will just pass it on down to the consumer, and that is why it is a consumer issue.

Is that not the same argument raised by every anti-tax conservative against raising taxes on businesses?

And what about the 30 or so other streaming services that show up on my Apple TV? If Netflix is forced out by exorbitant fees, then that 33% bandwidth will just be divided up by other services, and then will ISPs go after them for fees too, even though they use significantly lower bandwidth?

What percentage of bandwidth is too much? At what level is charging them fair?

Then there is the future. That 33% is destined to fall even if Netflix continues to grow. By 2020 Netflix may only represent 10% of the bandwidth. Should ISPs continue to charge a premium? What about the hundred or so Netflix like services that haven’t even started up yet but will eventually? Can they compete if they have to pay fees to all the ISPs like Netflix? So much for competition in the market place.

Eventually the internet will grow so big that it will be able to easily support hundreds of Netflixes, and then the “Netflix is too big” argument will go out the window, and yet like all good taxes, the high bandwidth fees will continue to levied costing consumers and internet based corporations billions which could have been paid to salaried employees.

For the future of the internet, and I have been working in the internet field for 20 years so I know what I am talking about, there are ONLY two options:

1. Get rid of the government sanctioned monopolies and force ISPs to open their lines to competitors.
2. Get rid of their right to levy their own taxes on internet based companies, aka make them title II utilities like telephone and electric companies.

1. is not going to happen any time soon, but 2 could happen tomorrow if the FCC decides to.

What about fears of government regulation of the internet? That is a completely separate issue apart from Net Neutrality, it is just as likely to happen if ISPs become utilities or not. It is a completely separate battle, and yet the GOP backed by ISP money is using the confusion to claim they are the same battle, which is why there is so much misinformation on the right.

Why can’t we just leave ISP’s alone at their word that they won’t violate Net Neutrality? Because they already have. Twice. And they did it by purposely slowing down traffic. Net Neutrality will regulate these kinds of actions.  Without net neutrality guarantees, ISPs could slow or completely block internet sites they don’t like, or ask consumers to pay for access to their favorite sites.  This has not happened, but it is perfectly legal for them to do so.  This is why Net Neutrality is also important to free speech.

ISP’s say Title II would lower their incentive to improve the internet, AT&T says they will not expand gigabit services until the issue has been decided. Is this true? AT&T would not stop expanding if the gigabit service was selling well in Austin, but it seems most consumers are happy with the service they got. I’m guessing AT&T has already decided to slow down expansion for fiscal reasons, but decided to make a political issue out of it.

The truth is their political issue seems to have backfired.  It only points out how the lack of competition is harming the availability of really fast internet in the US. It is why US is in 27th place in internet speed.

The conservative position should be: We need competition so we don’t need to implement Net Neutrality rules.  But, the GOP politicians don’t seem to even mention that option. Until we get real competition, Net Neutrality is our best bet as consumers to insure free speech and consumer protection.

Five Things That Could Destroy the Internet

arianestrike

Whatever Happened to the Internet Dream? Part 5

Part 1: Bored of the Internet  Part 2: Politics and Religion in the Internet Age  Part 3: Movies and Television since the Internet  Part 4: The Constant Changing Society

It was not that long ago that people did not think the internet mattered to the economy as a whole. Now it seems the internet IS the economy.  This has created a lot of interest in trying to control the internet from multiple different directions.  These attempts to control that which is at this stage uncontrollable now threaten the internet as a whole.

All of these threats come down to one thing: ignorance.  Ignorance of politicians, ignorance of judges, ignorance of corporations, and the ignorance of the users themselves.

Threat #1: The lack of Net Neutrality

The internet is the third most used utility in the US behind only electricity and water (occasionally 4th behind gas).  Former third place holders telephone and cable TV have been replaced by the internet.  This is inaccurate though, the truth is that the internet is not a utility, not yet anyway, and that is what the whole net neutrality debate is all about:  Should the internet be treated like the telephone, where you can call anyone and anyone can call you? Or, should it be treated like cable TV where you subscribe to bundled packages of websites that run faster and contain more features.

Anyone who knows what they are talking about will tell you telephone.  The entire reason the internet is growing the economy is because access to the internet is an even playing field.  The major internet service providers want to charge websites more money to get to their customers faster.  They want to charge for traffic going both ways.  If the internet service providers get away with it, only the major websites with deep pockets can survive in the long run. All the small start-ups with thousands of employees, would suffer and ultimately close.  There is a very entertaining video explaining all of this and this website has the latest information.

The ignorant in this case: Mostly conservative politicians and news sources who explain net neutrality completely backwards. If you want to save free speech on the internet you WANT net neutrality.  They seem to think that “Net Neutrality” means government regulation and control of the internet, it does not.  But now that you mention it…

Threat #2: Government Regulation and Control of the Internet

The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the internet to help protesters organize.  We saw this again during the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Ukranian revolts which actually led to the overthrow of the government.  The internet as a communication tool organizes like minded people to take action against people, against corporations, and against government.  The more tyrannical governments are looking to stop that by regulating what information moves into its country.

Google has to run different versions of its search engines in China and other countries due to censorship laws. These laws vary from country to country, which also result in lower performance of the internet as a whole.  Google releases a regular report on take down requests from various government agencies, the requests are rising dramatically every year, up 68% from 2012 to 2013.

The other threat coming from Government is radical changes of policy. The SOPA act 0f 2012 was one of those.  Currently, users can post stuff to websites free of censorship.  However if they post copyrighted material, the copyright holder can notify the website, and the website is obligated to take it down.  What SOPA wanted to do is put the burden on the websites. If you posted a copyrighted video on You Tube, You Tube would have to identify it as copyrighted and take it down themselves.  It basically would have meant that any website that allows you to post stuff, which pretty much includes most of the most popular websites, would have to radically change their submission rules, or just close down completely.  Luckily that was stopped, but organizations of copyright holders are still pushing for similar laws around the world.  Newer threats include CISPA act of 2013 which in the name of stopping online cyber attacks, hurts online privacy concerns.

Pew Research also released a recent survey of internet experts and they consider government interference to be a big threat as well.

The ignorant in this case: Politicians and law enforcement agencies around the world of all political leanings.

Threat #3: API copyright issues

As threat #1 has to do with communications companies trying to seize control of the internet, threat #3 is about software companies trying to seize control.  This is all about a potentially horrible precedent setting case involving Oracle vs. Google.

API is Application Programming Interface, it is basically how software programs talk to each other.  If program A needs information from program B, it requests information X from B, which responds by sending Y back to A in a format it understands.  Throughout the history of computer programming, it does not matter how program B handles data X or result Y, it can use any number of methods it wants to.  Oracle’s Java does it one way, Google’s Android does it another.  As a result Google avoids copyrighted software licensing issues with Java.

In Oracle vs. Google, Oracle claims that it holds the copyright of X and Y and not just the method, Google argues (rightly in my opinion) that X and Y are like the title of a book (book titles are not copyrightable), and that because the book part is different, there is no problem.  Google won the initial case, but Oracle won on appeal.

Why is this so damning to the internet?  Because the internet runs on API’s, and API’s have been around for decades. Without API’s smart phones would be bricks.  Google is not the only one with this problem, Microsoft and Apple have their own implementations in place as well. Once the precedent is set, virtually all “open source” software would end.

The ignorant in this case: Judges only looking at previous cases and not the history of software design. Lawyers that could make millions off the thousands of lawsuits that could be filed.

Threat #4: Exponential Growth and Aging Infrastructure

This month, Wired published an article on the growing number of service outages simply caused by too much traffic that older routers simply cannot handle.  Better routers and router software can fix these issues, but replacing old routers and pushing software fixes takes time.

Also in this category would be the very slow progress in moving the internet to IPv6 protocol.

The ignorant in this case: Businesses not willing to invest money in updating.

Threat #5: The Increasingly sophisticated methods of crackers and scammers combined with an increasingly tech ignorant general public.

This weeks Celebrity Nude Scandal, aka “The Fappening“, highlights how sophisticated online pirates are becoming, and more importantly how much more dangerous new trends like “cloud computing” can be to privacy.

There is a lot of interest in finding the hacker responsible for the release of these pictures, but this has all the tell tale signs of a group of hackers with a new set of tools. Most interesting is this article from Wired.

On the web forum Anon-IB, one of the most popular anonymous image boards for posting stolen nude selfies, hackers openly discuss using a piece of software called EPPB or Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker to download their victims’ data from iCloud backups. That software is sold by Moscow-based forensics firm Elcomsoft and intended for government agency customers. In combination with iCloud credentials obtained with iBrute, the password-cracking software for iCloud released on Github over the weekend, EPPB lets anyone impersonate a victim’s iPhone and download its full backup rather than the more limited data accessible on iCloud.com. And as of Tuesday, it was still being used to steal revealing photos and post them on Anon-IB’s forum.

“Use the script to hack her passwd…use eppb to download the backup,” wrote one anonymous user on Anon-IB explaining the process to a less-experienced hacker. “Post your wins here ;-)”

I do not know if this is the exact process used by hackers (plural seems most appropriate) in this case, but something similar: Someone found an exploit, allowing unauthorized access to iCloud accounts, posted it for others to find, and large numbers of hackers went to work seeing what icloud accounts they could hack. I have seen “group think” hacking in action, and the sheer volume of accounts attacked tells me this wasn’t the work of one lone hacker.

What is especially worrisome is that the Wired article seems to imply that the exploit used by hackers on Anon-IB (again the two may be unrelated) is there for law enforcement use. As long as law enforcement and spy agencies insist on legally requiring access to cloud computing for intelligence gathering, cloud computing is is going to be vulnerable to hackers!!

There are a number of large companies that have decided to put much of their data needs on “cloud computing”, quoting the money they save on IT expenses by going this route.  They are making themselves more vulnerable to hackers by doing so, just to save a few bucks.  Apple and Google have been pushing cloud services for a while now, Apple is even updating OS X and iOS with cloud computing in mind, often requiring the cloud to use certain services. The Celebrity hacks couldn’t come at a worse time for Apple.

But this is just one example of the increasing sophistication of today’s online hackers.  Let’s take a look at another recently published by PC World:

CryptoWall ransomware held over 600K computers hostage, encrypted 5 billion files

A file-encrypting ransomware program called CryptoWall infected over 600,000 computer systems in the past six months and held 5 billion files hostage, earning its creators more than $1 million, researchers found.

The Counter Threat Unit (CTU) at Dell SecureWorks performed an extensive analysis of CryptoWall that involved gathering data from its command-and-control (C&C) servers, tracking its variants and distribution methods and counting payments made by victims so far.

CryptoWall is “the largest and most destructive ransomware threat on the Internet” at the moment and will likely continue to grow, the CTU researchers said Wednesday in a blog post that details their findings.

For a couple of years now “ransomware” viruses worked at the fraud level pretending to be government agencies like FBI or IRS claiming to find evidence of wrong doing by the end user and demanding a $300 bribe (or “fine”) to make it all go away, often disabling users from using their computer to get rid of it. Many fixes nevertheless exist online to avoid paying the scammers.

CryptoWall has elevated “ransomware” to the kidnapping and extortion level, and if your files really are encrypted there may be no way to unencrypt them without paying for the extortion.

These viruses are spread mostly the old fashioned way through fraudulent emails saying you are owed money, and you need to “click here” to get access.  The sophisticated tech savvy would never click.

Scammers are going beyond fake emails and phishing these days.  Now they are calling people, usually older people, posing as technical support using fake caller IDs to look legitimate, telling them they need remote access to their computer to fix a problem they have found, which once given access is loaded with various malware and viruses for future ransomware scams.  A variant is to pose as government lawyers collecting fines as explained above.  This is of course all highly illegal and potential victims are reporting people with foreign accents, meaning it is foreign scammers taking advantage of call centers being based in India and other large English speaking countries to save money.  People are used to hearing foreign accents from support centers these days.

Even if you are smart enough to avoid fraudulent emails, and inbound calls asking for bank or computer access, there is scary unavoidable stuff like rogue cell towers that your phone automatically connects to when you are in range.

The tech savvy for the most part know how to avoid these problems, and keep their security updated, and know how to fix their own problems if they do crop up.  The problem is that there is an increasingly small percentage of internet users who are this careful, and viruses malware and trojan horses affect all internet users, even the uninfected.

Some viruses never reveal themselves, they reside in the background of unsuspecting computer users to form networks of parallel processing power, often used to brute force passwords, or create denial of service hacks.  Such actions slow down internet traffic, cause temporary outages and ruin everybody’s internet experience.

The other side of the coin is that scamming is profitable.  People do fall victim, people do pay, and scammers hide themselves behind international law to avoid prosecution.  That means there is only going to be more of it. Scams are not just using mass emails, they are buying ad space on legitimate web sites to make themselves look legitimate.  Unfortunately, there are no security firewalls to protect you from the ignorance of others.

The ignorant in this case: pretty much everybody.

UPDATE October 3 2014:

Apple is refusing to help law enforcement access phones anymore, they said that the security of their iCloud is now so secure they can’t even break in. This has made nude celebrity hackers very sad.