This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

Posts about Technology

The story behind "Oh hi Becky"

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: July 16, 2014 - 12:04 PM

My hunch is there's a sizable chunk of people who don't really grasp what plagiarism is or why it's wrong, and they kind of regard Twitter and social media as this giant free-for-all where everybody's just constantly taking and posting whatever they want from whoever they want. A perfect example of that might be this Business Insider piece about the infectious spread of the Oh Hi Becky tweet, which quotes the author of the infamous jape:

My hunch is there's a sizable chunk of people who don't really grasp what plagiarism is or why it's wrong, and they kind of regard Twitter and social media as this giant free-for-all where everybody's just constantly taking and posting whatever they want from whoever they want.

Oh - right, I stole that guy’s words and passed them off as my own. Well, no one really owns words, do they? Won’t the world be better off when we lose these antiquated notions of originality and just celebrate the fact that a thought or joke or sentence exists in the first place? SMH. Anyway, it’s a piece about how a tweet flowered and spread like kudzu, until the original author was accused of plagiarizing it. Warning: F-bomb, because of course you have to use the F-bomb these days. It’s only a matter of time before “Effbom” is in the top ten baby names.

Related: an English school sent parents a letter about how their kids are not mere results on a test score. Which came as a surprise to parents, I’m sure. What? My kid can draw and dance? I had no idea. The letter , got upworthied all over kingdom come because it warmed hearts, although not to the point where normal muscular activity ceases due to excessive temperatures. Buzzfeed notes:

The letter, addressed to the pupils themselves, was sent by Tomlinson and the head of year six, Amy Birkett. However, the letter is not original: Tomlinson said she found the words on a blog, and the letter (sent by a different school) was shared widely on Facebook in the US last year.

I googled the text to see where it showed up originally, and was treated to a cavalcade of British newspaper names. These are great.

Leighton Buzzard

Belper News

Spalding Guardian

Haverhill Echo

Worksop Guardian

Morpeth Herald

Harrogate Advertiser

Matlock Mercury

Peterlee Star

Pontefract and Castleford Express

Biggleswade Today

Hebden Bridge Times

Filey and Hunmanby Mercury

Malton and Pickering Mercury

Rye and Battle Observer

And that’s just a few. Makes you wonder what names the paper rejected before it settled on Buzzard.

APPS In case you’d forgotten what you were doing years ago, Daily Dot has this:

Six days a week, MorningPics sends a previous photo from an Instagram feed. On Sundays, subscribers receive the Sunday Edition, a round-up of photos posted to Instagram within the past week.

MorningPics’ subject line tells a subscriber how long ago a photo was taken and where, if a location was tagged. Mulligan describes reading the subject line as a mental guessing game to try and remember what happened however many days ago before opening the email. Once opened, a subscriber will see a photo they’ve posted, as well as the number of likes it got and any comments it received.

Apps like this remind you how it’s tough it would be to explain modern amusements to people in 1950. So, it’s like, every morning you get a letter -

“Every morning? The mail comes at noon. Is that close enough?”

Yes. Every morning you get a letter from the service, and -

“What’s the service?”

Well, it’s a . . . business, I suppose, that sends you a photo you took a few months or years ago.

“How do they have my pictures?”

They don’t. They take them from the other serv- the other business that does have your pictures.

“Why do they have my pictures?”

You gave them the pictures, so other people could see them.

“Why don’t they just come over and we’ll get out the slide projector and put up the screen?”

It’s a . . . different sort of sharing. Everyone who follows you can see the pictures.

“Do they follow me because I’m going to the place where the pictures are?”

No. The pictures just appear on your hand-held computer screen. Anyway, the service sends you one every day to remind you what you were doing a while ago.


Well, to remind you that . . . no, to reacquaint you with your past, and . . . you know, that’s a good question.

“You called it a business. How do they make money?”

Aaaaand that’s another good one.

Brrrrrrrr: explained

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: July 15, 2014 - 12:17 PM

No, it’s not a Polar Vortex.

Typhoon Neoguri, which battered southern Japan with strong wind and rains last week, likely set off the wacky weather pattern that is interfering with the jet stream over the Midwest.

Wacky? What’s next, zany tornados? Madcap thunderstorms?

Strictly speaking, the cold front is not a polar vortex, according to experts. The impending cold front is called a "high meridional event," but there are some similarities.

"It's the same general circulation pattern, but the effects are extremely different," Bob Oravec, a senior forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) Weather Prediction Center, told Live Science. "In the summer, if you go outside in 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) below normal weather, you won't really care, but in the winter, the effects were significantly different because it was already so cold.”

Ahem. We care. We really do. We just get a little summer. Seems cruel to add fall so early. Then again, well:

I was there yesterday. Deserted. For some peculiar reason people aren’t just stocking up on glue pens yet.

I know that glue pens will be on the list of supplies; they always are. Sent daughter to school last year with a package of three. At the end of the year they were unopened. I don’t know where they are now; I do know I will buy three more in a month or so. They will be Elmer brand, because I like Elmer the Borden Bull. In the old 1940s ads he’s a blustering, hectoring, ill-tempered, impulsive fellow, constantly sputtering dismay over his wife Elsie’s monomaniacal shilling for Borden products, but I think there was some underlying tension over her high public profile. Elmer worked in an office - we know this because he was frequently depicted leaving the house with a briefcase, and while it’s possible he wandered the streets, alarming people - a bull, standing erect, wearing a hat, walking around as if he had to get in early to work on the Johnson Contract would be unnerving - but perhaps he knew that Elsie brought in the cream, so to speak. I don’t know if she set him up in the glue business, or if he started it himself after the calves were out of the house and she divorced him.

PLEASE DON’T GO The most astonishing customer assistance call ever recorded for future generations to understand how you can combine cheerfulness, anonymity and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It’s a Mobius strip. Embedding isn't working for some reason, so here it is. It's mortifying.

“Why do you want to do this?”

“Because that’s what we want to do.”


“That’s none of your business.”

“But why do you want to leave?”

After four minutes you suspect it’s a hoax, because the the caller is too calm, and the Comcast rep isn’t just indifference to the customer, he becomes the needy, whiny partner you can’t break up with easily, but must endure several conversations. NO ONE ELSE WILL LOVE YOU LIKE I DO!

The OP describes the backstory:

This recording picks up roughly 10 minutes into the call, whereby she and I have already played along and given a myriad of reasons and explanations as to why we are canceling (which is why I simply stopped answering the rep's repeated question -- it was clear the only sufficient answer was "Okay, please don't disconnect our service after all.”).

In the comments he is described as the Mother Theresa of Comcast Disconnect Requestors, and that’s about right.

Then again, the Awl has some sympathy for the fellow doing the begging.

. . . overnight my sympathies shifted: If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual. The customer service rep is trapped in an impossible position, in which any cancellation, even one he can't control, will reflect poorly on his performance. By the time news of this lost customer reaches his supervisor, it will be data—it will be the wrong data, and it will likely be factored into a score, or a record, that is either directly or indirectly tied to his compensation or continued employment. It's bad, very bad, for this rep to record a cancellation with no reason, or with a reason the script should theoretically be able to answer.

True. The guy could have made up a reason - say, “knobby-fleshed demons are streaming from my modem, praising Baal and making my Bibles burst into flames,” but he didn't have to, and if he wanted to go all Bartleby on the guy, that’s that.

Comcast seems to know this is a PR disaster: here’s their statement.

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize.  The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action.  While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

Picture the service rep standing in the middle of the office as his commanding manager ripped off his service patches. Well, there’s nothing left for him but personal appearances in bars that have D-list media celebrities. Bad news; David Brent cancelled. We’ll have to go with the Comcast rep.

VotD Made in Minnesota: the great bands of the 80s revisited, with trips back to the old locales.

Swingin' Six and the Zip Code Song

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: July 1, 2014 - 12:43 PM

Should you give stores your zip code? Forbes article says NO NEVER and tells you why. Tl;dr: marketing. I always hate the zip-code question, but the phone number is worse. “It’s for your records in case you need to return something.” Sorry. I don’t get as many requests for email addresses any more, which is interesting. Younger demographics aren’t on email as much. Anyway, if you don’t care to read the article, check the comments; the first guy goes on a preening little exposition of his privacy-securing techniques, and within five comments someone else has found an aerial picture of his house.

Anyway. It's a good excuse for this:

He’s called Mr. Zip, but he’ll always be Manic Mailman to some of us.

UGH Rolf Harris is convicted of child sex abuse, and Anorak gives you 22 ways in which he Corrupted Your Childhood. A bit overstated, you think, unless you were one of the victims, but then:

So you can see their point. Our house had a 45 of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down,” as did 72% of American households. It was the flip-side I loved. “Big Black Ball.” I can still repeat every line. It was fun to sing along with. Not any more.

ART Colossal gives us a glimpse of miniature marble spaces, carved by Matthew Simmonds:

The artist is a stonemason and sculptor, which is a good job to have these days: there can’t be too many people who can carve classical details to replace something broken on an old building.

Related, from the same site: they’re called “Blurred Cityscapes,” but they look like paperback covers from the 60s. And I say that as a good thing.

One of the world's largest cranes is here

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: June 30, 2014 - 11:57 AM

Wish I meant a bird. 

There are only 2 cranes in the world bigger than the one downtown right now. KFAN:

Piece by piece, the crane has already started arriving in town this morning, but there's no need to rush to the construction site to catch a glimpse. The crawler crane will be delivered by 70 different truck loads over the next week and a half and will take nearly 11 days to construct.

Hit the link for video on how it’s assembled. It’s like the world’s slowest Transformer. Speaking of which: did the Decepticons name themselves? That would have been unwise. It sounds like something they’re called by others who have experience with their untruthful ways. No culture calls itself the Liarbots.

HEY YOU Today’s hectoring, bossy-pants headline on an article I won’t read:

But I love this:

Thanks, totally neutral observer! From the piece:

The to-do list seems like such a necessary element of an efficient work day. Nearly everyone I know keeps a list of some sort, and those who don’t wish they did because it’s so hard to remember all that needs to be done. My heart’s in the right place, but still I constantly fail at maintaining a standard to-do list.

Am I doing something wrong? Maybe not.

Look, pal, if you don’t know if you’re doing it wrong, you’re in no position to tell me I’m doing it wrong.

It’s one of those sites with tips about improving your professional life; they range from obvious to useless. If you manage to scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll discover it’s part of a network of sites devoted to giving you tips and “news.” They get 6 million hits a year, they say.

In related news of things that are useless: "For five dollars, you get a thank-you email and a picture of a rock." Yes, it’s a Rock Simulator game. (I’d embed the vid, but it’s Biggie Smalls, so of course there’s cursing. If you can’t sing, you can always m-f your way to fame.) Looks like the game has enough funding, so let the exciting rock simulation begin!

Wonder if there’s a Death-Valley walking rock level. It would be great if it had social media built in, so you'd get a tweet that said "I unlocked the Move 1/4 inch achievement!" from someone you forgot why you followed in the first place.

ARCHITECTURE New York skyscraper-condos aren’t really for living. They’re for investing. New York mag:

20 Pine was developed at the height of the real-estate bubble. After the crash of 2008, it became an emblematic disaster, with the developers selling units in bulk at desperation prices, until opportunistic foreigners swooped in with cash offers.

”Opportunistic” sounds a bit derogatory, no? Other people who have more money who take advantage of a bargain: opportunistic. You, when you take advantage of a bargain: wise consumer. Anyway, here’s an interesting tidbit from One57’s Wikipedia page:

Entrepreneur Michael Hirtenstein and Gary Barnett, the building's developer, had a public clash regarding a unit Hirtenstein agreed to purchase in the building. Hirtenstein claims he would not spend $16 million for a unit without seeing it, and that the view from the unit he purchased was obstructed. Barnett has been strict about not permitting buyers to view apartments prior to purchase, and as Hirtenstein paid a construction worker to show him his unit, Barnett refunded Hirtenstein's funds and canceled the contract.

Good. Lord. “Can I see the unit? I’m paying $45 million, after all. And that doesn’t include the monthly condo fee, which is equal to the mortgage payment on a 10-acre Minnetonka lakefront property with a nine-car garage. Can I? Please?”


”A picture, maybe? A computerized rendering?”

”Look, I don’t have all day. There are six Russian oligarchs in the office outside waiting to sign if you don’t want to. Make up your mind.”

If no one’s actually living in these buildings, aside from a few renters or relatives staying for a week, it makes you wonder how many new structures in Manhattan will just be tall empty things. A skyline of safety deposit boxes.

BTW, not everyone’s a secretive billionaire looking to park some money; Business Journal notes there’s a Fargo ND Vitamin Tycoon.

VotD Why? Are we running out of people?

CONTAGION IS SPREADINGWhat happens when a respected source of international policy discussion gets the click-bait fever? It’s not pretty.

That’s what the conversation needs. “Mean Girls” references.

Today's Internet Hoax is . . .

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: June 24, 2014 - 2:23 PM

. . . not surprising at all. It was Upworthy-ready: this little girl was ostracized in a KFC because she had facial scars, and what happened next will warm your heart-cockles, or something.

Well, no. The Laurel Leader-Call:

The heart-wrenching story of a badly disfigured 3-year-old child being asked to leave a Jackson KFC because her appearance was scaring other customers was a story generated out of whole cloth and resulted in the family bilking the public and professionals for more than $135,000 in cash, as well as gifts and free surgeries, sources with deep knowledge of the investigation said exclusively to the Laurel Leader-Call.

Says the family's  “Victoria’s Victories” website today:

I promise its not a hoax, I never thought any of this would blow up the way it has. The article circling the web calling this a hoax is untrue. The article it self say the investigation is not complete. It is not over until KFC releases a statement. The media outlet running this story is not connected with KFC. The family has not asked for anything, a attorney is handling all the media publicity for the family pro bono. Please do not believe untrue media. I have personally watched this family go without to provide for Victoria. They have not and would not do anything to hurt Victoria in any way.

Over 4,500 comments on that one so far. Read 'em all! A pattern does tend to emerge.

The newspaper article notes that the local KFCs have surveillance video of the days in question - although they don’t have video for the store the child’s aunt says they visited. Ah hah! you say. How convenient! Well:

The family initially told KFC the incident happened at the location on State and High streets, a claim backed by a Facebook post by Victoria’s Victories, a page run by Teri Rials Bates, the girl’s aunt that read: “Thank you for your support for Victoria. If you would like to file a complaint its the KFC on State Street in Jackson MS.” That store is not in operation and has been closed for several years.

The family retracted that claim after that was pointed out, insisting that the event did happen, but it was somewhere else.

The newspaper article, by the way, is not a model of objective reporting.

Mullins welcomed television cameras from Jackson while peddling the tale of deceit in an effort to bilk a public who lapped up the story with little regard to its validity. By the time those TV interviews had aired, the story had taken on a life of its own.

National and world media such as CNN, Nancy Grace, Huffington Post and The Today Show jumped on the story, lambasting the employees, KFC and YUM! Brands, KFC’s corporate owners.

“What, did they walk over to the table and say ‘hey, you’re ugly, you have to leave.’ What happened Dave?” wailed Grace, the (Headline News) hysterical talk show host, which was answered by little-known talk radio host Dave Maxson.

“No, Nancy, it was even worse than that. It wasn’t ‘you’re ugly.’ It was ‘you are scaring people. You must leave.’”

Wailing and hysterical are rather subjective. Accurate, but still.

Since the story went “viral,” people have been throwing sodas through the drive-through window and yelling at employees. Even though the original story seemed “fishy” in the sense that a trawler coming back to the docks after a week of dragging the ocean with enormous nets is “fishy.” An employee would ask a seriously injured little girl to leave because she was scaring customers? Does that really seem likely?

Speaking of social media: The WSJ yesterday had a piece about companies rethinking their social media strategies, a subject of almost boundless boredom to consider, but interesting in a cruel, cold way. It turns out that LIKES mean nothing. Who knew. It turns out that people don’t go on Twitter to learn about brands: the feather, it lays me low. It seems that most people go on Twitter to natter about things they did or ate or heard about second-hand through the usual uninformed sources.

Not to say it’s not a great news source; I check it constantly. But when you enter the parallel world of Twitter, where people who cannot spell and have the sense of history that makes a fish’s experience look like the recollections of Methuselah, you know that it’s not an inherently wise medium. Which one is? Right.

Survey says: 94% use social media to connect with friends and family. Twenty-nine percent use it to “follow trends / find product reviews and information.” That last one conflates two different objectives. Same with the next one: Twenty percent use social media “to comment on what’s hot or new / to write reviews of products.” But the big one: 62% say that social media has NO INFLUENCE AT ALL on their purchasing decisions. Millions upon millions spent to insert ads in your timelines, and while you may follow Campbell’s Soup, and may have signed up to get the “What’s Soup?” update email (I made that up) and might have liked the post about Andy Warhol’s birthday, the end result is diddly and/or squat compared to television ads. They’re more impressive because they have moving pictures and catchy songs and pretty people.

Compared to which, a social-media entry is a postcard. I nod and feel a cruel smile spread across my face, because I don’t like Facebook. I use it to post links to real work. Same with Google Plus, but every day I go to Google Plus to add the link, I have the same thought: oh, right. Google Plus. And this is something I use every day. I practically forget about while I’m there. Facebook is a many-headed hydra with a firehose in every mouth. But I don’t disengage from Twitter or the news, because I want to know what’s going on. Depending on who you follow, and who you learn to trust or respect, you can get a sense of events from Twitter stream if you treat it like Professor X using Cerebro

This Leon Wiseltier piece, written by an admitted non-Tweeter, sums up the perils of disengagement.


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