How your bad mood defeats online fraudsters

Our collective and personal mood is balanced so delicately today that it seems a slight wind could push it from bad to good to mediocre to anything in between. The US is experiencing more people quitting their jobs than ever before, buildings are collapsing for seemingly no reason at all and shootings are peaking. And the pandemic. Is it over? New strains have been found and Tokyo Olympics are near the precipice of disaster or may have tumbled over already.

All this brings us back to our personal and collective mood. It’s, how does one say this delicately, crap. But even crap can be a good thing. Especially if it has to do with one’s mood. Some researchers have found the worse one’s mood the better at avoiding online scams. In addition, the FBI noted a 70% increase in online scams in 2020.

Web-based scams remain important in 2021 because online sharps are making it their business to extricate as much money as possible from you and me. A TransUnion report found financial services have become major targets of late.

Do disaffected teen-agers make less phishing mistakes than your happy-go-luck adult?

“Identity theft fraud, the leading type of digital fraud we identified in financial services, is when a consumer uses a stolen identity to commit fraud with the victim being a real person. The second and third most reported type of digital fraud by our customers is first-party application fraud and account takeover,” according to the TransUnion report.

Your bad mood can make it all better

“Mood plays a role: people who are feeling happy and not stressed are less likely to detect deception in front of them,”​ according to an article published by MIT Technology Review following the 2019 Black Hat Conference. “Cortisol, a stress hormone, increases vigilance and makes detecting a deception more likely. Serotonin and dopamine, hormones associated with positive feelings, can lead to risky and unpredictable behavior that make people more vulnerable.”​ 

Luckily, teen-agers don’t have to worry about being too happy. Their inevitable bad moods will save them from phishing attacks. Now, more than ever, this group has a reason to be in a bad mood, which can be made worse by their wholesale consumption of the digital world in which they live. In 2017, 17-18 year olds spent 6 hours a day doing something online…gaming, texting or using social media. (This also means this same group spent less time playing sports, talking to each other face to face, reading books, participating in religious activities or generally doing anything that doesn’t have a screen connected to it.) All that online me-time did nothing to improve the collective mood of these high-school seniors.

Instead, it caused–for men and women, alike–a general malaise (left: this is what happens to your happiness when you spend time online). Higher rates of depression. Less happiness. Although the authors of the World Happiness Report are quick to point out the negative effects of an online life on happiness are correlational.

Web-based scams remain important in 2021 because online sharps are making it their business to extricate as much money as possible from you and me.

“​In short, adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on most other activities are happier,”​ according to the 2019 World Happiness Report. “This creates the possibility that iGen adolescents are less happy because their increased time on digital media has displaced time that previous generations spent on non-screen activities linked to happiness. In other words, digital media may have an indirect effect on happiness as it displaces time that could be otherwise spent on more beneficial activities.”​

Do disaffected teen-agers make less phishing mistakes than your happy-go-luck adult? No one knows. But it would seem teen-agers, Digital Natives and other who grew up on the internet–not those of us who used pagers–will be less likely to fall for online scams.

“That doesn’t mean,”​ the MIT Technology Review explains, “the only defense against phishing is to be a permanently stressed-out and cynical ball of anger.”​

Then again, maybe it does.

Why you need to read and listen: Essential skills make a better writer

By Jordan Gruener

Read it all. Listen to it all. As much as you can. Non-fiction. Fiction. Poetry. Epic poems. Newspaper articles old and new. Fanzines. Books. Magazines. Music. Movies. If you’re setting out to become a writer or simply want to improve, you must read and listen to as much as you can, no matter how mundane it may seem at the time. 

Writing is all about reading and listening. When you read, you’ll discover authors you enjoy. The ones you connect with on a visceral level. Finding genres that fascinate or excite you are just as important as identifying the ones you hate. 

Tuck away the words you love just because you like the way they sound. Like concurrent or exacerbate; two of my favorites. There will be words you won’t want to use, like “gifted,” “tasked” or “pivot.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of writing well

Now, I’m not talking about plagiarism. I’m talking about latching on to writers you love. You love their style. The way they weave words together. The way the words fall on the page. The same goes for music. Try to feel the way it flows through speakers into your ears. Immerse yourself in the sound and the words. 

Then try it out. Mix short and long sentences. Use a sentence that’s only one word. Make a paragraph super-long without any punctuation like Cormac McCarthy or short and choppy like Jim Thompson or the late, great Robert Parker. Have a go at the intensely complicated sentence structure that made James Ellroy famous, along with his epic stories of graft and greed.  

You may have noticed that I tend toward noir, and I do. But before I became aware of noir, I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ee cummings and others. I read all the classics. I read all the reportage I could get my hands on; journalists who inserted themselves into the story and built classic non-fiction around the topic and themselves.

I listened to punk and dissected the lyrics. I listened to the great blues players and did the same.  I watched movies to understand phrasing and tempo.

Like all writers, you must learn the form’s rules before you can break them.

Keep writing

Now that you’ve done some reading and listening, it’s time to write. Take what you’ve read, heard and learned, and give it a try. Experiment and have fun. 

A great way to start is by taking a class and workshopping your writing. Try poetry, fiction or journalism classes. Find out what you enjoy and makes you happy, and do it some more. Get the opinions of others. Use what makes sense and matters. Toss the rest.

No matter what you do, be yourself. Find your voice, and don’t back down. Many of the greatest writers received rejection after rejection from publishers. The same will happen to you. It’ll be discouraging, but remain true to yourself, your style and your writing. As Noel Gallagher famously said, ”You need to be yourself. You can’t be no one else.”

Now all you have to do is give it a try.

Copyright Jordan Gruener 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Are NFTs the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the hot new thing. New online marketplaces are popping up to sell everything from digital art to digital homes that you can’t live in.

You may have noticed, for example, I have a $69 million digital artwork at the top of this post. (Impressive, yes?) You can get the Beeple artwork for yourself by simply hitting right-click and copying it straight off this page or pretty much anywhere off the internet.

NFTs, I’ve learned, are simply a way to keep track of something using blockchain. “In the simplest terms,” CNN explains, “NFTs transform digital works of art and other collectibles into one-of-a-kind, verifiable assets that are easy to trade on the blockchain.”

The CNN explanation isn’t altogether accurate in the most literal terms. NFTs, for digital works, are not one-of-a-kind.

Possession is 9/10ths of the internet

Can you or I claim to own “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days”? Not really. Can we print it or use it as a screensaver? Why, yes, we can. Thanks to the internet fewer and fewer things are original.

If you have a Rembrandt in your home, but no one else has seen it, does it really exist?

The Beeple artwork above and below sold for $69 million at a Christie’s auction. You’d be hard-pressed, however, to tell the difference between the $69 million version and the ones here. The reason is, you can’t. Because they aren’t. I can’t show that I own the original, which is the only difference. If you own the NFT, you own the provenance of whatever “it” is as secured by blockchain.

While I don’t have the provenance provided by an NFT, they look pretty much the same to me. (And I didn’t pay anything for “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days.”)

As Bill Tai explained in a recent Brookings webinar, much of the attraction of an NFT, especially as it relates to artwork, is ego. An NFT’s value is based more on ego than intrinsic value.

When we own something unique or cool, we want to show it off. Let others know we own “it.” Could be an exotic car, your first home or a rare book. If you have a one-of-one Rembrandt in your home, but no one else has seen it, does it really exist?

Provenance and the NFT

When you have a blockchain-enabled provenance-maker to prove you own the NFT, you retain the provenance of the one-of-one, even if a million versions are floating around on social media platforms, news sites, LinkedIn and myriad of other websites. You’ve got bragging rights and the ability to share your NFT artwork far and wide, knowing you have the “original,” if not the only copy. But does that make the purchase worth nearly 70 million bucks? Doubtful. Will it increase in value?

Why would someone buy your NFT for $69 million (or more) if they can get the same image free from tens of thousands of online sources? (Or, like they used to say when I lived in Montgomery, “why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”)

Why would someone buy your NFT for $69 million (or more) if they can get the same image free from tens of thousands of online sources?

You might purchase an NFT for the bragging rights, but that would likely be the only reason. Because while you may own the provenance, everyone owns the image. You could enter your ridiculously long password to access the NFT via blockchain and show the folks at a cocktail party that you own the NFT. Which is sort of cool, I suppose.

Back to the real world

In the physical world, an item’s scarcity, uniqueness and/or desirability often is congruent with value. The NFT marketplace seems to thrive on the opposite concept: the “it” can be reproduced by the millions or billions, but the ownership is unique.

In the real world of collecting and antiques, even some hard-to-find items have become less so thanks to the internet. Even so, in the real, physical world you own the item and no one else does, even if you don’t have the provenance, which is important only in rare cases.

Seemingly rare items, it turned out, were common and worth less because of their availability.

In the past, it was often difficult for collectors to find an item. You were generally limited to your geographic area or, if you were savvier and well-heeled, physical auctions taking place around the world. The price for the item was higher because it was “rare.” It turns out however, most collectibles are far less than rare thanks to the internet.

Once the rarity-factor was decimated by eBay and now-similar platforms, like Facebook groups and Facebook Marketplace, or even the advent of white-glove auction houses joining the online auction movement, the items lost value because it became easier for collectors to buy from dealers or home sellers anywhere around the world. The effect simply drove down prices.

Scarcity in art, antiques, cars and collectibles, drives value and cost on the open market. But a digital NFT, while the provenance can be tracked to ensure you have the “original,” is not scarce and never will be once an image of the artwork is shared online.

Are NFTs the Emperor’s New Clothes? I believe they are. NonFungible.com monitors the NFT market and shows the recent peak being around April 14 with nearly 34,000 sales. More recently, however, the NFT market has been dropping (precipitously?), especially from April 16 to April 21, when sales dropped by about 10,000 units of collectibles, art, sports and more. This could be the simple ups and downs seen in any market, especially one that is in the midst of being established. Or it could be something more dire.

If you look at NFTs in the strictest terms of the value of a collectible, for example, the end may be near. And it’s the fault of the internet and the wide ability to download just about anything that can be converted to a digital file. Anyone can do it and most everyone does. It turns out that in the online world no one is unique when everyone is.

I think Syndrome of The Incredibles said it best: “And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”

Why Online and Offline are Irrelevant in the 21st Century

It’s a bit strange when an offline world of some 35 years ago collides with today’s online world. Back then, in the mid- to late-1980s, I created, with a friend, a punk-poetry fanzine laced with record reviews and non-fiction writing. Called Rhetoric Farm, the ‘zine was distributed worldwide from our non-existent global headquarters in Tucson, Arizona.

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  • We interviewed RuPaul three decades before he became famous and found himself on TV.
  • We talked to Keith Haring (PDF) before he died.
  • We traded barbs with the Meat Puppets of Phoenix.
  • We were verbally abused by Henry Rollins of Black Flag and charmed John Doe of X.
  • We supported and published avant-garde, nonsensical poetry and stream-of-consciousness stories, which may or may not have been based on real experiences. To this day, I’m still not sure if those stories were real, fantasy, delusional or a bit of all three.
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One of the most important parts of Rhetoric Farm, besides the non-fiction writing, however, was the front cover. It caught your eye, or it didn’t.

The publication was set up like a magazine, so we needed artists willing to draw our front cover for free, a beer or two, or a paleta. And that is where the offline world of the 1980s happened to collide with the online world of 2019 and beyond.

It would seem the online and offline worlds have coalesced and become intertwined in such a way that both can live in the ether we call the internet.

Keith Haring (above) was undoubtedly the most famous artist we ever worked with. It was 1986 when Haring’s work was exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum. As part of the exhibit, Haring was on hand to talk about the work and later painted a mural. And we, intrepid Rhetoric Farm reporters, were there, too.

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We had brief chat, chronicled in Issue 7 (PDF, cover shown above) and he was kind enough to pen a quick drawing for the cover.

This was years before the internet became The Internet as we know it today. Technology, even with Moore’s Law, was limping forward and nothing compared to the rapid advances we see in the 2000s.

Laptop computers were 50 pound behemoths like the Kaypro. Desktop publishing consisted a Mac and dot-matrix printers.

So it was a pretty cool occurrence when this vintage, offline world collided with the online world.

Worlds Collide

Not long ago, but nearly 30 years after meeting Haring in Phoenix, I saw a post on Instagram, one of only a handful of social media in which I still participate, featuring Keith Haring’s artwork on a vintage t-shirt. I commented on the post and mentioned I had met Haring, interviewed him and that he had contributed to my fanzine. From there, a collaboration was born as our online and offline worlds collided.

It would seem the online and offline worlds have coalesced and become intertwined in such a way that both can live in the ether we call the internet. Time and space are no longer a barrier to new ventures and collaborations. Which leads us the Rhetoric Farm/Haring sweatshirt pictured below.

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“It’s now time to drop the ‘e’ from e-commerce and manage businesses seamlessly, as one commerce,” according to Bryan Forbes writing for the ANA. “This demand is no longer a nice to have; it’s a must have as shoppers now expect a variety of solutions to meet their needs.”

While the ANA article focuses on shopping, its reference point can be applied to my experience, as well. The notion of online and offline must become a singular, world experience. My anecdotal Instagram meeting is one way that demonstrates how an online discovery of something that hasn’t existed for 30 years can manifest itself in an offline, one-off sweatshirt, as well as a t-shirt featuring the work and a nod to Tucson’s long-defunct alternative record store Wrex Records (below), which was a frequent Rhetoric Farm advertiser.

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For me–and I’m not even a digital native–online and offline no longer have meaning. There’s a big messy co-existence between the two ideas that demonstrates neither exist in the same way they had in the past.

What’re your thoughts? Have the days of separating offline and online ceased to exist?

Why Music Should be a Happy Accident, Not an AI App

I like finding new music and bands by happenstance. Since I’m not a complete Luddite, I even use social media like Instagram to find new music, although I must admit the images I mostly see are of bebop jazz albums, not suggested playlists.

Two recent experiences, two happy accidents, really, led me to bands and music I’d never heard before. And now I thoroughly enjoy the sounds of each band; one still creates music and the other long gone.

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While you may or may not enjoy finding new music–whether it’s jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, classical or rap–in this old-fashioned way, it may not matter in the long run. Because researchers are looking at ways artificial intelligence can “create” the perfect song. At some point, you may need to do nothing more than enter a few “likes” into an app, which will spit out your new favorite song in a matter of seconds.

Back to the Music

I recently discovered two bands, new favorites, not via an app, but through day-to-day life experiences.

That’s a long-winded, professorial, English-paper way of saying: We figured out what your brain wants to hear, and we can recreate it with AI.

I play indoor soccer and while we’re running across the artificial turf, music blasts from the large speakers in the warehouse in which we have games. For a long while I was intrigued by a punk sound laced with country and western, a slide guitar, four-part harmonies and the distinctive, plaintive voice of the group’s lead singer. If I hadn’t played indoor soccer, I wouldn’t have discovered Bad Religion. (Admittedly, I’m late to the Bad Religion bandwagon. They played their first songs in 1980 and continue today.) Now, I can’t get enough of them. Their sound, passion and lyrics are on-target for the world in which we live. They just have a great sound.

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My second encounter is with an album first pressed in 2000 of a group of songs recorded in 1995 by Crestfallen, the Denver-based punk/hardcore band active in the mid- to late-1990s.

Although living in the Denver-area since the late 1990s, I hadn’t heard of, nor listened to Crestfallen. I still don’t know much about them, but I am now a fan.

I am a thrift store habitue. And it was on one of those jaunts, pawing through piles of records, that I came across the eponymous LP. For $1.99 I decided to take a chance; the record looked unplayed and especially because it was pressed on baby blue colored vinyl. So, I washed the record, cleaned it a second time and placed it on my Sony turntable. Crestfallen had a great sound punctuated by a lead singer with a voice instilled with longing. It’s a great record.

Researchers have long acknowledged music can affect emotions. “Music is universally enjoyed perhaps because of the power it has to move us. Listening to music can boost our mood, give us chills, and even make us cry,” write the authors of “A Multimodal View into Music’s Effect on Human Neural, Physiological, and Emotional Experience,” who are looking into the ways these emotions could be harnessed and exploited by AI.

Which brings me to AI’s foray into music. Could AI “make” this music for me and you. Yes, probably, sometime in the future. Will discovering that music be as fun. Most definitely not. (AI has already made “art.” One piece sold for more than $400,000.)

Will AI Write Your Next Favorite Song?

It might. If the programmers who write AI algorithms can harness the perfect intersection of a mood-boosting, chill-giving, cry-inducing song, why not. I mean why not get emotional about every song you hear?

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Researchers used a variety of instrumental-only songs to better understand “happy” and “sad” songs. In their graph to the right, a sad song is plotted by its “skin conductance response” or SCR. The researchers wanted to find out if the participants’ skin conducted electricity better when, in this case, he or she heard a sad song.

You can see in the graph there were several spikes indicating better electrical conductivity, which occurred when the subjects heard a violin, a cello and began to experience the song’s crescendo.

Now plotting how your skin responds to happy and sad songs might take all the fun out finding a new band or singer, but at least the new process will be fast and perfect! I suppose it is more efficacious to plug yourself into into a computer a la The Matrix, listen to few songs and have them deconstructed by AI to get the perfect song. But I enjoy the search.

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The researchers, on the other hand, are pretty excited by their new work.

“By computationally analyzing how music influences these three modes (neural, psychological, emotional), we present a more complete picture of music’s role in human experience.

“We apply a set of multivariate time series (MTS) prediction models to neural, physiological, and subjective responses, using auditory features as predictors. We compare these models and comment on what auditory features are important for these predictions.

“We hypothesized that attention models, which non linearly synthesize aural information from previous points in a song, would be best at predicting these responses,” the authors theorize.

That’s a long-winded, professorial, English-paper way of saying: We figured out what your brain wants to hear, and we can probably recreate it with AI.

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Or as the author at the MIT Technology Review wrote of the study: “The researchers then fed the data, along with 74 features for each song (such as its pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, and timbre), into several machine-learning algorithms and examined which features were the strongest predictors of (emotional and physiological) responses.”

I could hook myself up, listen to a handful of songs to figure out what my “perfect” song is. I could monitor my galvanic response to find out what makes my skin tingle. I could input that information into an algorithm, which would spit out a brand new, never-before-heard song at the other end. A song perfect for me and me alone.

But that removes the entire experience of discovering a new band by accident or being introduced to a new song by a friend.

It’s just too perfect.

And not as fun.

Will The Mandalorian Give Rise to Inalienable Robot Rights?

I was watching the first episode of the new (when I originally wrote this) The Madalorian series portion of the Star Wars franchise. And I had an epiphany.

To bury the lead a bit, I often write about the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms on things like personal data and even the creation of music. I often take a look at things on the dark side (no pun intended) of technology, from giving way data to baristas to get a free coffee to AI writing your now-favorite song. (See those articles here.)

The pair discuss splitting the bounty and both are amenable to the new arrangement.

But, after watching The Mandalorian, I may have it wrong. Could we already be at a place where technology has, or will shortly, advance to such a state that it rises to a human level?

AI, robots and related technology may be well on the way to achieving human-parity, if not singularity. When Mando lands in search of his quarry, he eventually meets a high-functioning robot bounty hunter trying to accomplish the same task. Said robot bounty hunter is on the planet to find its prize just as Mando is set to do. After several conversations during an epic laser battle, they enter into an uneasy agreement to team up and find, we later learn, Baby Yoda.

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Robots + Self Awareness = Human?

As short time later, the pair (right) discuss splitting the bounty, and both are amenable to the new arrangement.

That’s when it struck me:

Can we then infer that the robot bounty hunter has a home, friends and family, a mortgage, a monthly land speeder payment?

Some of those in the business of AI think not. That no matter how human-like any robot becomes, it is still, at its essence, a tangle of wire, metal and computer chips. “Robots are machines, more similar to a car or toaster than to a human (or to any other biological beings),” explains Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence school of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire. “Humans and other living, sentient beings deserve rights, robots don’t, unless we can make them truly indistinguishable from us. Not only how they look, but also how they grow up in the world as social beings immersed in culture, perceive the world, feel, react, remember, learn and think.” (Gotta admit that baby robots would be super cute!)

Nevertheless, the robot bounty hunter runs a quick consultation–it’s unclear whether that’s only internal or with its employer via a comms link–and decides The Mandalorian’s proposition is satisfactory. Whether the decision is made through a discussion with its boss or by its own calculations, can we infer that the robot bounty hunter has a home, friends and family, a mortgage, a monthly land speeder payment simply because it did “think” about the proposition? Because, apparently, it has a need for an income and is willing to jointly pursue a job. In any case, it appears the robot has achieved some sort self-awareness and has the ability to weigh options and make decisions.

If that’s the case, should robots be afforded “human” rights?

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“Yes. Humanity has obligations toward our ecosystem and social system,” explains Hussein A. Abbass, professor at the School of Engineering & IT at the University of South Wales-Canberra. “Robots will be part of both systems. We are morally obliged to protect them, design them to protect themselves against misuse, and to be morally harmonized with humanity. There is a whole stack of rights they should be given, here are two: The right to be protected by our legal and ethical system, and the right to be designed to be trustworthy; that is, technologically fit-for-purpose and cognitively and socially compatible (safe, ethically and legally aware, etc.).”

As I’ve watched more of The Mandolorian, additional robots have become part of the program and the various missions in which Mando participates. In episode 5, for instance, the robot looks far more human than in the first installment. And has an unsavory human-like attitude to boot. This robot has the ability to move on its own. Make its own decisions. And travel freely throughout the universe as a full-fledged member of a mercenary gang. If the robot has these rights, it stands to reason it should have others: “There’s no obvious logical reason why conscious awareness of the sort that human beings possess–the capacity to think and make decisions–could not appear in a human machine some day. Whether it is physically possible and, therefore likely to actually happen, is open to debate,” according to an article published in Discover.

Returning to episode one, The Mandalorian kills the robot bounty hunter by the end of the scene. The possibility or probability this is cold-blooded murder aside, did the robot bounty hunter have a will and last testament? Who will inherit its possessions? Will there be an estate sale?

If and when robots become more “human,” do they deserve fundamental human rights?