Robocalls

NYC telephone totem from Life Underground, Tom Otterness, 2001

This is the first Monday after daylight savings time has returned. We were awoken by a call from Kelly, asking Anne, if she wanted to work this afternoon. The job offer was for the Early Childhood Center (ECC), which the Kelly robot always pronounces as Eek! We refer to it as plague central. Why Kelly felt obliged to call so early on what is arguably one of the hardest morning to get up on, is a mystery. A normal person would have waited for a more decent hour before calling, but in this personification, Kelly was just another heartless automaton.

I also suffer from robocalls, but their root cause is even more mysterious. I have a suspicion though. Just before I was inundated, I signed up for the rewards program at Schuncks, where I use my cell number as an identifier to get a 2% discount. It could just be coincidence, because I’ve used said number for other things too. Caller ID shows that most of these robocalls originate locally, in neighboring Ladue. It does seem somewhat incongruous that hoity-toity La-dee-do hosts a call center, but if even tonier Frontenac can house a trailer park, then why not a phone bank in Ladue? Or, the spammers could just be spoofing me.

I’ve railed against this epidemic before and recently I did something about it. Our provider, AT&T offers an app called, Call Protect. It is supposed to block these unwanted calls. I downloaded it over the weekend, making today, its first real trial. So far, I am underwhelmed. It has not blocked a single call. It does offer an easier way to individually block spam calls and supposedly will give an accounting of its success, but that still remains to be seen. The app was free, but can be upgraded for four buck a month. I am reluctant to pay for three reasons. I haven’t seen any benefits yet, I already pay AT&T way too much already and I am adverse to giving money to a business that is arguably part of the problem.

It smacks too much of ransomware. Neither do I hold out much hope with my manually blocking of numbers. There are some 6,400,000,000 possible legit phone numbers in the US alone. This number is way too conservative though, because many of these robocalls have illegitimate numbers or no number at all, think blocked numbers. Hey, maybe the Donald is trying to reach me?

Fueling my rage, John Oliver has just harped on this subject too. His trenchant satire is guaranteed to at least bring a smile to your seething. He stuck it to HBO’s “business daddy,” AT&T, mocked Susan Collins for a contrived spoofing stunt, but saved his most venomous enmity for FCC commissioner and “goober,” Ajit Pai. His closing stunt was to unleash an avalanche of robocalls upon Pai and his fellow commissioners via a giant button-pushing fake finger. It was a futile and stupid gesture that left the audience roaring. 

Your Sign-up Checklist

Zinging Rings

Signing up should be easy, but when the real world meets the Internet things can get complicated, fast. Don’t worry though, because there are lots of people who want to help you. Lot’s of people! Too many people. That is why a checklist can be helpful. Here is one that we followed and I offer it now for your evaluation: 

  1. Late night. last night at the Fox.
  2. Sleep-in today. 
  3. Why?
  4. See #1
  5. Rainy day
  6. Garbage day
  7. Is that thunder or someone just rolling their trash bins?
  8. Probably both
  9. Create online account. 
  10. Flub account creation by choosing an illegal password. 
  11. Find software bug. 
  12. Get locked out of account creation process for 24-hours
    1. “Come back tomorrow… Because I said so, that’s why! See you tomorrow, Indiana Jones.” 
    2. How did Indiana Jones get on this checklist?
    3. Never mind, it was a joke.
  13. Wait a day.
  14. Repeat #9, with a valid password this time
  15. Success!
  16. Study options. 
  17. Shoo spouse away. 
  18. Revisit #16
  19. Get lost in minutia.
  20. Get frustrated with said minutia.
  21. Try bull-rushing through the process to see what happens.
  22. Get cold feet with this approach.
  23. Call the help-line.
  24. Navigate its automated call tree looking for a human operator.
  25. Make a callback appointment.
  26. Wait an hour.
  27. Miss call.
  28. Give up in frustration.

I’m sorry that this checklist didn’t work for you. It didn’t work for me either.  Instead, stare at the red circle in the graphic above and the outer bands will seem to move. Continue staring until at it until you feel dizzy, then blink. Repeat.

Holiday Helpline Hell

Eagle-headed Protective Spirit, Assyrian

Today, I helped Harry straighten out computer problems. He was locked out of his email, Netflix and finance accounts. First up was email. After progressing as far as we could online, we called AT&T. Its automated call handling process was quickly circumvented and a real person came on the phone to help us. She was both courteous and competent. With her help, Harry and I were soon able to get his email account open. After ensuring that this account hadn’t been hacked, we progressed to Netflix. Since, we had regained access to this account’s controlling email, this chore was a piece of cake. This lulled me into a false sense of security. Yahoo’s finance page left much to be desired.

Yahoo complained that we were using an out-of-date and unsupported browser and there was an operating system update waiting in the App Store, but since I am not a Mac person, I viewed that upgrade as a bridge too far, especially over DSL. After finding my footing on this web page, I cleared out all of the old portfolios and then reentered his latest numbers. For expedience sake, I only entered whole numbers of shares, even though Harry’s cheat-sheet numbers had four digits to the right of the decimal point. I detected some disquiet on Harry’s part for this practice that was not at all allayed with my joke of planning to pocket the fractional remainders, as round-off error. I was more concerned that the Yahoo page was randomly throwing out NaN (Not-a-Number) figures. This only reinforced my opinion of its trustworthiness versus mine.

After, I had entered Harry’s life savings to the nearest share, as an exercise, call it homework if you like, I had Harry reenter his numbers the way that he likes. Tomorrow, time permitting, I’m planning on giving him a pop quiz. My efforts were justly rewarded, when afterwards, Bubs asked Harry if he had gotten his computer problems fixed. Harry answered, “Why yes, Carl was very helpful.”

Porch Pirates

Grand Geyser

Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of suburbicon, especially at this time of year than the threat of porch pirates. You hear cautionary tales of warnings about them regularly on the local news. I find myself constantly checking the front porch for soon to be errant boxes. I invariably check too early, before the package is delivered or too late, after it has been stolen. In truth, we’ve never suffered any thefts, at least that I know of. That package that you most lovingly sent and was never acknowledged. It’s not that we were ungrateful, it was, well you know, porch pirates, but thanks anyway.

Enter [super-nerd | NASA engineer] Mark Rober. He has devised a mechanism to foil these dastardly dudes. It is all explained in his YouTube video, but let me tell you about it first. Basically, his invention is a glitter-bomb, with fart spray, disguised as an Amazon box. Four phones give a 360° field-of-view that shows the perpetrator’s reaction to first the glitter bomb going off and then when the fart spray is released. The typical reaction involves the package getting tossed, which is then recovered, reset and then relaid to snare its next evil doer.  

His video is reminiscent of many of the lunch time conversations that were held at work. Imagine a table full of rocket scientists sitting for lunch in the cafeteria. The boss, gets on one of his favorite subjects, mole eradication. His beautiful country lawn was often marred by these subterranean insectivores. Eschewing all of the conventional deterrents, he would lead the table on an over-engineered flight of fancy designed to develop the most Rube Goldberg device possible to deal death to these pests. Living closer to the city, with its preponderance of pavement, my perennial suggestion of paving over his lawn and then painting it green was always rejected out-of-hand as being too plebian. 

We never got beyond the back of a paper napkin sketch stage on our mole hunt, but it was fun while it lasted. Because of its cost, especially in aerospace so much of what passes as engineering these days is really just paper pushing, with little left to get the creative juices flowing. That is why nerding out with be it, mole hunting or porch pirate busting is such a joy. Today for example, four rockets are scheduled to be launched, a Falcon 9, a Delta IV, a Soyuz and Blue Origin’s New Shepherd. This quartet represents hundreds of man-years of effort. To see them all go up on one day, will make for such an engineering triumph.

No, Thursday’s Out

Looking Up at Two Lizards

“No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?” This line is the caption on a famous New Yorker cartoon that shows a business man speaking on the telephone, but completely sums up my attitude towards telemarketing. I especially don’t appreciate calls looking to find me a job. Being the retired guy, I am exposed to these calls all day long now. They are maddening. I’ve just added my cell to the do not call list, but since the land line has been on this list for years, I don’t hold out much hope for any relief there. I’ve begun manually blocking individual numbers, but since most call centers employ hundreds of lines, I’m not very optimistic about this approach either. I am considering an App to block these calls, but have not found one without a monthly fee. Does anyone out there in cyber space have any recommendations? Akismet this WordPress blog’s spam blocker is the gold standard of what I would like to get, which is both free and highly effective. 

In the Boston Science Center there are two giant screens. Each is suspended beneath one of the two walkways that connect the museum’s Red and Blue wings. On each screen is projected a series of vignettes. Primarily, they show various animals. Their point-of-view is similar to that of the observer. You look up at them. These seemingly huge creatures appear to be walking on a glass surface, high above your head, through which the movies are shot. Because of the walkway’s length, a slide transition is used to segue between scenes. The gigantic creatures slide in from the left and exit to the right, causing one to crane your head to track them.

Metadata

Storm Clouds Over the Badlands

When I first began watching the TV series “Person of Interest”, I blogged about it here. I can now proudly proclaim that I have successfully binged all 103 of its episodes. This may not seem like all that much of an accomplishment, but for me completing a TV series is rare. I don’t think that I’ll ever do the same with “Game of Thrones”. Kudos to creator Jonathan Nolan for holding my attention.

Over the show’s five seasons it morphed from a buddy act to a battle for the future of humanity. In the beginning, two guys with the help of an all-seeing artificial intelligence try to do good and save people whose number has come up. Over time an ensemble coalesces into a resistance to a rival AI that is taking over the world. One of the series’ high points was its prediction of Edward Snowden and his data breach that outed the NSA’s spying on America. Homage was paid to Snowden in the show’s final episode when the wi-fi modem that he purportedly used to first breach the NSA network is filched from an evidence locker and is again used to breach the agency’s firewall.  

“Person of Interest” is fiction, but in this week’s New Yorker is an article that goes down many of the same rabbit holes that it had. Author Dexter Filkins’ “Enigma Machines” as the article (Paywall) is entitled in the magazine’s print edition, dissects a particularly arcane aspect of the Russian investigation. It involves the 2016 computer communications between the Trump organization and the Russian Alfa bank that could have been the mechanism for collusion.

The Domain Name System (DNS), a worldwide network that acts as the Internet’s phone book, is at the heart of this investigative piece. The DNS is ubiquitous on the Internet. You used it to find this post. The gist of the article is that much like the NSA use of phone metadata, who called who, when and where, a similar hack of the DNS existed in 2016. With this hack, as the article lays out, a meticulously detailed communications chronology is described.

Filkins has written an interesting article, but as the print edition’s title alludes to, it is ultimately unsatisfying and the reader is left with an enigma. This is the fundamental problem with metadata. It can tell you who and when, but never what. You know when two parties communicated, but you don’t know what they were saying. In the case of the Trump-Alfa logs, it could be collusion or it could just as well be marketing spam.

For the NSA, just knowing who a person of interest is communicating with is relevant. Piecing together such leads is how they eventually track and takedown terrorist networks. Filkins’ article does offer some tantalizing clues using the timing and frequency of the Trump-Alfa communications, but there is no smoking gun here and in the end it is all circumstantial. The NSA uses metadata as a filter to whittle down their leads to a manageable number that can then be prosecuted using more traditional means. Filkins concludes that any resolution to the enigma of the Trump-Alfa logs will require an analogous approach.

In The Atlantic, Franklin Foer, who first broke the Alfa Bank story in Slate, a week before the 2016 election, has revisited his story in light of Filkins’ New Yorker article. It provides some journalistic back story to this investigation.