Further misadventures in fake news

The term fake news is used by many but misunderstood. It has gained notoriety as a term of derision from political figures about mainstream media outlets. But when you look closer, you can see there are many other forms that are much more subtle and far more dangerous. The public relations firm Ogilvy wrote about five different types of fake news (satire, misinformation, sloppy reporting and purposely deceptive).

But that really doesn’t help matters, especially in the modern era of state-sponsored fake news. We used to call this propaganda back when I was growing up. To better understand this modern context, I suggest you examine two new reports that present a more deliberate analysis and discussion:

  • The first is by Renee Diresta and Shelby Grossman for Stanford University’s Internet Observatory project called Potemkin Pages and Personas, Assessing GRU Online Operations. It documents two methods of Russia’s intelligence agency commonly called the GRU, narrative laundering and hack-and-leaking false data. I’ll get into these methods in a moment. For those of you that don’t know the reference, Potemkin means a fake village that was built in the late 1700’s to impress a Russian monarch who would pass by a region and fooled into thinking there were actual people living there. It was a stage set with facades and actors dressed as inhabitants.
  • The second report is titled Simulated media assets: local news from Vlad Shevtsov, a Russian researcher who has investigated several seemingly legit local news sites in Albany, New York (shown below) and Edmonton, Alberta. These sites constructed their news pages out of evergreen articles and other service pieces that have attracted millions of page views, according to analytics. Yet they have curious characteristics, such as being viewed almost completely from mobile sources outside their local geographic area.

Taken together, this shows a more subtle trend towards how “news” can be manipulated and shaped by government spies and criminals. Last month I wrote about Facebook and disinformation-based political campaigns. Since then Twitter announced they were ending all political advertising. But the focus on fake news in the political sphere is a distraction. What we should understand is that the entire notion of how news is being created and consumed is undergoing a major transition. It means we have to be a lot more skeptical of what news items are being shared in our social feeds and how we obtain facts. Move over Snopes.com, we need a completely new set of tools to vet the truth.

Let’s first look at the Shevtsov report on the criminal-based news sites, for that is really the only way to think about them. These are just digital Potemkin villages: they look like real local news sites, but are just containers to be used by bots to generate clicks and ad revenue. Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman provides a larger context in his analysis here. These sites gather traffic quickly, stick around for a year or so, and then fade away, after generating millions of dollars in ad revenues. They take advantage of legitimate ad serving operations, including Google’s AdSense, and quirks in the organic search algorithms that feed them traffic.

This is a more insidious problem than seeing a couple of misleading articles in your social news feed for one reason: the operators of these sites aren’t trying to make some political statement. They just want to make money. They aren’t trying to fool real readers: indeed, these sites probably have few actual carbon life forms that are sitting at keyboards.

The second report from Stanford is also chilling It documents the efforts of the GRU to misinform and mislead, using two methods.

— narrative laundering. This makes something into a fact by repetition through legit-sounding news sources that are also constructs of the GRU operatives. This has gotten more sophisticated since another Russian effort led by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) was uncovered during the Mueller report. That entity (which was also state-sponsored) specialized in launching social media sock puppets and creating avatars and fake accounts.  The methods used by the GRU involved creating Facebook pages that look like think tanks and other media outlets. These “provided a home for original content on conflicts and politics around the world and a primary affiliation for sock puppet personas.” In essence, what the GRU is doing is “laundering” their puppets through six affiliated media front pages. The researchers identified Inside Syria Media Center, Crna Gora News Agency, Nbenegroup.com, The Informer, World News Observer, and Victory for Peace as being run by the GRU, where their posts would be subsequently picked up by lazy or uncritical news sites.

What is interesting though is that the GRU wasn’t very thorough about creating these pages. Most of the original Facebook posts had no engagements whatsoever. “The GRU appears not to have done even the bare minimum to achieve peer-to-peer virality, with the exception of some Twitter networking, despite its sustained presence on Facebook. However, the campaigns were successful at placing stories from multiple fake personas throughout the alternative media ecosystem.” A good example of how the researchers figured all this out was how they tracked down who really was behind the Jelena Rakocevic/Jelena Rakcevic persona. “She” is really a fake operative that purports to be a journalist with bylines on various digital news sites. In real life, she is a biology professor in Montenegro with a listed phone number for a Mercedes dealership.

— hack-and-leak capabilities. We are now sadly familiar with the various leak sites that have become popular across the interwebs. These benefitted from some narrative laundering as well. The GRU got Wikileaks and various mainstream US media to pick up on their stories, making their operations more effective. What is interesting about the GRU methods is that they differed from those attributed to the IRA “They used a more modern form of memetic propaganda—concise messaging, visuals with high virality potential, and provocative, edgy humor—rather than the narrative propaganda (long-form persuasive essays and geopolitical analysis) that is most prevalent in the GRU material.”

So what are you gonna do to become more critical? Librarians have been on the front lines of vetting fake news for years. Lyena Chavez of Merrimack College has four easy “tells” that she often sees:

  • The facts aren’t verifiable from the alleged sources quoted.
  • The story isn’t published in other credible news sources, although we have seen how the GRU can launder the story and make it more credible.
  • The author doesn’t have appropriate credentials or experience.
  • The story has an emotional appeal, rather than logic.

One document that is useful (and probably a lot more work than you signed up for) is this collection from her colleague at Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars. She has tips and various open source methods and sites that can help you in your own news vetting. If you want more, take a look at an entire curriculum that the Stony Brook J-school has assembled.

Finally, here are some tools from Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko, who has collected them to vet her own stories.


Picking the right social media posting tool

I have been interested in social media productivity tools for many years. Back in 2013, I wrote a review for Network World of eight different ones. Of the 90+ products that I examined as part of this project, only Hootsuite and SproutSocial are still around. That gives you an idea of the volatility in this market. I decided to take another look at what is available and focused on four different services: Hootsuite, Buffer, Later and Zoho Social. I picked these four because all of them have free plans and transparent pricing so you can get a better idea of what they do before you spend significant time evaluating them. There are certainly at least a dozen others to choose from (including Mailchimp, which now offers Facebook and Instagram posting automation in addition to its mailing list management).

The idea is that as you dive into managing your brand’s social media identity, you want some automated method to help with your posts, to monitor your social feeds, and to analyze the results. Now there are specialized tools for each of these three categories. But you have to start somewhere, so if you have yet to use any of these tools, I would suggest starting with the ones that are oriented around posting new content.

Each of the four support a different collection of social media networks: All work with Twitter and Facebook (and support different aspects of the Facebook universe, such as groups and business account pages). Some also support Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and WordPress posts too. Hootsuite has a number of add-on apps that support other social networks.

The free versions of three of the tools come with various posting limits: Zoho Social doesn’t have any limits. As I said, there are other tools that focus on analytics of your posts, but each of these is useful for limited purposes – for example, Later only will provide Instagram analytics. Finally, if you do decide to pay for service, plans vary all over the place in terms of monthly fees and annual payment discounts, ranging from a few dollars a month to several hundred. The chart below has more specifics, along with a link to the pricing page with more details about what each plan offers (and doesn’t offer too).

If you are going to use one of these services, examine three aspects carefully. First is their publishing and scheduling features, since that is what you are going to be doing with them. All four offer various publishing and scheduling features, including their own URL shorteners. Zoho Social will also work with bit.ly too, which is nice. Second is how these tools will fit into a team of folks that will be doing the posting. Some are easier to use in teams and have access controls to make it more useful than everyone sharing the same email address (which could be a security nightmare, particularly if a team member is fired or leaves). Finally, look at the other integrations and plug-ins and extensions that each vendor offers. If you already use any of the Zoho CRM products, their Social tool ties in nicely there. Hootsuite also has several integrations, as I mentioned.

Vendor Social networks supported Posting limits Analytics included Pricing plans
Buffer.com T(Twitter), F(Facebook), L(LinkedIn), P(Pinterest) can’t respond to content, only post new content (retweets allowed) Posts only Free (3 platforms, 1 user), $15- 99/month
Hootsuite.com T, F, L, WordPress, others Unlimited for paid accounts Entire social networks Free (3 profiles, 1 user, 30 monthly posts), $29- 599/month
Later.com T, F, P, I (instagram) 30 per month per platform (50 for Twitter) Instagram only Free  (1 profile, 1 user), $9- 49/month
Zoho Social T, F, L, I No limits Extensive Free (1 user). $10-300/month


Thoughts about live tweeting during arts performances

I realize that I come very late to this issue, but I recently discovered that many theatrical venues are actually encouraging live tweeting of their performances, and have done so for many years. As someone who speaks professionally and encourages live tweeting, I feel somewhat conflicted about this. Granted, my speeches are more than just cultural events — or at least I would like to think so — but still, there are plenty of people in my audiences who are using their phones while I am on stage.

The key event was an article in the NY Times this week about the practice. As I said, it has been going on for many years. One of our local opera companies puts on an annual Twitter invitational performance, inviting social media influencers to attend a single performance gratis and tweet away during the show.

This is a growing trend, and theatrical companies in numerous cities such as San Francisco, Palm Beach and Sacramento have established a separate seating section in their auditoriums called tweet seats where folks are encouraged to use their phones during the performance. Some even have set up monitors in the lobby displaying the tweets during intermission. Again, this mirrors many conferences that I have been to where the collected live tweets are displayed for all to see. Part of my job as a reporter covering a conference is to live tweet the event. I have to admit that I get excited when I see my tweets are trending and liked by other attendees.

I think it is getting harder to make a distinction between live tweeting in certain venues — such as a ball game or a professional conference — and in others, which just makes the issue more complicated.

I asked a friend of mine who runs a New York theater company what he thinks of live tweeting and using devices during his performances. “This is a huge problem. People record our shows on their phones all the time, AND they are now offended that you ask them to turn OFF their phones. I pretty much felt like that was the end of civilization as I knew it.” My friend told me that he “actually has had to crawl down aisles to stop people from texting or recording.”

The Times story notes situations where many Broadway actors have taken the phones out of the hands of audience members or stopping the show to berate the phone’s owner. My friend echoes this with his own experiences.

There seem to be several issues here:

  • Should cellphones and other devices be banned completely from live performances? It used to be that devices were banned as a distraction for the cast and other audience members, either because of the lit screen or because someone was actually on the phone during the show. But now that most phones have video cameras, it is a larger issue. An artist or theater company has a right to control their recorded performance.
  • Should an artistic company encourage live tweeting? I kind of get it: especially for opera, its audience is aging rapidly, and having live tweeting is a way to show they are hip and relevant and seed interest in a younger crowd that may attend other shows. Of course, for those shows they might be forced to just watching and listening. My friend has further commentary: “To be honest, my only objection is the fact that a huge portion of the artistic process is reflection — that moment to think about what you really feel about something that was presented.  A knee-jerk reaction isn’t enough. You need to pause and really connect to a feeling. As a frequent theatergoer, I’m not sure sometimes how I feel until the next day or several days later after I have seen a performance.” He makes a good point.
  • Is this a problem just for the millennial generation? I think it is applicable to all ages. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, our focus is less in living in the moment and more about sharing it with our “audience” and “developing our brand.” Indeed, this is the plot line of a new novel I am reading (Follow Me, out in February).

I welcome your comments and thoughts about this.

Protecting your digital and online privacy

I gave a talk at our local Venture Cafe about this topic and thought I would summarize some of my suggestions in a blog post here. We all know that our devices leak all sorts of personal data: the locations and movements of our phones, the contents of our emails and texts, the people with whom we communicate, and even the smart devices in our homes are all chatty Cathys. There have been numerous articles that describe these communications, including how an app for the University of Alabama’s football team tracks students who agree to divulge their game attendance in return to obtain rewards points for college merch (see the screenshot here). Another NY Times story analyzed the tracking resources when a reporter visited dozens of different websites. The trackers from these sites were able to determine where the reporter lived and worked and could collect all sorts of other personal information, including finding out when women who were using phone apps to track their monthly periods were having sex.

Most of us have some basic understanding about how web tracking cookies work: this technology is decades old. But that era seems so quaint now and the problem is that our phones are powerful computers that can track all sorts of other stuff that can be more invasive. It also doesn’t help that our phones are usually with us at all times. Reading the two NYT pieces should make anyone more careful about what information you should give up to the digital overlords that control our apps. In my talk I present a few tools to fight back and provide more privacy protection. They include:

  • Monitor your Wifi usage and then choose the right VPN that offers the best protection. Open Wifi networks can collect everything that you are doing online: you should find and use the right VPN to at least encrypt these conversations. The problem is many VPNs are owned by Chinese vendors or that collect other information about you. Two studies are worth reviewing: one by Privacy Australia which has a nice analysis of which are faster performers and one by Top10VPN which goes into details about who owns each vendor. I use ProtonVPN on both my phone and laptop.
  • Choose passwords carefully and use a password manager. I have made this recommendation before, do take it seriously if you still are a hold out. Reusing passwords is the single biggest mistake you can make towards compromising your privacy. I use LastPass on all my devices.
  • Change your DNS settings to provide additional protection. There are now numerous alternative DNS providers that can help encrypt and hide your web traffic, as well as provide for faster connections. Cloudflare has two tools, including its DNS service and its Warp phone VPN service. Both are free.

In my talk I also have several main strategies towards better privacy protection. These include:

  1. Eliminate very personal data on social media, such as your real birthday and other identifying information. Be careful about future posts and whom you tag on your social media accounts too.
  2. Delete the Facebook Messenger phone app: it scraps your entire contact list and uploads it to Facebook. Don’t use social media identities as login proxies if you can avoid them.
  3. Audit your phones regularly and eliminate unneeded apps. Know which ones are leaking data and avoid them as well. The app Mighty Signal will report on what is leaked.
  4. Set up your phone for optimum privacy protection. This involves several steps, including updating to the latest iOS and Android OS versions and enable their latest privacy features, such as stripping photo location metadata and blocking unknown callers. A good place to start is to use the JumboPrivacy App to further restrict your data leakage too: it will recommend the most private settings for you, given how complex the average phone app is these days and how hard it is to figure out how to configure each app appropriately.
  5. If you are truly concerned, move to a different browser and search tool, such as Brave and DuckDuckGo that offer more privacy protection. Yes you will give up some functionality for this protection, so you have to weigh the tradeoffs of utility versus protection.

This seems like a lot of work, and I won’t deny that. Take things one step at a time, and change one habit and understand its consequences (including loss of functionality and convenience) before moving on to making other changes. Too often folks can easily get overwhelmed and then retreat to old habits, nullifying these improvements. When you have a choice, pick technologies that are easier to manage and implement.

Do let me know what your own experiences have been along this journey too by posting a comment here if you’d like.


The worldwide spread of government-sponsored social media misinformation

For the past three years, researchers at Oxford University have been tracking the rise of government and political party operatives who have been using various social media tools as propaganda devices. Their goal is to shape and undermine trust with public opinion and automate dissent suppression. This year’s report is chilling and I urge you to read it yourself and see what you think. It shows how social media has infected the world’s democracies on an unprecedented scale.

The researchers combed news reports and found evidence of what they call “cyber propaganda troops” in 70 different countries, with the most activity happening in Russia, the US, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany and the UK.  This is a big increase in the number of places where they found these activities a year ago. In 44 countries, they found evidence of a government agency or members of political parties using various automated tools to help social media shape public attitudes. “Social media has become co-opted by many authoritarian regimes. In 26 countries computational propaganda is being used as a tool of information control.” Azerbaijan, Israel, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have taken things a step further: there student groups are hired by government agencies to use digital propaganda to promote the state’s ideology.

You would expect that these techniques would be employed in dictatorships and in countries with less than stellar press freedoms and democratic records But what is interesting about their study is the few places that we would consider democracies where they didn’t find any evidence of any systematic social media tampering, such as in Canada, France, and Norway. The authors don’t say why this is the case, whether from a lack of research resources or because those places haven’t yet gotten on the state-controlled social media bandwagon.

“Until recently, we found that China rarely used social media to manipulate public opinion in other countries,” they state in their report. Prior to this year, China focused on manipulating its home grown social media platforms such as WeChat and QQ. That has changed, and now Chinese state-sponsored agencies are branching out and can be seen operating in other parts of the world, using Facebook and Twitter. “China is turning to these technologies as a tool of geopolitical power and influence.”

One thing the Oxford researchers didn’t examine is how the practice of using fake followers of major political figures has spread. This analysis was done by SparkToro. As you can see in the above graphic, Donald Trump and Jerry Brown have half or more of their Twitter followers by bots and other automated programs. There are other political figures elsewhere that have high fake proportions too.

It is sadly ironic that the very tools that were created to improve communications and bring us closer together have been so successfully subverted for just the opposite purposes by various governments. And that these tools have become mainstream elements in so many places around the world.

Understanding new non-money uses for blockchain

When it comes to thinking about blockchains, most of us automatically go to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum and think about money. How much are these currencies worth in US dollars? How much value have they gained or lost recently? It took two financially-related but non-monetary examples that I heard about recently to convince me that I was looking at the wrong part of the elephant.

Before I tell you about how I came to this insight I want to talk about the money part of blockchain first. I recently read Dan Conway’s new memoir, Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire. The book is now out, and I would urge you to get a copy and read it. Unlike many business books that quickly run out of ideas and out of steam after the first chapter, Conway’s tale about how he became an early investor in Ether is both a cautionary and celebratory one. You can read my review of his book here, along with some insights from the email conversation we have had over its launch. From these emails, Conway told me about an experiment by the UN with an Indian local land registry in Panchkula. The issue is trying to identify the rightful owner of a plot of land, particularly in the developing world where paper records are scarce or misfiled. The UN has built a registry based on Ethereum smart contracts to create a single source of truth of ownership status and property history. The buyer will be assured that the land being bought is the correct plot, and that the seller is unequivocally its owner. Everyone can see in near real time who owns what, improving accuracy and transparency. The system doesn’t require computer access or Ether wallets and works in the background to support land transactions. Similar projects are underway in title registries the States and in other countries too.

Blockchain technology is being used in another interesting project as part of a new protocol from Kiva.org. I have been loaning money to various developing world entrepreneurs for a decade through this organization which funds millions of dollar-equivalents of such loans. I wrote about Kiva here in 2009 and since then have been active using their platform. Over the years I have funded 54 different people in more than 30 countries and loaned $1400. This was done with a very modest amount of “new money” because I very determinedly loan my funds when the original loans have been paid back. And what is interesting is almost all my loans have been paid back, with less than $30 lost from defaults, although some loans are paid in full but late. The way Kiva works, once you collect at least $25 back from your loan recipients, you can relend it to someone else.

Last year Kiva announced the creation of its own blockchain-based protocol, and last week announced its implementation in Sierra Leone. It will be available to the about 5M adults living there to use as an identity management device, based on their fingerprints to authenticate each person in financial transactions. One of the problems with many unbanked people is that there is no easy mechanism to verify someone who has no credit score, no previous financial history, no anything that you and I would consider part of our financial footprint. That is where the Kiva protocol comes into play. Whether it will work in Sierra Leone – or anywhere else – is still to be seen, but it is an interesting proof of concept. (I have yet to make a loan to anyone there, but you can be sure that I will look for someone to sponsor at the next opportunity.)

Being based on blockchain means there is no central repository of fingerprints that can be downloaded – they are stored in a distributed database that is created individually by each person. That was a hard concept for me to wrap my head around for some reason, but it makes sense when you think about it. It could be possible to decode each transaction to obtain a single fingerprint scan, but whether this could be done on a large enough scale would be difficult. Certainly, it would be a lot harder than just accessing an unprotected AWS S3 database, for example.

We are still in the brave new world of blockchain, to be sure. Expect to see other innovative ways to use identity and distributed databases in the future that have nothing to do with the bitcoin exchange rate. We certainly live in exciting times.

Review of “Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire”

You probably have read your fill of business books. Author tries to make it big, leverages tons of his money and time, hires the wrong people, fires them, then goes it alone before striking it rich and motoring off into the sunset in some expensive car. Dan Conway’s Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire is not one of these books. Most business books offer just enough advice to fill a chapter, maybe two. Conway has a lot more to say about his obsession and investments in cryptocurrency, in particular Ethereum. Over a period of several years, he used his home mortgage equity loan and borrowed additional funds because he believed blockchain held the future model for decentralized corporations and the way that we will all work together. He ended up cashing out $14M ahead. It is his obsession that drives the book’s narrative, along with the crazy up-and-down valuation of Ether, where you can gain and lose millions in a matter of minutes.

What isn’t in this book is also notable: sordid tales of wretched excess of “tech-bros partying on yachts” or trashing expensive Vegas hotel suites.  Conway is a father of three, and still married to their mother.

Conway’s confessions is a refreshing tale about his fighting his demons, his addictions (alcohol and pills), his insecurities, and his almost always-on self-destructive alter-ego he calls his “Flip Side.” This side rears its ugly head during client presentations where he fumbles and fails and during periods of self-doubt when he tries to reassure himself his huge bet on Ether isn’t about to land him in the poor house.

“The book forced me to make sense of how my addictive personality played a part in my undoubtedly reckless crypto investments,” he told me via an email interview. He is part visionary, buying Ether at a time and at a level few people had the courage, vision, or just dumb luck to do. “It took everything admirable and loathsome about me to make the plunge into Ether. The loathsome part includes my addictive personality. While betting everything was an extreme risk, all risk requires insight, courage and maybe a little recklessness.” He hopes his story will get others to think about how they formulate their own risk taking.

Conway starts out his story “working for the man,” doing marketing and public relations for large corporations, one of whom he calls Acme. He wasn’t a good fit as the organization man to be sure. And since his windfall with Ether, he is unlikely to return to corporate America “unless we suffer a financial catastrophe.” He still believes that the decentralized blockchain can disrupt the traditional corporate power structure and has a lot of merit as an organizing principle. One example he cites is the MakeDAO, where ordinary folks can originate loans and handle other financial transactions without any financial institutional limits. It could pay off; it could fall flat: that is the challenge of cryptocurrency.

One aspect of his book is dealing very honestly with two situations: first, with his addictions. “This undoubtedly played a part in my reckless crypto investments, and writing the book helped force me to make sense of it all.”

Second, the book also describes how his financial windfall changed his family dynamics and the relationships with his circle of friends. Even though Conway lived in Silicon Valley, he was very firmly rooted in the middle class before he made it big with Ether. He writes: “Crypto was suddenly like an overexposed celebrity, and everyone was rooting for it to fail,“ but then realizes, “one of the bittersweet feelings about making a bunch of money is that you can’t bring your (less fortunate) friends with you.” That takes some adjustment, both for him and his family. Still, don’t be too sad: Now he takes long exotic vacations, buys his kids “name-brand clothes” instead of Sears knock-offs, and does car pool duty with a vengeance. “It’s absolutely nice to have the car-ride conversations rather than pinning all parent child bonding on the “how was your day?” question when everyone is exhausted.” True dat.

Conway is committed to Ethereum because of its disruptive ability to change the way companies operate, the way companies get VC funding (the parts about the ICO shysters is worth reading alone), and the way the early pioneers — which Conway counts as himself — had to try to separate the criminals from the legit businesses. This book is well worth reading, even your own exposure to bitcoin and other cryptocoins is minimal.

Desperately seeking contactless credit cards

Lately I have become obsessed with contactless credit cards. This started about a year ago, when I was in London and tried to pay for a sandwich with my American credit card. I thought I was in the clear since it was a card with an embedded chip. This is a technology that is still so new in the States that many card terminals still can’t read these cards, despite regulations that have required merchants use them for several years. At what I would call the deli in London, my card didn’t work: the only way to pay was either pounds – the money version — or using a contactless card.

Contactless is big in the UK, as I found out – and probably in many places all over the world too. We are often the last to adopt new banking tech in America, despite our prowess in other areas. You can pay for your train ticket with contactless, and in many other vending machines, as an example. It made me feel like I was coming from a third-world country with my shiny new chip-enabled credit card.

But all wasn’t lost: I quickly figured out that I could use my phone and Apple Pay, and I could eat my sandwich. All you need to do is load your normal credit card into your Apple Wallet and you are good to go. Are the two the same? Not completely, but generally at a credit card terminal in the States you’ll see these two icons side by side, indicating that both Apple Pay and contactless cards are accepted:

Why the need for contactless? It is all about security: since your card never leaves your grubby hands, no one can surreptitiously steal its information. Yes, a hacker could monitor the radio frequencies around the card reading equipment, but that is a lot harder and more expensive problem to solve than a waiter carrying a portable card reader in their pocket to collect data from a bunch of cards.

Back in London, just in case, I made a trip to the local ATM, and got some pounds. But it bugged me that I didn’t have an actual contactless card. That got me started into looking for a bank that offered them. I quickly found myself down the rabbit hole of poorly designed banking websites and quickly got frustrated, so I dropped the project.

Then three things happened last week that renewed my interest in contactless cards. First, I began reading more about the latest card skimming exploits and particularly from criminals targeting gas stations. These skimmers are small devices that are placed literally over the card reader at the pump and collect your account information from the magnetic strip on the back of your card. The criminal then collects this data and sells it to others. Brian Krebs writes frequently about skimmers, if you want to read more.

I thought it might be useful to find local gas stations that use Apple Pay to better protect myself. Unfortunately, this became Another Project at searching poorly designed banking websites. For example, here are two that can help you locate contactless merchants: Square has this page for Apple Pay-enabled merchants and Mastercard has this page for merchants who accept contactless cards.

If you start looking around when you get gas, you will see few pumps that support contactless, with one estimate that there are less than one percent of them in the US that are currently accepting contactless payments.

I was once again motivated to go contactless especially when I heard that Apple Card was now available. This is a contactless credit card offered through Apple and Goldman Sachs. It doesn’t even have its card number printed on it. Instead, it is designed to operate with your iPhone’s Apple Wallet. Apple has done its usual great job when it comes to the experience of applying for and getting a credit line. This took me about three minutes. Maybe less, I wasn’t really timing it. What makes it so fast is that Apple already has most of the information it needs for your application, which is for another story. And while the Apple Card has its issues (you can’t do joint cards with your spouse, for example) it is an interesting concept.

While I was getting my Apple Card I saw that a new type of bank branch opened in my neighborhood from Commerce Bank. The branch is the first one that has a fancy new type of ATM that also includes a video conferencing link with a banker. I made an appointment to go visit the branch and talk to a banker about what they offered. One of the reasons I also wanted to talk to them is because Commerce offers contactless cards on all of its credit and debit cards. Needless to say, it took longer than three minutes to apply for one in person.

So now I have lots of contactless options. I am certainly ahead of the curve here at home: it is easy to find stores that don’t accept them more than those that do. But at least the next time I am in London, I will be able to pay for my sandwich.

Picking the right tech isn’t always about the specs

I have been working in tech for close to 40 years, yet it took me until this week to realize an important truth: we have too many choices and too much tech in our lives, both personal and work. So much of the challenges about tech is picking the right product, and then realizing afterwards the key limitations about our choice and its consequences. I guess I shouldn’t complain, after all, I have had a great career out of figuring this stuff out.

But it really is a duh! moment. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to come to this brilliant deduction. I am not complaining, it is nice to help others figure out how to make these choices. Almost every day I am either writing, researching or discussing tech choices for others. But like the barefoot shoemaker’s children, my own tech choices are often fraught with plenty of indecisions, or worse yet, no decision. It is almost laughable.

I was involved in a phone call yesterday with a friend of mine who is as technical as they come: he helped create some of the Net’s early protocols. We both were commiserating about how quirky Webex is when trying to support a multiple-hundred conference call. Yes, Webex is fine for doing the actual video conference itself. The video and audio quality are both generally solid. But it is all the “soft” support that rests on the foibles of how we humans are applying the tech: doing the run-up practice session for the conference, notifying everyone about the call, distributing the slide deck under discussion and so forth. These things require real work to explain what to do to the call’s organizers and how to create standards to make the call go smoothly. It isn’t the tech per se – it is how we apply it.

Let me draw a line from that discussion to an early moment when I worked in the bowels of the end-user IT support department of the Gigantic Insurance company in the early 1980s. We were buying PCs by the truckload, quite literally, to place on the desks of the several thousand IT staffers that until then had a telephone and if they were lucky a mainframe terminal. Of course, we were buying IBM PCs – there was no actual discussion because back then that was the only choice for corporate America. Then Compaq came along and built something that IBM didn’t yet have: a “portable” PC. The reason for the quotes was that this thing was enormous. It weighed about 30 pounds and was an inch too big to put in the overhead bins of most planes.

As soon as Compaq announced this unit (which sold for more than $5000 back then), our executives were conflicted. Our IBM sales reps, who had invested many man-years in golf games with them, were trying to convince them to wait for a year before their own portable PC could come to market. But once we got our hands on an IBM prototype, we could see that Compaq was a superior machine: First, it was already available. It also was lighter and smaller and ran the same apps and had a compatible version of DOS. We gave Compaq our recommendation and started buying them in droves. That was the beginning of what was called the clone wars, unleashing a new era of technology choices to the corporate world. After IBM finally came out with their portable, Compaq already had put hard drives in their model so they stayed ahead of IBM on features.

My point in recounting this quaint history lesson is to point out something that hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years: how tech reviews tend to focus on the wrong things, which is why we get frustrated when we finally decide on a piece of tech and then live with the consequences.

Some of our choices seem easy: who wants to pay a thousand bucks for a stand to sit your monitor on? Of course, some things haven’t changed: the new Macs also sell for more than $5000. That is progress, I guess.

My moral for today: looking beyond the specs and understand how you are eventually going to use the intended tech. You may choose differently.

Thoughts on being a digital nomad

When the first personal computers were purchased by businesses back in the early 1980s, I was a freshly-minted engineer that was working in Washington, DC. I was trying to change the world, like so many other 20-somethings that were living there, working in and around the federal government. Little did I know that my love affair with PCs would become my career, and that they would change the world on their own, without much effort on my part.

I was thinking about this arc of my own humble life when thinking about the concept of digital nomads, those folks who have used the ubiquitous technology that has infused our lives over the past 40 years that we all now take for granted. Most of you inherently know what this means: the ability to travel and work anywhere in the world, as if you were sitting at your desk. Essentially, your desk becomes wherever you are: thanks to Wifi, the cloud and a truckload of communications technologies, you can be present globally.

While I am not one of them, I can certainly understand the appeal. In this edition of Web Informant, I want to highlight some of the folks who have interesting lives as digital nomads.

The concept of nomadic technology certainly has changed since I first started reporting for PC Week. Back then, the payphone was my go-to tool. Actually, let me revise that: Having a phone charge card was the killer app that enabled me to make calls without having any coins. Now we use a bunch of smartphone apps and the appropriate SIM card for our nomad connections. Of course, things aren’t always that easy, but still it is pretty amazing how far we have come since those early days.

My earliest memory of the prototype nomadic lifestyle is Steve Roberts. He is definitely into hardware, and his first experiment was to equip a recumbent bike with all sorts of tech that enabled him to ride 17,000 miles around the country and report on his travels. He started in the 1980s, just as the PC was taking hold, and the bike is now in the Silicon Valley Computer History Museum.  Back then, you had to have a strong back and a lot of knowledge to cobble together the tools to report on the road. I also consider him one of the early “makers” as he has what has to be the most well-equipped travel workshop that now used to build his hi-tech boats. He is still active in his nomadness, just from dockside.

Another deep resource on nomadic tips and tricks is from Jodi Ettenberg on LegalNomads. As you might assume, she was a former corporate lawyer who took to the road back in 2008 and started writing about food. But then her lawyerly training took over and she dug deeper. She has a very extensively curated page of meta-things such as international visa requirements, the philosophical differences and motivations among nomads, and links to numerous discussion forums and other nomads that you can follow. Sadly, she is no longer traveling due to health issues.

A few years ago, I came across Nikki and Jason Wynn, a 30-something couple that has been on the road since 2011. They initially sold their Dallas home and contents and bought an RV. They drove around the country for six years and then traded their RV for a sailboat. They are now somewhere in Polynesia, taking on the world.  Their YouTube channel gets 200K views with a wide range of upbeat videos that show lots of hands-on insight into the gear they use to stay connected when in the middle of an ocean, along with how they keep fresh water and live off the grid with all their electronics. The videos also have the usual travelogues about what they are up to and where they are.

Boating is also a big motivation behind Cruising the Cut. This is a solo effort from a 50-year-old former British TV journalist David Johns. For the past three years, he has been living aboard his narrowboat and navigating the extensive British canal network. I found him appealing, a combination of understated British irony (think of some of the characters played by John Cleese) with some boating-flavored HGTV “tiny house” design shows thrown in. Johns averages about 60K views of 170 different episodes. He also has an extensive curated list linking to other narrowboaters documenting their nomadic existence if you want to take a deeper dive into this subculture.

Let’s move on from boating to flying. Kara and Nate Buchanan are another young couple that three years ago took to the skies and have a goal of visiting 100 countries. They are currently making their way through the Middle East and have produced more than 500 videos with 600K followers of their exploits. They are all about the people and the food and are very upbeat (sometimes bordering on the twee) about their adventures. If you want to know exactly how much money they make from their efforts, they are also the most transparent and provide monthly reports of their expenses and income. If you want help accumulating your own travel miles, they will freely share which are the best travel credit cards and other tips that they use to get around.

Chris Dodd has put together some very practical tips on how to become a nomadic freelancer, complete with flowcharts on where to find online training for the skills that you lack. This training orientation is something of his specialty, and he provides details on selecting the right coworking space among other things. He has been on the road for the past two years.

Mike Elgan has been writing about tech as long as I have, and now he has turned his nomadic leanings into a viable business. He and his wife Amira run Gastronomad, where they offer foodie tours to satisfy those who can’t afford to go 100% nomadic but still want to travel to interesting places and get off the beaten path. Given his background as a product reviewer, their site has a lot of info on camera choices, among other things.

One perspective you don’t always see online is from Matt Karsten, who started out with the ExpertVagabond blog back in 2010 and eventually gained millions in followers. Earlier this month, he wrote about quitting traveling due to burnout and after meeting the woman he would eventually marry. “Trying to juggle a normal work routine when you’re also trying to figure out where to sleep next week just isn’t ideal. Often, I never wrote much about the places I was living because I was too busy catching up with work after months of traveling.”  They have moved to LA.

I have just tapped the surface of these nomads, and have tried to give you a sampling, including a few who are still wandering the planet in search of new adventures. As you can see, some have given this life up and “settled down,” whatever that means. Some travel as couples, others as singles. Some are into the hardware, some are more about learning their craft. You may follow or know of others or count yourself as nomads; feel free to share your own stories and recommendations on my blog comments. And good luck if you decide to pursue your own nomadic dream.