Random Weirdness In The Interstellar Void

The Voyager 1 probe, like the crew of the starship Enterprise, has literally gone where no one–or at least no person or machine associated with the planet Earth–has gone before. It is 14.5 billion miles from its home planet, which it left in 1977. Voyager 1 has traveled beyond the orbit of Pluto and is now out in interstellar space. It is so far away that it takes two full days for a message sent by the spacecraft to reach NASA on Earth.

Apparently, things are weird out in the interstellar void, because Voyager 1 has started behaving . . . strangely.

Voyager 1 still receives and executes commands from Earth, and transmits data back to NASA. That means the probe’s attitude articulation and control system is working and keeping its antenna pointed precisely at Earth. But the problem is that the telemetry data that the spacecraft is beaming back home doesn’t make any sense, or reflect what Voyager 1 is supposed to be actually doing. NASA engineers described the data being received as “random or impossible.”

What’s up with Voyager 1? NASA’s project manager for the probe notes that it is 45 years old, which is far beyond its anticipated lifespan, and the interstellar space that Voyager 1 is now traveling through is high radiation territory, which could be messing with the probe’s systems. So maybe Voyager‘s random or impossible data transmissions are just a glitch from an aging machine. But isn’t it curious that Voyager‘s issues came to light at the same time Congress was holding its first, highly publicized hearings into UFOs in decades?

Perhaps it is just a coincidence. But anyone who remembers the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture will feel a little unsettled when they hear that V’ger is behaving . . . strangely.

The Lurking Bots Of The Twitterverse

Elon Musk recently announced that his $44 billion bid to acquire Twitter is “on hold” because of concerns about the number of fake accounts that make up Twitter user statistics. Musk issued a tweet that cited a news article reporting on a Twitter company filing that estimated that “false or spam accounts represented fewer than 5% of its monetizable daily active users during the first quarter.” Musk’s tweet said: “Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users.”

Musk’s decision to put a proposed billion-dollar acquisition “on hold” raises a key question: just how many Twitter users are actual, physically existing human beings who might respond to advertising on the social media platform and thus are “monetizable,” and how many are fakes that exist only in a computer, ready to artificially boost tweets and accounts with followings and retweets? And a related, and even more difficult, question is: how do you figure out who is real and who is fake in the Twitter world, where everything is done electronically? Wired has an interesting story about just how tough it is to separate the real from the fake in the Twitterverse, noting that looking at potential indicia of phoniness necessarily involves both subjectivity and uncertainty.

Attempts to quantify the number of Twitter bots out there suggest that there may be a lot of them. For example, Newsweek reported this week on an “audit” of the official White House twitter account for President Biden that concluded that 49.3 percent of his 22.2 million followers are fake, based on analysis of a number of factors that are used to identify bots. Another “audit” of Musk’s own Twitter account determined that more than 70 percent of his 93 million followers are likely fake or spam accounts. My guess is that Musk isn’t bothered at all by that kind of story, because it proves the point that he raised in his decision to put the Twitter deal “on hold” in the first place: there are serious questions about what is real in the Twitter world that should be answered before billions of dollars are paid for what could be an empty, non-“monetizable” gaggle of bots.

I don’t do Twitter or pay much attention to it because the Twitterverse seems like a strange, mean-spirited place that doesn’t bear much relation to real life as I know it. The kinds of “audit” results reported above raise still more questions about the reality of the Twitter world, and whether those raw numbers about Twitter followers and retweets should be viewed with some healthy, human, non-bot skepticism.

Your Future Robot Companion

Loneliness is a problem for many elderly people. Older people who are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or long-time companion often struggle with health problems that are related to their solitude: the National Institutes of Health reports that studies have shown that isolation among senior citizens, and the resulting lack of regular social interaction, can lead to depression. cognitive decline, and heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, has now released a product that seeks to address that problem. ElliQ is an artificial intelligence device that looks vaguely like a lava lamp on a stand. It is designed to serve as a companion, rather than an assistant like Siri or Alexa. As the Post describes it, “ElliQ offers soothing encouragement, invitations to games, gentle health prodding, music thoughts and, most important, a friendly voice that learns a person’s ways and comforts them in their solitude.” The article includes this quote from a company representative:

“This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s chief executive and co-founder. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”

is humanity on the verge of a future where lonely humans find comfort in interaction with machines? Some would argue that that future is already here, with computers serving as the anti-isolation device, and that our increasing acclimation to smartphones, other smart devices, computers, and other electronica has created fertile ground for acceptance of robot companions. It’s an interesting question. Many elderly people who aren’t house-bound could increase their interaction with other humans by joining clubs, or churches, or support groups. If they don’t do that, will they respond to a robot? Or is a device like ElliQ a little easier, and less threatening, than putting yourself out there in a conscious effort to make friends? Could ElliQ and similar devices have the effect of promoting less human contact?

We’ll have to see about that, but I will say that the Post article’s description of ElliQ’s conversational gambits makes the device seem like a bit of a nag. If I’ve got to have a robot companion one of these days, I’d rather have one like Bender from Futurama. I suspect that Bender’s raucous approach to life would be a lot more likely to get me out and about.

Unmetered

Earlier this spring, the blue sign shown above started appearing on parking meters in downtown Columbus. The sign notified parkers and passersby that Columbus was going to a meter-free parking world. Yesterday morning, as I walked to work down Gay Street, city workers were removing the coin-accepting tops of the parking meters from their metal stands and hurling them into the back of a pickup truck, where they landed with a clang. One of the employees at our firm noted that a parker had just put money into one of the meters before it was taken and unceremoniously tossed into the truck.

By the end of the day, a new parking kiosk and a new sign, shown below, had appeared in front of our firm. All of the parking meters were gone–with only their sad, lonely metal stumps remaining to remind us, probably forever, of where the meters once were.

Why is Columbus ditching the meters? The city’s Director of the Department of Public Service says it is part of an effort “to enhance the customer experience for on-street parking by adding greater convenience with better technology tools.” She adds: “A modernized system supports equitable access and turnover as our city—and curb lane demand—keep growing.” (I’m guessing that “curb lane demand” refers to desire for parking spaces.)

The city says that the new system will be simpler for parkers, who can identify their mobile pay zone using street signs where they parked, walk to the nearest kiosk, enter their license plate number and pay using a card or coins. I’m not sure why the city contends that this new approach is simpler than just dropping a few coins into a slot. And the new system will require people to remember their license plate number, which will predictably cause a number of people to double back to confirm their number, but there’s no fighting progress.

The article linked above quotes the city’s Assistant Director for Parking Services as saying: “For the City of Columbus, streamlining parking payment will require less maintenance, greater efficiency, and enable quick and accurate license plate recognition (LRP) enforcement to encourage access and turnover.” In short, it will be easier to ticket people who overstay their designated parking space period. If you’re parking in downtown Columbus, keep that in mind. And watch out for those sad metal stumps.

Should Earthlings Be Advertising That We’re Here?

Stephen Hawking was, by all accounts, a pretty smart person. He also was very concerned about our ongoing efforts to reach out to potential alien life in the cosmos. Hawking rejected the notion that an advanced alien species would necessarily be a peaceful friend that would help backward Earthlings to achieve a higher level of consciousness. Instead, he thought it was at least plausible that any aliens might be interested in plundering Earth’s resources or finding new locations for alien colonies. As Hawking put it: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

So, should Earthlings be waving our arms and letting others in the cosmos know that we are here? And who should decide whether to accept the risk that such a decision could prove to have disastrous, alien invasion-type consequences?

In some ways, we’ve been reach out to aliens for a while. We’ve sent out spacecraft with information about humans and our location, and radio and television signals have been projected out into space for a century or so. But the chances of aliens coming across a spacecraft in the interstellar void is like finding a needle in a haystack, and radio and television signals fade below background radiation levels shortly after they leave the solar system.

However, scientists are getting ready to launch new messages to aliens that are designed to maximize the chances of letting the aliens know we are here. In China, in 2023, the world’s largest radio telescope is planning to send a message in radio pulses that will convey prime numbers and mathematical operators, the biochemistry of life, human forms, the Earth’s location and a time stamp. The message will be beamed to stars that are from 10,000 to 20,000 light-years from Earth–which means it will take a while before we get a response.

The other effort is focused on a solar system that is much closer–only 39 light years away. Later this year, scientists in England will beam a message toward the Trappist-1 system, which includes seven planets, three of which appear to be Earth-like worlds where the distance from the Trappist-1 star indicates that liquid, and life, could exist. If life exists on one of those planets, and if it is advanced, and if it detects the signal–and those are pretty big ifs–we could get a response back in as short as 78 years.

But the bigger question is, should we be doing this at all, and should such attempts be left in the hands of scientists who think it is an interesting project? Or should we focus instead on improving our technology, developing our own ability to venture out into space and explore, and getting better prepared for any aliens who might take us up on our invitations to visit? Either way, it seems silly and pretty darned naive for us to assume that any aliens who might come to call will inevitably be peaceful friends who are looking only to help us out of the goodness of their hearts.

Elon Musk’s Twitter Play

The media is reporting that Elon Musk–the driving force behind Tesla, and SpaceX, cultural and political gadfly, former Saturday Night Live host, and reportedly the world’s richest person–has been successful in his bid to buy Twitter. CNBC says that Twitter’s Board of Directors has accepted Musk’s tender offer in a deal that will provide $44 billion for Twitter shareholders and result in Twitter being converted from a public to a private company.

This story is an intersection of two things that are beyond my ken: the unimaginable world of the hyper-rich, and the curious universe of Twitter users and followers. Musk’s net worth reportedly exceeds $250 billion, which gives him plenty of resources to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. In this instance, Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to further free speech interests. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a prepared statement. Promoting free speech is a highly laudable goal, of course, and Musk’s track record in moving things like electric cars and space travel from dream to reality has been impressive.

But I think Musk is wrong to see Twitter as a “digital town square” where meaningful debate occurs. The next sentence of his prepared statement–where Musk says “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans”–illustrates why. For those people, like me, who don’t use it, Twitter seems like some weird, dystopian technoworld, haunted by bots and fake followers, where the 280-character limit for tweets requires turning complicated issues into simplified mush and encourages a kind of mean snarkiness not seen since high school. The tweeting record of President Trump bears witness to this fact, but his tweeting record is not alone. Twitter seems to bring out the worst in people, and most of us just don’t want to go there.

If Elon Musk really wants to promote free speech through his acquisition of Twitter, I wish him well, but I don’t think he can do anything that will lure me into that alternate reality, much less cause me to view Twitter as a “digital town square.” If Twitter is a kind of town square, it’s located in the darkest, creepiest part of town that most people would prefer to avoid.

QR Overload

I’m resigned to seeing QR codes on the tables of restaurants and knowing that–in that particular restaurant, at least–physical menus are a thing of the past. But when we were out in Tucson for a conference, I noticed a guy with a box walking around the patio seating area of the hotel, placing these plastic-encased stand-up notices on every table. It turned out he was the outdoor music performer for the evening, and this was his way of taking requests.

This was a new use of QR codes, in my experience. I suppose the defenders of the continuing incursion of QR codes into our daily lives will argue that taking requests via QR codes and electronic transmissions is a more efficient process, just as they would argue that QR codes in restaurants save on the cost of menus. When it comes to musical performers, though, QR codes seem like a weird, antiseptic replacement for the interaction between requester and performer–and probably not one that works to the performer’s benefit.

In my experience, speaking solely as a requester, going up to make a request of a live music performer inevitably involves (1) a compliment about the playing, and (2) a generous tip, whether or not the performer knows the song you’d like to hear. Do people who choose from a list of songs via a QR code tip as much as people who walk up to make a request in person? Perhaps they do, although I’m skeptical. But I shook my head a bit at another example of how what used to be done through personal interaction is now being done by people focusing on their cellphones. I found myself wondering whether people who make requests through QR codes even put their phones down for a minute to listen to the music.

From The Ground Up

Some of the things we can do these days are pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. Here’s an example: earlier this month an astrophotographer took a picture of astronauts performing spacewalk maneuvers around the International Space Station–from the ground. That’s the photo, above.

Dr. Sebastian Voltmer took the photograph on March 23, as astronauts Raja Chari (from NASA) and Matthias Maurer (from the European Space Agency) were in the middle of a seven-hour spacewalk. Dr. Voltmer took the picture just after sunset, from Maurer’s hometown of Sankt Wendel, Germany. You can see the two astronauts in the photo–which Dr. Voltmer considers to be a “once-in-a-lifetime image.”

What’s amazing is that the ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles, or 420 kilometers. Dr. Voltmer says he used a Celestron 11-inch EdgeHD telescope on a GM2000 HPS mount and an ASI290 planetary camera to take the photo–which means you probably shouldn’t attempt this with your new iPhone.

A clear photo taken from the ground of astronauts working on a space station, 227 miles up? I guess the future is here.

Coming Soon To A Sky Near You

Over the weekend, 400 drones came together to form a giant purple QR code floating over the city of Austin, Texas. The QR code formed by the fleet of drones, which was hundreds of feet high, apparently was scannable and was part of a promotion of the upcoming release of the sci-fi series Halo on the Paramount+ network. It occurred during Austin’s annual SXSW (South by Southwest) music, film, and interactive media festivals.

According to a report in the Hollywood Reporter, people in Austin were variously “freaked out,” annoyed, or impressed by the marketing stunt. Having been to Austin several times, I seriously doubt that many of the young, uber-cool Austinites were “freaked out” by the display, unless they were already under the influence of some powerful mind-altering substance or were part of the fringe group that believes that we all really live in a computer simulation, as in The Matrix, and saw this as a giant, revealing glitch in the programming. I’d be surprised if most of the residents in Austin’s capital city did anything other than take a selfie with a comical expression on their faces and the giant QR code in the background, post it on all of their social media accounts, and then return to drinking their butter coffee or one of the many Austin area craft beers and riding their scooters around town.

What this really means is that soon the skies everywhere will soon be cluttered with drone QR code ads. Now that the Halo marketers have shown the way, copycat displays cannot be far behind. Drones are cheap and easy to program, and QR Code formations should not be hard to design. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some QR code floating above Columbus on the day of the Ohio State-Notre Dame football game this coming September, or during next year’s Arnold Festival. And ultimately the skies will be filled with competing QR codes and other ads, as seen in many dystopian sci-fi movies about grim and overcrowded futures.

In a way, this development was inevitable. Given the prevalence of marketing in the modern world, we can expect that eventually ads will be everywhere you look, coating every surface and floating in the skies above. The world will be like the internet, and the only issue will be where the next pop-up ad will appear as you walk down the street.

Treadmill Rules

Lately I’ve been taking my morning walk on a treadmill in a small workout facility, rather than via a walk in the open air. It’s the first time I’ve really consistently used a gym and a treadmill. I’m getting in about the same amount of steps, but it is an entirely different vibe.

There are positives to the treadmill experience, of course. The primary benefit is that you aren’t subject to the whims of the weather and the possibility of some weather-related mishap, like slipping on ice during the winter or being sprayed with the splash when a passing car rockets through a rain puddle. But whereas walking outside, for me, tends to be a solitary exercise, treadmills in a gym are communal–and that means there are rules to be acknowledged and obeyed.

One of the rules involves respecting the personal space of the other treadmill users. In our little gym, there is a row of six treadmills. If you come in while some of those devices are being used, you need to find an empty treadmill that gives you at least a one empty treadmill buffer zone from any other user, if possible. Picking a treadmill right next to another user when there are plenty of unused machines would be viewed as unseemly and, well, weird. Another rule is that there is no talking, period. Even though multiple people are within a few feet of each other, everyone seeks to remain in their own little workout world, following their walking, jogging, or running routines, listening to their music or podcasts, and maintaining careful social separation. The other users don’t seem to even acknowledge each other’s presence with a nod or a smile.

Another big difference between walking outside and the treadmill experience is the looking presence of the machine itself. Outdoor walkers can always stop to tie their shoe or admire a pretty scene. Of course, you can’t do that on a treadmill, unless you want to be swept away by the moving belt and hurled into the exercise bikes behind you. There’s a pressure element, because you’d better keep your feet moving, and at the right clip. And the machines are very clock-centric. You program your time and start your routine, and you can’t help but look constantly at how much more time is left before the routine is over. That ever-present time concept simply doesn’t exist on an outdoor walk.

The Return Of Baghdad Bob

Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.

Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?

Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle, and the truth has been hard to find. The tone has been set at the top, where Vladimir Putin has tried to convince the Russian people and Ukrainian military forces that the Ukrainian government consists of a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And the Russian media has tried to play along and support the Putin regime by broadcasting patriotic programming and attacks on the Ukrainian leaders.

The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.

War In The Internet Age

Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.

I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.

First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.

Second, consider the many reports that, as they invade, sex-starved Russian troops are using the Tinder apps on their cell phones to try to line up liaisons with Ukrainian women. And consider further the contentions by some that, knowing of the Russian practices, Ukrainian intelligence operatives are posing as women on Tinder and other social media apps to gather useful information on where the Russians are, how they are equipped, and where they are heading. Thanks to the lack of discipline of Russian troops and the anonymity of some social media apps, Ukrainians can collect real-time data about troop movements–the kind of information that is extraordinarily valuable in any war.

One admonition in the United States during World War II was: “loose lips sink ships.” The new saying might be “Tinder apps help lay traps.”

Whatever may happen here, war will never be the same.

A Toe-Curling Phishing Attempt

The other day I got a phishing email at work. No surprise there, everyone gets phishing email as a matter of course. But this email was especially insulting because it was clearly age-related, and suggested that the sender was specifically trying to target those of us who have been around the block a few times.

The phishing email purportedly advertised a “New Toenail Clipper.” That’s an immediate ageist tell: the youngsters out there, still possessed of the flexibility that accompanies the dew of youth, probably can trim their toenails with their teeth. A toenail clipper solicitation can only be aimed at the geriatric brigade.

And the email went on to make the intended target audience even more obvious, using phrases like “Do you have pain when trying to clip your nails because of arthritis or other problems?” and noting, in bold face type, that the advertised clipper would make trimming toenails “easy for everyone.” The clipper had an “ergonomic design,” the email said, that would make it “EASY and SIMPLE to clip toenails without painful pressure.” And the clipper even had a built-in light to help those with dim, failing eyesight make sure that they were cropping off a nail and not lopping off a toe itself. And to top it all off, the email offered the opportunity to get this miracle of modern toenail engineering for 57% off.

Why do I know this was a phishing attempt? Because I’ve never done any shopping that would elicit a toenail trimmer solicitation, no brand was mentioned, the email came from an email address that included the word “phamgiang,” and the big inducement was to get me to click on an unknown link. Other than those obvious clues, it was a pretty sophisticated phishing attempt, complete with color photos and without the misspellings you typically see in phishing efforts. The sender didn’t know, however, that this particular recipient would be offended, rather than enticed, by a blatant age-targeted email.

Still, it’s a good lesson: when it comes to phishing, you need to be on your toes.

The End of Passwords (And Maybe Privacy, Too)

The Wall Street Journal carried an interesting and provocative article a few weeks ago on the potential implications of a new form of technology called ultra wide band (“UWB”) that is gradually being adopted by a number of devices and manufacturers. Like seemingly all new forms of technology being introduced these days, UWB is like a good news/bad news joke n steroids, with positives and negatives galore.

The technological enhancement offered by UWB is that it allows devices to precisely–within a centimeter, in fact–locate themselves in three dimensions and broadcast that information to any devices using UWB technology in the vicinity. The technology “triangulates the position of an object by measuring how long it takes radio waves to travel between devices and beacons.” The WSJ article explains that this capability would “let anyone with a late-model smartphone or Apple Watch unlock and start their cars simply by walking up to them. It could make it easy for us to control any connected light, lock, speaker or other smart-home gadget simply by pointing at it with our phone or watch. It could even, claim its architects, end passwords.”

End passwords? For those of us who hate constantly changing (and then remembering) passwords, that sounds pretty good. But there’s a catch, of course. The WSJ article poses the question thusly: “Once our gadgets are broadcasting their location at all times, how do we assure that information doesn’t fall into the hands of those who would use it to harm us?” And there’s another element to it, too. Do we really want our smartphones, equipped with UWB technology, to become the center of everything we do, serving as car keys, home keys, wallets, phones, and cameras, authorizing us us to get into our laptops and computer systems, turning on our lights and TVs, and performing virtually every function we need to survive in the modern world–particularly when they are broadcasting our position to any other UWB device?

The privacy aspect of UWB is significant. As the article notes, UWB would make it a lot easier to stalk a particular person, or to pinpoint a car that is a particularly attractive target for theft. And, given what has happened in recent years, you wonder how data about your location will be stored, who will have access to it, and how it will be used. And that’s not just a concern about the potentially nefarious uses of such precise location information by creative crooks, intrusive governments, and faceless corporations. Are we heading to a world where, when we pass a brick-and-mortar store, information about a big sale flashes on our phones, reminding us that people know precisely where we are at every given moment?

Like many other recent developments, UWB seems to offer trade-offs of convenience versus confidentiality. But if every modern device ultimately adopts it, what choice will we have?

The Bad Guys Out There

Every day, at the office, I receive multiple obviously fraudulent emails, and our IT department regularly sends out notices to advise us of still other phishing attempts that are being sent to our attorneys. And the fraud attempts aren’t just limited to my email, either–it seems like at least once a week I get a phony text, or a phony Messenger message, or a phony friend invitation from an unknown person or former Facebook user who I know for a certainty has passed to the Great Beyond.

In short, my own personal experience teaches that there’s a heck of a lot of fraud out there. Fortunately, most of the fraud attempts are easily detectable if you are just paying attention to the basics of sound data security practices–don’t click on whatever random link you might receive, be suspicious of email from people you’ve never heard of, watch for misspellings and weird language choices, and so on–but still, there is a lot of it.

This regular confrontation with attempted criminal activity is weird, when you think about it. Many of us don’t have any contact with crooks in our daily, non-electronic lives. But now, thanks to the technology that often seems to dominate our existences, new virtual doorways exist that might allow the bad guys to enter and bilk us out of our hard-earned money, steal our personal data, or even take our identities. Every day, on our devices, it’s as if we are walking through dark alleys with unknown people lurking in the recesses and shadowed doorways. And we know they are there, because every day they are sending us those messages that affirmatively remind us of their nefarious existence and criminal intent.

Are there more criminals out there than there once were, or do electronic processes allow the crooks to reach out and touch more people than could occur in the pre-electronic era? My guess is that it is a bit of both, and that a lot of what we are receiving comes from anonymous fraudsters in countries so far away that we never would encounter them but for the internet. Whatever the answer might be, it’s up to us to stay on guard, be vigilant, exercise good judgment at all times, and clutch our data tight when we walk through Internet Alley. It adds a new element of stress to the modern world, where a fleecing may be only one click away.