Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Skeptical Blogger

I always keep a sharp eye out for Graham Cluley's blog. He is one of the gurus of Sophos (and ancient computer bods, like me, remember that before that he was the clever clogs at Dr Solomon's Antivirus Toolkit. On his blog at http://www.sophos.com/blogs/gc/ , he warns about all kinds of scams and viruses that have a high profile, so it is always worth keeping an eye out for his blog - I keep a link on the right hand side of my blog with the latest snapshot. The latest thing is a Facebook scam:

Earlier this year I blogged about how scammers were abusing Facebook users' curiosity about who might be viewing their profile. Surprise surprise, they're at it again. Right now we're seeing messages spreading across Facebook claiming to have found a way to allow you to sneakily tell who has been looking at your profile. And it's no shock to see that many people are intrigued as to who might be checking them out online (maybe it's a secret admirer? or an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend? or a prospective employer?), and clicking on the link.

A typical message reads: See who viewed your profilee original version 2.0:
now you can see who viewed your Facebook profile

However, this is not new legitimate functionality that Facebook has built into its social network. Instead, if you click on the link you are taken to a third-party website which (to the untrained eye) may at first glance appear to still be on the real Facebook site, but is in fact designed to trick you into sharing their link further. As we've seen in the past in connection with other scams, the page encourages you to "Like" it and "share" it numerous times before it will hand over the ability to has viewed your Facebook profile. .. Scams like this don't need to exploit security vulnerabilities in Facebook's code - all they need to do is socially engineer users into making poor decisions. In this case, the desire to see who might be investigating you on Facebook might be enough to convince you to share and endorse a link to your other online friends.

Snopes is so well known now that scammers often use it in their emails. This virus cannot be detected by anything etc. Pass this on. This information has been verified from Snopes. It hasn't of course, but chain mail email hoaxes use that as another kind of social engineering to get you worried, and to pass on the email. It assumes Snopes has authority, and that the reader is simply to lazy to check out the hoax for themselves. But another good site for hoaxes is http://www.hoax-slayer.com/ - it gives all the latest kind of email scams:

Hoax-Slayer is dedicated to debunking email hoaxes, thwarting Internet scammers, combating spam, and educating web users about email and Internet security issues. Hoax-Slayer allows Internet users to check the veracity of common email hoaxes and aims to counteract criminal activity by publishing information about common types of Internet scams. Hoax-Slayer also includes anti-spam tips, computer and email security information, articles about true email forwards, and much more. New articles are added to the Hoax-Slayer website every week.

They also have a monthly issue, which you can get by email subscription, or view on line. Here's part of the October edition:
(http://www.hoax-slayer.com/107-4.shtml )

UK Pensioners v Asylum Seekers Protest Message
Harry Potter Author J.K. Rowling Avowed Satanist Hoax
Bogus Microsoft Critical Upgrade Notification Email
Moon Split Miracle Chain Letter
Death From Poisoned Rhino Horn Rumour
Collapse Of 13 Story Building in China
Rebirth Of The Eagle Hoax
Facebook Virus Using Your Pictures Warning
Spider Under Florida Toilet Seat Hoax
Facebook Hacked 'BBC News Team' Warning Message

Read enough of these, and you get a "nose" for obvious hoaxes. For more general hoaxes, not all by email, and some going back hundreds of years, however, I'd recommend The Museum of Hoaxes at http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/ . You can even get a nicely printed book version (properly done, not a web site dump) with pictures from Amazon. The Hoax archive is at http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive . My favourite is from 1959-1962 - The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals which took in thousands of Americans (some even wanted to donate!). I'd love a poster saying "A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse"!

Clifford Prout was a man with a mission, and that mission was to put clothes on all the millions of naked animals throughout the world. To realize his dream, Prout founded an organization, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (abbreviated as SINA). . Prout first appeared before the American public to promote his organization on May 27, 1959 when he appeared on NBC's Today Show. His appearance generated a huge viewer response and soon thousands of letters were pouring in to SINA's headquarters. (Prout had provided a New York mailing address while on the air.)

More interviews followed after the success of this first appearance. Wherever he went Prout promoted his anti-animal-nudity philosophy and repeated his society's catchy slogans: "Decency today means morality tomorrow" and "A nude horse is a rude horse."... Prout's campaign continued for a number of years until it reached a high point on August 21, 1962, when SINA was featured on the CBS News with Walter Cronkite. As the segment was airing, a few CBS employees recognized that Prout was actually Buck Henry, a comedian and CBS employee. SINA was subsequently revealed to be an elaborate hoax. Although Henry played the role of SINA's president, the hoax had been dreamed up and orchestrated by Alan Abel, who played the part of SINA's vice president.

My favourite historical site, however, is Michael Sheiser's PaleoBabble found at http://michaelsheiser.com/PaleoBabble/ , described as "Your antidote to cyber-twaddle and misguided research about the ancient world". If you want real archaeology, and all the atomic supercivilisations, ancient astronauts etc etc debunked, while learning something about ancient history, this is the site to visit; it also has lots of links to even more stuff. There is even some stuff debunking Dan Brown.

And speaking of Dan Brown, the all time favourite piece debunking his prose that I've seen is by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum on his blog which caused me to laugh out loud (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog ):

A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move."

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils

Just count the infelicities here. A voice doesn't speak -a person speaks; a voice is what a person speaks with. "Chillingly close" would be right in your ear, whereas this voice is fifteen feet away behind the thundering gate. The curator (do we really need to be told his profession a third time?) cannot slowly turn his head if he has frozen; freezing (as a voluntary human action) means temporarily ceasing all muscular movements. And crucially, a silhouette does not stare! A silhouette is a shadow. If Saunière can see the man's pale skin, thinning hair, iris color, and red pupils (all at fifteen feet), the man cannot possibly be in silhouette.

Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better.

There is a lot of nonsense on the internet, some of which takes the form of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, fake history and the like. By taking lessons from people like Graham Cluley, the Hoax Slayer, PaleoBabble and Geoffrey Pullum, and others like these, we can learn to sift the sense from the nonsense, and not waste our time and other peoples (to say nothing of bandwidth) by propagating the nonsense like a web version of bindweed.

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