Cut Off At The Salad Bar: Dave Copeland’s Blog

I’ve been blogging since May 2002 — not one of the first, but well before all the cool kids tried it, made it a craze, then gave up on it. The best way to describe this portion of my writing life is part personal notebook where I test ideas and pieces of drafts I’m working on, part self-promotion, and part random ranting.

 

Frequently addressed topics include journalism, teaching and higher educations, writing, cooking, drinking (or, more specifically, not drinking, running, reading and life in general. Comments are appreciated but monitored before they appear on this site. All views expressed on “Cut Off At The Salad Bar” are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of any of his past, present or future employers.

Internet Sales Taxes Are Coming. Here’s What You Need To Know

Posted May 1st, 2013 in ColdBomb

Technically, if you live in any one of 45 states you are supposed to be paying sales taxes on anything you buy online. But up until now, it’s been difficult for states to enforce those rules unless the online retailer has a facility in those states (as an aside, Amazon’s state-by-state negotiations on sales taxes has been more about building facilities across the country so it can offer same-day or almost same-day shipping and less about being a good corporate citizen looking for compromise).

All that, however, is likely to change in short order. The Marketplace Fairness Act is winding its way through Congress and is expected to pass. The law will make it easier for states to collect taxes on online sales, meaning you could be paying anywhere from zero to 10% extra for online purchases that used to be tax free.

By Elembis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Elembis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All-in-all, states stand to gain anywhere between $3 billion and $23 billion in taxes they are currently owed but unable to collect (surprise, surprise: the $3 billion figure for lost tax revenue comes from opponents of the Marketplace Fairness Act and the $23 billion figure comes from – you guessed it – proponents of the bill).

How The Law Would Work

The bill is written to protect big businesses like Amazon and traditional online retailers who have been losing out to Amazon because of the unfair advantage they claim Amazon has. And small businesses – those that have less than $1 million per year in annual revenue – would be exempt from collecting sales taxes from customers in states other than the one they are headquartered in.

So far, the only people complaining loudest are medium-sized businesses: those with more than $1 million in annual sales but not enough size to compete with Amazon and, quite possibly, you, the customer. And, predictably, conservatives see it as just another tax increase (“Less money in the pockets of people, more money for big government,” says the Heritage Foundation).

As written, the federal law would require states to simplify their tax codes and sales taxes for online purchases would be centrally collected, then distributed back to states. For a state like Illinois, that could mean an additional $169 million a year in collected revenue.

It may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s important to note that these are not new taxes: rather, it’s an effort to collect taxes states are already owed. And while no one likes paying more for the things they buy online, it does level the playing field for offline businesses and potentially lessens your overall tax bill if your state uses its new revenue stream to keep other taxes low (see Slate for a perhaps too-optimistic endorsement of the law).

Is Social Media As Dangerous As The Telephone?

Posted May 1st, 2013 in ColdBomb

It was expected to cause the “destruction of community because [it encourages] far-flung operations and far-flung relationships.” At the same time, it was called the “antidote to provincialism.” It’s not Facebook. It’s not Google. It’s not even a technology invented in this century – or the last.

The telephone mirrored many of the fears and promises attributed these days to social networks, author Tom Vanderbilt writes in the Wilson Quarterly. This technology, as revolutionary as it was, failed equally to deliver both critics’ most dire predictions and supporters’ fondest hopes. There’s a lesson here for how we view the Internet.

Creative Commons photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy on Flickr.

Creative Commons photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy on Flickr.

Vanderbilt outlines basic stages of a new technology’s introduction, including:

  • Dismissal, when it’s seen as novel but of little practical use. Vanderbilt points to a 1939 New York Times review of the television, in which the author notes, “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”
  • Grandiose pronouncements, the phase when critics either laud the technology to the skies or damn it with evocations of fire and brimstone. Television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, for example, believed television would lead to world peace. “If we were able to see people in other countries and learn about our differences, why would there be any misunderstandings?” he said. “War would be a thing of the past.”
  • Acceptance. As the prices fall and the technology comes to permeate every level of society, “we no longer pause to think about its presence, or indeed what might have once lain beneath the shimmering surface,” Vanderbilt writes.

Indeed, some of the very same concerns surrounding the Internet (especially with the emergence of social media and cloud-based platforms) arose as the telephone started to gain widespread adoption. Worries over identity theft, financial instability and unwanted sales solicitation were all raised as the telephone won acceptance.

Given the comments I receive, pro and con, almost every time I write about social media – which range from conspiracy theories about the evil nature of Facebook to the unquestionable perfection of Twitter’s ability to disseminate news – I’d guess that we’re still in the grandiose pronouncements period when it comes to social media.

At least, I hope so. The world would be pretty scary if it were indeed what conspiracy theorists say it is. On the other hand, tech journalism would be a rather dull field if Facebook, Twitter and Google were as perfect as their cheerleaders insist they are.

Originally published by ReadWriteWeb on May 22, 2012.

How To Delete Your Gmail Account

Posted April 30th, 2013 in ColdBomb
Illustration by Jurgen Appelo via Creative Commons.

Illustration by Jurgen Appelo via Creative Commons.

Whether you’re sick of gmail’s semi-regular changes to its interface or you realize that old beerpongmaster@gmail.com account you no longer use is just another fat target for hackers, it’s worth taking a few minutes to delete it.

This multi-step process requires you to enter your password several times, and combining two or more gmail accounts into one is a more complex process that we’ll cover in a future post. This is only for people who want to get rid of a gmail account for good, so proceed with caution.

1. Take an inventory of the account, making sure you backup copies of any messages or contacts you want to save and import to another account.

2. Alert anyone who still uses the account as a way to get in touch with you about your new email address. After you delete the account, people who send email to it will get an error message.

3. Go to Google Account Settings.

4. Open the Products page.

5. Click Edit under Your products.

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 11.01.52 AM

6. Click Remove Gmail permanently or Close account and delete all services and info associated with it to remove your entire Google account (including your search history, Google Docs, iGoogle page, AdWords and AdSense as well as other Google services) under Delete a Product.

7. Check Yes, I want to permanently delete example@gmail.com and remove it from my Google account.

8. Enter your New primary email address. There may already be a secondary address listed, which you entered when you created the account. The alternative email address becomes your new Google account user name.

9. You need to have access to the new email address to complete the final deletion step

10. Enter your Gmail password under Current password.

11. Click REMOVE GMAIL.

12. You will receive an message from accounts-noreply@google.com with the subject “Gmail Removal Confirmation” at the email address you specified in step 8. Follow the link in that message to finish the account deletion process.

13. Enter your password one last time and click verify.

We can’t stress enough once you complete this process, it cannot be undone. There’s no cooling off period like the one we outlined when we told you how to delete your Facebook account.

The Hidden Message In The Boston Bombing Suspect’s Tweets

Posted April 29th, 2013 in ColdBomb

Between New Year’s Day and April 16 at 10:43 p.m., 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sent 210 tweets, not counting retweets or tweets written in a foreign language. Altogether he wrote 2,608 words on the microblogging site, for an average tweet length of 12.4 words, excluding hashtags, usernames, time stamps and other information included in the standard message of 140 characters or less on Twitter..

He used 734 different words on Twitter during this span and, of those 734 words, 169 were used two or more times. A word cloud of words Tsarnaev used three or more times, in which the words used most often are written in larger type, would look like this:

created at TagCrowd.com

Given what we now know about Tsarnaev – that he and his older brother allegedly Tamerlan planted two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 280 people and, four days later, shot and killed a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the eye is drawn to certain words in the visualization, regardless of how big they appear: evil, hate, kids, kill, life and struggle, among others.

But the most telling word on the list may be “yu,” which he used 12 times in place of you. The only word he used more often was “people,” which he wrote 13 times on Twitter. That amounted to 0.46% of all words written, which a study of Twitter usage released last year suggested was indicative of a high level of Agreeableness, one of two of the big five personality traits which can be ascertained by analyzing word choice on microblogging sites like Twitter.

You Are What You Like (Sort Of)

Details of the bombers’ identities emerged in the hours after the FBI released video and photos of Tsarnaev brothers on Thursday, April 18. By the next morning, Tamerlan had been killed in a shootout with police and a massive manhunt was underway for Dzhokhar. People in Boston and surrounding cities – close to a million of whom had been ordered to “shelter in place” – headed to social media sites to learn what they could about the Tsarnaevs.

Dzhokar_Tsarnaev_with_brotherIn the days that followed, people took posts Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had made on his Twitter account in and out of context, looking for clues and an answer to the unanswerable question: why? And while some tweets are telling and others were shocking, most only deepened the mystery, portraying the life of a very average college student who liked girls, cars, video games, smoking pot and playing soccer. Meanwhile, a popular narrative that slowly emerged was that Dzhokhar had been influenced and even brainwashed by his older brother Tamerlan, who had become more radical in his religious views.

In short order, posts on social media were used to supplant interviews with friends and family and create a body of evidence suggesting they were a classic criminal dyad, where one half – usually the older, more charismatic and influential person – uses the admiration of the younger half to make them an accomplice. Think of the Columbine killers, the D.C. snipers and Bonnie and Clyde and you have the classic model for a criminal dyad.

But there is something else in play here: psychologists and marketers have long known that what we volunteer on social media sites is more often a reflection of our future self: the person we want to be someday, and the person we hope others will think we are in the meantime. Right now I may say I “like” running, even though it’s been awhile since I have run consistently. I may say I “like” the Pixies and Morphine and HuskerDu, bands that will give me alternative nineties cred within my age group, but I’m unlikely to fess up to an inability to pass an Allanis Morrisette song when it comes on the radio.

Indeed, in March, a study of Facebook likes found that liking a series of seemingly unrelated things on Facebook could reveal information that we may want to keep private. Male homosexuality could be predicted with 88% accuracy among Facebook users, and, similarly, likes could be used to predict race, political views, emotional stability and drug and alcohol use. Liking “curly fries” and “The Colbert Report” were a string predictor of high intelligence; liking the brands Sephora and Harley Davidson usually meant the opposite was true.

You Are What You Tweet

19suspect1-blog480If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had a Facebook profile, he has the privacy settings jacked to a point where no one has found it, so we’re not sure what he liked on Facebook and what that may or may not say about him (news broke Monday that he deleted an Instagram account less than two weeks before the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15). But an earlier study published last year in the Journal of Research In Personality found that word choice on Twitter can predict Agreeableness and Neuroticism, two of the so-called Big Five personality traits (the others, Extraversion, Conscientiousness and Openness, were hard to identify from twitter word choice).

The use of the second-person pronouns, like you (or in Tsarnaev’s Twitter-speak, “yu”) was strongly correlated towards high levels of self-reported agreeableness. While some of the traits associated with agreeable people ( kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm and considerate) match up with he disbelieving friends who were interviewed in the days following his arrest, there are some other troubling in the narrative now being painted of the brothers’ dyad (two characteristics - trust and compliance – suggest the kind of qualities one would need to fall under the influence of an older brother).

Of course, some qualifiers need to be put onto this: first, the Twitter study was not nearly as exhaustive as the Facebook study, nor did it take into account variations for non-native English speakers like Tsarnaev. The other factor – one that is becoming increasingly frustrating for people trying to study social media in an academic sense – is that social media changes so quickly and use differs among different age groups. That means any study is a snapshot of the findings at any given time, but not necessarily a look at how things are now.

The important take away is that the idea of future self is almost always a factor when we look at self-reported information on social media, and all of those details are just clues – not accurate sketches of who a person is. If we were to solely draw our opinion of Tsarnaev based on info posted to social media, then he is nothing more than

a college student who liked soccer, basketball and wrestling. He was a Muslim, posting a familiar Arabic greeting that means “peace unto you” on his Twitter profile, but he struggled with the tenets of the religion that bar drug and alcohol use (on Twitter he made frequent references to smoking marijuana and declared himself the beer pong champion of his hometown).

He was fixated on his career and money, but he also showed a softer side, posting photos and tweets about his cat. He liked girls (“Gain knowledge, get women, acquire currency,” one tweet read) and he liked whip cream on his waffles. He loved cars and when he posted song lyrics on social media – as many people his age do as a way of expressing how he was feeling – he favored hip hop, with special emphasis on Jay-Z and Eminem. He liked watching “Game of Thrones,” but felt it was toearly to say the show was better than “Breaking Bad” or “Dexter.”

 

Hoping Facebook Can Out-Yelp Yelp

Posted April 29th, 2013 in ColdBomb

As I wrote last year for ReadWriteWeb, Yelp has long been accused of pay-for-play, where it hides the good reviews of businesses that decline offers to advertise (Yelp denied the charges then and now, saying their algorithm is complex proprietary, but aims to minimize the impact of reviews where the author may have a grudge or bias; I and other Yelp users, as well as loads of small business owners, remain unconvinced).

Another big problem with Yelp? The crowd-sourcing often leaves me feeling ambivalent about a restaurant. You get loads of good reviews and loads of bad reviews and your overall takeaway is average. If my fiancee and I had relied exclusively on the Yelp reviews for the NoMad (a place that gets high marks from professional restaurant reviewers but only a medium endorsement on Yelp) when we were in New York for my birthday last month, we would not have gone and, in the process, denied ourselves what we both agreed was a top three lifetime dining experience.

Now comes news that Facebook is going to try to out-Yelp Yelp, offering many of the same features, including business phone numbers, addresses, and hours on its mobile pages. Facebook’s redesign is also aimed at encouraging users to write a review and rate a restaurant than simply write on its wall. That, to me, seems like too much of a repeat of Google’s only mildly successfully attempt to cut into Yelp’s traffic with Google Places, and it seems to me there may be a better way to make Facebook (or a competing service) to bit into Yelp’s business model.

Why I Still Use Yelp

I never visit Yelp’s Website and learned long ago to never rely on its reviews. Why should I trust the opinions of people I have never met who may also give ringing endorsements for Olive Garden and Outback when they are panning great local restaurants and hidden, neighborhood gems? But I do use Yelp regularly on my phone and on my tablet, for the sole reason the app is gorgeous, the bookmarking feature is easy to use and the information about any restaurant – phone number, address (with a solid mapping and directions function) and hours – is usually (although not always) reliable.

Yelp's iPad app lets me see which bookmarked restaurants are near me, or lets me do keyword searches for a business in my area. Dave Copeland screen shot.

Yelp’s iPad app lets me see which bookmarked restaurants are near me, or lets me do keyword searches for a business in my area. Dave Copeland screen shot.

So when I read a restaurant review or watch a Food Network segment about a restaurant that I would like to eat at in a city I have even a slight chance of going to, I immediately book mark it in Yelp. Every time I plan a trip to a city, or am looking for something new to try in Boston, my hometown, I check Yelp for bookmarks. Long after I would have forgotten seeing the review or watching the segment on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” Yelp gives me a handy list of places to plan my meals around.

Yelp is, without a doubt, my favorite app for organizing businesses I use on a regular basis as well as restaurants I want to try. As a source of reliable reviews - what yelp is staking its business model on - the crowd sourced amateur hour is more trouble than it is worth. Dave Copeland screen shot.

Yelp is, without a doubt, my favorite app for organizing businesses I use on a regular basis as well as restaurants I want to try. However, as a source of reliable reviews – what Yelp is staking its business model on – the crowd sourced amateur hour is more trouble than it is worth. Dave Copeland screen shot.

What Yelp Could Do Better (Or How Facebook Could Beat Yelp At Its Own Game)

The biggest problem with Yelp remains the reviews, which the service stakes its reputation on. Knowing that the reviews are not organized in any logical order (highest rating to lowest, chronological, etc.) and knowing that several reviews that may or may not be legitimate makes the useless to me. And while I realize many people are fine with the consensus review of a group of strangers and other people we connect with on Yelp, I’d appreciate the input from the professional eaters, the restaurant critics who still offer a good read and the honed palate that comes from eating out 40 or more times per month and trying several dishes at a restaurant over several visits.

photo (3)There’s a pretty simple fix, one that could easily be stolen from Fandango, which quickly shows me the consensus of fans and the consensus of critics with easy to read graphics. If I click on the link to take a closer look to reviews, they’re arranged in a straightforward manner (no weird algorithm which, no matter how many times Yelp tries to explain it, sounds unfair to non-advertisers).

Meanwhile, Yelp has partnered with OpenTable to let me make reservations at some restaurants but, frankly, it’s much easier to just go straight to OpenTable. That Website and its corresponding app are easy to use, in large part because all the business of the reviews don’t get in the way (you can review restaurants you eat at on OpenTable, but those features never get in the way of using the app). The other thing I like about OpenTable that doesn’t transfer when I use the service on Yelp is that, once I make a reservation, it’s very easy for me to import it into my calendar of choice and send invites to the people I plan to go with. It would be a nice twist to integrate it directly into Facebook and invite friends to dinner.

Restaurant owners grumble at the $1 charge they have to pay OpenTable for each reservation booked through the site, but more often than not I find myself looking for (and finding) someplace to eat on OpenTable than any other place.

In other words, offering restaurant info won’t be enough. But if Facebook can pick and choose the best features of each of the above mentioned apps, we may finally be able to break our long reliance on the awful service offered by Yelp.

Here’s What To Do If You Think Your LivingSocial Account Got Hacked

Posted April 26th, 2013 in ColdBomb

Hackers attacked LivingSocial and gained access to data for 50 million customers, including passwords. The attack was disclosed Friday, when AllThingsD reported on an internal memo outlining the attack.

If you have an account on the daily deals site, you’ll want to try to log in as soon as possible; you’ll be prompted to change your password.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 6.28.18 PM

The good news is credit card data was not accessed in the attack. The bad news is many people use their Facebook accounts as a sign-in for LivingSocial, so the hackers may now have access to those accounts which, in turn, could give them access to other accounts.

If you’re among the far too many people who uses the same password across multiple sites, you’ll want to change it on any site you used the same password. This is a good time to make sure you are following the advice to have a different password for each site you use.

If the idea of updating all of your passwords sounds daunting, consider downloading LastPass, an extension available for most browsers that generates, stores and manages your passwords, and will help you hunt down duplicate passwords in the event of a future attack.

Terrorist? Yes. Murderer? Yes. Drug Kingpin? Not Quite.

Posted April 26th, 2013 in ColdBomb
A close-up image of a dried, potent, Cannabis bud. Creative Commons photo.

A close-up image of a dried, potent, Cannabis bud. Creative Commons photo.

On Twitter and Redit this week, conspiracy theorists took news reports about a tie between now-deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and an unsolved murder of suspected drug dealers, coupled it with reports that his brother and co-conspirator was a known pot-head, and used it to speculate that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, at the very least, funding his brother’s lavish lifestyle and may have even been using proceeds from the drug trade to finance a sleeper cell of terrorists.

Another theory had that  Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have killed Brendan Mess, who he once described as “my best friend” and two other men on Sept. 11, 2011 because they had sold drugs to his younger brother which upset Tamerlan who, at the time, was become more stringent in his religious leanings.

While no one is ready to rule out a connection between the Tsarnaevs and the triple homicide in Waltham, Mass., interviews with drug dealers and students at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar was a student, suggest that the younger brother did little more than support his own drug habit by dealing small quantities of marijuana. The drug kingpin speculation was also undermined by reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was chronically unemployed and that he and his wife went on public assistance. And the two brothers set off the manhunt after carjacking a Mercedes and stealing $45 and a bankcard from the driver, suggesting they needed money as they planned to flee.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev primarily purchased ounces which currently range in price from $120 to $300, depending on quality, in Massachusetts. He then broke them up into smaller bags of about a gram which he sold to classmates for $20. “Those $20 bags are what most college kids buy the most,” said one person familiar with the college pot market in Massachusetts. On a $120 ounce, his markup was more than 100%, but he was operating in a crowded market at UMass-Dartmouth where, according to one student “everyone smokes, everyone sells.” Another student said Tsarnaev’s room “stank of pot” and still others reported several of his customers openly smoking outside of his dorm between nine and midnight on most nights.

“Weed is so common here that just walking around campus mid day, you can smell people burning,” another UMass-Dartmouth student, who said he did not know Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, said. “At night it gets worse.”

The bottom line: part-time pot dealers can make $1,000 or $2,000 per month with as few as a dozen regular clients selling on the scale that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev  was selling if – and this is a big if – they follow the drug dealer creed of not getting high on their own supply. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, by all accounts, had trouble with that rule. “In this kids situation he was never strapped for cash because he probably made 100% profit off everything he sold,” one suspected dealer said in an email.

At center top of picture, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects: Dzhokhar Tsarnayev (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right). FBI photo.

At center top of picture, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects: Dzhokhar Tsarnayev (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right). FBI photo.

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