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Previous Posts

History Repeating
Hi, we’re calling from Some Criminals.com
An Open Letter To HSBC
Pay What Now?
Outro
Hearing the music
When to quit
I am not as other men
Tonight I was funny
Attack of the Drones

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Monday, August 20

History Repeating

History is unreliable. Stories through the telling take on a truth of their own, quite different to the objective facts of the time. Often this is gradual, though sometimes it’s a very deliberate act of one’s own psychological survival to quickly recreate the narrative with yourself as the valiant hero.

Let’s just say it’s been an eventful few months.

Sitting there, as a weird lighthouse in the sea of my life, is the Edinburgh Fringe. My relationship with it is deep and complex, but always lovely. I’ve never had a single year where I regretted being there for the reasons I went there. I’ve always had sensible expectations and always met or exceeded them... or so the story goes.

This year’s trip is, if records are to be believed, my 17th. The Fringe itself has been running in some form or other since 1947, meaning this is the 72nd. I’ve been to more than a quarter of them!

My wife has just finished her 8th Fringe. I’m the sole reason she started coming to them...  I think it’s fair to say she’s as fully invested as I am!

The festival seems to be a constant across time, with the same venues reappearing out of the mist each year, only to disappear at the end of August as though they were never there... but it is changing. The biggest change is the market.

Audience expectations move year on year. This year, the expectation is that you can pay for free Fringe show buckets using cashless payment. The “kids” have different sensibilities and different ideas of what a festival entails.

Most importantly, though, the market in Edinburgh is heading towards its own ultimate destruction. If you had a decent touring show, you’d be better touring it. If you’re making one, then Edinburgh is still a good place to rough it into shape... This means there are some, but not too many real diamonds hiding in the programme. There are plenty of great shows, though... but the economics of doing a show in a saturated market, where a huge phalanx of performers is competing for the same audience and accommodation as you, means you need to run several shows. Each performer staging multiple shows saturates the market even further, growing the number of venues, the number of other show spots to fill, consequently the size of the supply, while the demand is not growing at nearly the same rate.

At some weird future extinction event, there will be one performer running around 500 venues, doing a few seconds in each, chased by an audience of 3, who have each paid 35 quid per show minute for the privilege, while a bunch of young people drink themselves to death in astroturfed concrete car parks at 20 quid a pint, served in reusable bendy plastic cups.

I’ll probably still be going to the Fringe when that happens.

Saturday, August 4

Hi, we’re calling from Some Criminals.com

Having recently set up a company, I understand that it can be hard to determine your best business model, and hard to perfect your attack on the market. One company that is really pushing itself hard is best called “Not really BT”. I say that because they ring us up relatively frequently, claiming to be BT when it’s quite clear that they’re anything but actually BT.

I’ve had some minor adventures with them in the past. Sometimes they claimed to be calling from Microsoft, telling me they’d detected a fault on my computer. One one occasion I pretended to have a Mac (living the dream, eh) and tried to do what they were telling me, complaining that my screen didn’t have on it what they were asking me to click on. I wasn’t at the computer - I’d made it up. When I said I didn’t have Internet Explorer, but could use Safari, they asked “Don’t you have Windows” and I said “Well, you told me you’d found a problem with MY computer; don’t YOU know?”. They hung up.

One guy claiming to be from Microsoft told me he was called Martin Short, so I launched into a tirade around how much I loved his movies, especially The Three Amigos (great film). He hung up.

The other day a woman claiming to be from BT spouted nonsense at me about hackers and servers and when she paused I said “Look, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to ring people up to try to exploit them. You could get a better job that’s not so dishonest.” Without missing a beat she told me to go fuck myself and hung up on me. Seriously, it’s hard to give careers advice in IT these days.

I’ve always wanted to explore these scams deeper. I say always, I mean I’ve kind of wanted for some time... so after my careers advice call was so rudely terminated, I went onto my Mac: yes I have a real Mac now, not a pretend one - don’t worry it also dual boots to Windows, so I’ve not entirely sold my soul to Apple: also Microsoft... I went onto my Mac and I installed a fresh Windows within VirtualBox. In short, this simulation of a computer is running a Windows with nothing installed on it except a web browser. It knows nothing about me other than my name and has no access to any of my private files... but it lives in a sandbox on my computer.

Having created the pretend computer, I took a clone of it and called that the honeypot. I fear I may have misnamed it - it should really be called honey trap. Honeypot sounds like a euphemism for something naughty, but I’m not going to google that in a hurry to check.

The honeypot can be compromised as many times as you like and it can be wiped in 20 seconds and rebuilt from the original in 5 minutes. In other words it’s a playground where I can watch hackers trying to fool me, knowing that they’re wasting all of our time. Similarly, as it’s not real and has never been used in the real world, there’s zero chance of it having caught any viruses or having been compromised in any other way.

On Tuesday another hacker called. I ran up the stairs giddy with excitement and quickly started up the honeypot computer on my real computer and turn on screen recording with my phone on speakerphone.



What occurred is a play in three acts.

In act 1, there is the ridiculous attempt by the scammers to blind me with science and take control of my computer, the situation and my confidence. We’ll come to try techniques they use in a bit. In act 2, at around 36:46 in the above video, I reach a point where I no longer want to play, partly because it was taking so long, and partly because the request they made would have genuinely compromised my security, so I reveal that I’m an IT specialist and that they’ve been trapped in a virtual computer all along and that I can see through their lies and bullshit.... it took a lot of pushing from me for the fellow on the other end to accept that the game was up. In act 3, the human behind behind the scam - someone who has a shitty job in a criminal call centre in a deprived country - spoke to me as a human, with no script, with his own feelings and fears, and I shut up and listened... or at least backed off enough for him to be heard. He may even give up this game one day as a result.

Before I explain the con (briefly - watch it to see more) I should say that I came into this aware that some people go for jobs in what they think is genuine IT support, then learn during induction that they’ll be exploiting people for criminal gain... some walk away, some have no option but to stay and probably some feel entitled to skim money off whom they imagine are wealthy foreigners.

The con seems to be tiered. The first person you speak to is a robot asking you to press 1 for support. The idea being to filter out people who don’t answer, or who don’t think they might have a computer problem that needs support.

The next person is there to ask you to do stuff. When it’s clear that you’re pliable and will follow instruction, you’re passed onto the next person who walks you through setting up some software that gives them control of your computer. Bizarrely they use two tools at the same time. Any Desk and Team Viewer. One of the things they try to minimise is your perception of what these are and what access you’re handing over to the people on the other end.

Finally you are handed over to a hacker. This is the person who will ramp up the social engineering claims, suggesting how important it is to catch hackers, and who will also be driving the control of your computer while, and this is the clever bit trying to convince you that you’re doing it. My hacker “Mark Robinson” probably not his real name, was getting me to do all manner of silly things including typing the command “I want to know how many hackers are activate on my server” into a command prompt... and when I hit return, he pasted in a command to make my machine actually appear to do stuff. Luckily he pulled the trick twice so I saw what he was doing as it flashed past the second time.

So you think there’s a problem (they have you look in spurious error logs to start the process), you think BT are fixing the problem for you by telling you what to do, and you’ve forgotten that they’re watching and controlling your computer during the call.

After they earn your trust they will eventually hold your computer to ransom unless you pay them.

People fall for this.

I hope the above video, in which I deliberately slow them down and waste their time will be useful to show people about the dangers of being scammed/hacked. Similarly I hope people will look at the victim on the other end of the phone - he deserves a better life than this, but has fallen into something quite wrong.

The best defence against this is everyone being wise to it. Then they will stop as there’ll be no market for it.

Share!

Monday, January 15

An Open Letter To HSBC

I'm truly sick of the antiquated services offered by HSBC. They recently reskinned their online banking experience and attempting to use it has cemented how truly out of touch the organisation is with the modern information age.

Here's a letter to them which I can't send by email as they don't provide email support, having opted for "Live Chat" or Twitter. While you might applaud such a modern idiom for support, I can't help but think that it's probably motivated by cost-saving, rather than forward thinking.

Dear HSBC,

I've had the misfortune to be a customer of yours for the last five or so years. Given that you still own much of my house, and your mortgage rates aren't too extortionate, I don't see that I can escape this relationship anytime soon.

While nothing has gone wrong with any of my accounts or security, nothing you have provided can be described as excellent in any way. There were a few moments when one of your live chat representatives explained how I could pay a lump sum off my mortgage, which was helpful. Apart from that, banking with you has been a massive inconvenience.

I've complained about this before, but let's start gently with your insistence that I should pay money in at a branch using your automated machines. I'm all for automation. Especially when you try to prevent me from seeing a cashier - hiding them in hard to reach corners of some of your branches. The thing is I'm expected to fill in a form to pay money in via a machine. Then input that same data into the machine. A form!? In 2018! If your automated machine just a front for a 1970s paying in slip?

That would be fine, but the machines tend to be very fussy about paper that may one have slightly bent, rejecting attempts to use them.

My solution to this these days is to go across the road to the Lloyds branch where I still have a minor account, paying in the money via their machine which just works and doesn't require me to use a pen and then transferring the money across to my HSBC account if I need to.

Look what you made me do!

That's just my warm-up complaint. The real problem is with your online banking. I don't know where you got usability experts from, but you need to replace them. Allow me to describe the annoyance you put me through last night while I tried to pull some figures together for a tax return.

In order to calculate the expenses that are allowable for tax, I need to read historic transactions from 18 months ago. I can't search for them by name as the search is limited to 12 months. To read transactions for certain dates I need to work out which statement they would be on. This involves setting the statement year, looking through the list of statement documents, which are dated for the last day of the statement, trying to augur which documents I've read so far, and which one covers the right date range, clicking into it to review transactions and then, when done, clicking on a button to return to the list of statements which adds a few seconds of delay as the whole user-interface re-loads.

That "Loading..." box is the thing which destroys my concentration, makes me lose my place, makes it harder to remember which statement I now need to drill into and slows down an already clunky workflow. Did I mention that the choice of on-screen layout, which seems optimised for giant square screens that don't exist, reducing the likelihood that anything I want to see is on the screen without scrolling?

I should point out that I work in IT, so I'm immediately aware of some of the reasons this is the way it is. Your underlying data model involves documents, not keeping the transactions kicking around, hence the date limited search and the document-centric browsing of historic data.

I can't believe, however, that in a world where people can scroll comfortably through terrabytes of news feed data on the likes of Twitter or Facebook, that a bank can't provide me with a timeline of every transaction that's ever occurred on my account in a way that's seemlessly usable. Any excuse you might come up with about what's technically possible is eclipsed by the fact that there are countless examples of ease of use online proving you wrong.

Talking of ease of use, it's time that you got rid of that annoying secure key. The idea may justify some security expert's sense of self-worth, but you can't honestly expect your customers to either carry around a losable flimsy bit of plastic, or wait until they're near it to conduct their transaction. Yes, I know you can do a lot without it, but not everything. It honestly beats me why on earth you think that my mobile phone, with more compute power than a moon launch, and dedicated encryption hardware, is less secure than your silly little random number generator.

To conclude I'm trapped in this abusive relationship with your inadequate information technologists. To move bank would be problematic, to remain leaves me banging my head against the desk in despair.

Yours, a disgruntled customer.

Monday, August 14

Pay What Now?

I’ve charged for shows at the Fringe in the classic paid-venue model. I’ve run free shows, which are horribly named after the venue cost to the performer, rather than the expectation on the audience. There’s nothing Free about the Free Fringe. The recent Pay What You Want model seems to be the most confusing of all, though.

If a pay what you want show is being charged the usual guarantee on box office sales that a paid show is being charged, with similar commissions and ticket printing costs, etc, then the pay what you want element is really a way to give out additional comps in the hope of receiving tips in a manner pretty damaging to business. Surely the point of the non paid venue route is that you reduce your risk as a producer?

The pay what you want model offered by “Heroes of Comedy”, at venues like Monkey Barrel, is a lot fairer. The venue takes a modest registration fee and a small cut of any box office sales. The show gets the rest, including anything that goes into the bucket. Great, right?

I reckon not.

A quick overview of the model, first. The performances are ticketed. The tickets are not 100% of the seating allocation, but probably close to that. Tickets are maybe £5. If the show sells out, you have to wait outside in the hope of getting in, but you’re also effectively told the show is full, so you may not. If the show is not sold out, you can show up without a ticket and get in. At the end of the show, the bucket speech is there to ask non ticket holders for a voluntary contribution.

This seems to make sense. It’s confusing when there’s a sell out, since you feel like you can’t get in, and might decide to leave on that basis, except in both shows I chanced my arm at waiting for, I got in.

I think it’s actually wrong… if your show is good.

Let’s take Phil Nichol’s show as an example. Most people had paid £5. I was in for free. He did the bucket speech, including asking for a tenner for a USB stick of cool stuff. I gave him a tenner. Most of his audience would have given him £5 a head for that show, and some of those would have given him the tenner, but since they’d all already paid, most people walked away from his bucket.

My view is that the model limits the audience members to a minimum payment and limits the size of the audience to the ticket allocation… by default.

In other words, to prevent the risk of being underpaid, or having lack of commitment from audience planning to see your show, you forego the opportunity to be paid nearly twice as much.

When we saw Stuart Goldsmith in 2015, his free show bucket speech put a clear price on the ticket, way above the average for a free show. The show was good and he got paid its worth. More than you’d dare put on a ticket price for a “reservation against a pay what you want price”.

Pay what you want bucket speeches are generally more awkward than free venue speeches, because you have to accept that ticket holders are already under no obligation to pay and probably shouldn’t.

I think the model doesn’t work. I also think it doesn’t NOT work. It’s more of a Five Pound Fringe with a Free Fringe stand-by queue… confusing for punters.


That said, the venues are very nice!

Outro

Here I am, fighting the Blogger app on the iPad on the train back from the Fringe. It’s time like this that I remember why I don’t like travelling with other people. I’m surrounded by some squawking tossers who don’t seem to know how to find their seats, how to carry their luggage, how to keep their children occupied, and some of them smell mysteriously of carrot and coriander soup.


I guess the obvious answer is that some people eat soup before they travel and it takes away most of their common sense.


Ignoring a possible trip to a Fringe show as a child, I’ve been to a lot of Fringes. I came twice when I was a student (94 and 95, I think). Since then, I started coming again in 2002, performing from 2003. My daughter was born at the end of 2012, so we missed 2013 and 2014 and then picked up again in 2015. No, you’re right, this isn’t that interesting a collection of raw data. What’s the final answer? Well, this year is my 16th visit to the Fringe.


A lot has changed in the course of the Fringe in the time I’ve known it, but some constants remain:


You can’t see it all.

There’ll always be some tosser spoiling something or other.

The city is full of naive young people.

Some oddly posh person is examining their fellow man as though specimens.

Some people are learning the craft in a most embarrassing way.

There are examples of utter genius lurking around the corner.

Genuine true-blue performers are always going to be appreciated…

… except the unlucky ones who accidentally land somewhere obscure.

Edinburgh’s geography will take its toll.

Time will temporarily cease to function correctly.

Emotions fluctuate.

Money is an abstract concept.

Keeping score is pointless.


All of which means that commenting on a Fringe visit is pretty tricky to get right, so I won’t try to capture the essence of this one.


We saw 16 shows in the time between arriving at 3ish on Friday and our last show on Sunday night - 11.30pm. That’s not a personal record, nor is it a bad showing.


I delightedly bumped into various folks I know from the stand-up circuit, and wished to have said hello to even more old friends and colleagues, some of whom I spotted, and many of whom clearly had better things to do than stand on street corners in the hope of bumping into me.


These visits are not long enough to fill the Fringe shaped hole in my year, but they are the best we can do, and they’re great.


Wednesday, July 20

Hearing the music

Creativity is a funny old beast. There are some people who make a living from generating ideas and writing high quality drafts of things. There are some of those who can make the magic happen to order a little each day. Then there are those who go through a boom and bust cycle where either inspiration or motivation are lacking, and then suddenly the tap is full flow and won't switch off. The latter can be caused by a looming deadline.

Professionally in my non creative side, which I'm quite creative with in my own way, I can just about force the little each day approach, or indeed a lot each day. In general though, I'm the boom or bust sort. Either I'm in the zone or I'm not.

I've a lot to get a handle on in the next week or so. Some decisions to make, some events to prepare for... Much to do!

I couldn't muster the inspiration. I've used my trick of making it happen to me by attack of the diary. This works to a point, but it doesn't quite turn on the tap.

Then, this evening, as time was running out, ideas started coming to me. Silly nuggets of stuff, edits, fresh takes on things. Even a shopping list of old things to revisit...

It's a bit like the radio was turned on and I could hear the music coming from it.

It's nice when your thought processes kick in.

Perhaps I had made it happen too. Yesterday I went swimming to find inspiration. I found water and cool water at that. I also found aching muscles that had been hiding, dormant. Novelty breeds novelty, I guess.

If I were a better writer, I'd know how to end thi....

Saturday, July 9

When to quit

If you're in a situation where:

  • You have to beg to get the slightest of things done
  • Your contribution is undervalued
  • Efforts around you go into things of arguably less importance/urgency than your work
  • The default answer to your any suggestion is no
  • You feel like you're doing all the work
  • When you go the extra mile to reach out to the others, they act as normal

Then get out of that situation.

It's a case of change your circumstances or change your circumstances. Maybe you can make things better, or maybe making things better means giving up.

On balance, a recent decision I made to stop doing a project has proved to be the perfect outcome for me.

Tuesday, July 5

I am not as other men

I think I self sabotage is most conversations. There is a part of my brain asking what the most inappropriate or daft thing to say is. I then choose to say something from the list of options.

I would rather make a joke at the detriment of getting respect or trust, than stay silent or say the obvious.

I would rather fill the air with blether than sit bored with the usual run of the mill talk.

I talk in emotive terms and exaggerate to make myself understood.

This is not an illness, it's just a way of thinking that I seem to have cultivated. The down side is that I'm a bit of a dick. The up side is that I really try to hold the community of people I work with together with a fun way of expressing ourselves. When it works it's fun. I realise that a few people who are accustomed to presenting their ideas to me will have some adjusting to do when they come to work with others.

The downside is when I can't get the message across. When the communication style is not working, when the common language isn't there, when I can't get what I expect... Then I'm useless.

That's the next frontier. Either learn to appeal more broadly, or accept a broader range of contributions from other, or filter whom I work with more carefully.

Right now, everything's working just fine.

Friday, July 1

Tonight I was funny

Part of the drug of standup is that the gig can go either way. In fact the more you seek to guarantee the outcome the less the outcome will meet your expectations. To be successful on stage you have to be live, which means clearly open to the chance of failure.

This is opinion, and what does my opinion count for, eh?

I've not enjoyed a lot of things about the last two weeks. I took to the stage tonight with some difficult decisions on my mind. (Note: to anyone worried about my wellbeing, these decisions are not life changing or especially important.) I didn't have a plan, but you don't when you are MCing.

Tonight I was funny. Laughter happened, I made it. No idea how... Not entirely sure what I said. Nobody will care by tomorrow morning.

That's ok. Standup is my thing for me. I do it because it's part of what I do. I'm me because it is a part of what I do.

My daughter gets it. She knows that Daddy has a job where he goes out to make people laugh, and that is called a gig. It's simple for her. She thinks I probably wobble my face and blow raspberries to do it, but you can't know everything at just three.

I like what I do.

The central delight for me in standup is this. You have a thought and it makes someone laugh. The time from having the thought to getting the laugh is the potency of the delight. The shorter the time, the better.

Improvising some Brexit jokes without an agenda was fun tonight. Riffing on audience comments was lovely. I really should get out more!

Tuesday, May 31

Attack of the Drones

An Army Of Crawlers

Here's an example of a recent comment on a recent WordPress article (yes, I do both WordPress and Blogger).

Email: daniela.conger@gmail.com
URL: http://www.bing.ru
Comment:
I want to to thank you fօr thks great read!!
I certaіnly enjoyed every bit of it. I've got you bookmarked to loоk
at new things you

Now. It turns out that this is just a robot. I call it the sycophantic robot, since it seems to come along to many of my posts, say something lovely, yet vapid, and have no apparent agenda. I don't know what it's trying to do. Perhaps:

  • See whether its posts hit the site right away, and if so, then post adverts for viagra
  • See whether it can get generic praise to be approved and then, subsequently, edit the post to advertise viagra
  • See whether it can strike up a friendship with me and sell me viagra directly
  • See whether it can improve hits on some other site for some odd reason
I suspect that some sort of global SEO strategy is to blame for this. Fascinating.

RoboBabe

Telephone call today:

Her: Hello this is Susan Parker. I've heard you were in an accident that was not your fault.
Me: I'm sorry. What's this about.
Her:  You might be able to claim compensation.
Me: Sorry, who are you?
Her:  Susan Parker.
Me: Are you human?
Her: Yes.
Me: Well if that's the case, why is there a long pause when you speak to me?

Line drops

This was a robot. A chat bot. No idea how it worked or why they've got robots doing ambulance chasing. The number was 02079461848 and it's definitely a robot.

That's AWESOME!

Saturday, April 30

Notes on your set

I've been helping some non-comedians make stand-up sets recently. Here are some random notes that came up. They are probably good advice to anyone doing a stand-up set:
  • Show us how you feel about it
  • Are you telling us the punchline before you then explain it?
  • Can you make that bigger?
  • We've all heard a joke shaped like that, can you find another angle on it?
  • If that really happened, what would it be like?
  • Make a more detailed comparison between this subject and the other one
  • Choose the words more carefully to avoid appearing to punch down
  • You've drawn us a big picture there - what else would fit those details? Compare it to that.
  • Why are you taking the time to tell us this bit?
  • What's the narrative arc? Can you bring it together?
  • Why don't you wrap it up by referring back to that previous joke?
  • That's a pregnant phrase - try coming up with several punchlines for it and choosing your favourite.
  • There's a bit of a song that goes like that phrase
  • Just take a moment to reflect on what you just said and give us a reality check
  • Very technical, why don't you make a joke around how the technical term is "something vulgar"
  • That might be funny if you accuse someone in the audience of thinking it
There may be wisdom lurking in the above. Maybe not.

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