Coffee heat rising

Hello Again, Little CPR Call Blocker! Good-bye NoMoRobo!

Hoorah! The new CPR v5000 Call Blocker I ordered to replace the one that got thrown out after the Cox dude told me the one I had wouldn’t work with Cox’s infuriating modem IS HERE! Thank you, Amazon!

When Cox forced its customers to abandon the old, steadfastly reliable copper lines, I already had a CPR Call Blocker installed on my landline phone. It was wonderful. Because it WORKED. I asked the Cox tech to install it on the damned space-gobbling, dust-collecting modem he deposited on my desk, and he said Cox wouldn’t touch anything that wasn’t Cox equipment. Besides, it wouldn’t work.

Right.

Subtext: “We get paid by phone scammers to let them blitz you with advertising and scams, and you can be darned sure we ain’t about to aid and abet your efforts to thwart the bastards.”

However, Cox was making a service called NoMoRobo available to its new VoiP customers. I’d heard good things about it and so figured signing up with that should address the problem of robocalls and live scam artists. Because I had no idea how to attach the little Call Blocker device to the damned modem (sometimes connections can be kinda tricky), I just tossed it out, figuring NoMoRobo would do the job.

Not

So

Much

NoMoRobo is a complete bust. Here’s why:

To block a call from a phone number, NoMoRobo has to let the first jangle ring through. This is how it identifies fake phone numbers. Unlike the CPR 5000, it apparently has no preprogrammed numbers; thus the 5000 numbers blocked by the CPR  device just come right through. And it seems unable to identify VoIP/IP rogue diallers, leaving you vulnerable to an expensive scam.

The first-ring feature is a deal-killer for me. It doesn’t matter whether this is a new number nuisanceaferizing you. Even numbers that are blocked are allowed to jangle you up once.

Sorry, but I don’t find the sound of a phone jangling to be conducive to work that requires my full, uninterrupted attention.

Then we have the problem that you can’t signal NoMoRobo that a number is bad with a push of a button. Ohhhhh no. You have to go online to their Website and fill out a freaking form!!!!!! You have to retrieve the offending number from your phone’s memory, report the caller’s name, say what time the call occurred…all of which adds the insult of time suck to the injury of phone scamming.

And as hoop-jumps go, it’s pointless: the robocallers simply generate new numbers, potentially dialing you from every telephone number in your exchange. Or, for that matter, in any exchange.

And we have the added problem that when NoMoRobo fails to recognize a call as pestiferous (which is often), it just lets the phone ring and ring, till your voicemail picks up. At which time the creeps fill up your voicemail with their hustle.

I get upwards of a dozen pest calls a day. Today they started at 8 a.m. sharp; sometimes they start around 6:30 or 7 in the morning. They often run through till 8 or 9 or even 10 at night.

With the CPR call blocker, you simply press the “Talk” button and then, if you’re on a wireless extension, press #2; if you’re at your desk where the device is sitting, you don’t even have to pick up. Just press the big red “BLOCK” button.

The highly satisfying big red BLOCK button….

If you miss that boat, then simply click your phone’s callback button and as soon as the number starts to ring, hit that “Block” button.

The thing has been plugged in for less than an hour, and it already has three numbers in its bank of blocked callers.

How to Read a Research Paper: It’s Easier Than You’d Think

So in response to Catseye’s question about going straight to the Academic Horse’s Mouth when researching one’s ailments and one’s doctors’ schemes — “can the average Joe understand what they’re reading? It sounds intimidating, to say the least” — I said I’d write a post on how to read a piece of medical (or any other scientific) research.

The answer to that question is YES! Most people can understand enough of a research paper to pick up on the important points. And it only sounds intimidating. It is surprisingly, weirdly easy to understand most published technical research papers.

Here’s the secret: YOU DON’T HAVE TO READ THE WHOLE DAMN BRAIN-BANGING THING!

To understand what the researchers are trying to do and what they’ve found out (if anything), you really only need to read about a third of their paper — and that is the most accessible third. What you should know is that scientific papers follow a standard format. They’re always divided into these sections:

  • Abstract: A brief summary of the project & findings — very brief.
  • Introduction: Description of the background, purposes, and design of the project. Usually contains a Statement of the Problem: an explicit, carefully worded explanation of the issue, in short. Sometimes this section will also contain what is called a “review of the literature,” in which the authors reprise the high points of previous work.
  • Methods: Explanation of their approach to the study and the tools or strategies they used in going about the research.
  • Results: Description of what happened when they applied the Methods to the research problem. This section may contain graphs and tables that summarize the study’s findings.
  • Discussion: Addresses the results and their implications in light of what is already known. This section may also contain any caveats about what remains to be found, drawbacks to the research, and what further research needs to be done.
  • Conclusion: Sometimes suggestions for further research appear in a separate section, usually called “Conclusion.” The conclusion is often presented together with the Discussion section.
  • References/Bibliography: A list of the published sources used in the paper. This is useful to you because if it contains a lot of flakey sources, you’ll know the paper itself is probably flakey. If it contains substantial sources from established researchers and credible institutions, you can base your assessment of the authors’ credibility partially on their sources.

Before you even begin to read the paper, first determine the value and credibility of the journal or book publisher that has issued the thing. Ideally, you would like a paper to have appeared in what is called a tier-1 journal — i.e., at the top of the profession. But that is not always possible — some excellent work appears in lesser publications. Look at the title of the journal. If it is well known or obviously the emanation of a highly ranked university or research organization, then you can feel some confidence in it. Examples: New England Journal of Medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association. The Lancet. The British Medical Journal. The Centers for Disease Control. Johns Hopkins University. Stanford University Medical Center.

And so on.

Here is a list of journal rankings in medicine. Bookmark this page and check your sources against it.

Be aware that the woods are full of fake academic journals. These are called predatory journals: phony or extremely low-ranking journals that charge academic researchers for the privilege of publishing third-rate (or less) work in their shoddy pages. They exist because young scholars must publish to obtain promotions in academia; often they must already have published even to get a job. Usually these frauds have convincing, official-sounding titles. Here is a more or less up to date list, based on the late, great Beall’s List.

A legitimate journal is peer-reviewed. This means everything it publishes is read, critiqued, and assessed by experts in the subjects the journal addresses. To be published in such a journal, an article must pass peer-review. In other words, it must have at least some semblance of quality, credibility, and accuracy.

Beall’s list used to keep tabs on predatory journals. One day it was yanked off the air. Gossip has it that the proprietor was threatened with a lawsuit by a combine of the crooked journals he listed. So, this valuable resource no longer exists in its full glory. For a hint at the ridiculous scamminess of fake journals, take a look at this highly entertaining article on their practices in hiring “editors.”

Sometimes if you look up a journal title in Wikipedia, the article will mention, in a mealy-mouthed way, if the publisher has ever been accused of predatory practices. But that is not 100%. Try to stick to the old standards,.

Okay. So once you’ve found an article in a journal you think is credible, here’s what you’re going to read, in this order:

  1. Abstract
  2. Results
  3. Discussion/Conclusion
  4. Tables/graphs (if any)

That’s pretty much it. If you feel inclined to plow through other sections, you can. But the information you really need appears in the sections above. Often the results are summarized well enough that there’s no reason to pore over the data in the tables and graphs.

Where can you go to find these publications?

A Google search will bring up some of them, if you enter the right key terms.

Google Scholar will bring up a greater percentage of true scientific papers. Google Scholar, however, tends to be out of date.

A college or university library has databases that contain subscriptions to journals, and so the contents are wider, deeper, and timely. Some major metropolitan libraries also provide access to these resources. You don’t have to be a student or employee of an academic institution to get access to its library’s databases. Most college and public university libraries will provide a library card — for a fee — to members of the public.

What about all those plain-English websites, the ones that often come up at the top of a Google search?

Well, for basic needs, they can suffice. The best of them are published by hospitals and medical centers. But…caveat emptor…

  • Sometimes they’re very much dumbed down.
  • Sometimes they support an agenda.
  • Sometimes they’re published by associations and nonprofits supported by Big Pharma or other self-interested parties.
  • Usually they present the received wisdom — they echo what your doctor will tell you, which may or may not be at the cutting edge.
  • Sometimes they’re…well…bullshit.

Always take “alternative medicine” websites with a very large grain of salt. If you’re gonna go in for alternative medicine, there’s really no point in wasting your time trying to understand hard science — you’re taking a leap of faith, and you might as well accept that for what it is. Faith, not science.

That’s OK, if it suits your temperament. My mother’s family were Christian Scientists. Two of them lived into their mid-90s and never saw a doctor in their lives. If that works for you, then it works for you. But…don’t imagine “alternative medicine” is based on scientific research. It is not.

Watch out for any site peddling the advice and opinions of “Dr. [Firstname].” Anyone who addresses you in this way, pretends to be a celebrity, or presents information in talk-show, folksy, People-Magazine style format is a showperson, not a scientist. Advice appearing at these sites is usually cursory, dumbed-down, and incomplete.

There ya go: that’s about all you need to know.

Arise, Costco Customers of the World!

Welp, we apparently can’t do much about the mess in Washington. But… we can make an impression on even the most mega of megastores. To wit: if enough customers complain, eventually management will get the message. Like, say, the management of Costco.

This will require a LOT of people to complain about an issue, and to do so regularly and vociferously.

What is the issue? Consumer-proof packaging. We Costco customers, as a group, need to complain long and loud about the layers and layers of landfill-jamming plastic and the hard plastic-and-cardboard clamshells that cannot be opened without a stick of dynamite. Not only is this stuff a nuisance, it’s a vast menace to the environment. None of this armor, with the possible exception of the sheets of advertising cardboard (which are permeated with toxic inks) is biodegradable. A million years hence, archeologists from the next species to inherit the earth will find geologic layers of this crap buried in the earth, in exactly the form in which we deposited it. And most of it is utterly unnecessary.

If Amazon can make its vendors present their products in packaging that the buyer can get into easily, Costco surely can do the same. There’s just no excuse for a person to have to use a wrench and an Exacto Knife to get into a stupid package. And today…jeez.

Yesterday I bought a pair of bottles of Costco hand lotion, the kind that comes in a bottle with a pump top. Tried to open the pump top on the first one, after having wrestled with the obnoxious environmentally nasty plastic shrink wrap that holds the two bottles together. No luck. When you try to unscrew it the way other such tops work, it does nothing but spin the entire inside assembly. The pump will not come open to work. Got a wrench to hold the inside assembly steady whilst trying to manipulate the handle. No luck.

Why? Really, what IS their excuse for selling products that are unusable because their packaging can’t be opened? Now I have to drag this stuff back to Costco, and I guess I’ll have to order something from Amazon or traipse to Walmart to find a replacement. Like I HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO DO WITH MY TIME!

Costco has no chat line, nor is it possible to find an email address. They force you to call one of a myriad 800 numbers to try to get through to a human: a vast time waster that will send you climbing around a phone tree like the monkey they apparently think you are. One customer remarked this morning that reaching them by phone entails a 47-minute wait!

However…you can reach them at their Facebook page. Here, they try to discourage people from commenting — especially from posting complaints. So what you do is scroll down past the “status” line where they invite you to post a comment (but then will not accept it) to one of Costco’s advertising/customer rah-rah posts.

Every time you have to do battle with their consumer-proof packaging, go to their Facebook page and post a complaint!

If you go there right this minute, BTW (9 a.m. Thursday, December 7 — ah! the Day of Infamy!), you will find customers posting that the Costco website — the one where you order things online — has been compromised. Says one correspondent:

I think your website might be compromised. I was going to order something today, and someone else’s credit card info, name, shipping address and membership number popped up. I can’t email you with a screenshot of Neil Gallagher’s info and your FB won’t let me share it with you. I can’t even post it directly on your page, so I hope you see it here. If you do have a membership with Neil who lives in Lovelock, NV and has a member number ending in 517, you might need to check to see if your website has been hacked.

Several other Costco members posted the same. Just a few minutes ago Costco disabled access to its customer sign-in. So: if you’ve ever ordered anything from Costco online, keep an eye on your credit card statements…now and evermore.

Postscript: A Costco clerk figured out, with some difficulty, how to get the darned lotion pump gadgets open and managed to get BOTH of them working. Twasn’t easy, but she did it.

Net Neutrality: Time to Act…NOW!

Net neutrality is a difficult issue to explain…just the jargon used to name it sounds geeky and technical.

It goes like this:

Right now you can access and enjoy about any content you like without paying your Internet provider for anything more than a wireless connection. This is because providers are required to treat all Internet data equally. They’re not allowed to block, slow down, or charge money for specific websites or online content, and they can’t discriminate between or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. This is the current law.

We could define it as “freedom of speech in the digital age.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is being pressured to make that stop. ISPs and other interested parties want to make MORE money on you and on your viewing habits. What will happen when network neutrality goes away is that, as with the formerly free television shows you now have to pay to view, you will have to pay to visit your favorite sites, such as Facebook. Website owners will have to pay to keep their sites from being throttled (slowed down).

Small websites, such as Funny about Money, will go away. So will many entrepreneurial projects that are founded and operated through the Internet. Competition will diminish. The free flow of information will stop. Ignorance will spread — and as you know, we already have more than enough of that. And you will have less choice — possibly no choice — in the kind of entertainment you access on the Web. Sites will load slowly or not at all, and your favorite streaming entertainment will stutter and drag and make life generally annoying, You will stop watching these sites, because you will realize you have better things to do with your time than frustrate yourself.

Personally, I no longer watch television for one simple reason: I cannot afford to pay for cable television. Nor will I: even if I won the lottery, I would not pay to have a torrent of televised drivel poured into my home so that I can watch the rare moments of quality television. The Internet also delivers a torrent of drivel. I cannot and will not pay for all of that, even though I do value the few offerings that I patronize.

Funny about Money earns, at most, around $300 in a month; over a year, its monthly income barely covers hosting and back-end costs. If I have to pay Cox Communications extra to keep the site functional, then I will have no choice but to close Funny down.

This is true for most small website operators and for virtually all start-ups. Having to pay a gouge to publish free content will stifle all those boutique-y sites and exchanges you like to cruise, and it will force you to pay for “premium” content such as the streaming music, movies and videos on YouTube and for social media such as Facebook.

Net neutrality is what makes the Internet a free marketplace of ideas and information. 

The free exchange of ideas and information is what makes America a free country. It is key to our way of life.

If this matters to you, it’s time to act. On December 14, the FCC will vote on Net Neutrality. Right now, TODAY, do these things:

Comment to the FCC directly at www.gofccyourself.com

Go here to send a message to Congress and to learn where to demonstrate on December 7.

Call or email your elected representatives NOW to urge them to preserve Net Neutrality.

This is a very, very big effing deal, folks. Don’t let the bastards take any more of your freedoms away.

Why You Need a Call Blocker

…and why telecoms should be required by law to provide the NoMoRobo call  blocker

Did you see this amazing story? Police in India busted a ring of 61 crooks who were in the business of calling Americans, impersonating IRS agents, and threatening the marks with arrest if they didn’t pony up “late” taxes. This scam has been around for awhile, and it’s had enough press that you’d think most people would be wise to it. But no: apparently it’s true that there’s one born every day. According to Homeland Security, this merry bunch collected $3 million from feckless phone customers.

In Mumbai, $3 million goes a mighty long way…

These crooks called me at least three times that I know of before I installed the CRP V5000 call blocker that I ordered up from Amazon. Since then, they haven’t been able to get through long enough to choke out even a few words of their pitch.

US telecoms refuse to install NoMoRobo

A powerful, effective system developed over the past couple of years is called NoMoRobo. This is the only call blocking program approved by the Federal Trade Commission, which awarded its makers a prize and urged all US phone companies to make it available to customers.

Telecoms responded by failing to do so. In my parts, Cox will make it available to business customers but refuses to extend the same courtesy to home customers. This, despite figures showing that in 2016 alone, American consumers were bombarded by 2.4 billion robocalls per month! Obviously, they wish not to cut off a flow of cash from these scammers — there really is no other rational explanation.

NoMoRobo is now available for cell phones, including the iPhone, at a nominal monthly cost. To get it on a land line, you’ll need to switch to VoIP, dropping your regular telecom provider. Ooma is one service that offers NoMoRobo. To do this, you’ll need some tech proficiency — not a lot, apparently, but still, some degree of DIY is involved. Most people are pleased with NoMoRobo, which blocks nuisance calls effectively enough to make any extra cost or hassle worthwhile.

So how else can you defend yourself against robocall scammers?

There are other options. For your landline, the CRP V5000 (which comes with 5,000 pre-programmed blocked numbers) is only one of nine highly rated in-line call blockers available on Amazon.

I remain very pleased with the device, BTW. The company’s customer service can’t be beat. And though it’s a little inconvenient to ride herd on the spoofed calls and the out-of-area calls to be sure you don’t accidentally block a legitimate call, it sure as hell improves on upwards of a half-dozen nuisance calls a day.

For your smartphone, here are ten recommended call blockers that run on Android. As of late 2016, we were told a number of new apps for the iPhone were forthcoming; more recently, the Mr. Number call blocker & reverse lookup has racked up 4½ stars at the Apple store.

The only way to defeat these crooks and pests is to take their market away from them. The most effective way to do that, of course, is to force telecom companies to provide a proven technology, NoMoRobo. In the absence of government rules to enforce that, though, about the best you can do is install your own call blocker. Given the risk of fraud, to say nothing of the constant invasion of privacy and interruption of your daily life, you should get one of these systems now. Not later.

Robocall Amusement

Attack weapon…

The new call-blocking gadget keeps two lists for you: one is of calls that you’ve blocked, and the other is incoming phone calls. The way mine is set up now, I can check the incoming calls and, if I don’t recognize a number, just press a button to block it henceforth.

This is handy, because it allows me to manually filter calls before consigning numbers to limbo.

So the other day, here comes a phone from a local area code, indicating the suburbs in the West Valley. Well, I know a lot of people in the West Valley, and this number looks vaguely like the number of one of the Camptown Races writers, a guy named Gil. Could be: Gil would like to form a writer’s group and said he would call when he got his act that much together.

I decide to call the number, lest I accidentally blacklist a real human being.

The guy who answers the phone sounds just like Gil! His voice has the same kind of raspy texture and he speaks in the same vocal range. I’m a little disoriented because for a second or two I think I’m talking to Gil, and he’s a little disoriented because for a second or two he thinks he’s talking to someone he should know. Doesn’t take long for us to figure out, though, that we’ve never heard of each other before.

I ask if he called my number, and he says no, BUT…the police and a CenturyLink representative are right now at his house. The guy has been getting a hundred calls a day from robocall pests. Yes, that’s 100. One hundred calls per day.

I express my sympathies, apologize for adding to the burden, and mention that I bought a device from Amazon that seems to block most of the nuisances — without mentioning the brand, for fear he’d think I was trying to sell him something. He was so upset he didn’t seem to register what I was saying.

The bastards had spoofed his number — most robocalls that appear to come from your area code are spoofed. That’s another source of trouble, because enraged consumers who track those numbers down are likely to call you up and tell you how the cow ate the cabbage. Once I did call some character whose business came up on my caller ID, only to learn from him that I was not the first to complain that he’d been trying to sell godonlyknows what.

If you google “100 robocalls a day,” you discover this phenomenon is not unheard of. Time-Warner Cable deliberately harassed a woman in New York, trying to collect a debt owed by a prior user of the phone number — TWC ended up paying out $229,000 for the privilege. One woman — coincidentally in Arizona — had her phone lines shut down when SOBs called her 100 times an hour, according to Consumer’s Union, which also reports the sleazes called a woman’s daughter, spoofing the woman’s phone number, and started blitzing both numbers every 15 minutes.

Consumer’s Union has a campaign to end robocalling under way. They seem to be focused mostly on cell phones. You can go here to sign CU’s online petition to pressure phone companies to provide free robocall blocking. I strongly urge you to add your name to this effort.