Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired What the College Scandal Shallowfakes Reveal About the Rich

Hexbyte Tech News Wired What the College Scandal Shallowfakes Reveal About the Rich

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Photoshop played an outsize role in the odious college admissions scandal that broke earlier this year. Rick Singer, the concierge to the stars who pleaded guilty in March to money laundering and racketeering in a scheme to get rich children into luxury-brand colleges, used the software to graft the heads of teens onto the muscled bodies of elite athletes. With the Photoshopped water polo image in particular, the one that helped an undistinguished high schooler get recruited by USC, Singer seems to have created a mythological creature—a Ceto for the digital age. Call them the Collegiae: They’ve got the heads of princesses and the bodies of serpents. To mark the moment, a Twitter friend, Peter Mohan, ginned up an image of me as a Collegiae. At first it didn’t compute. But then there she was: my own partial profile awkwardly under a deadly serious swimming cap, atop a muscular neck, broad shoulders, thick biceps and triceps, a performance one-piece—my splendid physique waist-deep in sky-blue pool water, at keen presence to a polo ball.

Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.

Water polo is widely praised as the most horrifying Olympic sport—vicious handball, but with the exciting lung sensations of waterboarding. Amusement mounted. What a gem! Why spend hundreds of hours drowning in a muggy pool when a few minutes of Photoshop can supply you with a winner’s glory and trapezius? And the primitive magic of illusion: It looks like I’m playing water polo, but I have never played water polo! Evidently I’d been reunited with a loving, playful alter ego willing to brook nosebleed-inducing body checks so I could stay in bed, taking selfies in a USC T-shirt. She—me, in the picture—was like one of the aboveground real people in Jordan Peele’s Us; I was her deformed and indolent Tethered, and our reunion made me whole.

Sure, maybe Singer, plied with millions of dollars, would have more artfully deepened my complexion (several shades lighter than the caramel-gold of my new body), but that would stifle the humor. Deepfakes, where artificial neural networks are set in motion to generate photo-­realistic human images and video, often for revenge porn, are sinister. Mine was a shallowfake. Irony, and not tragedy, because anyone could see through it.

When I posted the confection on Instagram, friends rolled in to laugh, and then asked for shallowfakes of themselves. One wanted to be the Sexiest Woman Alive on the cover of People; why not? Another, who is 82, wanted a photo of her pole-­vaulting, at least 5 meters, like Olympic gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva. It occurred to me that a post-Singer entrepreneur could dispense with the racketeering and just cook ordinary people’s books for kicks: create a bunch of brass Emmy-Oscar-Grammy statuettes, voluminous fashion spreads of us slimmed and stretched, and HDR photos of all of us summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen. We could plaster a room with all the shallowfakes, give up forever on the massive exertion required to hike the Himalayas, and savor our fugazi wins.

An image like the ones Singer used would gnaw at me, even if I enjoyed the fruits of my deceit, telling me I am an abject nothing.

But this is the fun we’ve long been afforded by shallowfakes—from set piece photos of kids holding up the Tower of Pisa to rosy Instagram filters. If the polo-champ image of me were more deeply fake, an artifact in one of Singer’s pricey campaigns of opportunistic deception, the fun would drain out. An image like the ones Singer used would gnaw at me, even if I enjoyed the fruits of my deceit, telling me I am such an abject nothing that I need to be jollied along with forgeries of counterfeit achievements, like Donald Trump with his fake Time magazine cover.

The parents who paid for Singer’s services inadvertently punched their kids in the guts. The message to their children, as Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist, told MarketWatch, was “I don’t have faith that you are capable of succeeding based on your own skills and hard work, and I don’t believe you’re strong enough to cope with disappointment.” An ego-stroking deepfake, to the extent that it’s supposed to look real, sends the same demoralizing message.

“The Key partners with your son or daughter to identify their strengths, unlock their potential, choose the right college, position themselves for admission, and outline a course of study and extracurricular experiences to lead a life of success.”

This grammatically turbulent sentence comes from Singer’s now-cached website, where his business, Key Worldwide Foundation, promoted overprivileged and underachieving kids—from “the world’s most renown [sic] families”—while purporting to serve underprivileged ones. “Unlocking your potential” seems wholesome enough. The copy manages to make the work of primping for college gatekeepers sound less like payola and more like letting your heart light glow. Singer published a book in 2014 called Getting In Personal Brands: A Personal Brand Is Essential to Gain Admission to the College of Your Choice. He’s a believer, like so many of us, in “branding,” a kind of secular sanctification of the self, a process whose supreme oddness is often lost in a culture where brands are styled as the secret to, well, “a life of success.”

The closest thing to a personal brand in pre-internet days was a “good name.” Your family was advised to build its patro­nymic, a day at a time, over generations, with demonstrable, difficult, and intrinsically estimable acts of service in the real world. A lapse into even a minor scandal like adultery (forget about money laundering and racketeering) could besmirch a name and cut off anyone bearing it from society or bank loans. It’s tedious to build and cultivate a good name; no one can do it for you. And, according to just about any 19th-century novel, it can be lost in a single devastating instance of bad judgment.

Not so with personal brands. Unlike actual education and sweaty sports, brands live in two dimensions, now almost always on screens. They can be conjured and rebuilt in short order by Singer types adept in damage control—scrubbing Google references, working the media, and creating an illuuusion of trustworthiness.

“The creativity was perversely impressive,” said Allen Koh in a video interview with The Wall Street Journal. Koh, another opulently compensated college consultant, once considered Singer a competitor. “I’ve heard of résumé exaggeration; I’ve never heard of wholesale fabrication.”

But the real Key to the story of the admissions cheats is that they left the fabrication—the dirty work—to someone else. Fabrication comes from the Latin for forge; Singer did the forgery so his clients didn’t have to. Thorstein Veblen’s master­piece, The Theory of the Leisure Class, argues that the rich leave “production” of any kind to the middle and working classes, and then flaunt gloriously unproductive antiwork, largely to mark their distance from their subordinates. This wanton squandering of resources is what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.”

The twist of our time is that the rich are no longer content to fritter away millions on pieds-à-terre in Paris and kennels of Tibetan mastiffs. Oh, no: What’s insidious about the college admissions scandal is the suggestion that at least some of the leisure class got tired of coming across as jackasses in garish watches and decided to spare no expense to seem like striving bourgeois warriors.

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But the new pose of the rich as hard workers is indeed another version of consuming conspicuously. What more spiteful thing for the entitled to do than rob others of even their most earned, try-hard moments … without lifting a finger? Everyone in the scam is set up to protect the leisure, languor, ignorance, and ego of the cosseted student—the coaches, the parents, the bribed officials, the friends who know she doesn’t play sports. Even as they say they only half-knew what was going on, the flagrancy of their deceptions suggest they didn’t mind if it was an open secret. Like the bronzed glamour girls of Biarritz in the 1920s, the admission-­scandal families cherish their laziness, as well as the sight of money being vaporized. How else to demonstrate to the less fortunate how big their surplus is?

If the parents had really wanted their kids to be handsomely educated, they would have gone the traditional route. True, it kinda sucks and doesn’t guarantee USC, but maybe perseverance—for one or two of these kids—could have been an actual plan of action, and not just a brand made in a lab. Here’s how it goes, and it doesn’t require Photoshop: You practice horrid, abdomen-­splitting butterfly strokes, study polynomials deep into the night, and go early to goddamn class, sit in the front, read all the Kant, and earn actual As.


Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is a regular contributor to WIRED.

This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.


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Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired HobbyKidsTV, YouTube, and the New World of Child Stars

Hexbyte Tech News Wired HobbyKidsTV, YouTube, and the New World of Child Stars

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired

One family’s video empire shows what it takes to shield young YouTube stars from the platform’s dark side.

Nicolle Clemetson

HobbyBear is expecting a package any day now. In it will be a Silver Play Button, a plaque that YouTube gives to creators who have surpassed 100,000 subscribers. HobbyBear has a little under 99,000 now, so he hasn’t quite earned the commendation. But give him a break: He’s only 6. See, HobbyBear is one-fifth of HobbyKidsTV, a family-run children’s channel with 3 million-plus subscribers. He and his two big brothers—HobbyPig, who’s 11, and HobbyFrog, 9—each have their own channels. HobbyFrog has a plaque, so HobbyBear wants one as well. “He gets really excited whenever we get something from Amazon,” says his mother, who goes by the stage name HobbyMom. “He asks ‘Is that my silver button?!’ every time.”

“Sometimes,” HobbyBear clarifies.

“OK, sometimes,” HobbyMom says.

Listening to a 6-year-old reveal anxieties about his subscriber count is bizarre. Even for a YouTuber, HobbyBear is young. So young that it seems fair to ask him what he thinks YouTube even is. He has to think for a moment. His parents and big brothers have been on the platform since 2013, which was before he was born. He’s never known life without it. “I look at it on my phone,” he says finally. “People watch stuff that’s happy and good.”

Happy and good aren’t words used to describe YouTube much these days. For the past three years, one scandal after another has plagued the platform. Some of its most successful grown-up stars have revealed themselves as racists, sexists, or conspiracy theorists, and its algorithms seem bent on promoting the worst the site has to offer. Discussions about kids on YouTube—whether creators or just viewers—often take on breathless tones of moral panic, and not without reason. There’s a litany of woes: videos that sneak creepy stuff onto kids’ screens, parent pranks that go too far, child exploitation in several odious forms. Even the YouTube Kids app, which is supposed to be safer, has not been immune. But if all you took in was HobbyKidsTV and other marquee kids’ channels, you might be perplexed as to what all the flaring of nostrils is about.

HobbyKidsTV is a low-budget Disney Channel for the social media age. In a recent video, HobbyDad and HobbyKids see something mysterious on security camera footage—a “strange creature” lurching on all fours. HobbyDad and the boys scour their high-walled backyard for clues and find a huge egg, maybe triple the size of an ostrich’s, in the pool. (Surprise Eggs with toys inside are a multimillion-view staple of kid YouTube. HobbyFamily claims to have invented the trend.) What could this creature be? Watch Part 2 to find out. Commenters who seem to be kids make their guesses: gorilla, Godzilla, dinosaur, pond monster.

HobbyKidsTV is one of many channels that describe themselves as “by kids, for kids.” But of course, parents decide when and where to hit Record. HobbyMom started making videos because she couldn’t find any content that was age-appropriate and “educational.” (In social media, six years is an eon. “We’re dinosaurs in this genre,” she says.) More parents now choose to share their kids’ lives online, perhaps for the same reasons as HobbyMom, or maybe because some channels, like Ryan ToysReview, hosted by a 7-year-old, have reportedly made more than $20 million per year. Either way, the trend has flooded YouTube with content. “A parent can be overwhelmed trying to figure out what to trust,” HobbyMom says. “We want families to be able to give their kid an iPad and walk away.”

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If wholesome trustworthiness is one pillar of the HobbyFamily empire, then vigilant control is the other. Getting an interview with them was a trial. HobbyKidsTV works with Pocket.watch, a kid-focused studio. While the videos show an open, happy-go-lucky family, they have publicists, and it took over two weeks of emailing to negotiate and confirm which topics would be on the record and which would most definitely be off. They imposed bans on questions concerning “negative-leaning stances” on internet child stars and about earnings. I had to submit my questions for the boys to their parents and publicists for review before a time was even set. If I hadn’t worked with the team at Pocket.watch while doing previous reporting, I doubt I would have gotten the interview at all—it was the family’s first, and three Pocket.watch representatives sat in.

In fact, a small army of adults is constantly making sure strangers don’t step out of line in front of the HobbyKids and their young viewers. In recent months, YouTube has been disabling comments on most videos featuring minors to cut off the creeps, but HobbyMom thinks fan communication is too important to silence. So the HobbyParents had to prove to YouTube that their comments were actively moderated and “demonstrate a low risk of predatory behavior.” Human moderators—identified by the HobbyParents only as “adults in our immediate family”—rigorously redact comments to make sure each post is clean and constructive. It’s a labor of many, many hours, HobbyMom says, but the HobbyParents can’t recall seeing a single sinister comment. That would make them part of a very lucky and improbable minority.

Still, given the scandals that plague kid YouTube, the HobbyFamily’s wary professionalism seems warranted, and extends to every part of their business. “The stage names were, number one, for fun and, number two, for privacy,” HobbyMom says. Originally, the kids lacked brands of their own: HobbyPig was HobbyKidOne and HobbyFrog was HobbyKidTwo. “When we realized we had a following, we needed to give the kids more of an identity,” she says. “And it’s a little security.” None of their online fans know their first or last names, or even what state they live in.

Between video production and channel monitoring, YouTube is consuming for the HobbyFamily. The HobbyParents declined to comment on whether they’ve quit their day jobs, but it’s hard to imagine how filming and editing eight to 12 videos a week, uploaded across multiple channels, could be anything but full-time. “We talk about YouTube in the car; we talk about it all the time,” HobbyPig says. HobbyMom describes family brainstorm sessions where everyone sits on the living room floor, riffing and trying to best one another. The “winner” gets their idea made into a video, which will have a preroll ad, up to five midroll ads, and a postroll ad, sometimes in addition to a “branded integration” within the video itself.

The kids’ ambition is obvious, and it’s easy to understand why. Their school friends have always known them as YouTube stars. The family’s active comment moderation means YouTube is a constant positive-feedback machine for the boys. HobbyFrog’s proudest YouTube moment was getting a Silver Play Button for his own channel, HobbyFrogTV, where he posts videos of himself playing Minecraft. (“Videogames are very popular right now,” he informs me.) HobbyKidsTV reaching 1 million subscribers looms large in the memory of HobbyPig, the oldest, even though at the time he didn’t know what subscribers were. HobbyFrog and HobbyPig both share an ultimate goal: to stay on YouTube as long as possible. HobbyFrog dreams of making what he called “HobbyKidsTV 2.0,” which was a surprise to HobbyMom.

There’s a half-joking air of manifest destiny about the HobbyKidsTV empire: “We want to take over the HobbyWorld!” HobbyMom says. According to HobbyDad, working with Pocket.watch for the past two years has given them access to a whole new set of opportunities. They’re rolling out apparel and toy lines this summer, along with a cartoon series animated by Butch Hartman, the man behind iconic Nickelodeon shows like The Fairly OddParents. “It’s really an honor to be on a cartoon,” HobbyPig says. (The animated characters will be based on the boys, but actors will voice the characters.)

For kids worldwide, HobbyKidsTV and channels like it are what Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and Disney Channel used to be. Those traditional kids’ channels have watched their ratings plummet for years. YouTube won’t comment on what proportion of its channels are child-focused, maintaining that users under age 13 are breaking the platform’s terms of service. But according to Pew Research Center, 81 percent of parents with children under 11 allow them to watch YouTube videos, and about a third do so regularly. “We’re honored to have earned the respect of our parent peers,” HobbyMom says. “We get beautiful letters that kill me. ‘I’m sitting in a hospital bed with a sick kid, and I love you guys because my kid loves you.’ It’s always been for the kids, and that’s how it will remain.” I hope she’s right.


Emma Grey Ellis (@EmmaGreyEllis is a staff writer at WIRED. She wrote about online conspiracies in issue 26.11.

This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.

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Hexbyte  News  Computers This economics journal only publishes results that are no big deal

Hexbyte News Computers This economics journal only publishes results that are no big deal

Hexbyte News Computers

Most new publications, upon their launch, seek to promote their content as novel, surprising, exciting.

A new journal that began publishing this week does … the opposite of that.

Start with the name: Series of Unsurprising Results in Economics (SURE). The journal publishes papers with findings that are, well, really boring — so boring that other journals rejected them just for being boring. Its first paper, published Tuesday, is about an education intervention that was found to have no effects at all on anything.

But before you close this tab, hear me out. SURE is actually far from boring, even if the papers it publishes are guaranteed to be, as the name implies, unsurprising. In fact, it’s a pretty big deal, and a significant step toward fixing a major problem with scientific research.

SURE exists to fight “publication bias,” which affects every research field out there. Publication bias works like this: Let’s say hundreds of scientists are studying a topic. The ones who find counterintuitive, surprising results in their data will publish those surprising results as papers.

The ones who find extremely standard, unsurprising results — say, “This intervention does not have any effects,” or, “There doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between any of these variables” — will usually get rejected from journals, if they bother turning their disappointing results into a paper at all.

That’s because journals like to publish novel results that change our understanding of the field. Null results (where the researchers didn’t find anything) or boring results (where they confirm something we already know) are much less likely to be published. And efforts to replicate other people’s papers often aren’t published, either, because journals want something new and different.

That makes sense — but it’s terrible for science. This tendency leads researchers to waste time on analyses that other researchers may have already pursued but not publicized; to twist their data for results so they can publish when they initially don’t find anything; and to look for surprising outliers instead of the often mundane reality.

But awareness about this problem is growing. And in response, scientists are trying to build better processes. SURE is one step toward that goal.

How publication bias can mislead us

SURE is an online-only, open-access, no-fee journal. It accepts papers that its independent peer reviewers verify are “high quality” and that were rejected from other economics journals only because their results were statistically insignificant or otherwise unsurprising.

The first paper published, for example, by Nick Huntington-Klein and Andrew M. Gill at California State University, looked at whether informing students about the benefits of taking more credit hours (to improve their odds of graduating) would motivate them to take more classes or finish school sooner. It doesn’t. That’s unfortunate, but now we know, and other researchers can avoid this dead end. The published results will help steer clear of publication bias too.

Publication bias is often cited as a major factor in the so-called replication crisis in research. We’ve started to look back at old results in fields from medicine to psychology and have found that we can’t reproduce many of the claims in those papers — so they may have been wrong. Scientists are realizing that better methodology is needed across the board to avoid publishing research that gets it wrong.

Here’s how publication bias works: Imagine that 200 scientists go to work on an important question, like, say, which early childhood interventions improve test scores in fourth grade. (I picked that question because there’s a good case that the correct answer is “none of them.”) Most of the researchers find no results. They don’t publish those findings, just sadly call it off and move on to a different research project.

But some of them will get results — by pure chance. A common convention is to declare results “statistically significant” if they have a p-value of less than 0.05, which simply means there’s a less than 5 percent chance that the result a study found would have occurred by coincidence if there were no real effect there at all.

That means that if you have hundreds of studies, a dozen of them will find a p-value that’s less than 0.05, just by chance. And because those findings are surprising, a bunch of papers will be published identifying promising interventions that do not, in fact, get results.

That has all kinds of consequences. Using the published research, charities and policymakers might start trying to implement the interventions, and end up wasting money and resources on things that don’t work.

There are more considerations at work here too. Not publishing enough papers can hold back an academic’s career, which makes it hard to just move on when the data comes up empty. Driven by this imperative, some scientists will rerun their numbers, comparing different variables, in search of a statistically significant result that they can then publish. That makes it vastly more likely you’ll get a result you can write a paper about — but it’s intellectually dishonest, and the results will likely be false.

That’s where SURE comes in. If you conducted a rigorous study but journals find your result too boring to publish, SURE will publish it. The hope is that this will fix the incentives for the whole field. More null results will get published, mitigating publication bias. Researchers can get a paper published even if they found null or unexciting results, which should discourage scouring their data for unreliable results.

If SURE works, hopefully it’ll be emulated — economics isn’t the only field that needs it. While exciting results get headlines, it’s the boring results that often do the most to add to our knowledge of the world. Those boring results deserve a journal of their own.


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Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | WannaCry? Hundreds of US schools still haven’t patched servers

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | WannaCry? Hundreds of US schools still haven’t patched servers

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

Schools out for…ransomware? —

A dive into vulnerability data shows even big districts’ servers still offering up SMB v. 1.


Hexbyte - Tech News - Ars Technica | Corridor of public school.

Enlarge / School IT is old school. And still vulnerable to EternalBlue.

If you’re wondering why ransomware continues to be such a problem for state and local governments and other public institutions, all you have to do to get an answer is poke around the Internet a little. Publicly accessible security-scan data shows that many public organizations have failed to do more than put a bandage over long-standing system vulnerabilities that, if successfully exploited, could bring their operations to a standstill.

While the method by which RobbinHood ransomware infected the network of Baltimore City two weeks ago is still unknown, insiders within city government have pointed to the incomplete efforts by the Office of Information Technology to get a handle on the city’s tangle of software, aging servers, and wide-flung network infrastructure. Baltimore isn’t even the only city to have been hit by ransomware in the last month—Lynn, Massachusetts, and Cartersville, Georgia, both had electronic payment systems taken offline by ransomware this month. Greenville, North Carolina, was struck by the same RobbinHood ransomware affecting Baltimore in April.

But cities aren’t the only highly vulnerable targets to be found by would-be attackers. There are hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected Windows systems in the United States that still appear to be vulnerable to an exploit of Microsoft Windows’ Server Message Block version 1 (SMB v. 1) file sharing protocol, despite repeated public warnings to patch systems following the worldwide outbreak of the WannaCry cryptographic malware two years ago. And based on data from the Shodan search engine and other public sources, hundreds of them—if not thousands—are servers in use at US public school systems.

While conducting research as a follow-up to our coverage of Baltimore City’s ongoing ransomware attack, Ars discovered that neighboring Baltimore County’s public school system had eight publicly accessible servers that still were running in configurations that indicated they were vulnerable to EternalBlue, the Equation Group exploit exposed by Sh