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Did A Billionaire Harvest Big Data From Facebook To 'Hijack' Democracy? (theguardian.com) 452

Long-time Slashdot readers walterbyrd and whoever57 both submitted the same article about the mysterious data analytics company Cambridge Analytica and its activities with SCL Group, a 25-year-old military psyops company in the U.K. later bought by "secretive hedge fund billionaire" Robert Mercer. One former employee calls it "this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump." Facebook was the source of the psychological insights that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals. It was also the mechanism that enabled them to be delivered on a large scale. The company also (perfectly legally) bought consumer datasets -- on everything from magazine subscriptions to airline travel -- and uniquely it appended these with the psych data to voter files... Finding "persuadable" voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants "swamping" the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter. Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was "voter disengagement" and "to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home"... In the U.S., the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes.
A branch of this company reportedly also received half the campaign budgets of four pro-Brexit campaign groups, and there's some dark talk about "military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy...being used to sway elections in ways that people can't even see." The article notes the two firms have plied their services in Russia as well as Lithuania and the Ukraine, and suggests that "we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored."
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Did A Billionaire Harvest Big Data From Facebook To 'Hijack' Democracy?

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  • Just the beginning (Score:5, Informative)

    by volodymyrbiryuk ( 4780959 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @05:38AM (#54375029)
    and it won't stop as long as these "persuadable" voters make their decisions based on facebook posts.
    • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:10AM (#54375139) Journal
      That's not the problem. The problem is that a company like Facebook knows:
      • Roughly how old you are (at least enough to tell whether you're of voting age)
      • Where you live (roughly if it has to guess from IP addresses, precisely, if you've ever bought anything from a company that shares data with Facebook).
      • What news articles you read (what issues are important to you?)
      • What news articles you share (what are your opinions on the issues that are important to you?)

      This is enough that they can identify what ads to show you to influence your opinion (Candidate X strongly supports issue Y), but more importantly they can share this info with canvassers who can target the undecided votes in a constituency and knock on their doors and say 'have you thought about [issue that we know is your number one priority], are you aware that our candidate believes [exactly what you believe]?'.

      • by Kiuas ( 1084567 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:24AM (#54375207)

        This is enough that they can identify what ads to show you to influence your opinion (Candidate X strongly supports issue Y), but more importantly they can share this info with canvassers who can target the undecided votes in a constituency and knock on their doors and say 'have you thought about [issue that we know is your number one priority], are you aware that our candidate believes [exactly what you believe]?

        Yup. And this isn't even the worst of it, they can also do the opposite and create targeted attack ads. "Did you know the other candidate is doing [thing that you're strongly opposed to]?" And it doesn't even need to be true because these can be masked by creating blogs on 'alternative media' and conspiracy sites with no official link to the campaign. In other words. this sort of targeting allows targeted deception of the voterbase with little to no actual consequences.

      • They know all that...

        This is enough that they can identify what ads to show you to influence your opinion

        But do they know that I use an adblocker? Only time I've seen an ad online this century was when I switched browsers and had to download a new adblocker for the new browser. That must have been the best part of 20 minutes when I could see ads this century....

    • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:21AM (#54375193)

      Indeed. The Brexit and Trump are the most stupid things voters did recently, but they are not unique. The vulnerability here are voters without a clue about reality. That one cannot easily be fixed, but throwing the staff and financiers of such companies in jail would be a start.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The vulnerability here are voters without a clue about reality. That one cannot easily be fixed, but throwing the staff and financiers of such companies in jail would be a start.

        Does that include companies like The Guardian too? They're one of the biggest culprits when it comes to trying to influence clueless voters with their version of reality. Hell, these demagogues are still peddling the "Pepe is racist hate speech" nonsense, on their frontpage no less.

        • by mjwx ( 966435 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @12:16PM (#54377997)

          The vulnerability here are voters without a clue about reality. That one cannot easily be fixed, but throwing the staff and financiers of such companies in jail would be a start.

          Does that include companies like The Guardian too? They're one of the biggest culprits when it comes to trying to influence clueless voters with their version of reality. Hell, these demagogues are still peddling the "Pepe is racist hate speech" nonsense, on their frontpage no less.

          The only thing you've revealed here is that you've never even picked up a copy of the guardian.

          The Daily Mail and their ilk are the biggest culprits in trying to influence clueless voters. This does not excuse the Guardian but what you wrote is completely wrong. The Guardian is trying to influence clued voters, why (and this is how we can tell you've never read the Guardian) is because the Guardian is written much more eloquently. There is a minimum education level required to understand the language used, your clueless readers end up going back to the Daily Mail or Sun to read celebrity trash and extreme right wing propaganda sandwiched between Page 3 girls. The Sun and DM target the most basest desires (which is why they're little more than soft porn these days) with the most basic language.

          It's clear you're a Murdoch fanboy (Fox News/Daily Mail) as you don't even know that "front page" is two words.

          Now if it were up to me, I wouldn't get rid of the DM or the Guardian. I'd simply enforce the same editorial standards as the BBC across the entire industry... And I'd tighten them up too. Get caught publishing a falsehood, a retraction must be issued on the front page. Get caught doing it deliberately, the retraction must run for 5 days.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Both Brexit and Trump are examples of votes where there were designated "right" solution and designated "wrong" solution. If the "wrong" decision is objectively wrong then there's no need to put it into the ballots in the first place. So any vote that have only one designated right option is not vote at all, and shouldn't have happened in the first place. So you may consider that people chose "wrong" option as protest against this false democracy. If people's votes don't matter then there's no way they coul
      • So. People are stupid if they disagree with you?

        Suit yourself.
        • "So. People are stupid if they disagree with you?"

          You make it sound like its not complicated, it is VERY complicated because science is discovering people are NOT authorities on what they do and don't know about themselves and the errors in their own views and reasoning. See the science:

          On reason [youtube.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      > voters make their decisions based on facebook posts

      As opposed to what? The paranoid ravings of journalists who see some big conspiracy behind everyone they disagree with?

      Every month they come up with some other bullshit: fake news, bots, russians, alt right, Facebook posts, some billionaire, etc. These nutjobs whipped themselves into a mass hysteria because people dare oppose their views.

    • by jarle.aase ( 1440081 ) <jarle@jgaa.com> on Monday May 08, 2017 @07:47AM (#54375665)
      If we assert that human brains are nothing more than complex state machines with lots of individual properties and variations - then it's obvious that if someone have the data and algorithms to predict how to alter the current state of individuals into a more desired state - and the infrastructure to deliver state-altering stimuli, then that's exactly what they will do. That's a predictable move. To say that those who do this is evil or saints is just a matter of perspective about the desired outcome.
    • by mi ( 197448 )
      As opposite to newspaper articles [loa.org]?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 08, 2017 @05:44AM (#54375045)

    If we agree with the person doing the activity?

    Why, that's just democracy in action!

  • Nothing to hide (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 605dave ( 722736 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @05:46AM (#54375051) Homepage

    When informed about mass surveillance and privacy issues many people respond that they have "nothing to hide". My response to them is that they may have no criminal activity to hide, but with all that information they can be me manipulated without knowing it. I give the example of a first date. If you know what the person likes and dislikes before the date you can easily shape your approach to the evening, presenting yourself to be as pleasing as possible.

    This is exactly what theses projects are doing to us on a national level, manipulating people one by one. And that's the danger of having so much data about ourselves out there. We can be influenced and manipulated on a personal and societal scale simply by these groups knowing so much about us.

    • That gives me a good idea. I should start a company that influences what people do. I would call it "Marketing" or something like that.
      • For a moment there I thought you were going to suggest you'd be offering something more specific - date consulting.

        Imagine the money you could squeeze out of guys by advanced cyber stalking, data mining, and analysis of potential dates. You could rate them on looks, personality, and, most importantly, likelihood of putting out for a particular client utilizing a particular approach.

      • Re:Nothing to hide (Score:5, Informative)

        by 605dave ( 722736 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:11AM (#54375145) Homepage

        This goes way beyond traditional marketing. This isn't branding, this isn't an ad campaign, this isn't a PR slack on TV. This is psychological manipulation on a personal level.

        • Sort of like...targeted marketing?
          • by 605dave ( 722736 )

            Sort of. Except past the point of acceptability. At least that's my opinion. I don't believe democracy can survive mass psychological manipulation at this scale. There has always been propaganda for the masses, but this is different. This is propaganda for the individual.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      When informed about mass surveillance and privacy issues many people respond that they have "nothing to hide". My response to them is that they may have no criminal activity to hide, but with all that information they can be me manipulated without knowing it. I give the example of a first date. If you know what the person likes and dislikes before the date you can easily shape your approach to the evening, presenting yourself to be as pleasing as possible.

      Well put, nuanced point. Unfortunately, I tend to f

  • by johannesg ( 664142 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @05:47AM (#54375055)

    This wouldn't be a problem if the media were still fulfilling their role of informing people of the facts, instead of also taking up the role of interpreter of those facts.

    So what if you're influenced by something you hear? That's normal: you receive information and act on it. You should, however, have -all- the information and not just the subset deemed supportive of the cause by invisible people, with the rest made up with suggestive phrasing and outright lies. But reporting of actual facts, supported by accurate and relevant numbers, has become a rarity, and finding those numbers is becoming less and less possible, despite the vast possibilities the internet offers for unlocking information.

    So it's all down to hollow phrases, and given that total lack of input, people become suggestible. I would suggest, however, that the solution lies in a well-educated population that is aware of the problem, and is given unlimited access to uncensored facts and figures.

    • by Jzanu ( 668651 )
      Then you get the dictatorship of the wealthy leisure class; they are the ones who can pay for access to all the information (hint: it isn't free) and have the spare time to to redundantly perform the analysis. Problem is that not only is that simply selecting a group to rule without any oversight, it acts to disenfranchise all of the people who do the work that makes civilization possible.
      • Are you seriously saying opinion should be force fed to poor people because they are too poor to understand facts? That's just... wow.

        Any opinion in the media without underlying facts is mere propaganda. That's precisely what I'm arguing against. And since the government collects pretty much all information anyway, why not give it the task of opening its databases and letting people see facts?

        That also costs (some) money, but nobody ever said democracy should be free. In fact, some generations had to give t

        • It's kind of the argument for a republic if not an aristocracy.

          The masses are too ignorant, gullible and guided by base motivations to make serious decisions. In a Democratic Republic you at least have the will of the people as voiced in elections for Representatives, but that as a rule intelligent, serious people will actually be making the decisions.

          It's what's kind of interesting at times in the British monarchy -- the crown doesn't run government but by virtue of its status, gives advice and guidance t

          • It's not always about education levels or income.

            Citizens from poverty level to upper middle class are typically burdened with conventional jobs or other entrepreneurial adventures, child-rearing, sleeping, hobbies, eating... all sorts of humdrum daily activities that fill up the hours of one's busy little life.

            Unless politics or government is your gig, there's just not enough time nor inclination for the average person to collect the data themselves, so most people align with a socially acceptable news so

    • The same media landscape existed in mid-nineties Russia.

      Imagine a media channel that is worse than fox neuz on information/disinformation ratio. Worse than Infowars and Breibart. Orders of magnitude more vapid, energetic and aggressive at spewing mental bulshit than crazy street preachers.

      Now imagine that backing of such news organisation is a prerequisite for anybody to win any election. This is how it was, and this is what made Russian subhumans to vote in a former KGB leutenant into Kremlin.

    • You should, however, have -all- the information and not just the subset deemed supportive of the cause by invisible people

      The main reason that we have representative, rather than direct, democracy is that no one has the time to do that. Do you understand the causes of the conflict in Syria? The economic impact of NAFTA? The costs and benefits of EU membership for each member state? People who spent their day jobs don't fully understand these, so what chance does the general population have? You need some kind of filter that will highlight the parts that are relevant for you to care about, the problem is that there's no ac

    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:19AM (#54375185)

      You should, however, have -all- the information and not just the subset deemed supportive of the cause by invisible people

      So, when was the magical period when we had "all the information, not just the subset deemed suuportive of the cause"?

      Certainly wasn't this century.

      Or the 20th either.

      Hell, the Spanish-American War of the 19th Century was at least partly the result of the efforts of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer...

      And there were more than a few American newspapers pushing the people's buttons in the late 18th Century leading up to the American Revolution.....

    • There's a problem. Newspapers used to be funded by adverts - specifically classified adverts, notably on Saturdays. And now there are better ways, Craigslist, eBay, GumTree, etc. Better, yes, But no money flows to the newspapers.

      So they are desperately struggling for income. Subscriptions, anything really. But overall, they are no longer strong enough to be independent.

      TV ads are under heavy threat - DVRs, internet, NetFlix, Playstation, many things compete for attention. And money.

      So media is struggling fi

      • by kenh ( 9056 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @07:21AM (#54375503) Homepage Journal

        Perhaps the fact that a great majority of Democrats choose to get their news from comedians pretending to be journalists in front of studio audience on a cable channel rather than, you know, an actual news broadcast has some impact. Colbert, Oliver, Trevor, Maher, et all are NOT news shows, they are entertainment, as witnessed by the "laugh" signs in their studios.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo&world3,net> on Monday May 08, 2017 @07:20AM (#54375493) Homepage Journal

      It's not that the media fails to inform - there is informative media out there. During Brexit, for example, the BBC in particular and a few other neutral organizations did debunk the lies and post what little factual information was available. The problem is that people didn't want to hear it.

      In the post-truth world, people don't care about reality or facts. They only care about hearing what they want to hear, which is why populists did so well. Facebook is a great platform for this. Fake news and biased information on Facebook has credibility, because it appears to be coming from "friends". Not politicians, who all lie all the time, but friends and "ordinary people" who are far more trustworthy.

      It's a very efficient system. Someone posts a meme or some fake news. Lots of other people like it and re-post it, giving it credibility and truthiness. Any dissent or contradiction is quickly silenced by virtue of being comment #697 that no-one will ever read.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by james_marsh ( 147079 )

        Actually the BBC failed miserably to debunk the lies. In its typically misplaced idea of "neutrality" it would typically avoid making a factual statement and instead have interviewees on to make opposing points. The effect of this was to dignify the lie and place it in the centre ground.

        They've done this consistently for years, especially since coming under significant pressure from the Blair government around the Iraq war time (regarding the dodgy dossier, David Kelly etc). And now the threat of the Conser

      • It's not that the media fails to inform - there is informative media out there. During Brexit, for example, the BBC in particular and a few other neutral organizations did debunk the lies and post what little factual information was available.

        Not very well. The large media organisations have been caught somewhat flat footed. I don't recall previous campaigns where one side was knowingly, brazenly lying about their biggest points as the Brexit leave campaing. In the past there's generally been some attempt

    • The problem is that people are going to believe what they want to believe. It's part of being human. We saw that with Brexit. The Leave side was promising all of this money for the NHS, no immigrants, sunshine every day, clown free circuses, etc. There were people, including some news organizations, calling out their lies. And we see how well that turned out.

    • This has always been my interest in that the facts be presented to allow people to make their own decisions. If people wanted opinion, they should ask. This is why some people think that journalism is not what it used to be and not being as trustworthy as it once was. It seems recently to be more subjective instead of objective.

  • This kind of sophisticated attacks reveal that we have reached the next stage in communication, where we must use anti-virus like techniques. The body continuously gets assaulted by viruses, computers too. Now it's our minds that get virused.
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      It's a shame that the Free Speech Warriors will scream "censorship!!1" when anyone tries to deal with this. Some of them are the ones benefiting from it, and some of them are just useful idiots.

  • It's been going on for a very long time.
    Now we just have better technology. Macron did it too.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:18AM (#54375171)

    When Obama won in 2008 slashdot ran slobbering articles about how the tech industry had used data mining techniques to properly target ads towards the appropriate voters and who the Dems needed to target to maximize votes. In 2012 this was repeated along with Facebook altering walls to make sure only the "proper" messages were showing up on walls.
    Now the "other" side is doing it and its "evil" and "manipulative" and "fake news"

    No that's bullshit. You can't praise the use of story planting and voter manipulation when your guy does it then turn around and demand all the rules be changes because for all that whiz bang technology you couldn't get voters to choose your sucky candidate. Maybe that's the real story here... that all this voter manipulation and Orwellian tech doesn't really work and individuals still pick the best candidate presented?

    Naaah... they're sheep when they don't vote the way you want and enlightened peoples when you use the same techniques.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Jzanu ( 668651 )
      The difference is the kinds of ads that were used. In Trump's case, the vast majority reflected his campaign of populist dogma with no substance and flag waving blame of the whipping-boy of the hour (Arabs, Gays, Disabled Americans, etc.); here the point is pointing out abuse of data for psychological warfare that violates the rights of all people.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        At the expense of me probably being flogged alive by the left, would this be similar psychological manipulation that says an ethnic minority cannot be racist? I get a lot of that on Facebook these days.. I'm sexist because I'm male. I'm racist because I'm white. If those direct accusations irritate me, it's because of "male fragility" or "white fragility" (god forbid you tell a woman she's sexist, or an ethnic minority that they're racist). These are becoming so pervasive these days, that it's quite sc

        • by Sique ( 173459 )
          The problem is always that actions, which are tolerable if you are a minority, become unbearable if you are the majority. It's like monopoly tactics. If you are the dominating force, there is not enough regulative to migitate the effects of your actions. A single person saying: I don't like XYZ is ok. This is a personal opinion. The majority saying: I don't like XYZ is mobbing, because it heavily weights against anything XYZ can do.

          Yes, a minority can be totally racist. But that's not the problem, as long

    • by kenh ( 9056 )

      Exactly - here are some of the links:

      MIT's Technology Review [technologyreview.com]
      New York Times [nytimes.com]
      InfoWorld [infoworld.com]

    • You're kidding yourself to think the two elections were anyware similar. Politifact - Trump only 31% true (to some degree) - 16% pants on fire. Obama - 75% true (to some degree) - 2% pants on fire. Trump lies or is just ignorant 69% of the time.

      Unprecedented hoards of absolutely fake news and headlines as documented in the article we're discussing. What fake news is there from the Obama election other than he's a secret Muslim not born in the U.S.? The pizza parlor shooting (from ACTUAL fake news) is j

  • did it first!

  • I am reasonably sure that some people with lots of money are actively working on trying to somehow condition the feelings and fears of the masses via social media (e.g., over-promotion of isolated or even completely false events of violence or chaos). Just as an example, I have seen various "curious" global trends which, after a quick research, seemed to be almost exclusively triggered by accounts associated with certain online-positioning companies (note that validated/good-track-record accounts can get gl
    • In case there is even the slightest doubt, I meant Twitter global trends.
  • yay. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DMJC ( 682799 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @06:40AM (#54375287)
    And yet Stallman is the crazy one? The man is a fucking prophet. Almost everything about computers he's predicted has come true including the eventual turning of computing technology and user data against democracy.
    • The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact most genius' suffer from borderline psychosis and many eventually succumb to it.
  • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

    Democracy doesn't depend on informed voters. Democracy is nothing more than giving the vote to citizens who are not part of the government. The outcomes will be better, for certain definitions of better, but there's no way to hijack democracy.

  • Curious that they are portrayed by the poster as some insidious master data manipulator...when as recently as 2016 advertising industry magazines mocked them for being "all hat, no cattle".
    Several customers were quoted as complaining that their $16k monthly fee produced nothing of value except constant sales pitches.

    http://adage.com/article/campa... [adage.com]

  • And there I thought it was the conservatives that had the occasional fake-news problem

    It seems impossibly hard to believe for some that Trump won because people were honesty, genuinely fed up with the alternative. Instead its one nutty conspiracy theory after the other about why he really won.

  • Sounds Familiar... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kenh ( 9056 )

    I'm pretty sure Obama For America employed many, if not all the same tactics in 2008 election...

    Why yes, look at MIT's Technology Review [technologyreview.com], the New York Times [nytimes.com], and InfoWorld [infoworld.com] - again, another glaring example of a profound double-standard. When Team Obama did it, it was "ground-breaking", when Republicans employ similar tools it a nefarious plot to control the world!

    • by Freischutz ( 4776131 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @08:54AM (#54376005)

      I'm pretty sure Obama For America employed many, if not all the same tactics in 2008 election...

      Why yes, look at MIT's Technology Review [technologyreview.com], the New York Times [nytimes.com], and InfoWorld [infoworld.com] - again, another glaring example of a profound double-standard. When Team Obama did it, it was "ground-breaking", when Republicans employ similar tools it a nefarious plot to control the world!

      Normally I'd agree with you but since you are trying to compare putting Obama in the White House to putting Donald Trump in the White House I'm going to have to disagree here. Obama, whatever you may think of him, at least had a multi digit IQ that allowed him to answer questions from reporters, skin that was too thick for his soul to be injured by Saturday Night Live skits and had a clear idea of which countries he had bombed. Trump on the other hand walks out of press conferences when he gets questions he does not like, launches twitter storms where he lambasts anybody who lampoons him and told a reporter he'd launched a missile strike on Iraq until the reporter corrected him and pointed out the strike was on Syria.... and those are just three sample of the highlights of what those bastards at SCL Group and their friends have saddled us with

      • by king neckbeard ( 1801738 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @09:16AM (#54376145)

        Why are you blaming SCL when it's was the Clinton campaign's strategy for a "Pied Piper" nutjob to be the GOP nominee (because she's too bad of a candidate to run against an adult), Bill encouraged him to run, and the media gave that asshole $2 billion in free advertising.

        The reason that we have this problem is that our electoral system lacks an option to shoot both candidates into the sun and have a mulligan. That could have gotten 65% of the vote, easy.

  • I'm reading "Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley" [amzn.to] by Antonio Garcia Martinez, about Facebook advertising. I'm at the part where Facebook internal data connects with external data to attach personal information on to every piece of data that Facebook had collected from the web. Scary stuff.
  • Yet another "explanation" for people rejecting big-government and so-called progressivism. Because it couldn't possibly be that people are fed up, could it.
  • Free Market Trumps Democracy
  • I thought the whole point of Facebook was to give him access to that data.

  • So, no mention of the startup company (Groundwork) that Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO) created for the Clinton campaign to do exactly the same kind of data analytics?

    “There are a lot of people who can write big checks,” Slaby says. “Eric recognizes how the technology he’s been building his whole career can be applied to different spaces. The idea of tech as a force multiplier is something he deeply understands.” https://qz.com/520652/groundwo... [qz.com]

  • Its like this with everything new, first we see the benefits and rejoice. We ridicule dissenters and pooh at their naivety only to realize a few years later that they had a point and we were being naive. Since by then some have learned to bend the relatively benign into something malignant and corrosive and we have to learn to deal with it.

    Primates, eh?

  • Anything to deflect the blame anywhere else but themselves. Liberals really ARE just like small children. Wonder what next month's excuse will be?

  • by Entrope ( 68843 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @08:02AM (#54375725) Homepage

    Seriously, are we not doing Betteridge's Law any more?

Save a little money each month and at the end of the year you'll be surprised at how little you have. -- Ernest Haskins

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