Tuesday 11th August 2020

Hacking, A.I.s, and Phones (Smart and Landline)

I’m a digital hoarder. I’ve come to accept that about myself.

Because of this, I sometimes find myself hunting for old files, and be-moaning the way the filesystem has changed. But that’s okay. We each have our own things.

I collect a lot of weird, old, odd files. It’s been an ambition of mine, probably since I was a small child, to get a copy of every issue of TV Century 21, a comic from the 1960s. TV Century 21 is really quite charming. It consists of comic strips of children’s TV adventure programmes, presented as a newspaper from the year 2068, 100 years in the future. There are headlines and sometimes little news summaries, and then a lavishly illustrated comic strip of the events themselves.

Hope nothing bad happens to all that Liquid Dynamite.

Last week, I finally managed to complete my collection. Some are a little rough around the edges, some are faded, but after thirty years, I’ve finally got a copy of every page of every issue.

I don’t know what I’ll necessarily do with them. Flicking through them now, as beautiful as the artwork is, the stories and images don’t capture me in the way they did as a child, and, really, it’s only the stories that I’m familiar with that really press my emotional buttons. The stories are slightly whacky, the pacing is off, the dialogue is poor. There are plot holes so big you can drive a big consignment of liquid dynamite through them. But still, I’m glad I have them.

It’s not just scans I collect. Old radio programmes, TV programmes. Anything really that can encoded digitally. There’s a whole world on my hard drives. Last week, I had a moment that every collector longs for. A friend asked about an obscure radio comedy from 2007. “Does anyone know how I could possibly get a copy?” she asked. My collection of radio programmes is nowhere near complete, but I happened to have all three seasons of this particular show, taped off the radio at the time of broadcast.

There’s a joy that comes from producing the show just like that. This collecting has all been worth it: someone other than me wants this stuff. And plus I like the idea that it leaves the asker slightly confused. Just how many old radio programmes does Simon have tucked away? She doesn’t need to know that this was a lucky chance - that she just asked about one of the few programmes that I happened to have. That can be our secret.


Since I last wrote, I have three new OneZero columns out. I know, I have been slow at sending this. I am poor at self-marketing.

Firstly, a look at hacking, specifically the hack of Twitter that took over the accounts of Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates. You’d think it would require a sophisticated operation to do that, but according to one person behind the scenes, the hackers literally paid someone to get access to Twitter’s Slack account, and on there found the login details for the admin tools pinned to the top.

Secondly, about GPT-3, the vast neural-network created by OpenAI, based on the largest amount of training data of any A.I. of all time. The result? A chatbot that actually kind of works well and at times gives the impression that it knows more than it’s letting on.

And, finally, a piece about that weird feeling that our phones are listening to us. It’s a conspiracy theory, and yet I find even reasonable people repeating it these days. The world has got stranger and more complex and I can’t help feeling that the end result of this is that we’re all more vulnerable to getting tricked into believing things that aren’t true.


Elsewhere

In the New Yorker (where else) a lyrical piece about landline telephones in literature.

This is when the phone rings, and when everything, we think, is about to change. But it doesn’t—the caller is a stranger, with the voice of a little girl. Wrong number, the wife says. The phone rings again. Same caller. The wife gives her instructions—“You are turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero”—and hangs up.


Last time I wrote briefly about Lego interfaces. The Present and Correct photo seems to have sparked a renewed interest in Lego computer pieces and George Cave has written a surprisingly insightful piece about the UX of physical interfaces.

Shape coding is one approach to differentiation, but there are many others. Colour coding is perhaps the only one to break into our everyday vocabulary, but we can add four more: size, texture, position and operation coding. Together these six are our allies in the design of error-proof interfaces.


I thought this piece about David Shor in Intelligencer was going to annoy me after the first paragraph. Up until reading this I knew nothing about Short, but at the outset I learned that he was infamously fired for tweeting tone-dead remarks about the efficacy Black Lives Matter protests. However, what follows is an incredibly insightful analysis of politics in the modern world and, finally, a compelling explanation of what the hell is happening in the world right now:

In the postwar era, college-educated professionals were maybe 4 percent of the electorate, meaning few voters had remotely cosmopolitan values. But the flip side was that this educated 4 percent ran the world. Both parties were run by a highly educated, cosmopolitan minority that held values that undergirded the postwar consensus, around democracy and rule of law.

During this era, both parties were run by the most cosmopolitan segments of society. And there were really strong gatekeepers. This small group of highly educated people not only controlled both the left and the right, but also the media. And both sides knew it wasn’t electorally advantageous to campaign on cosmopolitan values.

So, campaigns centered around this cosmopolitan elite’s internal disagreements over economic issues. But over the past 60 years, college graduates have gone from being 4 percent of the electorate to being more like 35. Now, it’s actually possible — for the first time ever in human history — for political parties to openly embrace cosmopolitan values and win elections; certainly primary and municipal elections, maybe even national elections if you don’t push things too far or if you have a recession at your back. And so Democratic elites started campaigning on the things they’d always wanted to, but which had previously been too toxic. And so did center-left parties internationally.

I’ve made a few edits for clarity and brevity to catch the key points. The whole piece is worth reading to hear more about how politics and campaigning really works these days.


I hope you all have great weeks. Until next time.

Yours,

Simon