Episode One Hundred and Twenty Five: Transparency Through Bot; Mundane Fictional Spytech; The Horizontal Arcology

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

So I accidentally disappeared for a few days due to a combination of illness, travel, jetlag and generally it getting to the end of the day and simply not having enough time. But I’m back now: I seem to have picked up a norovirus at roughly the same time as my son (thanks, son), perhaps ill-advisedly got on a transatlantic plane whilst still feeling a bit wobbly, spoke at TEDxLiverpool yesterday, did All The Shopping today and maybe accidentally re-discovered Civilization V.

So here’s the thing about public speaking. I manage to simultaneously love it and loathe it: I loathe it for the weeks (months even) leading up to the next occasion because I am driving myself mad with nerves about the content of the talk – especially if it’s something new, which is what yesterday’s talk was, or if it’s a new unfamiliar audience (which all of them are, to be fair). Part of this is as much some sort of imposter syndrome – is what I’m talking about actually going to be useful, relevant or interesting to any of these people? But at the same time part of what I grapple with is a bit of a strange feeling of: well, surely I’m not *that* qualified to talk about this particular thing. It’s taken me a long time to realise that part of what people like from my talks is not so much the brand-new knowledge that may or may not be imparted, but at least something like an additional perspective.

And then there’s the hours and minutes – and the whole day – before the actual talk where I actually *feel* terrible. Like, physically terrible. Not like throwing up shaking terrible, but a consumed with anxiety kind of terrible that makes it difficult to concentrate on other things because I’m just worried about how it’s going to go. That persists right until the microsecond before the first word comes out of my mouth. Because even after I’ve stood up out of my seat after being announced, even after stepping onto the stage, even after grabbing the mic if there is one, it could all go horribly wrong. Until the first word comes out of my mouth.

Because after that, more commonly than not, it feels *amazing*. It feels like I’m on fire, like I can look anyone in the audience in the eye and know that I’ve got them, and that they’re coming with me for the next fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes or the next hour or however long. Because I can make them laugh and I can make them go quiet, and sometimes, if I’m very lucky and I’ve got the right stuff, I can make them cry. And those minutes feel fantastic. Like a stupendous drug. And I love doing it.

And, to be honest, it’s been far too long since I’ve done it regularly.

1.0 Transparency

It’s been a recurring theme of this newsletter that we live in an almost (if not actually) incomprehensible world of sufficient complexity and that one of the things that we could do with more of is transparency – and not just transparency, but well-communicated transparency where the end-goal is understanding of opaque processes.

In other words, and more better written: we need more things that help us understand what’s happening in the world.

A good recent example of this is the Parliament Twitterbot, @ParliamentEdits[1] made by the inestimable Tom Scott[2]. @ParliamentEdits is pretty simple – because most of the web traffic from Parliament is routed through only a few proxy servers, it’s relatively easy to identify Wikipedia edits that come from those IP addresses. So, what you do is this: you watch the Wikipedia page of recent changes[3], filter for the IP addresses that you’re looking for, and then, poof – do whatever you want to do with that feed.

One of the wonderful things about the internet (and a lax approach to intellectual property where what Tom did either couldn’t be patentable, shouldn’t be patentable and wasn’t patented in any event by Tom because he’s a nice chap) is that an idea like this is pretty easy to copy. And we should be clear: it’s a *good* idea. Wikipedia is a resource that’s used by lots of people and as such is influential. It’s also (broadly speaking) a strength of Wikipedia that it can be edited by anyone, but only inasmuch that it also provides an audit trail so you can see who edited what, when and where from, which is useful when you’re building an encyclopaedia.

So it’s easy to take Tom Scott’s idea and go: hm, what might Russian state-owned media be doing on Wikipedia these days, following the tragedy of flight MH17?

There’s a good writeup on Slate.com[4] about the Wikipedia bot that showed Russian state-owned TV, but here’s an excerpt from the original article over at GlobalVoices[5]:

“Earlier this morning, the Russian-language Wikipedia entry for commercial aviation accidents hosted one such skirmish, when someone with an IP address based in Kyiv edited the MH17 record to say that the plane was shot down “by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation.” Less than an hour later, someone with a Moscow IP address replaced this text with the sentence, “The plane was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers.”

“Thanks to a Twitter bot that tracks anonymous Wikipedia edits made from IP addresses used by the Russian government, we know that the second edit to the MH17 article came from a computer at VGTRK, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company””

We don’t need to rely on everyone in the world following that Twitter account. But this type of *automated* transparency, opinionated bots that are created with purpose, are as useful to journalists as other types of sources. The bot made it easier to find edits to Wikipedia that might have more meaning, more context at a particular moment, and sure enough, that information was useful enough and got passed around. And now, articles in newspapers all over the world are calling attention to the fact that the edit came from a certain IP address.

[1] @ParliamentEdits
[2] Tom Scott
[3] Wikipedia Recent Changes
[4] Wikipedia Edit Twitterbots Are Revealing How Russia Wants to Frame the MH17 Crash

2.0 Mundane Fictional Spytech

I re-watched Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol the other day – or had it on in the background whilst I was panicking and tweaking and playing with yesterday’s talk. Let’s get this out of the way first: Brad Bird is fantastic and if you haven’t seen and enjoyed The Iron Giant, then a) I don’t know what’s wrong with you and b) I still don’t know what’s wrong with you, why are you still here and not watching The Iron Giant.


Whether it’s product placement or something else – more likely the former than the latter – there’s a lot of Apple kit in the movie, and it’s clear that the Impossible Mission Force is one of those organizations that has made the move over to at least part of the Apple ecosystem. A surprising amount of their in-house spytech runs on Apple devices paired with either hardware cradles (the awesomely cool 3d projection iris-tracking setup that’s used to infiltrate the Kremlin, for example, runs on an iPad, whilst the engraving machines used for the room switcharoos in the hotel run on a cradle with a standard-issue iPhone) or just, you know, on regular Apple hardware.

It’s one of those things that feels strange because you’ve got consumer tech (Hey! Jeremy Renner’s using the standard iOS clock application to set a time – thirty four minutes to door knock!) as well as MovieOS in the form of the touchscreens and BMW holographic display and those large flat panels that are on those cool arms inside the IMF traincar-mounted shipping container as well as amusing gags about retinal scans. It’s a bit like seeing the Windows splashscreen pop up in True Lies or, as one of my friends pointed out, the progression in tech from the first Bourne movie, where you see him using regular Nokias, to the special fake OSes that the CIA has in their situation rooms.

3.0 The Horizontal Arcology

Two things:

1) Snowpiercer[1], a movie about lots of things, but for the purposes of this section, a movie about a world made uninhabitable through second-order hubris of humankind and the remainder of humanity forced to live in a remarkably prescient allegedly nuclear powered train that contains a closed-system environment where everyone is shocked, (shocked!) that a high-density form of protein comes from insects.

2) The Verge reporting on a design for a new Japanese luxury cruise train[2] that looks remarkably like some of the sets for Snowpiercer in that it looks like what a train would look like if you made a luxury building, oriented it in a sort of sideways fashion and moved it through the world at about 200 kilometers an hour and made sure only stupendously rich people could get on it.

So Snowpiercer is a movie set upon a moving horizontal arcology[3], a sort of archigram-on-wheels[4] with lots of guns, guts and violence, and the Japanese are actively designing, well, the sort of environment that you get to design when your design boundaries are the standardized space you can fit on a train car. Not building up, but building along on tracks. There’s lots of SF I think that deals with this – cities on rails that slowly circle around planets, chasing or running away from terminators, but it honestly took me a couple of weeks to realise that was what Snowpiercer was doing in terms of its premise. There’s something refreshing about thinking about the types of civilisations, cities and groupings that you can build in existing infrastructural places when you repurpose them. When your entire world is a train line, your existence gets reduced in dimension: you become something less than a flatlander, something where your only real directions are fowards and backwards – you hardly have any x or y axis, you exist only on a long, circular z.

[1] Snowpiercer
[2] Japan’s new Cruise Train is a luxury hotel on rails
[3] Nice pictures of arcologies
[4] Archigram Archival Project

So – I’m back!

How are you?