It’s Saturday again, so here’s links/commentary on what I read and learned from this week.
1. Begun, the spam war has. The big tech news this week was the announcement of Google Duplex. Duplex launched with a demo of it calling a hair salon on the phone and talking to a human to make an appointment. If you haven’t seen it yet, pause and look, it’s worth watching. The computer sounds very human.
What this brought to mind is an odd and random phone call I got this week as well. Good timing. I’ll transcribe from memory.
- Me: hello?
- Unknown woman caller: please stop calling me and then hanging up
- me: um…. I haven’t been calling you.
- uwc: yes you have, your keep calling me from this number and hanging up right away. You keep doing it, and I want it to stop.
- me: it’s not me. [checks caller id on phone and phone history] I just checked my phone. I’ve never called this number, it’s not in my history.
- me: [pause] I’m not sure who’s calling you but it’s not me
- uwc: this is your phone number, so it’s your problem, you need to fix it.
- me: maybe a computer is calling you, and somehow faking it’s coming from my number. [using my reasonable person at work voice] I’m really sorry but I really have never called you. I don’t know why you’re getting calls from my number. why don’t you block my number? that’ll fix it.
- uwc: [now less angry] I don’t know how to do that.
- me: [pause]
- uwc: hangs up
Given the anger level, I’m sure this was a real person. Not Google Duplex. I assume computers are pulling this stunt to discover which phone numbers reach live people.
Related, the New York Times ran a story this week Yes, It’s Bad. Robocalls, and Their Scams, Are Surging. Key stat is automated spam voice calls have “skyrocketed in recent years, reaching an estimated 3.4 billion in April.” With “an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago.” I’m sure you’ve noticed the uptick as well.
The economics are simple. If it’s cheap to try to scam everyone, then do it, and see who you catch. One of the most durable scams is the Nigerian Prince, who can’t get his inheritance money out of Nigeria, unless you send him a small sum immediately, after which he’ll split his fortune with you. This scam was first sent by snail mail, then moved to fax, then moved to email. In 2004, Bill Gates said “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” Which wasn’t quite right, but eventually AI got good enough at detecting email spam that it’s no longer a problem. But what AI giveth, AI taketh away. So please get ready for the dulcet tones of computer voice spam, with a completely realistic Nigerian Prince asking lonely non-tech savvy people about their health, and how they can split the prince’s inheritance money if they just send him $1000 bucks today. Preferably in bitcoin. This prince has time on his hands, so can talk to lonely people all day if that softens them up. As of right now, it’s not too late to call your parents to warn them. But don’t wait. In a couple of years, a computer sounding exactly like you will be asking them for their life savings. Over the phone.
2. Privacy is Dead. Some very good points made by Mims in his Wall Street Journal piece. Social networks include you, even if you aren’t on them. If someone you know joins a social network, they get asked to allow their contacts to get pulled. Not everyone does, but most do. And this gives them your name/phone number/email. For example if “1% of cellphones in London were compromised with malware, an attacker would be able to continuously track the location of more than half the city’s population.” And 270k people who used the Cambridge Analytica app got data for 87 million people. And while anonymizing that data seems like a good idea, “researchers with access to pools of anonymized data have found ways to identify individuals within it.” Mims concludes by arguing that everyone’s data is already out there, so it’ll be centralized either by governments (think China) or by huge tech companies (think Google, Facebook). Rather than say this is really really bad, Mims argues it’s more productive to say modern big data tech is here to stay. It has some good, and personally I think the good outweighs the bad. But opinions will very. Regardless let’s face the facts about the bad. And decide how to deal with it. The choice is government or regulated tech companies.
3. Graham Coop’s lab does the math. The golden state killer was found using publicly available DNA databases. Coop’s lab wrote up a good technical explainer on how that worked. Key sentences: “Under the assumptions we make here, it’s likely that a large percentage of people have at least one high-confidence genetic cousin in GEDmatch, and the number of 3rd-4th cousins found for DeAngelo—10 to 20—is not too far from the expectations.” Note the similarity here to Mims’ point just above about social networks. Both public DNA data sources and modern social networks can use the exponential power behind network math to identify you. Even if you’re not personally on these systems.
4. California rooftop solar required by law. This seems like a good idea. Who’s against solar? Well. If you think in terms of economics I believe this is a dumb idea. Solar rooftops are fine for volunteer private houses of course! But mandating them means more expensive and less new housing. And expensive housing has worse effects on people. And also (if you include the impact on housing costs) makes this an extremely overpriced way to cut carbon. I’m reassured that left/liberal Matthew Yglesias and right, or more correctly libertarian, Alex Tabarrok both hate the idea. Ygleasias There’s an easier way for California to build greener housing: just build more homes. Tabarrok Rooftop Solar is Expensive and Inefficient.
5. Chokers are the best people. Scott Sumner argues that if you do your best all the time in the NBA, you won’t get better in the playoffs. So you’re a choker. This is bad. But if you’re lazy most of the time, you will get better in the playoffs. So you’re clutch. This is good. He concludes by flip flopping conventional wisdom, saying chokers are (morally) the best people. Sumner is correct of course, and this is generally applicable.
6. Vest translates sounds into vibrations felt on skin, which after practice allows deaf to “hear” those vibrations. This is excellent. Quote:
That “unlocking” phenomenon, like adding a new sense, is hard to explain. How do a series of vibrations that supposedly reflect sound eventually have meaning when there’s no language assigned to them? How does the brain on the first day have no idea what a couple of vibrations on, say, the lower back means, but by the fifth day, know that they form a specific word? “My view is that the brain is a general-purpose computational device,” Eagleman told me. “You could take any kind of data stream and the brain will figure it out. I consider it the biggest miracle no one’s heard of.”
Note how generalized the brain is in it’s ability to pull in a brand new stream of sensory input.
7. Podcast on how big esports are. Esports are huge. Selling out stadiums for people to watch other people play video games live. What I liked about this podcast is it doesn’t assume you know much (that’s me), and walks you through how things got so big. Don’t listen if you know about esports already, but if you’re curious about why these are big and getting bigger, take a listen. link
Thanks for reading to the end. Have a good week.
Also, if you’re curious, here’s the original Yoda quote next to my updated one on the image at top:
The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the clone wars has.
The shroud of the computer talk has fallen. Begun, the spam wars has.