Pluralistic, your daily link-dose: 28 Feb 2020

Today's links

  1. Clearview AI's customer database leaks: Sic semper grifter.
  2. The Internet of Anal Things: Recreating Stelarc's "Amplified Body" with an IoT butt-plug.
  3. Oakland's vintage Space Burger/Giant Burger building needs a home! Adopt a googie today.
  4. Fan-made reproduction of the Tower of Terror: Even has a deepfaked Serling.
  5. Drawing the Simpsons with pure CSS: Impractical, but so impressive.
  6. Let's Encrypt issues its billionth cert: 89% of the web is now encrypted.
  7. AI Dungeon Master: A work in progress, for sure.
  8. How to lie with (coronavirus) maps: Lies, damned lies, and epidemiological data-visualizations.
  9. This day in history: 2019, 2015
  10. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

Clearview AI's customer database leaks (permalink)

Clearview is the grifty facial recognition startup that created a database by scraping social media and now offers cops secretive deals on its semi-magic, never-peer-reviewed technology. The company became notorious in January after the NYT did a deep dive into its secretive deals and its weird, Trump-adjascent ex-male-model founder.

(the Times piece was superbly researched but terribly credulous about Clearview's marketing claims)

Yesterday, Clearview warned its customers that it had been hacked and lost its customer database. Today, that customer database was published.

It seems that the NYT weren't the only ones to take Clearview's marketing claims at face value. Its client list includes the DoJ, ICE, Macy's, Walmart, and the NBA. All in all the dump includes more than 2,200 users, including "law enforcement agencies, companies, and individuals around the world."

Included: state AGs, university rent-a-cops, and clients in Saudi Arabia.

"BuzzFeed News authenticated the logs, which list about 2,900 institutions and include details such as the number of log-ins, the number of searches, and the date of the last search."

What does Clearview, a sercurity company, say about this ghastly security breach? "Unfortunately, data breaches are part of life in the 21st century."

Big shrug energy.

“Government agents should not be running our faces against a shadily assembled database of billions of our photos in secret and with no safeguards against abuse,” ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, said to BuzzFeed News.

It is amazing that this needs to be said.

"More than 50 educational institutions across 24 states named in the log. Among them are two high schools."

They are:

  • Central Montco Technical High School in Pennsylvania
  • Somerset Berkley Regional High School in Massachusetts

The log also has an entry for Interpol.

The Internet of Anal Things (permalink)

In 1994, the notorious/celebrated electronic artist Stelarc did a performance called "Amplified Body" in which he "controlled robots, cameras and other instruments by tensing and releasing his muscles"

Now, artist/critic Dani Ploeger has revisited Amplified Body with his own performance, which is very similar to Stelarc's, except all the peripherals are controlled by Ploeger tensing and releasing his anal sphincters around a smart butt-plug.

He calls it "B-hind" and it's a ha-ha-only-serious. The buttplug is "an anal electrode with EMG sensor for domestic treatment of faecal incontinence," and the accompanying text is a kind of art-speak parody of IoT biz-speak.

"B-hind offers a unique IoT solution to fully integrate your sphincter muscle in everyday living. The revolutionary anal electrode-powered interface system replaces conventional hand/voice-based interaction, enabling advanced digital control rooted in your body's interior. Celebrating the abject and the grotesque, ‍B‒hind facilitates simple, plug-and-play access to a holistic body experience in the age of networked society."

B-hind was produced in collaboration with V2_, the Lab for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, and In4Art.

Oakland's vintage Space Burger/Giant Burger building needs a home! (permalink)

Giant Burger was once an East Bay institution, known for its burgers and its gorgeous googie architecture.

One of the very last Giant Burger buildings is now under threat. Though the Telegraph Ave location was rescued in 2015 and converted to a "Space Burger," it's now seeking a new home because it is in the path of the Eastline project.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance is hoping someone will rescue and move the building: " Do you have an idea for a new location for this mid-century icon? Please contact if you know of an appropriate lot, project, or site, preferably downtown."

(Image CC BY-SA, Our Oakland)

Fan-made reproduction of the Tower of Terror (permalink)

Orangele set out to re-create the Walt Disney World Twilight Zone Tower of Terror elevator loading zone in the entry area to their home theater. He's not only done an impressive re-make of the set, but he's also augmented it with FANTASTIC gimmicks.

It's not merely that's he's created a rain, thunder and lightning effect outside the patio doors…

Nor has he merely created props like this gimmicked side table that flips over at the press of a button.


I kinda seriously love that he left Rod's cigarette in. The Disney version looks…uncanny.

Not shown: "exploding fuse box with simulated smoke and fire, motorized lighted elevator dial, motorized/lighted pressure gauge, video monitor playing Tower of Terror ride sequence seen through the elevator door wrap, motorized "elevator door'"

He notes, "I was once married, but now as a single person, I can do whatever I want, haha. NEVER getting married again."

Drawing the Simpsons with pure CSS (permalink)

Implementing animated Simpsons illustrations in CSS isn't the most practical web-coding demo I've seen, but it's among the most impressive. Bravo, Chris Pattle!

(not shown: the eyes animate and blink!)

#bart .head .hair1
    top: 22px;
    left: 0px;
    width: 6px;
    height: 7px;
    -webkit-transform: rotate(-22deg) skew(-7deg, 51deg);
    -ms-transform: rotate(-22deg) skew(-7deg, 51deg);
    transform: rotate(-22deg) skew(-7deg, 51deg);

I especially love the quick-reference buttons to see the raw CSS. It reminds me of nothing so much as the incredibly complex Logo programs I used to write on my Apple ][+ in the 1980s, drawing very complicated, vector-based sprites and glyphs.

Most interesting is the way that this modular approach to graphics allows for this kind of simple, in-browser transformation.

Let's Encrypt issues its billionth cert (permalink)

When the AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein walked into EFF's offices in 2005 to reveal that his employers had ordered him to help the NSA spy on the entire internet, it was a bombshell.

The Snowden papers revealed the scope of the surveillance in fine and alarming detail. According to his memoir, Snowden was motivated to blow the whistle when he witnessed then-NSA Director James Clapper lie to Senator Ron Wyden about the Klein matter.

Since that day in 2005, privacy advocates have been fretting about just how EASY it was to spy on the whole internet. So much of that was down to the fact that the net wasn't encrypted by default.

This was especially keen for @EFF. After all, we made our bones by suing the NSA in the 90s and winning the right for civilians to access working cryptography (we did it by establishing that "Code is speech" for the purposes of the First Amendment).

Crypto had been legal since 1992, but by Klein's 2005 disclosures, it was still a rarity. 8 years later — at the Snowden moment — the web was STILL mostly plaintext. How could we encrypt the web to save it from mass surveillance?

So in 2014, we joined forces with Mozilla, the University of Michigan and Akamai to create Let's Encrypt, a project to give anyone and everyone free TLS certificates, the key component needed to encrypt the requests your web-server exchanges with your readers.

Encrypting the web was an uphill climb: by 2017, Let's Encrypt had issued 100m certificates, tipping the web over so that the majority of traffic (58%) was encrypted. Today, Let's Encrypt has issued ONE BILLION certs, and 81% of pageloads use HTTPS (in the USA, it's 91%)! This is astonishing, bordering on miraculous. If this had been the situation back in 2005, there would have been no NSA mass surveillance.

Even more astonishing: there are only 11 full-timers on the Let's Encrypt team, plus a few outside contractors and part-timers. A group of people who could fit in a minibus managed to encrypt virtually the entire internet.

There are lots of reasons to factor technology (and technologists) in any plan for social change, but this illustrates one of the primary tactical considerations. "Architecture is Politics" (as Mitch Kapor said when he co-founded EFF), and the architectural choices that small groups of skilled people make can reach all the way around the world.

This kind of breathtaking power is what inspires so many people to become technologists: the force-multiplier effect of networked code can imbue your work with global salience (for good or ill). It's why we should be so glad of the burgeoning tech and ethics movement, from Tech Won't Build It to the Googler Uprising. And it's especially why we should be excited about the proliferation of open syllabi for teaching tech and ethics.

It's also the reason I'm so humbled and thrilled when I hear from technologists that their path into the field started with my novel Little Brother, whose message isn't "Tech is terrible," but, "This will all be so great, if we don't screw it up."

(and I should probably mention here that the third Little Brother book, Attack Surface, comes out in October and explicitly wrestles with the question of ethics, agency, and allyship in tech).

AI Dungeon Master (permalink)

Since 2018, Lara martin has been using machine learning to augment the job of the Dungeon Master, with the goal of someday building a fully autonomous, robotic DM.

AI Dungeon Master is a blend of ML techniques and "old-fashioned rule-based features" to create a centaur DM that augments a human DM's imagination with the power of ML, natural language processing, and related techniques.

She's co-author of a new paper about the effort, "Story Realization: Expanding Plot Events into Sentences" which "describes a way algorithms to use “events,” consisting of a subject, verb, object, and other elements, to make a coherent narrative."

The system uses training data (plots from Doctor Who, Futurama, and X-Files) to expand text-snippets into plotlines that continue the action. It's a bit of a dancing bear, though, an impressive achievement that's not quite ready for primetime (“We're nowhere close to this being a reality yet").

This may bring to mind AI Dungeon, the viral GPT-2-generated dungeon crawler from December.

As Will Knight writes, "Playing AI Dungeon often feels more like a maddening improv session than a text adventure."

Knight proposes that "AI DM" might be the next big symbolic challenge for machine learning, the 2020s equivalent to "AI Go player" or "AI chess master."

How to lie with (coronavirus) maps (permalink)

The media around the coronavirus outbreak is like a masterclass in the classic "How to Lie With Maps."

Self-described "cartonerd" Kenneth Field's prescriptions for mapmakers wanting to illustrate the spread of coronavirus is a superb read about data visualization, responsibility, and clarity.

Both of these images are representing the same data. Look at the map and you might get the impression that coronavirus infections are at high levels across all of China's provinces. Look at the bar-chart and you'll see that it's almost entire Hubei.

Here's a proposed way to represent the same data on a map without misleading people.

Another point that jumped out: stop coloring maps in red!

"We’re mapping a human health tragedy that may get way worse before it subsides. Do we really want the map to be screaming bright red? Red can connotate death, still statistically extremely rare for coronavirus."

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Ad-hoc museums of a failing utopia: photos of Soviet shop-windows

#5yrsago First-hand reports of torture from Homan Square, Chicago PD's "black site"

#1yrago EFF's roadmap for a 21st Century antitrust doctrine

#1yrago Yet another study shows that the most effective "anti-piracy" strategy is good products at a fair price

#1yrago London's awful estate agents are cratering, warning of a "prolonged downturn" in the housing market

#1yrago Bad security design made it easy to spy on video from Ring doorbells and insert fake video into their feeds

#1yrago Amazon killed Seattle's homelessness-relief tax by threatening not to move into a massive new building, then they canceled the move anyway

#1yrago The "Reputation Management" industry continues to depend on forged legal documents

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Allegra of Oakland Heritage Alliance, Waxy (, We Make Money Not Art (, Sam Posten (, Slashdot (, Kottke ( and Four Short Links (

Hugo nominators! My story "Unauthorized Bread" is eligible in the Novella category and you can read it free on Ars Technica:

Upcoming appearances:

Currently writing: I just finished a short story, "The Canadian Miracle," for MIT Tech Review. It's a story set in the world of my next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. I'm getting geared up to start work on the novel now, though the timing is going to depend on another pending commission (I've been solicited by an NGO) to write a short story set in the world's prehistory.

Currently reading: Just started Lauren Beukes's forthcoming Afterland: it's Y the Last Man plus plus, and two chapters in, it's amazeballs. Last week, I finished Andrea Bernstein's "American Oligarchs" this week; it's a magnificent history of the Kushner and Trump families, showing how they cheated, stole and lied their way into power. I'm getting really into Anna Weiner's memoir about tech, "Uncanny Valley." I just loaded Matt Stoller's "Goliath" onto my underwater MP3 player and I'm listening to it as I swim laps.

Latest podcast: Gopher: When Adversarial Interoperability Burrowed Under the Gatekeepers’ Fortresses:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

(we're having a launch for it in Burbank on July 11 at Dark Delicacies and you can get me AND Poesy to sign it and Dark Del will ship it to the monster kids in your life in time for the release date).

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a very special, s00per s33kr1t intro.

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