01/17/2020

#54 – Data is Humanity

#54 – Data is Humanity

If you drop your iPhone and want to repair it, do you have the “right” to fix your device on your own? The right to repair movement is gaining momentum, and right to repair groups are forming across the United States to fight Apple, John Deere, and other companies that sometimes make it difficult for end-users to repair technologies on their own.

Recently, the Grepcast team discussed right to repair, along with a “smart mirror” for fitness classes, 3D-printed neighborhoods, and other technology topics — read our podcast transcript below to find out what the Grepcast team had to say about these topics and more

Grepcast # 54 — Data Is Humanity

Adam Fisk: Welcome to 2020. We’ve got some quick-hits for you, and what better way to welcome the new year than by talking about social media influencers and when they go wrong. This is an amazing article that is filled with all the twists and turns that you’d hoped, coming to us from The Daily Beast, with the headline, “Social Media Influencers Behind ‘State Snaps’ Sentenced to 14 Years for Plot to Steal Domain Name.” This is written by Julia Arciga, and, I mean, what the hell internet?

Kelly Ford: This is the kind of thing where we talk about hacking and stuff, but let me tell you about some real crime.

Michael Oh: This is like the 2020 version of “Cops.” I don’t really know how to describe it; I guess you just have to read it. But it’s about a guy has a domain name, and another guy wants the domain name, and the guy goes to the house of the owner of the domain name — who has no relationship to the guy who wants the domain name.

AF: It’s that classic story of all crimes based on, “Hi, I want this domain name. Here’s my GoDaddy information. I want your [domain name] now. Also, I have a gun.”

MO: Our quick tip is if you’re buying domain names, click on that little check mark that says, “Make my registration private.” That way, no one is going to come to your house with a gun asking for your domain name.

AF: The best thing from the article is the quote from the assailant in this case: “I’m here for the domain name — whatever it takes, and I’m not leaving here without it.” According to the article, the assailant broke into the victim’s home on July 21, 2017 armed with a stolen gun, a taser, and a demand note that described how to do a GoDaddy transfer. I hope and pray this is just a support article. Don’t rob a man for a domain name.

KF: Because then you might end up in an article in The Daily Beast with quotes like, “He was threatened by gun emojis.”

AF: Pivoting, we’re going to talk about the latest in the Internet of Things and automation, which is now a smart mirror. This is actually something that I saw last year. But now, we have the fitness mirror. This is coming from the article, “A $1,500 smart mirror brings live fitness classes to your home.”

KF: But also, it has a $39 monthly fee.

MO: I kind of like this article, but it was posted around the same time that the Peloton cycle thing was going on with Grace from Boston. I was reading about this mirror and saying, “$39 a month is not that much to spend in comparison to a gym membership or a personal trainer.” It’s weird that it’s a mirror instead of a screen, but it makes sense. Because what is it going to do when you’re not in session? You can look at yourself and say, “How hot am I for doing all these great exercises?” I kind of like it.

KF: It’s $100 a year. And there’s part of me — especially living in a smaller space — where something like this seems so cool. I could have this mirror in my bedroom, and it’s awesome. But do I want a smart mirror in my bedroom? Hell no!

AF: You mean a smart mirror that has a microphone and camera built-in?

KF: I was doing a lot of Googling to learn about these trainers. So, these trainers are actually in a studio in New York. I think they have live and pre-recorded classes. Can the fitness person see you? There’s no way I’d put this in my house. It’d have to be in my basement locked up, like one of those horror movie things. You just don’t know what’s going to happen with a smart mirror.

MO: It is one of those things where people take two different pieces of technology and think to themselves, “This is going to be it.” From a privacy standpoint, there are lots of questions. So, I don’t know. I like [the smart mirror], but I’m not getting one because it’s still too expensive.

KF: What’s the idea? It’s just the unknowns. As much as we’ve seen these things go haywire — with Ring being so problematic — just put it in a locked basement, and you’ll be fine.

AF: This article was published in 2018, but one of the things that was really interesting was how it capitalizes on that flow where, “Hey, Peloton is making a million dollars, so why don’t we do that with a mirror?” We’re at the range in 2020 — and really in 2019 — where the consumer level is becoming more prevalent.

So, I’m going to give a shout-out to a Nintendo Switch game. There used to be a game called “Wii Fii,” where you had a balance bar and it was an interactive thing. Nintendo has released “Wii Ring Fit Adventure,” which is a game based on Pilates. I bought it, and it’s good, and it makes me work out really hard. It is that kind of personalization that the smart mirror was capitalizing on. It tells you when your form is bad, or if your knees are bad. It doesn’t use any cameras, and uses the technology of the Nintendo Switch, where you’re holding a ring and strapping one of the controllers to your leg. So, when you’re doing a squat and doing it bad, it knows this, and it gives you fewer points. It isn’t the best; it’s not the end-all, because everybody’s bodies are different, and it’s not programmed for every person. But, if you don’t want to spend $1,500 on a weird mirror that will stare at you, $80 is not a bad investment.

So, moving right along, our first large topic is something that brought me immense joy. This is an article coming to us from Fast Company, written by Adele Peters, regarding the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood. Now, this neighborhood has its first 3D-printed houses.

MO: I love 3D printing. But I don’t have [a 3D printer] because I’m stuck in the concept that it’s just going to produce more plastic things. But this is a 3D printer that I need to get. Because no one’s going to complain about me printing houses.

KF: I love this story. It’s heartwarming, and we rarely have heartwarming stories. Because looking at the kids’ faces when they have their own rooms is amazing. What also made this amazing was that the local government provided the land and infrastructure. So, it’s nice to see that this was a project that used a lot of different people. So, [the project was] in Mexico, and they picked a certain number of people who were in extreme poverty. But then they also worked with local nonprofits on non-machine labor. And then, they had to make it seismically sound. It’s such a cool project, and I loved that it involved so many people, both locally and this company that shipped [the homes].

AF: This project is being led by a nonprofit named New Story. It is in the outskirts of Mexico, and involves a 33-foot long 3D printer, and it is building walls and actively printing all the walls for these homes. Brett Hagler, the CEO of New Story, was quoted in this article about how they’ve proved what’s possible by bringing this machine down to a rural town and into a seismic zone and successfully printing these houses. So, all these different unknowns stacked on top of each other is showing that this is actually real and possible. This is on-site and done in a neighborhood and built from scratch.

KF: The videos of the walls being printed are so soothing to watch.

MO: It’s so cool, and I remember talking to a friend of mine who worked at AutoCAD. And years ago, he said that 3D printing was going to be a revolution. And the only printers that most of us had ever seen were making toys and plastic parts. But he was saying that there are 3D printers working on this scale, and working with metal and different kinds of construction. And it’s amazing to see this kind of software hit the market. This is not the software and technology and services that involve coders. This is services and things being made in new ways. I’m just genuinely amazed at how rapidly that this has come. It was applied not just in a lab, but this technology was talked about a few years ago and is being used to solve real world problems. It’s a really great story.

AF: To go off of that, these are really great houses. When we think about 3D printing, it’s usually in relation to toys, and it’s way too intricate for any real use. In these pictures, you can see that this is a house-house. Honestly, it’s a good-looking house. I would have a house that looks like this. The best part of this is not only that they’re doing it, but they’re also going to these next steps. New Story has already built 2,700 homes in Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Mexico using traditional construction. Now, they’re able to build these houses, and I quote from the article, “The first two homes were printed at the same time in a total of 24 hours over multiple days.” This is what they were able to do in that short of time.

MO: If you’re doing this in a lab in Nevada, you’re taking away jobs from construction workers. Now, this is an application where you’re providing something that couldn’t happen. The fact that they drove this house down — it actually got stuck in customs for three months — shows that agile workflow that we talk about business and software development. But they were going to make this happen, and they were going to build it and deal with whatever happens in the middle. Because that’s the real world, right?

AF: To the point of the article, this machine is something that did not exist before it was built and put on a truck. So, I get why it got stuck at customs. This is that joy of technology and that real world application where these things are being created, and I’m super excited to see where this goes. This company Icon that partnered with New Story had a quote in the article that said, “The home building industry is in need of a paradigm shift, and we shouldn’t have to choose between things such as resiliency and affordability or design freedom and sustainability.” They really proved in this that these printings were essentially autonomous. They delivered a printer that is 33 feet long and started churning [these homes] out.

MO: I kind of wish I had this 3D printer. I know in reality it wouldn’t work, and I’d probably operate it and still mess it up. But I’d like to imagine this world where I can just press print, and instead of dealing with all of the dust and construction and painting, things would just get done. Hopefully, that’s version two.

AF: So, moving right along to our next article, this is a complicated article. This is coming to us from Motherboard and Vice, written by Maddie Stone. I’m trying to think about how to best describe this, because it is complicated. The article headline is, “He Was Murdered in a Hate Crime. She Brought His Blood-Soaked Phone Back to Life.” This article is really focusing on those solderers who are bringing the right to repair into a different light.

So, for those who are not familiar, the idea of right to repair is a movement to ensure that everyone has the right to repair their devices. It’s focused predominantly in Apple, given their reluctance to publish notices and release parts or anything like that for things as simple as, “Hey, I dropped my phone in the toilet, and I don’t want to have to go buy a new one.”

MO: I will say that there’s Apple, but in some circles, John Deere is also the enemy to right to repair. There’s an entire movement that’s been covered in a number of tech publications around John Deere’s efforts to do what Apple does to the iPhone. If you buy a modern tractor from John Deere, you don’t have the right to repair it. So, a farmer who is used to taking things apart and fixing things and putting them back together is limited in their capacity to do that. And that is kind of another equivalent of this movement and why it exists.

KF: This is both a fascinating and devastating article. But I do like the focus on Jessa Jones, a mother of four who has a PhD in molecular genetics. I love that she was at home and her kids dropped the phone in the toilet, and she took a sledgehammer to the toilet. She then fixed [the phone] and she had this quote that I really loved: “It seemed like it had to be a solvable problem.” It’s an expensive phone, and you shouldn’t have to buy a new phone just because you dropped it in the toilet. I really love that frame of mind where someone believes that they can fix this. I love that she transferred her molecular skill set into molecular phone repair and recovery. It’s such a niche market. There aren’t a ton of people who do this, and she also teaches other people how to do this. So, she’s not holding in that knowledge, and she’s sharing it with others, especially in the right to repair movement.

MO: I gave up when soldering when to microsoldering, because the control that you have to have — because you’re literally doing this soldering with a soldering iron that has pins to solder on it through a microscope. I was horrible at the macro stuff, and I can’t imagine what damage I would do trying to fix motherboards and parts made by robots. These are people going in with the finest of tools to repair them. And it’s amazing to watch.

AF: I think one of the most important things that this article focuses on is when we talk about right to repair, we think about how someone busted their phone, and they now want their phone to work again so they don’t need to buy a new one. But what this article really focuses on as the core need is the data. It’s the stuff that’s locked into a device. It focuses specifically how with the release of iOS 8 for iPhones, data is encrypted. So, the only way to recover data from a device that has been locked is to have the passcode and to have the device booting up and working. In this article, it focused on the idea that the repair that Jessa Jones or a few other folks were trying to not just fix a device, but that they were trying to get it to a point where someone could enter a passcode and start downloading photos. That’s what they were focusing on in this case.

MO: This is really interesting and really complicated. There’s another article by iFixit, which is one of those companies that really enables people to do these repairs. They provide physical tools and manuals, and they’re open-source for [right to repair], and they advocate against regulations. They talk about how some of the regulations that prevent them from doing their jobs and prevent people from fixing things for other people are 1980s-era legislation that restricts people from unlocking digital tools. It makes a great analysis where it says that in the 1980s, cyber security and hacking aren’t what they are today. The idea that there are digital locks and tools that you need to use to unlock these things — and the fact that you want to unlock these things to do something good — did not exist at the time. And the legislation is being used — in this case by Apple — to shut down the uses of technology which are good for everybody. So, it’s a multifaceted idea, this right to repair. But it’s really fascinating to do a deep dive into it. Because there’s a lot of ways to look at it.

KF: It’s this amazing thing, but there’s also this really sad human element to it. There was this one man whose sister’s plane crashed in the Caribbean, and he just wanted her data recovered. Everyone said no, but [Jessa Jones] was able to recover the data in two days. So, the last photo that his sister took is hanging up in his house. And that’s where the article started as well. There was a hate crime in Kansas where an Indian man was shot, and it was fatal, and his wife wanted the final snapshots on his phone. But his phone was blood-soaked. But it goes back to the idea that it’s not data, it’s human value. It’s not about recovering the data and buying another phone, but it’s about having that last moment with [loved ones].

AF: I think what this article really does a good job with is displaying that inconsistency of message. In the article, microsolderer Joe Ham says he has people come to him all the time who say, “Apple says this is impossible and cannot be done, and other shops say they can’t do it.” But he approaches it as being the last stop for restoring memories, these intangible items. Data is a very odd word, but it’s that human value and what the pieces mean to individuals. It could be something very bland, like an email, a photo, or a text message. But it’s what those mean to people is immeasurable.

MO: Data is human, and human is data. There is so much that’s captured on these devices — everything from pictures and videos to the emails that people get with metadata and location. It is interesting where right to repair intersects with these human stories. That’s ultimately what [Jessa Jones] is unlocking is a place or an image or a video that otherwise would be lost in eternity. And that comes down to why right to repair really matters. It seems on the surface where if Apple wants to lock their devices, it should be able to do so. People have a choice, and they can buy devices from another manufacturer. But the fact is, [right to repair] is a very meaningful movement, and it should be supported.

AF: Speaking from personal experience, that feeling when you recover data and the level of appreciation that comes with it is amazing. It’s one of the best feelings, because you have that spark of connection where each party understands what the data meant to them. To the point where this article ends and goes back to the start of this hate crime. And the phone that was repaired is now sitting on [the victim’s wife’s] nightstand forever. That’s the level that this device — that we sometimes joke is very disposable — and it shows that data is human, and it matters.

Have an idea for a Grepcast episode? We’d love to hear from you! Contact the Grepcast team via email at grepcast@tsp.me.

Links and Extra Reading

Social Media Influencer Behind ‘State Snaps’ Sentenced to 14 Years for Plot to Steal Domain Name

A $1,500 smart mirror brings live fitness classes to your home

The world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood now has its first houses

He Was Murdered in a Hate Crime. She Brought His Blood-Soaked Phone Back to Life.

Apple Is Bullying a Security Company with a Dangerous DMCA Lawsuit

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

This Company Built a Private Surveillance Network. We Tracked Someone With It