Don’t Call It Hacking

News of the World (album)
I'm Seeing A Whole New Meaning In This Now

Calling it “hacking” makes it sound difficult and technical, when basically what the News Of The World did was phone voicemail boxes that, like most, had easily-guessed PINs. It was spying. It was intrusion. It was burglary. It invaded the lives of innocent people every bit as violently and recklessly as breaking into into their homes and ransacking their bedrooms. Where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, they find a stranger there, manipulating their lives for money.

‘Hacking’ once meant something very different; it was a morally neutral or actually positive word, simply meaning skilled use of computers. Ironically there was even a hacker code of ethics – a concept these debased editors would have to look up.

This has added a great deal more fuel to an already raging debate over libel and privacy law. That reform is desperately needed is, as the “superinjunction” debacle showed, beyond question, but such difficult decisions would be better not made in the context of newspapers carrying out criminal acts. Laws made in anger and haste are likely to be bad for all journalism and all freedom of speech, not just Murdoch’s papers and their like.

And it should be remarked that other British tabloids are quite capable of doing breathtaking violence to basic moral concepts. Look at today’s Daily Express. In the light of a study that failed to find a link between salt and early death, they label all people who discouraged eating salt as ‘fascist’.

That’s what the Daily Express thinks fascists are. Not people who overthrow democracy, who rule by fear, who murder all opposition. People who say you shouldn’t eat too much salt.

Evil is infantile.

(Updated 22:00)

Click On My Face

This is a artistic steganography try. It talks...
There could be a link encoded in this image. There isn't, but there could be.

Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.

An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.

And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.

Ink With Links

A Japanese advertising poster containing QR codes
Adverts with links let you buy on the spot.

When I posted yesterday about QR codes, those little symbols used to put Web links on real-world objects, reader Azijn made this thought-provoking comment:

I find QR codes a bit weird. Why not have an app that can simply recognize a certain default font in which advertisers will agree to publish their URLs? Humans and phones alike can recognize that!

Indeed, I can find no such app. How come? Azijn’s idea would surely work.

But then you have to remember that most design actually happens by accident. QR codes are prevalent for this purpose mainly because they’ve been around long enough to catch on. They were invented by Toyota for labelling components and it was in Japan that they were first used on phones. But that doesn’t mean of course that they’re the best solution.

QR codes did have a couple of advantages. They were designed expressly to be read by machine and have built-in error correction, so they were easier for simple devices to process. But now that phones are very powerful computers they should have little trouble handling text recognition – I doubt if there’s even any need for special fonts¹.

I can think of one way to speed things up though: A typographical convention to indicate where a website address begins and ends, such as putting it between two easily recognised symbols, so that the phone doesn’t need to scan whole pages. Example:

►http://i.doubt.it◄

Any such text will be highlighted on your phone’s screen, showing you that it’s clickable.

Can I get a patent on that?

  1. There have been fonts designed to be easily read by machine since at least the 60s, for example the hardcore OCR-A, the more friendly OCR-B, or the space-age classic Westminster – which I had always thought belonged to NASA or IBM or some such but turns out to have been created by a British bank. These days though Optical Character Recognition software is so good that they are no longer really necessary, though obviously plainer, less ornate fonts are likely to get better results.

Bus Vignette

The young guy on the bus with dirty clothes and an unmanaged beard keeps drinking from a water bottle and glancing at me with wild eyes. I’m worried he wants to tell me about the vaccine against religious fundamentalism or something of that class. But instead he’s taken out a magazine called “Love It“.

Subheading: Real Life & Celebs.

Shows you how you can be wrong about someone. I’d thought he was just a drug-addled paranoiac, but it turns out there’s no hope for him.

Bus Vignette

The young guy on the bus with dirty clothes and an unmanaged beard keeps drinking from a water bottle and glancing at me with wild eyes. I’m worried he wants to tell me about the vaccine against religious fundamentalism or something of that class. But instead he’s taken out a magazine called “Love It“.

Subheading: Real Life & Celebs.

Shows you how you can be wrong about someone. I’d thought he was just a drug-addled paranoiac, but it turns out there’s no hope for him.

Dame Enda

NYTimes Cartoon

Newspapers, never call yourself a ‘paper of record’. Every silly mistake you make then becomes a silly mistake, of record. It’s extra fun when an institution as grand as the New York Times decides that Enda Kenny’s name is wrong and corrects it. And his gender, while they’re at it. Couldn’t they employ a competent sub-editor from Estonia or somewhere?

Mind you, a certain paper I used to work for (ahem) made a similar mistake with my copy once. Or rather, the opposite mistake. At the time there were rumours about a certain Fianna Fáil politician receiving a payment of over a million from a certain businessman. We all knew who it was, but libel laws prevented us from saying. So I decided to refer to him as ‘Edna’, which I considered the least likely possible name for a TD – especially a male one.

My sub-editor happily ‘corrected’ this to Enda – three times – changing the deliberately strange into the merely confusing, and making it look like I was impugning the reputation of the man who is our Taoiseach now. Ironic, considering his promise yesterday.

But why am I telling you about it? Thanks to the magic of the Internet, here it is. From December 1996.

Knew I should have gone with Ethel.

Speaking of wealthy businesspersons, in the news this morning we learn that there are now five people in Ireland who have made the Forbes list of dollar billionaires. To think, only a few years ago I would have felt quite proud of that fact. Now I just want to see their tax clearance certs.

The Storm Before The Other Storm

Wind is howling across Ireland today. The City Museum here in Galway had to close to the public because bits of it were blowing away. Excellent food in the museum by the way, including an orange cake that tastes like oranges wish they could. Get there when it’s safe again.

I saw a bird in a shop, sheltering from the storm. It was a starling, speckled and black-eyed. It hopped and flew around quite content for the duration with the indoor life. And the thing is, it was a wholefoods store. Made a good advert for the place really. “Fuck me the stuff is fresh here. It’s got birds in it.”

Speaking of tortured links vaguely to do with flying, glance please at the picture to the right. Is this not one of the most egregious examples of proofreading you’ve ever seen on a professional magazine? The story is kind of strained too, considering that flying in Ireland is not something RAF Harriers ever really did, but it must be admitted that they were amazing planes.

Maybe I’ll have time to say more about them tomorrow. It would be a change from all the politics. That is, if Egypt doesn’t explode. Which I’m very afraid it’s about to do.