June 17, 2024

A bit of a grab-bag of things I read, and found interesting, over the last month:

Unearthing The Truth, in The Economist, is about recent discoveries in Great Zimbabwe, a medieval state after which the modern country is named. It was a major regional power and the center of a complex trading network; it is also now an important archeological site, whose massive granite walls remain standing. It has also been a kind of Rorschach for Western assumptions about Africa; the earliest European architects to study the site concluded that it must have been built by foreign invaders, because they assumed that Africans had never been capable of such feats; one scholar declared that it mush have been built by Phoenicians or Israelites after he “after he sniffed a lintel. It smelt of Lebanese cedar—rather than, say, the local sandalwood…” Even after it was conclusively shown that the site was indeed the work of Africans— ancestors of today’s Shona— researchers still suggested that its achievements were “a product of its relations with non-African states,” based on the discovery of objects like a Ming dynasty tea pot and glass beads from Persia. Zimbabwean archaeologist Shadreck Chirikure is the foremost contemporary scholar of the site, and must still combat these assumptions. Its a poignant example of how stubborn stereotypes and myths about Africa and its history remain. Part of the reason for this is just that the continent is understudied; for example, “[j]ust 3% of the papers published in four prestigious history journals from 1997 to 2020 were about Africa. Of these only about 10% were written by authors based in Africa (compared with 86% for America, 76% for Europe and 40% for Asia and Oceania).” It’s also a good example of why diversity in scholarship is important not only for its own sake, or for reasons of fairness, but because it also makes the work better. “The more that is written about African history, the more nuanced it is likely to become. The more African scholars do the writing, the more likely it is that the field benefits from new methods and insights.”

This piece is also a really good example of effective and innovative web design. The scroll animations actually make a really helpful addition to the story, instead of being there just for the sake of novelty.

It was startling and yet not exactly surprising to see, in this piece by Oliver Moody, the similarities between the treatment of the Sami people in Scandinavia and Russia, and that of Native Americans in the United States and Canada— right down to boarding schools where children were punished for speaking their native languages. One big difference, though— at least in Finland— is the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, collecting and publishing the stories of what the Sami experienced to provide an opportunity for national reckoning. That, of course, doesn’t fix everything, especially problems things that are happening right now— though many Sami are concerned that the government will behave as though it has. But it does at least make possible a shift in the national narrative, a complicating of the story that Fins tell about themselves. It’s hard to imagine this in the United States right now.

I think I’ve written rather a lot about plastic here, mainly in terms of the harm it does to the environment. “How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us,” by Jeannette Cooperman, struck me in part because it doesn’t forget why plastic was appealing to people in the first place. First, the earliest plastics were mainly adopted as substitutes for natural materials— ivory and lacquer— the harvesting of which was destructive (as well as increasingly expensive, which sadly was probably the greater motivation). In the beginning, plastic was reasonably thought of as a less environmentally harmful alternative. But there’s also the simple fact that plastics are kind of amazing— light, strong, inexpensive, and marvelously various, suitable for everything from clothing to dinnerware and possible (eventually, anyway) to mold into almost any shape and any color. It’s not really hard to understand what made it attractive, in purely practical terms; add to that the novelty and the marketing appeal of “‘Throwaway Living,’ since ‘disposable items cut down household chores,'” and of course it was going to catch on.

But we know about what comes next. Plastic (both the word and the stuff) also quickly became a synonym for fake or artificial, for a cheap substitute for the “real” thing. “Exciting as its applications could be, plastic also spelled cheap, ersatz, of inferior quality. And the sudden quantity of inferior junk was unnerving.” But, of course, plastic is just as “real” as wood or metal or anything else; perhaps the feeling that it was not ever quite the real thing is part of what led to us ignoring, for so long, the fact that we were going to be living, effectively forever, with every bit of it we made. As Cooperman points out, the word “plastic” once simply meant malleable or flexible, and this was a central appeal of these new materials. “The irony only dawned later: once hardened, those polymers turn out to be one of the least adaptable materials on the planet.” In more ways than one, we simply cannot get away from it:

I hunt up clothes that breathe for themselves, but they have plastic buttons. I buy storage containers made of glass, but they have plastic lids. To make amends, I buy a washable Q-tip (a colossal mistake) and deodorant in a paper-wrapped bar, which is like trying to rub a brick under your arm. I carry around a stainless steel straw—to stick in a Starbucks cup that turns out to be lined with a polyethylene plastic nearly impossible to recycle. At home, we eat at a wood kitchen table, its stains and nicks covered with a sunflower design I painted with what I now realize is a liquid plastic.

Do your best, but know this: There is no real escape.

Why are Some Zoomer So Wistful for the ’80s?,” asks Ashley Reese; at least part of the answer seems to be precisely that they can’t remember it. There’s romanticization of the analog, which I have to say I kind of get (except let’s all just admit that cassette tapes were never that great). But there’s also, apparently a feeling that the decade was…more authentic?

“‘You could have big hair and nobody would judge you for it… you could wear the craziest, brightest colored clothing, and everything was really over the top,’ Sky said. ‘I feel like, in this generation, it’s very minimalistic. Everything has to be perfect and airbrushed.'”

I laughed out loud when I read that. I mean, if you’re sick of minimalist aesthetics, fine, but people dressed that way in the 1980s for the same reason that more restrained styles dominate now: it was fashionable, and there was just as much pressure to adopt that look as there is with whatever is fashionable now. I don’t know if anyone who lived through the 1980s would see it as less superficial or image-conscious than today. Perhaps the difference, if there really is one, is just that the audience for whatever you decide to wear is (potentially) so much larger now? That would also be consonant with the sense of vicarious nostalgia for a pre-internet world. At the same time, in that world, the odds that somebody who got really into the fashion, music, etc. of a previous era would be able to find like-minded people to talk about it with were much lower. So, as with so many things, the internet giveth and the internet taketh away.

Over the last week or so, I seemed to be seeing recommendations everywhere for “Searching for Susy Thunder,” by Claire L. Evans, so I am really just piling on to the consensus. Susan Headley was, among many other things, one of the first people to become known as a hacker, back before the word evoked any clear set of images for most people. She doesn’t match the popular stereotypes, in a number of respects— most obviously, being a woman— and her story challenges them as well in the way that it foregrounds the psychology of hacking. Evans refers to this as “social engineering,” but Headley/Thunder prefers “psych-sub,” short for “psychological subversion.” Either way, the emphasis is on the idea that the real weakness in any computer network is the human beings who build and run it.

“…few major hacks are pulled off without some old-fashioned social skills. Passwords are hard to crack, but people are easy. In the summer of 2020, just as I was trying to convince Scott Ellentuch to grant me access to Susan Thunder, a group of teenage hackers was able to crack 130 of Twitter’s most closely guarded accounts by manipulating Twitter employees into granting them access to internal company tools.

As Susan explained in a keynote talk at the 1995 DEFCON hacker conference in Las Vegas, if more than one person has access to a system, they can be played against one another. And if only one person has access, they’re still vulnerable, simply by virtue of being human. People are, on average, trusting and predictable; they respect authority, are keen to appear helpful, and aren’t very good at spotting deception. They might fall for a phishing attempt or ignore someone rifling through company dumpsters. They might be tempted by a USB stick labeled “salary information” and install malware on their laptop. They can be bilked, bamboozled, and bribed. Nobody knows that better than a social engineer.

The combination of her skill at “psych-sub” and her gender led, unsurprisingly, to some other hackers dismissing her as a lightweight, but the story here complicates any effort to place individuals in a simple hierarchy of skill or knowledge. Headley, herself, remains something of an enigma: she wasn’t anxious to be found, but seems very ready to tell her story, and Evans is wary about taking everything she says at face value. But even if some of the facts here are open to dispute, the story still complicates the images of hackers and hacking in interesting ways.

You’ve likely heard of ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Since computers process all information as numbers, other symbols need to be translated into numbers for computers to be able to do anything with them. ASCII is one system for assigning a combination of numbers to each character. This is fairly simple for the Latin alphabet, since there are relatively few symbols, but Chinese, with its thousands of characters, is a different story. “The Prisoner Who Revolutionized Language With a Teacup,” by Jung Tsu, describes how Zhi Bingyi worked out such a system for Chinese text, dividing each character up into its component radicals and assigning each one a letter in the Latin alphabet; this allows any character to be specified by a combination of four or fewer letters. It’s a bit more complicated than, that, of course, but it is the basic idea, and, amazingly, Zhi began working it out while he was in jail as a political prisoner, writing out his ideas with a stolen pen on the lid of a tea cup and wiping them off when he ran out of room.

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