Archives For technology

cleaning the sea

Unless you live under a rock on an alien planet, you probably know all about the massive hacks which successfully revealed every digital asset used to run Ashley Madison, the much maligned, famous dating site for cheating spouses. And you probably also know of several very vocal and visible morality crusaders in the U.S. and Europe, who have been outed as long term members paying hundreds of dollars to guarantee having affairs. A top notch cybersecurity reporter with trusted sources in the web’s seedy underbelly, Brian Krebs, has already found evidence that an enterprising group of extortionists used the leaked data to blackmail some of the users in spear phishing campaigns, demanding bitcoins to keep their affairs quiet. Although one does wonder how effective this scam would be if the data is already easy to access and a concerned spouse could just do a search for familiar e-mail and physical addresses to find a match. Seems like an attempt to scare someone to reflexively hand over some hush money. But I digress a bit…

While it’s pretty hard to gather too much sympathy for people who cheated on their spouses or advocate for their privacy, even if every users’ situation may be different, and many more than likely did not actually meet anyone, whatever we may feel towards them shouldn’t obscure the very real problem with so much of our lives playing out on the web. We need to work past all of the moral outrage and schadenfreude and come to grips with the realization that we’re using a number of sites to do things with which we can be blackmailed. Sure, those who wanted to get laid behind their spouses’ backs have something to be ashamed of and issues to work though, but consider the previous big adult site hack, that of casual sex site Adult FriendFinder. Sure, a few users were definitely cheating on their spouses, most of the users were swingers, or simply looking for a hookup on a site that seemed large and recognizable enough to work for them to get some of their basic urges met, well outside the prying eyes of today’s societal moralists.

It’s one thing when you’re busted for trying to cheat or cheating, but when you’re either in open marriage arrangements, or are single and just want casual sex and get the same vultures with blackmail threats in your inbox for being an adult with a sex drive, shouldn’t that be different? If you use the web for anything less tame than reading the news and surfing social media sites, a dark cloud should not hang over your head with every hack. And sadly, there’s not much that’s possible to do to prevent large hacks like this. From sloppy coding, to outdated certificates, to a server that hasn’t been updated in months, there are simply too many vectors for an attack, so when you’re a large target, the surface area you have to keep secure forever is immense, while hackers need only one point of entry, once to do a lot of damage. Your best hope is just to not be interesting enough to warrant anyone’s attention to avoid being blackmailed, but given how many cybercriminals are out there, if your email is on a list, you’re a viable target anyway.

That leaves us with the question of what to do when the next embarrassing, adult-oriented hack comes. Note the “when,” not an if because there will be another one. The simple, but very likely unsatisfactory answer is to just own up to whatever may be found about your sex life and figure out how to deal with it if it’s something you’ve tried to keep under wraps but can’t. We can’t hide our preferences in the closet anymore because social media is everywhere and everybody has been using dating sites, mainstream or adult, leaving a lot of digital fingerprints. Maybe the new trend of opening up about sex in casual conversation is actually a good thing here. I’m certainly not talking about adding a favorite sexual position to your Facebook profile’s likes section, or an album of you with your favorite sex toys to Instagram, but more about not shying from any adult topics of interest to you. Because after all, why should you? You’re an adult, adults have needs, and they more often than not have the money, mobility, and chances to get them fulfilled.

In short, you are likeliest to have a leak blow over when people who know you see the hackers as leering perverts and bullies, not you as a hypocrite on a crusade against the immorality of a crumbling society, which is actually tamer than it’s been in over a century. If we learn anything from the shameful outings of pious moralists and user profile leaks from hookup sites, it should be that not being able to talk about your sex life like an adult or have a clear and constant lines of communication with your partners is what creates truly awful problems, and if you don’t own up to your wants and needs, and use the web, a hacker will do it for you at some point. And it may sound paradoxical, but it seems that instead of helping anonymity and leading double lives as some really hoped, the web, thanks to the rise of social media, is actually forcing our public personalities to match our private ones. It’s going to be a long transition, but one that seems to be pretty much inevitable because its driver is unprecedented and isn’t going to go away…

barefoot

Many writers are not exactly great at doing their jobs. Now, I don’t expect them to do an original investigation in every blog post and article composed only of quotes from primary sources, with self-gathered raw data available for download, because with today’s deadlines and lack of living wage retainers, that’s simply impossible. But what I would like to see is getting a media mention which doesn’t call me a journalist, because that’s not what I actually do, something apparent for anyone who clicks the link to my quick bio page. Even worse than being too lazy to follow just a single link to get an accurate idea of who is being quoted however, is when writers have a really obvious agenda that they buttress with a wall of anecdotal evidence hidden behind a journalistic facade of confidential sources with altered names and ages. And this is the case with a massive story that left Tinder apoplectic since it accused the company of outright destroying dating.

Contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales obviously wanted to tell a story of how young people use an amoral piece of technology to do away with anything resembling normal human relationships in order to satisfy their lustful urges, and dammit she was going to tell that story. In order to get a convenience sample to prove her hypothesis, she hit up popular bars in NYC, a college town in the Midwest, and an undisclosed location in Delaware about which we’re told nothing further. A properly unsympathetic cast of characters to present the anecdotes she needed is assembled throughout the story, young men and women she could not have painted any more unlikeable than she already had, and the entire tale of the soul-sucking technology is in effect narrated by their alternating boasting about how many people they’ve slept with and whining about all of the “meh” to lousy sex. All of it, we’re told, is powered by Tinder and wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Over thousands of words we’re educated on a strategy to hook up with as many as 100 sexual partners per year from lumbersexual dudebros, and complaints about brutally sexual IMs from women who say they’re tired of being wanted only for their bodies, yet hook up with men whose performance they disparage to each other at a moment’s notice. Oh how they try to find a true, devoted, monogamous soulmate and spend their nights bettering themselves instead of having mindless sex with strangers, but that wicked siren call of Tinder beckons them so. Much like the kids who don’t want to do their boring, overwhelming homework blame social media for all their procrastinating tendencies, these 20-somethings are trying to justify the fact that when you are old enough to drink, can hold down a job, and aren’t outright repulsive, you’re probably going to have lots of mindless sex when the opportunity presents itself. They’re doing nothing that’s out of the ordinary or wrong, yet a judgmental reporter with an agenda sitting across from them will push them until they’re justifying their own libidos, knowing they’ll be ridiculed in the media.

But aside from the technophobic, old-fogeyish condescension of the article, seemingly inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s typical tropes, and a cast of characters that couldn’t be more unpleasant, some of the worst problems lay with the utter disregard for science and statistics. Sales was at least vaguely aware that her anecdotes about 20-somethings barely having enough time to get showered and put in a day at work or in class before hopping back into someone’s bed were in direct conflict with studies showing that the “hookup culture” she decries is actually an extreme outlier rather than the norm, and she does try to confront the disconnect. But instead of using a different study or directly engaging with the findings, she merely handwaves them away with an evasive quip that all studies are open to interpretation. Well, how is this study open to different interpretations when the data speaks loud and clear? What exactly should we be interpreting in a different way and on what basis? Sales’ appeal is basically journalist-speak for “please ignore studies that undermine my agenda, trying to sell a story here people, move along, okay?” After more anecdotes, she does try to inject some scientific support for her assertions by quoting the problematic conclusions in the book Sex at Dawn and implicating Tinder in enabling them.

Again, this is very typical of agenda-driven journalism because in Christopher Ryan, one of the book’s authors, she found a willing ally who would tell her that humans are naturally wired to be sexually insatiable and have as many partners as possible, and that Tinder basically made the formerly inefficient process of acquiring a large roster of sexual partners more efficient. What it means for society is that Millenials are leveraging the technology to sexually gorge. Like all bite sized pseudoscience, it sounds logical and thoroughly researched at first blush, but with even a cursory glance beyond the word salad shows that it’s not true. Not only did we already see that far from gorging, Millenials are actually on a sexual diet, but Ryan’s book is really controversial because it’s really another agenda-driven work, rejected from scholarly publication for this very reason. Actual sex researchers find it filled with problematic assertions and say it only gets one thing right. Humans are not monogamous for life. From that data point, Ryan and his co-author go off on their own merry way while most academics say that we’re serial monogamists.

Of course this isn’t an ironclad conclusion, human sexuality is very malleable and there are lots of people who just like having lots of sex with different partners, dedicated polyamorists, and a periodic one-mate-for-life type of person. But in general, as we can see by the stats, people like to be in relationships with one other partner and most of their exploration is within the context of these relationships, even if it includes bringing in other people. When a said relationship ends, a new one is sought out. So what Sales did was find a sexual type that best matched her pre-sold narrative and reached out to an author with suspect credentials in the field in which he claims to be an expert for the purposes of selling his book, who quickly backed her up in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, evidence she has no choice but to evade to keep telling her story with whiny, annoying NYC hipsters whose adventures on Tinder get them lots of very lousy sex with equally unpleasant partners. No wonder Tinder’s PR reps were furious. At worst, they are being accused of destroying society, at best, all of their users are being painted in a terrible light.

Here’s the bottom line on this. You cannot judge what technology is doing to society when what you’re being told about it comes from a writer who decided what story she wants to tell before it gets written, backed up with trendy pseudoscience, and runs contrary to every large study that we have on the subject. In reality, Tinder is having absolutely no effect outside a small group of people who used MySpace, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, and outright sex and swinger sites with the same exact results they now use Tinder. The only thing the mobile app did is made it easier for them to hook up on the go, when they’re sitting in a bar or at home, bored. They want sex, they now just care about finding a warm body, and then, justifying that to a reporter with excuses we expect from teenagers who want to play video games instead of doing homework and tell us all that video games are rarely fun and the only reason they play is because the games are there. But this otherwise terrible example of journalism did teach me something. If you’re single on the prowl and find yourself in NYC, Tinder is probably not your best bet for a fun hookup.

low poly factory

Today’s startup founders can be a wacky bunch, often set on turning personal problems into a company with a massive valuation to repeat the success of Uber and Airbnb, or to some extent, the trajectory of Soylent, the love-it-or-hate-it food substitute invented by Rob Rhinehart to sate his need for calories while avoiding cooking. Personally, as a programmer who will far too often forget to eat when working away on some complicated piece of code, I find the concept a more scientific take on earlier efforts in meal replacements, and would be willing to try it for breakfast and lunch when I’m in the office. However, unlike its predecessors, Soylent is actually meant as a substitute for food in general because Rhinehart seems to take some of his ideas way too far, starting off with a sound notion, then running with it way after it crosses the line into mania. Just consider his meme-worthy ode to sustainability waiting to become a manifesto for hipsters who grew tired of sipping PBR and knitting in bars, and are just waiting for their next obsession…

As mentioned earlier, the basic idea is sound. We waste too much energy and much of it is still coming from fossil fuels instead of clean renewable sources. Coal and oil are dirty, and burning them fills the air with harmful particles. Replacing them soon should be right up there on the list of priorities for anyone with an eye on the future, and in the meantime we can all do our part by putting up solar panels where it will make sense, wiring up more wind farms, switching to smart, energy-efficient appliances which can use big data to better manage the flow of electricity, and seriously considering LEDs for lighting. Technology for eco-friendly homes exists and its prices will keep falling as it becomes more and more common. Even in places where people proudly proclaim their disdain for the science of climate change, renewables are heavily favored. If that was the extent of Rhinehart’s commitment to hepling the environment, that would be great, but as the introduction hopefully made obvious, he goes off the rails with gems like this…

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat.

If you’re cooking the same thing over and over, so much so that you might as well consider the process to be robotic, you’re doing it wrong. Rhinehart doesn’t like cooking, doesn’t know what to do in the kitchen, and can’t imagine why he should bother, therefore, he concludes, kitchens are just a waste of time an energy and dismantled his, vividly comparing it to a torture chamber filled with knives and electronic monsters growling at the hapless humans who try to tame them long enough to extract some sustenance to go on living for another day. If it sounds like a pitch for his product, well, it is. But keep in mind that this is exactly why he invented Soylent. He’s not just trying to pour his slurry down your throat, he’s completely genuine in his disdain for cooking and food in general. Which is fine, I suppose, we’re all entitled to our opinion about what should go in our mouths. The problem comes when he frames it from an environmental angle.

Soylent is mass produced in industrial quantities and shipped around the world. The footprint of this production and delivery is not at all trivial. Vast quantities of water and fuel are used around the clock to keep making it and moving it around into consumers’ hands, and this is before we’ll start adding the footprint of the supply chain necessary to ship enough raw ingredients to keep the factory churning out more Soylent. Same goes for restaurants. Rhinehart may not cook, but he sure goes out to eat, meaning that restaurants have to spend said unconscionable amounts of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning with the aforementioned panoply of expensive tools. I could play Devil’s advocate and say that one kitchen making food for hundreds of people is far more efficient than hundreds of them making food for one to four people at a time, but whether the savings per person really add up to anything serious is a big question since restaurants far too seldom hesitate to just toss anything not visually appealing or done right in the trash.

But rather than consider whether the waste generated by a professional kitchen and one in our homes may cancel each other out, or consider a study on how efficiently restaurants distribute food between customers vs. home chefs where the question of leftovers may tilt the field to our humble dwellings, Rhinehart decides to give us a peek into how he sees grocery stores. Spoiler alert, it sounds like an omitted level of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, probably in the City of Dis…

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that would make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. […] I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.

Aside from the histrionic description and the implication that my desire to actually see the food I will later consume apparently makes me a feral savage, we see Rhinehart again make the leap to advocating a third party distributing his needs more efficiently. On its face, the idea makes a modicum of sense, however, it fails to consider that a delivery truck will optimize a route among its customers, not necessarily in the most efficient way for the environment and fuel usage, and that goes double for where Rhinehart and I live: LA. Traffic jams on the 101 and the 405 waste immense quantities of gas for minimal gain. Meanwhile, when I go to the grocery store, I simply pick the nearest one and arrive by back roads with few stoplights and no traffic. So believe it or not, just going to the closest grocery store may be more efficient in midsize to bigger cities than ordering your staples online, relying on the delivery service to find the optimal fuel economy for dropping off the goods. But hold on folks, it gets even worse when it comes to his clothes…

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me… [I]t takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments. The overwhelming majority of clothing that Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

While he does acknowledge that container ships do go through immense amounts of fuel in the part of this excerpt left out for brevity, he still thinks he makes less of an ecological footprint with buying new clothes instead of doing laundry, clothes that mind you, are made from a petroleum derivative he praises as being more efficient than natural fabrics like cotton. This is his common theme; instead of doing things himself, he outsources his ecological footprint to others and then credits himself with expanding less stress on the environment. The only place where he is really doing the planet any favors is in his house, with solar panels and LED lighting. Otherwise, what he’s actually doing can best be described as eco-outsourcing. Restaurants, delivery trucks, the army of Uber drivers, buses, container ships, and factories that meet all of his needs are eating the environmental costs of his consumption. If we ignore them, Rhinehart’s eco-minimalism is a good faith effort in sustainability. But when we take them into account as we should, it becomes an exercise in strenuously patting oneself on the back for delegating much of life to others.

blood bag

Generally, when skeptics or popular science writers talk about medicine and money, it’s to ward off something one could call an argument ad-shillium, or rejecting scientific studies outright with declarations that anyone who sticks up for doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the hot and trendy snake oil salesperson of the month must be a paid shill. Shilling certainly happens in both the real world and online, but when one’s argument rests in basic science, money is not a topic relevant to the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important when new ideas come along and gain some serious traction. Case in point, Theranos, a company which a lot of people rightly suspect can shake up healthcare in the United States by offering dozens of blood using just a drop of blood at your corner pharmacy, is facing a barrage of questions as to how exactly its tests work and seems to be unwilling to tell anyone about their lab on a chip.

Ordinarily, this is where an experienced skeptic would look for signs of quackery. Useless tests, pseudoscientifc mumbo-jumbo on the website, avoidance of the FDA, and special pleading for the enigmatic technology which offers vague benefits that don’t run afoul of the agency’s rules for the same of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But that’s not the case with Theranos. In fact, the company recently got a nod from the FDA to continue its work and is seeking approval of its technology and testing methods, and scientists who have tried to parse how it can test for so many things with so little blood say that it’s more than likely upgrading old technology into a new, compact toolkit. There’s no voodoo or snake oil here, just good old fashioned science and faster, better computers and machinery. Furthermore, the fees for each test are posted openly, and they’re a lot less than what’s offered by its competitors, whose pricing is opaque at best.

So if there’s nothing amiss at Theranos, why all the secrecy? Well, after many millions spent on research, development, and testing, the company wants to expand significantly and if it shares how it does what it does with the world, especially if it’s just an overhaul of existing methodology with better machinery, its competitors can quickly catch up and limit its growth. I’m sure it’s also trying to avoid getting patent trolled and bogged down in expensive litigation, more than likely of the frivolous, made to line lawyers’ pockets variety, since there’s no shortage of people with an abandoned medical testing device patent from which a troll can manufacture an infringement or two and file in East Texas. Perhaps this is unfair to scientists, and to some degree patients who may want a second opinion after Theranos’ tests show something alarming, but this is the result of setting up a healthcare system with opaque pricing and strict regulation, and legal minefields in the technology world through easy to obtain and vaguely worded frivolous patents.

sci-fi plane

Now, I don’t mean to alarm you, but if Boeing is serious about its idea for the fusion powered jet engine and puts it into a commercial airplane in the near future more or less as it is now, you’re probably going to be killed when it’s turned on as the plane gets ready to taxi. How exactly your life will end is a matter of debate really. The most obvious way is being poisoned by a shower of stray neutrons and electrons emanating from the fusion process, and the fissile shielding which would absorb some of the neutrons and start a chain reaction much like in a commercial fission plant but with basically nothing between you and the radiation. If you want to know exactly what that would do to your body, and want to lose sleep for a few days, simply do a search — and for the love of all things Noodly not an image search, anything but that — for Hiroshi Ouchi. Another way would be a swift crash landing after the initial reaction gets the plane airborne but just can’t continue consistently enough to stay in the air. A third involves electrical components fried by a steady radioactive onslaught giving out mid-flight. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Of course this assumes that Boeing would actually build such a jet engine, which is pretty much impossible without some absolutely amazing breakthroughs in physics, material sciences, and a subsequent miniaturization of all these huge leaps into something that will fit into commercial jet engines. While you’ve seen something the size of a NYC or San Francisco studio apartment on the side of each wing on planes that routinely cross oceans, that’s not nearly enough space for even one component of Boeing’s fusion engine. It would be like planning to stuff one of the very first computers into a Raspberry Pi back in 1952, when we theoretically knew that we should be able to do it someday, but had no idea how. We know that fusion should work. It’s basically the predominant high energy reaction in the universe. But we just can’t scale it down until we figure out how to negotiate turbulent plasma streams and charged particles repelling each other in the early stages of ignition. Right now, we can mostly recoup the energy from the initial laser bursts, but we’re still far off from breaking even on the whole system, much generate more power.

Even in ten years there wouldn’t be lasers powerful enough to start fusion with enough net gain to send a jet down a runway. The most compact and energetic fission reactors today are used by submarines and icebreakers, but they’re twice the size of even the biggest jet engines with a weight measured in thousand of tons. Add between 1,000 pounds and a ton of uranium-238 for the fissile shielding and the laser assembly, and you’re quickly looking at close to ten times the maximum takeoff weight for the largest aircraft ever built with just two engines. Even if you can travel in time and bring back the technology for all this to work, your plane could not land in any airport in existence. Just taxiing onto the runway would crush the tarmac. Landing would tear it to shreds as the plane would drive straight through solid ground. And of course, it would rain all sorts of radioactive particles over its flight path. If chemtrails weren’t just a conspiracy theory for people who don’t know what contrails are, I’d take them over a fusion-fission jet engine, and I’m pretty closely acquainted with the fallout from Chernobyl, living in Ukraine as it happened.

So the question hanging in the air is why Boeing would patent an engine that can’t work without sci-fi technology? Partly, as noted by Ars in the referenced story, it shows just how easy it is for corporate entities with lots of lawyers to get purely speculative defensive patents. Knowing how engineers who design jet engines work, I’m betting that they understand full well that this is just another fanciful take on nuclear jet propulsion which was briefly explored in the 1950s when the dream was nuclear powered everything. We’re also entertaining the idea of using small nuclear reactors for interplanetary travel which could ideally fit into an aircraft engine, though lacking all the necessary oomph for producing constant, powerful thrust. But one day, all of this, or even a few key components, could actually combine to produce safe, efficient, nuclear power at almost any scale and be adopted into a viable jet engine design for a plane that would need to refuel a few times per year at most. Boeing wants to be able to exploit such designs while protecting its technology from patent trolls, so it seems likely that it nabbed this patent just in case, as a plan for a future that might never come, but needs to be protected should it actually arrive.

[ illustration by Adam Kop ]

reddit aliens

Gawker really has it out for reddit and has for years. Blithely ignoring the many millions of users who’ll browse everything from makeup tips and funny pictures of animals, to relationship advice and startup ideas, engaging in perfectly civil exchanges of stories and perspectives, every post they publish goes after a small, seedy underbelly of the enormous site and pretends that every single subreddit is full of nothing but racists, bigots, misogynists, and trolls. From the very same site which slut-shamed a punchline of a politician it didn’t like, published celebrity revenge porn, and in general behaves like the TMZ of social media, recently came a high and mighty treatise of a man whose poor soul can’t bear to enjoy a million programmers trading tips on a site which can’t shut down recurring white supremacist forums with thousands of subscribers. Right. As all of us who spent any time on the internet know, deleting stuff on the web once means it forever vanished, never to return. It’s not like the white supremacists of reddit just set up new subs and new alts every time they get banned or their subreddits get shut down. Oh wait, they do.

Really, not only does Gawker seem to be willfully unable to understand how large websites for sharing user-generated content work, which is suspicious enough, but it also used this sudden moral epiphany as a prelude to their conspiracy theory about Pao’s outster as CEO. As usual, I wouldn’t trust Nick Denton to report that two plus two still equals four without fact-checking it on my own, so my very strong recommendation would be to take this reddit bashing as simply one more hypocritical salvo at a site he uses as a punching bag and a repository of scandals when his existing well runs dry. Directing users to the very worst of an enormous set of forums just to pretend that the entire community is like that, or prime readers to go into the site looking for an evil bigoted misogynist to fight only sets them up for a terrible experience. Jezebel will tell you a swarm of MRAs trawl the site looking for any excuse to post something awful about women and yes, you’ll find a few every once in a while. What it conveniently omits is that they will quickly get voted down into oblivion, their offending comments requiring action on your part to view.

This pattern applies to homophobes, racists, and every other kind of bigot. Among hundreds of millions of voices, the statistical probability of running into some user with regressive or hateful opinions he or she is proud to voice is high enough to be a certainty. There are simply way too many people surfing the site to avoid it. However, they’re either a punchline or a subject of very vocal derision among the biggest, most trafficked, and most visible subreddits, which is why the average reddit MRA, or white supremacist, or homophobe, has to stick to small communities in which he could preach to his choir. He’ll be run out of any other one. Could reddit delete these evil subreddits then? If they’re aware of what they’re currently being called, yes. But think about it from the following perspective: why should they? They’ll just come back. Hate is like a zombie, its only urge is to perpetuate itself through assaults on the rest of us. Deleting a subreddit that’s dedicated to insulting women like r/redpill is not going to make the misogynists within suddenly have an epiphany and recant their tracts on why women should be abused and manipulated. It will just give them another annoyance in life to blame on women. Same idea with racists.

Sure, we can employ armies of moderators in the Philippines who are getting PTSD from trying to fight humanity’s darkest impulses on the web, and keep hitting the delete button. Then, we’d pat ourselves on the back for creating “safe spaces” with the mentally scarring work of a digital day labor sweatshop that will have to continue in perpetuity to keep them that way, and pretend that after sanitizing a few big sites we now live in a post-racial, gender-equal, sex-positive world where the sun is always shining and the clouds are a fluffy virgin white. This is what Europe has done with its criminal statutes against racist and bigoted speech. It still has just as many racists and bigots as ever, and its policies still encourage subtle but constant segregation between the natives and immigrants advocated by very popular right wing parties. Censoring hate speech is not doing them any favors and neither will it for reddit, or even Americans at large. When we let those with regressive, archaic, and downright repugnant viewpoints speak their minds, they will never be able to claim the mantle of free speech martyrs speaking truth to power. 

They will just self-identify as people with whom we don’t want to associate and let the hate filling their minds speak for itself. It won’t be “safe” or “respectful,” but it will let us know exactly where we stand as a society in regards to race, gender, and sexual attitudes. We can police the most egregious, threatening, and out of control hatred because we do need a mechanism to prevent hate form turning into real world violence, and either censor our way to deluding ourselves into thinking that we’ve done away with bigotry and hate, or choose to face the harsh truth. We can choose to be mad at reddit for not playing whack-a-mole with its worst members, or we can be happy that among the tens of millions of members, these tens of thousands are pariahs whose fanatical hatred is mocked, downvoted, and chased from subreddits they try to infest, limited to the very fringes where they’re constantly ostracized from the outside. And we can even use the hateful content they generate as a perfect counterpoint to the raving ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s cousin’s uncle on Facebook preaching that there’s no such thing as racism anymore with a few links showing racists he claims don’t exist celebrating behaviors he claims are no more…

infosec

Imagine that every time you had to buy a lock to your house, you had to send a key to some far off government office which could use it to enter your house at any time. Whoever it sent would not be required to have a warrant, or may have obtained one in a secret procedure you’d have no right to challenge, or even talk about with others, and can make copies of anything you own, liable to be used against you in whatever investigations sent him there. And what if a greedy or desperate government clerk in charge of people’s keys sells them to gangs of thieves who now have access to your house, or mandated that all locks should be easy to pick for agents since a key sent in by a person could be fake or misplaced? Sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel in which a dictator tries to consolidate newly found power, doesn’t it? And when questioned, could you not see this despot justifying such overreach by claiming it was your protection and it would only be used for catching and convicting the worst sort of violent and perverted criminals?

Well, a similar situation is currently happening in the tech world as governments demand that a system designed to keep your private data secure from prying eyes comes with a backdoor for spooks and cops. The data about your comings and goings, your searches for directions, your medical data, your browsing habits, your credit card information and sensitive passwords, they want it all to be accessible at the click of a button to stop all manner of evildoers. Just listen to a passionate plea from a New York District Attorney designed to make you think that encryption is only for the criminally malevolent mastermind trying to escape well-deserved justice…

This defendant’s appreciation of the safety that the iOS 8 operating system afforded him is surely shared by […] defendants in every jurisdiction in America charged with all manner of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, robbery, promotion of child pornography, larceny, and presumably by those interested in committing acts of terrorism. Criminal defendants across the nation are the principal beneficiaries of iOS 8, and the safety of all American communities is imperiled by it.

Wow, terrorists, pedophiles, rapists, kidnappers, and more, all in one sentence. If he only found some way to work in illegal immigrants, we could have won a game of Paranoia Bingo. Notably missing from his list of principal beneficiaries of better encryption, however, are those trying to keep their banking and credit card information safe from the very defendants he’s so very keen on prosecuting. Who, by the way, vastly outnumber the defendants for whom having some sort of an encryption defeating backdoor would be a huge boon for committing more crimes. If your primary goal is to stop crime, you should not be asking for a technical solution which would very quickly become the primary means of committing more of it. Computers will not understand the difference between a spy trying to catch a terrorist sleeper cell and a carder trying to get some magnetic strip data for a shopping spree with someone else’s money. A backdoor that will work for the former, will work exactly the same way for the latter, and no amount of scaremongering, special pleading, and threats from the technically illiterate will ever change that fact.

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Now, is it just me or are you not really a celebrity until you either have a naked photo spread of yourself in a random glossy magazine, or your very own sex tape? It’s almost as if the gossips who decide who’s who on national television won’t pay attention to you unless there’s either an attention-pleading nudie spread or a threat of a sex tape looming over your head. But alas, the heady days of the celebrity sex tape might be coming to an end, according to Amanda Hess, a conclusion she bases on the ever less enthusiastic reaction of the public to the latest scandals such as The Fappening and Hulk Hogan’s recorded foray into swinging. As Hess sees it, we’ve entered sex tape and celebrity nudity fatigue because there have simply been too many tapes, pictures, and rumors, and the trend is so widespread, very likeable entertainers are affected by hackers in search of sleaze. Instead of laughing at the lax security and overconfidence of C-list actors and actresses, and the desperate pleas for attention from D-list has-beens, we are now empathizing with the invasions of privacy done to make a scuzzy buck off the shock value.

While this may all be true, I think there’s a very important piece of the puzzle Hess is missing in this regard and it has to do with the ubiquitous, internet-connected technology always within an arm’s reach. Back in the days of Tommy Lee and Pamela, you had to set up a camera, make a tape, have that tape duplicated, use fairly convoluted equipment to digitize it, upload it to a web server which you had to configure correctly to accept the format in which you digitized it, spread the word on countless message boards, manually submit it to a search engine, and finally, over the course of a few months actually get widespread notice of the sex tape. Just writing that out would be enough to make you winded, but also shows why celebrities thought they would be in the clear if they just hid their tapes well enough. But today, the camera is on your phone, video gets recorded in a standard format for which everyone has players, and with one-click uploads, you can go from casual sex to amateur porn stardom in a matter of minutes. And many do.

Having constant access to technology has also taken a great deal of flirting and hook ups to the web where you can find anyone from a soul mate, to quick, no-strings-attached fun. And much like the old joke about male masturbation, there are two types of people who use technology to help them flirt, those who send nudes, and those who lie about it. In fact, spies intercepting web cam and IM traffic on popular messaging platforms between regular people in the UK were just straight up shocked at how much nudity they saw. If the 11% number doesn’t seem that high to you, keep in mind that said spies were actually trying to do some targeted snooping, so most of the nudity they saw was after attempts to filter it out. We get naked for the camera so often, we overwhelm top notch government data centers with high tech filtering mechanisms to the point where “well, I tried searching for it and all this porn came up” is a real problem for spies on top secret versions of the internet built specifically to exclude civilian distractions and access.

It’s even a widespread problem for kids just entering puberty. Teens with low self-esteem and a hunger for approval and cred send naked pictures to each other all the time. Adults who need a confidence boost about their bodies can easily solicit strangers’ opinions in anonymous forums, even though they probably shouldn’t. And even when we take pains to make our adult pictures, videos, and chats private, all it takes is one small security hole or a careless moment, and bam, some hacker can get into out accounts and either harvest what we already have, or install very nasty malware to capture some of our sexual moments. Of course we could run with the notion that we shouldn’t share anything we don’t expect to be public and if there are naked pictures of us on the web, we deserve it. But this is a downright sociopathic line of reasoning, on par with a defense of a burglar who only stole your stuff because you didn’t have stronger locks while also lacking the good sense to only buy things you were prepared to lose in a robbery. If you tried to protect your assets and failed, telling you to protect them better, or not have them, is asinine.

So what does this all have to do with the decline of the celebrity sex tape/leaked pic genre? We went from giddy curiosity, to boredom as such tapes were being released for publicity and a bit of cash, to a nasty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we’ve now taken enough nudes or done enough adult things on the web to realize that we might be next. There are extortionists whose goal it is to trick you into getting sexual with them and then blackmail you. There’s the revenge porn business, perhaps the sleaziest scam of all time. When we know that celebrity nudity was really hacked rather than made in an attempt for another 15 minutes of fame, and we can also be compromised in much the same way, as two non-famous victims of The Fappening were, it becomes a lot less fun to watch these videos or pics. Rather than guilty pleasures brought to us by paparazzi in that TMZ celebs-behaving-badly school of tabloid gossiping, they very much hit home like the gross invasions of privacy they are. And not having enough means of stopping a nasty hack that will embarrass us, we cringe in reply, knowing we can suffer the same fate…

old cyborg

Over all the posts I’ve written about brain-machine interfaces and their promise for an everyday person, one the key takeaways was that while the idea was great, the implementation would be problematic because doctors would be loath to perform invasive and risky surgery on a patient who didn’t necessarily need said surgery. But what if when you want to link your brain to a new, complex, and powerful device, you could just get an injection of electrodes that unfurl into a thin mesh which surrounds your neurons and allows you to beam a potent signal out? Sounds like a premise for a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe something down the cyberpunk alley that was explored by Ghost In The Shell and The Matrix? Amazingly, no. It’s real, and it’s now being tested in rats with extremely positive results. Just 30 minutes after injection, the mesh unwound itself around the rats’ brains and retained some 80% of its ideal functionality. True, it’s not quite perfect yet, but this is a massive leap towards fusing our minds with machinery.

Honestly, I could write an entire book about all the things easy access this technology can do in the long run because the possibilities are almost truly endless. We could manipulate a machine miles away from ourselves as if we inhabited it, Avatar style, give locked in stroke victims a way to communicate and control their environment, extend our nervous systems into artificial limbs which can be fused with our existing bodies, and perhaps even challenge what it means to be a human and become a truly space faring species at some point down the line. Or we could use it to make video games really badass because that’s where the big money will be after medicine, after which we’ll quickly diversify into porn. But I digress. The very idea that we’re slowly but oh so surely coming closer and closer towards easy to implant brain-machine interfaces is enough to make me feel all warm and fuzzy from seeing science fiction turn into science fact, and twitch with anticipation of what could be done when it’s finally ready for human trials. Oh the software I could write and the things it could do with the power of the human brain and a cloud app…

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]