MonthJanuary 2014

Google Hangs On to Its DARPA Spinoff After Motorola Sale

The Verge reports:

Google’s blockbuster $2.9 billion sale of Motorola Mobility to Lenovo won’t include the Advanced Technology and Projects group led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan. The news was confirmed today on a conference call with Lenovo, and sources familiar with the matter say the group will be integrated with Google’s Android team, where Dugan will report to Sundar Pichai but maintain a more independent role. [...]

The most notable project to come from Dugan’s group was the Project Ara modular phone, which allows different phone configurations to be constructed from various parts. The plan is to use Google’s scale and resources to accelerate the project, as well as other wild ideas like security tattoos and other biotech sensors.

Full Story: The Verge: Google to keep Motorola’s Advanced Technology group, including Project Ara modular phone

Previously:

Pentagon Watchdog Clears Darpa in Ethics Probe

Former DARPA Director Heading Up New Experimental Technology Department At Google

DARPA Director Taking Job at Google

The Internet of Plants: How Cyborg Plants Can Monitor Our World

Latest from me at Wired:

In the not too distant future, we could see cyborg plants that tell us when they need more water, what chemicals they’ve been exposed to, and what parasites are eating their roots. These part-organic, part-electronic creations may even tell us how much pollution is in the air. And yes, they’ll plug into the network.

That’s right: We’re on our way to the Internet of Plants.

That’s the message from Andrea Vitaletti, the head of a blue-sky research group working on this very thing at a lab in Italy. The project is called PLEASED, short for “PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices.” Though the project is still in the early stages, Vitaletti believes plants could serve as ideal sensors, monitoring so many aspects of our environment. Plants are cheap and resilient, he argues, and they could potentially monitor many different things simultaneously.

“Plants have millions of years of evolution. They are robust. They want to survive,” Vitaletti says.

Full Story: Wired: The Internet of Vegetables: How Cyborg Plants Can Monitor Our World

Ethereum: A Platform for Building Bitcoin-style Applicatons

I wrote about Ethereum, next generation cryptocurrencies and distributed autonomous corporations for Wired:

Most people think of bitcoin as a form of money, if they think of bitcoin at all. But 19-year-old hacker Vitalik Buterin sees it as something more — much more. He sees it as a new way of building just about any internet application.

The bitcoin digital currency is driven by open source software that runs across thousands of machines around the globe. Borrowing code from this rather clever piece of software, independent hackers have already built applications such as the Twitter-style social network Twister , the encrypted e-mail alternative Bitmessage , and the unseizable domain name system Namecoin . But Buterin believes that many other applications can benefit from the genius of the bitcoin software, and that’s why he’s joining forces with several other hackers to create something called Ethereum .

He envisions Ethereum as an online service that lets you build practically anything in the image of bitcoin and run it across a worldwide network of machines. At its core, bitcoin is a way of reliably storing and moving digital objects or pieces of information. Today, it stores and moves money, but Buterin believes the same basic system could give rise to a new breed of social networks, data storage systems and securities markets — all operated without the help of a central authority.

Full Story: Wired: Teenage Hacker Transforms Web Into One Giant Bitcoin Network

Mindful Cyborgs: Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood Talk About Their User’s Guide to the Human Brain

In this episode Chris Dancy and talk with authors Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood about their new book The Book of Good Practices:

KF: I kind of see this book as a users’ guide to the human brain. The brain, the missing manual; that sort of thing. What is the book, in your own words? Maybe we’ll start with Taylor then Bill can chime in.

TE: First of all, I want to acknowledge that Bill is kind of the originator of the book. He had already been working on it for a while and I want to give a little history here, just because I think it speaks to what the book’s about. He came to me about four or five years ago and said, “I’m working on this book. I’m kind of hitting a place where I’m feeling really blocked. Would you be willing to help me co-write it because you’ve done some similar stuff with some of your other writing?” I thought it over and I said, “Yeah, sure.”

It’s been a long road to get this book put together. I mean, it’s turned into three e-books and a workbook which speaks to it. So what do we see it as? I think I see it as a catalog of certainly stuff related to the brain but really behaviors and actions that can come out of being more aware of the brain and how it programs a lot of our behavior. That’s my take on it. Bill, what would you say to that?

BW: Well, I think we’ve tried to produce a taxonomy, a way of categorizing behavioral practices, things that can be described in purely behavioral terms; that actually have a measurable neurological effect on people, physiological effect on people. Things that you can learn to do that could be said to truly impact your skills as far as fundamental human activities; things like concentration, memory, metabolism; things that impact pretty much anything you would want to do in your life.

We’ve tried to abstract that as much as possible from any specific tradition because in many ways, the traditions these things come out of have a tendency to separate out people as much as they bring them in. Someone will say, “Well, psychology is too cold or inhuman for me” or “I don’t do Eastern mysticism” or “That’s too fuzzy and spiritual”, any reason to not try the thing themselves, whereas in behavioral terms, these are things that you can learn to do that will change your level of skill as a human being.

Download and Full Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs: Episode 21 – Orienting Pop Culture Magic: Mindfulness GPS and the Maps of Indeterminate Destiny

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice

This piece for Matter by Will Storr on the poisoning of former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko has all the intrigue of a techno-thriller novel:

TUCKED INTO THE Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats, and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.

The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. True, two of them were smoking cigars and drinking gin. But the other, a fair-haired man whose slightly angelic face and wide eyes gave him a look of worried alertness, was dressed inelegantly in a khaki t-shirt, jeans, and a denim jacket. He sipped green tea as the smokers, complaining about the small British measures, ordered several rounds of drinks at once. Andrade placed their orders on a tray, but when he reached their table, one of the men obstructed him. The moment had an unforgettably hostile edge to it. He struggled to put the drinks down, finally managing to sit them next to the tea pot.

The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive.

Litvinenko lived in north London’s desirable Muswell Hill; he left the Pine Bar and arrived back home around seven. He changed his clothes, sat down to a chicken dinner prepared by his wife, Marina, and spent the evening watching Russian news online. Four hours later, he went to bed.

Before long, however, he was up again?—?vomiting with such violence that Marina began to panic. She brought him wet towels, dosed him with magnesium tablets. Nothing seemed to work. During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air.

“It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.

Full Story: Matter: Bad Blood: The mysterious life and brutal death of a Russian dissident

Researchers Call for the Creation of Supersoldiers

A paper by researchers from the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition and published in the national defense journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls for the creation of super soliders through “physiological monitoring and feedback, changes in nutrition, and careful pharmaceutical interventions.”

Here’s the abstract:

Modern technological warfare requires a level of cognitive ability and discipline unique in the history of armed conflict. Recent advances in physiology, nutrition, neuroscience, and engineering offer a significant potential to prevent or reduce the degradation of a warfighter’s mental or physical capabilities in this demanding environment. The authors explore four categories for potential enhancement of military personnel: genetic or computational-mechanical alteration of the human body; physiological monitoring and tighter coupling between man and machine; pharmaceuticals; and nutrition and supplementation. None of these types of enhancements is without controversy; in particular, genetic intervention would require morally intolerable experimentation. In the foreseeable future, the military enhancement technologies most likely to see use will be akin to those seen in elite athletics. Physiological monitoring and feedback, changes in nutrition, and careful pharmaceutical interventions all could improve warfighter performance, and, the authors assert, such enhancements are not morally problematic if their effects are candidly assessed and revealed. In choosing whether and how to enhance military personnel, the government must balance long-term health hazards with a reduced risk of near-term injury or death. If physiological monitoring and feedback (and regulation, through drugs or other means) can decrease large, immediate, or long-term risks to the life or well-being of service personnel, the authors write, there appears to be a moral obligation to provide those enhancements to warfighters.

Full Story: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: The enhanced warfighter

(via Doc Leecher)

See also: This Scientist Wants Tomorrow’s Troops to Be Mutant-Powered.

How Silicon Valley’s Hippie Roots Led to Its Modern Elitism

Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture and The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties interviewed on how Silicon Valley went from counter cultural cool to mustache twirling villain. Turner talks a lot about Silicon Valley’s connection to 60s communalism, and why that outlook is shaping its modern practices:

One of the great mistakes people made in reviewing my book was to say, “Wow, it’s great. Turner finally showed us how the hippies brought us computing.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What I think I did in the book was actually show how the research world that brought us computing also brought us the counterculture. In the ‘40s, we see military industrial research in and around MIT and around a variety of other centers being incredibly collaborative and open. It’s that style that actually migrates into and shapes countercultural practices. What the counterculture does for computing is it legitimates it. It makes it culturally cool. [...]

A legacy from the communalist movement that I think is pernicious is a turning away from politics, a turning toward the self as the basis of political change, of social action. I think that’s something you see all through the Valley. The information technology industry feeds off it because information technologies can so easily be aimed at satisfying individual needs. You see that rhetoric leveraged when Google and other firms say, “Don’t regulate us. We need to be creative. We need to be free to pursue our satisfaction because that’s ultimately what will provide a satisfying society.”

That’s all a way of ignoring the systems that make the world possible. One example from the ‘60s that I think is pretty telling is all the road trips. The road trips are always about the heroic actions of people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and their amazing automobiles, right? Never, never did it get told that those road trips were only made possible by Eisenhower’s completion of the highway system. The highway system is never in the story. It’s boring. What’s in the story is the heroic actions of bootstrapped individuals pursuing conscious change. What we see out here now is, again, those heroic stories. And there are real heroes. But the real heroes are operating with automobiles and roads and whole systems of support without which they couldn’t be heroic.

Full Story: Harvard Business Review: How Silicon Valley Became The Man

See also:

The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman

Turner’s essay on the connections between Burning Man and Silicon Valley, particularly Google (PDF)

The R.U. Sirius’ interview with Turner

How the “Do What You Love” Mantra Enables Exploitation

The California Ideology

Mindful Cyborgs: A Look Back at 2013

For our New Years special episode, our new co-host Alex Williams joined Chris Dancy and me for a reflection on our most popular episodes of 2013. Here we are talking about episode 12, our interview with feminist activist Shanley:

CD: Klint, did you . . . we had Shanley on. She’s one of the shows we’re going to talk about in a bit but you saw some of the things that happened at conferences. Defrag opened up their conference with a whole section on there will be no talk of this and there will be no [00:08:05]. Conferences with disclaimers, there’s a O’Reilly conference coming up called Solid and when you apply one of the things they ask you is are you gay, black or are you one of these things that we don’t normally have on stage because we’re going to instantly give you more credit in consideration.

When I filled out the Solid to speak at Solid, I thought to myself wow, this is kind of crazy. What did they call it back in the 60s and 70s when they moved people through government ranks because they were minorities? Affirmative action. There’s digital or affirmative action happening. It’s just really strange.

AW: Digital affirmative action, yeah.

KF: Yeah. It feel like it’s really late for it to be happening. When you said affirmative action happen everywhere else decades ago, there’s also an argument to be made that things are actually –

CD: Worse.

KF: – worse outside of the tech industry but I’m glad that all these things are getting more attention. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out but there’s definitely a strong reaction against all of it as well. The more women that speak out the more just misogynistic douchebag guys also like react to it and actually kind of double down on being pricks and I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I don’t know if there’s a better way of addressing the issues.

I think that a lot of times people get carried away with attacking individuals over tweets rather than thinking more about the big picture but at the same time usually people need to be called out on for what they say. So, I don’t know

Download and Full Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs: The Beginning — A Look Back at 2013

Since recording the show, Shanley has launched her own tech publication Model View Culture. You can read an interview with her about the new endeavor here.

How the “Do What You Love” Mantra Enables Exploitation

Miya Tokumitsu writes about the myth of “Do What You Love” (DWYL):

One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased. As in Jobs’ Stanford speech, unlovable but socially necessary work is banished from the spectrum of consciousness altogether.

Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers (abysmal wages, massive child care costs, et cetera) barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?

In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work? [...]

Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46?percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.

Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern?— people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth. This has certainly been the case for all those interns working for college credit or those who actually purchase ultra-desirable fashion-house internships at auction.

Full Story: Jacobin: In the Name of Love

I’ve certainly seen these shenanigans in journalism.

Fred Turner wrote about this blurring of lines between labor and recreation at Google in his Burning Man at Google essay(PDF):

by granting them limited powers of choice over their activities, it simultaneously engages their individual creative interests and encourages them to reimagine their workspace as a congenial, high-trust environment. It also blurs the line between workers’ social and professional worlds in ways that are highly advantageous to the firm. Within their ‘20% time’ at least, the subsidy suggests that engineers should stop thinking of working for Google as just a job and reimagine it as a way to pursue individual growth.

Sara Robinson has traced this trend to the early days of Silicon Valley, and to the writings of Tom Peters.

Previously: Overtime kills productivity

The First Totally Open Source Laptop Is Almost Real

Novena open source laptop

I wrote about Novena, an DIY open source laptop project for Wired:

“The motherboard, battery board, and display adapter board are designs from whole cloth,” Huang says of the machine. “Every trace on those PCBs was placed by my hand.” They also designed the case, which includes several components that you can print from a 3-D printer. And instead of proprietary firmware, they used the open source Das U-Boot.

It’s not the fastest or the most portable of laptops. Equipped with 4GB of RAM and an ARM processor you’re more likely to find in a cell phone, it offers the power of the average netbook, but it’s the size and weight of a budget laptop from the middle aughts. “It’s no feather,” Huang says.

But what the Novena lacks in modernity it makes up for in transparency. “If you see something suspicious in the hardware, you have the opportunity to look it up in the reference schematics and see if it really is a cause for concern,” Huang explains. In other words: you can check for NSA backdoors.

Full Story: Wired: The First Totally Open Source Laptop Is Almost Real

The specs are here.

Previously: My Smart Phone Freedom Trilogy

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