Tagtech

4chan Spawns an Open Source, Encrypted Skype Alternative, But Can You Trust It?

Tox

My latest for Wired:

The web forum 4chan is known mostly as a place to share juvenile and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect images. But it’s also the birthplace of one of the latest attempts to subvert the NSA’s mass surveillance program.

When whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that full extent of the NSA’s activities last year, members of the site’s tech forum started talking about the need for a more secure alternative to Skype. Soon, they’d opened a chat room to discuss the project and created an account on the code hosting and collaboration site GitHub and began uploading code.

Full Story: Wired: Hackers Build a Skype That’s Not Controlled by Microsoft

Turning the Internet of Things to Against Slumlords

My latest for Wired:

To guard the safety and health of tenants, New York and many other cities require landlords to keep inside temperatures above a certain level from October until May. But not all building owners and managers follow the rules. Each year, heating complaints are either the number one or number two most frequent complaint to New York’s government services and information line, 3-1-1, says Tom Hunter, the spokesperson for a volunteer effort called Heat Seek NYC, citing data from the site NYC OpenData.

“Last year alone, 3-1-1 received 200,000 plus heating complaint calls,” he says. “Many more tenants go without heat and don’t call 3-1-1, so we don’t know exactly how many people are directly affected each year.”

Tenants can sue landlords over this, but historically, they’ve had to rely on their own hand written records of how cold their apartments get. And these records haven’t always held up in court. Heat Seek NYC hopes solve that problem by building internet-connected heat sensors to monitor the conditions of apartment buildings in order to provide a reliable, objective record that tenants and advocacy groups can use in court.

Full Story: Wired: How to Use the Internet of Things to Fight Slumlords

Previously:

The Dark Side of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things Could Be Bad for the Environment

Bullshit Jobs and Silicon Valley

pieter-levels

My latest for Wired:

Levels is on a quest to launch 12 “startups” in just 12 months, and he’s a third of the way home now. One, called Play My Inbox, gathers all the music it finds in your e-mail inbox into a single playlist. Another, called Go Fucking Do It, gives you a new way to set personal goals. Basically, if you don’t reach your goal, you have to cough up some cash to Levels. Gifbook, due to launch by the end of the month, is his fifth creation.

Launching one product a month would be a major endeavor for anyone, but Levels has ramped up the degree of difficulty. For one, he’s building all this stuff while traveling the world. He has no fixed address. Instead, he lives out of a single backpack and works from coffee shops and co-working spaces. And two, each of these “startups” is a one-man operation. “I do everything,” he tells WIRED from his current home, The Philippines. “I’m sort of a control freak.”

Depending on who you ask, Levels represents either everything that’s right about the state of the technology industry or everything that’s wrong. He’s self-motivated, ambitious, and resourceful, building each of these projects without any outside investment. But on the flip side, he’s yet another young white male making products that solve what many people see as trivial problems for an already privileged subset of the population, while ignoring larger issues like global warming and wealth disparity.

Worse, as a “digital nomad” who has left to West to create new tech gizmos in places like Thailand and Indonesia, some argue that he’s exploiting wealth disparity to his own benefit. But Levels no fool. He’s deeply aware of the contradictions in his work, and he’s trying hard to sort through them. He may or may not succeed.

Full Story: Wired: This Guy Is Launching 12 Startups in 12 Months

What I intended — and I’m not sure I succeeded — was to do a meditation/case study on the state of the tech startup ecosystem. We had to cut a lot of material from this article, and there was more that didn’t make it in, but one of the things on my minds was David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” idea. From an interview in Salon:

Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.

But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.

So as much as we bash on techbros* wasting time building silly apps, there’s a bit more going on here. It’s hard to find a job today, especially if you’re young, and especially one that is “meaningful.” Tech just happens to be one of the few booming industries at the moment, and one of the only ones paying living wage**. So while many people might rather be curing malaria or fighting poverty or fixing global warming, instead they’re building apps for Silicon Valley startups. And what’s their real alternative? Work for a big company like IBM, or go work for the NSA? They’re probably better off working for Yo or Rap Genius or whatever.

“Get rich writing apps” may be the new “make money from home selling Tupperware,” but it’s the best many people can hope for today, and blaming young programmers, as opposed to the politicians and capitalists who got us into this mess.

*Note that I’m not calling Pieter Levels a techbro here.

**Which is part of why it’s important to change tech culture to make it more inclusive, which is another topic entirely. (One covered very well at Model View Culture).

Why Animated GIFs are the New “Hello World”

404 animated gif

New from me at Wired, meet revisit.link, the “Hello World” of web services:

Basically, all the site’s image effects are stored by a community of developers, much like any other open source software. Anyone can not only use these effects, but build their own and share them with the community by way of the code hosting and collaboration site GitHub. “Since everyone likes glitch art and animated GIFs, it’s a creative outlet for developers to create something new that’s outside their usual field,” say Jen Fong-Adwent, the creator of revisit.link. “But it’s also a way for new people to learn basics.”

If you’re building a modern web service, you aren’t just creating a program that will run on one machine. You have to learn how to deploy code to online servers, and teach your programs to talk with other applications. revisit.link is a good way to learn these skills, since the effects servers are simple and lightweight and can be written in any language. And once a server is built, the developer can learn how to use GitHub and how to make small changes to someone else’s code and submit those changes for review—all in a low-pressure environment with a very low barrier to entry.

Full Story: Out in the Open: How Animated GIFs Can Turn You Into a Web Coder

You can play with it here, or view a strea, of examples here.

See also: glitchgifs Tumblr

Imagining a Bitcoin Alternative Built on Reputation Instead of Numbers

My latest for Wired:

Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. If you use a coin in one place, it might be worth more then if you use it in another. The goal, Anderson says, is to get people to completely rethink the entire idea of money. [...]

Unlike with bitcoin—which keeps its currency scarce by rewarding it only to those who participate in what amounts to a race to solve complex cryptographic puzzles—anyone will be able to create a new Document Coin anytime they want. The value of each coin will be completely subjective, depending on who creates the coin and why. “For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,” Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. “It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.”

Ultimately, he hopes to get developers thinking about the social implications of crypto-currencies, and to get people to question the idea that everything needs to have a set, numeric value. “If bitcoin is the toy version of what we’ll all be using the future, then I want to build the crazy art project version of the future,” he says. Document Coin’s usefulness as a real currency is limited, but Anderson does hope people will eventually want to use it. “If you build something, you don’t want to be disappointed if it succeeds,” he says. “You need to build things that you would be happy to see take off.”

Full Story: Wired: A New Digital Currency Whose Value Is Based on Your Reputation

Previously: My interview with Anderson about CouchDB

Did Buckminster Fuller Predict Graphene Computers?

synergeticsfigure2201c1997

Above: Fuller’s diagrams. Below, a diagram of graphen molecules.

Graphen

My friend Trevor, who maintains the largest known archive of R. Buckminster Fuller’s work has uncovered an unpublished manuscript in which Fuller seems to predict graphene computers:

Fuller’s computer is a layered cuboctahedrons, each layer made of spheres. Fuller describes the spheres as glass coated with gold, silver, copper or
aluminum depending on their location in the array. But Fuller also speaks of individual atoms of these materials, predicting by decades the nanocomputers under development today.

These layers of cuboctahedrons would have arrays of hexagons on their equators, and the nanocomputers of today are made of layers of hexagons. The fifth layer of a layered cuboctahedron of spheres would have the potential for a new nucleus sphere.

Full Story: Syncrhonofile: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Ultra-Micro Computer

I can’t say that I fully understand the material at hand. Fuller’s work seems to be focused on memory and storage, while today’s graphene computation research is focusing on the creation of more efficient transistors for processing. But there does seem to be at least some overlap. The fact that he was even thinking about computing at all in 1968 puts him well ahead of the curve.

See also:

Buckminster Fuller

Graphene

Are Online Security and Convenience Fundamentally Incomptible?

Latest from me at Wired:

Staying secure online is a pain. If you really want to protect yourself, you have to create unique passwords for every web service you use, turn on two-factor authentication at every site that supports it, and then encrypt all your files, e-mails, and instant messages.

At the very least, these are tedious tasks. But sometimes they’re worse than tedious. In 1999, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that most users couldn’t figure out how to sign and encrypt messages with PGP, the gold standard in e-mail encryption. In fact, many accidentally sent unencrypted messages that they thought were secured. And follow-up research in 2006 found that the situation hadn’t improved all that much.

As many internet users seek to improve their security in the wake of ex-government contractor Edward Snowden exposing the NSA’s online surveillance programs, these difficulties remain a huge issue. And it’s hard to understand why. Do we really have to sacrifice convenience for security? Is it that security software designers don’t think hard enough about making things easy to use—or is security just inherently a pain? It’s a bit of both, says Lorrie Cranor, an expert in both security and usability and the director of Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, or CUPS for short. “There isn’t a magic bullet for how to make security usable,” she says. “It’s very much an open research project.”

Full Story: Wired: Online Security Is a Total Pain, But That May Soon Change

(I don’t care for that headline — there’s not really much evidence that this is necessarily going to change anytime soon)

The Internet of Things Could Be Bad for the Environment

pollution-getty

A bit more contrarianism from me at Wired today:

The pitch is that the Internet of Things will make our world a greener place. Environmental sensors can detect pollution, the voices say. Smart thermostats can help us save money on our electric bills. A new breed of agriculture tech can save water by giving crops exactly the amount they need and no more.

But this vast network of new online devices could also end up harming the environment. Manufacturing all those gadgets means expending both energy and raw materials. In many cases, they will replace an older breed of devices, which will need to be disposed of (so long, non-smart thermostat). And eventually, every IoT device you buy–and people are predicting there will be hundreds of thousands–will need to be retired too. Since all these devices will connect to the net, we should even consider the energy used by the data centers that drive them.

Full Story: Wired: The Internet of Things Could Drown Our Environment in Gadgets

Previously: The Dark Side of the Internet of Things

Why Google’s New Open Source Crypto Tool Might Not Be Such a Good Thing

From my story for Wired about Google’s new encryption plugin for Chrome “End-to-End“:

Google won’t be able to scan encrypted email messages in order to target advertising. Security expert Eleanor Saitta believes this may lead to Google to discourage most users from actively using encryption. She worries that the End-to-End may simply be a publicity stunt designed to keep Google’s engineers happy while scoring points with privacy advocates.

She also points out Google has history of abandoning projects that don’t make the company money, such as iGoogle and Google Reader. If activists come to rely on Google’s encryption tools, but those tools are discontinued, they will be left without crucial protections. “People live and die by the long-term success and failure of communication platforms — I mean that in a very literal sense,” she says. “You cannot put people in a position where they are depending on a software platform for life safety issues and then simply terminate it.”

Her other worry is that the existence of Google’s own plugin may discourage people from building other alternatives, or make it harder for open source encryption projects to raise funds. For example, Mailpile raised over $100,000 last year to build a new open source email client that works with any email provider, including Gmail, and has PGP encryption baked in from the beginning. But it will need more funding eventually, and Saitta worries that potential backers may not be as motivated to contribute.

Full Story: Wired: Google Renews Battle With the NSA by Open Sourcing Email Encryption Tool

The Case Against “Sharing”

Sharing Economy

Full Story: Susie Cagle: The Case Against Sharing

I’ve been calling the “sharing economy” the Urchin Economy, as in street urchin, named for the street kids that are always hanging around in fiction set during the Victorian period, ready to accept a schilling or two to do some chore for a protagonist. They have no job security, no safety net, they’re treated as if they’re utterly disposable. Of course today, there’s always some high-tech middleman looking to take a cut of these transactions.

See also:

The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed

The Sharing Economy Isn’t

I also tried to explore some of these ideas in my short story “The Faraday Bag“:

A bunch of my friends found work through this app where young guys–and it was always guys––could have people come over and clean their dishes, do their laundry, that sort of thing. I did that a couple times. Then a guy complained that he wanted “an American” to do his chores for him. I told him I was born in the U.S. and that my family had lived here for two generations. He gave me a one-star review, and I haven’t been able to find work through the app since.

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