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Month: April 2016 (page 1 of 2)

It’s Warm, Like Flesh

The following article was written by Mike Dank (Famicoman).

As technology evolves, the line between science and science fiction starts to blur. At one point, the thought of space travel or even micro-computing was only a dream of the future, yet it became a reality within or before our lifetimes. More and more, we find ourselves questioning if something is real or only exists in thought — a pie-in-the-sky dream of hopefuls or holdouts. We are starting to find that the future is now, whether we are ready for it or not.

A video about a modular life-form grown from human cells made its rounds on the Internet only a few weeks ago. In the video, you are first presented with a couple of slabs of meat on a stainless steel counter. Cut to a scientist who introduces you to “OSCAR”, a modular human-like organism. We see Oscar get assembled: a brain module (literally a black box of electronic components) is plugged into a heart module is plugged into a lung module is plugged into a kidney module. With each insertion, we see the creature twitch, pulsate, or squirm. Then limb modules are added and Oscar awkwardly crawls around in search of warmth.

This Cronenberg-esque video was both terrifying and fascinating. With imagery straight out of eXistenZ (1999) or Naked Lunch (1991), we watch this organic creature struggle and writhe as it gains access to new organs; this is body horror from our fever dreams and darkest nightmares. It seems real, real enough, and a large number of people believed that the video was legitimate. After making the rounds on Facebook, it was eventually discovered to be content from a science fiction web series — not a promotional video from a medical lab deep in the bowels of some no-name organization.

What does this say about the state of our society? Is it not too far-fetched to believe that someone can grow living organs, link them together, and have the resulting life-form instinctively move around the room? For years we have been influenced by news on advancements in scientific fields such as biomedical and biomolecular engineering. From the infamous WWII Soviet propaganda film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940), where a dog’s head was kept alive independent of a body, all the way up to the famed 1997 Vacanti mouse, with what looks like a human ear on its back, we have been shocked and mystified by the promises of science, especially its perversions. Even today we see cables from the relatively new field of tissue engineering with scientists poring over lab-grown meat cultures to be used as food or refining bioartificial liver devices constructed from animal cells.

Are we going to see this type of work packaged and sold to the consumer in a glossy box anytime soon? I don’t think so. I will admit, it would be incredibly interesting if I could head down to my local Best Buy and pick up Samsung’s new bio-hacking kit so I could grow my own cells and build a life-form as casually as I would order Sea-Monkeys from the back of a comic book. Imagine an organic branch of littleBits, selling you packs of organ and tissue for $99.95. What about a biopunk hacker who wants to grow himself a new eyeball with better night vision? This opens things up to more political and philosophical controversy.

While the video wasn’t real, we may not be lagging too far behind the concept of a modular body, speaking technologically. As the line between fact and fiction flickers and fades, we see the potential for groundbreaking scientific advancements for the human race, and unhinged scientific experiments stemming from the simple question, “What if?”

Our world may not be ready for Oscar.

Not yet.

Now go read everything else Mike Dank has written.

Unsolved Appearance of a Virus

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was mainly “database”. Okay, fine, “backup” came into play quite soon, but “database” was key from the start.

After the beginning, there were a lot of other words, but you wouldn’t understand them. Those words were transmitted to the computer in a language that you’re not familiar with, at least not yet. The meaning was understandable to the machine even though most of its administrators had forgotten its subtleties. They didn’t care, since the behemoth did what it was supposed to.

The admin team — five engineers and ten remote devs who supported them — was bound together by stress. Crunch time and emergency restorations smoothed over their differences (while simultaneously magnifying other differences). When you maintain a computer the size of a house, the project consumes all of you. Really, the computer was a house. All the onsite engineers lived there, in the bowels of the machine. Its metal and silicon body occupied the tall column of emptiness that had been retrofitted into the building’s structure.

Sam used to enjoy repeating that cliche: “The bowels of the machine!” It was a joke until he committed suicide. His corpse became part of the computer’s intestinal ecosystem. (No, no, management ordered that it be removed.)

The machine was not sentient. No one ever thought that — Silicon Valley had given up on true artificial intelligence decades ago. Rather, the provocation uploaded through Sam’s brainlink was sabotage. Someone had been monkeying around with the firmware, and then the layer on top of that, and then even the UI. It was silly to mess with the interface — who cared about that part, right? This was an enterprise API endeavor, not a goddam web app.

Of course there were UI designers, and they were pissed off, but they didn’t live with the machine and their concerns were not particularly compelling. Frank and his underlings complained intermittently about clients’ reactions to broken buttons and such, but none of the database folks worried. Frontend could sort it out. (And they did, though it was no small effort.)

The database team did worry about what had happened to Sam. In the kitchen, making tea, Flora said to Gene and Melanie, “The malware had to come from the inside, right? One of us. It could be you two! I don’t fucking know!” She was holding a mug of tea and biting her lip and staring at her fingers as they clenched around the ceramic handle. Flora had done the original forensic trace of Sam’s last actions and cried furiously when she couldn’t find enough information to explain anything.

Of course, despite Flora’s outburst, the culprit was not Gene or Melanie. And it wasn’t the computer either — as I said, this machine wasn’t sentient.

Followup dispatch here: “Whence Came the Intruder?”

A Private Air Force Would Require More Than Two Planes

A plane like this, but retrofitted to launch missiles. Photo by Jon Schladen.

A plane like this, but retrofitted to launch missiles. Photo by Jon Schladen.

This afternoon I read The Intercept’s blockbuster report on “Erik Prince’s Treacherous Drive to Build a Private Air Force”, which is about military outsourcing. It’s a very long piece, so stuffed with facts that the excitement is sucked out of a pretty provocative story. Dryness aside, Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole’s reporting is excellent, so I look forward to watching the eventual movie about this debacle. Hopefully a Hollywood budget will revivify the somewhat insane plot. War Is Boring provides a useful summary:

“The story reads like a spy novel. It describes how Prince allegedly hid behind a network of shell companies, concealing the real nature of the airplane modifications from the board of the very company that paid for them, Frontier Services Group, of which Prince is the founder and chairman. […] But even more baffling than Prince’s criminality is his obsession with the concept of a mercenary air force — and its utility and profitability in counterinsurgency operations, especially in African countries.”

I’m going to climb onto one of my usual hobbyhorses and point out that Erik Prince’s fantasy is essentially libertarian. He and his partners expended a lot of effort to dodge Austria’s arms export regulations as well as similar laws in the United States. Weirdly, national governments don’t want you to weaponize crop dusters and drop-ship them to whatever African civil war is handy! A telling excerpt from The Intercept’s article:

“In early 2014, Prince and Citic Group, China’s largest state-owned investment firm, founded Frontier Services Group, a publicly traded logistics and aviation company based in Hong Kong. […] Over the past two years, Prince has given interviews and speeches describing his vision of FSG. ‘This is not a patriotic endeavor of ours,’ Prince said of his new company. ‘We’re here to build a great business and make some money doing it.’ China, he said, ‘has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.’ But while he burnished his new image as chairman of a public company, he was secretly overseeing the clandestine attack aircraft program.” (Bold added.)

The amount of money, time, and falsehoods that Prince devoted to this endeavor is astounding. It also surprises me that someone so corrupt and willing to break the rules — and with so many resources at his disposal — could be so incompetent. He didn’t ever manage to sell the planes! If you want a shorter write-up of this debacle, War Is Boring published it.

The Inconvenience of Being Anything Other Than Human

The following post was contributed by John Ohno. You may know know him as @enkiv2 from the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group or the #botALLY chat group. This dispatch serves as somewhat of a correction to my previous mentions of Second Life — here and here — for which I am grateful.

John provides more hands-on details about the logistics of virtual self-representation. He did want to add this caveat: “I haven’t even been on Second Life since, like, 2012 or 2013, so maybe things have changed. I haven’t been keeping up.” Regardless, his recollection of the process is interesting…

While it’s possible to get non-human avatars in Second Life, doing so is more technically difficult than getting human-shaped ones. Second Life ships with the ability to customize within the range of pretty human-shaped avatars, but all non-human ones are third-party extensions that frequently break when Linden Labs makes upgrades. Ultimately those extensions are fairly expensive and not very customizable, because of the cost to upload meshes.

At normal exchange rates, it costs about a dollar to upload a texture and a dollar to upload a mesh. An interesting avatar might require three or four new textures and a couple of meshes. Most people are unwilling to pay that and equally unwilling make the 3D-modeling effort in the first place. If somebody else does it for you then you end up with a mass-produced avatar that can’t be customized.

You see a similar pattern on the open grid, where there aren’t any actual monetary costs for uploads, so I think the barrier is just effort and lack of customization.

Linden Labs’ business model is designed around exchange with the in-game economy, and the primary method they have for forcing people to participate economically is to charge for uploads of certain types of content. There are a lot of things that you can do in-game without any money. But there are different domains.

Built-in avatar customizations are within the same domain that you’d get in The Sims. You can change your height, breast size, eye size, hair style, nose length, and stuff like that. You can make yourself muscular or skinny. You can change your skin color to any color in the palette. You can wear any built-in or free clothing, or compose your own out of built-in or free textures, of which there are plenty. I used to play as an eight-foot-tall muscular green-skinned guy with red eyes in a leather trench coat, none of which cost me anything.

However, if you want to diverge from the humanoid form, you’re replacing your avatar with an object that isn’t treated as an avatar. Objects can be created in-game for free, but there are resource limits based on the number of “prims” — primitive shapes. When you’re building with prims, you’re stuck with things like spheres and cubes and toruses and pyramids. You can theoretically make anything out of them, but it’s time-consuming and most “sims” (sixty-five square kilometers of land) have an upper limit of a couple hundred prims at a time. If you go over that, prims will disappear or be rejected. So you can’t build something really complex out of prims and wear it unless you expect to be literally the only person or object within sixty-five kilometers.

About ten years after Second Life launched, Linden Labs added a couple mechanisms for getting around prim limits. Both of them involve doing your 3D modeling in some outside program and uploading a file. One is “sculpties”, where you turn a height map into a texture and use it to warp a sphere. The other is “meshes”, where you export a 3D model and import it as a single object, counted separately from prims for resource-usage reasons.

Super-custom avatars are typically made by shrinking or vanishing your human avatar, and then wearing one or more meshes. I’ve seen some cool ones, like Futurama-style heads in jars that float. The head-in-a-jar thing can theoretically be a single mesh and doesn’t require special animations, so that’s fairly cheap — but you need to model somebody’s head. On the other hand, if you want to have a kitten avatar, you’re going to need separate meshes for the legs and tail and upload animations for the walk cycle if you want it to do anything other than glide.

Thank you, John! The takeaway is that supply chains still matter in the virtual world. You can’t design an MMORPG without constraints, and I have to wonder if we’d even enjoy exploring the resultant world if that weren’t true…

Post-Body Identities

Imagine that you can upload your mind into a tiny computer chip. (Or maybe “transport your mind” is a better phrase, since I don’t want to address the gnarliness of a single personality existing in multiple hosts.) Put aside whether this is technically possible — speculating on the topic is useful regardless.

So, your mind is housed in an itsy-bitsy sophisticated machine. That mind-chip can be implanted into anything, right? How about a giraffe’s body? How about a rock? Maybe you want to experience the stillness of a boulder in a mountain stream, like someone on a train whose face isn’t buried in their smartphone.

In this scenario, we have to change our fundamental assumptions about the environment we navigate daily. If every object can be sentient, you must step carefully. You must watch yourself constantly, because you might be watched by someone else. (This is already true to a certain extent, but for the most part other individuals aren’t paying attention to you, especially not without your knowledge.)

I suspect that most people will still want a body. Maybe a more perfect body, with flawless muscles and embedded martial arts knowledge. But they’ll want to represent themselves as humanoid. Look at Second Life — sure, you have furries and aliens and other unhuman creature creations, but they’re outnumbered by hyper-sexed Homo sapiens analogues. (Disclaimer: I’m basing my assumption on Flickr albums of screenshots.) I’ve described this dynamic before:

“What will our avatars look like in a hundred years? Post-gender and post-form, or exactly like the musclebound hunks and bit-titted blondes that titillate today’s Second Life denizens? We mustn’t forget the furries and weaboos, already a significant contingent of any visually oriented social network (which is all of them) (especially 4chan) (maybe they don’t haunt Instagram? idk).”

I still wonder about the world where I can inhabit any container. What will that do to gender? Many of us already acknowledge that a person’s genital configuration does not determine their gender. We have two common phenotypical maps, but people’s brains have claimed many identities beyond “male” and “female”. Bigender, nonbinary, agender, and various other labels. I suspect that most of you reading this accept gender diversity as normal and positive.

I’ve grappled with this personally — I identify very strongly as a woman, but I can’t figure out why. What draws me so strongly to femininity? It must be a tangle of biology, evo-psych, and socialization. In terms of how we treat people, the origin of nonbinary genders is irrelevant, but it’s still an interesting question. I suspect technological advances will help us whittle down the list of potential answers.

This idea was posed by my boyfriend and further inspired by some discussion in the chat group. Also, obligatory tip o’ the hat to Laboria Cuboniks.

We’re All Watching, But Why?

“In order to protect Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s street art capital, CCTV cameras have been installed in areas deemed to be urban art hotpots. These cameras will serve a dual purpose, firstly to ensure that culturally significant works are protected for future generations to enjoy, and secondly, to be used as evidence against the artists should their work turn out to have no cultural significance.”

There is something on-the-money about that poster. Surveillance has become so normal — you’re being watched constantly, all the time. Watched and recorded. It’s mundane. No one pays attention to most of the footage, but your presence and your actions are preserved. So many ambient cameras, loosely intended for security, are mounted on buildings. They absorb audiovisual data 24-7. The files are archived — deleted periodically, but available for at least thirty days. Friends’ smartphones and strangers’ smartphones capture your image. Your face is disseminated on Instagram and through Snapchat.

There’s always a good reason for these activities, right? No one is conducting surveillance for surveillance’s sake (except maybe the NSA). It’s to prevent shoplifting. It’s to express love via Facebook tagging. In fact, the latter type of recording wouldn’t usually be described as surveillance. But let’s look at the dictionary definition: surveillance is “the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime”. So surveillance usually pertains to illegal behavior, sure, but it doesn’t have to. Surveillance is systematic watching and recording. If that doesn’t describe how teenagers use Snapchat, I don’t know what does.

Like most technologies that become integrated into everyday life, surveillance cameras are inherently political. But they don’t necessarily support one side or the other. However, the data they capture is almost always deployed to reinforce the state’s authority. Citizen recordings of police brutality provide a notable exception, but even then the framework of laws and judgment is inescapable.

Social Autopsy: Fight Cyberbullying with… More Cyberbullying

The internet is so full of mean people. You know what I bet would help fix that? A hot young company that exposes people’s real-life identities on demand. Here’s what definitely WON’T happen: Bob’s abusive ex photoshops a screenshot of Bob tweeting something racist, submits it with Bob’s employment info + Facebook link, then tells everyone on 4chan to search the victim’s name. That would only go down if the web were 80% occupied by jerks! Wait, what was our premise again?

Screenshot of Social Autopsy's submission page taken 4/14/2016.

Screenshot of Social Autopsy’s submission page taken 4/14/2016.

Social Autopsy — a startup name that I could not make up — launched a Kickstarter (suspended five hours ago at the time of writing) to do exactly what I described above. According to the FAQ, this is their entire anti-abuse mechanism:

“How do you prevent people from using this information to harm others? We do not allow any commenting on our database, and we have disabled the ability to search our database by keywords […] you would have to know the individual by first and last name in order to discover them.”

Oh, chill, surely nothing like the scenario I described in the beginning will happen. Also, I know a lot of people who go by their real names online, myself included. It’s not like someone’s name is a particularly inaccessible bit of data. I am very unthrilled by the idea of a social-media Ripoff Report. This is the rare initiative opposed by both /r/KotakuInAction (a GamerGate haven) and anti-abuse activists like Zoe Quinn and Randi Lee Harper. It’s as bad as the “Yelp for people” app, and the founders seem equally clueless.

On the bright side, Social Autopsy has confirmed on Twitter that they won’t publish addresses and phone numbers, nor will they post any information that isn’t publicly available. I’m not super confident about their commitment, and I suspect that Social Autopsy is retconning their initial plans. (Disclaimer: I am purely speculating and I’m suspicious by nature.) But at least they’ve publicly claimed that they won’t be full-on doxxing people.

This venture is backed by Degree180, some kind of #content website along the lines of Bustle or any other generic women’s lifestyle blog. The founder of both projects is named Candice Owens. On Twitter, using Social Autopsy’s handle (@socialcoroner), she promised that a Vocativ article about Social Autopsy is imminent, and she’s going to publish her own blog post on Degree180. I’ll have my popcorn ready.

To be clear, Social Autopsy doesn’t enable anything that wasn’t possible before. Obviously online abuse is already a problem, which is paradoxically why this dumb Kickstarter exists in the first place. But Social Autopsy makes me especially angry because it enshrines doxxing in the language of feminist empowerment, which I find icky, and because the design doesn’t account for preventing the most basic types of adversarial use.

I heard secondhand that 4chan commenters were calling Social Autopsy “it’s okay when we do it dot com” — as much as I hate to agree with /b/ et al, that critique is on the money. Don’t stoop to using your enemy’s tactics and then pretend you’re not fighting dirty.

Release the Panama Papers, Please

Jack Smith IV on Twitter, linking to an article that I quote further below.

Jack Smith IV on Twitter, linking to an article that I quote further below.

The massive corpus of documents called the Panama Papers has been reported on, selectively, but not released for public review. I have a problem with this. I don’t think the journalists involved are malicious, but I also don’t trust them, for all the regular reasons why I don’t trust people who control the flow of information. Craig Murray’s excoriation of “western corporate media” overstates the case a bit, but he does a good job of summarizing the obvious concerns.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists coordinated this shindig. In response to criticism like Murray’s, the head of ICIJ told Wired “that the media organizations have no plans to release the full dataset, WikiLeaks-style, which he argues would expose the sensitive information of innocent private individuals along with the public figures on which the group’s reporting has focused.” Again, I don’t doubt that the ICIJ is a reputable organization, and their data analysis sounds quite rigorous. But this gated approach is fundamentally dangerous.

I summed up my initial thoughts on Twitter: “Yes, opening up the data would compromise the privacy of innocents. I think transparency is worth the collateral damage. Tradeoffs!” Also: “True accountability doesn’t take place in silos.” I am by no means an open-data absolutist, but I think this is a case where the benefits outweigh the costs. Cybersecurity reporter JM Porup went further in The Daily Dot:

“Whoever funds the investigation affects what gets covered — and what gets emphasized — and what doesn’t. As Wikileaks pointed out, USAID funded the attack story on Russian President Vladimir Putin. What stories did not get funded because they might make America and its allies look bad? This is a subtle form of economic censorship, but censorship all the same.”

Given all of this, I’m annoyed that the Columbia Journalism Review posted a sanctimonious article condemning critics of the ICIJ’s closed-data scheme as conspiracy theorists, lumping all of us in with Alex Jones. Jack Murtha wrote, “What’s most striking is how a misunderstanding of how the news media works can simultaneously condemn proven muckrakers and empower state-run propaganda arms.” Uh, no. I don’t think anyone misunderstands how the news media works — journalism is actually very straightforward at an object level. We just disagree with your methods, sir.

As LA Times reporter Matt Pearce quipped on Twitter, “Nobody loves a gatekeeper.”

Ag-Gag Laws & Political Maneuvering

Illustration by Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Illustration by Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Agriculture is not a sexy topic. Even modern high-yield factory farming is pretty mundane. Monsanto suing small farmers? Not the futurists’ concern — leave it to anti-GMO hippies. I’m not convinced that buying organic produce will stop the world from going to hell in a handbasket. But the way the industry has succeeded in litigating the spread of information — that piques my curiosity and raises my hackles.

Are you familiar with the ag-gag laws? They’ve been around for a while, but here’s a refresher, focusing on Iowa:

“HF 589 […] criminalizes investigative journalists and animal protection advocates who take entry-level jobs at factory farms in order to document the rampant food safety and animal welfare abuses within. […] The original version of the law would have made it a crime to take, possess, or share pictures of factory farms that were taken without the owner’s consent, but the Iowa Attorney General rejected this measure out of First Amendment concerns. As amended, however, the law achieves the same result by making it a crime to give a false statement on an ‘agricultural production’ job application. This lets factory farms and slaughterhouses screen out potential whistleblowers simply by asking on job applications, ‘Are you affiliated with a news organization, labor union, or animal protection group?'” — Cody Carlson, a former Humane Society investigator

It’s a clever loophole. Lobbyists for Big Food achieved their desired result by coming at the issue sideways. The New York Times’ editorial board said, “These laws, on the books in seven states, purport to be about the protection of private property, but they are nothing more than government-sanctioned censorship of a matter of public interest.” Any sane person would find this a little disturbing — the obviousness of how a government can and will serve large-scale corporate interests, rather than prioritizing the needs of the regular citizenry.

“I have always said that there are two types of politics — what people see and what really makes things happen.” — Andrés Sepúlveda, who purportedly helped rig South American elections

This is the argument for political participation. I waffled about whether I was going to vote this year — after abstaining in 2014 — but I decided that I’d rather choose between imperfect choices than opt out of having a say. It’s probably impossible for a modern electoral race to involve candidates with true integrity, but maybe I can settle for “less blatantly corrupt than old-school Russian bureaucrats”. Of course, there’s a significant chance that voting makes no difference whatsoever.

All opposition is controlled opposition.

My friend Gerald Leung left some astute comments on Facebook, so I want to clarify my point: Is it okay to lie on a job application? No, and before any ag-gag laws were passed, you could already get fired for deceiving your employer. Is that behavior worth criminalizing? Debatable.

What bothers me is that this suite of laws was passed because of the industrialized agriculture industry’s desires. Iowa’s HF 589 specifically addresses agricultural production. It’s not like the Corn State was plagued by an independent surge of people lying on their job applications.