Published: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 11:15:12 -0400
Fri, 24 Mar 2017 16:45:00 -0400Reason readers already know that smart people + free markets = innovations that can change the world. But just in case you needed a reminder (or a proof of the pudding for your more skeptical friends), below are six products we found at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big technology and entrepreneurship confab that happened in Austin, Texas, this month, that are working hard to make life a little better. Each was a finalist for one of the conference's Interactive Innovation Awards, and a couple of them took home first-place prizes, too. 6. Molekule: Fighting Indoor Airpollution at a Molecular Level I am one of those poor souls who are allergic to anything and everything in the air. Dust. Dander. Smoke. Pollen. Carbon. Oxygen. I become a weezing, sniffling mess at the first sign of any of them. In desperation a few years ago I got myself an air purifier, but it didn't make much of a difference. Eventually the HEPA filter needed to be replaced, and I wasn't sure where to go to get a new one. Soon, rather than reducing the floating particle content in my apartment, it became just another object (ironically) collecting dust. And then I threw it in a dumpster. Enter Molekule, whose creators claim to have cracked the code on using nanotechnology, free radicals, and solar energy science (stick with me, I swear I'm not just blurting out buzzwords) in a process called Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) to actually break down indoor air pollutants at a molecular level. And the device—a finalist among Health, Med & Biotech products—knows when it needs a new filter and will automatically order one for home delivery, at a flat annual subscription rate. Although I can't testify that it works as promised, I very much hope I'll have a chance to find out in the near future. 5. Pavegen V3: Human-Powered, Er, Power Pavegen has created a flooring system that absorbs the shock of pedestrians walking across it and, using tiny generators on the undersides of the triangular tiles, transforms that movement into electricity. In addition to being a true renewable source of energy, it would seem to hold a lot of promise for letting there be light (among other things) in remote locations without access to traditional power hookups. According to the Pavegen website, the "rotary motion" caused by a footfall "creates 2 to 4 joules of energy via electro-magnetic induction." The company's first permanent outdoor installation came to Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood (also, coincidentally, home to Reason's D.C. office) last fall, showing that the system can stand up to relatively harsh winter conditions. V3 was the Innovation Award winner in the Smart Cities category. 4. The ODIN: Do-It-Yourself Gene Editing Self-described "biohacker" Josiah Zayner wasn't content to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Chicago and do research for NASA. In 2016, he launched a crowdfunding effort to found The ODIN, which for $150 will sell you a DIY bacterial gene editing kit. That product, a nominee for the Health, Med & Biotech award, comes with all necessary components "to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home including Cas9, tracrRNA, crRNAm," plus a template so you can experiment on your own. "I believe that the only way that this works is if Science is democratized so everyone has access," Zayner wrote on Indiegogo. "Until now, no one has taken the time to develop protocols and methods and then be willing to provide all of this for a reasonable price that can be afforded without large institutional grants." 3. TunnelBear: Routing Around Internet Censorship One of the ways oppressive governments manage to keep a stranglehold on their citizens is by controlling the flow of information via spying, censorship, and propaganda dispersal. Fortunately, Virtual Private Network (VPN) services can shield a user's online activities from her internet provider and, by creating a "tunnel" to a server in another country and connecting her to the internet from there, open up access to websites that would otherwise be blocked. Tu[...]
Thu, 09 Mar 2017 11:06:00 -0500
Automation is our friend. It allows humans to accomplish much much more with less effort. It is the main reason we live longer, get fatter, and have mots of stuff. And existential crises.
Remember that as we get more and more worried about robots taking jobs.
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Unlike teenage fast-food workers, Flippy doesn't get pimples or cop an attitude. And after the shock wears off, realize that he (she?) will free our kids up to do more valuable things with their time and lives.
Back in 2008, Reason TV and Drew Carey meditated on "Mexicans and Machines" as the two biggest threats to American prosperity. Both fears were and are wildly overstated. Take a watch:
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Fri, 03 Mar 2017 16:45:00 -0500As Uber faces some public relations problems right now connected to complaints of sexual harrassment and mistreatment of its drivers, The New York Times has what it apparently thinks is an expose of sorts. It doesn't. Or at least it doesn't from the perspective of the lives of ordinary people. The way journalist Mike Isaac has approached this story betrays a type of media bias that seems to naturally assume that government regulators are in charge of us all, and those who are trying to find ways to work around them are up to no good. To wit, Uber uses a tool called "Greyball" to circumvent officials. It's a tool that Uber says is designed to help it deny ride requests to people who violate their terms of service, disrupt the system, or threaten their drivers. They also have been using it to operate in places where government officials have been trying to shut them down. The story of the technology itself is genuinely fascinating, but it's caught up in this concept that Uber's behavior is villainous, possibly even illegal, though the expert Isaac consulted, a fellow Times contributor, could only make vague claims. This tool essentially creates a fake ghost version of Uber. People who are "greyballed" could order cars via Uber's map and could watch them travel around. But the Uber drivers always canceled when the customer ordered a pickup. The cars were not actually real. They were fabricated by the app to trick the user into wasting time, without the user realizing they had been secretly been banned and maybe starting a new account. Uber used this tool to operate in Portland, Oregon, as regulators attempted to use sting operations to catch them and shut them down. As the story explains, this all bothered authorities because Uber was employing people and putting them to work outside of their purview: UberX essentially lets people who have passed a cursory background check and vehicle inspection to become an Uber driver quickly. In the past, many cities banned the service and declared it illegal. That's because the ability to summon a noncommercial driver — which is how UberX drivers who use their private vehicles are typically categorized — often had no regulations around it. When Uber barreled into new markets, it capitalized on the lack of rules to quickly enlist UberX drivers, who were not commercially licensed, and put them to work before local regulators could prohibit them from doing so. After authorities caught up, the company and officials generally clashed — Uber has run into legal hurdles with UberX in cities including Austin, Tex., Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., as well as internationally. Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement, and regulators developed a legal framework for the low-cost service. What's fascinating about the story is how it fails to identify a single person victimized by the Greyball tool other than the authorities who are unable to operate their stings. Meanwhile, as the story does note, it's the Uber drivers who faced harassment and had their cars impounded or ticketed by authorities, which Uber then had to reimburse. And in other countries, Uber drivers (and passengers) had to worry about actual physical attacks from workers in the entrenched taxi cartels. As usual when we see stories like this, the defense always seems to be "Uber needs to follow the same rules as everybody else," and never "Everybody else should have the same freedom as Uber." The story is written with an unquestioned assumption that extensive government regulation of private transit is normal and expected. When I mentioned this sort of bias on Twitter, I got this response from a stranger: "That's not media or institutional bias, that's a reality bias. Very few people are ok with inmates running the asylum" My response there, as it is here, is that "inmates running the asylum" is "an interesting way to describe ostensibly free human beings." Read the full Times story here. Clearly what should happen next is for Uber to find a way to turn that tool into [...]
Thu, 02 Mar 2017 08:00:00 -0500Poor Twitter. By now, the persistent tug-of-war among user groups complaining about disagreeable content and others who point to the platform's free speech roots has been exhausted to the point of cliche. But as the now-ubiquitous microblogging platform continues to crack down on certain speech while its stock price continues to struggle, some are questioning whether Twitter can survive as a for-profit company at all. Earlier this month, Twitter rolled out new shadow-censorship tools in an effort to cut down on what some consider platform subversion. In addition to expanding permanent bans of users deemed to be abusive, Twitter is introducing "safe search" and "low-quality Tweet" collapsing tools to automatically hide the content that Twitter's "Trust and Safety Council" deems to be too hot for chaste eyes. "Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus," reads a blog post announcing the changes. "[We will] continue to move at this speed until we've made a significant impact that people can feel." The impact was felt quickly indeed. Many users immediately reported odd behavior, such as inexplicably disappearing replies and rashes of banned accounts. Some of the bans struck users more as opportunistic censorship than a genuine crackdown on abuse. The "Silence of the Frogs" In what Andrew Sabinski of the International Business Times is calling the "Silence of the Frogs," several members of an online surrealist collective called "frogtwitter"—which is hard to summarize, but is mainly comprised of a ragtag clique of satirical accounts including post-techno-nihilists, Kantian essentialists, aesthetic occultists, audiovisual artists, and vitalist-nudist bodybuilders—have been targeted for bans despite a lack of a history of demonstrable abuse. Frogtwitter is definitely an odd flock, but "being weird" alone does not officially meet the Twitter definition of abuse (yet). Say what you will about the accelerationist worldview of British philosopher and "neo-reactionary" guru Nick Land, for example, he is nothing but civil on Twitter as he undertakes his quest to awaken a technological singularity that will render humans functionally obsolete. Still, Land's Twitter account was banned in the purge, only to be reinstated with little explanation a few days later. I talked with "Kantbot," one of the leading content creators associated with frogtwitter, about his experience with the new Twitter rules. Kantbot has garnered over 10,000 followers through his off-kilter and aphoristic philosophy Tweets, in addition to his writing and performance art. His account was locked several times during the ban effort, and he felt compelled to delete several thousand tweets to avoid being kicked off the platform as many of his comrades-in-Tweets had been. While Kantbot admits that his satirical posts can be controversial, he says he maintains e-friendships on Twitter with users across the political spectrum. He told me that he sees his account mostly as a literary endeavor in the "tradition of [Jonathan] Swift, [Alexander] Pope, and [Henry] Fielding," and that he hopes his content will "inspire people, entertain, and make people think about the relationship between social media and art." He does not believe that he is being targeted because he has been abusive, but as part of a "deliberate campaign" to get frogtwitter off the platform. It's more than a little bizarre that a tiny group of performatively absurd yet temperamentally benign Twitter users would be specifically targeted for digital annihilation while propaganda and spam bots, psychopathic trolls, and violent religious fanatics still run rampant on the platform. And the ban-hammer has not just fallen on frogtwitter; libertarian personality Tom Woods has likewise reported that some of his tweets appear to be censored by Twitter, for example. It is entirely possible that frogtwitter and others were merely the causalities of an overly-broad filter net rather than a deliberate attack on specific groups. But[...]
Tue, 07 Feb 2017 08:30:00 -0500There seem to be embarrassing new "Internet of Things" failures every week now. Sometimes, they are on the humorous side, like when a "smart toilet" was hacked to randomly flush at startled bathroom-goers. Other times, they can be disturbing, as in case of critical vulnerabilities in St. Jude's implantable cardiac devices that could put users' lives in the hands of hackers. But in all cases, these failures tend to grab headlines and inflame calls for government regulation. It's not hard to see why. When faced with some kind of public dilemma, many people immediately assume that the government alone can solve the problem. And when you throw in futuristic fears about losing control of everyday things around us, the prospect of a savior from above seems all the more necessary. But we must take care that such "solutions" don't create more problems than they supposedly solve. Such would almost certainly be the case with one recent proposal: a "Department of Technology Policy." A 'World-Size Robot' Recently, Bruce Schneier, a veteran in information-security studies and leading voice in technology policy, penned a long article for the New Yorker in which he argues for the creation of a new federal agency—the "Department of Technology Policy"—that would consolidate control of technological regulations into a single body. Schneier explains how the incredible rate of "smart"-device adoption has created some new and unprecedented security challenges. Few people realize just how quickly IOT devices have saturated the world around them. This will only accelerate—Schneier likens the rise of IOT technologies to building a "world-size robot," with all of the sensors, commands, and computations to match. And with an expanded connected reality comes an expanded digital threat set. Computer bugs and software vulnerabilities no longer merely endanger personal data and hardware, they can potentially shut down connected home devices or hijack moving cars and even cause us physical harm. Indeed, there have been considerable security problems with connected devices. Often, the issues are theoretical: Security researchers warn the public at conferences and in journals of major vulnerabilities they discover in popular consumer routers or printers or security cameras—vulnerabilities which may or may not end up getting patched. But sometimes these vulnerabilities are actually exploited. Last October, some of the Internet's most popular websites—Twitter, Amazon, GitHub, Reddit—were knocked offline thanks to insecure IOT devices. Some malicious actor was able to infect an army of DVRs, cameras, baby monitors, and printers with a malware called Mirai, directing these devices to launch a distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attack on those websites' hosting provider, Dyn. While the attack was short, and the fallout was mostly limited to inconvenience and loss of sales, it was a major warning signal for security researchers who envisioned how such an attack could have been much more devastating. The main problem, as Schneier sees it, is that many companies developing and selling connected devices do not have the right security chops to make sure that they are safe before people buy them. Technology companies like Google and Apple have large dedicated teams to locate and patch software vulnerabilities as soon as possible—and even this process is imperfect. Now, companies who have no such software experience may put IOT products out to market without the necessary testing, which could create major unexpected problems down the road. And the home consumers who buy such devices are seldom equipped to evaluate the security settings on their own. Whose Failure? While Schneier's essay does an excellent job of describing the new security challenges that smart devices create, it falls short on solutions. "The market can't fix this," Schneier suggests, "because neither the buyer nor the seller cares … There is no market solution, because th[...]
Mon, 30 Jan 2017 13:20:00 -0500
(image) The NYPD has relied on CompStat—a data-driven tool for addressing hot spots for crime—for more than two decades. Now it is developing a "sentiment meter," intended to gauge the areas in the vast metropolis where police-community relations could stand to be improved.
NYPD consultant John Linder tells The Marshall Project that his still-in-development algorithm will be a system to deliver to "real-time measures of public attitudes — whether trust is going up or down, whether the sense of safety is going up or down, and whether the job approval of the NYPD is going up or down—by neighborhood."
Linder says the people working on the project's development accurately predicted the Brexit vote and both Michigan and Ohio's 2016 presidential election results. According to Linder, his developers "may have found a way around selection bias in polling, which was a major reason most pollsters missed the Trump phenomenon."
The project comes with the blessing of NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill who also promised increased NYPD transparency when he took the job last October.
"The public will soon have the names, email addresses, and increasingly, believe it or not, the cell numbers of the individual police officers who patrol their streets every single day," CBS2 quotes O'Neill saying at his swearing-in ceremony. O'Neill hopes "that personal connection" will encourage increased cooperation from the public, who might now be able to send a text or an email to report pertinent information to officers.
O'Neill asked Linder and his development team for "real time data on what people feel," Linder says. By setting up an "algorithmically governed sentiment meter that is gathering tens of thousands of data points 24/7, 365 days a year," the hope is that the NYPD leadership can direct its rank-and-file to adjust its tactics accordingly to improve both public relations and more effectively tamp down on crime.
Thu, 26 Jan 2017 13:30:00 -0500src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gYdoDBt3DQs" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> I had the opportunity to go on Al Jazeera English show The Stream Tuesday to discuss online sex-trafficking, U.S. laws, and—especially—the website Backpage, whose executives were subject to a Congressional inquiry earlier this month. My fellow guests on the live, interactive show—hosted by Femi Oke and Malika Bilal—were three women with very personal and political connections to sex trafficking, all advocating for changes to federal law that would allow web publishers and platforms to be held liable for content that users post. This, they submitted, would help protect children and teens from being sexually exploited by giving government the tools to go after Backpage—and, if need be, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and hundreds of other websites next. My fellow guests were Brooke Axtell, Mary Mazzio, and Kubiiki Pride. Pride is identified by The Stream as the "mother of 'M.A.', sex trafficking survivor," and Axtell as a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of Survivor Healing. Axtell is also the communications director for Austin, Texas-based Allies Against Slavery, and Pride, whose daughter is now in her early 20s, has been championing various legislative causes in her family's name for a few years, most recently before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations inquiry into Backpage. Mazzio is an Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker who most recently directed I am Jane Doe. Narrated by Jessica Chastain, I am Jane Doe has been getting attention from places like the New Yorker, the Daily Mail, and the McCain Institute. The underlying premise of the film, out in February, is that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act—the statute more or less responsible for keeping the social, user-driven, free-press-oriented internet as we know it afloat—is an outdated protection that "provides a safe haven for website publishers to advertise underage girls for sex." At the beginning of the program, I assured the other guests that our fundamental goals were aligned—I, too, want to help prevent and stop sexual exploitation and violence, even though we disagree about the best way to do so. I wasn't there to advocate for the company Backpage or talk about the First Amendment in some abstract way, I said, but rather to argue against policies that will cause even more harms to children, women, and people of all genders involved, voluntarily or not, in prostitution. All constitutional issues aside, being sympathetic to the suffering of those sexually exploited can't mean settling for symbolic victories while ignoring how our policies will materially affect the lives of those we're purporting to help. Alas, it wasn't just potential solutions I found myself arguing with the other guests about. On several occassions, I was met with accusations of lying simply for stating plain facts about U.S. law. I was also met with skepticism when bringing up information that comes directly from the U.S. Senate's recent investigation into Backpage. So what follows is an attempt to set the record straight about a few of these things. Yes, the U.S. Has a Law Against Advertising Minors for Sex: Mazzio kept lamenting that it was legal in America to advertise kids for sex. I objected, noting that not only is sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion illegal under federal law, it's also considered sex trafficking to promote the prostitution of a minor in any way, even absent force or threats or personal profit, and regardless of whether the victim's age is known. In addition, anyone soliciting paid sex from someone under age 18 can be charged as a child sex trafficker under federal law. And the same statute explicitly says that advertising a minor for prostitution is also a form of "severe trafficking in persons." It comes with a mand[...]
Tue, 24 Jan 2017 08:00:00 -0500Should the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have authority to make financial-services companies turn over millions of customer records when they suspect a handful of customers could be evading taxes? Most people would respond with an emphatic no, yet this is exactly what the IRS is attempting to do with Coinbase, one of the most popular cryptocurrency service providers. And if the IRS prevails in this privacy-violating crusade against cryptocurrency users, it could have big implications for the future of everyone's digital privacy. In November, the IRS initiated a "John Doe" summons against Coinbase to secure information on suspected tax cheats that use the service. But rather than tailor a subpoena to a narrow group of likely tax-evaders, the IRS instead requested all transaction records between 2013 and 2015—an alarmingly broad net that casts Coinbase customers as possibly guilty until proven innocent. In early December, a federal judge in San Francisco approved federal tax collector's request, which Coinbase is now fighting in court as too broad and unnecessarily punitive. Coinbase is noteworthy both as one of the earliest and most successful cryptocurrency startups, as well as a Bitcoin business that is scrupulously compliant with government regulations (sometimes to the chagrin of the more anarchist-minded Bitcoin community). In a blog post on the matter, Coinbase Chief Executive Officer Brian Armstrong writes that the company was proactive in helping its user base comply with IRS rules by building special tools and monitoring all new tax developments. This apparently was not enough to the IRS, who decided to bring out the big guns and try to scrutinize all Coinbase users as suspected criminals. This action has alarmed people in the cryptocurrency space, many of whom applauded Coinbase's expensive stand against IRS overreach. But the tax agency's mega data-grab is in many ways an inevitable outcome of the IRS's own less-than-ideal tax rules for cryptocurrency. Taxing the Blockchain The IRS was actually one of the earliest agencies to consider cryptocurrency policy, perhaps for obvious reasons. In March of 2014, the agency issued an "IRS Virtual Currency Guidance" detailing the tax requirements for cryptocurrencies. The IRS decided to treat cryptocurrencies as a kind of property, which meant that they enjoyed a lower capital gains tax rate than if they were taxed as a currency. But it also meant that cryptocurrency users would need to keep track of any price movements in between transactions for tax purposes. And what's worse, there would be no "de minimis" tax exemption for very small transactions. So the woman buying her daily cup of coffee with cryptocurrency would have to track price fluctuations as meticulously as the professional financial trader. This created a major reporting burden for casual cryptocurrency users and institutional traders alike. To remain fully compliant with IRS rules, users would need to carefully record price differentials each time that they used cryptocurrency in a transaction. And cryptocurrencies are notoriously volatile, thus adding to the complexity of the tax burden. Service providers like Coinbase and BitPay did their best to provide tools for users that would streamline their tax reporting, and standalone tax tools were developed as well. But cryptocurrency users who did not use such services would need to keep track of this web of information themselves, and even those who did use such tools might inadvertently misreport or forget tiny transactions. Ironically, this cryptocurrency tax arrangement ended up imposing significant costs on the IRS itself (as I pointed out with Coin Center executive director Jerry Brito in our Bitcoin Primer). The agency failed to set up an official enforcement or guidance office to help users navigate this confusing new area of tax law—an oversight that the ag[...]
Wed, 21 Dec 2016 06:00:00 -0500"People don't brag about going up a grassy slope," says Penn Jillette. "They brag about going up Everest." That sentiment—that nothing worth celebrating was ever found in moderation—animates everything the juggler turned magician turned occasional pundit does. Jillette has been known as the "larger, louder" half of the magic-and-comedy duo Penn & Teller for three and a half decades. Back in the 1970s, the pair were upstarts, fresh off a stint as part of a high-concept three-man stage act they called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. They were armed with an obsessive belief that practice makes perfect, and that conviction served them well: Their show, which started at L.A. Stage Company, made its way to Broadway and is now in residence at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. Along the way, they spent eight seasons hosting Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a Showtime series in which they debunked myths and misconceptions from a decidedly libertarian perspective, and had cameos in everything from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to Dancing with the Stars. Jillette also faced off with Donald Trump on The Apprentice. His magic competition show on The CW, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, just finished its third season. Even before he was famous, Jillette had no interest in fitting in. He claims to have spent his childhood mouthing off at school and incessantly honing his juggling skills. A product of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he later did time as a street performer in Philadelphia hurling knives for pocket change. At 6-foot-6 and "obnoxiously loud," he would have been hard to miss: A 1989 New Yorker profile characterized his hairdo as "a sort of frizzy ponytail and another fistful of hair tumbling over his forehead," adding that "he wore clear polish on all but one fingernail, and that one was painted red." Jillette retains his distinctive manicure but is now lacking some of his trademark mass. Down significantly from his top weight of 330 pounds, the performer has baited headline writers everywhere into variants of the "magician makes himself vanish" joke. Indeed, he beats them to the punch in the title of his recent book on the subject, Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales (Simon & Schuster). The secret to his weight-loss success? Realizing that, with food as with everything else, moderation is no virtue. In October, Jillette chatted with Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward about his gastronomical, philosophical, and political views. Whipsawing between the profane and the profound, he described a variant of libertarianism driven by first principles, made the case for why porn actors and The New York Times are ultimately in the same business, and explained that sometimes it's harder to drop 30 pounds than three times that much. Reason: You're a skeptic—you've built a career by being skeptical about conventional wisdom, religion, and traditional magic. How did that influence your approach to diet? Jillette: I'm a libertarian. My political beliefs are way outside the mainstream. My religious beliefs are way outside the mainstream. My musical tastes, my theater tastes, my book tastes are way outside the mainstream, and yet I was eating fucking pizza and hamburgers. It's very odd that the one area that I chose to be the most typical American possible was food and diet. And once I got sick enough, my doctors said that I should consider getting stomach band surgery, and all of the sudden I realized I could be weirder. And I realized that not only am I not good at moderation, but I also simply don't respect moderation. If you're good at moderation, I don't like you. When you say that you had to get fat enough before something radical was allowed—the same is true in the medical field, right? Essentially, we wait until people are dying before we let them try new drugs and medica[...]
Thu, 15 Dec 2016 16:30:00 -0500
(image) Between the "Hamilton Elector" movement, which is trying to get Electoral College members to vote for anyone but Donald Trump, celebrity-plagued videos attacking the next president, and profane tweets from ostensibly reputable journalists (see right), Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) is kicking into high gear.
Sure, Donald Trump is the most unlikely president in American history and he has said truly vile things about whole groups of people while outlining policy preferences that are unsettling at best. And yet, calls to subvert the Electoral College—whether made by Harvard Law profs or TV presidents such as Martin Sheen—seem pretty nuts, too.
In the latest Reason Podcast, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, and I talk about and debate whether it's simply a continuation of the partisan hysteria that followed in the wake of Bill Clinton's, George W. Bush's, and Barack Obama's elections or if it is some kind of super-bug. We also talk about Rand Paul's increasingly public (and increasingly popular) call for a non-interventionist foreign policy and whether the United States deserves some responsibility for the horrific situation in Syria. Also discussed: Donald Trump's tech summit in which Trump delegates such as Peter Thiel rubbed shoulders with Trump targets such as Jeff Bezos, and what if any bright spots are on the horizon for 2017.
Subscribe to the Reason Podcast at iTunes (rate and review us while you're there!). Or listen below via SoundCloud.
Produced by Ian Keyser and Mark McDaniel. Photoshopped image below via Reddit/Imgur.
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Tue, 06 Dec 2016 10:30:00 -0500Yesterday, we posted a video conversation with me and Reason Foundation founder Bob Poole talking about the promises and timeline for fully automated cars and trucks to take over America's highways and city streets. Watch that here on Reason's YouTube channel. Poole's main point isn't that driverless cars and trucks aren't a good thing, but most of the hype surrounding them is just that: hype. It's one thing to create trucks, say, that can drive the interstates in special lanes over long distances. That's a tough challenge, but one that can be handled relatively easily (big emphasis on relatively). But at some point, those trucks need to break bulk and their contents need to get repacked into smaller delivery trucks. Safely navigating city or suburban streets is a massively more difficult enterprise and it's one that needs to be taken into account when projecting the costs and benefits of a driverless economy. Similarly, argues Poole, who knows transportation policy better than most parents know their own kids, the death of owner-operated cars is probably wildly overexaggerated. You can't take desultory ownership trends from years of the Great Recession and extrapolate forward. Yes, we use our cars for only a few hours a day at best, so the dream of just having on-demand transportation show up when we summon it (Uber! Lyft! Etc.!) is attractive, but we also pay for the ability to get into our mobiles whenever we want. The price is set by our peak demand, not our average demand. None of this is to say that a driverless world won't happen or that it won't be a good thing. As much as I love driving, if I never had to do it again—or pay for a car repair directly out of pocket—I'd be a happy camper. It's just that the overhyped timeline for the full transition is 30 or more years away, assuming everything goes smoothly. The good news with that? All the equally overhyped fears about 3.5 million truckers being thrown out of work overnight is equally nonsense. Like almost all major changes driven by technology and economics, creative destruction doesn't actually happen in a quick, unpredictable fashion. Indeed, to the extent that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump kept harping during the 2016 campaign on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States, you'd think factory work disappeared overnight. In absolute numbers, manufacturing jobs as a percentage of employment peaked in the late 1970s. That's 30-plus years ago, so stories about towns being decimated by overnight closures are, for lack of a better word, bullshit. I lived in Buffalo, New York in the early 1990s and people there were acting as if aliens had descended and stripped out all factory and heavy-industry jobs in a 24-hour period. In fact, the city's population (and economy) had peaked in 1950 and industrial employment had been bleeding out for decades. The idea that places get turned into a wasteland overnight is the worst sort of nostalgia that helps no one but keeps whole areas frozen in time. Manufacturing as a percentage of the U.S. workforce peaked in 1943—during World War II!—at about 38 percent. Since then, there's been a long, slow, totally predictable decline in the number of Americans working in factories that everyone could see coming and continuing. The point of that history lesson? Occupational change, like technological change, takes more time and gives more room to adapt than we normally think. Yes, travel agents have in many ways been superseded by online services. The typing pool is never going to make a comeback. Traditional taxi drivers are almost certainly sunsetting. And long-haul trucking and car-based delivery men and women might not be needed in 2050. But the upside of fully automated vehicles taking longer than Elon Musk predicts is that we'll have more [...]
Tue, 15 Nov 2016 07:00:00 -0500A new president-elect is here again, and as usual, not everyone is happy about their fellow countrymen's choice. Among these mourners is most of Silicon Valley, which some estimates suggest sent Hillary Clinton 60 times the campaign donations given to her rival Donald Trump. It's easy to see why most technologists—Peter Thiel (as usual) excluded—preemptively favored the prospect of a Clinton presidency, what with her decades of government experience, tailored technology platform, and close relationships with Silicon Valley executives. But technology policy does not have to be a partisan battlefield. If President-elect Trump is serious about "Making America Great Again," one of his first priorities should be to implement policies that will make America innovate again. Below are a few tech-policy ideas that people from all kinds of political backgrounds could benefit from and get behind. Ditch precautionary regulation and embrace permissionless innovation The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Lucas famously said that "Once you start thinking about growth, it's hard to think about anything else." A one percent difference in annual GDP growth can mean the difference between widespread prosperity and continued stagnation over the course of a decade. And one of the best ways to encourage growth is to encourage innovation. It's no secret that regulation kills innovation. But few people realize just how over-regulated Americans actually are. A recent study by my colleagues at the Mercatus Center estimates that our major mess of federal regulations has depressed annual economic growth by around 0.8 percent. Who knows what kind of quality-of-life improvements we could have been enjoying right now without such sabotage? Perhaps we could have been Tweeting from our flying cars. But alas, such lost wonders are unseen, and therefore go unmourned. Modern regulations are so harmful for growth because of their prohibitory nature. Many policies are guided by an outdated risk-management concept called the "precautionary principle." This approach dictates that certain economic activities should be discouraged or even banned altogether if policymakers deem them to be too risky. But if you cut off all risks, you cut off many rewards. For example, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations rob severely ill people of the option to pursue experimental drug treatments. Federal Aviation Administration rules for commercial drone far overestimate the risk of collision, thereby pushing the most promising applications to other countries (Amazon is currently testing drone delivery in the UK because their rules are more accommodating than ours). And the list goes on and on. To promote innovation and growth, the Trump administration should embrace what my colleague Adam Thierer calls "a culture of permissionless innovation." Entrepreneurs should not be required to ask for permission to innovate from skeptical bureaucrats. They should be free to experiment and even fail without preemptive interference. Where risks do prove to be uniquely damaging to the public, common law norms or smart regulations could be appropriate to address them—but this should be one of the last remedies, not a knee-jerk reaction. Limiting our economic activities means limiting our human possibilities. As a businessman, Donald Trump was notorious for taking big risks and reaping big rewards. As a president, Donald Trump should allow and encourage the rest of America to do the same. Get serious about "the cyber" Trump was not exactly a brilliant paragon of cutting-edge cybersecurity policy on the campaign trail. The few times that he did bring it up, it was largely to attack Hillary Clinton for her own lax security with her personal email server, or to issue vague platitudes[...]
Fri, 21 Oct 2016 12:35:00 -0400Back in 1990, the World Wide Web existed in only embryonic form. The internet was becoming more accessible, but most people did not use it. An online world was emerging, but it was far from clear just what it would look like once it became a mass phenomenon. In that environment, certain segments of the culture—and certain segments of the counterculture—were intensely interested in how digital technologies could change the world. Some of the forecasts that emerged were close to the mark. Some seemed plausible but turned out to be wrong. And some were gushing geysers of ridiculous hype. You can see all three, but especially the third, in Cyberpunk, a 1990 documentary directed by one Marianne Trench. There are marquee names here—the interviewees include William Gibson, Timothy Leary, and Vernon Reid—but the real star is the idea that cyberpunk had ceased to be a mere science-fiction subgenre and had become, in the narrator's words, a "way of life." The movie is terrible, but it's terrible in engrossing ways. The script careens haphazardly from one loosely related topic to another (hackers! smart drugs! dresses made of computer chips!), all of them described in purplest possible terms. Everything we see is dressed up with what seemed at the time to be "futuristic" visual effects. (Think of them as the early-'90s counterpart to the "psychedelic" effects of a hippie-era exploitation flick.) And then there's the you-gotta-be-kidding-me interview with a fellow who called himself Michael Synergy. He goes on at great length about his hacker powers and outlaw cred without giving us any reasons to take his vague claims seriously. The narrator informs us that he is a "legitimate cyber-hero." Speaking as someone who was 20 years old when this came out, I can attest that much of the movie's ridiculousness would have been obvious even at the time. (I didn't see the picture when it was released, but I remember rolling my eyes at similar attempts to make cyberpunk the Next Big Countercultural Trend. Everyone I knew who actually identified with any of these cultural currents emitted a big groan when, say, Time did a cyberpunk cover story.) But one thing that wasn't clear back then was how accurate the video's forecasts for the future would be. Some of it does feel prescient now—you can catch flashes of future phenomena ranging from transhumanism to WikiLeaks—but it's the stuff that's wrong that's most fascinating. Consider the section about music. The filmmakers want to highlight the ways digital technologies will democratize the culture, yet we get no glimpses of the revolutions that would soon turn both the production and distribution of music upside-down; instead the movie focuses on industrial bands with "cyberpunk-themed songs." Or consider Leary's discussion of the ways cyberspace will transform the way we work. Some of his portrait isn't so far from the lives of modern telecommuters using Skype. But he seems to think that this future will require everyone to wear a "computer suit" and enter virtual reality. Speaking of virtual reality: If you watch just one part of Cyberpunk, make it the section that starts about 46 minutes in, when the narrator starts to go on about "a social time bomb called 'cyberspace.'" This was back before cyberspace was widely used as a word for the entire online universe; this movie still associates it with the virtual-reality vision described in Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer. And so we get a breathless description of the coming virtual world, which in this video looks like a combination of Second Life and Tron. I probably shouldn't hold the early-'90s hype about virtual reality against the current prognostications that VR is about to change everything, but it's worthwhile[...]
Tue, 11 Oct 2016 08:00:00 -0400It's been a rough month for Yahoo. Within a few weeks, the struggling tech-company was accused of undermining its customers' security and privacy, after a massive hack of user-data from 2014 was followed-up this fall with allegations of involvement in an unprecedented government surveillance program. The question now is whether more tech companies are secretly complying with federal orders to spy on us. For Yahoo, the woes started in late September, when chief information security officer (CISO) Bob Lord delivered some harsh news on the firm's official Tumblr account: Yahoo had been hacked. Lord confessed that the account information of some half a billion customers had been extracted and rested in the hands of unknown parties. Fortunately, no financial information appears to have been leaked. Still, the names, email addresses, birthdays, telephone numbers, security questions, and passwords of 500 million users had been successfully lifted in the 2014 incident. Then, in early October, Reuters reported that Yahoo secretly allowed a massive government surveillance program to scan all incoming emails to Yahoo accounts. The custom software program was reportedly built by Yahoo at the behest of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI, at the direction of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge. According to Reuters' unidentified sources ("three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events"), the decision of Yahoo Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Marissa Mayer to follow the directive angered some senior executives at Yahoo, and led to the departure of then-CISO Alex Stamos in June 2015. The New York Times reports a history of skirmishes between Stamos and Yahoo executives over how much to invest in security. Stamos, who is known in the industry as somewhat of a privacy and security hardliner, often butted heads with Mayer, the Times said. Mayer was fearful that the introduction of standard security measures, like an automatic reset of all user passwords, would anger Yahoo users and drive them away to other services. Yet few things can drive users away quite like a record-setting security breach... After the hack was revealed, Yahoo encouraged affected users to change their passwords and security questions immediately. But this was almost certainly too little, too late. Many people re-use the same exact password and security questions for many, if not all, of their online accounts. A criminal who had the hacked data could have gained access to all sorts of users' other accounts with these "master" passwords and answers to security questions. Even if this hasn't happened yet, many Yahoo users won't change their passwords for other websites and a good number won't even change their Yahoo passwords. The company was quick to blame the attack on "state-backed actors." But as some skeptical information-security experts have pointed out, this excuse is often deployed to downplay suggestion of company negligence. In the words of security writer Bruce Schneier, "'state-sponsored actor' is often code for 'please don't blame us for our shoddy security because it was a really sophisticated attacker and we can't be expected to defend ourselves against that.'" Unfortunately for Yahoo, the hacking news broke right in the middle of a $4.83 billion acquisition deal with Verizon. The purchase was expected to infuse new direction and capital into the legacy tech-company. Now, it looks like Verizon may be hoping to get a $1 billion discount if it does go ahead with the deal. But the hacking of Yahoo-user account data is small compared to recent revelations about the company cooperating with government surveillance. It's unclear what exactly the NSA and FBI were looking for[...]
Wed, 05 Oct 2016 12:08:00 -0400
How best to memorialize deceased loved ones is a question all families must ask themselves. For the most part, the answer is a conventional tombstone or urn. Now however those left behind have a new way to remember relatives in the form of DNA preservation.
DNA Memorial is a Canadian company that offers its customers a unique opportunity to save the genetic information of their dearly departed through their own special DNA preservation process.
How it works is quite simple: A customer, generally through a funeral home, will collect a DNA sample from the saliva or hair of the deceased on a cotton swab. That sample is then shipped to DNA Memorial, where the DNA is extracted, purified and then bound in a special chemical process to a silica-based substrate. The end result is a white powder of the deceased's genetic information that can be safely stored in the home at room temperature, preserving their unique genetic blueprint indefinitely.
Though this might sound strange to those more accustomed to burial or cremation, DNA preservation serves a number of unique purposes for relatives of the deceased.
Neal Esau, the company's co-founder and operations manager, tells Reason that many of their initial customers were interested in preserving DNA in order to trace their ancestry, for which having the exact genetic blueprint of one's immediate predecessor is quite useful. For a few this interest was more than just historical; the company has apparently performed a number of post-mortem paternity tests.
Those more interested in the sentimental side of things have themselves been drawn to DNA Memorial's line of jewelry and glassware, which is crafted with the DNA of whoever is to be memorialized
Great as these uses are, says Esau, the real benefits of DNA preservation come from its medical applications. Being able to provide a more a complete picture of a patient's genetic background enables his or her doctor to better test for and treat genetic diseases. And as the field of genetic science develops, it is hoped that the uses of DNA preservation will develop along with it, allowing medical professionals to more precisely trace mutations in populations or to create individually designed medical treatments tailored to one's specific genetic background.
Despite this being a new idea in an admittedly conservative field, Esau says DNA Memorial's services are proving quite popular. Having only started in 2014, the company now works with hundreds of funeral homes all across the U.S., U.K., and Canada, as well as with a single location in Israel.
And as the practice gains more mainstream exposure, the folks at DNA Memorial envision a number of new potential services, from launching DNA vials into space to storing it in ink for tattoos. That last one could give the classic mom-heart design some added significance.
Update 10/10: The spelling of Mr. Esau's name as been corrected.