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Published: Sat, 22 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 22 Oct 2016 23:01:50 -0400


The Cyberpunk Future That Wasn't

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 12:35:00 -0400

Back 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 to look back at these old predictions before you accept the new ones too readily. Here's the movie: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> One person who liked this documentary, incidentally, was the libertarian activist Karl Hess, who urged[...]

Say 'Hi' to the NSA in Your Next Email

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 08:00:00 -0400

It'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, but sources told The New York Times that some Yahoo tools to scan emails for spam and child-pornography had been modified to scan for email signatures linked to a state-sponsored terrorist groups. Others took issue with this characterization, however, with Motherboard reporting that the program was not designed or intention[...]

Canadian Company Offers DNA Preservation Service

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.

Amazon Launches Pilot Transit Service for Seattle Employees

Mon, 03 Oct 2016 16:20:00 -0400

(image) With the launch of its new Amazon Ride service, the e-commerce Giant is embarking on a private solution to the very public problem of traffic congestion in the city of Seattle.

Starting Monday, Amazon will operate a private bus service for Seattle-area employees—and apparently their dogs, too—ferrying them from Redmond, Issaquah, and Bellevue to the company's offices at South Lake Union Campus as well as its Doppler Tower corporate headquarters in Seattle proper.

Both full- and part-time employees will be able to reserve seats for free shuttles that will run six times each morning and evening. WiFi will be provided on the buses, and if riders experience an emergency or have to work late, Amazon Ride will offer a limited number of guaranteed rides home each year.

This will no doubt come as a welcome relief to the 20,000 or so employees who work at Amazon's Seattle locations, a little under 50 percent of whom currently drive to work.

America's Emerald City has long scored poorly on measures of drivability. An index of road congestion released in March found that Seattle was the 4th worst city in the United States for traffic, with congestion extending trip times by an average of 31 percent. Only New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose scored worse.

Amazon isn't the first to respond to this dismal transportation situation by offering workers a private transit option. Microsoft, for instance, has run a bus service for employees since 2007 that has proven highly popular. Though it began with just five lines, Microsoft Connector now runs 23 routes for its roughly 44,000 workers in the greater Seattle area.

Amazon is no doubt hoping its new commuter service will help it compete with other area employers who offer transportation benefits, making the company a more attractive option for the tech talent streaming into the communities surrounding Seattle.

Believers in free markets might also hope that the spread of private efforts such as Amazon Ride and Microsoft Connector will demonstrate that there are alternatives to the view that tackling traffic congestion is the sole purview of the government.

This is particularly relevant for Seattle-area taxpayers, who are being asked to vote this fall on a $54 billion proposal to expand the region's public transit service. Amazon and Microsoft are themselves major donors to the initiative, even as they're showing the city what can be done without the aid of taxpayer dollars.

Peak Oil? Cue Crickets Chirping

Thu, 29 Sep 2016 09:30:00 -0400

(image) Apparently Google searches for the terms like "oil glut" and "too much oil" are now much more popular than those for "peak oil" from a decade back. Back in in 2009, I wrote:

In May 2006, I reported in Reason that global oil reserves were ample to supply humanity's needs for liquid fuels until at least 2030, despite headline-grabbing predictions that our supply had already peaked. Afterwards, the world experienced an unprecedented run-up in oil prices topping out at $147 per barrel in July 2008, which led some negative prognosticators to get a little cocky. One of the leading doomsters, Houston investment banker Matthew Simmons, told CNBC in July 2008, "The idea that it's a bubble is all poppycock." He confidently added that the price of oil "is not going to collapse." Simmons advised Americans to move into villages and to buy locally produced foods and goods.

Prices did surge again, but human ingenuity in form of fracking and other innovations proved again that extent of resources is determined by technology and markets not just the accumulation of stuff in the ground. Global production soared and prices fell. The peak oil chorus of doom has largely gone silent. Over at RealClear Politics, there is a terrific article detailing the sorry history of periodic peak oil hysteria. From the article:

This perception that we would run out of oil, and sooner rather than later, became more than a theory, one that went by the name "peak oil." It became a kind of catechism. It was included in the prayer books of the environmental movement and incorporated into the legislative history and language of U.S. federal energy policy. It became an underlying basis for everything from Jimmy Carter's admonition to turn down the nation's thermostats, the enactment of 55-mile-per-hour speed limits, and federal mandates on gasoline standards for cars and trucks.

Today, the question is how policymakers should one react when the conventional wisdom is proven so spectacularly wrong, as is the case here. ...

One factor the peak-oil adherents never seemed to consider was that the supply of oil, like many commodities, was directly influenced by price—and that drillers and investors previously not searching for it would return to exploration if market prices became high enough.

"The biggest supporters of Peak Oil almost all are petroleum geologists; almost none of them are economists," said Ronald Bailey, an author and science correspondent with Reason magazine who has written extensively on climate and energy. "They really don't understand markets."

*Oh, wait. The article quotes me. Despite that, reading the whole column is well worth your time.

Sorry, Peter Thiel, but We Don't Need a Manhattan Project for Everyday Life

Wed, 07 Sep 2016 13:41:00 -0400

Peter Thiel's speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was the highlight of that generally misbegotten event (when Scott Baio is your celebrity, you've got real problems). Speaking on the same evening as Donald Trump, the tech billionaire, legendary venture capitalist, and hero and villain to journalists everywhere may well have pushed the GOP into a post-culture-war era by declaring, "I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American." In the same speech, he attacked stupid wars (waged by both both Republicans and Democrats this century) and called for grand, new government-funded projects that would, to borrow a phrase from Trump himself, make America great again. In today's Washington Post, Thiel is at it again. He's always worth listening to, even though there is, I think, a major mistake in his analysis and rhetoric about the role and function of government in creating an innovative, forward-looking, and more prosperous society. Here's his opening: Our government used to get things done. The Manhattan Project coordinated the work of more than 130,000 people in over a dozen states. It was difficult, unprecedented — and successful. Less than four years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead, the United States detonated the world's first atomic bomb. Today our government finds it hard just to make a website. Our newest fighter jet has already been under development for more than 15 years and it costs more than 15 times as much as the Manhattan Project (adjusted for inflation), but last year it lost a dogfight to a plane from the 1970s. Similar dysfunction is everywhere, at every level. One of the most dramatic examples is in the nation's capital: Metro was a marvel when it opened in 1976, and today it's an embarrassing safety hazard. Ticket machines don't work; escalators are broken; the trains sometimes don't even stay on the tracks. Let's pause over this strange progression for a moment. In three short paragraphs, Thiel goes from the single-most concentrated military-research project in human history—launched in 1942, when the outcome of the planet's most-total war was still in doubt and the federal government controlled virtually every aspect of commercial civilian life—to talking about the pathetic excuse for a subway system in the nation's capital (a topic that Reason covers with appalling regularity). Simply put, the Manhattan Project—or for that matter, the Apollo mission, another of Thiel's go-to examples for the once-greatness of American government—is not relevant to the everyday functioning of government. Nor should it be. There is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between true existential crises such as World War II and creating a viable, public transit system and it only confuses the proper size, scope, and spending of government by speaking of the two things in the same breath. You want to fix problems with urban mass transit not just in DC but everywhere else? Here you go, with very little public money and no tax dollars for research. The warfare state is not a useful metaphor for the peacetime state. None of this is to give a pass to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) which is a useful shorthand not for how government fails at moon shots but how it wastes tons of money on useless exercises in nostalgia and avoidable payouts for passenger-injury claims. But Thiel, who to his immense credit is funding longevity research as well as seasteading and a million other projects out of his own pocket, paints a romantic picture using unrestrained government as his brush. Is that what 21st century America needs more of? A government that has slipped the surly bonds of the Constitution more than it already has to print money indiscriminately, run up massive amounts of debt (as it did, for understandable reasons, during World War II), issue ration coupons on every commodity [...]

Creativity Triumphs Over the Law, Again and Again

Tue, 30 Aug 2016 02:30:00 -0400

Human creativity is a boundless resource. It produces great works of art and philosophies that explore the meaning of life. Creativity brings us technological innovation and exploration of the unknown. And humanity's innate ability to find new approaches and examine problems from different perspectives also brings us ever-evolving ways for defeating the would-be tyrants and petty nannies in our midst. Without creativity, not only would we still be huddled in cold, dark caves, we'd also be living unquestioningly under the thumb of the latest in a long line of control-freak tribal chieftains. Take drones, for example. Sure, hobbyists have fun slapping cameras on them and spying on their sunbathing neighbors. But the remote-controlled flying devices have serious uses, too. "The Yuma Sector Border Patrol has recently encountered small remote controlled aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, being used to smuggle drugs into the United States," Customs and Border Protection announced in April. "The drones vary in size, but are commonly between 2 to 4 feet wide." The use of drones to carry contraband was almost old news by then. In January 2015, a drone carrying six pounds of crystal meth across the border from Mexico crashed in San Ysidro, California. Overloaded, the robotic smuggler couldn't reach its destination. On a similar note, Brayan Valle and Jonathan Elias were caught near Calexico, California, while loading the nearly 30 pounds of heroin they'd already flown across the border with a remote-controlled drone. But nobody knows how many loads successfully cross over the line between Mexico and the United States, unobserved and unintercepted. When you think about it, drones make perfect sense for smuggling. The devices are difficult to detect, fly over barriers, and are relatively easy to operate. Even if intercepted, the actual smugglers have a better than usual chance of escaping themselves while authorities gain only one load of goods and an inexpensive and easily replaced widget. Drones are such natural and affordable smuggling tools that they've become a favorite means for prison inmates to receive deliveries of banned drugs, cell, phones, and smokes—while those of us in the outside world still await the introduction of such convenience. Innovation also drives letter-of-the-law compliance with many gun restrictions, as well as workarounds that render such laws irrelevant. When New York lawmakers crafted restrictions and registration requirements for so-called "assault weapons," they had to write detailed descriptions of what they were banning, since the targeted category of firearms has no firm definition. Most New Yorkers just ignored the new registration requirement. But others looked at the list of features that differentiated restricted "assault weapons" from untargeted everything else, and tweaked their property to eliminate a few cosmetic details that brought them under the law. "The modified gun still fires at the same rate and with the same power," noted The Guardian. "The shooter just holds it slightly differently. These modified weapons do not have to be registered with the state." Famously, tinkerers led by Cody Wilson harnessed technology to make it easier for people to make their own guns, to nudge personal arms even further beyond the reach of government officials. Wilson first created a working pistol with a 3D printer and released the plans to the public. The plans continued to spread and evolve even after the U.S. government ordered Wilson to remove them from the internet. "Limiting access may be impossible," the Department of Homeland Security conceded in reference to the wonderfully subversive technology. Wilson has since moved on to CNC mills that turn unregulated partially finished AR-15 receivers into fully functioning rifle guts. California officials responded with an unenforceable new requirement that people building their own [...]

Domino's Will Soon Deliver Your Pizza by Drone—if You Live In New Zealand

Fri, 26 Aug 2016 15:50:00 -0400

In recent years, Amazon and Google have been researching drone technology to make package delivery more convenient for customers. Both companies have made progress in their efforts, even with the federal government standing in their way. Yet they may have been beaten by an unexpected competitor: a pizza company. Domino's Pizza Enterprises Limited (which franchises the Domino's brand overseas) announced Thursday that it is launching the first commercial drone delivery service in the world. The company and American-based robot manufacturer Flirtey said they plan to begin offering pizza-delivery-by-drone at select New Zealand stores later this year. "Domino's is all about providing customers with choice and making customer's lives easier," said Don Meij, Domino's Group CEO and managing director, in a statement. "Adding innovation such as drone deliveries means customers can experience cutting-edge technology and the convenience of having their Supreme pizza delivered via air to their door. This is the future." Customers can already track their pizza's delivery thanks to a GPS locater in the delivery car's topper. Soon, some will be able to look up and see their order fly to them. So why New Zealand? Well, the country's laws are friendlier toward drones. While there are some rules and regulations on the books, New Zealand Transport Minister Simon Bridges said in a statement the country continues to review its laws to "have the ideal environment to trial all forms of technology." This includes opening the door to both commercial and recreational drone use. "New Zealand has the most forward-thinking aviation regulations in the world," said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny in a statement. In contrast, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has enacted extensive regulations limiting drone use. Some industry leaders have said the FAA should set standards for commercial traffic but otherwise stay out of the way. The rules are already stifling the future of drones in America. Operators must be within the line of sight of the drone they are operating, according to the FAA, which limits how far a drone can go to deliver goods. Amazon, which wants to be able to make deliveries across far distances, went to the United Kingdom to conduct its research because that country has more relaxed regulations. Domino's devices will fly autonomously, and will only work within a 1.5-kilometer range from participating stores. The franchise said it aims to eventually increase the radius to 10 kilometers. If the New Zealand trial is successful, the service may expand into markets in Europe and Asia.[...]

Most Scientific Findings Are Wrong or Useless

Fri, 26 Aug 2016 13:30:00 -0400

"Science, the pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble." So begins "Saving Science," an incisive and deeply disturbing essay by Daniel Sarewitz at The New Atlantis. As evidence, Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University's School for Future Innovation and Society, points to reams of mistaken or simply useless research findings that have been generated over the past decades. Sarewitz cites several examples of bad science that I reported in my February article "Broken Science." These include a major biotech company's finding in 2012 that only six out of 53 landmark published preclinical cancer studies could be replicated. Researchers at a leading pharmaceutical company reported that they could not replicate 43 of the 67 published preclinical studies that the company had been relying on to develop cancer and cardiovascular treatments and diagnostics. In 2015, only about a third of 100 psychological studies published in three leading psychology journals could be adequately replicated. A 2015 editorial in The Lancet observed that "much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue." A 2015 British Academy of Medical Sciences report suggested that the false discovery rate in some areas of biomedicine could be as high as 69 percent. In an email exchange with me, the Stanford biostatistician John Ioannidis estimated that the non-replication rates in biomedical observational and preclinical studies could be as high as 90 percent. Sarewitz also notes that 1,000 peer-reviewed and published breast cancer research studies turned out to be using a skin cancer cell line instead. Furthermore, when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis researchers tested more than 100 potential drugs reported to slow disease progression in mouse models, none were found to be beneficial when tested on the same mouse strains. A 2016 article suggested that fMRI brain imaging studies suffered from a 70 percent false positive rate. Sarewitz also notes that decades of nutritional dogma about the alleged health dangers of salt, fats, and red meat appears to be wrong. And then there is the huge problem of epidemiology, which manufactures false positives by the hundreds of thousands. In the last decade of the 20th century, some 80,000 observational studies were published, but the numbers more than tripled to nearly 264,000 between 2001 and 2011. S. Stanley Young of the U.S. National Institute of Statistical Sciences has estimated that only 5 to 10 percent of those observational studies can be replicated. "Within a culture that pressures scientists to produce rather than discover, the outcome is a biased and impoverished science in which most published results are either unconfirmed genuine discoveries or unchallenged fallacies," four British neuroscientists bleakly concluded in a 2014 editorial for the journal AIMS Neuroscience. Some alarmed researchers refer to this situation as the "reproducibility crisis," but Sarewitz convincingly argues that they are not getting to the real source of the rot. The problem starts with the notion, propounded in the MIT technologist Vannevar Bush's famous 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier, that scientific progress "results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown." Sarewitz calls this a "beautiful lie." Why it is a lie? Because it makes "it easy to believe that scientific imagination gives birth to technological progress, when in reality technology sets the agenda for science, guiding it in its most productive directions and providing continual tests of its validity, progress, and value." He adds, "Technology keeps science honest." Basically, research detached from trying to solve well-defined problems spins off self-validating, career-enhanc[...]

Most Research Results Are Wrong or Useless: New at Reason

Fri, 26 Aug 2016 13:30:00 -0400

(image) "Science, the pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble." So begins "Saving Science," an incisive and deeply disturbing essay by Daniel Sarewitz at The New Atlantis. As evidence, Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University's School for Future Innovation and Society, points to reams of mistaken or simply useless research findings that have been generated over the past decades.

Some alarmed researchers refer to this situation as the "reproducibility crisis," but Sarewitz convincingly argues that they are not getting to the real source of the rot. The problem starts with the notion, propounded in the MIT technologist Vannevar Bush's famous 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier, that scientific progress "results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown." Sarewitz calls this a "beautiful lie." Why is it a lie? Read the article and find out.

Bot-Run Company of the Future Gets Hacked

Tue, 16 Aug 2016 08:30:00 -0400

If you can't understand how a cutting-edge new investment platform works, it's probably a bad idea to put serious money (or a good portion of an infant cryptocurrency network) behind it. This is a lesson that backers and enthusiasts of the Ethereum platform and its pet project—a bot-run investment corporation known as The Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO)—had to learn the hard way recently. In May, I discussed the development of this new "leaderless" investment corporation, which was purported to be "bound by code"—i.e. run by a bot—and supposed to operate as an automated crowdfunding and profit-sharing venture that obviated the need for human administration. Since its creation on April 30, The DAO raised $150 million in investment on the trendy Ethereum smart-contract platform and plenty of positive press in the weeks leading up to its maiden IPO. There was just one big problem: The code was broken, and The DAO got hacked. Bound by Code The DAO was conceptualized as a kind of decentralized venture-capital fund that could not be controlled by any one person or group. People who wanted to invest in The DAO could purchase "DAO tokens" using Ether (ETH), the native cryptocurrency of the Ethereum platform. With DAO tokens, people could then vote to invest in a number of pre-approved, startup-like projects proposed by entrepreneurs The DAO called "contractors." If a project got enough votes, it would be green-lit and the funds immediately distributed. If the startup began to rake in money, the profits would be dispersed among token holders. If, however, a project started hemorrhaging money, token holders would just have to take that hit. The core innovation of The DAO was that all of these operations were to occur autonomously, facilitated by code rather than fund managers and administrators. In technical terms, The DAO was designed as a kind of "smart contract," a digitized system set up in such a way that breaches of contract are expensive or impossible. There would be no Kickstarter administrator or venture capital general partner that would be capable of censoring or overriding decisions. As The DAO developer Stephen Tual told the Wall Street Journal on May 16, the project was "not bound by terms of law and jurisdiction. It's bound by code." At least, this was the theory. Ack! A Hack! But a funny thing happened on the way to a post-capitalist crypto-anarchist utopia. Amid the fawning press and general euphoria imbuing The DAO community, a group of security researchers led by Cornell University's Emin Gün Sirer published a May white paper sounding the alarm about many troubling vulnerabilities present in The DAO's code. The researchers noted a number of mechanism design weaknesses that could promote sub-optimal voting behavior among token holders or even outright theft of funds. The DAO developers did issue some patches to smooth everything over—but it was too little, too late. The DAO proceeded along its original deployment timeline, warts and all. This rush to release proved fatal for the project. On the morning of June 17, startled token-holders logged online to learn that The DAO was being rapidly drained of its funds. Just as Sirer and his associates warned, an attacker had exploited a vulnerability in The DAO's "split function," which allowed the hacker to drain Ether multiple times during the course of one transaction. Panic struck the community as ETH trickled into the attacker's clutches without pause. The price of ETH tumbled. Panicked token-holders took to the forums to demand answers and quick action from developers of Ethereum and The DAO. In the course of one fateful day, The DAO went from a "new paradigm in economic cooperation" to yet another punchline in the wild world of cryptocurrency. So Much for "Code Is Law" In [...]

Can OpenBazaar Make Free Trade Unstoppable?

Mon, 08 Aug 2016 14:57:00 -0400

The mission of OpenBazaar is to give everyone in the world "the ability to directly engage in trade with anyone in the world for free," says Brian Hoffman, the project's 33-year-old project leader.

A peer-to-peer network for selling goods online, OpenBazaar runs on open source software that users download and install on their computers, which is similar to a BitTorrent client. The client connects them to the OpenBazaar network, where they can trade with other users. It's like eBay without eBay. All items are paid for using bitcoin.

"OpenBazaar doesn't have a central point of failure," explains OB-1 co-founder Sam Patterson. "Everyone using it is a node in a completely distributed network. If you take one user off the network, it has no impact on any of the other users."

Last year, OB1, the company that's developing the OpenBazaar network, got a million dollars in venture capital from Union Square Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and investor William Mougayar.

Since OpenBazaar has no intermediaries and no built in mechanisms for stopping a transaction from taking place, critics say it could become an ideal marketplace for stolen goods and illegal drugs—sort of a decentralized version of Silk Road. Hoffman isn't concerned. "If we work hard to allow users to self-police, to do things legally, properly, easily, cheaply," he says, "they will rush in and overwhelm whatever could possibly come in from the dark side of the internet."

Approximately 9 minutes.

Produced, narrated, and edited by Sean Malone.

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The Death of the VCR Is a Time To Reflect on Disruptive Technologies That Pols Hate

Fri, 29 Jul 2016 11:06:00 -0400

Note (2:40 P.M.): I cleaned up numerous typos and dropped words after first posting this. Also, some minor word changes throughout and the addition of a great video at the bottom of the post. Last week, Ed Morrissey reminds us solemnly over at The Fiscal Times, the last maker of VCRs threw in the towel and stopped producing the thing. "After nearly 60 years," writes Morrissey (whose main gig is as a honcho at Hot Air), "and 40-plus years as a mass-produced consumer product, the last manufacturer could not ignore its obsolescence any longer, created by innovation and open-market principles." Before we move into the meat of Morrissey's column, let's reflect briefly on just how great an invention the VCR was. If you're old enough (say 40-plus) to remember its heyday, the VCR radically transformed your cultural life by putting all sorts of movies, TV shows, and other stuff into your grasp. As I wrote nearly 20 years ago in a story about what I called cultural proliferation: Omnipresent video rental stores give virtually everyone access to a film library that a few decades ago even a millionaire wouldn't have been able to afford. One gets a sense of this by considering the offerings of the typical Blockbuster store. Not only is Blockbuster the country's biggest chain (with about 4,500 stores nationwide), it's arguably one of the blandest and most restrictive in terms of aesthetic judgment. Blockbuster leans heavily toward the highly commercial fare alluded to in its name. And yet it's still got a huge and generally impressive selection of films—the typical franchise rents between 7,000 and 10,000 titles—even as its family-oriented policy creates a niche for stores that carry edgier fare, including pornography. According to The New York Times, most Blockbuster franchises have at least two competitors within a couple of miles, suggesting that cultural markets are often not zero-sum games, in which growth for one vendor is loss for another—or, more important, for the consumer. But VCRs do more than simply allow viewers to watch more TV or film. They profoundly alter the terms of production and consumption. On the production side, movie studios now make roughly as much money from video sales as they do from box office receipts. By providing an after-market, VCRs allow producers—whether large or small, major-studio or independent—to take more risks by giving them a second chance to recoup their investment (that's one reason why there were 139 U.S.-produced independent films released in 1997, 100 more than a decade ago). Additionally, there's a robust market for old TV shows, documentaries, and the like, as well as for direct-to-video materials, ranging from porn to children's series starring the Olsen twins (themselves perhaps a form of porn). On the consumption side, VCRs allow viewers to watch programs at their leisure, or to effectively watch several shows at once. That was writte in 1999. The VCR is dead and video-on-demand offerings are infinitely more varied and available. More important, the tools by which we can all appropriate, reappropriate, and even misappropriate mass culture now reside on everyone's cell phone and laptop (and just about everyone has one or both of these marvelous machines). Yesterday, I spoke with Robert Smigel, best-known as the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Smigel's earlier work involved taking found audio (say, of Larry King talking with H. Ross Perot on CNN) and then animating it so the context was hilariously and brutally inappropriate. Today, virtually anyone can pull off a version of that (though rarely as funny or piercing). That's not just good for laughs, it allows for something that Orwell and other dystopians could never quite grasp: Technology [...]

Watch This Video of a 3D-Printed Building Whenever You Feel Worried About Politics

Wed, 27 Jul 2016 19:08:00 -0400

So this is pretty cool, courtesy of Business Insider Australia. It's a short video from a company Fastbrick Robotics. There's a housing boom in Australia, which has pushed up demand for bricklayers, who are in short supply. The company is shooting to create a robot that can lay all the brick work for a typical house in three days and at lower cost. Currently, bricklayers make about $600 to $1,000 a day and lay about 300 bricks a day. The robot below can double that in just one hour.

I post this on day three of the Democratic National Convention, from the media tent, where a bunch of Bernie Sanders protestors (including actors Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon) are chanting for even more rules and regulations to slow down the sort of technological progress that makes us richer and better off over time. There was a lot of that last night, too, at the DNC in Philly, with various calls to block free trade and regulate and restrict innovations such as the sharing economy. And of course last week at the RNC in Cleveland, Donald Trump and a bunch of Republicans called for other sorts of barriers to trade, which will slow the rate and quality of innovation as well.

So far at least, a better future always arrives for us in America and the rest of the world. Politics can create a context in which it comes faster or slower, but politics doesn't ultimately stop it from happening. Given the Fortress America mentality regarding trade in both parties (and immigration on the part of the GOP), I'm thinking we may well be heading into a slowdown period. But hopefully not. In any case, I find this sort of video that gives us a glance of possible developments that will free us from doing various sorts of manual labor and give us the opportunity to do other stuff with our time strangely calming. Maybe you will too.

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Is Pokemon Go the Most Libertarian Game Ever Made?

Wed, 27 Jul 2016 08:15:00 -0400

Across the street from my apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a small city park, one block long by one block wide. At night, it's usually pretty empty. There's a handful of homeless people who sleep there in the summer and the occasional group of twenty-somethings crossing from the bars on the north side of the park to the bars on the south side.  At least that's how it used to be, before Pokemon Go came along. Now there's crowds of people in the park every evening, staring at their phones, wandering around and hoping to catch a Pikachu or an Eevee.  Believe it or not, they even talk to each other. Ernie Smith, a writer at Tedium, has seen the same thing happening in other places, and he sees (or maybe doesn't see) the invisible hand at work. "It looks spontaneous from a distance—totally unplanned, as if they all stumbled there independently," Smith writes. That's not exactly true, of course.  Those people, and thousands of others like them, have been lured out of their homes and apartments by the game—which is, almost by definition, planned. But, Smith says, the whole thing got him "thinking a bit about the nature of spontaneity, the cosmic way that we do things on the fly, and the way those things connect together." Libertarians know all about that sort of thing. Spontaneous order, the idea that human beings when left to their own devices tend to figure out the best way to organize and run their personal worlds (and social structures) without having to be told what to do, has been a basic tenet of libertarian thought for decades. Does that make Pokemon Go the most libertarian game ever made? It might be. People freely chose the play the game and, in the course of playing it, they freely choose to associate with other people. You can play Pokemon Go alone in your bedroom, but you won't be very successful. The game, like society at large, requires an individual player to seek out co-operation and competition in order to prosper. Those social engagements aren't happening because the government (or even Prof. Oak) forced them to happen—they just do, freely. Aside from the part that built on 90s nostalgia, much of the app's success can be attributed to its lack of rules and regulations.  Yes, the game makes you physically move around in order to catch and level-up Pokemon, but otherwise it lets the players decide when, where and how the action happens. There's no Pokemon government telling you to go to the gym once a week, limiting how many Pidgeys you can catch or how long you are allowed to keep those cute little monsters cooped up inside those tiny Pokeballs (although PETA is actually worried about that, believe it or not). The same sort of spontaneous order has long been an important element in online roleplaying games, like the successful Warcraft series, which sets up basic rules for how the fictional world of the game works and then lets players work together or separately to do pretty much whatever they want. The difference, though, is that Pokemon Go takes that premise out of the basement and into the real world. It's a nearly seamless transition because so much of the world is already subject to spontaneous order.   "With Pokémon Go, a beautiful emergent order of community has already started," writes Tyler Groenendal, a blogger for the Acton Institute.  "The game provides the opportunity for building social institutions, but it's the actions of the individuals in the game that build it, forming a beautiful spontaneous order 'of human action, not human design.'" While there has been much hand-wringing over the way modern technology can divide and isolate people, Groenendal says, it really comes down to how that technology i[...]