Published: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 05:28:43 -0500
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 the insecurity is what economists call an externality: It's an effect of the purchasing decision that affects ot[...]
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 mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 10 years and possible life in prison. Mazzio insisted several times [...]
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 agency's own inspector general criticized shortly before the IRS legal action against Coinbase—and relied sole[...]
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 medical devices on their own recognizance. Is that a fair analogy? Yeah, I think it kind of is. But I mean, what yo[...]
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 time to adapt to the world as it changes and retool our skills and sensibilities. Listen below or subscribe to[...]
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 about how a Trump administration would be great at "the cyber." But if President Trump follows through on hi[...]
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 to look back at these old predictions before you accept the new ones too readily. Here's the movie: src="ht[...]
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, but sources told The New York Times that some Yahoo tools to scan emails for spam and child-pornography had[...]
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.
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.
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.
Wed, 07 Sep 2016 13:41:00 -0400Peter 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[...]
Tue, 30 Aug 2016 02:30:00 -0400Human 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 s[...]