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All Reason.com articles with the "Technology" tag.



Published: Fri, 23 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2017 13:20:08 -0400

 



Your Neighbor's Fancy Car Should Make You Feel Better About Income Inequality

Sun, 18 Jun 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Today while I was out running errands in my 5-year-old Honda Accord, I passed a Tesla. If I were a different kind of guy, seeing Elon Musk's latest creation whisk past me as I trundled along in my middleclassmobile might have inspired a sense of personal envy, or even some worry about the social implications of inequality in America. But I'm an economist. And let's face it: In practical terms, the difference between a $200,000 Tesla and my last car, a beat-up minivan worth $2,000 at trade-in, is not all that large. They're both safe forms of transportation that get you from point A to point B and, given legal limits and the reality of suburban traffic, most of the time they're driven at roughly the same speeds. In that sense, measures of income inequality overstate the differences within a developed country like the United States. The products available to the masses are, in many cases, nearly as good as those available only to the elite. Your garbageman's old Timex and your podiatrist's brand new Rolex serve almost precisely the same function. It wasn't always so. A century ago, a hungry rich person had access to significantly more food and more choices than a poor one. Yet even bluebloods would have been able to get their hands on less variety and quality than one now finds at an average Midwestern all-you-can-eat buffet. When Herbert Hoover promised "a chicken in every pot" in the election of 1928, it was the sort of pledge that no one expected a politician to actually keep. Today, each American consumes an average of 27 chickens a year, and obesity is a bigger problem than hunger. The chasm between the very rich and the median citizen yawns wider the further back you look. Three centuries ago, an aristocrat riding in a cushioned carriage would have looked down at a peasant trudging barefoot through the muck—a much more substantial difference than the Honda-Tesla gap today. So why the 21st century panic about the gap between the rich and poor? At first glance, the numbers do look damning. Median family income has grown by about 20 percent since the 1970s, while income for those in the top 5 percent of households has grown by 75 percent or more, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez looked at IRS data and concluded that the share of total pre-tax, pre-transfer income going to the top 1 percent has risen to levels not seen since the 1920s. That suggests an increase, not a decrease, in inequality. But appearances can be deceiving. As the Brookings economist Gary Burtless has pointed out, if you account for transfers such as government housing assistance and employer-provided health insurance, "Americans in the bottom one-fifth of the distribution saw their real net incomes climb by almost 50 percent" since the late 1970s, while "those in the middle fifth of the distribution saw their incomes grow 36 percent." It's worth remembering that anytime someone says the gap between rich and poor is increasing, what he usually means is that rich people are getting richer faster than poor people are getting richer—not that any group is becoming worse off overall. In their own perverse way, by throwing fistfuls of money at truly scarce resources, the social climbers, status seekers, and strivers are doing their part to rectify those income equality numbers that have everyone running scared. Meanwhile, the difference between the lived experiences of Americans at different income levels has actually been decreasing. Changes in the quality of goods consumed by almost everyone mean we're a whole lot more equal than the data superficially suggest. What's more, the same behavior that sparks personal envy and political angst—splashing out on fancy apartments, rare jewels, and other truly scarce goods—may actually be a sign of the closing gap between rich and poor in practical terms. When everyone is wealthier, it becomes harder to demonstrate differences in wealth. Better Off Economic growth and the technological developments it fuels have been spectacularly effective [...]



Florida Man Jailed 180 Days for Not Giving Police His iPhone Password

Wed, 31 May 2017 16:00:00 -0400

(image) Yesterday a circuit court judge in Broward County, Florida, sent 41-year-old Christopher Wheeler to jail for 180 days because he wouldn't give police his iPhone password. Wheeler, who is charged with aggravated child abuse, insisted that he did give them his password. But the cops say the password he provided doesn't work, and that Wheeler therefore hasn't complied with their request. This, the judge decided, put him in contempt of court.

Meanwhile, another Florida circuit court judge—this one in Miami-Dade County—issued a rather different ruling in the case of a couple accused of extorting a social media celebrity over a sex tape. They would not be held in contempt of court for failing to share a phone's password, the judge decided, because there's no way to prove that they couldn't remember their password.

These are just the latest episodes in a broader debate about how Fifth Amendment rights apply to a relatively new technology. Do passwords count as "testimonial evidence," where protections against self-incrimination apply? Or is it more like a field sobriety test or a DNA swab?

Police in both cases were following a precedent set in Sarasota County last year, when the sheriff's department wanted to compel a man accused of video voyeurism to give them his iPhone passcode. A trial judge had ruled that this would violate the alleged voyeur's Fifth Amendment rights, declaring that the man could not be forced to surrender "the contents of his mind." But a state appeals court rejected that reasoning, citing the 1988 Supreme Court decision Doe vs. U.S. That case centered around whether the feds could force a suspect to sign consent forms permitting foreign banks to produce any account records that he may have. In Doe, the justices ruled that the government did have that power, since the forms did not require the defendant to confirm or deny the presence of the records. The Florida court decided that the iPhone case was analogous: The password to the phone and the contents of the phone were separate subjects.

The Sarasota case is now headed to the Florida Supreme Court. Wheeler is appealing his case too, and is expected to be allowed to post bond.




Drupal Developer Larry Garfield Ostracized Over Involvement in Sci-Fi Based Kink Community

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:15:00 -0400

Here's another good example of the limits of liberal "tolerance": in the name of equality and diversity, tech leaders have turned against a long-respected member of their community over his private and consensual sex practices. Sure, the scandal has revealed that Drupal developer and spokesman Larry Garfield has a penchant for BDSM broadly and also for a specific sub-genre of the kink centered on the fictional land of Gor, in which a subset of women serve as men's sex slaves. But more importantly, the situation has exposed strange taboos in the liberal-leaning Drupal community and how hypocritical their talk of tolerance can be. Taking the brunt of the hypocrisy criticism is Drupal trademark owner Dries Buytaert. Buytaert's main gig now is chief technology officer for Acquia, a company he co-founded in 2007. But he's better known as the the creator and original project lead for the open-source content management software Drupal, which has attracted a huge and devoted community since its 2001 launch. Drupal is "supported and maintained" by the nonprofit Drupal Association, which also organizes Drupal conferences. According to Executive Director Megan Sanicki, the association began looking into Garfield last October at the behest of another member of the Drupal community. That person had discovered Garfield's profiles on membership kink and dating websites and shared some screenshots with Drupal leadership. But a Drupal Community Working Group investigation into Garfield found that he had not violated anything in the Drupal community's Code of Conduct, which probably should have been the end of things. No one has offered any evidence that Garfield discriminated against women in his professional life—in fact, many women whom Garfield has worked or associated with have rushed to his defense—let alone committed any more severe offenses or violence against them. Garfield himself says he believes women are every bit as intelligent as men and that his desire for female submission extends only to his own personal romantic/sexual partnerships. "The [dominant/submissive, or] D/s and Gorean community in general places a heavy emphasis on explicit, active, informed consent and constant communication," he notes, adding that he personally has "never, ever advocated for treating women, as a class, with anything other than dignity and respect." But even if Garfield did hold sincerely sexist views in private, it hardly seems grounds for community expulsion in the absence of publcly articulated views or actions. The idea that women should be submissive to their husbands is a prominent feature of many religious faiths, and a value that plenty of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others still hold dear—typically with way less add-on feminism than you'll find in BDSM relationships. Would the Drupal Association feel as comfortable ousting a devout supporter of Islam or evangelical Christianity if it came out that their wives practiced voluntary submission? If—as Buytaert says—the association is commited to treating people equally regardless of "their heritage or culture, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, and more," they seem to doing a pretty terrible job. People's preferences toward certain types of sex or particular fantasies can be no less innate than a sexual orientation toward same- or opposite-sex partners (and no more reason for alarm). And it's hard to imagine a woman receiving the same treatment and derision if it came out that she once worked as a dominatrix or wrote 50 Shades of Grey fanfic. Meanwhile, Garfield was disinvited from the upcoming DrupalCon Baltimore, had his status as a conference track coordinator revoked, and (in a February phone call that both agree on at least the basics of) was asked by Buytaert to stop contributing to the Drupal community. (The request might not seem like a big deal to those outside the tech world, but "open-source communities/projects are crucially important to many people's careers and professional lives," explains Joh[...]



Adam Smith Needs a Paper Clip

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, choosing this "very trifling manufacture" because the different tasks were performed under one roof: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them." By improving workers' skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker's output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000. In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe's pin-making machine. It was "one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time," writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day—and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers. "Considering the great quantity and value of pins used in this country—and their importance as an article of general use, and convenience, if not of necessity," Howe wrote, "it would seem reasonable that encouragement should be given to an attempt to manufacture them; or at least that no obstacle arising out of the past legislation of our government, should be allowed to remain in the way of such an undertaking." So what happened to all those pins? Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren't always a specialty product. In Smith's time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies' bodices, secured men's neckerchiefs, and held on babies' diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women's clothes: "The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest." Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of "dated and datable pins" removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617. Pin sales grew along with record-keeping and bureaucracy—the unfairly derided systems necessary to operate an enterprise of any scale. "The expanded market for pins came from expanded uses in business and administrative record-keeping, as well as in clothing," says economic historian Beverly Lemire. Before paper clips or staples, pins gave businesses an inexpensive, unobtrusive way to keep pieces of paper together. Compared to ribbons or cords that required holes or sealing wax, they marked a major advance. "My guess would be that the expansion of great trading companies—like the East India Company—as well as the multiplication of shops and shopkeepers were a big part of the demand for pins," Lemire says. "Bank pins," as they were called in the trade, allowed organizations of all sizes to keep together orders and invoic[...]



Denmark Proves We Don't Need the FCC

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 08:30:00 -0400

Americans often look to Scandinavian countries for examples of successful policy and governance. It's easy to see why: These countries boast some of the best quality-of-life rankings in the world. Denmark in particular is praised for its stellar telecommunications services. The country has topped the International Telecommunications Union's ranking of global information and communication technology (ICT) provision for years due to its expansive broadband and wireless penetration, fast Internet speeds, and ample provider competition. The Danish reputation got a boost among the American left in last year's presidential election, when none other than Bernie Sanders himself plugged the country as a model for the United States to emulate. But admirers of the popular democratic socialist politician may be surprised to learn exactly how Denmark was able to become an international leader in ICT delivery. It wasn't super-charged regulation, top-down "net neutrality" rules, or major government subsidies that did the trick. So how did Denmark do it? Deregulation. By virtually eliminating their equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Danes now enjoy some of the best ICT service on the planet. A new Mercatus Center working paper by Roslyn Layton and Joseph Kane describes precisely how Danish telecommunications officials undertook successful deregulatory reforms. It starts with Danish regulators who quickly understood the promise of digital technology and realized that government policies could quash innovative applications that would benefit consumers and businesses alike. From there, they developed a plan to prioritize competition and development instead of central control. This hands off-approach was so successful that eventually the country's National IT and Telecom Agency (NITA) was disbanded altogether. Committed to Competition In 1994, when most governments hadn't even started to consider the impending digital revolution, Danish authorities had already laid out a clear path for simple telecommunications policy. Their plan emphasized facilitating interactions between the public and private sectors instead of rushing to regulate. The Danish government also undertook early efforts to modernize their own services by digitizing government records, thereby becoming a key buyer of ICT services. Government services became more efficient, and the infant ICT sector got an enthusiastic and large client. Policymakers clearly stated their opposition to subsidy-driven "growth" and heavy-handed regulation. The country's state-owned telecommunications provider, Tele Danmark (TDC), was completely privatized in 1998 through the efforts of Social Democrat Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. The next year, a consortium of Danish political parties formed a "Teleforlig," or telecommunications agreement, that outlined their goals. It stated: It is important to ensure that regulation does not create a barrier for the possibility of new converged products… Regulation must be technologically neutral, and technology choices are to be handled by the market. The goal is to move away from sector-specific regulation toward competition-oriented regulation. And Danish regulators kept this promise. For example, following the privatization of TDC, NITA levied special regulations on the provider so that it would not abuse its previous monopoly to prevent new competition in wireless. TDC was therefore subject to controls on its access to mobile networks and call origins. But NITA discovered that the wireless industry was sufficiently competitive by 2006, with four active providers in the market. Remarkably, NITA then dissolved the TDC regulations. As one official stated, "We are obliged to remove the regulation when the competitive situation demands it. There is no need to regulate something that market forces can take care of." By 2011, Danish ICT provision had become so competitive and responsive to market needs that NITA closed u[...]



Guns, Privacy, and Freedom Benefit From New Tech Tools

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

As it turns out, if you want to be a successful subversive, you probably shouldn't take on the moniker "Dr. Death" as you publicly tout your establishment-challenging ways. That's what Daniel Crowninshield did with regard to the unfinished firearm receivers he sold, to be completed on computer numerically controlled (CNC) mills in his North Sacramento, California, machine shop. Theoretically, customers operated the mills themselves, making the finished firearms legal. But an undercover agent insisted that shop employees did the honors, and Crowninshield got three and a half years in prison. What's remarkable about this story isn't just Crowninshield's excessive enthusiasm in marketing his services, however. More important is what this story illustrates about the unenforceable nature of laws that people find oppressive—and the growing vulnerability of such restrictions. Strictly speaking, Crowninshield's act of defiance was old-school; while he apparently used computer-controlled machines, there's no reason trained machinists couldn't have cranked out those receivers using traditional tools and their own skills—except, that is, for the (not so, as it turned out) plausible deniability that they were being operated by untrained customers. There was enough demand for such services that there was sometimes a line outside Crowninshield's shop, according to an undercover agent. AR-15 receivers invisible to government scrutiny, "in the hundreds at a minimum," were supposedly cranked out at that one North Sacramento operation. But enthusiasts actually can and do personally operate Cody Wilson's push-button Ghost Gunner CNC mills—which Wired described as "absurdly easy to use." Again, there's enough demand for such services that hundreds of the high-tech machines have been sold, putting the manufacture of finished firearm receivers within reach of people who don't have machinists' skills. And there's no way of knowing how many finished receivers have been quietly knocked out on the devices after they're delivered. Which was the whole reason Wilson developed the Ghost Gunner, after demonstrating that a working, if simple, pistol could be created on a 3D printer. Of course, this isn't just about things that go bang. Several years ago, Wilson teamed up with fellow crypto-anarchist Amir Taaki to develop DarkWallet, a Bitcoin wallet intended to add an extra layer of anonymity to the virtual currency so that financial transactions could more effectively evade official scrutiny. Development of DarkWallet briefly stalled as Taaki disappeared for a while on a lower-tech mission to shoot at ISIS troops on behalf of the Rojava enclave in northern Syria. But with Taaki back (though under investigation by British authorities over his Syrian adventure), the software is now available in beta form. "I believe in the hacker ethic," Taaki said about not just DarkWallet, but his overall philosophy. "Empower the small guy, privacy and anonymity, mistrust authority, promote decentralized alternatives, freedom of information," he says. "These are good principles. The individual against power." For good reason, Wilson and Taaki play central roles in Adam Bhala Lough's The New Radical, a documentary about activists who push the boundaries of technology that empowers individuals against the state. The film received a mixed reception at the Sundance film festival, the Los Angeles Times noted in January—not because of its quality, but because comfortably liberal attendees who like to think of themselves as the good guys realized they were among the targets of anti-authoritarians who look "to create fundamental political change by pushing for one or more of the following: an eradication of intellectual-property laws, radical free speech, fierce encryption to protect that speech, anonymous money (basically, digital currency not controlled or monitored by any government) and a general disdain for traditional legislati[...]



6 Cool Innovations That Are Making the World a Better Place, Vol. 2

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 16:45:00 -0400

Reason readers already know that smart people + free markets = innovations that can change the world. But just in case you needed a reminder (or a proof of the pudding for your more skeptical friends), below are six products we found at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big technology and entrepreneurship confab that happened in Austin, Texas, this month, that are working hard to make life a little better. Each was a finalist for one of the conference's Interactive Innovation Awards, and a couple of them took home first-place prizes, too. 6. Molekule: Fighting Indoor Airpollution at a Molecular Level I am one of those poor souls who are allergic to anything and everything in the air. Dust. Dander. Smoke. Pollen. Carbon. Oxygen. I become a weezing, sniffling mess at the first sign of any of them. In desperation a few years ago I got myself an air purifier, but it didn't make much of a difference. Eventually the HEPA filter needed to be replaced, and I wasn't sure where to go to get a new one. Soon, rather than reducing the floating particle content in my apartment, it became just another object (ironically) collecting dust. And then I threw it in a dumpster. Enter Molekule, whose creators claim to have cracked the code on using nanotechnology, free radicals, and solar energy science (stick with me, I swear I'm not just blurting out buzzwords) in a process called Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) to actually break down indoor air pollutants at a molecular level. And the device—a finalist among Health, Med & Biotech products—knows when it needs a new filter and will automatically order one for home delivery, at a flat annual subscription rate. Although I can't testify that it works as promised, I very much hope I'll have a chance to find out in the near future. 5. Pavegen V3: Human-Powered, Er, Power Pavegen has created a flooring system that absorbs the shock of pedestrians walking across it and, using tiny generators on the undersides of the triangular tiles, transforms that movement into electricity. In addition to being a true renewable source of energy, it would seem to hold a lot of promise for letting there be light (among other things) in remote locations without access to traditional power hookups. According to the Pavegen website, the "rotary motion" caused by a footfall "creates 2 to 4 joules of energy via electro-magnetic induction." The company's first permanent outdoor installation came to Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood (also, coincidentally, home to Reason's D.C. office) last fall, showing that the system can stand up to relatively harsh winter conditions. V3 was the Innovation Award winner in the Smart Cities category. 4. The ODIN: Do-It-Yourself Gene Editing Self-described "biohacker" Josiah Zayner wasn't content to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Chicago and do research for NASA. In 2016, he launched a crowdfunding effort to found The ODIN, which for $150 will sell you a DIY bacterial gene editing kit. That product, a nominee for the Health, Med & Biotech award, comes with all necessary components "to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home including Cas9, tracrRNA, crRNAm," plus a template so you can experiment on your own. "I believe that the only way that this works is if Science is democratized so everyone has access," Zayner wrote on Indiegogo. "Until now, no one has taken the time to develop protocols and methods and then be willing to provide all of this for a reasonable price that can be afforded without large institutional grants." 3. TunnelBear: Routing Around Internet Censorship One of the ways oppressive governments manage to keep a stranglehold on their citizens is by controlling the flow of information via spying, censorship, and propaganda dispersal. Fortunately, Virtual Private Network (VPN) services can shield a user's online activities from her internet provider and,[...]



Meet Your New Robot Workmate: Flippy, the Burger-Cooker

Thu, 09 Mar 2017 11:06:00 -0500

Automation is our friend. It allows humans to accomplish much much more with less effort. It is the main reason we live longer, get fatter, and have mots of stuff. And existential crises.

Remember that as we get more and more worried about robots taking jobs.

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Unlike teenage fast-food workers, Flippy doesn't get pimples or cop an attitude. And after the shock wears off, realize that he (she?) will free our kids up to do more valuable things with their time and lives.

Back in 2008, Reason TV and Drew Carey meditated on "Mexicans and Machines" as the two biggest threats to American prosperity. Both fears were and are wildly overstated. Take a watch:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Z9csCerjfdE" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">

Reason on Robots.




What Do You Call a Tool to Help Uber Avoid Gov't Stings? A Good Start.

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 16:45:00 -0500

As Uber faces some public relations problems right now connected to complaints of sexual harrassment and mistreatment of its drivers, The New York Times has what it apparently thinks is an expose of sorts. It doesn't. Or at least it doesn't from the perspective of the lives of ordinary people. The way journalist Mike Isaac has approached this story betrays a type of media bias that seems to naturally assume that government regulators are in charge of us all, and those who are trying to find ways to work around them are up to no good. To wit, Uber uses a tool called "Greyball" to circumvent officials. It's a tool that Uber says is designed to help it deny ride requests to people who violate their terms of service, disrupt the system, or threaten their drivers. They also have been using it to operate in places where government officials have been trying to shut them down. The story of the technology itself is genuinely fascinating, but it's caught up in this concept that Uber's behavior is villainous, possibly even illegal, though the expert Isaac consulted, a fellow Times contributor, could only make vague claims. This tool essentially creates a fake ghost version of Uber. People who are "greyballed" could order cars via Uber's map and could watch them travel around. But the Uber drivers always canceled when the customer ordered a pickup. The cars were not actually real. They were fabricated by the app to trick the user into wasting time, without the user realizing they had been secretly been banned and maybe starting a new account. Uber used this tool to operate in Portland, Oregon, as regulators attempted to use sting operations to catch them and shut them down. As the story explains, this all bothered authorities because Uber was employing people and putting them to work outside of their purview: UberX essentially lets people who have passed a cursory background check and vehicle inspection to become an Uber driver quickly. In the past, many cities banned the service and declared it illegal. That's because the ability to summon a noncommercial driver — which is how UberX drivers who use their private vehicles are typically categorized — often had no regulations around it. When Uber barreled into new markets, it capitalized on the lack of rules to quickly enlist UberX drivers, who were not commercially licensed, and put them to work before local regulators could prohibit them from doing so. After authorities caught up, the company and officials generally clashed — Uber has run into legal hurdles with UberX in cities including Austin, Tex., Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., as well as internationally. Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement, and regulators developed a legal framework for the low-cost service. What's fascinating about the story is how it fails to identify a single person victimized by the Greyball tool other than the authorities who are unable to operate their stings. Meanwhile, as the story does note, it's the Uber drivers who faced harassment and had their cars impounded or ticketed by authorities, which Uber then had to reimburse. And in other countries, Uber drivers (and passengers) had to worry about actual physical attacks from workers in the entrenched taxi cartels. As usual when we see stories like this, the defense always seems to be "Uber needs to follow the same rules as everybody else," and never "Everybody else should have the same freedom as Uber." The story is written with an unquestioned assumption that extensive government regulation of private transit is normal and expected. When I mentioned this sort of bias on Twitter, I got this response from a stranger: "That's not media or institutional bias, that's a reality bias. Very few people are ok with inmates running the asylum" My response there, as it is here, is that "inmates running the asylum" is "an interest[...]



Why Is Twitter a For-Profit Platform, Anyway?

Thu, 02 Mar 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Poor Twitter. By now, the persistent tug-of-war among user groups complaining about disagreeable content and others who point to the platform's free speech roots has been exhausted to the point of cliche. But as the now-ubiquitous microblogging platform continues to crack down on certain speech while its stock price continues to struggle, some are questioning whether Twitter can survive as a for-profit company at all. Earlier this month, Twitter rolled out new shadow-censorship tools in an effort to cut down on what some consider platform subversion. In addition to expanding permanent bans of users deemed to be abusive, Twitter is introducing "safe search" and "low-quality Tweet" collapsing tools to automatically hide the content that Twitter's "Trust and Safety Council" deems to be too hot for chaste eyes. "Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus," reads a blog post announcing the changes. "[We will] continue to move at this speed until we've made a significant impact that people can feel." The impact was felt quickly indeed. Many users immediately reported odd behavior, such as inexplicably disappearing replies and rashes of banned accounts. Some of the bans struck users more as opportunistic censorship than a genuine crackdown on abuse. The "Silence of the Frogs" In what Andrew Sabinski of the International Business Times is calling the "Silence of the Frogs," several members of an online surrealist collective called "frogtwitter"—which is hard to summarize, but is mainly comprised of a ragtag clique of satirical accounts including post-techno-nihilists, Kantian essentialists, aesthetic occultists, audiovisual artists, and vitalist-nudist bodybuilders—have been targeted for bans despite a lack of a history of demonstrable abuse. Frogtwitter is definitely an odd flock, but "being weird" alone does not officially meet the Twitter definition of abuse (yet). Say what you will about the accelerationist worldview of British philosopher and "neo-reactionary" guru Nick Land, for example, he is nothing but civil on Twitter as he undertakes his quest to awaken a technological singularity that will render humans functionally obsolete. Still, Land's Twitter account was banned in the purge, only to be reinstated with little explanation a few days later. I talked with "Kantbot," one of the leading content creators associated with frogtwitter, about his experience with the new Twitter rules. Kantbot has garnered over 10,000 followers through his off-kilter and aphoristic philosophy Tweets, in addition to his writing and performance art. His account was locked several times during the ban effort, and he felt compelled to delete several thousand tweets to avoid being kicked off the platform as many of his comrades-in-Tweets had been. While Kantbot admits that his satirical posts can be controversial, he says he maintains e-friendships on Twitter with users across the political spectrum. He told me that he sees his account mostly as a literary endeavor in the "tradition of [Jonathan] Swift, [Alexander] Pope, and [Henry] Fielding," and that he hopes his content will "inspire people, entertain, and make people think about the relationship between social media and art." He does not believe that he is being targeted because he has been abusive, but as part of a "deliberate campaign" to get frogtwitter off the platform. It's more than a little bizarre that a tiny group of performatively absurd yet temperamentally benign Twitter users would be specifically targeted for digital annihilation while propaganda and spam bots, psychopathic trolls, and violent religious fanatics still run rampant on the platform. And the ban-hammer has not just fallen on frogtwitter; libertarian personality Tom Woods has likewise reported that some of his tweets appear to be censored by Twitter, for example. I[...]



Why We Don't Need a Department of Technology Policy

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 08:30:00 -0500

There 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 f[...]



NYPD is Developing an Algorithm to Measure Police-Community Relations

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.




Director of Anti-Sex Trafficking Doc I Am Jane Doe Doesn't Understand the Laws She's Trying to Reform

Thu, 26 Jan 2017 13:30:00 -0500

src="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[...]



How the IRS Could Cripple Cryptocurrency

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Should 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 P[...]



Interview: Penn Jillette

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 s[...]