DefCon 22 presentation notes

Behind the cut are the notes I took during DefCon 22, organized by name of presentation. Where appropriate I've linked to the precis of the talk. I make no guarantee that they make sense to anybody but me.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 20 August 2014, 10:00 hours | default | No comments

DefCon 22: The writeup.

The reason I've been quiet so much lately and letting my constructs handle posting things for me is because I was getting ready to attend DefCon 22, one of the largest hacker cons in the world. It's been quite a few years since I last attended DefCon (the last one was DefCon 9, back in 2001.ev) due to the fact that Vegas is, in point of fact, stupidly expensive and when you get right down to it I need to pay bills more than I need to fly to Las Vegas for most of a week. I'm also in the middle of finishing up moving out of DC, which would tie up most of anybody's energy and money. However, this year $work sent me with two cow-orkers so once the ink was dry we kicked into lockdown mode to get ready in the days leading up to our flight. I'll post later about what all of that entailed, based upon the hypothesis that transparently documented security protocols executed correctly should stand up to a certain amount of scrutiny; additionally, peer review and scrutiny for security protocols isn't a bad thing at all.

Due to the no photography policy at the con I took only a handful of pictures outside of the conference space, and even then only of myself with an eye for keeping as many other people out of the frame as possible. Many of us aren't comfortable being photographed anymore because we as a society are under such tight surveillance in public that it's nice to not be recorded once in a while. So, I've got no pictures of and from DefCon this time around.

Our flight to Vegas wasn't much to write home about. It was pleasant as short flights go and largely inoffensive. Protip: If you're flying Spirit Air and you've got baggage to check, do so at the front desk. Don't check your baggage when you print out your boarding pass even if you do it at home. If you do it'll cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $50us. if you check your baggage at the front desk as an "Oh, by the way" you'll only pay $16. Save some money, you're flying to Las Vegas. You'll need it. When we stepped out of McCarran Airport to get on the shuttle bus the dry desert air slammed into us like a firm yet fluffy hammer. After a minute or two we were unable to tell the difference between the air and the exhaust from an idling truck.

From the time we flew out of our home airport the three of us were operating in what we called autistic mode, a phrase taken from Ghost In the Shell which refers to the practice of operating while entirely disconnected from the global Net. DefCon's network is renowned as possibly the most hostile network environment on the planet, where no holds are barred, zero fucks are given, and it's aliens-from-Independence Day-nuke-dog-eat-dog. In short, you run at your own risk because there is no telling what's running loose on any of the wireless networks there. There is also no telling which of the wireless access points at any given hotel are legitimate and which might be booby traps. I've heard several people over the years mention that the number of hotel access points triples in the day or two preceeding DefCon and drops abruptly the day after the con wraps up. Additionally, it is generally agreed upon by the security community that the security measures on your average smartphone vary between "laughable" and "criminally negligent"; coupled with the state of the art in GSM and CDMA interception techniques even talking on the phone at DefCon is potentially hazardous. In a later post I'll describe our OPSEC protocol along with what worked, what didn't work, and what the pain points experienced were.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 18 August 2014, 10:00 hours | default | No comments

What I imagine happens too often.

user@host $:~ man 3 memcpy
What could possibly go wrong?
user@host $:~

The Doctor | 16 August 2014, 22:07 hours | default | No comments

DefCon 22: The Omega of hacker cons.

Back from DefCon 22. Exhausted from the flight home. Lots of stuff to write, need to type up my notes. No pictures of the con due to the "no photography" policy. Unlocked achievement pink mohawked cyberpunk.

Greetings to everyone I met at DefCon this year. Love to old friends, you know who you are. If you're waiting for e-mail from me, please be patient because my inboxes are backed up by thousands of e-mails and I'm patching together some new bots to help me sort through it all. It might be a week.

Let's do this.

The Doctor | 11 August 2014, 20:33 hours | default | Two comments

Lifestyle update.

Not dead. Very busy, getting ready to ship out for work in a couple of days. In rather a lot of pain, too. Doing what I can to manage it.

The Doctor | 04 August 2014, 02:42 hours | default | One comment

Oaklandstuck: Trolls In Black.

I happened to be in the Bay Area with Amberite for the Fourth of July this year, and as we are wont to do we got it into our heads to do a little road testing of some costumes we've been talking about for a while, namely the trolls Sollux Captor and Terezi Pyrope from the webcomic Homestuck playing Men In Black.

If you're not interested in our costuming notes feel free to check out the photographs we took of ourselves or not as you like.

Crossposted to the content category because there are how-to notes after the cut.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 18 July 2014, 04:13 hours | images, content | No comments

Boat tour of San Francisco Bay.

A couple of weeks ago a group of us from work went on a boat tour of San Francisco Bay after knocking off early. Here are the pictures I took.

The Doctor | 16 July 2014, 10:30 hours | images | No comments

Hardcore Devo - 28 June 2014, Oakland, CA

Earlier this year it was announced that Robert "Bob2" Casale of the band Devo passed away at the age of 61 of heart failure. Shortly after the announcement Devo publicized that they were embarking upon a memorial tour during which they would play lesser known songs from what is known as their hardcore phase which spanned the years 1974.ev through 1977.ev when they still lived, worked, and performed in Akron, Ohio. Even though I'm up to my neck in shipping crates and stuff all over the place I made the time to get tickets for the show at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, California.

The stage was set simply: Movable wall segments upstage painted to resemble cinderblock walls, a bright yellow drum kit at stage right, two sitting chairs, and a bank of synthesizers at stage left. The remaining members of Devo - Josh Freese on drums, Gerald Casale on bass guitar, "Bob1" Mothersbaugh on guitar, and Mark Mothersbaugh playing keyboards took the stage as muzak versions of classic Devo songs faded away. Bob2's absence stuck out like a monkey wrench in a birthday cake as Mark Mothersbaugh sat down behind the keyboard racks, the rest of the band took up their instruments, and Mothersbaugh picked up a newspaper and began to reminisce in an "it's still happening" way about the first half of the 1970's. He spoke through a vocoder as if he'd undergone a laryngectomy and threw packs of candy cigarettes into the crowd. The concert seemed to be set in three acts: When they were first starting out playing in somebody's basement, then when they first took their now highly stylized stage personas by donning pale blue janatorial jumpsuits ("A1 Janitorial Supplies."), and finally when they started to make it big and added surreal transparent plastic face masks to their stage costumes. Near the end of the concert the peculiar and enigmatic Booji Boy took over the show to sing what was described as a "heartfelt" solo piece. At the very end of their show Alex Casale, son of Bob2 took the stage to play second guitar, one of his father's positions on stage. Alex seems to have inherited his father's talent for music because he seamlessly performed the final few songs with the rest of the band. I sincerely hope that he joins Devo but his fate is his own, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we wish him success and the best of luck in whatver endeavors he undertakes.

Here are the pictures I took during the show.

Duty now for the future, spuds.

The Doctor | 14 July 2014, 10:00 hours | images | No comments

A random USB port in my hotel room.

When I was in DC a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the lamps in my hotel room had USB ports in them, presumably for plugging in smart devices to recharge in the event that the traveler did not bring a power strip. Most hotels aren't known for offering a surplus of power outlets.

Seeing as how I was back in Washington, DC, called by some The City of Spies, I couldn't help but wonder how such a thing could be used offensively. Let's say I wanted to gig somebody's smartphone with some canned exploits and a malware package. After finding out what room they were staying in I'd wait until they were out and gain access to their room, and then head right for one of those lamps. I'm not the NSA - I don't have a fancy single chip microcomputer that I could solder inline with the USB jack - but I could get hold of a USB host peripheral for a common microcontroller development platform, some storage for my smartphone pwning payload, and build an injector using a readily available development library. The injector is pretty small, maybe a third the size of my phone, and should fit nicely in the base of that lamp instead of the USB charger. There is more room inside them than it would appear from the outside With more development time I could probably get it down to the size of a cigarette lighter, which would leave plenty of room to spare in the base of that lamp. I could probably use the power supply for the USB charger to run my little beastie and supply power to a connected device to boot. Then I'd sit back in the hotel bar a few floors down and let the good times roll.

For the record, I didn't really do this. I opened up the base of the lamp to see if somebody else did (they didn't) because that's how I roll. I might build such a thing one day to see if I could do it, but I wouldn't actually use it on anyone. Instead, I'd see if I could get it accepted as a proof-of-concept at a conference like HOPE or DefCon.

The Doctor | 10 July 2014, 08:00 hours | default | One comment

Like a boss.

I clean up nice if you give me half a chance.

Taken in my hotel room before attending the EPIC Champions of Freedom Awards Dinner on 2 June 2014 in Washington, DC.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 08 July 2014, 08:00 hours | images | No comments

Some thoughts on Google Glass.

I feel obligated to make the following disclaimer:

Yes, I am still a privacy advocate. I still teach crypto and train people in using privacy-preserving technologies. I also still don't trust any service that I can't kick because data I produce through them is the product and not the service. That said, Google and Google Glass don't seem to be going away anytime soon. So, here are some of my thoughts on Glass.

If you've been bouncing around the consumer electronics set for a while you've undoubtedly heard of Glass, Google's foray into the red-headed stepchild of computer technology for the last few decades, wearable computing. Glass is an astonishingly small and light device that fits comfortably on the earpiece of a pair of eyeglasses with a mass of just 50 grams (about as much as a quarter cup of sugar). As a bit of trivia, the prototype of Glass developed in 2011 reportedly weighed eight pounds. It's a fully self-contained computing device that incorporates a dual-CPU System On A Chip, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of onboard storage, and a unique heads up display that hovers above the wearer's right eye that looks like a translucent 25" display. It runs a standard build of Android on board, so the user doesn't have to link it to a larger device unless there is no wireless network connectivity (Glass is not cellular-enabled). Android is a general purpose operating system so it can do pretty much anything a larger device running Android can do, including run apps from the Google Play store. The inexorable advance of computing technology has solved many of the user interface problems of early wearable devices; Glass sports natural language voice control, head motion tracking, a capacitative touchpad, and can be remotely controlled with an application running on a mobile device if the user desires. It also offers native integration with many of Google's services, from Gmail to Google Search and Maps, which make it ideal as a navigational aid because the necessary information appears in the heads-up display in realtime.

Unsurprisingly the announcement of Glass has spawned a new and fresh kind of controversy, as only things intimately connected with the global Net can. Glass' forward-facing camera and microphone immediately mark it as a potential privacy concern because people in the immediate area don't immediately know if they're being recorded or not. Some people seem to believe that Glass is always recording everything around it and act accordingly. This has resulted in a number of assaults upon the users (though a certain amount of asshattery was involved in some of the altercations (video) (mirror of the video in case it gets taken down)). It's even resulted in some impressive overreactions - in January of 2014 a movie theater run by AMC summoned a team of agents from Federal Protective Services (a field division of the Department of Homeland Security) to detain and interrogate the individual because he was wearing Glass attached to his prescription spectacles. In some ways this backlash is not dissimilar to some of the problems Steven Mann has encountered with his wearable projects over the years. Something I can't help but find interesting is that the attitudes of some of the most vehement anti-Glass protestors don't seem to involve the same amount of vitrol with regard to being recorded while walking down the street, in stores, in bars and clubs, or while traveling in taxis, buses, or trains. But what do I know? Maybe the perceived risk of retaliation is less when one attacks a person rather than an actual problem.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 07 July 2014, 10:00 hours | default | One comment

Printing memory circuits on paper and the first memristor based computer?

Computer memory chips are manufactured identically to any other kind of integrated circuit. Wafers of ultra-pure silicon are selectively doped, masked with layer after layer of circuit diagrams, etched.. you get the picture. The extreme sensitivity of the process is one of the reasons behind the cost of microprocessors and memory these days. What if, however, there was a less touchy and expensive process? A research team lead by Der-Hsien Lien, a graduate student at the National University of Taiwan in Taipei figured out how to print memory circuitry on paper with an inkjet printer. The team fabricated a form of memory called resistive RAM, which is comprised of resistor/transistor pairs and is non-volatile (when the power is cut, the data doesn't evaporate). First, a piece of paper was screen printed with carbon paste which served as both a substrate and a common electrode. Then the paper was run through an inkjet printer which used a hacked cartridge containing a solution of titanium oxide nanoparticles instead of ink to print a layer of circuitry on top of the carbon layer. Then minute dots of silver were deposited strategically atop the titanium oxide layer (exactly how isn't clear) to form the final layer. The sheet of RAM was then subjected to various functional tests to demonstrate that it did, in fact function in the way rRAM is supposed to. The tests were successful, even after the paper was folded up and retested. Lien's team reports that they were able to fab memory cells 50 micrometers in size, smaller than the end of a human hair but as visible as a speck of dust floating in the air. The printer they used could print a single megabyte of rRAM on an A4 sheet of paper, but a printer with better resolution could hypothetically achieve data densities approaching one gigabyte of storage per page. More elabrate circuitry could probably increase that theoretical information density even farther; time will tell.

A couple of years back an obscure electrical component called a memristor became a topic of research in the field of computer engineering. Memristors work a little like a resistor and a little like a capacitor and hold a charge (representing a bit of data) for extremely long periods of time even after the power's been disconnected. A couple of years ago I wrote an article about HP initiating a research program to make memristors a practical part of computer architecture. Four years later John Sontag (VP, Director of Systems Research at HP Labs) announced that they're developing The Machine, an experimental computing platform that uses memristor-based RAM and novel optical interfaces to the silicon instead of metallic interconnects. The Machine is supposed to use much less power than comparable server-class machines and will boast many terabytes of storage online. They're working on a functional architecture for The Machine (what kind of data goes where and when) and Sontag says they're going to work with the Linux community to figure out how to use it in a practical manner. Very large in-memory data stores are already pretty common today so this doesn't sound too daunting a task, and using RAM as a file system is actually a very old but effective technique. It seems that one of the potential advantages of memristor-based memory is that it could potentially eliminate an entire class of programming problems, namely, determining which parts of a data set need to be cached because they're used heavily and which aren't and can be evicted to free up space. HP plans on offering memristor-based memory modules somewhen around 2016 and The Machine will hopefully be sold as a product three years later. Again, time will tell but they've come amazingly far in so short a period of time.

The Doctor | 30 June 2014, 09:00 hours | default | No comments

Growing human retinas in vitro, patching damaged brains, and imaging an entire brain's activity.

In the journal Nature earlier this month a paper was published by one Dr. Valeria Canto-Soler who works in the field of regenerative medicine at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns-Hopkins University. Medical science has gotten pretty good at creating induced pluripotent stem cells, or stem cells which started out as other kinds of human body cells that were hacked to devolve back into pluripotent stem cells which can then be caused to differentiate into other, more specialized kinds of cells. Dr. Canto-Soler and her research team have taken this process to the next logical step: Causing those cultured stem cells to organize themselves into a functional organ, in this case a retina. The stem cells were redifferentiated into retinal progenitor cells which then further transformed into the various sorts of cells that make up a retina, spontaneously arranging themselves in the process. The cultured structure matches the structure of 'natural' retinas, including the seven major types of cells (one of which is actually a family of six different kinds of neurons) which are arranged into multiple interconnected layers. The cultured proto-retina not only has the same general structure and organization as a human retina but even evidences the appropriate behaviors. When the cultured retina reached a developmental stage roughly matching that of a 28 week old embryo it was instrumented with electrodes and deliberately illuminated; the cultured retina showed the bioelectrical activity which one would expect in a human eye. While implanting cultured retinas are still a ways off (we can't yet reliably splice neurons) we now have a working model which can be used to study different diseases of the eye as well as test treatments for them.

For many years it was believed that if the brain was damaged, that was it. Scar tissue might form but neurons were thought not to regenerate. More recently we've learned that this isn't actually the case. Damaged neural networks in the brain and spinal cord are capable of healing, albeit very slowly. Rachel Okolicsanyi of the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland Institute of Technology (whew!) is working on manipulating stem cells extracted from bone marrow so that they turn into neural progenitor cells, plug into the damaged neural networks, and differentiate into the appropriate neurons to restore normal functioning. As it turns out, the outer membranes of human cells are coated with patterns of variants of proteins called heparan sulfate proteoglycans which seem to act as chemical receptors that control the inner mechanisms of the cells. Her research involves figuring out what patterns of chemical stimuli are appropriate to get those stem cells to eventually transform into neurons. It's probably going to take a while but I think a lot of useful data is going to come from her experiments; if she accidentally creates cartilage cells, for example, medical science will have a better idea of how to grow cartilage from stem cells on demand. There's a high potential for fringe benefits here. I don't know where her work is at right now, but I'm going to be keeping a sensor net peeled for her work.

In nature there is a species of nematode with the scientific moniker of caenorhabditis elegans which has some interesting qualities that make it ideal for scientific study. It's a relatively complex organism with a fairly simple genetic structure comprised of about 97k 100 million base pairs that has been completely sequenced. They're easy to breed in the lab and have a fairly short life cycle, so there's no shortage of test subjects. They are also surprisingly consistent from specimen to specimen on a cellular level. Every male c.elegans has exactly 1031 cells and every hermaphroditic c.elegans (there don't seem to be purely female versions) has exactly 959 cells. Both have exactly 302 neurons arranged in a simple nervous system consisting of approximately 8000 synaptic connections. All of these things sound like trivia but they also made c.elegans one of the best studied organisms in history. When you combine these things with recent advances in biotech, some very interesting things come about... there is a biomedical technique called optogenetics which involves using genetic modification methods to make certain kinds of cells (usually neurons) sensitive to different frequencies of light; shine a light on them and they fire. Recently a scientific team at Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria published a paper which describes how they monitored all of the chemoelectrical activity of c.elegans in one shot, a heretofore unaccomplished feat in medical science. First, a group of c.elegans were bioengineered so that only the nuclei of their neurons would emit light when stimulated with laser light instead of the whole cell (which would make it difficult to see exactly what's going on inside them). A new optical technique called light sculpting had to be created to illuminate the nematode's entire neural network simultaneously to capture a nearly complete picture of the activity 80 times per second. They were able to image about 70% of the total activity of the nematodes' brains with each sample taken, something that has not been done before. The team's imaging equipment can go up to 200 frames per second, which will give a much more finely grained image of what's going on inside the diminutive critter.

Where to go from here? C.elegans is the testbed for this particular imaging technique. Once it's worked out, it seems reasonable to say that it could be applied to successively more complex organisms, gathering data each step of the way, until it can be applied to the most complex organism that we know of at this time - the human race.

The Doctor | 26 June 2014, 10:00 hours | default | Two comments

On assembling Ikea Furniture.

If you must assemble any significant quantity of Ikea furniture, do yourself a favor and ignore the tiny and disposable circular wrench and allen key they include in the packaging. Spend a few more dollars to get yourself one or more of the Fixya 17 piece toolkits. It doesn't look like much but the tools are more than sufficient to assemble any furniture that Ikea sells. At the very least you won't tear your hands and wrists to pieces trying to use those tiny wrenches to assemble anything you plan on using every day. You'll also get the job done in roughly half the time.

The Doctor | 21 June 2014, 17:41 hours | randomknowledge | No comments

Transhuman visions presentation.

To everyone who attended the Global Existential Risks and Radical Futures Conferences yesterday, thank you. It was an honor and a privilege to meet with and speak to all of you.

As promised, here are my slides in the form of an HTML5 presentation. They were authored in Markdown and run through Landslide to convert them into HTML5 slides.

This work by The Doctor [412/724/301/703][ZS] is published under a Creative Commons By Attribution / Noncommercial / Share Alike v4.0 License.

The Doctor | 15 June 2014, 09:00 hours | content | No comments

Steps toward an open source microfacture shop and what could be the first recorded nanoparticle injury.

A common criticism of 3D printers is that they're not a panacea. They can't do it all - a limitation shared by every tool, when you think about it - and because of that some vocal people claim they're worthless. You can't really convince anyone who's dead-set against being convinced, so let's move on to more interesting things. A problem being worked on right now is developing a set of technologies and workflow for microfacture - extremely small scale automated manufacture, on the scale of a hackerspace or a home workshop. Most of the components exist right now, from 3D printers to lathes and mills, but they're mostly not automated and not stitched together into a contiguous process. Enter the Cubespawn Project. Cubespawn is a project which aims to build an open source microfacture system which, like the RepRap is capable of reproducing itself. Cubespawn will eventually consist of six different modules (Printcube, Lazcube, Sawcube, Lathecube, Drillcube, and Millcube) that together comprise a fully operational portable factory. The idea is that the output of one of the modules (say, the Printcube) can be fed into other modules in the system (like the Millcube) for further processing and refinement, eventually resulting in a finished verison of whatever you're fabricating. The project's vision is an ambitious one: By bringing a Cubespawn kit into a village and hooking into existing infrastructure (photovoltaic power and recycled metal feedstock) the village can, in theory bootstrap itself into a large enough microfactory to build industrial and farm equipment. The entire system is designed to run on ROSi, the Robot Operating System (Industrial version) which has been engineered to drive general purpose industrial systems like this. At the moment the project consists of only one module and a couple of kit parts, and they're soliciting additional funds to develop the other modules.

Ordinarily I'm a cheerleader for projects like this. It's a significant undertaking to build a microfacture setup of any kind, and even wood or metal shops aren't cheap to assemble. 3D printers are rapidly advancing in capability and reliability; open source CNC routers like the Shapeoko and the Kikori are also coming down in price as they increase in capability. There are even open source laser cutters like the Lasersaur and the axCut as alternatives to relatively inexpensive commercial laser cutters like those manufactured by Epilog. From taking HacDC's laser cutter operation course and hanging out with its caretakers I feel that I should state that laser cutters are delicate, finicky beasts that require a lot of love even when purchased with support on the open market. Due to some patents that have recently expired (and the difficulty of making feedstock for them) open source laser sintering printers are on the roadmaps of a few hackers, but they're in the very early stages of development and there's no way of knowing when they'll come to pass. So, for the moment we can't bank on them. That said, my primary concern about the Cubespawn project is that they seem to be trying reinvent too many wheels to make progress in a reasonable period of time. I've seen no evidence that they're executing an "identify best of breed/incorporate/advance/publish" development loop and some evidence that they seem to starting over from scratch, which is going to delay development. I also have strong concerns about the hand-wavy "We'll just plug into an existing solar panel array for power and use aluminum recycled with a forge" part of their use case. While certainly doable neither of those things grow on trees and how widespread both photovoltaic arrays and small-scale scrap recycling in underdeveloped areas are remains to be seen.

While I'm being such a downer why not talk about another fairly sizeable pachyderm camping out in the living room and working over the party's buffet? Nanotech, or the fabrication of materials and machinery on a subcellular scale is bandied around by too many people as the answer to all of our prayers, wishes, and dreams once it gets to the point at which it goes general purpose... which, let's be honest, might never happen. That said, nanoscale materials have been showing up in consumer goods and products in significant quantities in the past decade, which means that they're being used on an industrial scale. This also means that the first ever case of nanopoisoning may have been medically documented. A 26 year old chemist found out the hard way that she was working with nanomaterials (nanoparticles of nickel about 20nm in diameter each, specifically) when, after exposure to the ultrafine dust, her respiratory and immune systems went berserk. Starting with normal-seeming allergic reactions like congestion and a runny nose, the unnamed chemist's symptoms rapidly progressed to dermal sensitivity to her belt buckle and earrings which previously had been inert. Only after prolonged absence from her workplace was her body's immune system able to gear down to a lower response level. Dr. Shane Journeay, a medical doctor and nanotoxicologist at the University of Toronto has, after reviewing the data and assessing the unknown chemist's state of health determined that she can probably never work in that building ever again if she values the remainder of her health and well being. He coauthored the case study which was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. While I am not a physician (and not offering medical advice of any kind) the description of the unknown chemist's symptoms sounds an awful lot like the sensitization stage of allergic reactions induced by inhalation of the nickel nanoparticles which, due to their extremely small size and light weight could easily have been swept up by stray air currents and inhaled, whereupon they would be small enough to infiltrate individual cells in the linings of her nose, throat, and lungs and wreaked havoc.

At present there is nothing requiring that nanoscale materials need to be labelled in any way, either on the products themselves or in the workplace. Some years ago, Dr. Anders Sandberg designed warning labels for various sorts of hazards one might encounter in a posthuman future, among them one for potentially hazardous nanoparticles. I suggest that we start using these warning signs appropriately on a proactive basis.

The Doctor | 28 May 2014, 10:30 hours | default | One comment

Duo-dimensional circuitry and nanosurgical devices.

When we think of circuitry, people tend to think of one of two things: Either fairly large discrete components that will balance comfortably on the tip of your finger (image credit: Creatively Maladjusted), or slabs of plastic and ceramic encapsulating integrated circuits which are comprised of millions upon millions of components. At the time I write this article we can fabricate circuitry on a scale of about 14 nanometers and in about two years we'll be able to reliably build circuitry around 10 nanometers in size, which is significantly bigger than the atoms of the elements used in chip manufacture, which are about 0.20 nanometers in size. So, it came as something of a surprise when two separate research teams, one at Argonne National Laboratory and the other at the University of California at Berkeley announced that they had successfully fabricated transistors just three atoms thick. Transistors are comprised of three layers of material, layered so that their electrical properties alternate and function in the same fashion as the humble toggle switch. The research terms have successfully constructed transistors which are as close to two dimensional as is possible right now. This means that they can be made much, much smaller than is common right now and thus can be packed together far more densely. Rather than selectively contaminated silicon the Argonne team used graphene, tungsten diselenide and boron nitride and fabbed the transistors atop a flexible plastic substrate using standard lithographic techniques. The U.Cal Berkeley team built their transistors using molybdenum disulfide instead of tungsten diselenide. Fabrication techniques are still immature, so it's probably going to be a couple of years before we start seeing anything on the market built at this scale. Knowing that multiple compounds are feasible, however, implies that a "best of breed" combination of compounds should emerge, which also means that multiple groups will start trying different combinations and techniques to see what works best under different circumstances.

On a somewhat bigger scale (but still minute as anyone would reckon it) we have cellular microsurgery, or the act of performing surgical techniques on individual cells of larger organisms. As one might expect this is a fairly delicate and difficult body of techniques which involve tools such as excimer lasers and carefully shaped glass micropipettes with tips that are all but invisible to the naked eye. With such tools and a lot of patience you can, in fact, inject and remove DNA from the nuclei of the cells and perfom gene therapy on individual cells. If the cells are zygotes one can, in theory, perform germline engineering upon an organism while it sufficiently immature to be only a few cells in size because it is exceedingly difficult to modify every cell in a fully grown complex organism (like a mouse, or a rabbit, or a human for that matter). This requires no small amount of luck because sometimes the cells pop and sometimes they just stop functioning after they've been operated on. A research team at Bringham Young University has invented a device a little larger than a single cell which is capable of reliably injecting DNA into single cells without killing them using electrostatic principles to exploit the patterns of electrical charges of DNA. Bits of DNA can be injected into the cells without needing to pump them full of fluid which can cause them to rupture; presumably, bits of DNA could also be extracted the same way. The research team used mouse zygotes as its test subjects. The process they implemented has been dubbed metamorphic nanoinjection and involves a microscopic needle (referred to as a lance) about ten micrometers in size. 77.6% of the cells experimented upon survived surgery with the nanoinjector and went on to replicate normally, as opposed to about 54.7% of cells operated on with standard microsurgical techniques and implements. I wish I knew how they built it (the Gizmodo article has a video with a nifty animation of the device operating) but I haven't had time to dig up any more documentation. I think it's safe to say that if this technique was coupled with other methods of infiltrating individual cells we'd have a solid body of techniques to begin building applied synthetic biology on top of.

The Doctor | 26 May 2014, 09:00 hours | default | No comments

Notes from the Religion and Transhumanism conference, 10 May 2014

A couple of weekends ago I attended one of the IEET's conferences in California on the topic of Religion and Transhumanism. While I was there I took notes during the speakers' presentations, and I promised some people that I'd put them online at my earliest convenience. Here they are, in the best order I can conceive of and with whatever links I can dig up to elucidate my somewhat cryptic chickenscratch. Please note that I took notes on things I don't necessarily agree with, and that I advise you to follow some of the links before jumping to conclusions. Some of the ideas in there are my own and aren't from any of the speakers. There are keywords in this text that no doubt draw the attention of the NSA, DHS, and FBI. As always, take everything with a grain of salt and don't be afraid to ask questions or do your own research. You're responsible for your own mind.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 24 May 2014, 17:10 hours | default | No comments

3D printing circuitry.

Arguably, even more important than bringing the price of 3D printers down to affordable levels is making them more practical. A commonly cited limitation of 3D printing right now is that they can only fab with one or two materials and can't really reproduce their own circuitry. They're both fair points, I can't argue with them. I can, however, point doubters in the direction of the Rabbit Pronto, a new print head for RepRap-derived 3D printers that is capable of fabbing functional electronic circuitry in addition to structural plastic. The Rabbit Pronto incorporates a 10cc syringe that can be used to lay trails of conductive ink or conductive polymer that do the same thing as etched copper paths on printed circuit boards; this can be done simultaneously with the deposition of layers of structural thermoplastic. This would largely obviate the need to construct separate circuit boards for 3D printed projects; this also means, incidentally, that if you were using a RepRap to print out parts to build another RepRap you could print out the circuit boards as well as the specialized structural components that you can't get off-the-shelf. You'll still have to supply your own electronc components. We can't fab discrete components or chips yet and you'll have to use conductive ink instead of solder to assemble the circuitry but it also means that you won't have to go to the trouble of etching your own circuit boards. Hypothetically speaking you could probably use this print head to deposit layers of any reasonably viscous gel or paste, but you'll want to clean it thoroughly before you do so. You can pre-order two different versions of the print head or a complete 3D printer.

The Rabbit Proto is open source so you can check the meshes and software out of Github if you want to build your own.

The Doctor | 15 May 2014, 09:45 hours | default | No comments

Hearing loss restored through gene therapy, app-controlled hearing aids, and synthetic biology takes off.

Once upon a time, prosthetic augmentation of a failing sense of hearing took the form of devices the size of a paperback book hung around one's neck and smallish headphones pumping amplified sound into the wearer's ears. As technology progressed and the sizes of components shrank to sub-surface mount form factors (for illustration please note the sizes of the 603 and 402 components) hearing aids shrank in size until they could be custom molded to fit snugly into one's ear canal. All of the benefit with very little of the mass or weight. Hand in hand with the miniaturization of this technology came the problem of how to adjust and control such a device. For example, hearing aids like my grandfather's have a single dial to control the volume operated by twisting one's fingertip. Mind you, that dial only controls the volume and power state (i.e., on or off) and no other aspects of the diminutive units' operation. Perhaps borrowing the Bluetooth radio functionality of cochlear implants, the latest generation of hearing aids can be slaved to the user's iPhone and adjusted minutely with an app. Former pastor Dick Loizeaux was field testing a latest generation hearing aid in a busy New York City nightclub, and used the app to favor one microphone in each unit over another, turn up the gain on the forward microphones, filter out the bass in the music, and use the directional functionality of one of the hearing aids to hold a surprisingly coherent conversation with someone else at the club. In addition, by slaving the hearing aids to one's phone the user is able to run calls directly into them as if they were a Bluetooth earpiece or headset. The apps even have graphic equalizer functionality, so you can fine-tune how things sound on the user-side of the hearing aids. Fascinatingly, the costs of these new hearing aids (the units mentioned by name in the article cost $2kus and $3kus, respectively) are slightly less than half what my grandfather's hearing aids cost apiece. Some days, I just love the technology curve.

One of my chief concerns, however, is relative lack of security of Bluetooth as a technology, but that's outside of the scope of this post. Besides, .ronin can discuss it better than I.

In the summer of 2014, just a few months hence, a new application of gene therapy is slated to begin clinical trials. Following positive experimental results in laboratory mice that had their hearing damaged through the administration of extremely powerful antibiotics and subsequently partially restored, a new bioengineered virus will be used to attempt to reverse acute deafness in humans. A gene called Ad28.gfap.atoh1 controls the development and regeneration of hair cells in the inner ear which are responsible for converting pressure waves in fluid into electrical impulses that are interpreted by the brain. The virus (probably a type 35 adenovirus with an inability to replicate in vivo) contains new copies of the Ad28.gfap.atoh1 gene; the procedure will involve surgical administration of the virus directly into the inner ears of patients that have lost almost all of their hearing but who also still have functional auditory nerves. Interference with any residual hearing is a concern, so the members of the test group will have as little hearing left as possible. Restoring hearing lost from chemotoxic damage is a fairly imporant and interesting thing these days because most cases of it are due to exposure to extremely powerful and dangerous antibiotics, which unfortunately are becoming more and more necessary due to outbreaks of bacteria resistant to most of the commonly used antibiotics more and more often.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 12 May 2014, 10:00 hours | default | No comments
"We, the extraordinary, were conspiring to make the world better."