Symmetric bionic augmentation.

Apr 06, 2017

Something that's always bugged me about science fiction is the lack of common sense of characters' bionic enhancements.

No, I'm not going to call them cybernetics.  RPGs and movies have it wrong.  Those aren't cybernetics, they're bionics.  The former is a feature of the latter.

Characters pretty much always seem to have their augmentations installed bass-ackwards.  Most of the time their positioning doesn't make sense at all.  Let's look at some handedness statistics: Depending on where you are, between 2% and 12% of people are left-handed.  Depending on your upbringing (if you were born left handed in some places, whether or not you were socialized to favor your right hand anyway) your grip strength with your off hand may be off by almost 11%,with a requisite difference of manual dexterity.  This makes sense because your off-side is always a little behind but training and practice can make up for that.

So, postulating advancements in technology, why would you have your dominant side augmented and your non-dominant side not unless you absolutely had to?  Let's look at a character from a fairly recent movie who is a prime example of this.  Watching Logan, this particular character appears right handed throughout the story, uses his left hand only under duress, but for whatever reason had his right hand replaced with a presumably stronger and more durable prosthesis.  It would make sense, from is observable in the movie, for him to have had the limbs on his non-dominant side replaced with prostheses to make up for the lack of strength and dexterity.  I mean, it's a movie with superheroic mutants, powerful telepaths, and offhand "Hey, let's hack your genome" levels of technology, I'm pretty sure that the surgeons could have gotten his left hand up to scratch pretty easily.  If you're a candidate for augmentation, you could either have something you're already good with replaced, and spend maybe twice as much time getting both sides of your body roughly equal, or you could have your less-good side worked on, which you're going to need to rehab and train anyway.

Neologism: High Gibson

Mar 18, 2017

High Gibson - noun, genre - Science fiction in the cyberpunk genre that makes no bones about being inspired by William Gibson's classic works.  Stylistic influences, tropes, and character archetypes are easily recognized as being inspired by the Sprawl Trilogy and the Burning Chrome short stories.  Compare with high fantasy.

What the loss of the Internet Privacy Bill means to you and I.

Mar 30, 2017

It's probably popped up on your television screen that the Senate and then the House of Representatives voted earlier this week, 215 to 205, to repeal an Internet privacy bill passed last year.  In case you're curious, here's a full list of every Senator and Representative that voted to repeal the bill and how much they received specifically from the telecom lobby right before voting. (local mirror)  By the way, if you would like to contact those Senators (local mirror) or Representatives (local mirror) here's how you can do so... When the bill hits Trump's desk it's a foregone conclusion that he's going to sign it.  Some of the talking heads are expressing concern about this, while others are cheering that the removal of this regulation is an all-around win for the market, blah blah blah... but what does this actually mean for you?

First of all, if you're reading this, welcome to the Internet.  You're soaking in it.

Second of all, please read this blog post (local mirror) by the EFF.  Just a few years ago, a couple of very large ISPs (that you're probably a customer of) got caught doing things like monitoring your web searches and hijacking them with different results they were paid to insert and analyzing your net.traffic to figure out what advertisements to inject in realtime.  The bill that just got repealed put a stop to all of that.

I've spoken to a couple of people who expressed disbelief that such a thing was possible.  In point of fact, intercepting and meddling with communications traffic goes back a very long way.  In 1994 a bill called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) was passed and codified as 47 USC 1001-1010.  In a nutshell, what this law means is that manufacturers of just about every kind of network-side communications device, from the telephony switches that route your phone calls to the carrier class routers that make up the network core have surveillance capability built in.  In theory, only law enforcement agents with warrants are supposed to be able to use them.  In practice, they're used all the time by employees of the companies that own that equipment to silently troubleshoot problems before they get too out of hand, and yes, they get abused all the time for petty shit.  As you may have guessed already, the moment that CALEA-compliant equipment was deployed back in the day hackers immediately figured out how to use them more effectively than even the telecom companies and silently eavesdropping on people using that functionality was a common "This is how 1337 I am" stunt.  So, please keep in mind that this "monitor all the customers" infrastructure is going to be badly abused and constitutes one hell of a security risk.

CALEA is regularly updated as communications technology evolves, and now encompasses things like the backbone of the Net, Voice-over-IP telephony, cellular telephony and companies whose business it is happens to be running wireless hotspots.  As it so happens, much of this functionality is perfect for monitoring customers' traffic, analyzing it, and packaging it for sale as large bundles of anonymized information or as discrete dossiers, ala Cambridge Analytica.  Let me paint you a picture, based in part of how things worked before that bill was passed originally...

Click for the rest of the article...

Neologism: Jenkins Driven Development

Mar 18, 2017

JDD (Jenkins driven development) - noun - A development process in which the coder in question has one or two commits to the source code repository adding a feature or fixing a bug, followed by two or three dozen commits to fix things in the comments, unit tests, variable names, or some other such fiddly thing to coax the Jenkins server into actually running the unit tests to exercise the new code and hopefully integrate the new feature.  The primary usage of time by developers in DevOps environments.  The later commit messages usually consist of variations of "Does it work yet?", "WTF", "Dammit Jenkins", "Editing comments because Jenkins won't test the code", or other combinations of profanity and the equivalent of mumbling to oneself in frustration.

Special thanks to the anonymous cow-orker who came up with the term.

Book review: To Be A Machine

Mar 24, 2017

It seems like everybody is reviewing the book To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell, and most of the book reviews are, to be frank, kind of pants.  The mainstream book reviewers seem to have read only the first and last chapters and make light (at best) or a joke (at worst) of the life's work of people who are actually doing the work in some parts of the medical profession instead of just playing "Won't it be nice when..." on Slack channels and Facebook.  A lot of people in the transhumanist community seem to be panning it because it was written by an outsider who took the time to ask thoughtful, critical questions of people who don't seem used to being questioned.  If nothing else, being unused to being questioned poses a problem to the field as a whole because it means that mistakes are caught much later than they otherwise would be, plus it shows a blind spot of the existential risk research community.

Disclaimer: I'm briefly mentioned in the book near the end as some guy at a Transhuman Visions conference in 2014.  While yes, I have some skin in this game I completely forgot this guy was there, mostly because we spoke for maybe thirty seconds tops.  The pizza after the conference was pretty good, though.

Click for the rest of the article...

Neologism: Slackpathy

Mar 18, 2017

Slackpathy - noun - The phenomenon where conversations in a Slack channel are carried out using roughly 50% emoji or reaction gifs and 50% written natural language.  The term derives from the hypothesized phenomenon of telepaths sending entire thought-complexes to each other rather than streams of speech.

Signal boost: Help keep Lapis off the street!

Mar 20, 2017

I've been asked to signal boost this by AJ, one of the few people whom I would say in public that I trust.

Lapis, a friend of his, is a transwoman who is disabled and is also at this time homeless.  Lapis is undergoing a mental health crisis at this time and is actively seeking assistance.  However, the mental health system has judged that Lapis is not undergoing a sufficiently bad crisis to warrant hospitalization (which would mean getting her off the street).  As far as I know, Lapis is estranged from her family so they are not an option for assistance at this time.  To render assistance, AJ has gone into the red by sacrificing money he had saved up to get his car fixed to get Lapis into a motel for the next couple of days.  For family reasons, AJ isn't able to hook Lapis up with crash space.

If you can help out somehow, can you please donate a few dollars to this campaign and repost this message elsewhere to bring it to the attention of more people?  If you're not in a position to donate money, if you could hook Lapis up with crash space somewhere in the Portland area or if you can help AJ get his car repaired (in the event that he has to drive Lapis someplace), please contact me through one of the socnets I use or at one of the e-mail addresses associated with my PGP key and I'll pass word along.

Thank you.

Security nihilism: Never good enough.

Mar 11, 2017

In the last couple of years, a meme that's come to be known as security nihilism has appeared in the security community.  In a nutshell, because there is no such thing as perfect security, there is no security at all, so why bother?  Talking about layered security controls that reinforce each other is pointless because they always skip right to the end, which is the circumvention of the nth countermeasure and final defeat.  In the crypto community, cries of "Quantum computer!" are the equivalent of invoking Godwin's Law, leading to the end of all discourse, nevermind trying to separate the marketing hype from what's actually possible or the decade-odd of research into post-quantum cryptosystems.  This has lead to a certain amount of attrition in the community.  It is my considered opinion that this may be one of the main reasons why many so-called security practitioners don't actually bother doing anything, including not even installing patches.  No, I'm not speaking hyperbolically, I've witnessed this first-hand I'm sorry to say.

Click for the rest of the article...

The meme of EMP attack.

Mar 10, 2017

For the last couple of years, the meme of an EMP attack against the United States has been an integral part of the thoughtbase of the prepper community.  So the idea goes, the next major attack by a foreign power will involve not the bombing of a major city but bombardment with an electromagnetic pulse (local mirror, snapshot taken 20170310 @ 2030 hours PST8PDT).  Due to the fact that "electromagnetic" is kind of a loose term, sometimes they mean an actual magnetic field, sometimes they speak of a microwave burst (which means that you've got bigger problems than your electronics getting fried - humans are mostly water, after all), sometimes they mean RF, and sometimes they mean some other unspecified thing.  At any rate, the pulse emitted is enough to fry all major electronics, knock out the power grid, and generally return the country to a hunter-gatherer mode of existence for the forseeable future.  Just how this happens is never really explained but the answer can be determined with basic physics.  Electricity and magnetism are two sides of the same coin: Where you have one, you have the other.  Pass a powerful enough magnetic field through a long enough wire and it might generate enough voltage to blow out the components soldered to it.  Do that to enough electronic devices in the area, and all the equipment goes down.  Seems simple enough.

So, what's actually the score here?

Fifty-five years ago, the United States government wanted to find out what would happen if somebody popped off a nuke in space.  So, the initiated a project called Starfish Prime, in which they detonated a 1.4 megaton nuclear device 240 miles above the surface of the Earth, a distance which is on the low end of low earth orbit.  The detonation created an artificial aurora that was seen in the sky for thousands of kilometers around, in addition to scattering fallout in LEO and the upper atmosphere.  To be fair it was probably only a little fallout, relatively speaking, because it was only the remnants of the nuke itself and not the vaporized debris one would expect of a terrestrial detonation.  It was observed by the project's scientists that the orbital detonation generated an electromagnetic pulse that briefly disrupted electrical power on the ground hundreds of kilometers around where the center of the blast sphere was.  It was later discovered that Telstar-1, the first comsat launched into orbit, was damaged by the radiation.  In Hawaii, the power surges were such that street lights blew out, knocked out telephones, and caused radio blackouts.  Physicists later determined that the burst of electrons loosed by the detonation were trapped by the Earth's geomagnetic field and didn't return to a low-energy state for several months.  This had the net effect of interfering with radio propagation for about as long, making communications difficult.

Seems legit so far.

Click for the rest of the article...

Net Neutrality and you.

Mar 04, 2017

You may or may not have noticed amongst the blizzard of other stuff that's happened in the last two weeks that Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai to the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission.  Pai has a history of being something of a contrarian; during his time as one of the five commissioners of the FCC, he repeatedly spoke against regulations that protected the consumer and was against diverse media ownership (since the 1980's, we went from 50 media companies to just six).  Time and again Pai's said that he was going to tear down regulation after regulation that the FCC was responsible for enforcing, and so far he has a track record of making that happen, albeit piece by piece and not all at once. 

But what does this mean?

Net Neutrality is the legal state in which every Internet Service Provider out there has to provide the same kind of service for all of its users to every online service out there.  In other words, the Net is treated like a basic utility, no different from water or electricity.  If a provider gets caught monkeying with its service to privilege some company over another, they can get fined.  A number of large service providers, including Comcast and AT&T, pledged publicaly that they'd adhere to the terms of Net Neutrality until a certain future date.  That's pretty much it.

Let's look at a world in which net.neutrality is a thing in the United States, which it still seems to be as of the time I wrote this article:

Click for the rest of the article...