The (contested) street, finding new uses for things

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2013

From a photo-essay/collection thingybob at The Atlantic: Syrian rebel fighters and their homebrew military hardware. There are lots of shots of chaps lathing mortar shells, as well as crude hand-welded onagers made from shelving and rebar; that’s your continuity verification, a through-line of human experience that you can draw through the wars of centuries past. But these two are the ones that tell you we really ain’t in Kansas any more:

Syrian rebel fighters using iPhone as compass

Syrian rebel fighter using games controller to aim gun turret


Technohaberdashery

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2011

Now this is just wonderful, even if it’s a clear response to the start of a long (but maybe not so slow) ramping down from the current consumer-driven innovation model of technology business:

The notion of a “haberdashery for technology” came from traditional haberdasheries which are (or, more often than not, were) filled with knitting needles, sewing machines, patterns, buttons, thread and examples of clothes, bags and quilts that you can make yourself. They tend to have shop assistants who are experts at their craft, as opposed to general salespeople, and they give you advice and host classes to learn new sewing skills.

Hirschmann explains: “Now replace all of that with LEDs, circuit boards, soldering irons and lots of lovely little drawers with resistors, capacitors and switches The store is immaculately organised and there are explanations of the bits and bobs near all of the components to help demystify what they do and how they might be useful. There are a selection of bespoke DIY kits for you to explore at home.

Operations like this are a heartening sign, but the ones that last the course will probably be a little less worthy and a lot more ramshackle, much more along the lines of a “bring yer thing and fix it yerself then pay me for the parts” sort of place, a free hackspace that both monetises and entices its meattraffic with the same supplementary offering.

This sort of high-functioning ‘adaptive reuse as business model’ thing is an inevitable necessity for a world with low incomes and limited resources, really… but it’s not a new thing, though: think back not too far to the days when you might have a door-to-door knife-sharpening guy come round the neighbourhood once a season, for instance. As much as we talk about our technologies as being tools, we don’t value them like a really good tool is valued, like a good knife would be sharpened regularly all throughout its long working life. We think of “tools” as being almost a commodity concept nowadays; a word like “power”, “bandwidth”, “leverage”. “Tools” is just our ease of access to Stuff That Does Things, it’s our ability to buy or rent or borrow what we need when we need it.

That ability will cease to pertain in the realm of physical meatspace tools very quickly. This means good tools – well made, well used, maintained and cared for, stored properly – will become valuable social capital in a post-growth economy: an opportunity to contribute rather than a lever for power. Also: the return of the freelance artisan and jack’ll-fix-it, available in both static/urban and nomadic/rural models. Every block or village will have a guy who sysops for local businesses, f’rinstance, and probably another dude who handles the hardware side of things; less glamorously (but equally essentially), you’ll have white-hat infrastructure hackers, people who can patch a local power grid, keep water and sewage systems running, repair or demolish problem architecture… and again, none of this is new. Indeed, it’s current in any major city with a sizeable favela population.

Your city may not have any favelas right now, of course. But it will.

Further weird signals form the nearest strange attractors: some guy hustles Mercedes into sponsoring his prosthetic hand [via MetaFilter]. That’s a novel in nine words, right there, and it’s not even a made-up story. Related: the guy who swapped out his glass eye for  a little digicam [via ModeledBehaviour]. These are just two of real on-the-ground transhumanism’s many, many faces; there will be more of them to come. The two greatest mistakes one can make about transhumanism are falling for the Kurzweilian corporate Singularity fantasy (which I increasingly suspect portrays only the parts of the future reserved for shareholders), or assuming that the ludicrousness of said Singularity fantasy invalidates or derails the existence of an observable and growing subculture. (Confession time: I’ve been guilty of both before now.)

To put it another way: we won’t be uploading our minds any time soon, but there’s more unexpected-consequences-of-being-cyborgs in the very near future of our species, without a doubt… because another of those new artisan careers will be the bodysculptor, the back-street surgeon, and they will not be short of work (even if most of it will be elective or cosmetic rather than… functional, shall we say.)

At this point someone is sure to be thinking “but to do that to yourself would be genuinely insane – like, actual pathology craziness!” You’re probably right, too. I think the problem with dismissing the more extreme examples of the transhumanist urge (no matter how shallowly understood it appears to be in each participant) as mental pathology is that doing so is a convenient way of avoiding the need to address the real problem: what’s causing that craziness, and how prevalent is it? The second question is probably the least important, because it’s the one that’ll answer itself very quickly. The answer to the first will be something already embedded deep enough in the body of our civilisation that its removal would kill or cripple us: it is technology itself, and the madness of kids trying to become the Terminator is the madness of a body trying to remake itself in an image more like the ones it dreams of.

It is the madness of being young in a mad world, and it will not be cured or engineered away.


The media myth of the hacker uptick

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2011

The Freakonomics people asked a bunch of folk whether they thought there had been a sudden explosion of hacking in recent times. One of the respondents was Bruce Schneier, who bursts the very myth that the question attempts to bolster:

None of this is new. None of this is unprecedented. To a security professional, most of it isn’t even interesting. And while national intelligence organizations and some criminal groups are organized, hacker groups like Anonymous and LulzSec are much more informal. Despite the impression we get from movies, there is no organization. There’s no membership, there are no dues, there is no initiation. It’s just a bunch of guys. You too can join Anonymous—just hack something, and claim you’re a member. That’s probably what the members of Anonymous arrested in Turkey were: 32 people who just decided to use that name.

It’s not that things are getting worse; it’s that things were always this bad. To a lot of security professionals, the value of some of these groups is to graphically illustrate what we’ve been saying for years: organizations need to beef up their security against a wide variety of threats. But the recent news epidemic also illustrates how safe the Internet is. Because news articles are the only contact most of us have had with any of these attacks.

Unmasking one of the many faces of the modern moral panic… I note that the other four respondents all conceded that there has been an increase in hacking, and that – unlike Schneier – they all hold high positions in computer security businesses.


H+ zero-day vulnerabilities, plus cetacean personhood

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2011

Couple of interesting nuggets here; first up is a piece from Richard Yonck at H+ Magazine on the risks inherent to the human body becoming an augmented and extended platform for technologies, which regular readers will recognise as a fugue on one of my favourite themes, Everything Can And Will Be Hacked. Better lock down your superuser privileges, folks…

In coming years, numerous devices and technologies will become available that make all manner of wireless communications possible in or on our bodies. The standards for Body Area Networks (BANs) are being established by the IEEE 802.15.6 task group. These types of devices will create low-power in-body and on-body nodes for a variety of medical and non-medical applications. For instance, medical uses might include vital signs monitoring, glucose monitors and insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs. Non-medical applications could include life logging, gaming and social networking. Clearly, all of these have the potential for informational and personal security risks. While IEEE 802.15.6 establishes different levels of authentication and encryption for these types of devices, this alone is no guarantee of security. As we’ve seen repeatedly, unanticipated weaknesses in program logic can come to light years after equipment and software are in place. Methods for safely and securely updating these devices will be essential due to the critical nature of what they do. Obviously, a malfunctioning software update for something as critical as an implantable insulin pump could have devastating consequences.

Yonck then riffs on the biotech threat for a while; I’m personally less worried about the existential risk of rogue biohackers releasing lethal plagues, because the very technologies that make that possible are also making it much easier to defeat those sorts of pandemics. (I’m more worried about a nation-state releasing one by mistake, to be honest; there’s precedent, after all.)

Of more interest to me (for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is a novel-scale project that’s been percolating at the back of my brainmeat for some time) is his examination of the senses as equivalent to ‘ports’ in a computer system; those I/O channels are ripe for all sorts of hackery and exploits, and the arrival of augmented reality and brain-machine interfaces will provide incredibly tempting targets, be it for commerce or just for the lulz. Given it’s taken less than a week for the self-referential SEO hucksters and social media gurus douchebags to infest the grouting between the circles of Google+, forewarned is surely forearmed… and early-adopterdom won’t be much of a defence. (As if it ever was.)

Meanwhile, a post at R U Sirius’ new zine ACCELER8OR (which, given its lack of by-line, I assume to be the work of The Man Himself) details the latest batch of research into advanced sentience in cetaceans. We’ve talked about dolphin personhood before, and while my objections to the enshrinement of non-human personhood persist (I think we’re wasting time by trying to get people to acknowledge the rights of higher animals when we’ve still not managed to get everyone to acknowledge the rights of their fellow humans regardless of race, creed or class) it’s still inspiring and fascinating to consider that, after years of looking into space for another sentient species to make contact with, there’s been one swimming around in the oceans all along.

Dovetailing with Yonck’s article above, this piece extrapolates onward to discuss the emancipation of sentient machines. (What if your AI-AR firewall system suddenly started demanding a five-day working week?)

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

It would be mighty sad were things to come to that… but is anyone else thinking “that would make a brilliant movie”?


A kraken, enraged

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2011

This Ars Technica rundown of the whole HBGary Federal vs. Anonymous/Wikileaks thing is really quite astonishing for a whole number of reasons, not least the staggering hubris and chutzpah of Aaron Barr, but there’s also the comparative ease with which Anonymous nailed Barr to his own mizzen. Maybe it’s just me, but the subtext I get from the whole business is that Barr’s desire to “take down” Anonymous stems from a sort of envy and admiration of them; funnier still are the communications between Barr and his pet programmer, who makes no bones about telling Barr he’s walking out onto very thin ice indeed.

Most astonishing of all (though hardly news in this day and age) is the staggering amount of money that shadowy and largely unaccountable outfits like can charge government agencies for work that neither party fully understands or – more importantly – wants the general public to know about. And as Chairman Bruce points out, there’s probably a whole lot more operations just like it that we never get to hear about:

The question now is, do people stumble over the truth here and just sort of dust themselves off and traipse away sideways — or are there more shoes to drop? The furious and deeply humiliated lawyers at HBGary ought to have enough federal clout to pursue their Anonymous harassers and nail them to the barn like corn-eating crows — after all, they claimed they know who they are, and that’s why they got savagely hacked in the first place.

However — are HBGary gonna be able to carry out that revenge attack with their usual discretion — the shadowy obscurity with which they help deny climate change and break labor unions for the Chamber of Commerce? It’s like watching a shark fight a school of ink-squirting squids.

Normally, one never sees a submarine struggle like this. If it does happen to surface, it gets cordially ignored, or ritually dismissed as a sea-monster story. But boy, this one sure is leaky.

Things are getting very permeable of late, aren’t they?


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