CITIZENFOUR (Yes, you should watch it)

If you’ve been subjected to my tweets, you probably know that I was following the NSA leaks (and larger questions) pretty closely last year. And, since I’m currently back in one of the few cities that Laura Poitras’ new documentary on the subject, CITIZENFOUR is playing, it’s probably no surprise that I went to see it when I got a chance.

The short summary is that it’s a great documentary (currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, 89 (Universal Acclaim) on Metacritic) but more importantly, it’s an important film, especially if you haven’t been following along with this story. While some have complained both wasy, IMO Poitras strikes a nice balance that nicely encapsulates the larger story of total surveillance while providing fascinating footage of the initial leaks as they happened (funnily enough, both of these made possible by modern technology).

Seeing this side of the story reminded me of when the leaks first broke last year – I was in Berlin for the first time for work (the PRISM story was literally “breaking news” on the TVs as we were boarding), and we made a toast after dinner to the then-anonymous leaker who without a doubt was totally and completely fucked. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that yes, there is a scene in the documentary footage that captures that moment perfectly. It’s honestly breathtakingly terrifying, but also extremely thought provoking. Also, spoiler alert, it turns out that even with the tables stacked against you, sometimes you can luck out.

(One last Berlin aside, it was interesting digesting the surveillance revelations walking through the Holocaust and Berlin Wall Memorials, where the spectre of the Stasi is still in living, even recent memory. It was also eye-opening returning to the US and seeing how different the reactions were after a weekend of swapping reactions with Berliners, Germans, and Europeans.)

The biggest shame about the film is that it isn’t showing more widely, but I’m sure it’ll be on all types of digital distribution, licit or otherwise, soon.

  • Godfrey Cheshire (a former chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle) declared in his review (I only read reviews post-facto these days, but this is actually a quite intersting review, beyond the catchy opening):

    Though superlatives can mischaracterize any movie’s qualities, it is not an overstatement, I think, to call “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ film about Edward Snowden, the movie of the century (to date).

  • The Nation just posted a very lengthy (wide-ranging and deep I suppose they’d say) interview with Snowden – it’s one of the more interesting Snowden interviews and if you are looking for more insight into his current political/policy/technology thoughts, it’s well worth the read.
  • For those that like video, Larry Lessig interviewed Snowden the other week at Harvard Law School which is similar in tone/scope to a lot of the other telepresent interviews/Q&A’s he’s done.
  • Glenn Greenwald also gave a fantastic talk on Why Privacy Matters at TEDGlobal this year:

2013 Review in Tech

I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple days (the dangers of hanging out near other peoples’ little germ factories (aka kids)), but I wanted to post some of my thoughts about the year in tech. The last time I did that was probably a few years ago (related).

Over the weekend a friend was going on about how this year was a crappy one for “tech” (echoing the sentiments of those crappy articles floating around, but more along the lines of lack of ambition/innovation) which I strongly disagreed with. I think the kernel of truth there is that the SF/SV tech scene is definitely caught up in a weird spiral of chasing/making less and less interesting mobile/social apps, so of course from that vantage point, it’s going to seem terrible, but from the outside, things are… pretty interesting.

  • NSA Leaks – In some articles, this was cited as some negative development, but Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed (and continues to reveal) how much the world has been changed by technology and hints at some of the implications that both as technologists and end-users, we’ve been oblivious to. It’s certainly the biggest tech story of the year, and has profound/deeply unsettling implications. It’s also kicked off a number of new projects, and made a lot of techies think harder about the things they’re working on. I think that in coming years, the world and the tech industry in particular will be better for it.
  • Bitcoin – Bitcoins, alt-coins, cryptocurrency. While it’s been building up steam, this is the year that it boiled over and it’s another development that’s more than a little world-changing. I mentioned it briefly in a rebuttal comment I made on Charlie Stross’s blog post Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire (I don’t know about his conclusions, but on just about every point of fact supporting his reasoning, he cited inaccurate/just plain wrong sources), but regardless of what the eventual value of BTC ends up as (which this year was driven mostly by the Chinese, not media hype), whether it’s $10K/BTC or $0/BTC, Bitcoin has not only served as a solid proof of existence for the viability of truly P2P digital currency, but has also laid down a protocol/framework that makes it trivial to create your own. The classes of problems that can be solved by a distributed public ledger are numerous… There’s some more thinking I need to put on that.
  • Tesla – Finally, something out of the Valley. Between Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity, this was a huge year for Elon Musk, and they seem to all be converging into some techno-utopian vision that’s quite honestly, a rather refreshing respite from the totalitarian surveillance state, increasing economic disparity and general grim meathookiness going on elsewhere. If you aren’t excited about what Tesla has been up to this year, maybe you just aren’t that into tech.
  • Robots – Google’s buying spree was pretty well reported, but less well covered was Schaft’s (one of the Google acquisitions) performance at the DARPA Challenge. It scored 27 out of a possible 32 points on the challenges. That’s 84%. This year has shown some tremendous accomplishments in robotics on just about every level, most interestingly/disturbingly in drone-tech. If you haven’t read this recent brief, but intense editorial in the Guardian this past week, btw, please do: I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on
  • Kickstarter – I’ve been active (maybe a bit too active, seeing as I started getting KS spam this year) on Kickstarter this year. It’s not new, but it’s certainly gained even more steam in 2013, and I don’t see it decelerating. Kickstarter seems to be increasingly, one of the more important tools helping the Maker/DIY movement grow.
  • 3D Printing – speaking of which, another not quite new, but thought I’d mention it, we finally got our Replicator 2 in the office this year, and it’s been incredibly useful. It’s also very close to being consumer friendly/ready. Like, say if the platform would self calibrate and if the prints were a little easier to peel off… But still, getting a 3D printer is now cheaper than an office laser printer was a decade ago.
  • Quantified Self – In some ways, still nascent, but I got my Basis Watch, and I’ve been trying more than a few autologgers/aggregators released this year (Saga, Memoir, Heyday among others), but I think we’re seeing some really interesting first steps into pulling together both the data exhaust we’re already generating and combining that usefully with other things we’d like to track (beyond fitness trackers, things like the Automatic car tracker). One thing’s for sure though, things are just getting started
  • VR – I admit, my Oculus Rift Devkit sat unloved and completely unopened for months. It’s been a hectic year. I did finally get around to break it out and try out about a dozen demos, and it was great, and also left me motion sick the rest of the night (I’ve played FPS/TPS’s for decades w/o problems). Carmack’s full time commitment and the news coming out of the community has me hopeful that they’ll have that problem licked, but it’s been pretty exciting following along. For those interested in what’s going on, I recommend Road To VR
  • Open Hardware – this is an ongoing thing that isn’t new in 2013, and has also been greatly helped by Kickstarter, but there’s just a ton of interesting stuff happening in the cheap microcontroller world akin to the early web days. I’ve been poking around with a lot of this stuff, but this year, got pretty serious about it, doing a fair amount of soldering, exploring/evaluating pretty much every single ARM dev board around, and getting my first PCBs printed. Again, we’re going to see a continued proliferation of interesting hacks/automation/sensors as it gets increasingly cheaper and easier to program the world

I think most of these things point to how wrongheaded talking about these things in context of a year are though – tech is incremental, and it’s hard work. You can bet anything that’s being announced, let alone making a big splash probably took quite a bit longer than a year to get there.

I’ll also link to Some Notes on Labor, Technology and Economics that I wrote about earlier this year. 2013 started out on sour note and what’s been going on in the world this year has definitely given me some pause.

We’re none of us getting any younger, and the pace of innovation continues to increase though, so here’s to the next year. Let’s hope we can make it a better world.

ADDENDUM: Putting this here since it’s related. Not really an innovation per se, but a tech problem that may be reaching a breaking point – we continued to see bigger and bigger data breaches (Adobe, Target, SnapChat) by cyber-criminals. Will 2FA finally replace Passwords? Is there a different security model that can more effectively handle APTs/inevitably compromised networks? Is there a way to expire/invalidate leaked data or will fraud models improve enough that it’s OK that black-hats and script kiddies around the world trade your personal info? In traditional security, the deck is always stacked against the defense, but it makes me wonder if there’s not a way of changing that – after all, the physics of software (if not software engineering) are malleable…

2013 Geek Reading:

Fixed the Glitch

I think this Hacker News back and forth (in response to new that the NSA will be cutting sysadmin staff by 90% to limit data access) cuts right to the heart of the matter.

zaroth:
But who will manage the systems that are managing the systems? I’m sure this will work out brilliantly for them when systems crash, or hackers start exfiltrating their data, and there’s no one left to analyze the logs and discover and fix the holes.
The problem at the NSA isn’t that there are too many sysadmins, although apparently that plays well with tech illiterate politicians. The problem is too many morally unconscionable programs which lead to a growing revulsion in the ranks.

Mr. Alexander defends his agency’s conduct and claims the press is distorting the facts. “No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies,” he said. “There were no mistakes like that at all.” Except we know that even FISA says that’s not true, in a report so damning apparently even elected members of congress can’t read it.

I have news for you Keith, blanket collection of the “meta-data” of every call on Verizon’s network is ex vi termini, invasion of privacy and civil liberty. DEA’s SOD (Special Operations Division) handing off your clandestine intercepts to civilian law enforcement is just the latest, but not the last, sickening revelation. The leaks won’t stop until you stop, and I hope your hubris continues to blind you to how close the political tides are to turning against you. It seems to me that your ‘ends justify the means’ mentality conflicts with your sworn oath to uphold the Constitution, and I can only hope history will look back on this whole endeavor as a dark stain in American history, and view you like a McCarthy of our time. Machiavelli would be proud of you, sir.

rhizome:

The problem is too many morally unconscionable programs which lead to a growing revulsion in the ranks.

Au contraire, it’s extremely morally conscionable to people who see law enforcement as a noble profession empowered to rid the nation (and beyond) of people they see as the scum of the earth. These programs are run by people who, I can guarantee you, do not wake up in the morning wondering what morals and ethics they can ignore that day.
However.

“No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies,” he said.

And he’s right. And that’s the problem: these things are likely not against the law. The law has both been perverted inch by inch and the agencies have been allowed to operate under looser legal interpretations than you and I receive for parking tickets. This means that to the degree that laws exist that permit their behavior (PATRIOT Act, FISAA), those who would constrain them to even the loose boundaries do not (and by all accounts refuse to) do so. This goes for the FISC as much as Dianne Feinstein and Eric Holder. This means they can say it’s legal for them to do pretty much whatever they want. So now what?

I wish I could agree with the zaroth and the optimists – the romantic view that as they squeeze tighter, as they transgress, actors of conscience will react or that as Assange posits, that authoritarian organizations will become less effective as the secrecy cost increases (PDF link to Assange’s 2006 essay State and Terrorist Conspiracies), however sadly I feel that this reduction in numbers will have quite the opposite effect.

While it’s easy (and satisfying) to decry the opposition as evil from my experience, the idea that no one (well most) people are not the villains of their own story seems to reflect reality much better (see also guardian organizations in particular are predisposed feel paternalistic. This is only magnified by a culture of hidden, hoarded knowledge, secrecy and elitism (“if you only knew what I knew”). Depending on your location on the libertarian/authoritarian political compass, your skin may be crawling a bit reading this description, but certainly those involved in this total surveillance view themselves as professional and honorable – their duty is to serve and protect those that (by design) don’t know any better.

However, there of course must be those within the organization that will have qualms and doubts. After all, history has shown again and again the inevitable progression of unchecked state power against its citizenry, especially when an organization can act in secrecy and with impunity. And of course there are those that, having been brought up with the belief in liberal democracy (you know, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers) would have a very hard time indeed justifying secrecy and actions that would fall under what many would consider the very definition of tyranny. And of course, some of those individuals must also be concerned about what it means to society to have total surveillance, archived forever, and searchable instantly. This combination of the panopticon and the memex has never existed before and its existence (and now the public knowledge that it is controlled by a state actor w/ no meaningful oversight) and I suspect its impact and consequences has yet to be fully digested by society at large…

All this is a long way to say that there surely are those working at the NSA that have doubts – but as this continues to polarize, the ranks will only further close. Those that have the strongest doubts will leave or be forced out, but the Death Star is already fully operational, and there will be more than enough authoritarians, opportunistic, power-hungry, and just plain sociopathic boots to fill the ranks. And as those that would resist the trends towards aggregating more power and authority leave, so will the last remaining internal checks and balances (the external ones having disappeared long ago), leaving the organization more focused, in fact accelerating the slide towards… well, something that will no longer be much of a democratic republic in function, if not form.

Without drastic changes (full transparency, full oversight), this logic feels inescapable, inevitable. The truism about power and corruption seems apropos here.

That’s not to say that the issues of digital privacy and surveillance wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, that cat’s certainly out of the bag, but there’s a clear difference between the commerce vs the state (that centers on the monopoly on violence).

It’s also not to say that the society automatically becomes some sort of Grim Meathook (well, unless you’re poor in which case it already is, or if you decide to stand in the way of the Harkonnen fist). After all, in this new society, you capacity for autonomy will depend primarily on how innocuous/complicit you are within the system (also, being rich never hurts) – this, perhaps alarmingly, is not so different from how it’s always been.

OK, this is much longer than I was planning on, and has turned out to be a bit of a ramble that certainly lays out a lot of rope at least as far as my thoughts on political theory goes. I wish, that after quite a lot of thinking and processing, that I had some better conclusions, but … I don’t. Oh, here’s a catchy one:

Welcome to the future. Enjoy your stay.

Catching Up, Braindump

I’ve been working on a few longish posts, but after taking a week or so off in Costa Rica, I’m now back at work with new deadlines looming and realizing that I won’t be getting around to finishing them anytime soon. Some of them really deserve some more thought anyway, but I did want to at the very least want to do a bit of a braindump.

Anyone following my Twitter feed knows that the NSA surveillance news has had much of my attention since it broke. A month later, I still haven’t quite figured out the proper response, except that in my mind, the leak, our response, and its implications (especially if allowed to continued) is one of the more significant turning points for our society. At least its forced me to consider technological progress through a very different lens. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping what I’m calling a “worry wall” tracking news and developments on the topic. It’s a Hackpad wiki, and I’d welcome contributions: stopspying.hackpad.com

It’s quite possible that there’s no sensible course of action, but it deserves some thinking.

I’ve been somewhat keeping up w/ developments in Turkey and Egypt. This video of a 12yo in Egypt that’s been making its way around is worth a watch:

Doug Englebart died last week. A few years ago, I had the privilege to attend one of his lectures, and while my writeup of the event focused on a critique, it was framed within the large shadow that Engelbart’s seminal works cast. While I did not know him personally, it’d be fair to say that Engelbart’s work and thinking might have been the most influential/impactful not just of my field of computing (the part involving people communicating and thinking together), but also on my own work and thinking, both directly and indirectly.

It’s not every day that one of your intellectual heroes/forebearers passes, and I wish I had something better/more to write about it, but the words escape me.

Like in the Snowden case before it, I saw the AAR 214 crash news break on Twitter. A couple comments related to that caught my eye. On the actual accident itself, The Verge has done a surprisingly good job summarizing.

And that’s it for now… I’ll be headed to YxYY this weekend and while I’m not looking forward to the 100+ degree heat, will be looking forward to catching up with some old friends.

New Pads for the Cans

While I’m not a full-blown audiophile (I’ve been to way too many concerts, shows, raves, and parties to have any illusions on the state of my hearing), I do enjoy good set of headphones/IEMs. These days I mostly use Audeo PFE 232 IEMs with a Fiio E17 in the office, and an old iBasso D2 Boa and a going-on-five year old pair of Denon AH-D2000s at home.

These Denons actually managed to replace my mighty Sennheiser HD-580s as my go-to – mostly because they were both punchier and more comfy for extended wear. However, recently, the pads had started … disintegrating (grody). I started looking for replacement pads and ended up finding the Lawton Audio Angle Pads. After a couple weeks delay, I finally got them in the mail…

Holy cow, these are fantastic. Really comfy, but most surprising is that the the audio, particularly the soundstage is noticeably better. I’m a happy clam right now, and looking forward to the next 5 years w/ these suckers.

Of course I’m wearing these while I type. Here’s one of the tracks I’ve been grooving to right now… (Buy on Amazon)

Late Night Reading

Transcript of secret meeting between Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt

And I wanted there to be more just acts, and fewer unjust acts. And one can sort of say, well what are your philosophical axioms for this? And I say I do not need to consider them. This is simply my temperament. And it is an axiom because it is that way. And so that avoids, then, getting into further unhelpful discussions about why you want to do something. It is enough that I do. So in considering how unjust acts are caused and what tends to promote them and what promotes just acts I saw that human beings are basically invariant. That is that their inclinations and biological temperament haven’t changed much over thousands of years and so therefore the only playing field left is: what do they have? And what do they know? And “have” is something that is fairly hard to influence, so that is what resources do they have at their disposal? And how much energy they can harness, and what are the supplies and so on. But what they know can be affected in a nonlnear way because when one person conveys information to another they can convey on to another and another and so on in a way that nonlinear and so you can affect a lot of people with a small amount of information. And therefore you can change the behaviour of many people with a small amount of information. So the question then arises as to what kinds of information will produce behaviour which is just? And disincentivise behaviour which is unjust?

Thinking about this in context of the events unfolding in Boston, and the crowdsourced attention happening among other things.

Some Notes on Labor, Technology and Economics

I think that we are all aware that advanced capitalism is leading us down a road that as a society, we may not want to travel – constant crisis due to increasingly advanced, complex, and unstable financialization, an increasingly vicious trend toward plutocracy and plutonomy that has obliterated socioeconomic mobility via massively increasing inequality, and of course, as an engine of unsustainability, where environmental, health, and social costs are externalized and reality is subsumed via a twisted economic logic.

All these things really should be teased out into much larger discussions, but a few recently related links/discussions I want to make note of (I’m slowly moving some things back out of Evernote into a way that can be narratized):

  • HN: Confessions of a Job Destroyer – a good essay that highlights what technological “disruption” really means; relevant to software, robotics and all sorts of enabling technologies
  • HN: Unfit for work (npr.org) – NPR is doing a weeklong series on how the disability program is hiding massive collapses in the workforce

Also, this image popped up in my Twitter stream recently…

A quick Google search shows that it’s been floating around for at least a year, and the bottom text references an organization that ceased to exist in 1982 so it is probably quite old, but still resonates as much (if not more) today. Here’s the text transcribed (via)

If you’re unemployed it’s not because there isn’t any work

Just look around: A housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs, there’s work to be done.

So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs. It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.

This country was not built by the huge corporations or government bureaucracies. It was built by people who work. And, it is working people who should control the work to be done. Yet, as long as employment is tied to somebody else’s profits, the work won’t get done.

The New American Movement (NAM)

Searching for this led to this interesting article:

RIP Aaron Swartz

I was first introduced to Aaron (impossibly young), over a decade ago at a tech conference (OSCON?). And, while we were never close, we often floated in the same circles (tech, activism, civic and political tech) and over the years our paths crossed many times, in emails, projects, at conferences or meetups. The last time I saw him was in Boston, June 2010. We met up outside a food court in Cambridge and caught up on the projects we were starting/wrapping up and swapped some thoughts on civic and campaign tech.

More than a friend, Aaron Swartz was a fellow traveler. He was one of us. In many ways, the best of us. It was a punch in the gut when I read the headline last night. He dedicated much of his life and his many talents in fighting injustice and trying to make a difference.

And beyond the sense of loss, there’s a bitter taste that injustice and indifference has won the day.

Rest in peace Aaron Swartz.

Raw Nerve – some of Aaron’s best writing.

F2C2012: Aaron Swartz keynote – “How we stopped SOPA”

Fall 2012 Mix

It’s been a while hasn’t it? One of the nice things is that there’s a huge backlog of stuff to choose from, although that also makes things a bit harder to remember what you were diggina while ago.

A few of these tracks are from my This Is My Jam – unfortunately it doesn’t really have a history so is less than useful for actually remembering anything…

Anyway, a few tracks. Some new artists, some old. A bit of a future-groove that gets washed away w/ the tide.