A Fungus Among Us II

Via Justin Pickard on the tweets comes this fantastic project: Alias, a gadget that helps you take control of Amazon and Google’s small surveillance devices.

We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems. Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.*

I’ve never been tempted by Amazon Echo or Google Home. First off, I like not needing to reboot light switches. And the privacy implications of these gadgets are stunning. There’s the obvious: if you don’t think they’re listening and harvesting data whenever they’re plugged in, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Alias project mitigates this exposure with a man-in-the-middle attack – it sits between you and the listening device and only talks to the listening device when you’ve told it to.

I’m still thinking it through, but Alias isn’t a panacea. All the things Google Home (for example) is asked to do: play music, turn off lights, adjust temperature, will leak back to Google and they can build an interesting model of your life using this data. That being said, a Cordycepian brain parasite for our cloud overlords’ bugs* is conceptual candy to me. (earlier Cordyceps post here)

Lots of fungal zeitgeist in my world right now. In addition to Alias, I’ve been watching the mushroom episodes of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, reading a Vox post on “The extraordinary therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, explained” and re-reading Toads and Toadstools. Next stop, Pollan’s book.


LOL to the rescue

I usually resist the urge to repost things featured on BoingBoing – it’s not like it’s an obscure blog and I’m sure a large percentage of my readers read it as well. However… I just can’t pass up a chance to add my voice to the pointing-and-laughing.

First, the original:


The voice of reason:


And when in doubt, apply lashings of LOL (Lex10 wastes no time):


Mock pants-pissing politicos and police. Mock mercilessly. Srsly.

(BTW – this worked during the freaking blitz!)




The only thing I’ve seen that might redirect my desire for a Pazyryk bird head-antlered elk:

Needs more Trieste!


  • If you think the advice in an earlier post on maintaining anonymity online was tinfoil hat stuff, take a look at the EFF’s suit against AT&T. (more info here and here – 2nd link is a PDF)

In 2003 AT&T built secret rooms hidden deep in the bowels of its central offices in various cities, housing computer gear for a government spy operation which taps into the company’s popular WorldNet service and the entire Internet. These installations enable the government to look at every individual message on the Internet and analyze exactly what people are doing. Documents showing the hardwire installation in San Francisco suggest that there are similar locations being installed in numerous other cities.

ATT + NSA makes a pack of shoggoths look benign. A palate cleanser:

Stross, Google Street Views and Privacy

Recently, author Charlie Stross posted the transcript of a talk he gave to a tech consultancy titled “Shaping the Future” .  It’s worth reading in it’s entirety; if you click through please remember to come back – I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

A side trip on our way to the meat of the matter… Stross identifies bandwidth – the ability to move information from place to place – as a key variable. It’s one of those things that’s getting faster, faster (think exponential increase). I want to recommend The Victorian Internet – a book that looks at the beginning of the communications revolution. Before the telegraph, information moved at the same rate people did – as fast as a horseback messenger or a clipper ship. The telegraph was an enormous change – one that left fingerprints that we see to this day. Baud – the speed measurement applied to modems (themselves becoming obsolete) – is named for Émile Baudot, a pioneer in the field. There are other examples; I’ll leave the rest to The Victorian Internet.

The focus of Stross talk is the notion of lifeblogging:

Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money [ten euros]. fast-forward a decade and that’ll be 100Gb. Two decades and we’ll be up to 10Tb.

10Tb is an interesting number. That’s a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That’s enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I’m awake. All the time. It’s a life log; replay it and you’ve got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it’s actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)

Why would anyone want to do this?

I can think of several reasons. Initially, it’ll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it’d be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it’s a memory prosthesis.

Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it’s all indexed and searchable. “What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?”

Think of it as google for real life. *

We’re seeing the beginnings of something like this today. My blog is not the only way I share information about what I’m up to and what I’m thinking – there’s also my Flickrstream (interesting word that was invented to describe people’s photo repositories, eh?), Twitter (short term, ephemeral stream of consciousness stuff), del.icio.us (public list of my bookmarks), and email (more – presumably – private). Others may add YouTube or other video services to the list and I’m sure there are many other bits of software I’m missing; I have little or no MySpace/Facebook knowledge, for example.

All this is fine as I wander around documenting what I want to document, writing what I feel like writing. But (there’s always a but), here comes Monty! Who is Monty, you ask? He is the cat in the window. A new feature of Google Maps provides street level zooms for select urban areas – the Google folks have vehicles driving around cities taking pictures. When the Google car came by, Monty was sitting in his normal perch. Later, when Google rolled out the new feature, Monty’s owner took a look at her neighborhood, saw her cat in her window, and got a little – understandably in my book – freaked. Ms. Kalin-Casey – one of Monty’s owners – writes,

The question is, where do we draw the line between public and private? Obviously, the picture of Monty isn’t very good, but who’s to say whether tomorrow, Google’s camera’s won’t be a lot better, giving clearer pictures and more detail? I’ve already seen one post online where the poster’s only complaint about Google pics is that the pictures aren’t sharp enough. (He wasn’t commenting on my pic, but on a picture of his own home.)

The opposing argument claims that what’s visible from the street is public. By opening my windows for some much-needed light and air, am I granting permission for my living room to be broadcast worldwide? I don’t think I am. I think if I open my windows, my neighbors and passers by might see the cat in the window. That’s substantially different to me than realizing that everyone in the world can potentially see into my home.

It’s my feeling that we should know what kind of monitoring we’re subject to and when. Stores, airports, intersections, museums —there are security cameras everywhere. We’ve all seen overhead satellite photos for mapping purposes, but when does helpful mapping recon morph into home surveillance? When does it move from a grainy picture of the cat to a high-res image where you can see small details in my apartment? When do I have to choose between sunlight and unseen threats to privacy? *

Think about those sorts of reasonable concerns in a world where everything I see or hear, I record. I think jammer technologies will get hot, but regardless, our notions of privacy will need to be sharpened and thought through a little more thoroughly than they are today. I don’t have answers; I probably am not even seeing the real questions – we ought to start paying some attention though. As William Gibson said, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”

Mennonites, those Goth kids, and al Qaeda

Two good ones from Bruce Schneier’s blog:

Mennonites moving to avoid photo ID requirements.

Mennonites are considering moving to a different state because they don’t want their photo taken for their drivers licenses. Many (all?) states had religious exemptions to the photo requirement, but now fewer are. *

Another issue touched on in the NY Times article is the inability of Mennonites to leave the country to visit relatives in Canada or Mexico. No passports = no border crossings.

Also via Schneier on Security a great Onion link.

“We believe the yield signs were removed in order to disrupt traffic patterns, most likely to cause an accident,” Steinhorst said. “The party responsible for the crime could be anyone from suspected terrorist Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Mughassil, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list, to that Fairman kid and his buddies. It could be the work of one or the other. Possibly both, though I have to say I doubt that.”


Four quick links:

  • Private police forces – mall cops with guns and real enforcement responsibilities? Bad idea on so many levels it’s not funny.
  • National Security Letters – abused by the FBI – abuse that was facilitated by the gag order that comes with the letters.
  • DMCA – threat or menace? “Our attempts at copyright control have not been successful” – duh.
  • Folk devils and identity theft. If you don’t correctly identify the cause, good solutions are unlikely.

Boston meets the Mooninites

More evidence that fear does not make people smarter. For folks who are not up on this latest Keystone Kops incident, yesterday the Boston PD, local and state government, and the media went ape after someone reported a suspicious device (one of which is pictured above). Additional devices were found around town – they’d been there for, apparently, three weeks. Look like a bomb to you? Not to me – I’m well past the twenty-something demographic, but I recognized the moon guys instantly. If I wanted to blow something up I might use a NEMA enclosure with some conduit coming out of it to hide my device; a high tech Lite-Brite – not so much.
Now, of course, the powers-that-be are embarrassed and are going to get even – starting with the 2 poor schmucks who put the nefarious devices up. Go ahead, fine ’em for violating a ‘post no bills’ law – write ’em a ticket, but anything more? Come on.
This is, as far as I’m concerned, a kind of Type II error – evaluate the hypothesis as true (OMG, we must treat those things as IEDs) when it is in fact false – the kind of error that is far more likely when dealing with terrorism (because there are so few terrorists and so much random real life going on) than a Type I: ‘that’s nothing to be concerned about’, pause, !boom!. It would seem to me that public safety folks might want to examine why they committed such a large and long mistake and do so in a public way so everyone can learn from the fiasco, rather than concentrating on whuppin’ on a couple of Lite-Brite hangers. I know, I know – I’m living in a fantasy world, but seriously – we need to start holding folks, government and media both, to account. Panic, overreaction and constant fear are no way to run a city, state or nation. In the absence of any real ‘learn from our mistakes’ effort, I suggest mockery.
A little later – Speaking of mockery… My favorite comment:
Seventy-five-hundred-thousand dollars for emergency response services, a cool three-quarters of a million bucks, according to May-yah Mumbles (aka The Honorable T. Menino), and over the course of their busy workday they still only found 10 or 11 of the original 38 “performance pieces”. Of course, most of the missing 20-odd were probably pried loose and are now adorning dorm walls, or eBay auctions. But, yeah, at least one local bloviator (Jon Keller) thinks that the poor schmuck responsible should be punished, “they should throw the thickest book possible at him”, not least because of the “vulgar hand signal” part. Because nothing says “Al Queda Pwned Amurka!!1!” like a frowny icon flipping us the Lite-Brite bird.Pants-Pisher Nation. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Even later – I just did my little truth-table – if the null hypothesis (presumed state of nature) is ‘no bomb’, I believe I’m OK describing this as a type II error. If I’ve boogered up the type number (I or II), my point remains…

Sousveillance, Kramer, Tasers and the Panopticon

A couple of recent incidents have me thinking about the surveillance society again. The incidents:

  • November 14th a University of California Police Department officer tasered a student in UCLA’s Powell library.
  • November 19th (I think – the news was racing around the web on the 20th) Michael Richards – Kramer of Seinfeld – melted down while doing a standup routine at a club in Hollywood.

The key factor that unites these disparate messes? They were caught on video by bystanders (a quick YouTube search should turn both up – I’ll leave that as an excercise for the student). Though it’s often useful to concentrate on one aspect of technological change – in this case the panopticon (and in his defense Charlie Stross’ Great Britain is leading the way in ubiquitous surveillance) there are almost always countervailing forces and unintended consequences that get in the way. Opportunistic sousveillance may be be one of those forces. As video recording hardware gets smaller and more ubiquitous – cell phones, lipstick cams, etc. – and video distribution gets easier no one will have a monopoly on showing the world images of folks behaving badly. Not only will Cletus show up on ‘Cops’ when his meth lab gets raided, but additionally YouTube will have footage of Officer Friendly overreacting during a traffic stop.

I’ll continue to mull – sousveillance is no panacea. The state still has access to databases, facial recognition software (which – as far as I can tell – still sucks), etc. I continue to think transparency will keep free societies free, but part of me wants to prep an escape route – be ready go nomad and drop into a mobile cash/barter society that I think is already out there…

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Security tradeoffs.

There’s a wonderful item in Bruce Schneier’s latest Crypto-Gram that captures the balancing act between security and convenience/usability. The issue is how to bear-proof trash cans in Yosemite. The story isn’t well sourced, but it’s one that illustrates a point even if the tale can’t be verified. My favorite quote:

Said one park ranger, ‘There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.’

A tangent – I have it on good authority that the most dangerous animal in Yellowstone (besides H. sapien) is the Bison, filling the same niche in North America as the hippo does in Africa: very large, shockingly fast, single-minded people stompers.

If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide?

I just got around to reading Bruce Schneier’s latest Crypto-Gram – it contains an excellent essay on the value of privacy.

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.


Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

Later, he quotes Solzhenitsyn (I’m not wild about Solzhenitsyn’s Mother Russia reactionary crabbiness, but if anyone can talk about the surveillance/police state, he’s the one):

“As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions… There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web, and if they materialized as rubber bands, buses; trams and even people would all lose the ability to move, and the wind would be unable to carry torn-up newspapers or autumn leaves along the streets of the city. They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence…. Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads.”