Archived entries for tech

From the BBC:

A newly-developed heat-ray gun that burns the skin but doesn’t cause permanent injury is now with US troops in Afghanistan.

The Active Denial System (ADS) is a non-lethal weapon designed to disperse violent crowds and repel enemies.

It uses a focused invisible beam that causes an “intolerable heating sensation”, but only penetrates the skin to the equivalent of three sheets of paper.

The discomfort causes whoever it’s pointed at to immediately start moving away. They often scream but the US military says the chance of injury from the system is 0.1%.

It’s already been tested more than 11,000 times on around 700 volunteers. Even reporters have faced the heat-ray.

Interesting thing about tech like this is what happens once you improve it. Think about computers. Effectively, since the first difference engines, computers have done nothing but calculations. The only things that have changed are that the calculations got more abstract and complex, and the devices themselves got smaller – massively smaller.

Right now the ADS is mounted to a mobile armored vehicle. Imagine, instead, the ADS as a device implanted into, say, every street lamp in a city. Instant riot control. Or, to the wheels of a car. Instant car jacking defense. Or what about to the buttons on your clothes? Personal protection.

The ADS as it is now is little more than an expensive PR stunt, but what could be done with the tech in twenty or thirty years, now that’s the interesting stuff.

Kids around the country are getting high on the internet, thanks to MP3s that induce a state of ecstasy. And it could be a gateway drug leading teens to real-world narcotics.

At least, that’s what Oklahoma News 9 is reporting about a phenomenon called “i-dosing,” which involves finding an online dealer who can hook you up with “digital drugs” that get you high through your headphones.

And officials are taking it seriously.

“Kids are going to flock to these sites just to see what it is about and it can lead them to other places,” Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs spokesman Mark Woodward told News 9.

I-dosing involves donning headphones and listening to “music” — largely a droning noise — which the sites peddling the sounds promise will get you high. Teens are listening to such tracks as “Gates of Hades,” which is available on YouTube gratis (yes, the first one is always free).

That’s the lead in to a bit on Wired.com’s Threat Level blog about house wives in middle America getting irrational because their kids are experimenting with this generation’s version of the fainting game, albeit one that doesn’t involve killing off scores of brain cells.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first read this I was pretty livid. After all, isn’t the point of music to get a reaction out of the listener by way of creating a sensation in them? I listen to a lot of experimental, tonal based music. Long, sweeping, ambient soundscape-y sort of stuff that’s specifically designed to create subtle sensation in the listener.

The piece I’m listening to right now? It makes me feel cold. A series of hollow, echoing sounds are set over a constant harmonic tingling that sounds like wind in ice covered trees. And when I focus on it, I feel cooler. That is what the music is supposed to do.

At first I had trouble believing claims of people getting “high” of listening to digitally created tonal frequencies. I could believe that by depriving themselves of other sensory input (which if you watch the video on the Threat Level, that’s what they are doing to “take” the i-dose), their body would compensate for it by focusing more on the aural, and thus intensifying the experience. But any sort of claims to euphoria or lingering highs would be complete crap, right?

Then I thought about alien abductions.

And the sound that causes them.

Back in the 80s, there was a man going around to various scifi conventions that – for a nominal fee and your signature on a waiver form – would strap you into a modified dentist’s chair, attach electrodes to your head, hypnotize you and give you an abduction experience. The experience was pretty universal. You’re taken from your place of rest by some small, fetus-like human, to some place unfamiliar. Then, the fetus human does things to you that you are powerless to prevent, and unable to understand. Finally, the fetus human returns you to safely to your home. A guy at a scifi con with a space next to the booth selling Klingon foreheads could give this to you.

His trick? Extremely low frequency vibrations. You see, the abduction experience is timeless and world-wide. Red-caps and faeries in Europe were blamed for it in the Middle Ages. The Japanese had their forest spirits. Nearly every culture has a folklore story that replicates what we thought was a totally modern phenomenon. And why is that? Because rocks break. Not pebbles or bolders or even huge slabs, but multi-million ton, mile-long swaths of bedrock. Some one had realized that abduction experiences are focused around areas with large amount of bedrock. Then they went a step further and checked the time of the abductions against any seismic activity. They found a direct correlation.

When rocks break, they give off energy. The bigger the rock, the more the energy. The energy is in the form of extremely low frequency vibrations. Think really slow, but really strong radio waves. And when these waves reach a human in the right state of sleep, they cause an abduction experience. That’s what the man at the scifi con was doing. He was getting people in the right state of sleep, then introducing ELF vibrations to their head. Voila, instant abduction.

The idea is that the ELF sets off some kind of base-level response from our brain. Sort of how if you type cmd into the run prompt of any version of windows, you’ll get the same response. We may all be different, and the details of the abduction experience will reflect that difference, but the basic response to that input is the same for everyone.

Now, what the hell does that have to do with i-dosing? Well, if a sound can cause a sleeping person to think they’re being abducted, I could make the bridge that a similar sound could induce minor euphoria in a conscious person. But claims of sound getting you as high as coke or heroin? Or that any of this is addictive? That’s complete bullshit. Paranoid, deluded bullshit.

Ultimately, none of that is the issue at hand. The real issue is that you’ve got parents who are so petrified of their children experimenting, and who are unable to converse with them on any sort of meaningful, personal level, that they’ll just run screaming to the news cameras, policemen and legislators for some knee-jerk fix. Which, in a twist of cold irony, will just make whatever they are railing against that much more enticing to their kids.

The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it. These changes will go into effect on all StarCraft II forums with the launch of the new community site prior to the July 27 release of the game, with the World of Warcraft site and forums following suit near the launch of Cataclysm. Certain classic forums, including the classic Battle.net forums, will remain unchanged.

That is part of a bit published on Blizzard’s official Battle.net forums, the Blizzard discussion run hub for all of their video game properties. For those not familiar, Blizzard makes World of Warcraft, a persistent world MMO with a sustained player population somewhere north of several European nations. Oh, and then they make Starcraft, a video game with a professional gaming league in South Korea and where a two cable networks broadcast footage of the decade old game 24/7. Last but not least is Diablo, which is really just a giant time sink based around the cover of late 80s metal albums. That didn’t keep it from selling a bajillion copies, though. All three of these games are having either expansion or new versions releasing in the next two years. Which mean Blizzard’s forum traffic is going to go through the damn roof.

Probably why they want to get a handle on the incessant flaming and troll wars that are common place.

They’ve gotten their share of flack for this, though. Several different groups have suggested that this policy would lead to game conflicts spilling over into real life conflicts. That the lack of anonymity could in fact be dangerous to the player base.

I have absolutely no idea why people would think something as trivial as video games would inspire people commit acts of violence. I mean it’s not like there’s a history of that happening all over the world. And every video game player I know is a even-tempered, emotional mature adult. There is absolutely no way anything bad could happen from this.

Oh, wait? What’s that, young lady? You’ve got something to say?

….fuck.

This is a terrible idea, but it is going to be a blast to watch.

My schadenfreude organ is turgid at the clusterfuck that’s going to follow in the wake of Blizzard’s decision.

I’m not sure, but you may have heard about the newest generation of the Jesus Phone. It comes out next Friday from Apple and AT&T. The preorders for it started yesterday.

I was running a fever yesterday. A pretty bad one. So when I say I was up at 4am trying to buy one of these, I want to make it clear that it was because I couldn’t sleep from the fever – NOT because I was waiting for the preorder to come up.

When I attempted the preorder process at 4am, I was greeted with a server time out once I made the jump from Apple’s site to AT&T’s billing servers. Ok, I thought, this is probably just them not syncing up yet. The sale did just go online a few minutes ago. I laid back down and tried it a few hours later, 7am-ish, maybe.

Imagine what it would be like to be in an fighter aircraft in the middle of a dogfight – and lose. Imagine the sounds. The screaming of the bending, ripping metal. The unmuffled roar of jet engine and wind. Because those must’ve been the sounds the servers were making when I attempted to preorder a second time. It didn’t get any better for the rest of the day.

Gizmodo has a pretty descriptive rundown of every thing that went to shit for Apple and AT&T yesterday. From the servers giving you access to some one else’s billing history to AT&T stores resorting to their “fail-safe” pen and paper preordering.

Bottom line, this was one of the biggest clusterfucks in the history of retail sales. And it was entirely AT&T’s fault.

Sometimes, in situations like this, a company launches a product and gets legitimately overwhelmed by the consumer response. A perfect example is Blizzard’s launch of World of Warcraft. Within a week of launch, every single retail CD key had been activated and was in use. The game was kissing 3 million active users, when even the best analysts said it would do good to hit a million its first quarter. Servers were melting left and right. But, they recovered from it and now maintain the largest and most successful online game in history.

AT&T had the same problems with the original iPhone launch. The authorization servers went down and didn’t come back up for almost two days. People had their shiny new Jesus Phones, but they couldn’t use them. Things went smoother for the 3G and 3Gs launches. It looked like while their cellular network might be straining to the breaking point under the weight of all those dataplans, their billing and authorization servers were finally, FINALLY, up to the task of launching products.

Yeah.

Right.

What always boggles my mind when things like this happen is that the retailer is always “surprised” by the amount of traffic they get. Which is funny, considering, you know, they know exactly how many people on their network are eligible for an upgrade deal (which is more than ever because of the special early-upgrade deal they did), they have metrics on how many people will pay the premium to upgrade anyway, and they have previous history to know how many “gawker”-types they are going to have. The numbers are right there. All they had to do was support those numbers plus a little bit more.

And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t even come close to doing it. Everything was either broken or just flat shut down. There were fucking AT&T stores closing because their only business was preorders and they couldn’t do them.

But all that was yesterday. The tsunami of web traffic has subsided 24 hours later. Things are working now. Except, what’s that? The iPhone 4 is now back-ordered to July 2 at the earliest. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

AT&T is expected to sell 9.5 million iPhone 4s within a month of their launch. Which probably puts the views somewhere in the 12 million range. And while that is a lot, especially if they swarm the server all at once, Blizzard clears more than that same number every day in World of Warcraft. Millions more than that number, in fact. And they don’t seem to have a problem with it.

I guess it really comes down to the fact that AT&T doesn’t have to work for your money. They have the Jesus Phone locked into an exclusivity contract, even if it is killing their entire cellular network. Why should they spend any money on upgrading servers or networks when the simple truth is that people want the iPhone, and will deal with shit to get it.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do at this point. My 3G is more dead than alive, which is why this upgrade was so important for me. But I’m not sure if chaining myself to AT&T, as well as the Apple App store’s black hole, is worth it if things like this continue to happen.

Regardless, way to fuck up, AT&T. Way to fuck up.

EDIT: Barely had time to get this up before AT&T completely suspended preorders.

EDIT 2: Apple sent out a press release saying they sold 600,000 preorder units. Which is funny, since you’d assume they’d have more than that. I mean, it’s not like they were trying to sell millions of them this month or anything.

EDIT 3: Preorders now being kicked back to July 14. Stores better be overflowing with retail units come launch day.

Things are speeding up. People are moving faster, goods are moving faster, information is moving faster, ideas are moving faster. You can’t take a moment to study something because by the time you blink, it will have changed.

Previously, there was a definite sense of things happening around you. Identifiable periods in history were long – sometimes centuries long – and they were things that you could see and appreciate being a part of while they were going on. You could have a sense of the gravity and importance of something. But, as technology started to kick in, things sped up. They got faster. They accelerated. Century long periods were cut down to decades, then years, then months, to the days or hours that define periods now.

Think about the late 1960s. The American Social Revolution. Civil rights, feminism, anti-war, and pro-drug movements all spun into one broad counter-culture thread. And everyone could feel it happening. You knew these were the defining days of a period of history. It lasted long enough for you to be able to grab hold of something tangible and hang on for the ride if you were so inclined.

But after that? Things start to blur together, like things moving past the window of a speeding car. The 70s blended into the 80s which blended into the 90s which blends into now. The biggest event was the end of the Cold War, but that was more of a left over from a previous period when things moved slower.

Now I feel like I exist in a world that is blurring around me because it moves so fast. Nothing is tangible because by the time you’ve reached out your arm to touch it, it has already faded away. Things are more ephemeral than they’ve ever been, and it is all due to the acceleration that technology caused.

Think about it like eating a fine, multi-course meal. Except, that the time you have for each course is half of the previous one. Before you’re even out of the appetizer/soup/salad courses, you’re throat is jacked open and food is shoved straight down your throat. The flavors mash-up, you can’t appreciate any of the texture or nuance, but because things keep coming, you start to forget what it was like to ever be able to chew or savor the food. Eventually, you just go numb to the whole experience, as the only sensation that’s left is a mass of food stuffs being forced into your gullet. Time and experience have been force-compacted into bland, forgettable food stuffs.

I love technology, it lets me do things that absolutely blow my mind (like typing this piece), but this is my greatest apprehension about it.

Source.

Interesting way to present this data. One of those nice little “if money and resources weren’t a problem, we could do THIS!” sort of things.

But, if you want to take a little bit of – heh – sunshine from this, look at the metrics they give you for energy consumption. While the total amount of energy used is going up, the rate at which it is going up is decreasing.

Now you just have to wonder if we have the resources to survive the run up to the point where the curves intersect and we have just the right amount of resources to meet our energy needs.

According to the huge spike of incoming traffic, I’ve been linked to a forum post about The Buzzer, an old Soviet-era numbers station going quiet.

I wrote about The Buzzer a few years ago.

I’m not going to fall down the conspiracy rabbit hole with this, but it did make me wonder – what’s the newtech equivalent of a numbers station?

A static IP that spits out binary white noise until it flicks over and rolls out a string of encrypted text? For all of their mystery, numbers stations were pretty shitty means of transmitting secret data. You can’t encrypt radio signals, only encode them, and codes are easier to break since you can’t hide them, only smudge them a bit. Plus, radio has a limited range. You need to be able to hear it to get your super secret spy message, and if a big storm blows in when you’re supposed to receive your go/no go message, well, you’re fucked.

From the BBC, First human ‘infected with computer virus’-

Dr Mark Gasson from the University of Reading contaminated a computer chip which was then inserted into his hand.

The device, which enables him to pass through security doors and activate his mobile phone, is a sophisticated version of ID chips used to tag pets.

In trials, Dr Gasson showed that the chip was able to pass on the computer virus to external control systems.

If other implanted chips had then connected to the system they too would have been corrupted, he said.

Here’s a situational example of how this could be used maliciously.

-Pentagon contractor comes in for a hit replacement or other large, invasive procedure. Broadcast device is implanted as part of the procedure. Person returns to work, and the device gains access to secure networks. Device can be set to retrieve data then broadcast once the person comes home to an unsecured network.

I’m not saying this can happen today, but a few years from now I could completely see this being the new method for espionage.

That’s a robotic mouth attempting to pronounce vowels. And scaring the crap out of everyone in the process.

Court Rules Against F.C.C. in ‘Net Neutrality’ Case

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Published: April 6, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court has ruled that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks.

Tuesday’s ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is a big victory for the Comcast Corporation, the nation’s largest cable company. It had challenged the FCC’s authority to impose so called “net neutrality” obligations.

It marks a serious setback for the F.C.C., which needs authority to regulate the Internet in order to push ahead with key parts of its national broadband plan.

That just came across the wire, I pulled it from the NYT.

Time to pull out this graphic:

And the piece I wrote to go along with it.

Graphic by Gizmodo

Google Fiber, a fiber network a hundred times faster than anything available for the normal consumer. Quite possibly the Holy Grain of modern broadband. And Google knows it.

As part of their test rollout for Fiber, they are having a sort of contest where communities and residents of those communities can nominate themselves for consideration and then make tons and tons of user generated content to support that nomination. What ever community Google finally picks will have the fiber piped throughout the town and priced at a rate competitive to what is currently being offered.

Now this is where Google’s nature of being a little disingenuous comes in. Their guiding principle is to “not be evil”, but I wouldn’t say they fall squarely in the “good” camp, either. Google makes their billions by creating things that people want to use at no apparently cost to the user, and then they sell that user data to advertisers like me. You might say it’s a fair trade. Google Documents is free, where as Microsoft word is fairly pricey, but you have to deal with advertisements while you work. Google’s insidiousness lies in their subtlety. They are doing their damnedest to bring you the best possible Internet experience, but only so you’ll use more of their products and spend more time on the web so they can in turn sell you more ads. They are drug dealers, and information is their hustle.

For me, the disingenuousness with Google Fiber is in the appearance of giving every community a chance, a real chance, at actually becoming the test market, and that the content people are producing is actually not part of the application process, but a foundation for a marketing campaign.

Look at it like a reality TV show that has a user voting element. Everyone may love Person A, but the producers of the tv show think that person isn’t creating enough drama to keep ratings high, so they pull out their veto and kick that person off the show – regardless of the user voting numbers.

The Google Fiber application process is probably operating much in the same way. On some white board out in California, there is probably a short list of five to ten cities that Google has already scoped out for the Fiber test. Places under a certain population threshold are probably out, as are place over one. Go too small and no one notices, go too big and the cost is prohibitive. Places with climate or locations problems are most likely immediately discarded, too. Hawaii or Alaska? Not a chance. Live below or at sea level like New Orleans or Savannah? Won’t happen. Google is covering its ass is in the fact that the application is open, in the vein of all of Google’s “not be evil” projects. With thousands of cities and millions of people tossing around nominations, you can be sure that the cities on the Google white board are on that list, enabling the Big G to avoid any sticky accusations of them pulling the winning choice out of their ass. Sure, we’d all love to see our own cities get Google Fiber, but unless we meet the specific criteria Google is looking for, no amount preaching will matter. The producers veto the voters.

But if the application process is a sham, what does that mean for the all of the user generated content that out there extolling the reasons why Google Fiber should be put in City XYZ?

It means that Google has the smartest marketing time on the planet.

The marketing strategy behind this Google Fiber contest is multi-tiered and brilliant. The first level is the application process – the chance that Google will come charging out of their technological castle, a prince in fiber optic armor, to sweep you up and away from a life toiling away on slow, over priced networks – is enough to give everyone applying for Fiber a feeling of good will toward Google. After all, you can’t be mean to the person who’s considering giving you something for next to nothing, and in that act of giving, makes you the coolest kid on the block.

The next tier is the user generated content – which oddly enough even this blog posts falls into. User generated content isn’t like an adverting campaign. It doesn’t have an expiration date, it stays active and viewable forever. The deadline for Google Fiber nominations is this Friday, but two weeks from now there will still be videos and blog posts of people extolling the virtues of Google Fiber and why their city needs it. Before there is even a product to see, Google has created the perception that theirs is the absolute best. Comcast would spend hundreds of millions to have that said about their product, and Google got it for free by being just a bit more clever – and tricky.

My point in talking about all of this is one of truth. I like what Google is doing because it make communities think about their technological future as well as work together to get a message out to the world about why they are deserving of this. But I don’t like the fact that it is mainly a song and dance to lay the foundation for something that is most likely only really an option for a half dozen cities that Google has already vetted. Google is going about this in the least evil way they know how, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking that gift horse – or fiber – in the mouth. Everything you do to promote your city also promotes Google.

Just keep that in mind.

PS: Don’t forget to nominate Memphis if you haven’t already!

…what? I never said I wouldn’t do just about anything to get Google Fiber. You hear that, Google? ANYTHING. *licks lips*

There was more data produced in 2009 that in all the years before it.

At least, that’s the scuttlebutt coming out of South by Southwest this year. Scuttlebutt I’m not disinclined to believe, either. Social media is in full swing, and users are generating petabytes of data about themselves every day.

I wouldn’t think this trend is going to cease any time soon. Technology is getting cheaper, people are finding new ways to track each other, and new markets are joining the swarm.

But there’s another side to this. The hardware side of it.

If more computer data was produced this year than ever before, that means there was more storage space produced in this year than all previous years combined. Beyond that, since there isn’t a scarcity of hard drives, it means that we produced more storage space than was used.

I can’t prove it, but I’d also put money on there being more information transmitted this year than in all previous years combined. If the world is producing more data and at the same time shifting toward more wireless, web and cloud-based applications, then more data will need to be tossed around to support those things.

More of everything, year after year.

Hypertext is a way of making two dimensional text into three dimensional worlds.

Social media should be used in the same way.

You are taking an unfamiliar, two-dimensional thing and turning it into a familiar, three-dimensional thing through communication and story telling.

If you are not adding to the width, depth and height of something with social media, you are using it incorrectly.

The first observation is that vast bulk of the growing wave of hacking going on is economic.  It’s a transfer of wealth from those that have it to those that have the technical chops to take it (it’s a process that’s very similar in nature to what global financial elites are doing to the rest of us — with similar levels of complexity and secrecy).  James Fallows came to roughly the same conclusion in his recent column in the Atlantic magazine.   This is the bleeding elephant in the room.  The transfer of wealth being accomplished this way is massive and growing daily.

Excerpt from an intriguing article about the future of global cyber warfare from a John Robb’s blog Global Guerrillas that I’ll be spending more time reading in the future.

From ComputerWorld:

IDG News Service – An upstart Trojan horse program has decided to take on its much-larger rival by stealing data and then removing the malicious program from infected computers.

Security researchers say that the relatively unknown [Spy Eye toolkit] added this functionality just a few days ago in a bid to displace its larger rival, known as Zeus.

The feature, called “Kill Zeus,” apparently removes the Zeus software from the victim’s PC, giving Spy Eye exclusive access to usernames and passwords.

Zeus and Spy Eye are both Trojan-making toolkits, designed to give criminals an easy way to set up their own “botnet” networks of password-stealing programs. These programs emerged as a major problem in 2009, with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation estimating last October that they have caused $100 million in losses.

…..

With its “Kill Zeus” option, Spy Eye is the most aggressive crimeware, however. The software can also steal data as it is transferred back to a Zeus command-and-control server, said Kevin Stevens, a researcher with SecureWorks. “This author knows that Zeus has a pretty good market, and he’s looking to cut in,” he said.

Turf wars are nothing new to cybercriminals. Two years ago a malicious program called Storm Worm began attacking servers controlled by a rival known as Srizbi. And a few years before that, the authors of the Netsky worm programmed their software to remove rival programs Bagle and MyDoom.

Spy Eye sells for about $500 on the black market, about one-fifth the price of premium versions of Zeus. To date, it has not been spotted on many PCs, however.

This, of course, is all being done by the Russians. Which reminds me of all those lines in Gibson books referring to “Russian black ICE”. It is amazing when you that that just two decades ago you could trade a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans for a human life in the Balkans, and now they are this slowly churning cauldron in which the most advanced and dangerous information technologies are being developed. They’ve already shown they are more than capable of blasting the networks of former Soviet satellite states of the face of the Internet whenever they start to get a little too uppity in the face of Mother Russia.

Nerds in Russia, commanding slave armies of sleeper computers. The future is rather strange, innit?

I want to talk to you about dark places.

Not literally places that lack adequate illumination, but locations that don’t exist. Like a place built out of dark matter and powered by dark energy, completely hidden from human perception, but real and there all the same.

FourSquare, the newest means of shouting about your life on the web, was the impetus for this idea. For those of you with a life and more important things to do with your time, let me explain FourSquare. You go places, tag yourself as being in that location with FourSquare, and then get “badges” when you accomplish things. For example, going to a place more than anyone else and becoming “mayor” of that place or visiting a gym and getting a “fit” badge. Pointless, intangible things, but for some reason people love it. There is also a tacked-on messaging system where people can leave each other suggestions of things to do at certain locations, and notes about those locations.

(Unlike Twitter, FourSquare stands a real chance of making money with their system. The amount of data they are harvesting from their users and the ability to connect businesses to those users will make the people behind it very, very rich.)

Up until their last update, if you checked in at a new place, you had to know the exact street address of a location. Annoying in every instance, downright near impossible if you are, say, in a shopping center or a mall. With the new update, however, you don’t need the address. You can just drop in the name of the place, and the address will get filled in later.

Which made me wonder – what if you just made up a place? Call it NoPlace, and then start slamming it with notes and suggestions and ideas. You’ve made a little nook in a system designed to handle the digital footprints of real places, but that nook doesn’t correspond to anything real. It is just a place out in the ether, filled with information. This is a dark place.

The name comes from darknet, the term being used to describe closed-access networks. Being they professional, social, even piracy oriented, they are the new dominant feature of the Internet these days. The professional and social ones normally start with people who’s trade involves more idea than object. They want to discuss their ideas with others like them, but email is too clunky, and the large social networks will expose them to prying eyes, so they close themselves off and go dark. There are entire cloned networks of Twitter for people like this, they took the API and built themselves a feed that is hidden away from the rest of the world.

The good internet data pirates operate in the same way now. Private ftp networks, torrent swarms that only accept pre-set IPs, encrypted newsgroups, they are the fertile ground for what the music, movie and electronic game trade groups pushed into the shadows after the hey-day of file sharing programs like Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and first generation of torrent sites like Suprnova and The Pirate Bay (yes I know TPB is still around, but they exist in a weird legal limbo land, and the originators are in jail).

Ironically, the most important and exciting places on the Internet are hidden away behind closed doors in Fight Club-esque secrecy. First rule of a darknet is that you don’t talk about a darknet. Which itself is counter point to the idea of an open network with all of the information of the world available for anyone who is willing to go looking.

But back to the local space application of this, the dark place. Essentially, the idea of using FourSquare for this is rather pointless. The functionality is too limited, but it did serve to give me an idea of what it could do. If you take a theoretical jump to include some actual augmented reality functionality, instead of faking it like FourSquare tries to do, you could end up with something like a digital speakeasy. The person who wants to form the group goes to a place in a city; a tree in a park, a pool table in a bar, or something so mundane no one else would notice it. Then that person drops an AR landmark at this spot, say with a password protected login. People with the password then get access to whatever was in that landmark, be it just a few lines of text, a video, a forum, a program, whatever. You could bury a secret history in the digital ether of a city, and no one would know save those that were supposed to know.

I’m not entirely sure why you would want to do any of this, but I’m thinking more about the how rather than the why of it right now. Didn’t get the point of Twitter, and I don’t really get the point of FourSquare, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from using those applications. It seems the good ideas are always built more around how these days, and people just hope the why shows up somewhere along the way.

There could be commercial potential in this, if you wanted to offer coupons to people who were in your businesses and you had, say a chalk board with that day’s password on it. But, I’m really more interested in the potential to hide information in a place that can only be retrieved from other people coming to that same place.

Hidden points of thought, secreted away in the dark places. That’s what this thought is about.

God I love the potential of the future.

Two things happened yesterday whose synchronicity was inescapable.

Apple released their tablet device, the iPad.

And the White House’s budget proposal for NASA was leaked, showing that they are killing the Ares and Constellation projects, effectively leaving the United States with no spacecraft at the end of September of this year.

Two seemingly unrelated news items, but they tell the story of scientific development over the last half of the 20th century.

Let’s just back to just after World War 2. Ballistics and rocketry were the new, hot sciences. The Americans were willing to let the Russians conquer part of Germany so they could snap up the German rocket scientists who had built the V2 and who were working on a German version of the Manhattan Project.

Back then, science was this big, epic thing. We were envisioning blasting off to the far reaches of space on rockets the size of skyscrapers powered by the safe and near limitless power of the atom.

(Don’t forget, this is the generation where we were irradiating people and spraying them with DDT just to show how safe it all was. The actions of history are relative unto their times.)

But, there was a catch with this titanic science: it was hard to control. There was a lot of math involved in the calculations necessary to put a several ton piece of metal in the sky. Government money was dumped into college campuses to develop computers that could plot a rocket trajectory from the heart of America to all those places where naughty people live.

The Russians beat us to a successful ICBM program by two years, you know. Those crazy frost bitten bastards were ahead of us, and we even had von Braun, the man who’d invented the science of modern rocketry. But the Russians didn’t need him. They just gave bits of a broken V2 rocket to an unknown man named Sergey Korolyov, who’d just barely managed to escape a purge of intellectuals by showing a flair for making rocket engines do things they weren’t supposed to be able to do. Korolyov was probably the most unknown genius of the 20th century, without him, God only knows when or how we’d have gone to space.

I’m getting sidetracked.

So we were building these amazing metal arrows to shoot into the heavens, but we needed computers to tell us where to point them and just how much of a kick to give them. Computers were basically vacuum-tube driven difference engines up until the advent of the microprocessor, when something interesting happened.

For the most part, the development of computers and rockets were tied together. The development of either came from military research and funding. You’d build a bigger rocket, so you’d need a new computer. You’d figure out something else you could do with a computer and that would let you build a new rocket. But with the release of the microprocessor in 1971, the commercial applications of computing exploded. No longer was a computer a huge investment that required whole rooms to house, but it was something that could be owned in an everyday home for day to day uses.

Those giant cylinders of metal that went up into the stars…well…they had less of a commercial application. Luckily, the Cold War was still raging, and the US’s dominance of space was a point of pride over those filthy Commies (who’d beaten us out of the gravity well in the first place). So we were able to justify the development of the the space shuttle program, which we’re still using today. But after that, things sort of stalled out for massive space science. The International Space Station was the last big project, and that took over a decade to full construct with no clear reason for existing in the first place.

While the space program was faltering, computing was booming. Moore’s Law was in full effect, with the processing power of a chip doubling every 18 months. Technology was obsolete within days of hitting the streets. Smaller, more powerful processors meant that you could put them in more and more things. By the 90s, they were in toys, in radios, in toasters; by the turn of the century, computers were in shoes, clothes, even inside of us in medical implants.

At some point, some small impossibly insignificant moment, we abandoned macro science for micro science. Rocketry, super-engineering and atomic energy gave way to digital devices, genetic engineering and sustainable, low-impact energy sources.

You might be curious why the two things I mentioned at the start had synchronicity for me. It is the trading of big, real, important science and engineering for frivolous and consumeristic pursuits. I can almost guarantee you that Apple spent more money on the iPad than the Russians spent to put Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin into space. The element of profit has changed everything with technological development.

I think I’ve said all of this before, but I’ll keep saying it for as long as I live.

We traded in our jetpack and rocket cars for an iPhone and Avatar in IMAX 3-D. And there’s no right or wrong to this, just simply a nagging doubt in the back of my head about what could have been.

That’s Newtons formula for acceleration, the converse of his formula for force, F=ma.

The variables are a for acceleration, F for the force applied to the object, and m for the mass of that object.

Of course, there are a lot more equations that can explain acceleration in more detail, and account for its varied forms (dynamic, constant, centripetal, etc), but this is the one I’m going to use for today’s random thought.

The speed of events in the world is increasing. That’s an irrefutable facts. Things are happening faster, everything, anything, what ever you can think of, it happens faster than it did a century ago, a half-century ago, a decade ago, maybe even a year ago. This is the acceleration of modern life.

We’ll refer to it as aml.

That leaves two parts to the equation, the force and the mass.

The force, is, at the root, the advancement of our knowledge. Both in the breadth of what we know, and the depth of what we know about what we know. The rule of thumb for knowledge is that what we know is doubling every ten years. So, linear growth. That’s not to say that we’re going to make twice as many brilliant discoveries as we did in the last last decade, because a lot of what we’re learning is pointless mundane shit. We’re learning tons about how people interact with digital devices right now, but that’s not going to solve the world’s problems or give us limitless clean energy. It will just make the next generation of iPhone more attractive than last year’s model. But, there are some real advancements, and they compound on existing knowledge.

Discovering lighter alloy metals makes airplanes faster and more fuel efficient, so they can travel farther for less money. Discovering new ways to increase the density of batteries increases the usefulness of everything from electric vehicles to laptop computers to vibrators. And I don’t even know where to begin with the Internet. Things are moving so much faster every year that it is only a matter of time before the entire industrialized world is blanketed under a sheet of high-speed wifi. Right now, from my $99 iPhone, I can download an app that lets me call Korea, for FREE, over the Internet. For less than the price of a nice pair of sneakers, I can talk to some one literally on the other side of the planet.

We’ll call our force the force of knowledge.

Fk

That leaves mass.

The average weight of a human being is around 160lbs. That’s taking both men and women into account. All of the force of knowledge built up by the summation of human existence, and it only has to move less than 200lbs.

I’m not meaning that as a piss answer, either. The reason that Gutenberg printing press was such a big deal was because it enabled more people to have copies of a book, in most cases a Bible. Give a missionary a Gutenberg Bible, a direction and send him off to spread the Word. He’s dead? Eaten by cannibalistic Slavs? Oh well! Print another Bible and get another acolyte!

It only takes one person with an idea to tell another person about that idea. From there, you’ve got the magnifying effect of word of mouth. Bloggers are the modern day Gutenberg presses. They are the individual advocates of ideas that spread them to the masses, who in turn spread word about that blog. Professional news sources are turning more and more to individual bloggers for editorial and news content. Just like a missionary wandering into a town, a single blogger, at the right moment in time, with the right thing to say, can change the world for everyone.

So, for our mass, let’s go with the mass of a human.

mh

Making our final formula aml=Fk/mh

The acceleration of modern life is equal to the force of knowledge divided by the mass of a human.

And the point and impetus to all of this?

The Massachusetts senatorial election last night. Where a Republican swept the Democrats out of a seat that had been under their control since World War II. There is potential for this to be the harbinger of a Democratic slaughter come the 2010 midterm elections. I’m not going to go down the political rabbit hole right now, but I do wonder what is going to happen as the political pendulum speeds up. Just this time last year we were all screaming our undying love for Obama (ok, those of us not decrying him as a demon Muslim socialist), and now we’re already predicting his ideology’s imminent doom. If changes in the political wind can happen this fast now, what happens as they get faster and faster? What if the country can go from Red to Blue to Red in a single week? Or day? Or hour?

Think about this economically, too. The economic collapse of the last three years is more or less over, and we’re digging out from under it right now. Three years it lasted, on the outside. The Great Depression? Oh, about a decade. It might have lasted even longer if the war hadn’t happened. This is entirely due to the speed at which financial transactions can happen now. No more waiting for wires from across the Atlantic. You can have real-time satellite connections to any bank in the world from any place in the world. Give me a satellite phone on the top of Mount Everest and I can apply for a Visa card. There’s an entire business model that revolves around banks of supercomputers making billions of stock transactions a day, buying and selling on marginal increases and decreases in the value of the stock, slowly but surely inflating the market with machine trading instead of human trading. Which is only possible because of the speed at which information moves these days.

What makes me wonder what’s going to happen as things keep speeding up, but our biology doesn’t. Eventually things happening so fast are going to have a detrimental affect on us. We’ll be overloaded with information and be completely unable to function because we’re drowning in data. You can’t decide if the choice keeps changing, you know?

Just something to muse about. The math of change. The formula for progression.

aml=Fk/mh

Accelerate.

Did you ever watch a TV show that started off really great with an interesting plot and dynamic characters, only to have it take a nose dive into Crapsville, but you couldn’t make yourself stop watching because you were “invested” in it?

(Surprisingly enough, I’m not talking about HEROES.)

(ZING!)

I’m using invested here in both a literal and a figurative sense.

I’ll start with figuratively.

Apple’s iPhone has the current cultural cache of identity when people think of smartphones. If some one is using a data device on television, it’s an iPhone (unless a carrier besides AT&T is a sponsor). In less than four years, Apple has completely taken over the smartphone industry, and blown the market wide open in the process. More and more people are getting iPhones, and nearly everyone who has an iPhone is getting apps for that iPhone. This process of adding to the phone makes it a more personal device for that user. It may start out like everyone else’s, but given a few days or weeks, that phone and the content and applications on it is unique to that person. It is the telecommunications equivalent to a pair of custom-made Chuck Taylors. People become invested in their iPhones, some even become addicted to them. Hell, my girlfriend’s barely had her for two months and she can’t be away from the thing. This is what Apple wants since it is a sign of a good product and fosters brand loyalty like nothing else.

The literal side of investment is in those little app that people are using to make their iPhones unique to them. Some of them are free, a lot of them are paid, and nearly all of the good ones are paid. Me? I’ve laid out at most twenty bucks in the two years I’ve had my phone. My roommate? Close to a hundred in less than half that amount of time. Those two dollar amounts are both investments we’ve made in our phones that we would lose if we ever swapped platforms. You see, all of those apps that I love are trapped inside of Apple’s cleverly designed web. I can’t trade in my iPhone version of an app for, say, the Android version of that same app. So, even if an amazing Android phone dropped today, you’d have to count the cost of buying all of those apps you love against the price of the new phone. The longer people go with Apple’s iPhone, the harder it will be for them to change to another platform when Apple’s star eventually wanes, as has happened before and will happen again.

An interesting corollary to this, but a man recently sold his Steam account (a digital distribution system for video games) for $1000. Now what did the person who bought this account on eBay get besides a username and a password? Access to every video game that person had purchased through Steam. 139 of them, to be exact, worth approximately $2700 new. The question is, how long until people start selling fully loaded iTunes accounts with all of the apps you’ve bought as p packaged item?

Gutenberg. Curie. Mendel. Newton. Franklin. Pasteur. da Vinci. Von Braun

These are the names of individuals who changed the face, the very notion, of invention and science by themselves.

But, I can’t think of anyone in the last twenty, thirty, even forty years, who deserves to be put in the same context as the people above.

Yet, we’re progressing faster than we ever have before. It seems counter-intuitive. We’re speeding up without any visionaries to accelerate us. Why? How? And ultimately, what does it mean for the future?

I think the answer to why we’re speeding up without the input of world changing minds like the list above is because we’re spreading the problems out of a much large number of minds. In computer science, they refer to this as distributed processing. You can’t afford one massive super-computer, but you’ve got an unused lab full of computers that are a generation or two old. So, you hook up all of those old machines and make each one of them work on a very small part of the problem. A dozen average machines doing the work of one powerful one. NASA and SETI have been using distributed networks to crunch the data from their telescopes for years. Instead of blowing their budget on a new Cray machine, they rely on the good will and spare computer cycles of a million nerds.

With the rapid growth of mass digital communication, social networking and wireless data transmission, the walls that exist between academic institutions across the planet have tumbled down. This giving researches previously impossible access to new people with new ideas and perspectives on their problems. Large problems are being broken down into smaller and smaller bits, and solved by teams and project groups instead of lone Renaissance men.

The shift away from individual thinkers to groups has widened the bottle neck on the creation of new ideas. But, not all of those new ideas are ultimately useful. The problem with using groups of people instead of individuals, is that groups inherently cost more. Which means they need more funding, which means that their research is probably going to have more commercial applications than not. You’ll be getting a new super iPhone before you get your flying car or jetpack, basically.

What I wonder about is what will happen if we lose this current inter-connectivity. Will the individual genius that is now dormant awaken again? Or has that part of us atrophied completely?



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