Tech, Linked

We’re reading up on TRANSHUMANISM (Paul Graham Raven/Arc)

A recent Wired article led me to this piece by Paul Graham Raven reviewing a pair of books on transhumanism. The whole piece is worth reading for his incisive commentary on the books' contents, as well as his thoughts on transhumanism as a whole.

Here's an excerpt I found particularly interesting (italics his, bolding mine):

What is absent from this book, and from the transhumanism it defines, is community, society. Oh, there’s talk of the transhuman community, of course (when a transhumanist says “we", they don’t mean you unless you’re also a card-carrier), and society gets a few passing mentions, albeit usually as the source of restrictive regulatory practices and unjust laws impinging on the sovereignty of the individual. But transhumanist doctrine itself does not necessarily extend beyond the body of the transhumanist; so long as the transhumanist is permitted their transhumanity, then the rest of the world can go whistle. This is the shell-game of morphological freedom, wherein the transhumanist graciously concedes that they have no right to tell you what to do with your physicality or mind, just so long as you can’t stop them doing what they want to themselves. You look after yourself, I’ll look after me; what could be fairer than that?

In a world less structurally unfair than the one I currently find myself inhabiting, that principle might do just fine. But what it lacks, what transhumanism lacks, and what the Californian ideology which underpins transhumanism lacks, is any sense of responsibility for the consequences of your actions upon others. It’s not even that the questions are so new or hard to formulate; the social sciences are grappling hard with them as we speak, in an attempt to resolve the paradox of a world where transhumanists can talk blithely about “improving" and “extending" human capacities without addressing the questions of where the implied baseline is and who gets to police it, and where politicians can talk about market-enabled choice and “diverse healthcare outcomes" while framing disability or long-term illness as one of many ways that the feckless supposedly sponge off of the state. It’s as a part of this globally diffuse paradigm of me-first-why-not privilege that transhumanism starts to look less like an oddball cybercultural anomaly and more like yet another proxy front for oligarchy-as-usual. As James Bridle says, “technology is the reification and instrumentalisation of human desires"; nowhere is that more plain to see than transhumanism.

And the kicker, when it comes to the transhumanist imperative of expanding technologies to improve human life:

Well, I have good news: it turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here! You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education.

Tech, Linked

FBI: Common scanning tools used to target state election systems (Steve Ragan/CSO)


In late June, early-July, the Arizona Secretary of State's office closed down the state's voter registration system after someone compromised valid credentials and used them to access the system.
Shortly after that incident, on July 12, someone exploited the Illinois Voter Registration System (IVRS). According to Ken Menzel, the general counsel for the Illinois board of elections, the attackers were able to exploit "a chink in the armor in one small data field in the online registration system."


Voter registration system attacks illustrate something important about voting security: attackers can still do national-scale damage by attacking less fortified local targets, without having to physically go hyper-local.

Individual legislators change the balance of power, both nationwide and statewide. Seemingly small decisions can have major impacts on regional economies and the moves of multinational corporations.

See the recent decision by Waitsburg, Washington's city council to block the construction of a Nestlé bottled water plant in their town. It's not clear what Nestlé will do as a result, but that one small decision

Now, imagine all of the different ways it's possible to mess with that election. What happens if an attacker finds a way to drop half of all voters from the rolls, or manages to delay or block delivery of vote-by-mail ballots?

We’re now in a world where it’s important for national governments to fund local governments' information security efforts, before something catastrophic happens.  Welcome to the future. 

Tech, How-to

How to make OmniFocus and Windows live in quasi-harmony using Exchange

As part of my new gig, I get to spend some time working on a Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10. That in and of itself is actually rather enjoyable, but when I try marrying my love for iOS-centric productivity tools with my newfound computing platform, things get a bit…messy.

Luckily, there's Breevy for all my text expansion needs, and 1Password has a Windows client. But there's one app that I rely on that doesn't have a presence (or a truly compatible counterpart) on Windows: OmniFocus.

OmniFocus is where my entire life exists in to-do list form. I rely on it to keep up with everything I do, and it's often one of the first apps I check in the morning, and one of the last ones I check at night. It's also incredibly complex -- it's possible to sort different tasks by project, context and even combine whole groups of them into particular perspectives. In other words, migrating to a new, cross-platform to-do list system isn't in the cards for me either.

To make OmniFocus work with the Surface, I tied together a bunch of different features that means I can now use Outlook on my Surface as an inbox for to-do list items that show up on my Macs and iOS devices. To set things up, you'll need an Exchange account, Outlook for Windows, and OmniFocus for iOS.

Step 1: Hook your iPhone or iPad up to the Exchange account, and make sure that the account is enabled to handle tasks. That should create a to-do list in Apple's built-in Reminders app for iOS called "Tasks" that syncs with the list of tasks in your exchange account. (It's easy enough to test this by adding a task in Outlook and seeing if it shows up on your iPhone.

Step 2: Open OmniFocus on your iPhone or iPad, and go to Settings > Capture Reminders. Toggle "Reminders Capture" on, and then check the Tasks list in the list of possible reminders. Now, whenever you add a task in Outlook, it should sync to the iPhone, and then add itself to OmniFocus's inbox.

Step 3: To take that one step further, it's possible to use Siri to add tasks to the OmniFocus inbox by going to Settings > Reminders > Default List and setting Tasks as the default list. Now, when you say "Hey Siri, remind me to take out the trash," Apple's virtual assistant will create a "Take out the trash" reminder in the Tasks list, which will then sync to OmniFocus!

It's not a fully-featured OmniFocus client on my Surface (which I would love) but for me, it's the next best thing.

Linked, Tech

Clinkle Implodes As Employees Quit In Protest Of CEO (Josh Constine/TechCrunch)

Founded at Stanford in 2011 by Duplan when he was just 19, Clinkle amassed a team of smart, driven students at the college despite refusing to show many a working prototype. Duplan’s co-founders Frank Li and Jason Riggs have both since parted ways with Clinkle.

Yet suddenly, the startup was the talk of the town when it managed to raise $25 million in seed funding in June 2013 from top investors including Peter Thiel, Andreessen Horowitz, Marc Benioff, Jim Bryer, Accel Ventures and Index Partners.

But rather than a traditional-priced seed round for equity, sources say Duplan structured the financing as convertible debt. One outcome of that was that Clinkle didn’t need to allow an investor on its board of directors, limiting oversight and keeping Duplan in firm control. The round was raised in small amounts from a large number of investors, which also kept anyone from dedicating more time to guiding Clinkle. Duplan secured another $5 million a few months later bringing Clinkle to over $30 million in funding.

A cautionary tale of woe from TechCrunch's Josh Constine. The story of Clinkle seems to be a crystal-clear example of what happens when someone takes all the wrong lessons from the tech giants of the past 40 years and then...fails miserably.

The founders of Facebook and Google all structured the ownership of their companies so that they could retain total control, even after going public. To me, that always seemed like a response to Steve Jobs's ouster at Apple (and less high-profile examples of the same behavior), which clearly worked out well for Page, Brin and Zuckerberg. On the flipside, we have Lucas Duplan, who structured his funding so that he could retain total control of the company, but didn't have a product, evidently couldn't keep a team together, and seems to have been missing some of the opportunities for advice and growth that come from bringing on more involved investors.

Now, Clinkle is circling the drain, and it seems the only question remaining for the company is how bad its outcome will be.

It's interesting to see this dovetail with Nellie Bowles's reporting on the teens of Silicon Valley. There's a group of young folk who have decided to come out to the Valley to try and strike it rich as startup employees or entrepreneurs, and they're being courted by venture capitalists and Valley luminaries out to harness the next Facebook, Google or Uber.

In the context of Clinkle, I found this quote from Kristina Varshavskaya (who left home in New Jersey when she was 17 to join her sister at Wanelo) particularly illuminating:

“I’ll either meet people who will fetishize it or will dismiss it. The fetish is kind of weird,” Varshavskaya says. “The group of young guys here. A lot of them are treated like gods and wizards and heroes, and all the venture capitalists are waiting for their next magic thing, but they’re not doing anything that special. They’re just really young. I include myself in that.”

Linked, Tech

Which Women in Tech? (Nicole Sanchez)

History has taught us that diversification efforts (ie: initiatives to correct systemic inequalities) unfold like this: White men “let” white women into the halls of power they created, and little changes for the rest of us. Such is the case in politics, in elite universities, and in corporate America.

This pattern is currently repeating itself in tech, with Silicon Valley luminaries and media applauding “change” and pointing to a handful of highly successful white, well-networked women as the vanguards. As such, all women working in this field are expected to rejoice over Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer and take advice from them on how to replicate their success.

But something that everyone paying attention to diversity in tech needs to understand is this: White women speaking for us as representatives of the “diversity in tech” movement must stop. White women are a small sliver of the available talent, but are currently used as the proxy for all diversity. What works for them is not what works for us.

Important stuff for everyone to think about when we discuss diversity in tech. Coupled with Amelia Greenhall's piece about Vivek Wadhwa, it was an important reminder to me that people like yours truly in positions of privilege have a responsibility to center the voices of people who don't.

Linked, Tech

Illinois Says Rule-Breaking Students Must Give Teachers Their Facebook Passwords (Motherboard)

School districts in Illinois are telling parents that a new law may require school officials to demand the social media passwords of students if they are suspected in cyberbullying cases or are otherwise suspected of breaking school rules.

The law, which went into effect on January 1, defines cyberbullying and makes harassment on Facebook, Twitter, or via other digital means a violation of the state's school code, even if the bullying happens outside of school hours.

A letter sent out to parents in the Triad Community Unit School District #2, a district located just over the Missouri-Illinois line near St. Louis, that was obtained by Motherboard says that school officials can demand students give them their passwords.

Does anyone still wonder why Snapchat, YikYak and other "disappearing" and "anonymous" message apps* are popular with The Kids? Stuff like this is why.

But there's a larger problem at work here, too: how can we help students who are being bullied through technological means, without giving administrators the power to be needlessly invasive?

* Scare quotes added for the purpose of noting that content shared through those apps is usually neither truly anonymous nor can it be guaranteed to disappear.

Tech, Linked

A Spy in the Machine: How a brutal government used cutting-edge spyware to hijack one activist's life (The Verge)

An investigation would later reveal that Moosa’s online life was hijacked for eight months. All signs pointed to Bahrain as the culprit, and FinFisher, a mysterious spyware for-hire tool, as the weapon of choice.

This investigation into the use of FinFisher by the Bahrain government (and others around the world) is an important read. It's a good example of what happens when you give oppressive governments the ability to buy powerful spyware tools.

While the company that makes FinFisher has denied selling it to Bahrain, this is a toolkit that makes it easy for wealthy actors to spy on people without having to home-brew the technical know how to do it. If that doesn't spook you a bit, well, I don't know what will.

Tech, Linked

An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media (danah boyd)

danah boyd on Medium:

Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background.

I've found boyd to be one of the most whip-smart writers on teens' use of social media, and this piece is a worthwhile read for anyone who read or shared the Medium post by a teenager about how he and his peers use social media. His is only one side of the story.


Two short tidbits on music

Why Daft Punk’s Grammy night performance was so amazing

I nearly teared up watching Daft Punk’s performance at the Grammys last weekend. Seriously.

The robots’ live shows are legendary, and for good reason: Their studio material is frequently excellent, but it’s not always super-complex. But when they play live, they often end up mixing two or three tracks together in a way that just…fits and creates something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The duo’s performance on the Grammy stage showed that they still have a feel for playing live, but more importantly, it showed the sort of potential that is nestled inside Random Access Memories.

For those who couldn’t tell, here’s a list of everything that was mixed into the performance:

  • Get Lucky
  • Harder Better Faster Stronger
  • Lose Yourself to Dance
  • Le Freak (originally by Chic)
  • Another Star (by Stevie Wonder)
  • Around the World

It’s a lot. But that’s what I find so amazing about Daft Punk: they create these performances that feel effortless, even when they’re bringing together so many different tracks from different eras.

When rumors of a potential RAM toor floated prior to the album’s launch, the rumor mill said that one potential complication would be getting the duo, who have typically played alone, atop a giant pyramid, onto the same stage with a live band.

What we saw last weekend appears to be proof that would work. And it would be awesome. RAM may have taken home album of the year, but it’s clear that this material has legs beyond what Daft Punk has done with it so far.

Streaming music has finally made it

I’m standing at my desk writing this piece while listening to the soundtrack from The Social Network. I’ve never heard it before, and it’s probably not something I’d drop $8 on. But I get to give it a try all the way through with Rdio.

Here’s the thing: without the current confluence of technologies, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as interested in throwing down $10 a month on streaming music. Here’s what it took:

  • Internet connections have gotten better.
  • Connected devices have become more prevalent, and cellular connections got a lot faster.
  • Rightsholders have finally gotten on board with offering their catalog for unlimited online streaming.

All of that adds up to an era when it makes sense to plunk down $10 a month for music streaming rather than spending the same amount (or more) on albums. Sure, if I stop subscribing to Rdio, I lose out on listening to the music that I don’t own, but the upside is that I get to listen to stuff that I would otherwise overlook because it wouldn’t be worth a purchase.

Because rightsholders have, with a few exceptions, been licensing their content broadly, I really don’t miss all that much if I switch services, either, save for my playlists, which are seemingly impossible to share between services.

If nothing else, I think that the rise of Rdio and other services like it should be enough to give terrestrial radio companies pause. Streaming services offer users the best of so many worlds, including the ability to stream the music they want, as well as the ability to switch on a radio service that’s ad-free, and based on only what they want to listen to.

Also, if you haven't given Rdio, Spotify, or one of those other services a shot, try them. I know my life has been better for it.