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25. 10

Portraits in courage

Written by: csik - Posted in: war, iraq, courage

Desiree Farooz confronts Condi, and other Code Pink activists get manhandled out of a public forum for… wearing pink? I know it’s after after Labor Day — and I’m a huge fan of Mr. Blackwell — but since when is that a crime?

From the voiceover:

“Damn. Damn.”

“Take her to the Hague!”

h/t Crooks and Liars

21. 10

I gotta get me the MIT Presidency!

Written by: csik - Posted in: Uncategorized


21. 10

On Dementia

Written by: csik - Posted in: Uncategorized

When the news of James Watson’s racist comments came out a few days ago, a close friend said “It’s remarkable how narrow intelligence can be.” Comparing this to Star Simpson’s adventures in airports, it’s clear what incredibly much more damage Watson has just done than a thousand Simpsons can do. I’d advise anyone whose fears of genetic technologies were placated by the pablum such scientists routinely spew about how it will all work out (MARKETS!) to start feeling a wee bit nervous again.

What a striking contrast to this tour de force by Garry Kasparov. I knew this guy was a hero for simply opposing Putin, but I had no idea how incredibly _wise_ the guy was. This is the distinction: It’s easy, given the 6,602,224,175 (July 2007 est.) people in the world, to find some one who’s a fraction of a percentage point above the next smartest person on some narrow, easily measured dimension. Take, for example, someone who is good at a part of maths, or chess. In contrast, there are the holistically smart people who don’t have a narrow specialty. You’ve never heard of them. In rare, coincidental moments, there are people who are both wise and have an easily quantified skill. Thank you, Garry Kasparov. I hope you and your family die of natural causes.

3. 10

One mixture per child

Written by: csik - Posted in: iraq, genetics


It looks like the Iraq government is looking to eugenics to solve the issue of civil war (or what we, in polite U.S. society, term “sectarian violence”).

There’s now a cash bonus offered by the Iraqi government to couples that marry across religious divisions. In the U.S. perspective, this would be a bit like interracial marriage was in the 1960s.  I certainly can’t imagine the Johnson or Nixon administrations issuing rebates for what was then commonly termed “miscegenation” in some parts of the country.  And, sadly, neither can I imagine the current presidency supporting a fund for diverse marriage, even though it would have been a better policy than similar laws from the recent past.  Coincidence that exactly the voters that come from the “pure, unmolested” line leading from anti-abolitionism to the present also correlate strongly to those that support the war in Iraq? Contradictions don’t signify: up is down. (h/t Think Progress)

Anyone interested in the dynamics of government, perceived “race,” and economics should check out Troy Duster.

29. 09


Written by: csik - Posted in: art, robot, human rights, politechnics


This summer we began work on the third of three autonomous entities we’ve been developing with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and Renew Media. It’s an “unmanned surface vehicle,” or water robot, made for protests on or near aqueous points of interest . Of course, it’s too dangerous for people to do such protests, so we need robots.

It’s early days on the project, which is essentially control systems, power, and software to convert a commercially available $400 kayak. We are hoping for DIY imitations, and encouraging other technologists to get involved, as our resources are pretty limited. If you’re thinking about joining the effort, let me just assure you that nothing makes your month like building a robot kayak that demands the restoration of habeas corpus.

The project isn’t flip: there has been a lot of chatter that parts of the executive branch of the US Government are interested in closing down Guantanamo. It’s important that we keep this in the public consciousness, as — without pressure — it would be easy for the Bush administration to simply pack people up to various black sites to be tortured. I’d argue that it’s better that they come to the US, and we end this shell game. I’ve heard wingnuts argue that it’s too dangerous to bring “terrorists” to US soil, but I don’t understand that argument as we seem to be doing alright with the ones we already have.

Video of first tests here.

25. 09

MITERS Boy Makes Good

Written by: csik - Posted in: politechnics


It seems like just days ago that I was trying to explain the MITERS community, in light of Star Simpson’s misguided electronic jewelry mooninite event. Now comes news that Saul Griffith, former MITERS superstar, has just won a MacArthur Fellowship. Couldn’t have happened to a better guy. I’ve had the honor of knowing Saul when he was at MIT, but I have informants who tell me that as a teenager he was already absolutely devoted to becoming an engineer who would make the world a better place. He navigated through MIT trying to stay true to that dream, even though that’s not always the way to get ahead here. And he continued after his doctorate, working hard to fund work on renewable energy rather than doing weapons contracting, despite constant pressure and the promise of incredible profit.

Congrats to Saul.

22. 09

Star Simpson helps me reanimate my blog

Written by: csik - Posted in: human rights, US Dept of Injustice, "terror"


So I haven’t posted in, um, months. And for a couple weeks I’ve been thinking, “What should I post, after so long?”

Like angels descending to show me the way, yesterday morning some aggressive FOX journalists suddenly appeared. Averaging around 30 years old, and looking like college students having just woken from kegger-induced near-comas, they harassed me on my way into work. They were asking people what they thought about the student who built a bomb and took it to Logan: Liars. They furtively took my photo, so I less furtively returned the favor.


They were asking about Star Simpson, the unfortunate MIT student who traipsed into Logan Airport as if she were dressed for… well, dressed for a regular day at MIT. Her sweatshirt had messages about Course VI on it, and on the front a (scary!) 9v battery and a “protoboard“.

Where to start? I’ve met Star a few times, and she’s pretty normal for MIT. That’s not saying very normal.

She’s part of an extremely geeky, incredibly productive club at MIT called MITERS, the purpose of which is to hack, and to hack hard. I’m not that excited by most projects out of MITERS, as they are techno-fetishistic. There are a few exceptions: past members have used their skills for social causes like renewable energy. Overall, it’s a place where people revel in making ingenious, unusual gizmos, useless projects that could almost be called art, but aren’t involved in the discourse of art. But MITERS does allow MIT students to play with technology, and from play can come inspiration. Past members have started amazing companies, and become millionaires, in part because of hacks they discovered at MITERS.

MITERS is also the kind of place where people play with their technical identity, in the same way that artists discover their artistic identity, or new recruits become soldiers. MITERS students experiment with living a technical lifestyle: They hack their bikes, their computers, their dorm rooms, and their clothes. Sort of a nerd fraternity. And like many, many people around the world, they wear electronic jewelry and eTextiles. Star’s garb was comparatively primitive compared to the state of the art, but harmless and pretty normal.

Harmless is important. I’d imagine that a lot of people think it’s insane to wear, as AP described it, a hacked “computer circuit board” on one’s chest. The board in question had nothing to do with a computer. It was a prototyping board, an incredibly simple device that lets one plug chips or L.E.D.s into it. It is “passive,” meaning that it has no electronic function at all. It’s basically like a grid made of tin foil that lets one connect things to each other. There were a couple dozen wires in it, leading to a few L.E.D.s. My phone has about 5 L.E.D.s in it; my laptop dozens more. I have a watch with over a hundred L.E.D.s in it. (I’ve counted, and a Boston bridge mooninite has 178 L.E.D.s!) Finally, there was a 9v battery, far, far less powerful or dangerous than the battery in nearly any cell phone, and orders of magnitude less dangerous than the batteries in a laptop.

Every electrical engineering student in the country runs into one of these prototyping boards in there digital electronics class. Around much of MIT, they are more common than staplers, scissors, or rulers. For a 19 year old who was clearly comfortable with electronics from an early age, a prototyping board would look no more intimidating than a toothbrush. And for some MIT students, more familiar.

Let’s remember this: The 911 hijackers used boxcutters. I routinely wear a “leatherman” utility tool, which is more dangerous than a boxcutter. I have worn it when picking people up at the airport. When I travel, I check it under the plane. I have seen many people with leathermen or similar at the airport when picking people up.

The 411 train bombers in Madrid used cell phones. Ask yourself: Have you ever seen a cell phone being used in a plane terminal?

We’ve been warned that we must throw our liquids away before getting on the plane, as they may be mixed to make a bomb. But we’re allowed to carry them in airports when picking people up. Have you ever seen a water bottle in the airport?

Of course, the world doesn’t work from logic, and if there is one way that MIT consistently fails itself and its students, it’s by not disabusing them of that fact. The average person thinks of a bomb as a home-made contraption with wires sticking out of it. And, sadly, the average American probably thinks of a terrorist as either dressing funny (and possibly having a Euro accent, a la Diehard movies), or as being from the Middle East. (Personally, I’m scarred for people who look like Tim McVeigh. Actually, he looks a little bit like a Fox journalist!) Thankfully, it’s illegal to arrest some one who’s dark skinned or dresses funny. Should it be legal to prosecute some one for possessing something that looks nothing like a bomb?

Sure, Star was being kind of dumb. Or absentminded. But Norbert Wiener, one of the most famous professors from MIT, used to forget if he’d eaten lunch or not. After speaking to someone in the hallways, he would ask what direction he’d been walking when they’d met, so that he’d know if he was coming from or going to the canteen. I find that pretty dumb — MIT is full of people who are math smart but socially naive. That’s why we have a charm school — though not enough students enroll.

MIT issued a press release that described Star’s actions as “reckless, and [they] understandably created alarm at the airport.” It _is_ understandable that they created alarm. Airport personnel aren’t necessarily aware of what electronics look like, or can do. Police should be more aware, but they have a lot on their mind. But reckless is a strong word. Absentminded. I’d say out-of-it. But MIT should also have mentioned that the way Star was dressed is pretty normal for students here. And MIT should have said that the stuff that Star was wearing are significantly less dangerous than many of the things that people around her were carrying. She was singled out because she looked weird: This was about appearance, not threat.

The key is whether charges will be brought. Star’s outfit doesn’t look like a hoax bomb. It looks like tools we use every day at MIT, in nearly every introductory electronics class. Star’s sweatshirt looked like a $5 prototyping board — the very last thing anyone would put in a bomb. Just because the public has a misconception about how bombs look doesn’t mean that their misconception should lead to prosecution, any more than the misconception that Middle Eastern looking people might be terrorists should lead to their prosecution.

23. 07

Yellow redux

Written by: csik - Posted in: seeing yellow


Two nice articles about Seeing Yellow. Today, from Congressional Quarterly (which, apparently, %95 of the US Congress reads):

July 23, 2007

The Dot Matrix: How printers help federal agents and give privacy advocates fits
By Kathryn A. Wolfe, CQ Staff

What is your color laser printer telling the government about you?

Quite possibly a lot, according to digital privacy advocates. Pages generated by such printers often include a series of yellow dots invisible to the unassisted human eye — a sort of digital fingerprint that links any given printout to the place where it was generated….[snip]

And an excellent article from Linux Journal:

Seeing yellow over color printer tracking devices

A series of encodings on printouts from color laser printers to discourage counterfeiting? At first, the idea sounds like the urban legend from a couple of decades ago that claimed you could hear Satanic messages when you play vinyl records backwards. Yet the evidence from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is that the encodings are embedded in color printers from all major manufacturers. Moreover, the issues raised by the practice have caused Free Software Foundation director Benjamin Mako Hill and other members of the Computing Culture group at the MIT Media Lab to begin the Seeing Yellow campaign to stop the practice.

The campaign takes its name from the nature of the encoding, which takes the form of yellow dots printed across the entire page of a printout. The dots are invisible to the unaided eye, but can be seen by placing an intense blue LED light behind a printout in a darkened room. Alternatively, the dots can be seen in a scanned copy of a printout with a resolution of at least 600dpi. They become even clearer when the scanned copy is opened in a graphics program like the GIMP, and only the blue channel is visible (Dialogues -> Channels). However, for the most part, the public can only guess what information is carried by the yellow dots.

In fact, except for Toshiba, whose documentation mentions an unspecified tracking device for printouts, most manufacturers do nothing to make consumers aware that their printouts can be tracked.

In addition to the inability to consent to being monitored, the situation also raises issues about privacy and the right to anonymity. Pointing out that the eighteenth century Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 letters that advocated ratification of the American Constitution, were originally published anonymously, Hill says, “It’s perfectly legitimate for people to want communicate anonymously. Anonymity is absolutely essential to democracy. The [Federalist Papers] are an example of how anonymous communication can lead to some of the most important political changes.”

Hill goes on to note, that, ironically, that people who have written to the campaign insisting that the innocent have nothing to worry about take good care to remain anonymous themselves. Even Hewlett-Packard employees responding to privacy concerns, he says, sign their emails not with their names, but simply with “Privacy.” “It’s funny,” Hill says, “But people are choosing to remain anonymous while telling me that people shouldn’t do that.”

The immediate impetus for the campaign was a report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that one man who contacted his printer manufacturer for information about how to turn the tracking device off soon found himself being questioned by the U.S. Secret Service. By contrast, Hill says, “We want it to be perfectly normal to complain about the lack of anonymity.”


23. 07

Lipstick on a pig

Written by: csik - Posted in: violent products, war, defense, iraq


The RAND Corporation, always a great source of ethical thought in the world, has proudly finished another one of its blockbusters. This position paper, for the US Joint Forces Command, describes how the US military can borrow techniques from the compliance industries to help it “sell” war to the lucky consumers of its counterinsurgency operations. Finally, a three hundred page document arguing that you can put lipstick on a pig.

Here’s a thought: Why don’t those serving in the military actively question and contradict their commander in chief? That was the point of Nuremberg, wasn’t it? I salute the retired generals who have spoken out against the war, and those few active service members as well, but it’s time for massive action from within.

23. 07

On drugs

Written by: csik - Posted in: product, pharma


This story should come as no surprise; cases of corrupt and grotesque drug trial abuses like this have been leaking out of Africa for years. It’s a great example of how corruption happens differently in different places; in Nigeria it’s bottom-up, while in the US (as Wolfowitz so aptly demonstrated) it’s top-down. I know that I wouldn’t want to have my health options to be based on killing children in another part of the world. But this isn’t about health, it’s about profit.

Several friends and I have been discussing open-source models for Stage 3 clinical trials. Distributing the trials across to volunteer doctors who are really trying to improve things, rather than to pharma -run or -bought clinics, would be a good start. Abuses would be possible, but less likely to happen.

18. 07

Fiddeling while it burns…

Written by: csik - Posted in: war, defense, iraq


As a teenager, I remember being struck by a statistic from those “brighter tomorrow” 80’s when it was reported that under Reagan’s defense increases the budget for military bands dramatically exceeded that of the National Endowment for the Arts. It seemed preposterous at the time. In retrospect, we didn’t know from preposterous.

Foreign Policy passport reports that the D.OD has more musicians than the State Department has diplomats. Normally I’d say that more music was a recipe for success, but those martial tunes (with a few exceptions) don’t win friends or influence people. Too much syncopation, corny standards, blaring orchestration with little dynamic subtlety. In fact, the more I think of it, the more I realize how the military can save money that can instead go toward diplomacy. The solution even has an appropriately martial name: General Midi.

15. 07

Not so yellow!

Written by: csik - Posted in: Uncategorized

Amazingly, over 300 580 13278 people have called their printer manufacturers in just a few days. Brave, sexy, patriotic people! Don’t stop now — and tell a friend.


Notes from a lab for art, technology, and activism.

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