A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Technology to the Rescue

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One of the reasons that the State fails to maintain its control is because it’s competing with the creative potential of every human on Earth. Let’s take the drug war. The federal government of the United States has been dealt significant blows in its crusade against cannabis in recent years as individual states have legalized consumption of the plant either entirely or in approved manners. Hoping to regain some semblance of control, the feds tried to use their influence on the banking industry to make life difficult for cannabis related businesses. However, the centralized banking system isn’t as powerful as it once was:

Enter bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that consists of digital coins “mined” by computers solving increasingly complex math problems. At least two financial-technology startups, POSaBIT and SinglePoint Inc., use the cryptocurrency as an intermediate step that lets pot connoisseurs use their bank-issued credit cards to buy weed.

[…]

Once a customer decides on which marijuana product to buy, an employee asks if he or she would like to use cash or digital currency, Lai said. If the buyer prefers the latter, the Trove employee explains that the customer can use a credit card to buy bitcoin through a POSaBIT kiosk, with a $2 transaction fee tacked on.

The customer, who would now own bitcoin equal to the value of the purchase, can then redeem the currency in the store. Or the buyer can keep their bitcoin and use it anywhere else that accepts the currency. If the customer finishes the purchase in the store, POSaBIT, which pockets the transaction fee, then sends the value in U.S. dollars to Trove’s bank account.

Cryptocurrencies have been making the State red in the face ever since the first person realized that they could be combined with hidden services to perform anonymous online transactions. Now they’re disrupting the fed’s war on drugs in the physical world in states where cannabis has been legalized.

Cryptocurrencies are a technology gun stores should also be looking into. Banks have been closing the accounts of many businesses tied to the gun market. Technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum could allow these businesses to circumvent the need for centralized banks by either utilizing an intermediary like the cannabis industry is starting to do or by being a direct store of wealth outside of a third party’s control.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 15th, 2017 at 11:00 am

Government Holds Everything Back

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What if I told you that we could have had cellular technology as far back as 1947 if the government hadn’t interfered? You’d probably label me a cooky conspiracy theorist and file me with the people who say that we could have had electric cars decades ago if it weren’t for oil companies. But a conspiracy theory ceases to be a theory when it turns out to be true:

When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not “in the nature of convenience or luxury.” This view—that this would be a niche service for a tiny user base—persisted well into the 1980s. “Land mobile,” the generic category that covered cellular, was far down on the FCC’s list of priorities. In 1949, it was assigned just 4.7 percent of the spectrum in the relevant range. Broadcast TV was allotted 59.2 percent, and government uses got one-quarter.

Television broadcasting had become the FCC’s mission, and land mobile was a lark. Yet Americans could have enjoyed all the broadcasts they would watch in, say, 1960 and had cellular phone service too. Instead, TV was allocated far more bandwidth than it ever used, with enormous deserts of vacant television assignments—a vast wasteland, if you will—blocking mobile wireless for more than a generation.

The Fascist Communications Club Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was granted a monopoly on electromagnetic spectrum by the United States government (or, in other words. the government granted a monopoly to itself). Through this monopoly the FCC enjoyed and still enjoys life or death powers over a great deal of technology. Back in 1947 when AT&T wanted to develop cellular technology the FCC decided the technology should die. As television became more popular the FCC decided that the technology should live. It didn’t matter that there was enough spectrum for both technologies to coexist, the FCC wanted one to live and the other to die so it was made so.

The FCC’s power isn’t unique, it’s the inevitable result of any monopolized authority. Cannabis, a plant that shows a great deal of promise in the medical field, is prohibited because the United States government has a monopoly on what you can and cannot legally put into your own body. A lot of drugs and other medical technologies either don’t make it into the United States or are delayed for years because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been given a monopoly on deciding which medical technologies are legal and illegal.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 13th, 2017 at 11:00 am

What Could Kill Bitcoin

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I greatly appreciate Bitcoin. By enabling pseudonymous transactions it has made many forms of commerce, specifically those deemed illegal by various governments, easier. It also offers an opportunity for individuals to conceal at least some of their wealth from the State. However, Bitcoin exists in a market environment, which means a superior competing product could come along at any moment and topple it.

When Bitcoin first came on the scene its community promised low transaction fees. They often compared the transaction fees of, say, Western Union to the miner fees of Bitcoin for sending money across the globe. At the time sending money via Bitcoin was significantly cheaper.

Fast forward to today. The price of sending Bitcoin has skyrocketed. If you want a Bitcoin transaction to clear in a reasonable amount of time you’re looking at a transaction fee of over $2.00 (as of this writing). Why is this? It’s because the Bitcoin network is running into a block size ceiling problem. This problem has created an environment where more transaction are being made then can be processed so convincing miners to process your transaction requires offering a significant reward. No problem, right? It’s just the market at work after all.

It’s true, Bitcoin’s current state is an example of supply and demand. Demand has exceeded the supply of miners so the price to get transactions cleared has increased. But markets are finicky things. If enough people decide that they’re unwilling to spend $2.00 on a transaction fee for a $5.00 coffee they’re going to look for a better solution. Bitcoin isn’t the only cryptocurrency in town so failing to address the block size ceiling problem will likely encourage consumers to find an alternate cryptocurrency.

Considering this you would think that the Bitcoin community is working diligently to solve the problem, right? As it turns out, not so much. Now a lot of the Bitcoin community is changing its tune. Instead of addressing the issue they are denying the fact that low transaction fees were a selling feature of Bitcoin not too long ago. In addition to denying the past they’re trying to explain how high transaction fess are acceptable. I highly doubt most consumers see the “wisdom” in paying a $2.00 transaction fee to buy a $5.00 espresso at Starbucks. And that’s the thing, for a cryptocurrency to succeed it needs to be useful.

I can hear some Bitcoin advocate saying, “But, Chris, Bitcoin will simply become the new gold while another cryptocurrency will become its silver!” Gold and silver run into a divisibility problem. You can only divide gold so far until it becomes difficult to use. Nobody is going to pay for a coffee using gold dust because it’s a pain in the ass. Instead they use a less valuable metal, silver, for smaller payments. Cryptocurrencies don’t have this problem. You can divide a cryptocurrency down to as many decimal places as you want and it’ll be equally easy to use. Whether a cup of coffee costs me 1 Bitcoin or 0.000001 Bitcoin doesn’t make a usability difference to me. This means that any cryptocurrency that takes over Bitcoin’s current task of handling small transactions will likely rise to dominance overall.

Governments have been unable to destroy Bitcoin but the unwillingness of its community to address technical problems very well could lead to its destruction.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 1st, 2017 at 10:00 am

Rise of the Machines

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest topics in technology at the moment. If you listen to the people developing AIs, you will likely start to believe that they will solve all of the world’s problems. If you listen to the critics of AI, you will likely start to believe that they are the catalyst that will lead to a Terminator future.

AI probably won’t solve all of our problems but it probably won’t wipe our species out either. However, it is undeniable that algorithms are shaping our lives more and more. This isn’t a problem when those algorithms offer suggestions on what to read based on what you’re currently reading or what to buy based on what you’re currently buying. It is a problem when they decide whether or not you will be kept in a cage or not:

Police in Durham are preparing to go live with an artificial intelligence (AI) system designed to help officers decide whether or not a suspect should be kept in custody.

The system classifies suspects at a low, medium or high risk of offending and has been tested by the force.

It has been trained on five years’ of offending histories data.

The story cites the claimed accuracy rate of the AI as if a high accuracy rate should be enough for everybody to implicitly trust the system. But the system is proprietary so it’s impossible for outside parties to verify the claims of accuracy or to know how the system decides who should be kept in a cage. It’s also a black box. Can an officer override the system? If they can, does that override get included in the AI’s data that will color its future decisions? There are hundreds of questions one can ask but cannot answer about the system.

The problem with relying on AIs to make decisions about law and order is that the judicial system, at least in most so-called developed nations, is supposed to be transparent (although it usually isn’t). Proprietary systems aren’t transparent by definition, which makes them easier for the State to abuse.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 12th, 2017 at 10:00 am

How to Save Yourself $400

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How do you take a boring old consumer appliance like a juicer and spice it up? By putting a chip in it, of course! That is the philosophy behind most Internet of Things (IoT) products. But before you can toss a chip in you need to give the consumers a reason why having a chip in their appliance will literally revolutionize their Web 3.0 existences.

Juicero was yet another bad idea made possible by Silicon Valley venture capital. The idea was to take a regular juicer, make it not be a juicer, add Wi-Fi, and charge an arm and a leg for proprietary juice bags. Basically, it’s a juicer that doesn’t actually juice but includes a chip for Wi-Fi and DRM. But wait, there’s more! Not only does the product include a bunch of stupid features but it also costs an arm and a leg! However, some clever super elite hacker has already found a way to bypass the need for Juicero’s expensive appliance:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Apparently the “Steve Jobs of juicing perfection” didn’t have the resources to hire somebody who could foresee consumers just squeezing the proprietary juice bags. While there are a lot of valid criticisms against Steve Jobs, it’s difficult to deny that he had a knack for hiring talented people. Doug Evens, on the other hand, apparently lacks that knack. But he did managed to sucker $120 million out of backers so his ability to make money is certainly there.

Adding Internet connectivity makes sense for a lot of products but many IoT companies don’t seem to be asking why it makes sense to add connectivity to their products. Instead, they seem to be adding connectivity to regular products for marketing reasons (it’s not just a juicier, it’s a smart juicer) so consumers will buy them in spite of the other limitations put into place to lock users into the manufacturer’s “platform.” Fortunately, clever people tend to find ways to bypass the platform lock-in and all of us can laugh at $120 million being flushed down the toilet.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 20th, 2017 at 10:00 am

Once You Post Something Online It Exists Forever

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The University of California Berkeley posted 20,000 lectures online for free and there was great joy. Unfortunately, two students from another university decided to ruin the jovial atmosphere by brining a lawsuit against the university claiming that the videos weren’t accessible to everybody and therefore posting them was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The university ended up pulling the videos offline. While the two little bitches may have high-fived each other after their apparent victory, they were obviously too stupid to realize that the Internet is forever:

Today, the University of California at Berkeley has deleted 20,000 college lectures from its YouTube channel. Berkeley removed the videos because of a lawsuit brought by two students from another university under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We copied all 20,000 and are making them permanently available for free via LBRY.

This makes the videos freely available and discoverable by all, without reliance on any one entity to provide them (even us!).

The full catalog is over 4 TB and will be synced over the next several days.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Internet works.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 22nd, 2017 at 10:00 am

Convenient Technology… For the Police

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Axon, Tasers body camera division, has announced a new product. It’s a holster sensor that activates all nearby body cameras when an officer draws their firearm:

The Signal Sidearm, despite its slightly confusing name and provided artwork, isn’t a pricey, complex smart weapon, but rather a sensor that can be retrofitted into “most existing firearm holsters.” The sensor is powered by a coin cell battery that lasts approximately 1.5 years. It sounds like the sensor is technologically very simple, which hopefully means it’s also very reliable.

Body cams to be worn by more than 22,000 London cops after rollout delay
When a weapon is drawn from the holster, the Signal Sidearm tells any Axon camera within 30 feet to start recording. If there are multiple Axon cameras present, they all start recording, providing video footage from a variety of angles.

The sensor activates nearby body cameras after guns have been drawn so they won’t record whether the police unnecessarily escalated the situation to deadly force or not. That’s convenient.

As one of my friends commented, “Every technology deployed by the state will benefit the state, which is why we need our own technology.” If the State is willing to issue technology to police officers, such as body cameras, you know that technology will be of significant benefit to the State while being a significant detriment to you and me. Body cameras sound like a great technology for holding officers accountable but since the State controls all footage it’s trivial to disappear any inconvenient evidence while keeping evidence that allows the State to prosecute somebody.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 1st, 2017 at 10:30 am

Not All Anonymity is Created Equal

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Whenever I discuss secure communications I try to hammer home the difference between confidentiality and anonymity. Most popular secure communication services such as Signal and WhatsApp provide the former but not the latter. This means unauthorized users cannot read the communications but they can find out which parties are communicating.

Another thing I try to hammer home is that not all forms of anonymity are equal. Several services are claiming to offer anonymous communications. These services don’t claim to offer confidentiality, the posts are public, but they do claim to conceal your identity. However, they tend to use a loose definition of anonymity:

On Sunday, a North Carolina man named Garrett Grimsley made a public post on Whisper that sounded an awful lot like a threat. “Salam, some of you are alright,” the message read, “don’t go to [Raleigh suburb] Cary tomorrow.”

When one user asked for more information, Grimsley (who is white) responded with more Islamic terms. “For too long the the kuffar have spit in our faces and trampled our rights,” he wrote. “This cannot continue. I cannot speak of anything. Say your dua, sleep, and watch the news tomorrow.”

Within 24 hours, Grimsley was in jail. Tipped off by the user who responded, police ordered Whisper to hand over all IP addresses linked to the account. When the company complied, the IP address led them to Time Warner, Grimsley’s ISP, which then provided Grimsley’s address.

There’s a great deal of difference between anonymity as it pertains to other users and anonymity as it pertains to service providers. Whisper’s definition of anonymity is that users of the service can’t identify other users. Whisper itself can identify users. This is different than a Tor hidden service where the user can’t identify the service provider and the service provider can’t identify the user.

When you’re looking at communication services make sure you understand what is actually being offered before relying on it.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 23rd, 2017 at 10:00 am

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What Do You Own

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When you purchase a computer do you own it? What about your cell phone? Or your automobile? At one time the answer to these questions was an absolute yes. Today, not so much:

Cars, refrigerators, televisions, Barbie dolls. When people buy these everyday objects, they rarely give much thought to whether or not they own them. We pay for them, so we think of them as our property. And historically, with the exception of the occasional lease or rental, we owned our personal possessions. They were ours to use as we saw fit. They were free to be shared, resold, modified, or repaired. That expectation is a deeply held one. When manufacturers tried to leverage the DMCA to control how we used our printers and garage door openers, a big reason courts pushed back was that the effort was so unexpected, so out of step with our understanding of our relationship to the things we buy.

But in the decade or so that followed those first bumbling attempts, we’ve witnessed a subtler and more effective strategy for convincing people to cede control over everyday purchases. It relies less—or at least less obviously—on DRM and the threat of DMCA liability, and more on the appeal of new product features, and in particular those found in the smart devices that make up the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

I’ve annoyed many electrons criticizing the concept of intellectual property. The idea that somebody has a government granted monopoly on something simply because they were the first to receive a patent is absurd in my opinion. But we live with much more absurd ideas today. Due to the way software copyright and patent laws work, if a company loads software onto a device they can effectively prevent anybody from owning it. At most a buyer can acquire a limited use license for those devices.

Combining software copyright and patent laws with the Internet of Things (IoT) just amplifies this. Now there are a bunch of devices on the market that rely on continuous Internet access to the manufacturers’ servers. If the manufacture decides to drop support for the product it stops working. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) didn’t make it illegal for you to hack the device and load your own software onto it that allowed it to continue working.

Right now we’re dealing with relatively cheap IoT devices. If your $99 Internet connected thermostat stops working it sucks but it’s not something that is so expensive that it can’t be replaced. But what happens when IoT comes to, say, automobiles? What happens when critical functions on an automobile cease to work because the manufacturer decides to drop support for one of the Internet connected components. Suddenly you’re not talking about throwing away a $99 device but a machine that cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Although this scenario might sound absurd to some I guarantee that it will happen at some point if software copyright and patent laws continue to be enforced as they have been.

The Future is Awesome

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People don’t appreciate how awesome the future we live in today really is. Compare the life you live with the life lived by some of history’s wealthiest people:

If you were a 1916 American billionaire you could, of course, afford prime real-estate. You could afford a home on 5th Avenue or one overlooking the Pacific Ocean or one on your own tropical island somewhere (or all three). But when you traveled from your Manhattan digs to your west-coast palace, it would take a few days, and if you made that trip during the summer months, you’d likely not have air-conditioning in your private railroad car.

And while you might have air-conditioning in your New York home, many of the friends’ homes that you visit — as well as restaurants and business offices that you frequent — were not air-conditioned. In the winter, many were also poorly heated by today’s standards.

To travel to Europe took you several days. To get to foreign lands beyond Europe took you even longer.

Might you want to deliver a package or letter overnight from New York City to someone in Los Angeles? Sorry. Impossible.
You could neither listen to radio (the first commercial radio broadcast occurred in 1920) nor watch television. You could, however, afford the state-of-the-art phonograph of the era. (It wasn’t stereo, though. And — I feel certain — even today’s vinylphiles would prefer listening to music played off of a modern compact disc to listening to music played off of a 1916 phonograph record.) Obviously, you could not download music.”

While I spend a lot of time complaining about horrors statism has wrought upon us, we do live better today than anybody did in any point of history thanks to the wonders of the market. And since technology is cumulative the rate of advancement is even more rapid, which means our lives are improving faster than the lives of people in the past. For example, in my fairly short lifetime home Internet access went from nonexistent to dial-up to fiber directly into the home. The computing power available in my phone wasn’t available to the consumer market for any price when I was young. Even simple toys, such as Nerf guns, improve a lot since my childhood. Kids today have electrically powered fully automatic Nerf guns, something young me could only dream of. Although various diseases such as cancer are still a scourge our chances of surviving it have increased significantly.

While there’s a lot of terrible things going on in this world don’t forget that our present is an overall great time to be alive.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 22nd, 2017 at 10:00 am