The Net’s Good Old Boys (1)

Part 1: Hacking the Arpanet

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time before the Internet, a time when computers took up more space than the acolytes who tended to their needs. In the 70s I was one such boffin, a postgrad hacking FORTRAN in a university R&D lab. Computers then were still quite dear, and so we made do with terminals that sucked electrons from the teat of a minicomputer several blocks away through fiber cable. Our digital host had recently been hooked up to the Arpanet, the Internet’s predecessor, giving us real-time access to several dozen academic, government, and military computers scattered across the US. We used it to chat and exchange files and email with people we knew here and there, but mostly we wasted time and bandwidth psyching out the robot psychotherapist Eliza and playing text-based games like Adventure and Hunt the Wumpus, just like today’s youth do but more primitively.

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The Net’s Good Old Boys (2)

Part 2: If We Only Knew Then

Continued from Hacking the Arpanet

Although it seems like it, the Internet just didn’t assemble itself from a kit. Engineers made it. Engineers just want to design and build cool useful things. Generally they like this much more than repairing things they have sent into the world. And, for the most part, they are not wont to worry how their darlings might be used to destructive ends or what unforeseen consequences their adoption might occasion. Except for the evil ones, inventors steer clear of the dark side of their bright ideas as they push on to their next big thing.

Not that the rest of us can take much pride in foreseeing un-wished-for effects of technologies (or our actions, for that matter); due diligence is not most people’s thing. Somebody should be doing that but unless we engineer something, why should figuring out what could go wrong be our job? Well it is, because elites make rules, build stuff, and write code conducive to their own hegemonic aspirations. We the people are supposed to suck it all up without a peep, occasionally acknowledging that shit sometimes happens.

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Cutting Cords to Kurds: Facebook’s Foreign Policy

NOTE: This article has been updated to include subsequent events. It is also posted on CounterPunch.

One of my correspondents (let’s call her Jinwar), a supporter of autonomous areas in northwestern Kurdistan, notified me that Facebook had deleted her support group’s page plus her personal page as well those of others, requesting that the above graphic be shared widely on social media. (But before doing so, please read the last four paragraphs.)

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A.I. Enablers Gear Up to Assault Intellect

Perhaps you haven’t noticed the investor class getting all gung-ho these days over Artificial Intelligence (AI). Only a couple of decades ago, these same people dismissed AI because it wasn’t very useful yet. But that’s all changed due to advances in machine vision and learning, and now VCs, hedge funds, and most of the rest of the usual big-money suspects are salivating over prospects of automating most of the rest of the economy, even including agriculture.

Thanks to its clot of institutions of higher learning, Boston—my fair city—is littered with tech startups and factories that churn them out. They and the Hub’s cloud of serial investors have created a knot of compressed energy, the nexus of which one can find at a suite in Kendall Square—epicenter of Boston’s tech scene, featuring outposts of Google, Oracle, Facebook and Amazon, pharma firms like Merck and Novartis and a host of biotechy startups fed by MIT’s biomedical research complex, augmented by its AI and Media Labs—where every Thursday evening prime movers get together for suds and savvy strategizing at private oasis called Venture Café. Continue reading “A.I. Enablers Gear Up to Assault Intellect”

State of Emojincy⚠

Today we celebrate the release by Sony Pictures of “The Emoji Movie,” rated PG (for saucy language). Rush to see it before it sinks without a trace. One look at the animation’s trailer told me it’s everything I hoped it wouldn’t be. Okay, the characters look authentic and are well voiced by prominent actors, but finding Patrick Stewart reduced to playing a pile of poop  was particularly depressing. Basically the entire film is a promo for the eponymous app plus others for Google, Facebook, YouTube and DropBox. It is meant for children, of course, but the the protagonist is pathetic and the plot is a downer. Critics were sad-faced, to say the least, with reactions ranging from  to  to . Writing for rogerebert.com, critic Peter Sobczynski ended his review with

“The Emoji Movie” may be as depressing of a film experience as anything to come out this year but if the [lack of positive] reaction of the kids that I saw it with is any indication, there may be hope for the future after all.

We can hope against hope. The very fact that an emoji movie exists alarms me, but that it’s propaganda for big Internet brands hardly comes as a surprise. I guess I should get used to seeing more of that.

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Catch of the Day

Flash fiction from a while ago, refurbished and scanned for malware

As usual, Max was working late. Not so usual for the pair of quality engineers who had invaded his cubicle, waiting to be noticed. “Earth to Max,” one of them finally annouced.

       “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said,” he murmured, looking up from his tablet. His glasses were fogged from running through thickets of text and chasing after hyperlinks as he panned his face over to his two coworkers. His complexion seemed paler than usual.
       “I was trying to finger an entity that entered our room,” he said by way of an excuse. “Some of us think it’s an NSA droid.”
       His tone was hushed even though they were alone on the floor. Lakshmi asked “How can you tell it’s an agent, and how do you know it’s NSA?”
       Max glanced back to his screen. “It fits a profile, the way it insinuates itself. MrEd ID’ed it as the type that showed up in May trolling for Wikileaks sources.”
       Rob reiterated. “Anyway, I asked you how the tests were coming along. We need to validate the release tonight.”
       “It’ll happen. But this thing that barged into the chat room calling itself SkyRocket spooks me. Has to be disposed of.”
       “You’re sure?” Lakshmi asked, eyes imploring. “Can’t it wait?”
       “For what?” Max snapped back. “For them to bust us before we finish collecting evidence from the agency?”
       “About…?”
       “Can’t go there, Lakshmi. You know that. Just assume it involves the surveillance state peeking up your address.”
       Lakshmi sighed. “Okay, okay. We know you hack for freedom, but must you handle this thing now? We only have twelve hours to wrap testing and upload the release, you know.” Her fingers drummed out Helter Skelter on Max’s desk.
       Max was adamant. “Somebody needs to fire off Skyrocket, and I think I know how.” He punched some keys, stuffed his tablet into his backpack, and struggled up, his chair and his limbs creaking in unison. “Gotta go. Back in a few hours to mop up.”
       “Where are you going?” Rob asked. “Home?”
       “Norway, actually” was Max’s reply. “TTFN.”
       They stared after Max as he padded down the corridor. They had dropped by his cube to dope-slap him back to work. It hadn’t worked.
       Rob growled “I guess we gotta run his test code, if we can figure out how. Let’s hope it doesn’t find too many bugs.”

Max hurried through the parking lot to his car, unholstering his cell phone to dash off a message. When a response beeped he cranked the engine and lurched onto the highway. Fifty minutes later his wheels were two counties away. His mind was elsewhere, but the GPS kept him on course.

At daybreak, Lakshmi and Rob were still in his cubicle sorting through test logs when Max waddled in clutching a coffee cup.
       “How was Norway?” inquired Lakshmi. “Catch any fish?”
       “Big ones,” Max purred through a yawn.
       “Cut bait,” Rob demanded. “Where did you really go?”
       “I needed to visit a friend of mine. He has this really obscure tap into the Net. I couldn’t risk using my connection.”
       Lakshmi tossed her hair. “In Norway, right?”
       “No, but the proxy server we hooked into is, and it spoofed an IP address for us inside the FBI.”
       “Then what?”
       “So I suckered Skyrocket into a private chat room and told him Israel was collecting certain stuff they had no need to know and offered a few tidbits. When they analyze what went down between us, NSA will see Skyrocket debriefing some rogue FBI agent. Just a little red herring to keep them off balance until we’re ready to reveal all.”
       Creaking into his seat, Max continued, “Now let me run the other tests you should have done while you go fix whatever bugs you found.” Max—or at least his body—was back.

A Cowbird Walks out of a Bar…

For close to five years I have been a member of an online community of writers called for no compelling reason cowbird.com, which grew to encompass 14,000+ writers who put out almost 90,000 stories, all tagged and organized, most with images, some with audio. Members could love and comment on stories and privately message one another. It was a happening place for authors and visual artists

Yesterday, Cowbird turned to stone. The writers and the stories will remain, but authors and readers can no longer interact and no new stories can be posted. Instead of being a living “library of human experience” it’s become the library’s archives. Continue reading “A Cowbird Walks out of a Bar…”