Is your smartphone betraying you?JUL 21

Introspection Engine

Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang are working on a system to help smartphone users determine whether their phones can be tracked. Their aim is to protect journalists from being detected while they're in the field.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been working with prominent hardware hacker Andrew "Bunnie" Huang to solve this problem. The pair are developing a way for potentially imperiled smartphone users to monitor whether their devices are making any potentially compromising radio transmissions. They argue that a smartphone's user interface can't be relied to tell you the truth about that state of its radios. Their initial prototyping work uses an iPhone 6.

"We have to ensure that journalists can investigate and find the truth, even in areas where governments prefer they don't," Snowden told me in a video interview. "It's basically to make the phone work for you, how you want it, when you want it, but only when."

They are calling the device an introspection engine:1

Snowden and Huang are calling this device an "introspection engine" because it will inspect the inner-workings of the phone. The device will be contained inside a battery case, looking similar to a smartphone with an extra bulky battery, except with its own screen to update the user on the status of the radios. Plans are for the device to also be able to sound an audible alarm and possibly to also come equipped with a "kill switch" that can shut off power to the phone if any radio signals are detected. "The core principle is simple," they wrote in the blog post. "If the reporter expects radios to be off, alert the user when they are turned on."

Huang also announced today that he's suing the US government over Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:

Section 1201 means that you can be sued or prosecuted for accessing, speaking about, and tinkering with digital media and technologies that you have paid for. This violates our First Amendment rights, and I am asking the court to order the federal government to stop enforcing Section 1201.

  1. Good name, although I believe they missed a good opportunity to call it the Snow Bunnie. Perhaps that was the code name?

Why is Peter Thiel supporting Donald Trump?JUL 21

As Elon Musk plans to introduce a fleet of completely autonomous self-driving vehicles to America's roads, another PayPal co-founder is giving a speech in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. But why exactly is a canny libertarian with a penchant for undermining the fundamental pillars of democracy to forward his own personal aims supporting Trump? Jeff Bercovici has a not-so-crazy theory:

I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America's attachment to democratic government.

I'm not accusing Thiel of any ambitions he hasn't more or less copped to. In an often-quoted 2009 essay, Thiel declared, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."

He also wrote that his fellow libertarians were on a "fool's errand" trying to achieve their ends through political means: "In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms -- from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called 'social democracy.'"

Here's the essay Bercovici refers to: The Education of a Libertarian. Tyler Cowen, who interviewed Thiel last year and admires him (or at least finds his views interesting), has another take on Thiel's support of Trump, which is perhaps related to Bercovici's:

The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying "the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger." Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence?

What does Donald Trump actually want? What does Thiel want? What do Republican voters want? I'd wager their actual goals have less to do with the party's official platform and what people are saying at the convention and more to do with broader opportunities to gain power that arise from disruption and the energetic application of fear.

Tesla's Master Plan, part twoJUL 20

Tonight, Elon Musk shared part two of Tesla's "Master Plan" (here's part one, from 2006). The company is going all-in on sustainable energy, building out their fleet of available vehicle types (including semi trucks and buses), and pushing towards fully self-driving cars that can be leased out to people in need of a ride.

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.

You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you're at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

In cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet, ensuring you can always hail a ride from us no matter where you are.

Summing up: Telsa, Uber, and probably Apple all want to replace human drivers with robot chauffeurs. It's a race between the Jetson's future and the Terminator's future. Fun!

View from the camera car during a Jason Bourne car chaseJUL 20

Watch the intricate dance of trailing camera car, camera, and stunt car as they each bob and weave through traffic during the filming of the latest Jason Bourne movie in Las Vegas. The relevant scene is at 2:23 in the behind-the-scenes video above. (via @MachinePix)

The quest to upgrade humans to godsJUL 20

In Sapiens (which I enjoyed and recommend), Yuval Noah Harari gave us a "brief history of humankind". In his upcoming Homo Deus, Harari turns "his focus toward humanity's future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods".

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style -- thorough, yet riveting -- famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century -- from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

How film worksJUL 20

A short but info-packed explanation about how film works...you know, the actual stuff that snakes its way through movie cameras. (via one perfect shot)

David Chang's Unified Theory of DeliciousnessJUL 20

Chef and Momofuku founder David Chang spends a lot of time thinking about food and he's arrived at what he calls the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.

My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It's the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that's wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.

I'm not sure his observations are exactly unified, but they are interesting and also why I enjoy eating at his restaurants so much. A meal I had at Ssam Bar shortly after they switched away from the initial Korean burritos menu is in my top 5 meals of all time and a pair of dishes at Ko (both somehow simultaneously familiar and new) are among the most delicious things I've ever eaten.

The radicalization of the US Republican PartyJUL 20

Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann argue that the Republican Party has been radicalized and Trump is the result.

Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party's steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.

While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

Amazon's ad-supported Android phone is only $50JUL 19

If you're an Amazon Prime member, you can buy the BLU R1 HD smartphone for only $50 (or double the memory and RAM for $10 more). The phone is unlocked so you don't need to sign a 2-year phone contract, but Amazon's ads and product offers display on the lock screen (just like they do for the Kindle). According to Joanna Stern at the WSJ, it's no iPhone or Galaxy, but it's great for the price.

No, the R1 doesn't feel or look like a premium phone, but it also doesn't feel like something you'd find on a Toys "R" Us shelf. The metal frame and the touch screen's curved edges give it a weighty feel, while the black plastic casing is more firm Coke bottle than flimsy ShopRite water bottle. Even the power and volume buttons have a satisfying click.

The 5-inch, 720p screen is very bright and viewable at multiple angles, even outdoors. It's not as crisp as the 1080p displays you'll get on $200 Moto G4 or Honor 5X, but again...$50.

In only 9 years, we've gone from smartphones with touchscreens being magical to companies nearly giving them away. Back in 2009, John Walkenbach predicted that Kindles would be free by sometime in 2011.

The price for Amazon's Kindle 2 has dropped again. It started at $359, and then was reduced to $299 last July. Now it's $259.

If this price trend continues, it will be free by June, 2011. I'm actually serious about this. At some point, the Kindle will be free. It will probably be before June, 2011.

The cheapest Kindle is currently $80, so we haven't quite gotten there yet. Which is a bit puzzling now that I'm thinking about it again. Amazon is famous for playing the long game. If compare the cost to giving away a free Kindle (or highly subsidized higher-end Kindle) to every Prime member who signs up or re-ups for two years vs. a) the revenue gained from the ebooks purchased by those customers, b) the revenue from new Prime members, and c) being able to offer a package which is basically free shipping on all Amazon orders + Netflix + Spotify + a ton of free books + a free Kindle...that's gotta make good economic sense for them, right? I mean, unless so many Prime users already have Kindles that giving them to those that don't doesn't make sense.

Anyway, it'll be an interesting race...will the smartphone beat the Kindle to free? (via df)

We're getting six new episodes of Making a Murderer from NetflixJUL 19

Well! Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, directors of Making a Murderer, are working on six more episodes of the series for Netflix.

The new episodes of Making A Murderer will provide an in-depth look at the post-conviction process of convicted murderer Steven Avery, and his co-defendant, Brendan Dassey, as their respective investigative and legal teams challenge their convictions and the State fights to have their life sentences upheld.

They will also offer access to Avery's new lawyer Kathleen Zellner and Dassey's legal team, led by Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, as well as the families and characters close to the case.

I thought Making a Murderer was excellent, one of the best things I watched last year. Reminder: the entire first episode of the show is on YouTube for free. (via @beaucolburn)

An appreciation of The Darjeeling LimitedJUL 19

I am not alone in saying that The Darjeeling Limited is perhaps my least favorite Wes Anderson movie (even though Ebert liked it). But it's Evan Puschak's favorite and he does an admirable job in raising my appreciation for the film.

The true size of things on world mapsJUL 19

True Size Map

One of the most popular map projections of the world is the Mercator projection:

Mercator Projection

It's useful but misleading in important ways. With the the True Size Map, you can drag countries and continents around a Mercator map to uncover their true sizes. For example, it may not be apparent on a Mercator map that Australia is about the same size as the lower 48 US states (see above). Or that Africa is much larger than it seems on the map:

True Size Map

Or is it that North America is oversized on the map? Greenland certainly is. Its true size becomes more clear when you overlay it on India:

True Size Map

Mercator's been around for hundreds of years, so luckily cartographers have invented dozens of other ways to visualize the world in 2D, each of which have their own strengths and disadvantages. You can view many of them here.

Update: I had somehow forgotten about this great scene from The West Wing discussing the geographic bias of the Mercator map:

(thx to the many who reminded me)

Constructing a grass hut from scratchJUL 19

The dude from Primitive Technology is back and this time he's constructed a grass hut from scratch.

This hut is easy to build and houses a large volume. The shape is wind resistant and strong for it's materials. Gaps can be seen in the thatch but not if viewing from directly underneath meaning that it should shed rain well. A fire should be possible in the hut as long as it's small and kept in a pit in the center.The reason the hut took so long is due to the scarcity of grass on the hill. It could be built much quicker in a field.

A tour of the Stanley Kubrick ExhibitionJUL 18

The Stanley Kubrick Exhibition is currently showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and Adam Savage went to take a look and show us around. Super bummed I haven't seen this in person yet. After SF, it heads off to Mexico City.

The 50 best animated films of the 21st centuryJUL 18

The Playlist has decided on their list of the 50 best animated films of the 21st century (so far). Here is 50-46:

50. Brave
49. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
48. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
47. Tokyo Godfathers
46. Frankenweenie

And 5-2:

5. The Triplets of Belleville
4. It's Such a Beautiful Day
3. Up
2. The Incredibles

I'll give you a hint about #1: it is somehow not Wall-E, which didn't even crack the top 10. And come on, Up? The opening of that movie is damn near perfect, but the rest of it is good but not great.

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