2015 was a banner year for science fiction; Motherboard's resident sci-fi editors, Claire Evans and Brian Merchant, review the year of Mad Max, Ex Machina, and, yes, Star Wars. These are the top stories about the future of 2015.
Transhumanism, the idea that humans should use science and technology to extend our natural abilities, is the religion of the 21st century. It's a concept that has been around since the 70s, but seems to be resonating with a growing number of people. Whether it's because of the rise of smartphones, the idea of the quantified self, disillusionment with the world, or something else, transhumanist ideas have been gaining traction in the last 10 years with no signs of stopping.
The New York City subway is sprawling system, with more than 5 million people per day (and sometimes many more, on special occasions) passing through more than 460 stations. There is probably someone who knows more about the intricacies of the system than Max Diamond, but whoever it is, I don't know him or her.
Diamond is a transportation engineering student at the City College of New York and a "rail fan"—he studies budgets and plans, delves into contracts and historical minutia, and, of course, pays close attention whenever he's riding the subway. Every time he rides it, he brings a camera on the off chance he spots something that's not quite right.
Diamond runs the DJ Hammers YouTube channel, which features roughly 1,500 videos shot on the subway. These videos feature trains entering and leaving stations, new and rare subway announcements, subway rails catching fire, and lots of other sorts of weirdness you won't notice if you don't know what you're looking for.
"I don't usually just film any train departing and arriving, i like seeking out these reroutes—say you're waiting for the F train at 14th St. and all of a sudden an N train came in, that's something I would love to film because it's unusual, it's odd, it's out of the ordinary," Diamond told me. "Whenever I'm traveling around the city I bring my camera with me just in case something comes up."
I learned about Diamond from this very informative Ask Me Anything he did on the NYCRail subreddit. But I had lots of additional questions (namely: Is the G train the actual worst or what?), so I called him in to talk about the past, present, and future of the New York City subway and about mass transit in general.
6:06 - Railfan - it's a thing!
14:20 - Many thanks to James Somers of The Atlantic, who wrote this incredibly informative article about why New York subway lines are missing countdown clocks.
24:00 - L Train power upgrades
25:00 - The Second Avenue Subway was proposed back in the 1910s.
39:30 - This is a great article about open gangway subway trains (and America's resistance to them)
41:40 - More information about cell phone service on the New York City subway
45:30 - Here's some of the other best subway systems in the world, according to a totally subjective list
Ever heard of a cryptoparty? It’s a gathering of people interested in privacy and encryption. You’ll often hear of cryptoparties in association with other techy, geeky spaces or organizations, and they’re usually dominated by computer-savvy nerds who are often male or white or both. But recently, Motherboard attended a cryptoparty in a less obvious place: Harlem, the predominantly black neighborhood in New York City.
Wait. Maybe Harlem is the perfect place to find a cryptoparty.
The New York City Police Department is increasingly monitoring and targeting young people of color on social media in what critics say amounts to racial profiling. “Is the online surveillance of black teenagers the new stop-and-frisk?” asked a headline in The Guardian, referring to the now-banned practice of stopping people on the street for “suspicious behavior.”
On top of that, members of the Black Lives Matter protest movement are now reportedly being targeted. Vice News broke the news in August that Deray Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist, had been identified as a “professional protester” who was “known to law enforcement” and had his Twitter account monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Intercept also reported that DHS has been tracking the movement.
In other words, simply exercising your right to protest is enough to get you on the feds’ radar.
This is sounding familiar. In the 60s, COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was an FBI program for domestic surveillance that spied on the Black Panthers. Even the FBI itself admits today that the program was overreaching, violating the First Amendment and other rights. The FBI also kept files on black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.
The threats to black privacy are why Matthew Mitchell organizes Cryptoparty Harlem. In his past life, Mitchell was a data journalist at the New York Times and, before that, a developer at CNN. Nowadays he works with journalists, activists, and specifically people in his community of Harlem, on issues surrounding digital security, privacy, and surveillance.
“A lot of times I’ll hang out with hackers in hacker spaces and people who do digital security stuff for the United States, and they’ll always say, man, it’s like there are no black people who want to know about this stuff,” Mitchell said.
Of course, that’s not true—although there may be many black people who don’t know they want to know about this stuff. Beyond the fact that everyone has something they want to keep private, the black community has reasons to distrust the police, especially with the revelations about the Department of Homeland Security monitoring Black Lives Matter protests.
For this week’s Radio Motherboard, we spoke to Mitchell and Nusrat Choudury, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Racial Justice program, about why the black community might want to use encryption.
We also discuss how the growing number of privacy intrusions from hackers, government, and law enforcement may be creating an elite class of techies who know how to protect themselves, while the rest of the population is stuck being surveilled.
Earlier this fall, we brought you the curious story of a long lost lunar rover prototypetested by NASA in the 1960s. At the time, we decided to keep some of the details off the record, but for this week's podcast, we delve deep into the rover's history and it's journey from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to a scrap yard in Alabama.
This episode of Radio Motherboard unfolds as it moves along, so in the interest of not spoiling it, we'll just get right to it. Thanks for listening!
It's Lit Up week at Motherboard, which means we're talking about drugs. And what's more fun than that?
Weekend/gaming editor Emanuel Maiberg and managing editor Adrianne Jeffries pop some Alpha BRAIN and OptiMind to try and perk up the podcast. We drag in Steve Cronin, a self-taught nootropics expert, to talk about the smart drug craze. We also speak to Rod Breslau, an eSports journalist, to find out whether all this hand-wringing over doping at tournaments is really justified.
1:12 - Steve, tell us who you are?
2:25 - Steve tells us about the drugs he brought for us to try.
5:12 - Why are noots so hot right now?
9:38 - Don't mix your noots.
10:25 - Let's talk about Adderall, which was recently banned from certain eSports events because it's been framed as the steroid of the sport.
11:15 - "We were all on Adderall" video referenced is here.
12:30 - Rod Breslau, tell us who you are?
19:12 - "I think that it has happened and I believe that it could still happen which is why it's necessary for this, these guidelines to come into place, but I also don't think it's as widespread as there would be gigantic names to fall if there were testing done retroactively... though I really do not want to eat those words."
23:05 - Ramping up that APM, actions per minute.
30:00 - eSports players sometimes sit for up to six hours. Endurance is key.
34:10 - Back to the studio! So, where is the line for drugs that enhance performance and, like, Red Bull and energy drinks, which are big sponsors of eSports events?
37:00 - Steve talks about his experience with Lyme disease.
42:00 - There are disadvantages to self-experimentation. Exhibit A: Noopept.
46:10 - Research on nootropics is scarce. Why don't nootropics companies pay for more studies into this stuff?
49:12 - What's the deal with the butter in the coffee?
50:01 - That's it! Thanks for listening, and see you next week.
Earlier this week, Motherboard published a year-long investigation that revealed the Pentagon has been sending defective gun parts to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In more than 60 cases, the barrels of guns have literally exploded and, in at least one case, a soldier was seriously injured.
Radio Motherboard talks with reporter Damien Spleeters about how he was able to make sense of thousands of pages of documents from the Defense Logistics Agencyand with features editor Brian Anderson about the implications of Spleeters's findings. We also talk about the DLA, which spends $40 billion a year but is little known outside of defense circles.
Did you hear? Fallout 4, the video game for people who are serious about video games, is finally out. Do you care? If you're reading this rather than obsessively exploring a post nuclear disaster Boston, maybe not. Or maybe you're just taking a break.
The game is the latest "AAA" release from Bethesda Softworks, a studio that's scored a devoted fan base thanks to its extremely deep, extremely long, and extremely customizable open world games. But the truth is, most gamers will never play it. Conversely, do you know anyone with even a passing interest in movies or sci fi who's going to skip the new Star Wars?
"Somebody spent a lot of money making a lot of money, a game on the same register as a Hollywood motion picture ... that's what 'AAA' wants to mean," Ian Bogost, a game designer, researcher at Georgia Tech University, and author of How to Talk About Video Games told me. "It's [supposed to be] a giant, global entertainment production. But you think about it, and that's not what those games do. They don't reach those numbers of people, they sell a lot of dollars worth of games primarily because those games cost a lot of money."
So what's a AAA game? What's Fallout 4? It's a very good game made for people who have a lot of time—right now—to binge on video games for hours at a time. It's not—it can't be—a hop-on-hop-off experience like Candy Crush or the Mario games or even something like Call of Duty.
"I think we have to consider the idea that what 'AAA' means is not this big blockbuster tentpole experience—which would also mean it's a mass market experience," Bogost said. "A 'AAA' game is a game that nobody except people who play games knows anything about. This is a niche experience. [AAA] specifies that there are some people committed to playing a game for tens or hundreds of hours."
Some of those dedicated people are my fellow Motherboard staffers, Clinton Nguyen, Emanuel Maiberg, and Nicholas Deleon. I ask them what the game is about, what makes Fallout so appealing to its fans, and, ultimately, if they're having any fun playing it.
Many thanks to Bogost for joining the show. How to Talk About Video Games comes out this weekend.
One time, I misjudged the depth of a creek, stepped in, and was literally in over my head. Not that much of a problem, except I had various electronics in my backpack. As thousands (millions?) of people have done, I stuck my phone and camera in a bowl of rice and waited. A few days later, I pulled them out. Neither worked.
Of course they didn’t. Rice is not a magical phone saving device, as Trent Dennison, a nurse turned iPhone repairman will tell you. Dennison is one of the very few people in the United States who actually knows how to repair water damaged phones. For the last year, he’s been on a personal mission to stop people from ruining perfectly good rice with waterlogged phones. As Dennison explains, corrosion starts immediately after water touches an electronic device’s internal components; the only way you can reliably repair the phone is by getting rid of that corrosion. In fact, Dennison says, you’d be better off sticking your phone in rubbing alcohol, for reasons he explains in the podcast.
Because we at Motherboard like to make you eat your (delicious) vegetables along with our more easily consumable content, we called in Charles Duan, director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project to talk with us about why independent repair professionals like Dennison are important—and why the right to repair your devices is at risk. Everyone from Apple to John Deere is hoping to use a poorly written copyright law and other tricks to make it as hard as possible—perhaps illegal—for you to repair things you should ostensibly own.
Radio Motherboard is available on iTunes and Stitcher.
It's been an astoundingly good couple years for television shows and movies that fit into the Motherboard orb of interest. Whenever people ask me what Motherboard is, I tell them we write about stories that are like Black Mirror, but real. Now, I've got to add Mr. Robot to my short list of major series that perfectly fit the Motherboard aesthetic.
We were slightly late to binge watching our way through USA's harrowing hacker series, but now that (some) of us have watched it all the way through, we've got plenty of thoughts. My first one: How the hell did a show like this even get made? That's not a criticism by any stretch—it's just that Mr. Robot is so unlike anything else on TV that it's surprising a network took a risk on it. From there, we talk about Mr. Robot's realism, its character development, and our thoughts on where the show might go from here.
If you haven't seen the show, you can still listen to part of this episode: The first half is more-or-less spoiler free, and the second half is for people who have watched the whole series.
It's almost Halloween, so Motherboard is exploring the very nature of fear. Why do we still get scared by things that no longer represent any threat to us? How has technology changed how we feel fear? And what happens in a culture that reveres death?
This week, Kaleigh Rogers and Jason Koebler talk with Naomi Bishop, a freelance writer who recently spent time with the Tana Toraja people in Indonesia. In Tana Toraja culture, it's common for families to dress up and take care of the dead corpses of their loved ones, sometimes for many years at a time until a proper funeral can be held.
When you log into Facebook, you'll see a list of "suggested friends." They're full of people you went to high school with, random colleagues, and a bunch of people that you do sort of know ... but why does Facebook know that you know them?
Motherboard contributor Kari Paul talks to us about her investigation into how Facebook and other social networks learn things about you that you've never purposefully given them access to. Short Circuit editor Nicholas Deleon talks to us about watching the Democratic presidential debate in virtual reality, and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai discusses why Uber's latest security screwup is a bad sign of things to come.
Two major, solar system-shaking things happened this week. 'The Martian' came out, and we're all thankful that it ended up being a very good film. And Motherboard killed comments.
These two things aren't even remotely related, but you're in luck if your interests include major sci fi motion pictures and the future of media. After announcing we were ending comments, there was a bit of a firestorm online and we just so happened to be recording the podcast as the hot takes came on Twitter. So, for the first 15 minutes or so, we discussed the move with our editor in chief, Derek Mead. Afterwards, we talk about whether it was even possible for Ridley Scott to screw up 'The Martian,' and Motherboard editor at large Alex Pasternack talks to Drew Goddard about his screenplay.
Radio Motherboard talks to Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet and Google's "internet evangelist," about the company's plans to fly internet-providing balloons over the developing world, encryption and security, and a horrifying scenario where our kitchen appliances start trying to hack our financial institutions.
We also discuss Peeple, the "Yelp for People" app that's getting everyone riled up this week, a brand new scary Android vulnerability, and we end with a dramatic reading of a sci fi story written by one of our staffers when she was seven years old.
Scientists have just proven for the first time that it's possible to engineer yeast to make THC, arguably the most important chemical in marijuana. But do we want to get high using lab-made drugs when the real thing works so well?
On this week's Radio Motherboard, we talk about the future of both synthetic drugs and lab-grown natural ones, Senior Editor Brian Merchant tries to make us care about fossil fuel divestment that could save the climate, producer Jaimie Sanchez tells us about cliff diving in Italy, and I talk about why DC's crypto wars have gotten so exhausting.
This week is ALL FRONTS, Motherboard's deep dive into what a future of forever war looks like. On this episode of Radio Motherboard, we talk about what it means to always be at war and how technology and automation have made it possible to stay in a perpetual state of war.
We also talk about why fast food restaurants are finally moving away from antibiotic-pumped meat, a weird Quebec phenomenon called "pizzaghetti," and sonogenetics, a newly discovered technique that allows researchers to control neurons using ultrasound. As always, thanks for listening—you can find us on iTunes and we always welcome feedback.
If you've been listening to Radio Motherboard the last few months, thank you very much: It's been a bit of a roller coaster as we try to figure out a format and recording setup that works best for us, and it's been a blast experimenting.
This week, we're experimenting again, as we try out a shorter, more segmented format that's hopefully a bit snappier than some of our more recent episodes. This week, we tackle the iPhone 6S release, talk about whether basic income will ever become a reality, and touch a bit on why reporting on the Hacking Team has been so much fun. We love hearing from our readers and listeners, so tell us if you're digging the new style or if it's got you down—we're available at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @motherboard. We're also available on iTunes here.
If you're American, it's easier than ever to go to Cuba, a country that's remained, mas o menos, off limits for the last 60 years or so. In fact, you can go to cheapair.com, buy a ticket, fill out a couple forms confirming you fit into one of several broad approved categories of person (you probably do), and hop on a flight direct to Havana. But should you?
As we've explored in a series of stories over the last couple weeks, Cuba is still very much an island ruled by an authoritarian regime, with nearly all industry and services owned and operated by that regime. There's little starvation or homelessness on the island, but there's also very little free expression, internet access, or free flow of information. Overt propaganda is everywhere, and there are neighborhood watch groups specifically designed to inform on people who are "counterrevolutionary."
And so, if you go to Cuba to sit on a beach, smoke cigars, and drink mojitos, you are ostensibly putting money directly into the pockets of that regime. Maybe that bothers you, maybe it doesn't. But should it? After spending three weeks reporting in Cuba, I spoke to Jose Luis Martinez of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba about this topic and about the general internet connectivity and technological situation in the country.
Afterwards, Motherboard staffers talk about their biggest work technology gaffes—if you've done anything particularly embarrassing, please tweet it my way: @jason_koebler.
Who goes to the Pokemon World Championships in 2015? Well, we did, for one—mostly to find out who else was there.
Well over a decade after its heyday, Pokemon is still going strong. There's now nearly 800 Pokemon, but there are still lots of kids, teens, and older nerds trying to catch 'em all. We caught up with some of the best players of both the card game and the video game at Boston's World Championships to see how the community has changed over the last few years.
Uber drivers set their own hours, file taxes independently, and often own their cars. They don’t get health insurance from Uber and they don’t wear uniforms. And yet, Uber controls much of what they do by setting prices, handling their tips, and micromanaging them through its driver rating system. Are these drivers independent contractors, working for a strict boss? Or are they employees, entitled to benefits and covered expenses?
A law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against Uber in California on behalf of the state’s drivers, alleging that the company had misclassified them as independent contractors. Uber is going to the mat to defend the status quo, arguing that the class is too large, that drivers want to be independent contractors (which isn’t really material to their classification), and even trying to make itself seem more like Wal-Mart.
Brian Shiro really wants to go to space. He wants to go to space so badly, in fact, that he’s applied to NASA’s astronaut program. Twice. Both times he fell just short. He’s hoping the third time’s the charm.
Until then, he’ll be heading up Astronauts4Hire, an appropriately-named astronaut contracting service. Wth A4H, Brian hopes to open doors for aspiring astronauts to the burgeoning commercial space industry, and also provide flight and simulation training to pad their resumés.
I first learned about Brian’s story while editing a profile of him published a few weeks ago on Motherboard. The story was written by Sarah Scoles, an ace science writer (who, in a past life, did research on one of the telescopes in the Quiet Zone in Green Bank, West Virginia). It’s a fascinating look into the psyche of someone with perhaps the biggest dream of all, a dream more potent than ever as a new space racestruggles to get off the ground.
I thought it would be worth exploring Brian’s story a bit further. I chatted with both him and Sarah about where A4H is going, why “space is hard” is a tired excuse for companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and what needs to happen for commercial space travel to be open to everyone, not just rich folks who can afford $100,000 tickets to low-Earth orbit. Also: Are either of them game for a one-way ticket to Mars?
After listening be sure to check out Sarah’s original profile of Brian Shiro on Motherboard.
We travel to the crater of the first atomic bomb with one of the youngest and last surviving Manhattan Project scientists. This is his story.
When did you get rid of your last computer or cell phone? It was probably pretty recently—we replace our technology all the time. But it's not this way for everyone: A contingent of diehard retro computing enthusiasts are still programming, hacking, tinkering with, and playing games on the Apple II, a 38-year-old computer originally released in 1977.
And every July, about 70 of these diehards head to Rockhurst University in Kansas City for KansasFest, a conference dedicated exclusively to all things Apple II. More accurately, it's kind of like a sleepaway camp. For six days, the 70-or-so attendees will eat together, sleep in the same dorm, chug mountain dew to stay awake, and hack away at these things.
I visited KFest, as it's affectionately known, to see why anyone would ever want to keep using a computer that's coming up on its 40th anniversary.
For the last six months or so, you've been listening to us talk at you about simulated universes and head transplants and transhumanism and all sorts of topics (and we thank you very much for that). But we haven't really told you all that much about ourselves.
This week on Radio Motherboard, there is no guest, there is no topic, and there are no real rules. Instead, we bring through a whole bunch of Motherboard staffers (as in, whoever was available at the time) to learn what exactly it is they do around these parts. Along the way we talk about filming documentaries, corgis and professional wrestling, digital journalism, and, of course, encryption and security.
I've also heard back from our Editor-in-Chief Derek Mead, who shamefully informed me that those Vultures over at New York Magazine pulled off a 9-8 victory over the Vice softball team in a heartbreaker. This will all make sense later, I promise.
It’s now been just over a year and a half of the biggest Ebola outbreak in history. We’ve dabbled in vaccines, but the best prevention method is still abstaining from contact with symptomatic patients, and the best treatment is still basically hydration. We’ve figured out that Ebola survivors seem at least temporarily immune, making them ideal health workers, but we still haven’t perfected treatment protocols and caretakers are still dying from the disease.
This week on Radio Motherboard, we spoke to Kayla Ruble, who covered the outbreak in Liberia for Vice News, and who says we’ve learned that the most effective way to fight Ebola is to be aggressive with the most basic tactics: public awareness, basic sanitation, and working with the local culture instead of against it. We also talked to Mahad Ibrahim, who ᔒconsulted with the Liberia Ministry of Health & Social Welfare in order to organize information coming out of the outbreak. He says we’ve learned that computers and mobile phones simply don’t work the way they’re intended in a crisis, and it’s better to have local health workers and volunteers take down notes on paper and digitize it later.
We also spoke to Decontee Davis, who contracted the virus almost exactly a year ago. She’s the woman who didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her fiancé before he died a few wards over. “People are still afraid. Even me, I am afraid,” she said. “If there is a single case, Liberia is still [in] outbreak. Right now, we have up to four cases. People are still afraid.”
“I will be happy when Liberia is completely Ebola free.”