Sometimes, it can be hard to know how to act around artificial intelligence.
In the first half of Radio Motherboard this week, staff writer Jason Koebler explores how people treat Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana when no one’s listening. (A small spoiler: Apparently, people like to harass it. One new challenge in AI programming is learning how to gently smack down haters.)
In the second half, editorial fellow Louise Matsakis looks at a group that runs a “rationality” workshop that teaches humans that in some cases, it makes more sense to think more like computers.
So scientists are saying an earthquake—a quake that is so big and so powerful you probably can’t even properly comprehend it—is probably going to hit your city, hard. It could be five years out, ten years, fifty years, or it could be tomorrow. But it’s going to come. How do we go about organizing that kind of information in we brains? How do we understand it on a rational, sensible level? Then, what do we do about it?
We can write science fiction stories about it, for one thing. That’s what the archivist, researcher, and writer Adam Rothstein has done. Rothstein spent many months poring over every available emergency document, seismic evaluation, and scientific study carried out on the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake that he could get his hands on. That quake, scientists say, will be of a magnitude up to 9.3 Mw—perhaps the biggest to hit the continental US in our nation’s history.
Last year, Kathryn Shulz published “The Really Big One” in the New Yorker. The story introduced, for many audiences, the prospect of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which many geologists say is actually overdue. The article went viral, and left just about everyone in the Pacific Northwest terrified. But the fact that the quake is coming is only a small sliver of the story—what happens when it does is, arguably, the most important, at least from a humanistic point of view.
So this week, Terraform, our future fiction outfit, published Rothstein’s intensely reported 5-part story about what, precisely, may happen after the Big One. When we chatted for the podcast, Rothstein told me that one of his chief aims was to get people thinking about the next steps, after awareness-raising.
“Lots of people I know just figure they’ll be dead,” he told me, despite the fact that your chances of surviving the initial quake in an inland metropolis like Portland are very high. So the point of the story, then, is to render the future less apocalyptic and more productive. Imagining the nitty gritty details of the calamities—not always outright tragedies—that will befall us, will help us prepare to assist our neighbors, and compel us to arrange and maintain earthquake kits.
So far, his story seems to be working.
At least, according to the urbanist and writer Alissa Walker, who writes of the piece, “All I will say is that it worked. Let’s also hope all major cities in seismic areas will undertake a similar scenario-writing exercise and perhaps even work with local sci-fi writers. This series certainly got me far more motivated to get prepared than any other piece about earthquakes that I’ve researched or read myself.”
Clearly, not everyone will have such a positive reaction; but that is, for Rothstein, the desired effect: comprehension of a potentially far-off and difficult future, and preparation for its coming. Listen in for more for our discussion of the story’s genesis, what will happen to Portland in the wake of the quake, and science fiction’s role in charting out our plausible futures
Earlier this week, a federal judge in California ordered Apple to help the FBI brute force hack into the encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, setting up a legal showdown that could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of encryption and privacy in the United States. Here's what you need to know.
The hyperloop, Elon Musk’s futuristic, tube-based “fifth mode of transportation” has stoked imaginations unlike any recent transportation technology except for maybe self driving cars.
Lots has been said about it—Musk called it a “cross between a Concord, a railgun, and an air hockey table,” while the media has latched on to the promised speeds of more than 700 mph and travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles of 35 minutes.
But much of the promise of the hyperloop still remains theoretical. That changed in a small way last weekend, when SpaceX hosted the first part of its “Hyperloop Pod Design Challenge,” a contest that asks 180 university teams to design the capsules that will actually go inside the hyperloop. In June, 22 of the teams will test their pods in a track being built by SpaceX. I traveled to Texas A&M University to meet the teams, meet the companies actually building the hyperloop, and to separate out the hype from what’s actually happening.
The Zano drone raised £2.3 million in one of the most successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns of all time. A year later all the money is gone, Zano’s creator is having a nervous breakdown, and its 13,000 backers are livid.
What does it take to get a good night’s sleep? In this episode of Radio Motherboard, managing editor Adrianne Jeffries talks to the greatest sleep hacker she knows: her little brother William. We cover blackout curtains, smart light bulbs, sleep headphones, the best white noise mixes, and sleeping in the office.
If you live in India, or happen to have visited in the past month, you probably noticed the seemingly-ubiquitous advertising for something called Free Basics. It's what you might call a full-court press: full-page ads in newspapers, billboards, and movie theater trailers. Also, if you were to log into Facebook, you'd be presented with an ad (and possibly if you were in the US, too).
The first thing to understand is that Free Basics is Facebook, and Facebook is Free Basics, and they're both basically Internet.org. Perhaps more accurately, if expressed in matryoshka dolls, Free Basics is inside Internet.org which is inside Facebook. First, Facebook launched the Internet.org initiative, which covers various projects aimed at spreading internet access to developing countries. One of the first projects was a free service that offers limited access to the internet, including ad-free Facebook and other sites. Then, in September, Facebook rebranded that service from Internet.org to Free Basics.
Free Basics is Facebook's effort to help the billion people of the world who don't have access to the internet take their first baby steps online. Or, cynically, it's Facebook's effort to suck the next billion people of the world who don't have access to the internet into Facebook. What sites are available varies by country, but every one of the 37 countries now enrolled in Free Basics offers Facebook.
Open internet advocates in India went positively up in arms. I'd wager that Mark Zuckerberg did not expect the backlash to be so decisive. “Who could possibly be against this?” he wrote in an editorial in the Times of India.
Well, lots of people, for a number of reasons. First, there is the Western imperialism angle. (Economist news editor Leo Mirani told me Free Basics includes "the sort of things that people in the West think that people in the poor world should have access to.") Most of the backlash, however, was centered not on the gall of a Silicon Valley company galavanting into India with its own prescription for what it sees as a problem, but rather on the implications for the open internet. Indians know that "some of the internet" is a poor approximation of the whole internet.
Furthermore, zero rating—making some parts of the internet free while other parts aren't—chips away at the nature of the open internet as we know it.
That's where T-Mobile comes in. The mobile carrier recently started offering a video service called Binge On, which allows anyone who doesn't opt out to stream video from Hulu, HBO NOW, Netflix, and others without having it count against data caps. Already, things are getting weird.
That's all to say, zero rating is a worldwide issue. It's also not going away. I am sure this won't be the last time we talk about it on Radio Motherboard.
The telecom regulatory authority in India banned Free Basics at the end of December and is now soliciting public feedback on the issue. It's expected to make a ruling by the end of the month, but even if that's not delayed, there will probably be appeals and debates for months. Listen on for a primer on the Free Basics fight in India and what it means for the internet everywhere.
If you want high speed internet in most any spot in New York City, you’re stuck with Time Warner Cable. Or at least, that’s how it usually works. But increasingly around the city, citizens and small community groups are setting up their own locally owned and operated free wifi networks.
This week on Radio Motherboard, we take a trip to a meetup where two nascent but potentially disruptive groups were discussing how to collaborate in order to provide new connection options to people around the city.
Since 2012, the nonprofit Red Hook Wifi network has been providing totally free internet to people in the small Brooklyn neighborhood. For weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the neighborhood, the Red Hook Wifi network was the only way many in the community could get on the internet or make phone calls. On any given day, Red Hook Wifi has about 500 users.
Meanwhile, NYC Mesh is little more than a meetup group at the moment, but its organizers have big plans. Its network currently has about 40 “nodes,” or routers that connect to each other to form a larger wireless network. Organizer Brian Hall is currently working to set up two “super nodes” that are jacked into a large internet exchange will allow anyone in lower Manhattan and large swaths of Brooklyn to bypass traditional internet service providers and connect directly to the NYC Mesh network.
Finally, a brand new fiber project is about to give the masses a new option, at least when they’re out on the streets of New York. Link NYC is a $200 million project to replace every payphone in the city with a free, gigabit fiber-connected wifi hotspot. We took a trip to Link NYC’s headquarters to check out the new “links” and learn about how the project hopes to protect privacy, become a profitable enterprise, and provide connections that people will actually want to use.
As always, thanks for listening!
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.