Our Nation, In Numbers

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wants to be known for more than just his “Developers” dance from 2000.

Using publically available data, Ballmer (and design studio Artefact) has established USAFacts.org, an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand clearinghouse of the facts behind our nation’s figures.

Built along a framework based on the Constitution itself, USAFacts aims to track how our money comes in and how it is spent along the lines of the Preamble.

  1. establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
  2. provide for the common defense,
  3. promote the general Welfare, and
  4. secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

Ballmer started this initiative because he saw a gap. He wanted to get a look at America’s finances, just as he could research the bottom line of his competitors.

Where is America’s Quarterly Report? Thank to USAFacts, it’s right here.

Why Is This Hot?

In an era of #FakeNews and alternative facts, it is refreshing to see someone using the power of data to get to the truth, even if that truth is mostly the bottom line.

The Ingenuity Inherit in Spare Parts

Like a 21st Century version of Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes, inmates at an Ohio correctional facility managed to assemble not one, but two fully-functional computers from spare parts, then hide them in the prison ceiling. The machines were running “a Windows proxy server, VPN, VOIP and anti-virus software, the Tor browser, password hacking and e-mail spamming tools, and the open source packet analyzer Wireshark.”

The machines were cobbled together from junk parts taken piece by piece from a tech recycling program ran by the prison. Inmates used the cobbled together parts to not only access the Internet and communicate with the outside world, but also to tap into Ohio’s own prisoner database.

Why Is This Hot?

Advanced technology only years or months old is becoming accessible through simple reclamation.

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/04/inmates-built-computers-hidden-in-ceiling-connected-them-to-prison-network/

To uBeam or Not To uBeam, That Is The Question

In 2015, a company made its intentions known. Meredith Perry’s uBeam was going to revolutionize the charging of portable devices by cutting the cord. uBeam would use ultrasonic to put the juice back, entirely cord-free.

But just a year later, uBeam was being compared to the likes of Tharanos, yet another company running on fumes and promises.

But in February of this year, Meredith Perry stood before a crowd for an off-the-record and long awaited demonstration of what uBeam could really do. No cameras were allowed in the event, not officially, but everybody has a camera these days.

Why Is This Hot?

2017 is hard enough, if we could lose our charging cables, just imagine what we could do.

And furthermore, it is good to know there’s still innovation to be found, technologies being developed that could change our lives for the better.

Swipe It Forward, Legally

As of this week, it is quietly approved policy for MTA customers to “swipe it forward.” As a customer leaves a station through a turnstile, they can swipe their Metrocard to allow access to waiting customers. This has been a point of contention for years. As recent as last year, NYPD were arresting violators of this MTA policy, as many as 800 a month. The simple act of asking for a swipe or even making a kind of sign language to indicate the request was a prosecutable offense.

Through a concerted and consistent effort, much of it online, activists have affected change. Using the #SwipeItForward hashtag to encourage civil disobedience in the months leading up to the official policy change, activists on Twitter have highlighted the need for new considerations. Paired with on-site protests at MTA stations, their statement was simple: “No one should be arrested or go to jail for $2.75.”

The change in attitude aligns with MTA’s recent increase in fares.

Why Is This Hot?

Much like the easing of industry attitudes about home-taping on cassette decks in the 1980s, this is an industry accepting the profound share-ability of their own technology. Easing prosecution of a difficult to enforce rule allows the MTA to concentrate on other customer service efforts, while giving them the appearance of benevolence, improving community relations in the process.

Drones, Drones Everywhere.

While not launching until May 2018, the IndieGogo-funded underwater drone from iBubble has reached the latest phase in its working prototypes, called “Beluga.”

Why It Is Hot?

A. This is yet another testament to the power and longevity of a well-pitched crowd-funded innovation. Even in prototype, iBubble has landed distributors worldwide.
B. When Global Warming melts the Polar Ice Caps, it’s nice to know we’ll still be able to watch each other (and have our packages delivered) by underwater drone.

A Bot That Cares

The Internet offers many means of managing stress, just as it offers a steady stream of triggers to increase it. Since November, Twitter users have been experiencing the effects of what appears to be an endless flow of news, mostly bad, often confusing. That this news can happen anytime, often at night, leads many Twitter users to refresh their stream repeatedly. Something might happen.

Follow TinyCareBot on Twitter, and receive an immediate response with a piece of advice to help you manage your day. Developed a few days after the Election by playwright and author Jonathan Sun (@jonnysun), TinyCareBot has gathered almost 70,000 followers in three months.
Why This Is Hot?
Twitter bots are economical and effective. Programable with only a modicum of coding experience, reactive Twitter bots are a way to humanize a brand’s social media presence through simple, simulated conversation.

There Is No Undo On The Internet

In a recent Medium post, Dan McKinley of Skyliner made a bold statement: There is no rollback button on the Internet. He was writing predominantly of code, and situations particular to his line of cloud-based work, but the implications are extensive. If we take nothing else from the post, this is worth keeping in our collective pocket:

The fundamental problem with rolling back to an old version is that web applications are not self-contained, and therefore they do not have versions. They have a current state. The state consists of the application code and everything that it interacts with. Databases, caches, browsers, and concurrently-running copies of itself.

Why This Is Hot:

Today’s Internet forces us to think of situations as “always current,” rather than states in a sequence. Innovations come at us from all sides, and so do incremental improvements, and we don’t always have an easy route back to where we were.

Take Your Protein Pills and Put Your Helmet On

We’re not alone.

Or rather, our solar system might not be the only solar system in our galactic neighborhood. NASA scientists made headlines and stole newscycle focus for almost a solid hour this week with an announcement: Seven exo-planets have been discovered!

The exo-planets orbit a star named “2MASS J23062928-0502285” or “Trappist-1.” This new celestial family make their home in the constellation Aquarius.

What’s fascinating is how quickly NASA provided the Internet with more than enough shareable content, doing an amazing job of meeting audiences where they live. There’s artist renderings, 360 degree videos, and some fan-fiction. They even did an AMA on Reddit and acquired the trappist.one URL.

Why is this hot?

NASA is showing the power of adaptability. In an era when science is falling out of popular favor, they’re able to seize available audiences through a combination of imagination and interaction that manages to deliver factual news while encouraging speculation about a future in space.

Who Wants To Live Forever?

Who wants to live forever? Tech bros, apparently.

An article published recently in The New Republic delves into yet another emerging field of technology.

Not content with inventing the future and redefining society, a number of tech companies have turned their attention to immortality. Beyond the strange blood-fixations of Elizabeth Holmes and Peter Thiel, some endeavors have considered the prospect of longevity through data transfer. A non-profit called CarbonCopies is aiming for what they call Whole Brain Emulation. But for those who would prefer to keep their natural, actual body, there’s the theory of Longevity Escape Velocity.

Why Is This Hot?

While god-making might be the purview of the very wealthy, such considerations for the future have a reverberating impact on day to day life. When we start to adjust the expectations of the everyday, our understanding of human interactions have to change with it. We plan and design now for humans with an average lifespan, making few considerations for those we consider elderly currently. But should the average age of a user rise to 70 or 80, how do we ensure their understanding?

Space, The Interrupting Frontier

There is a small but growing trend toward the introduction of interruptions in our day to day applications. The intent is to curb our addiction to immediate information.

Along this line, a startup out of Venice Beach has developed a Safari plug-in for iOS called Space. Space provides substitute icons to use on your iPhone in place of your existing social media entryways. Instead of just selecting Twitter when you want to catch up, you’d select your Space’d Twitter icon. Space then delays the loading of the Twitter application, displaying a pleasant screen encouraging you, the user, to breathe a moment.

(Conveniently, the company behind Space also sells an API they promise will increase the addictiveness of your in-development app. The API is called Dopamine.)

 

The Six Bots You Meet Online

With all apologies to Mitch Albom, I’m moved to post about bots. I see them everywhere these days. I saw a demo of one yesterday. I interact with bots when I have a problem. Most importantly, I’ve come to suspect a number of online entities as very influential bots, particularly on Twitter. When the sitting President was still campaigning, I paid particular attention to the first wave of replies to each and every tweet. The replying Twitter accounts were almost always the same four or five, reacting within seconds of the initial tweet, night or day. Their ubiquity made such an impression that their absence post election became as suspicious as their in-campaign activity.

Or perhaps I’m online too much.

John Borthwick, the founder of Betaworks (the company behind Poncho), has written an incredibly useful analysis of the bot landscape. To his estimation, there are six types of bots, and all of them have their uses and applications. Beyond the Political Bot of my own obsession, Borthwick describes the Me-bot, the Search Bot, the Chat Bot, the Work Bot, and the Voice Bot.

Here’s a bit of Borthwick’s conclusion:

Carver Mead suggested we should listen to technology, I like that thought a lot. Each technology has a grain to it — directionality — it’s not neutral. However, the grain is not clear at the outset and it’s not well defined — you have to listen and find it. In the case of bots the listening is just starting — and in the case of bots the listening is also literal. I haven’t worked with another software based technology that is so well designed for user feedback, research, listening and beta-testing. Bot designers are constantly looking at the feed of user interactions, service or content requests — listening in real time to what their users want. It’s remarkable to see.

Why Is This Hot?

Bots are only getting started, Bots will only evolve further in sophistication and application, allowing the exercise of influence to persist in a set-it-and-forget-it fashion (like a Political Bot), as well as providing consistent customer service through programming and intuitive learning (like a Chat Bot.) They might not replace us, but they’re certainly going to force a shift in our perceptions of not only labor, but of conversation itself.

Bonus:

My favorite non-fictional bot in all history is Electro, the giant Smoking Robot presented by Westinghouse at the 1939 World’s Fair.