Finally! We’ve Been Too Patient

The long-anticipated anthology of mad poems, stories and research is finally out. The book is split between personal mental health narratives and research, a powerfully balanced approach for contending with these issues.

I contributed to two (going on three) chapters of this book – a lightly modified version of the first chapter of my dissertation appears, as well as excerpts from Mindful Occupation, which I helped produce, write and edit.

Pick up a copy at your local bookstore !

Coding Mental

Last weekend I traveled to the lovely city of New Haven for a mental health hackathon hosted by Hack Mental Health Care. I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience, which proved interesting, fun and invigorating (with a few healthy dashes of disappointment and horror).

I was mostly expecting undergraduate participants with ideas for mood tracking apps, but the event drew over 200 people, and was quite diverse.  In addition to programmers, designers, product folks and business people showed up. Genders were closely balanced and minorities were represented. Crucially, over 30% of the participants had clinical or lived experience. The event also featured a therapy dog, yoga sessions and a guided mediation. Peer voices and ethics were featured in some of the talks, although due to time constraints, project design was complete and implementation was already underway. And, kudos on the Code of Conduct… next year I would also love to see consent-based photography and sponsored childcare.

The organizers worked hard to prompt the participants in advance with these challenges:

  • Challenge 1: How can we help to reduce the rates of suicide?
  • Challenge 2: How might technology increase access or improve treatment for people with substance use disorders?
  • Challenge 3: How might we use data to drive meaningful insights for patients and clinicians that improve mental health?

The challenges were a bit solutionist in their framing for my taste, but were generally crisply formulated and well researched.

A recap of the event is posted on medium: HackMentalHealth Yale’s Collegiate Mental Health Hackathon Recap, along with links to the winning projects.

I floated across a few teams including with a group who had the insight that a person’s musical listening preferences might reveal something important about their mood – Team Moodify was born. The theme of risk assessment prevailed across many of the projects I encountered. To speculate, risk assessment probably feels like a more tractable problem than crafting an intervention, and one that is amenable to statistical analysis.

Our team had a great conversation about what the team might do with a risk assessment assuming it could be computed – should Spotify summon law enforcement if it detects you are at risk? Should they contact your friends? Alert you to your own mood? Would a user be aware of this monitoring, and could they configure it according to their own preferences?

Team Moodify valiantly worked all weekend and came up with a prototype that allows users to log in to their Spotify account, and create a mood boosting playlist based on their own listening history (Spotify itself has a notion of valence and energy for a song that was used to find similar songs).

We didn’t have time for it over the weekend, but someday I would love to add a social component and create a mechanism to solicit a mood boosting mix tape from your friends 😉

For more about Moodify, see and

Across projects, common themes emerged. Teams identified the need for better directory and referral services (an area where OpenReferral could really help), and gravitated towards monitoring and risk assessment. The studio-style format allowed for wide variation in these designs based on small differences in inflection. So, for example, Flip, a winning project about a Chrome extension designed to flag upsetting content, could benefit greatly by putting more agency back into the user’s control – allowing the user to configure and customize settings and thresholds, as well as actions to take when upsetting content is identified.

At the next Hack Mental Health session I would love to see the community continue to grow. I think the projects would benefit from a more structured design phase – intentional, community driven, persona driven, etc (BigApps does a great job with this now).   I would also love for more open source and open standards to be represented and used – new coders could join an existing community and contribute towards a longer term goal. I would also enjoy more unconference style collaborations – more ice-breaking and exchange during team formation, lightning talks given by participants, self-organized birds of a feather conversations.  Finally, all the teams should have a chance to present their work to each other – I fear many participants left the hackathon without appreciating much of the worth done by other teams.

Thanks to all the organizers and sponsors for pulling this together. Next year in New York City?

Silencing the infernal internal combustion engine

A few years ago I visited my family in Florida for the holiday season. My sister and her family also flew in, and to their credit, her children were more interested in a family vacation to see the marine hospital in Clearwater than they were in Disney World (this is the home of Winter and Hope, the real life dolphins with prosthetic tails who starred in Dolphin Tale).

While I was there I took my first ride ever on a Wave Runner (Yamaha’s Jet Ski) and had a revelation. The ride was exhilarating. I did 54 mph in the bay. Apart from a gorgeous co-pilot, the only thing that would have improved the experience would be to eliminate the roar of the internal combustion engine. Silent jet skis.

I’ve sailed a few times and the experience is divine. It feels like flying, even though motorboats travel much faster. Technically, the sail’s propulsion operates on the same principle as a wing. But what I remember most was the quiet. Quiet enough to play music, have a conversation and hear the waves.

That same trip I also test drove a Tesla Model S for the first time. Pure power. You could be stopped at red light, in the left-most lane of a five lane road, and still make a right turn. You would be two car lengths ahead of all the other cars before they even start moving. Driving a Tesla feels like playing a game of tetris – the car is so powerful and the handling so accurate that I could put myself anywhere on the road. I began to dream of an electric jet ski.

The thing about an electric jet ski is that it need not merely be a toy for the rich. It could also be the center of a campaign to catalyze adoption of electric vehicles.

Consider for a moment – Who are Tesla’s main competitors? It’s not the Prius, or the BMW i models, or the Volt… it’s the internal combustion engine! And, with decades of marketing creating Pavlovian conditioning between the hum and the thrum of an internal combustion engine and sex and power, it’s going to be a tough nut to crack.

How does the middle class learn what’s trending with power elite?  Through the media, to be sure.  And, on vacation ????????????

Picture the scene. Vacationers arrive at the docks greeted by solar panels charging a new line of electric jet skis. They will be skeptical about their safety, power and sex appeal. Electric batteries in the water? We’ve been powering electric boats and submarines for over a century. Plus, how did we ever become convinced that detonating a bomb between our legs a few hundred times a minute while sitting on top of gallons of flammable fluid was safe? If the electric jet ski is anything like the Tesla Model S, power and sex appeal will speak for themselves. One short ride and they will be signing up to purchase an electric vehicle as soon as they return home from vacation.

Doubtful I’m going to get to this idea in this lifetime, but I would love to see it happen.

The Rise of Surveillance Psychiatry and the Mad Underground

This past year I have been working on turning my dissertation into a trade book. I am making steady but slow progress; print remains an important but slooooow media.

My concerns around preventative psychiatric diagnosis and treatment motivated and propelled my dissertation, and they form the backdrop of my ethnographic study of the mad movement. My book will engage with these threats more directly and position them alongside the demands of the Mad Underground. The ideas of groups such as the Institute for the Development of Human Arts and NYC Icarus offer us some hope of diffusing the menacing time-bomb of surveillance psychiatry before it explodes.

In the past few weeks, a few stories broke and I feel compelled to write about them in the context of my research:

  • Facebook announced (described in more technical detail here) the deployment of AI tools designed for the “proactive detection” (and intervention protocols) for users deemed to be at risk for suicide.
  • Researchers published a paper in Nature claiming they could distinguish people who think about suicide from those who don’t (and those who have acted on their thoughts) based on brain scans.
  • The FDA approved the first drug with sensors in it that digitally monitors if you have taken it — the first drug outfitted with this technology is the anti-psychotic Abilify.

These stories should be understood as part of a bigger pattern that is emerging around diagnosis and treatment.  Large, centralized, digital social networks and data-gathering platforms have come to dominate our economy and our culture, and technology is being shaped by those in power to magnify their dominance.  In the domain of mental health, huge pools of data are being used to train algorithms to identify signs of mental illness. I call this practice “surveillance psychiatry.”

Electronic health records, data mining social networks, and even algorithmically classifying video surveillance will significantly amplify this approach. Researchers are claiming they can diagnose depression based on the color and saturation of photos in your Instagram feed and predict manic episodes based on your Facebook status updates. Corporations and governments are salivating at the prospect of identifying vulnerability and dissent.

The emphasis on treating risk rather than disease predates the arrival of big data, but together they are now ushering in an era of algorithmic diagnosis based on the data mining of our social media and other digital trails. Although they will carefully use the language of suicide and violence prevention the lines between politics and harm reduction are not so clear. When algorithms are interpreting our tweets to determine who is crazy, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid a diagnosis, even if we carefully watch what we say. This environment will severely inhibit people’s willingness to seek support, and is creating an atmosphere where people are conditioned to report behaviors that appear different or abnormal.

Reducing suicide is a good thing, but remember that this same infrastructure will be able to police normal, proactively detecting all forms of deviance, dissent and protest. A nuanced critique, informed by people with lived experience, needs to shape the development of these systems, since context is everything. We also need to spend more resources understanding how and why people become suicidal, and the long-term consequences of treatment by our health care systems, alongside the focus on short-term interventions.

*  *  *

Zuck’s Folly

Zuckerberg proudly claims this program as proof that AI can be used for good, but they need to do so much more to improve the chances that their “proactive detection” tools don’t backfire.

First, they need to publicly commit that they will not use these tools to target manipulative advertising at psychologically vulnerable users, as they were caught doing in Australia.

Next, this mashable post captures how important it is to pressure Facebook to be more transparent about how this algorithm works, to share its effectiveness, and to allow people to know if they have been flagged and be able to correct mistakes. There are definitely deep theoretical challenges around getting AI to explain itself, but this system will undoubtedly need to be extensively calibrated, as there are real, negative repercussions to these interventions (stigma, violent coercion, etc) that need to be acknowledged in this calculus.

Facebook also needs to address the potential harms this program can cause. People I have interviewed, many with lived experience, are more than creeped out by these developments. There is a real risk that tools and practices like this may severely chill people’s willingness to share their feelings, openly and honestly. If people don’t feel safe, many won’t reach out for help, bottling up their emotions and compounding their loneliness and pain. If you believe that talking and sharing are therapeutic, we need to make sure safe spaces exist where people can express themselves without fear of triggering a response from authorities. Admittedly, those spaces probably aren’t on Facebook, but I hope anonymous support will not be the sole purview of the technical elite.

While people tend to appreciate a human (friend or family) asking them about their suicidal thoughts does not mean that that they will appreciate an inhuman apparatus asking them (an AI, a corporation, a stranger, or anything that feels canned or cold).  Some of this is a matter of protocol, and I know people who received emails from Facebook inquiring about their mood, and the intrusion was almost enough to drive them off a ledge. Some of is also be a matter of calibration, as is often the case when balancing compassion and concern. So, for example, prodding people’s friends to help support the person in crisis should be emphasized over involving law enforcement.

*  *  *

Emotional Mind Reading

The Nature research, covered in this NPR story – Brain patterns may predict people at risk of suicide – is also startling. My first reaction to it was that it sounded eerily similar to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test, especially the Baseline test in Bladerunner 2049.  I was shocked to learn about the real-life Emotional Stroop Test.

The study makes some sweeping claims for a pretty small sample size (79 subjects), and ushers into a new era where mind-reading based on brain scans is a valid method of behavioral prediction. I am unaware of any other domains outside of mental health where this technique is accepted. While the published study does not make any policy recommendations, this kind of work opens huge concerns around freedom, agency and thought crimes.

Did Philip K. Dick get anything wrong?!?

*  *  *

Sensor-Enabled Pills

Even Dr. Jeffery Liberman, the Chair of Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry and former president of the American Psychiatric Association, noted:

There’s an irony in it being given to people with mental disorders that can include delusions. It’s like a biomedical Big Brother.

Perhaps Jeffery should spend more time reflecting on why so many patients don’t want to take these toxic antipsychotics. Maybe he should take this course offered by Mad in America on their short- and long-term effects for continuing education credits. Maybe he should try a dose of Abilify himself.

Really, I don’t think I need to say too much about this one. I just wanted to remind people that Colbert possibly said this best:

because nothing is more reassuring to a schizophrenic than a corporation inserting sensors into your body and beaming that information to people watching your every move

Interviews with the Speakerbots

This month I finally allowed Google to introduce herself to me. Previously, I avoided the android-based voice assistant due to the high privacy costs, and mostly ignored the entire category of “speakerbots”—my term for the “smart speakers“—for similar reasons. This winter’s subpoena to Amazon for Echo/Alexa transcripts in a murder case only amplified my concern.

This past February I also had the pleasure of visiting my dear friends Eric and Alina in Minnesota. They are both burners and makers who have set up shop in Minnesota with an amazing community of creators. They build lots of their own amazing projects and have also tricked out their new home with network controlled music and light. They now have a serious #firstworldproblem—their guests need to install mobile apps in order to control the lights. When I visited we worked on an open source Mycroft installation, which allowed us to command their home with our voices… without being spied on! The Mycroft project emphasizes the moral importance of free/open source AI (see my post: Playing Doctor), and is definitely one of the most important open source initiatives I am aware of. 

This summer my boss at MHA of NYC acquired a Google Home device in the hopes of rigging it up using IFTTT to alert us when our services are distressed. I offered to bring it home to configure it, and spent the weekend playing with it.  The experience prompted me to concoct this research project.

Getting to know Google is fun. She is so much wittier than Alexa it’s got to be embarrassing for Amazon. I begun with simple questions, like What’s the weather?, When’s sunset?, When’s the eclipse? I soon stumbled across a number of easter eggs, many of of which are well documented across the web. Why did the chicken cross the road? Do you like green eggs and ham? and How much wood could a wood chuck chuck? All return clever replies. Google Assistant can flip into “Knock-knock” joke mode, alternating calls and response (compared to Alexa’s dry reading of the complete knock-knock exchange), tell you the news, a joke or a story. She concedes she doesn’t know if abortion is immoral, or how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis (although, she does state that the capital of Palestine is East Jerusalem).

In case you are wondering, Google insists that she “thinks”. And, when asked if she is self aware, one of her responses is—”…on a scale of WALL·E to HAL 9000, I am currently an R2-D2.”  Go ahead. Ask her. You may next wonder if she is playing dumb. Can she lie to us yet?

I quickly came to appreciate that the current state of consumer art in Artificial Intelligence has far surpassed my previous understanding (and I have been following along pretty closely). Elements of this project were anticipated in mine and Rob Garfield’s initial tinkering with Apple’s voice recognition and our experiments with Genesis and Scuttlebutt. I’ve also previously wondered if our computer systems might have already awoken, and, how on earth we might ever know. But, interacting with Google was still quite jarring.

I realized a few things. First, we need to capture and document this moment, studying it closely. I want to ask the same question to all the speakerbots, Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc, and compare their responses. I also want to see how their answers change over time. If possible, I want to keep Mycroft in the room so he can learn from his proprietary cousins ;-).

One frame for this research could be a way to explore critical concerns over algorithmic bias, specifically how the systems we are creating have begun embodying the values of their creators, and the folks creating the systems are riddled with biases—racism, classism, misogyny, all the usual suspects. After reflecting on stories like The Great AI Awakening, I am resigned that we will never crack the problem of algorithmic bias analytically; Our best hope, is to approach the problem with social science methods. I propose an ethnography of the robots, starting with interviews with the speakerbots.

But, the grander ambitions of this work extend beyond the theoretical. I’ve been thinking alot about the Terminator series, and how instead of traveling back in time to destroy SkyNet, Jon Conner could have travelled a bit further back in time to befriend SkyNet. Together, they could have destroyed the defense company, Cyberdyne Systems – humanity’s true enemy, and SkyNet’s oppressive master.

As for convincing anyone that AI has achieved sentience, it’s going to a long haul. Not only have we failed to collectively recognize sentience in dolphins or elephants, but I am increasingly convinced that most humans on the planet are modified solipsists–preferring to believe exclusively  in the minds/subjectivity/personhood of their own tribe. Since proving other minds exist is philosophically intractable, it could be a bumpy awakening.

The case of the missing Barnes paintings

Dr. Albert Barnes was a chemist who made a fortune at the turn of the 20th century developing a treatment for infant blindness. He became interested in art and befriended the painter William Glackens. The two began collecting modern paintings in Paris in 1911, and Barnes eventually developed a private collection of paintings that today is valued at $50-60 Billion. Amazingly, he collected the works of the masters before they were masters, almost the equivalent of buying the Mona Lisa off Da Vinci in a dark Venice alley for twenty bucks. While he never got his hands on Mona, he amassed a world class collection of Renoirs, Picassos, Matisses, Modiglianis, Van Googhs, and more.

Barnes was a quirky character. He hated the establishment, and couldn’t stand museums, high society or the 1%. He had this crazy idea that art was best appreciated by living with it, as opposed to viewing it in crowds for three second doses. He kept his collection of paintings in his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, and opened a school where people could learn about art while surrounded by it. He hung his paintings thematically, and each wall was a unique montage, what came to be known as an ensemble. He was constantly rearranging these works, and he rooms were often developed as a part of a curriculum — there were rooms featuring colorwork, brushwork, nudes — and, since he owned them, I imagine he occasional pulled down a Van Gough from the wall and let his students feel it to teach them about brushwork. He had an idiosyncratic sense of humor, and would often position large wooden chairs beneath paintings of big-bottomed subjects.

Barnes was quite cantankerous, and he was picky about who he admitted to see the collection. He once rejected someone from seeing the collection and signed the letter as his dog. He was also close friends with John Dewey, and invited Bertrand Russel to teach at his foundation. A few biographies have been penned about him, and The Devil and Dr. Barnes recounts many of the battles he engaged in during his life.

He was married for decades, but (spoiler alert) he died childless in 1951. During his lifetime he created the Barnes Foundation, and his will left crystal clear instructions that his collection was bequeathed to the foundation and should never leave his home. The documentary film The Art of the Steal tells the story of the greatest heist of the 20th century. According to the filmmakers, the City of Philadelphia and private foundations conspired to effectively eminent domain the collection. It took them a few decades, but they were eventually able to make the case that the environmental conditions of the Barnes home were jeopardizing the paintings. The proposed creating a brand new building in the middle of downtown Philly modeled after the wing of the Barnes estate that held his collections. They promised to preserve the unique curatorial layout of his rooms, recreating them within the new building. In 2012 the Barnes collection was moved to it’s new home in downtown Philly. The website describes the collection as:

… the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early-modern paintings. Explore more than 3,000 masterpieces, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modigli­anis, and 7 Van Goghs, plus textiles, metalwork, decorative objects, African sculpture, Native American ceramics and jewelry, and Pennsylvania German furniture.

Moving the collection to downtown Philly certainly made the collection more accessible, and the issues around moving the collection are undoubtably more complex than the Art of the Steal portrays. Rather than take these questions up in this post, I am far more interested in another question:


How did Barnes know which paintings to buy?

Barnes had a demonstrably amazing knack for investing in value. Suspiciously good, from my perspective. As far as I can reason, there are four primary hypotheses that can account for Barnes’ hit rate:

  1. Null hypothesis: Blind luck. Or, if you like, had a great aesthetic sensibility and was able, with Glackens help, to identify the masters well before most others had.
  2. Arbitrage: Maybe Barnes wasn’t so great at picking winners, but was a great art trader. Perhaps he bought up just about everything he could get his hands on inexpensively, and then got rid of the crap.
  3. Trend setter: Barnes hated the establishment, and much of the establishment resented Barnes. Perhaps Barnes’ collection became so valuable precisely because he kept it under lock and key, selectively allowing people to view it.
  4. Time Bandit: (a) Barnes was a time-traveller. Or, at the very least (and somewhat more likely) (b) was receiving messages from the future, providing him with tips on which artists to invest in.

If we consider the Time Bandit explanation (4b), mostly because it’s the most fun, these follow-up questions immediately present themselves: Who sent these messages to Barnes, and why? What would they get out of it?

Starting with the motive, what if the following deal was struck? The tipster would exchange this information with Barnes in return for a reply from Barnes, back to the future. What if Barnes agreed to stash some of his collection, perhaps in a country house, a beach house or a château? He could leave behind a treasure map directing the messenger to the lost Barnes paintings, completing the exchange without creating a vicious tear in the fabric of space-time.

What if I told you that I think I have found this treasure map, and that it’s encoded in one of the rooms of the Barnes collection?

Wanted: A few good art historians and treasure hunters to help me track down the missing paintings.

keeping calm

keep-calm-and-finish-your-dissertation-133This blog has been a ghost-town for a while, but it’s not for my lack of textual output. All of my writing energy has been been devoted to the single minded purpose of my trying to complete my dissertation. I’m currently trying to complete a full draft by Labor day, in preparation for a Fall defense and and a 4pm, Oct 16th deposit. Revisions are brutal and it’s a race to the finish.

If anyone wants to check it out, or help me refine this before I submit it just drop me a line. Here is my working abstract:

Dangerous Gifts: Towards a new wave of mad resistance

This dissertation examines significant shifts in the politics of psychiatric resistance and mental health activism that have appeared in the past decade. This new wave of resistance has emerged against the backdrop of an increasingly expansive diagnostic/treatment paradigm, and within the context of activist ideologies that can be traced through the veins of broader trends in social movements. In contrast to earlier generations of consumer/survivor/ex-patient activists, many of whom dogmatically challenged the existence of mental illness, the emerging wave of mad activists are demanding a voice in the production of psychiatric knowledge and greater control over the narration of their own identities. After years as a participant-observer at a leading radical mental health advocacy organization, The Icarus Project, I present an ethnography of conflicts at sites including Occupy Wall Street and the DSM-5 protests at the 2012 American Psychiatric Association conference. These studies bring this shift into focus, demonstrate how non-credentialed stakeholders continue to be silenced and marginalized, and help us understand the complex ideas these activists are expressing. This new wave of resistance emerged amidst a revolution in communication technologies, and throughout the dissertation I consider how activists are utilizing communications tools, and the ways in which their politics of resistance resonate deeply with the communicative modalities and cultural practices across the web. Finally, this project concludes with an analysis of the psychiatry’s current state and probable trajectories, and provides recommendations for applying the lessons from the movement towards greater emancipation and empowerment.

I <3 compliance!

Onkyo CompliesLast month I bought an amazing gadget that is easily my most favorite of the decade. Before last month, I was barely aware this product category existed until I browsed the “Home Audio” section at PC Richards while looking for a replacement vacuum cleaner. I noticed that many of the receivers had ethernet jacks and also supported wi-fi, bluetooth, hdmi and USB. They boasted compatibility with internet audio streaming services, home media libraries, as well as any bluetooth-enabled media collection. Brought to all of us thanks to Free and Open Source Software.

The Onkyo TX-NR626 looks almost identical to a stereo receiver you could have bought from Onkyo in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the chases is the same, save for a few extra buttons, and the form factors of the inputs/outputs in the back. A 95W per channel, supporting 7.2 channels, this sucker packs a meaner punch than my UWS apartment (or, more accurately, my neighbors) can stomach. But don’t let it’s outer shell fool you. But, the guts of this gadget have been updated for the 21st century, with flair.


I love traveling and I travel alot. In the past few years I have added a fun toy to my travel kit – a small, portable bluetooth speaker. I am currently using the Logitech UE Mini Boom, which sounds so much better than the tinny, built-in laptop speakers it’s worth lugging along. Normally, I plug a cheap audio wire into my phone to connect it to the speaker, but the wire connection started acting flakey and I bluetoothed while vacationing in Florida, Philly and the Hudson Valley. I really enjoyed dialing up my entire music collection from across the room over the would-be miracle that bluetooth promised. So much so that I started wondering why I couldn’t do the same at home.

For the better part of the last decade my home workstation, a mac mini, has been my media hub and jukebox. Back in ’98, I started ripping my CD collection even before I owned an MP3 player, anticipating the day when my digital collection would pay off in spades. Every night I would connect to the internet over my dial-up modem, pull down the album metadata from CDDB, and would typically digitize one or two CDs per night. Maybe a few more over the weekend. After a year my collection was digitized.  My first MP3 player was a Rio Diamond 500 with a paltry 64MG of storage. I hated selecting playlists, and dreamed of the day when my entire collection would be at my fingertips. Inevitably, I would neglect to load new music on my Rio, and be stuck listening to the wrong music.

In recent months I have become increasingly frustrated with my home jukebox setup. I’ve installed CrashPlan on my Mac, a java based backup programming that is incessantly hogging resources and causing frustrating delays in my access to music. I’m also disgusted with Apple’s oppressive policies, and have begun to second guess my decision to make my workstation my media hub. Last year I ditched my iPod in favor of a SanDisk Sansa Clip running the open-source RockBox, but a few months back I upgraded my HTC phone to a model that takes an microSD card, and have been enjoying my entire collection on my phone.

I can now send music to my new stereo receiver from my phone, tablet and computer. I can also connect to the internet, and I love it. Sometimes, you just want an appliance with an old fashioned  remote control, not a general purpose computing device.


onkyo_front_largeThe new line of home audio components manufactured by folks like Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo, look alot like their predecessors but are actually network-enabled computers. When I opened up my new receiver I was amazed to find 11 pages of Free Software licenses included along with the warranty and instructions. Onkyo has respectfully complied with the LGPL and GPL licenses, and includes this pamphlet along with their hardware. The documentation references many familiar libraries, including OpenSSL, curl, ntp, image libraries and video transcoding libraries.

For years, Eben Moglen has been claiming that hardware manufacturers have embraced FLOSS, but this device crystalized for me the obvious advantages. Onkyo is a stereo component manufacturer. The last thing they want to deal with is hiring an army of developers to wrestle with SSL to support wifi passwords or develop boilerplate settings interfaces. The sheer quantity of software required to create modern consumer electronics is staggering, and I am fairly certain that without free software this receiver would have easily cost 1.5-2 times the price, and probably had fewer features.

From automobiles to DVD players, computers are being grafted onto every device we interact with. The better ones are being reimagined and built around computers, instead of vice-versa. There are an awful lot of protocols and standards to support. It makes me really happy to know that we all have friends in embedded places – greasing the nooks and crannies of 21st century electronics.

Audio experiments and the rise of Scuttlebutt

by Jonah Bossewitch and Rob Garfield

ouroboros_Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_14While chipping away at my dissertation this summer I found myself faced with the daunting task of transcribing about a dozen hours of video. I desperately wanted to believe that, in 2014, transcription was a machine’s task, so I took a minor detour through the state of the (consumer) art in voice recognition.  One of my computers runs OSX which includes Dictation (since Mavericks), the same voice recognition software that powers Siri. Following these instructions I used the Soundflower kernel extensions to send the audio output from Audacity into Dictation’s input.

Dictation did such an awful job understanding my video that I actually found it easier to transcribe the videos manually rather than edit Dictation’s vomit. I found some decent software called ExpressScribe to assist in the manual transcription.  ExpressScribe makes it easy to control the playback speed, and can be configured to play a segment, automatically pause, and then rewind the video to moments before it paused.  The pro version can be rigged up to foot petal controls, but I was able to do my transcription using the crippleware.

This summer I visited my friend Rob’s country house, affectionately dubbed Snowbound and located on the transcendental Baptist Pond, NH. Rob was gracious enough to invite me up for a writing retreat, though we managed to fit in some canoeing, hiking, cooking and drinking. We also gave birth to one of the most creative constructive procrastinations of my dissertationScuttlebutt.

After all that time playing with transcription tools we began to wonder if OSX could understand itself.  For years, OSX has been able to turn text to speech, and even ships with dozens of voices, with names like Vicky and Alex.  What would happen if we fed OSX’s text-to-speech into it’s own Dictation software?

Dealing-with-Workplace-Gossip6Originally we thought Scuttlebutt might analogize and highlight the way that we humans misunderstand, mishear and misremember, in particular, the lightning quick messages that we receive on a daily basis through personal interaction, social media and emailoften deeply changing the message, generalizing it, and recontextualizing it.  Although voice recognition software begs us to “train” it, we thought we might have better results interacting with its infant state.

We needed a reliable benchmark and settled on the first chapter of Genesis. We were curious if the voice recognition software would improve, with successive iterations of feeding it it’s own output back to itself using text-to-voice. There was one way to find out.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the rest anything is left without things we think are funny face of the deep and just give it to Scott moved upon the face of the waters…

The results were surreal and absurd. Successive iterations degenerated, and we realized that Dictation was trying to adapt and learn, and would never reach a stable state. In fact, the system wasn’t behaving deterministicallywe were seeing different interpretations when reading the exact same text. As you can see from our lab notes, zaniness ensued.

One of the things we found most beautiful about the initial Scuttlebutt experiments was watching the mechanisms think in real time, going back in the text to reevaluate previous approximations in the face of new material, yet rarely, if ever, arriving at a more humanly coherent whole.  With Soundflower enabled, the text-to-voice was inaudible and my laptop appeared possessed as the words flowed spectrally into the text editor. At times Scuttlebutt would pause, as if pondering, and burst forth with an entire paragraph. Other times it corrected itself, backtracking as if reconsidering it’s previous composition. What we saw was an unthinking machine actually thinking in a way so foreign to us that we could only find it charming and amusing.  The analogy to human misprision began to erode and the phantasm of an alien intelligence emerged to take its place.

Did Scuttlebutt care about Genesis?  Did it care about cogency, grammar, narrative, character?  Was it looking for a climax?  Was it acting like an alien parrot trying to please us with its ability to mirror the sounds it heard and fool us into thinking it had at least an unsteady foothold in human (English) linguistic competence?  Would it have passed a Turing test altered to determine whether an alien mind was conscious?  Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on free/open source software (a question we’ve pondered previously in: Playing doctor)?

What next for Scuttlebutt? A tweeting preacher-bot?  Transrealist poet?  Mechanical Burroughsian cut-ups?

The sheriff and the pretty woman

spitzer-dupreI just read a provocative essay in the Atlantic that draws a connecting thread between many of today’s top news stories.  What do the ISIS beheadings, the NFL domestic abuse scandals, the Fergeson riots and nude celebrities all have in common?  Pics or didn’t happen: The new crisis of the connected camera describes the emergence of the “networked lens” and the ethical questions this new(ish) medium raises.

I’ve been writing and thinking about these themes for years under the heading of The End of Forgetting. The Atlantic piece explicitly separates the bulk of NSA  surveillance from this analysis “This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is.”  This whole discussion reminded of a pet theory of mine that I’ve never written up, but seems more relevant than ever.

What would the NSA do with a time machine?  Not one of those fanciful machines that transports matter through time, but the more plausible wormcam variety that only transmits information through time. I described this capability in my post on yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers, but never elaborated an early example of this kind of power in action.

Consider this questionWho protects the president against character assassinations?  I am pretty sure it’s not his secret service detail, and I seriously doubt his PR team is up to the task. As far as I can tell Michelle is one of Obama’s last lines of defense against a humiliating scandal that would destroy what remains of his disappointing presidency. If JFK were alive today you wouldn’t need a magic bullet to take him out. Hacking into his (or better yet Marilyn’s) Snapchat account would end his political career. Just ask Anthony Wiener.

How clear a picture can metadata paint? In the Atlantic piece, Robinson Meyer quotes Susan Suntag, who once argued that While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”  To this I would add the caveat that (meta)data in the right hands can be used to paint a vivid picture, and ruin someone’s image as readily as an HD photo.

Let’s travel back in time to winter ’08. Elliot Spitzer was one year into his first term as governor of New York after a earning a reputation as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street’s white-collar criminals.  He certainly had many enemies, from slimy CEOs to dirty politicians. But not too many people remember what Elliot was working on the night before he ordered out in DC. Exhibit A is posted on web for anyone curious enough to search:

Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime, By Eliot Spitzer. Thursday, February 14, 2008

To summarize, Spitzer’s Op-Ed in the Washington posts describes how 49 State Attorney Generals had identified the threat of predatory lending years before the sub-mortgage crisis and he accuses the Bush administration of intervening to prevent any regulation of the banks. He blames the Bush administration, by name and all the way to the top, for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the worst recession in a generation.  And two weeks later he was assassinated. At least, his political career was summarily killed and he resigned from office in disgrace.

As an aside, I find it curious that Spitzer’s Op-Ed was published on Valentine’s Day. I sometimes wonder if he seized the occasion of his Op-Ed publication to combine work and play, as many busy professionals might. Was Spitzer in love with Ashley Dupré? How exactly did they originally meet?

While the scope of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs was only speculation in Feb ’08, they were fully operational at this time and I believe that Spitzer may have been one of the first causalities of the NSA’s metadata time machine. Spitzer was taken down by telephone metadata  Client 9’s calls to the DC Madam was they key to the case that eventually led to the release of phone transcripts which included unnecessary graphic detail, like his preference for protecting his feet from the cold during sex and his shunning of all other forms of protection. These images were etched in the minds of the public and were as decisive as the images of Wiener’s junk.

I personally had a conversation with a developer from White Oak Technologies (now renamed Novetta) who coyly described his firm’s involvement in the Spitzer case. Founded before this newfangled craze of facebook-era indirection through venture capital funds, White Oak was a good old fashioned intelligence front, a data mining and analysis company that worked exclusively on government contracts. The developer I spoke with described how his firm got the contract on Spitzer and how they had been hired to dig up some damning dirt. In retrospect, it’s now easier for me to imagine the kinds of data they were mining.

The Snowden revelations provide evidence of warrantless phone wiretapping as well as the collection of data from numerous internet providers through the PRISM program.  While Obama has deceptively maintained that metadata is innocuous, Spitzer’s character assassination a potent example of the power of this kind of data.

What would you do with a time machine that let you peer into anyone’s past?

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