Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

A Moment of Silence for Aaron Swartz

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I am joining three academic research web sites, SIFT and Polyphen (websites for predicting disease mutations) and CRAVAT (a website for predicting cancer mutations), in a moment of silence to mark Aaron Swartz’ passing. On January 25, we will bring down our sites for the day to honor his contributions and mark the tragedy of his passing.

Aaron’s treatment by MIT is not unfamiliar to me. Back when I was a graduate student there, I extracted security keys from the original Microsoft Xbox video game console. I still remember the crushing disappointment of receiving a letter from MIT legal repudiating any association with my work, effectively leaving me on my own to face Microsoft. However, in my case, the faculty of my then-lab, the AI lab, were outraged by this treatment. They openly defied MIT legal by publishing my work as an official AI Lab Memo, thereby granting me greater negotiating leverage with Microsoft. Microsoft, mindful of the potential backlash from the court of public opinion over suing an openly legitimized academic researcher, came to a civil understanding with me over the issue.

It saddens me that America’s so-called government for the people, by the people, and of the people has less compassion and enlightenment toward their fellow man than a corporation. Having been a party myself to subsequent legal bullying by other entities, I am all too familiar with how ugly and gut-wrenching a high-stakes lawsuit can be. Fortunately, the stakes in my cases were not as high, nor my adversaries as formidable as Aaron’s, otherwise I too might have succumbed to hopelessness and fear. A few years ago, I started rebuilding my life overseas, and I find a quantum of solace in the thought that my residence abroad makes it a little more difficult to be served.

While the US legal system strives for justice, the rules of the system create an asymmetric war that favors those with resources. By and far one of the most effective methods to force a conclusion, right or wrong, against a small player is to simply bleed them of resources and the will to fight through pre-trial antics. Your entire life feels like it is under an electron microscope, every tiny blemish magnified into a pitched battle of motions, counter-motions, discovery, subpoenas and affidavits, with each action heaping tens of thousands of dollars onto your legal bill. Your friends, co-workers, employers, and family are drawn into this circus of humiliation as witnesses. Worse yet, you are counseled not to speak your candid thoughts to anyone, lest they be summoned as a witness against you. Isolated and afraid, it eventually makes more sense to roll over and settle than to take the risk of losing on a technicality versus a better-funded adversary, regardless of the justice.

The US government is by and far the most well-funded and fearsome enemy to spar with, and copyright law has some unusually large, if not cruel, penalties associated with it. I don’t know Aaron personally, but I feel the magnitude of the bullying he was subjected to is reflected by his decision to end his life. I echo Larry Lessig’s notion that the legal system in the US needs a sense of shame. At least to an outsider like me, it seems like some prosecutors in the US government are obsessed with making a big name for themselves. Winning cases gets them the recognition and credibility needed for promotions and assignments to ever higher profile cases. It’s not about justice, it’s about victory.

This system of incentives, I feel, contributes to the shameless bullying of individuals and small entities with enough guts to stand up and to do something a little daring. Individuals are robbed of the will and strength to fight for what they feel is right, as the mere act of prosecution can be as much a punishment as the verdict. As a result, I fear the era of civil disobedience may be coming to a close.

What has America become?

Sifteo Gen2: from Concept to Product

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Some readers may have already seen this, but adafruit has a great article written by Sifteo engineer Elizabeth Micah Scott about the challenges and trade-offs they encountered bringing their Gen2 product to market (full disclosure: I am an advisor for Sifteo).

I really appreciate the candidness of the writing, and the openness with which they discuss internal design aspects that many startups would normally regard as highly secret sauce. Then again, they do some amazingly clever things with very light, cheap 8-bit hardware, and they have every right to be proud of their technical accomplishments.

Sifteo has an SDK for those interested in developing for the platform.

I highly recommend the read, check out the article titled “How we built a Super Nintendo out of a Wireless Keyboard @Sifteo” here.

85,000 Watts of Pure Love

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Ever wonder what 85,000 watts looks like? Fear not, above is a handy visual aid.

This is the Robot Heart, which drove every night onto the deep playa at Burning Man and filled the desert with the cleanest, most powerful sound system I had ever heard. It was love at first beat — you can feel the bass in your chest from over a hundred meters away, and it sounds fabulous close-up. And the desert being a near-ideal infinite baffle, there are no reflections or echos to diminish the soundfield; you can still hear the clear and pure sound of the Robot Heart from almost a kilometer away. The best part is the whole thing is on wheels — it’s a rather surreal sight to see hundreds of people clad in fuzzy hats, LEDs, and EL-wire dance-walking along side the Robot Heart as it slowly migrates into the deep desert.

There’s nothing like watching the sunrise to the beats of the Robot Heart.

Shout-out to the Phage for being such an awesome and kind group of people to camp with. :) There’s no better way to spend a week camping in the desert than learning from a bunch of interesting and intelligent people.

Leaked In

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

As many readers already know, Linked In had a password database leak. Since Linked In’s implementation of password hashing didn’t use salt, a variety of methods including rainbow tables and brute force can be used to guess the passwords. There’s even a handy website called that computes the password hash and checks to see if the resulting scrambled password is within the leaked set.

I thought it’d be fun to try to guess some passwords just based on intuition alone, using LeakedIn to check the guesses. Here’s some of the more entertaining passwords that are in the database: ‘obama2012’, ‘Obama2012’, ‘paladin’, ‘linkedinsucks’, ‘fuckyou’, ‘godsaveus’, ‘ihatemyjob’, ‘ihatejews’ (tsk tsk), ‘manson’, ‘starbucks’, ‘qwer1234’, ‘qwerty’, ‘aoeusnth’ (hello fellow dvorak user!), ‘bigtits’ (really?), ‘colbert’, ‘c0lbert’, ‘bieber’, ‘ilovejustin’, ’50cent’, ‘john316’, ‘john3:16’, ‘John3:16’, ‘1cor13’, ‘psalm23’, ‘exodus20’, ‘isiah40’, ‘Matthew6:33’, ‘hebrews11’ (bible verses are quite popular passwords!).

Interestingly, there is no ‘romney2012’ or any variant thereof.

Interview with MAKE: The End of chumby, New Adventures

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Last week, the Internet discovered the end of chumby as you have known it. My exit from the company five months ago was deliberately discreet. It was a good run, but it was also time for me to move on. Upon hearing the news, my good friend Phil Torrone reached out to do an interview, and I was happy to oblige. The interview encapsulates some of my experiences that may be applicable to others excited to get into the hardware business. Here’s some of the questions that I answer for Phil:

  • Can you talk about making a device from start to finish, from idea to factory to retail shelves?
  • What were the challenges with retail sales?
  • Did you get any patents? How do they work within the world of open-source?
  • Do you have any advice for a maker who is considering taking VC funding? Anything different if they’re doing open-source hardware?
  • What are your thoughts on Kickstarter for funding?
  • When you advise companies what do you most often suggest to the founders?
  • If you could do it over, how would you change the hardware of the Chumby? The software? The way Chumby was made?
  • Now that you’ve been part of a full cycle of a VC funded company that makes hardware, what suggestions do you have for company structure, from the people to the location, to the overall organization?
  • What’s next for bunnie, what are most excited about to do next?

    If you’re interested, have a read at the jump!