Archive for the ‘Social’ Category

New US Tariffs are Anti-Maker and Will Encourage Offshoring

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

The new 25% tariffs announced by the USTR, set to go into effect on July 6th, are decidedly anti-Maker and ironically pro-offshoring. I’ve examined the tariff lists (List 1 and List 2), and it taxes the import of basic components, tools and sub-assemblies, while giving fully assembled goods a free pass. The USTR’s press release is careful to mention that the tariffs “do not include goods commonly purchased by American consumers such as cellular telephones or televisions.”

Think about it – big companies with the resources to organize thousands of overseas workers making TVs and cell phones will have their outsourced supply chains protected, but small companies that still assemble valuable goods from basic parts inside the US are about to see significant cost increases. Worse yet educators, already forced to work with a shoe-string budget, are going to return from their summer recess to find that basic parts, tools and components for use in the classroom are now significantly more expensive.


Above: The Adafruit MetroX Classic Kit is representative of a typical electronics education kit. Items marked with an “X” in the above image are potentially impacted by the new USTR tariffs.

New Tariffs Reward Offshoring, Encourage IP Flight

Some of the most compelling jobs to bring back to the US are the so-called “last screw” system integration operations. These often involve the complex and precise process of integrating simple sub-assemblies into high-value goods such as 3D printers or cell phones. Quality control and IP protection are paramount. I often advise startups to consider putting their system integration operations in the US because difficult-to-protect intellectual property, such as firmware, never has to be exported if the firmware upload operation happens in the US. The ability to leverage China for low-value subassemblies opens more headroom to create high-value jobs in the US, improving the overall competitiveness of American companies.

Unfortunately, the structure of the new tariffs are exactly the opposite of what you would expect to bring those jobs back to the US. Stiff new taxes on simple components, sub-assemblies, and tools like soldering irons contrasted against a lack of taxation on finished goods pushes business owners to send these “last screw” operation overseas. Basically, with these new tariffs the more value-add sent outside the borders of the US, the more profitable a business will be. Not even concerns over IP security could overcome a 25% increase in base costs and keep operations in the US.

It seems the intention of the new tariff structure was to minimize the immediate pain that voters would feel in the upcoming mid-terms by waiving taxes on finished goods. Unfortunately, the reality is it gives small businesses that were once considering setting up shop in the US a solid reason to look off-shore, while rewarding large corporations for heavy investments in overseas operations.

New Tariffs Hurt Educators and Makers

Learning how to blink a light is the de-facto introduction to electronics. This project is often done with the help of a circuit board, such as a Microbit or Chibi Chip, and a type of light known as an LED. Unfortunately, both of those items – simple circuit boards and LEDs – are about to get 25% more expensive with the new tariffs, along with other Maker and educator staples such as capacitors, resistors, soldering irons, and oscilloscopes. The impact of this cost hike will be felt throughout the industry, but most sharply by educators, especially those serving under-funded school districts.


Above: Learning to blink a light is the de-facto introduction to electronics, and it typically involves a circuit board and an LED, like those pictured above.

Somewhere on the Pacific Ocean right now floats a container of goods for ed-tech startup Chibitronics. The goods are slated primarily for educators and Makers that are stocking up for the fall semester. It will arrive in the US the second week of July, and will likely be greeted by a heavy import tax. I know this because I’m directly involved in the startup’s operations. Chibitronics’ core mission is to serve the educator market, and as part of that we routinely offered deep discounts on bulk products for educators and school systems. Now, thanks to the new tariffs on the basic components that educators rely upon to teach electronics, we are less able to fulfill our mission.

A 25% jump in base costs forces us to choose between immediate price increases or cutting the salaries of our American employees who support the educators. These new tariffs are a tax on America’s future – it deprives some of the most vulnerable groups of access to technology education, making future American workers less competitive on the global stage.


Above: Educator-oriented learning kits like the Chibitronics “Love to Code” are slated for price increases this fall due to the new tariffs.

Protectionism is Bad for Technological Leadership

Recently, I was sent photos by Hernandi Krammes of a network card that was manufactured in Brazil around 1992. One of the most striking features of the card was how retro it looked – straight out of the 80’s, a full decade behind its time. This is a result of Brazil’s policy of protectionist tariffs on the import of high-tech components. While stiff tariffs on the import of microchips drove investment in local chip companies, trade barriers meant the local companies didn’t have to be as competitive. With less incentive to re-invest or upgrade, local technology fell behind the curve, leading ultimately to anachronisms like the Brazilian Ethernet card pictured below.


Above: this Brazilian network card from 1992 features design techniques from the early 80’s. It is large and clunky compared to contemporaneous cards.

Significantly, it’s not that the Brazilian engineers were any less clever than their Western counterparts: they displayed considerable ingenuity getting a network card to work at all using primarily domestically-produced components. The tragedy is instead of using their brainpower to create industry-leading technology, most of their effort went into playing catch-up with the rest of the world. By the time protectionist policies were repealed in Brazil, the local industry was too far behind to effectively compete on a global scale.

Should the US follow Brazil’s protectionist stance on trade, it’s conceivable that some day I might be remarking on the quaintness of American network cards compared to their more advanced Chinese or European counterparts. Trade barriers don’t make a country more competitive – in fact, quite the opposite. In a competition of ideas, you want to start with the best tech available anywhere; otherwise, you’re still jogging to the starting line while the competition has already finished their first lap.

Stand Up and Be Heard

There is a sliver of good news in all of this for American Makers. The list of commodities targeted in the trade war is not yet complete. The “List 2” items – which include all manner of microchips, motors, and plastics (such as 3D printer PLA filament and acrylic sheets for laser cutting) that are building blocks for small businesses and Makers – have yet to be ratified. The USTR website has indicated in the coming weeks they will disclose a process for public review and comment. Once this process is made transparent – whether you are a small business owner or the parent of a child with technical aspirations – I encourage you to please share your stories and concerns on how you will be negatively impacted by these additional tariffs.

Some of the List 2 items still under review include:

9030.31.00 Multimeters for measuring or checking electrical voltage, current, resistance or power, without a recording device
8541.10.00 Diodes, other than photosensitive or light-emitting diodes
8541.40.60 Diodes for semiconductor devices, other than light-emitting diodes, nesoi
8542.31.00 Electronic integrated circuits: processors and controllers
8542.32.00 Electronic integrated circuits: memories
8542.33.00 Electronic integrated circuits: amplifiers
8542.39.00 Electronic integrated circuits: other
8542.90.00 Parts of electronic integrated circuits and microassemblies
8501.10.20 Electric motors of an output of under 18.65 W, synchronous, valued not over $4 each
8501.10.60 Electric motors of an output of 18.65 W or more but not exceeding 37.5 W
8501.31.40 DC motors, nesoi, of an output exceeding 74.6 W but not exceeding 735 W
8544.49.10 Insulated electric conductors of a kind used for telecommunications, for a voltage not exceeding 80 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.49.20 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, for a voltage not exceeding 80 V, not fitted with connectors
3920.59.80 Plates, sheets, film, etc, noncellular, not reinforced, laminated, combined, of other acrylic polymers, nesoi
3916.90.30 Monafilament nesoi, of plastics, excluding ethylene, vinyl chloride and acrylic polymers

Here’s some of the “List 1” items that are set to become 25% more expensive to import from China, come July 6th:

Staples used by every Maker or electronics educator:

8515.11.00 Electric soldering irons and guns
8506.50.00 Lithium primary cells and primary batteries
8506.60.00 Air-zinc primary cells and primary batteries
9030.20.05 Oscilloscopes and oscillographs, specially designed for telecommunications
9030.33.34 Resistance measuring instruments
9030.33.38 Other instruments and apparatus, nesoi, for measuring or checking electrical voltage, current, resistance or power, without a recording device
9030.39.01 Instruments and apparatus, nesoi, for measuring or checking

Circuit assemblies (like Microbit, Chibi Chip, Arduino):

8543.90.68 Printed circuit assemblies of electrical machines and apparatus, having individual functions, nesoi
9030.90.68 Printed circuit assemblies, NESOI

Basic electronic components:

8532.21.00 Tantalum fixed capacitors
8532.22.00 Aluminum electrolytic fixed capacitors
8532.23.00 Ceramic dielectric fixed capacitors, single layer
8532.24.00 Ceramic dielectric fixed capacitors, multilayer
8532.25.00 Dielectric fixed capacitors of paper or plastics
8532.29.00 Fixed electrical capacitors, nesoi
8532.30.00 Variable or adjustable (pre-set) electrical capacitors
8532.90.00 Parts of electrical capacitors, fixed, variable or adjustable (pre-set)
8533.10.00 Electrical fixed carbon resistors, composition or film types
8533.21.00 Electrical fixed resistors, other than composition or film type carbon resistors, for a power handling capacity not exceeding 20 W
8533.29.00 Electrical fixed resistors, other than composition or film type carbon resistors, for a power handling capacity exceeding 20 W
8533.31.00 Electrical wirewound variable resistors, including rheostats and potentiometers, for a power handling capacity not exceeding 20 W
8533.40.40 Metal oxide resistors
8533.40.80 Electrical variable resistors, other than wirewound, including rheostats and potentiometers
8533.90.80 Other parts of electrical resistors, including rheostats and potentiometers, nesoi
8541.21.00 Transistors, other than photosensitive transistors, with a dissipation rating of less than 1 W
8541.29.00 Transistors, other than photosensitive transistors, with a dissipation rating of 1 W or more
8541.30.00 Thyristors, diacs and triacs, other than photosensitive devices
8541.40.20 Light-emitting diodes (LED’s)
8541.40.70 Photosensitive transistors
8541.40.80 Photosensitive semiconductor devices nesoi, optical coupled isolators
8541.40.95 Photosensitive semiconductor devices nesoi, other
8541.50.00 Semiconductor devices other than photosensitive semiconductor devices, nesoi
8541.60.00 Mounted piezoelectric crystals
8541.90.00 Parts of diodes, transistors, similar semiconductor devices, photosensitive semiconductor devices, LED’s and mounted piezoelectric crystals
8504.90.75 Printed circuit assemblies of electrical transformers, static converters and inductors, nesoi
8504.90.96 Parts (other than printed circuit assemblies) of electrical transformers, static converters and inductors
8536.50.90 Switches nesoi, for switching or making connections to or in electrical circuits, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V
8536.69.40 Connectors: coaxial, cylindrical multicontact, rack and panel, printed circuit, ribbon or flat cable, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V
8544.49.30 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, of copper, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.49.90 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, not of copper, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.60.20 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, for a voltage exceeding 1,000 V, fitted with connectors
8544.60.40 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, of copper, for a voltage exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors

Parts to fix your phone if it breaks:

8537.10.80 Touch screens without display capabilities for incorporation in apparatus having a display
9033.00.30 Touch screens without display capabilities for incorporation in apparatus having a display
9013.80.70 Liquid crystal and other optical flat panel displays other than for articles of heading 8528, nesoi
9033.00.20 LEDs for backlighting of LCDs
8504.90.65 Printed circuit assemblies of the goods of subheading 8504.40 or 8504.50 for telecommunication apparatus

Power supplies:

9032.89.60 Automatic regulating or controlling instruments and apparatus, nesoi
9032.90.21 Parts and accessories of automatic voltage and voltage-current regulators designed for use in a 6, 12, or 24 V system, nesoi
9032.90.41 Parts and accessories of automatic voltage and voltage-current regulators, not designed for use in a 6, 12, or 24 V system, nesoi
9032.90.61 Parts and accessories for automatic regulating or controlling instruments and apparatus, nesoi
8504.90.41 Parts of power supplies (other than printed circuit assemblies) for automatic data processing machines or units thereof of heading 8471

Innovation Should Be Legal. That’s Why I’m Launching NeTV2.

Saturday, May 12th, 2018

I’d like to share a project I’m working on that could have an impact on your future freedoms in the digital age. It’s an open video development board I call NeTV2.

The Motivation

It’s related to a lawsuit I’ve filed with the help of the EFF against the US government to reform Section 1201 of the DMCA. Currently, Section 1201 imbues media cartels with nearly unchecked power to prevent us from innovating and expressing ourselves, thus restricting our right to free speech.

Have you ever noticed how smart TVs seem pretty dumb compared to our phones? It’s because Section 1201 enables a small cartel of stakeholders to pick and choose who gets to process video. So, for example, anyone is allowed to write a translation app for their smartphone that does real-time video translation of text. However, it’s potentially unlawful to build a box, even in the privacy of my own home, that implements the same thing over the HDCP-encrypted video feeds that go from my set top box to my TV screen.

This is due to a quirk of the DMCA that makes it unlawful for most citizens to bypass encryption – even for lawful free-speech activities, such as self-expression and innovation. Significantly, since the founding of the United States, it’s been unlawful to make copies of copyrighted work, and I believe the already stiff penalties for violating copyright law offer sufficient protection from piracy and theft.

However, in 1998 a group of lobbyists managed to convince Congress that the digital millennium presented an existential threat to copyright holders, and thus stiffer penalties were needed for the mere act of bypassing encryption, no matter the reason. These penalties are in addition to the existing penalties written into copyright law. By passing this law, Congress effectively turned bypassing encryption into a form of pre-crime, empowering copyright holders to be the sole judge, jury and executioner of what your intentions might have been. Thus, even if you were to bypass encryption solely for lawful purposes, such as processing video to translate text, the copyright holder nonetheless has the power to prosecute you for the “pre-crimes” that could follow from bypassing their encryption scheme. In this way, Section 1201 of the DMCA effectively gives corporations the power to license when and how you express yourself where encryption is involved.

I believe unchecked power to license freedom of expression should not be trusted to corporate interests. Encryption is important for privacy and security, and is winding its way into every corner of our life. It’s fundamentally a good thing, but we need to make sure that corporations can’t abuse Section 1201 to also control every corner of our life. In our digital age, the very canvas upon which we paint our thoughts can be access-controlled with cryptography, and we need the absolute right to paint our thoughts freely and share them broadly if we are to continue to live in a free and just society. Significantly, this does not diminish the power of copyrights one bit – this lawsuit simply aims to limit the expansive “pre-crime” powers granted to license holders, that is all.

Of course, even though the lawsuit is in progress, corporations still have the right to go after developers like you and me for the notional pre-crimes associated with bypassing encryption. However, one significant objection lodged by opponents of our lawsuit is that “no other users have specified how they are adversely affected by HDCP in their ability to make specific noninfringing use of protected content … [bunnie] has failed to demonstrate … how “users ‘are, or are likely to be,’ adversely affected by the prohibition on circumventing HDCP.” This is, of course, a Catch-22, because how can you build a user base to demonstrate the need for freedoms when the mere act of trying to build that user base could be a crime in itself? No investor would touch a product that could be potentially unlawful.

Thankfully, it’s 2018 and we have crowd funding, so I’m launching a crowd funding campaign for the NeTV2, in the hopes of rallying like-minded developers, dreamers, users, and enthusiasts to help build the case that a small but important group of people can and would do more, if only we had the right to do so. As limited by the prevailing law, the NeTV2 can only process unencrypted video and perform encryption-only operations like video overlays through a trick I call “NeTV mode”. However, it’s my hope this is a sufficient platform to stir the imagination of developers and users, so that together we can paint a vibrant picture of what a future looks like should we have the right to express our ideas using otherwise controlled paints on otherwise denied canvases.


Some of the things you might be able to do with the NeTV2, if you only had the right to do it…

The Hardware

The heart of the NeTV2 is an FPGA-based video development board in a PCIe 2.0 x4 card form factor. The board supports up to two video inputs and two video outputs at 1080p60, coupled to a Xilinx XC7A35T FPGA, along with 512 MiB of DDR3 memory humming along at a peak bandwidth of 25.6 Gbps. It also features some nice touches for debugging including a JTAG/UART header made to plug directly into a Raspberry Pi, and a 10/100 Ethernet port wired directly to the FPGA for Etherbone support. For intrepid hackers, the reserved/JTAG pins on the PCI-express header are all wired to the FPGA, and microSD and USB headers are provisioned but not specifically supported in any mode. And of course, the entire PCB design is open source under the CERN OHL license.


The NeTV2 board as mounted on a Raspberry Pi

The design targets two major use scenarios which I refer to as “NeTV classic” mode (video overlays with encryption) and “Libre” mode (deep video processing, but limited to unencrypted feeds due to Section 1201).

In NeTV classic mode, the board is paired with a Raspberry Pi, which serves as the source for chroma key overlay video, typically rendered by a browser running in full-screen mode. The Raspberry Pi’s unencrypted HDMI video output is fed into the NeTV2 and sampled into a frame buffer, which is “genlocked” (e.g. timing synchronized) to a video feed that’s just passing through the FPGA via another pair of HDMI input/outputs. The NeTV2 has special circuits to help observe and synchronize with cryptographic state, should one exist on the pass-through video link. This allows the NeTV2 to encrypt the Raspberry Pi’s overlay feed so that the Pi’s pixels can be used for a simple “hard overlay” effect. NeTV classic mode thus enables applications such as subtitles and pop-up notifications by throwing away regions of source video and replacing it entirely with overlay pixels. However, a lack of access to unencrypted pixels disallows even basic video effects such as alpha blending or frame scaling.

In Libre mode, the board is meant to be plugged into a desktop PC via PCI-express. Libre mode only works with unencrypted video feeds, as the concept here is full video frames are sampled and buffered up inside NeTV2 so that it can be forwarded on to the host PC for further processing. Here, the full power of a GPU or x86 CPU can be applied to extract features and enhance the video, or perhaps portions of the video could even be sent to to the cloud for processing. Once the video has been processed, it is pushed back into the NeTV2 and sent on to the TV for viewing. Libre mode is perhaps the most interesting mode to developers, yet is very limited in every day applications thanks to Section 1201 of the DMCA. Still, it may be possible to craft demos using properly licensed, unencrypted video feeds.

The reference “gateware” (FPGA design) for the NeTV2 is written in Python using migen/LiteX. I previously compared the performance of LiteX to Vivado: for an NeTV2-like reference design, the migen/LiteX version consumes about a quarter the area and compiles in less than a quarter the time – a compelling advantage. migen/LiteX is a true open source framework for describing hardware, which relies on Xilinx’s free-to-download Vivado toolchain for synthesis, place/route, and bitstream generation. There is a significant effort on-going today to port the full open source FPGA backend tools developed by Clifford Wolf from the Lattice ICE40 FPGAs to the same Xilinx 7-series FPGAs used in NeTV2. Of course, designers that prefer to use the Vivado tools to describe and compile their hardware are still free to do so, but I am not officially supporting that design methodology.

I wanted to narrow the gap between development board and field deployable solution, so I’ve also designed a hackable case for the NeTV2. The case can hold the NeTV2 and a mated Raspberry Pi, and consists of three major parts, a top shell, bottom shell/back bezel, and a stand-alone front bezel. It also has light pipes to route key status LEDs to the plane of the back bezel. It’s designed to be easily disassembled using common screw drivers, and features holes for easy wall-mounting.

Most importantly, the case features extra space with a Peek Array on the inside for mounting your own PCBs or parts, and the front bezel is designed for easier fabrication using either subtractive or additive methodologies. So, if you have a laser cutter, you can custom cut a bezel using a simple, thin sheet of acrylic and slot it into the grooves circumscribing the end of the case. Or, if you have a low-res 3D printer, you can use the screw bosses to attach the bezel instead, and skip the grooves. When you’re ready to step up in volume, you can download the source file for the bezel and make a relatively simple injection mold tool for just the bezel itself (or the whole case, if you really want to!).

The flexibility of the PCI-express edge connector and the simplified bezel allows developers to extend the NeTV2 into a system well beyond the original design intention. Remember, for an FPGA, PCI-express is just a low-cost physical form factor for generic high speed I/O. So, a relatively simple to design and cheap to fabricate adapter card can turn the PCI-express card-edge connector into a variety of high-speed physical standards, including SATA, DisplayPort, USB3.0 and more. There’s also extra low-speed I/O in the header, so you can attach a variety of SPI or I2C peripherals through the same connector. This electrical flexibility, combined with PCBs mounted on the Peek Array and a custom bezel enables developers to build a customer-ready solutions with minimal effort and tooling investment.

The NeTV2 is funding now at Crowd Supply. I’m offering a version with a higher-capacity FPGA only for the duration of the campaign, so if you’re developer be sure to check that out before the campaign ends. If you think that reforming the DMCA is important but the NeTV2 isn’t your cup of tea, please consider supporting the EFF directly with a donation. Together we can reform Section 1201 of the DMCA, and win back fundamental freedoms to express and innovate in the digital age.

A Clash of Cultures

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

There’s an Internet controversy going on between Dale Dougherty, the CEO of Maker Media and Naomi Wu (@realsexycyborg), a Chinese Maker and Internet personality. Briefly, Dale Doughtery tweeted a single line questioning Naomi Wu’s authenticity, which is destroying Naomi’s reputation and livelihood in China.

In short, I am in support of Naomi Wu. Rather than let the Internet speculate on why, I am sharing my perspectives on the situation preemptively.

As with most Internet controversies, it’s messy and emotional. I will try my best to outline the biases and issues I have observed. Of course, everyone has their perspective; you don’t have to agree with mine. And I suspect many of my core audience will dislike and disagree with this post. However, the beginning of healing starts with sharing and listening. I will share, and I respectfully request that readers read the entire content of this post before attacking any individual point out of context.

The key forces I see at play are:

  1. Prototype Bias – how assumptions based on stereotypes influence the way we think and feel
  2. Idol Effect – the tendency to assign exaggerated capabilities and inflated expectations upon celebrities
  3. Power Asymmetry – those with more power have more influence, and should be held to a higher standard of accountability
  4. Guanxi Bias – the tendency to give foreign faces more credibility than local faces in China

All these forces came together in a perfect storm this past week.

1. Prototype Bias

If someone asked you to draw a picture of an engineer, who would you draw? As you draw the figure, the gender assigned is a reflection of your mental prototype of an engineer – your own prototype bias. Most will draw a male figure. Society is biased to assign high-level intellectual ability to males, and this bias starts at a young age. Situations that don’t fit into your prototypes can feel threatening; studies have shown that men defend their standing by undermining the success of women in STEM initiatives.

The bias is real and pervasive. For example, my co-founder in Chibitronics, Jie Qi, is female. The company is founded on technology that is a direct result of her MIT Media Lab PhD dissertation. She is the inventor of paper electronics. I am a supporting actor in her show. Despite laying this fact out repeatedly, she still receives comments and innuendo implying that I am the inventor or more influential than I really am in the development process.

Any engineer who observes a bias in a system and chooses not to pro-actively correct for it is either a bad engineer or they stand to benefit from the bias. So much of engineering is about compensating, trimming, and equalizing imperfections out of real systems: wrap a feedback loop around it, and force the error function to zero.

So when Jie and I stand on stage together, prototype bias causes people to assume I’m the one who invented the technology. Given that I’m aware of the bias, does it make sense to give us equal time on the stage? No – that would be like knowing there is uneven loss in a channel and then being surprised when certain frequency bands are suppressed by the time it hits the receivers. So, I make a conscious and deliberate effort to showcase her contributions and to ensure her voice is the first and last voice you hear.

Naomi Wu (pictured below) likely challenges your prototypical ideal of an engineer. I imagine many people feel a cognitive dissonance juxtaposing the label “engineer” or “Maker” with her appearance. The strength of that dissonant feeling is proportional to the amount of prototype bias you have.

I’ve been fortunate to experience breaking my own prototypical notions that associate certain dress norms with intelligence. I’m a regular at Burning Man, and my theme camp is dominated by scientists and engineers. I’ve discussed injection molding with men in pink tutus and learned about plasmonics from half-naked women. It’s not a big leap for me to accept Naomi as a Maker. I’m glad she’s challenging these biases. I do my best engineering when sitting half-naked at my desk. I find shirts and pants to be uncomfortable. I don’t have the strength to challenge these social norms, and secretly, I’m glad someone is.

Unfortunately, prototype bias is only the first challenge confronted in this situation.

2. Idol Effect

The Idol Effect is the tendency to assign exaggerated capabilities to public figures and celebrities. The adage “never meet your childhood hero” is a corollary of the Idol Effect – people have inflated expectations about what celebrities can do, so it’s often disappointing when you find out they are humans just like us.

One result of the Idol Effect is that people feel justified taking pot shots at public figures for their shortcomings. For example, I have had the great privilege of working with Edward Snowden. One of my favorite things about working with him is that he is humble and quick to correct misconceptions about his personal abilities. Because of his self-awareness of his limitations, it’s easier for me to trust his assertions, and he’s also a fast learner because he’s not afraid to ask questions. Notably, he’s never claimed to be a genius, so I’m always taken aback when intelligent people pull me aside and whisper in my ear, “You know, I hear Ed’s a n00b. He’s just using you.” Somehow, because of Ed’s worldwide level of fame that’s strongly associated with security technology, people assume he should be a genius level crypto-hacker and are quick to point out that he’s not. Really? Ed is risking his life because he believes in something. I admire his dedication to the cause, and I enjoy working with him because he’s got good ideas, a good heart, and he’s fun to be with.

Because I also have a public profile, the Idol Effect impacts me too. I’m bad at math, can’t tie knots, a mediocre programmer…the list goes on. If there’s firmware in a product I’ve touched, it’s likely to have been written by Sean ‘xobs’ Cross, not me. If there’s analytics or informatics involved, it’s likely my partner wrote the analysis scripts. She also edits all my blog posts (including this one) and has helped me craft my most viral tweets – because she’s a genius at informatics, she can run analyses on how to target key words and pick times of day to get maximum impact. The fact that I have a team of people helping me polish my work makes me look better than I really am, and people tend to assign capabilities to me that I don’t really have. Does this mean I am a front, fraud or a persona?

I imagine Naomi is a victim of Idol Effect too. Similar to Snowden, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed interacting with Naomi is that she’s been quick to correct misconceptions about her abilities, she’s not afraid to ask for help, and she’s a quick learner. Though many may disapprove of her rhetoric on Twitter, please keep in mind English is her second language — her sole cultural context in which she learned English was via the Internet by reading social media and chat rooms.

Based on the rumors I’ve read, it seems fans and observers have inflated expectations for her abilities, and because of uncorrected prototype bias, she faces extra scrutiny to prove her abilities. Somehow the fact that she almost cuts her finger using a scraper to remove a 3D print is “evidence” that she’s not a Maker. If that’s true, I’m not a Maker either. I always have trouble releasing 3D prints from print stages. They’ve routinely popped off and flown across the room, and I’ve almost cut my fingers plenty of times with the scraper. But I still keep on trying and learning – that’s the point. And then there’s the suggestion that because a man holds the camera, he’s feeding her lines.

When a man harnesses the efforts of a team, they call him a CEO and give him a bonus. But when a woman harnesses the efforts of a team, she gets accused of being a persona and a front. This is uncorrected Prototype Bias meeting unrealistic expectations due to the Idol Effect.

The story might end there, but things recently got a whole lot worse…

3. Power Asymmetry

“With great power comes great responsibilities.”
-from Spider Man

Power is not distributed evenly in the world. That’s a fact of life. Not acknowledging the role power plays leads to systemic abuse, like those documented in the Caldbeck or Weinstein scandals.

Editors and journalists – those with direct control over what gets circulated in the media – have a lot of power. Their thoughts and opinions can reach and influence a massive population very quickly. Rumors are just rumors until media outlets breathe life into them, at which point they become an incurable cancer on someone’s career. Editors and journalists must be mindful of the power they wield and held accountable for when it is mis-used.

As CEO of Maker Media and head of an influential media outlet, especially among the DIY community, Dale Dougherty wields substantial power. So a tweet promulgating the idea that Naomi might be a persona or a fake does not land lightly. In the post-truth era, it’s especially incumbent upon traditional media to double-check rumors before citing them in any context.

What is personally disappointing is that Dale reached out to me on November 2nd with an email asking what I thought about an anonymous post that accused Naomi of being a fake. I vouched for Naomi as a real person and as a budding Maker; I wrote back to Dale that “I take the approach of interacting with her like any other enthusiastic, curious Maker and the resulting interactions have been positive. She’s a fast learner.”

Yet Dale decided to take an anonymous poster’s opinion over mine (despite a long working relationship with Make), and a few days later on November 5th he tweeted a link to the post suggesting Naomi could be a fake or a fraud, despite having evidence of the contrary.

So now Naomi, already facing prototype bias and idol-effect expectations, gets a big media personality with substantial power propagating rumors that she is a fake and a fraud.

But wait, it gets worse because Naomi is in China!

4. Guanxi Bias

In China, guanxi (关系) is everything. Public reputation is extremely hard to build, and quick to lose. Faking and cloning is a real problem, but it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that there are good, hard-working people in China as well. So how do the Chinese locals figure out who to trust? Guanxi is a major mechanism used inside China to sort the good from the bad – it’s a social network of credible people vouching for each other.

For better or for worse, the Chinese feel that Western faces and brands are more credible. The endorsement of a famous Western brand carries a lot of weight; for example Leonardo DiCaprio is the brand ambassador for BYD (a large Chinese car maker).

Maker Media has a massive reputation in China. From glitzy Maker Faires to the Communist party’s endorsement of Maker-ed and Maker spaces as a national objective, an association or the lack thereof with Maker Media can make or break a reputation. This is no exception for Naomi. Her uniqueness as a Maker combined with her talent at marketing has enabled her to do product reviews and endorsements as source of income.

However, for several years she’s been excluded from the Shenzhen Maker Faire lineup, even in events that she should have been a shoo-in for her: wearables, Maker fashion shows, 3D printing. Despite this lack of endorsement, she’s built her own social media follower base both inside and outside of China, and built a brand around herself.

Unfortunately, when the CEO of Maker Media, a white male leader of an established American brand, suggested Naomi was a potential fake, the Internet inside China exploded on her. Sponsors cancelled engagements with her. Followers turned into trolls. She can’t be seen publicly with men (because others will say the males are the real Maker, see “prototype bias”), and as a result faces a greater threat of physical violence.

A single innuendo, amplified by Power Asymmetry and Guanxi Bias, on top of Idol Effect meshed against Prototype Bias, has destroyed everything a Maker has worked so hard to build over the past few years.

If someone spread lies about you and destroyed your livelihood – what would you do? Everyone would react a little differently, but make no mistake: at this point she’s got nothing left to lose, and she’s very angry.

Reflection

Although Dale had issued a public apology about the rumors, the apology fixes her reputation as much as saying “sorry” repairs a vase smashed on the floor.

Image: Mindy Georges CC BY-NC

At this point you might ask — why would Dale want to slander Naomi?

I don’t know the background, but prior to Dale’s tweet, Naomi had aggressively dogged Dale and Make about Make’s lack of representation of women. Others have noted that Maker Media has a prototype bias toward white males. Watch this analysis by Leah Buechley, a former MIT Media Lab Professor:

Dale could have recognized and addressed this core issue of a lack of diversity. Instead, Dale elected to endorse unsubstantiated claims and destroy a young female Maker’s reputation and career.

Naomi has a long, uphill road ahead of her. On the other hand, I’m sure Dale will do fine – he’s charismatic, affable, and powerful.

When I sit and think, how would I feel if this happened to the women closest to me? I get goosebumps – the effect would be chilling; the combination of pervasive social biases would overwhelm logic and fact. So even though I may not agree with everything Naomi says or does, I have decided that in the bigger picture, hiding in complicit silence on the sidelines is not acceptable.

We need to acknowledge that prototype bias is real; if equality is the goal, we need to be proactive in correcting it. Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean they are perfect. People with power need to be held accountable in how they wield it. And finally, cross-cultural issues are complicated and delicate. All sides need to open their eyes, ears, and hearts and realize we’re all human. Tweets may seem like harmless pricks to the skin, but we all bleed when pricked. For humanity to survive, we need to stop pricking each other lest we all bleed to death.

/me dons asbestos suit

Update: November 20, 2017
Make has issued an apology, and Naomi has accepted the apology. My sincere thanks to the effort and dedication of everyone who helped make this right.

Looking for Summer Internship in Hardware Hacking?

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Tim Ansell (mithro), who has been giving me invaluable advice and support on the NeTV2 project, just had his HDMI (plaintext) video capture project accepted into the Google Summer of Code. This summer, he’s looking for university students who have an interest in learning FPGAs, hacking on video, or designing circuits. To learn more you can check out his post at hdmi2usb.tv.

I’ve learned a lot working with Tim. I also respect his work ethic and he is a steadfast contributor to the open source community. This would be an excellent summer opportunity for any student interested in system-level hardware hacking!

Please note: application deadline is April 3 16:00 UTC.

Why I’m Suing the US Government

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

Today I filed a lawsuit against the US government, challenging Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Section 1201 means that you can be sued or prosecuted for accessing, speaking about, and tinkering with digital media and technologies that you have paid for. This violates our First Amendment rights, and I am asking the court to order the federal government to stop enforcing Section 1201.

Before Section 1201, the ownership of ideas was tempered by constitutional protections. Under this law, we had the right to tinker with gadgets that we bought, we had the right to record TV shows on our VCRs, and we had the right to remix songs. Section 1201 built an extra barrier around copyrightable works, restricting our prior ability to explore and create. In order to repair a gadget, we may have to decrypt its firmware; in order to remix a video, we may have to strip HDCP. Whereas we once readily expressed feelings and new ideas through remixes and hardware modifications, now we must first pause and ask: does this violate Section 1201? Especially now that cryptography pervades every aspect of modern life, every creative spark is likewise dampened by the chill of Section 1201.

The act of creation is no longer spontaneous.

Our recent generation of Makers, hackers, and entrepreneurs have developed under the shadow of Section 1201. Like the parable of the frog in the well, their creativity has been confined to a small patch, not realizing how big and blue the sky could be if they could step outside that well. Nascent 1201-free ecosystems outside the US are leading indicators of how far behind the next generation of Americans will be if we keep with the status quo.

Our children deserve better.

I can no longer stand by as a passive witness to this situation. I was born into a 1201-free world, and our future generations deserve that same freedom of thought and expression. I am but one instrument in a large orchestra performing the symphony for freedom, but I hope my small part can remind us that once upon a time, there was a world free of such artificial barriers, and that creativity and expression go hand in hand with the ability to share without fear.

If you want to read more about the lawsuit, please check out the EFF’s press release on the matter.