Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

My papers, for Aaron Swartz

Posted by Russell on January 14, 2013 at 7:49 a.m.
This past Friday, I was enjoying a dinner party with some friends in Brooklyn. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, Aaron Swartz, a fellow I have long admired, hanged himself after two years of being stalked, bullied and harassed by those we employ to Serve and Protect. He was being prosecuted for downloading a bunch of academic papers. Papers to which he had legal access, and whose content was overwhelmingly funded by taxpayers. His "crime" was that he downloaded a lot of them, although the publisher imposed no particular limit on how many he could download, and that he downloaded them from a network he perhaps didn't have permission to use. The "victims," JSTOR, the publisher, and MIT, the owner of the network, were not the least interested in pursuing either a civil or criminal case against Aaron.

Perversely, the Department of Justice and the Secret Service thought otherwise. The US Attorney's Office was about to go to trial with charges that would have resulted in thirty years of imprisonment were Aaron convicted, but I can't imagine that Aaron hanged himself because he was afraid.

Aaron was a patriot and a humanitarian. He was dedicated to the work of delivering a dose of integrity to the institutions of democracy, even as those very institutions crushed him for... for what, exactly? Sport and amusement, it seems. The People's case against Aaron Swartz, as represented by US attorney Carmen Ortiz, only makes sense if the People are sadistic bullies. It's hard not to wonder if Carmen Ortiz was planning to run for elected office, and if so, it's impossible to see Ortiz' case against Aaron as anything other than a cold-blooded gambit for future campaign donations from the media and publishing industries. Aaron's destruction was to be a signal that Carmen Ortiz is tough on piracy. Grist for the mill of our perfectly-legal political corruption.

That's not paranoia. That's politics in America. Aaron was deeply committed to healing the necrotic tissues of America's democracy. Over the last two years, reading about the case against him absolutely boiled my blood, but it must have broken Aaron's heart. Perhaps he despaired that America can be saved from the rot, or could no longer withstand the pain and humiliation of being so ill-treated by the republic he cared so much about.

As my tribute to Aaron, I've downloaded all of my own papers and posted them here. Since joining Jonathan Eisen's lab, I've been publishing in Open Access journals, and so the two most recent papers are perfectly legal for me to post here. The first three were written before I worked for an advisor who understood what is really at stake in scientific publishing, and so they are not open access. Here they are anyway. For Aaron.

  1. Functional biogeography of ocean microbes revealed through Non-Negative matrix factorization.
    Xingpeng Jiang, Morgan G. I. Langille, Russell Y. Neches, Marie Elliot, Simon A. Levin, Jonathan A. Eisen, Joshua S. Weitz, and Jonathan Dushoff. PLoS ONE, 7(9):e43866+, September 2012.
    doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043866
  2. A workflow for genome-wide mapping of archaeal transcription factors with ChIP-seq.
    Elizabeth G. Wilbanks, David J. Larsen, Russell Y. Neches, Andrew I. Yao, Chia-Ying Wu, Rachel A. S. Kjolby, and Marc T. Facciotti. Nucleic Acids Research, February 2012.
    doi:10.1093/nar/gks063
  3. The convergence of analytic high- equilibrium in a finite aspect ratio tokamak.
    R. Y. Neches, S. C. Cowley, P. A. Gourdain, and J. N. Leboeuf. Physics of Plasmas, 15(12):122504+, 2008.
    doi:10.1063/1.3008049
  4. Stability of highly shifted equilibria in a large aspect ratio low-field tokamak.
    P. A. Gourdain, J. N. Leboeuf, and R. Y. Neches. Physics of Plasmas, 14(11):112513+, 2007.
    doi:10.1063/1.2807024
  5. Stability of highly shifted equilibria in a Large-Aspect-ratio tokamak.
    P. A. Gourdain, S. C. Cowley, J. N. Leboeuf, and R. Y. Neches. Physical Review Letters, 97(5), August 2006.
    doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.97.055003

Makers do not make weapons

Posted by Russell on December 17, 2012 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Tuesday, I started writing an article about Thing 11770 on Thingiverse, a MakerBot Industries for sharing 3D printable objects. Thing 11770 is a reinforced 3D printable lower receiver for an AR-15 assault rifle. This is the part of the gun that feeds bullets from the magazine into upper receiver, which handles the cycling of the spent round and the insertion of the new round. With the right combination of upper and lower receiver, fresh rounds are cycled into the weapon using a portion of the kinetic energy from firing the previous round. When the trigger is pulled, this process happens continuously, firing one bullet after another. That is what it means to be an "automatic" weapon. Thing 11770 is particularly interesting because, legally speaking, the lower receiver is the gun itself. It is the engine that makes the gun a gun, rather than a movie prop. And you can 3D print it. And it works.

At very the moment I was hemming and hawing over how to articulate my feelings about this development, someone used an AR-15 to murder twenty seven people, including twenty children, ages six and seven at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now I know exactly how I feel.

I love 3D printing. I love the maker movement. I love the idea of people building home-brew versions of all sorts of devices, and inventing entirely new classes of devices. 3D printing has played, and will continue to play, an important role in that.

When I was fourteen, like many boys at that age, I thought missiles and fighter planes and tanks were pretty awesome. I read a lot of Tom Clancy books, and I indulged in my interest by dragging my family to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the California Science Center’s Air & Space Museum, and the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum. At Wright Patterson, I visited the F-117 Nighthawk as many times as I could. The author of Thing 11770 calls himself "Have Blue," the codename for the Nighthawk demonstrator aircraft.

When I was sixteen, I went to boarding school, where I learned vector calculus and farming. I learned how to grub potatoes out of the freezing ground in the driving rain, how to make maple syrup, how to lay in beets and squash and onions for the winter. I stood on a windy mountain top and learned how to find the orbital ephemera of a comet. I learned how to milk cows, how to care for cows when they are sick, and how to make the most delicious yogurt and mozzarella cheese you could possibly imagine. I learned how to repair a tractor engine with a mallet and a wrench. One freezing night, I found myself covered in blood and shit and urine and fear as I helped bring a new life gasping and staggering into the world.

Farming also means slaughtering and butchering. One morning, I walked into the barn. I was handed a weapon. I was asked to take a life.

I found that I could not.

Not ever.

The instant my shoulders took up the weight of the strange, snub nosed machine, it felt like the weight of the metal hung from my heart, stretching and distorting it. I wanted the weight of it to tear me apart, but I knew it was a weight I could carry, if I wanted to. I quietly handed the gun back to the farm manager, and walked out into the thawing snow, and spent the rest of the black pre-dawn puking into the mud behind the water tower.

Many people have wondered why I do not eat meat. This is why. For the rest of my life, I will feel the weight of that terrible little machine.

There are reasons to make, to have and to use guns. To defend your country, yes. To humanely put down an animal before butchering it, perhaps. For vainglory? For entertainment? No.

Tools are sacred things. We are a tool-using species; our tools are projections of our hopes and aspirations. When we are filled with joy, we pick up our tools and hammer the air into music. We need to understand and to be understood, and so we shape our voices into language. We send our tools delicately probing into the bodies of our loved ones, seeking out cancers and blood clots and infections. We invest huge amounts of effort building and maintaining tools that allow us to speak to one another across great distances. We hurl our tools across the void to other planets to satisfy our craving for knowledge. When we grieve, we take up our tools and carve the names of those we have lost into the living rock of our planet. Our tools are our souls. They are our defining characteristic. Love may be what makes us alive, but our tools are what make us human.

A gun is a tool. It is a simple tool. Any man or woman or child can use one. A gun is not much more complicated than a can opener, and not nearly as sophisticated as cordless screwdriver. Like all tools, a gun reveals something fundamental about its maker, its wielder and its abuser. This is true for all weapons.

As a strong supporter of the maker movement, of free and open source software, of open science, I want people to have as much freedom as possible to make and remake and experiment. I also believe very, very strongly in the responsibly we have to one another. I believe that we each have a responsibility not make things that hurt and kill and destroy.

I am not yet prepared to call for a law to prohibit Have Blue from posting functional 3D printable assault rifle parts on the internet. The law is a blunt instrument, and would cause a great deal of collateral damage. However, I am prepared to say that Have Blue is a fucking asshole. I am prepared to call Justin Halford, who created the original CNC model, a fucking asshole. I am prepared to say that anyone who considers themselves a "gun enthusiast" and is older than about sixteen needs to grow the fuck up. The maker community should not tolerate this behavior. Meditate on the meaning of the word antisocial for a moment. What could be more antisocial than gleefully proliferating machines whose principal function is murder?

The maker community should not tolerate these designs, or the ideas and opinions of their designers until they show evidence of behaving like adults. It's clear that the CNC Gunsmithing community has a lot of talented, clever people. It's clear from reading his blog that Have Blue is neither ignorant nor stupid.

So, I'm calling you folks out. There are twenty children dead in Connecticut. Their bodies were ripped apart by the very machines you are "democratizing." As far as I know, nobody has used your designs to kill anyone. If you continue down this path, some future version of Thing 11770 will be used to murder little children. It's just a matter of time, and probably a lot less time than you think. However, there is still time to take a stand. Do the right thing. Take down the designs. Apologize for what you've done. Find a new project. Use your talents for something good. This will not stop people from murdering children with 3D printed guns, but perhaps you can buy us some time before that day comes. You know that this is true.

If making home-brew assault rifles is really what you want to do, there is perhaps one venue where this might actually make sense. Freight your CNC machine to Istanbul, and smuggle it into Homs or Aleppo. Help the Free Syrian Army get rid of Bashar Assad. Oh wait, what’s that? You don't want to get shot? Fancy that.

It takes courage to admit you are wrong. Show us some courage.

Update : It appears that MakerBot has decided to remove Thing 11770 from Thingiverse. If you follow the link to the item, the files have been removed and a message says, "This Thing is currently under moderation for violating the Thingiverse Terms of Service. Files and images for this Thing are currently unavailable." I'm glad it's no longer up, but I am disappointed in how this was handled. I'm disappointed that MakerBot left it up for so long, but I'm also disappointed that Have Blue didn't just take it down himself.

Rooted phone

Posted by Russell on September 12, 2009 at 4:05 a.m.
I finally got fed up with the pathetic official Android release from T-Mobile, and rooted my G1 and installed the CyanogenMod firmware. Cyanogen feels about twice as responsive as Cupcake! It's like a whole new device.

Also, the tethering app is awesome. It turns your G1 into a WiFi base station and routes traffic from WiFi to 3G. Since I'm still waiting for broadband at my new apartment, it's a lifesaver.

I suppose tethering (and rooting the phone) technically violates T-Mobile's TOS, but I'm convinced that T-Mobile will allow both sooner or later. It's just too awsome, and it would help them sell more contracts.

It's kind of difficult to abuse tethering anyway; it sucks down the battery very quickly, and the latency is significant. It's the sort of thing you'd only use in a pinch. Those happen to be the situations where a little benevolence or selfishness from a big company can shape a customer's opinion forever. T-Mobile seems to be more sensitive to that kind of thing than the other networks. I know they've got their reasons for banning tethering apps, but I think they could be convinced to change their minds. (You can download various petitions from the Android Marketplace.)

Openness is where Google and T-Mobile could really go after the unwholesome, anticompetitive and un-American AT&T/iPhone alliance. The open nature of Android is a step in the right direction, but T-Mobile needs to get its legal department on the Open Access bandwagon if it wants to press the advantage.

After all, if some random people on the internet can roll better firmware for the G1 than their in-house developers, isn't it a strategic business advantage to let them?

SonicWALL is stupid

Posted by Russell on October 25, 2008 at 5:06 p.m.
While I'm greatful that Peet's Coffee and Tea provides Wifi for people who buy coffee from them, I think their censorship software is very, very stupid. Take this salacious image, for example :

SonicWALL brilliantly flags this as 'Pornography.'

Seriously. This is a huge waste of everyone's time and money just to make sure nobody sees any boobies.

Purify the Internets!

Posted by Russell on April 23, 2007 at 7:48 p.m.
Hu Jintao wants to cleanse the Internet of objectionable material. Evidently, the Internet is full of foul language, pornography, and worst of all, upsetting politics and strange spiritual stuff. On one hand, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the Chinese people, who will see their hard-earned cash wasted on an initiative that will only serve to brutalize them.

China's Internet policy is already responsible for the political incarceration of large numbers of Chinese citizens, most of whom are probably staunch patriots (perhaps with unpopular opinions, though). Expanding state control over the Internet will only accelerate this. To some extent, human nature is irreducibly subversive. It is a necessary part of healthy human psychology to be somewhat resentful of authority. Resentment of authority is a necessary aspect of self-preservation. Increasing state surveillance will of course turn up more subversive thinking. Perfect surveillance would reveal that all of us are subversives, and the remaining few who are not suffer from serious cognitive disabilities. So, if Hu Jintao wants to lock down the Internet, he's going to have to lock up an awful lot of people.

On the other hand, as a patriot of my own country, Hu Jintao's calls to "purify" the Internet bring a smile to my face. If China is successful in its efforts, which is no certain thing, they will destroy their own patch of the Internet. Sure, they will still have a high-tech national computer network, but it won't be the Internet with a capital "I." It will be something else -- something much, much less valuable. No interesting services will survive on this "purified" Internet. The content will be just as interesting and as valuable as Party-controlled television. Meanwhile, Americans can continue building new and interesting things.

America has ceded its dominance in industry after industry to China. Hu Jintao's "purified" Internet is a guarantee that America will keep its dominance of Internet technologies. Unless, of course, our indigenous Internet purifiers succeed.