juicero and why you can’t just buy things anymore

The Juicero debacle is paying dividends besides simple amusement. This teardown of the (impressively overengineered) Juicero press is interesting and sort of beautiful, and it led me to other writing by Ben Einstein, who works at a hardware-focused venture capital firm named Bolt.

It’s interesting stuff, And while the following isn’t shocking to people who pay attention to startups, it is consonant with the fretting mood I’m occasionally in about excess efficiency. Consider his explanation of why hardware is unattractive for investors. From this post:

Consumer hardware startups need to understand that commoditization of their hardware is not a possibility, it is an inevitability.

As copycats are born, margin structures get compressed and customer acquisition costs increase. Few things protect against this besides a strong brand and retail/channel dominance. […]

At the time, the idea of a wearable fitness tracker was pretty new and it was obvious the concept was good. Each year as Fitbit gained popularity, the number of direct competitors at CES grew rapidly. In 2013, I probably talked to 8 or 10 copycats. By 2014, there had to have been over 100 and in 2015 the number was impossible to count. Every random Chinese company seemed to have an accelerometer on a wristband with a bluetooth app.

Despite hundreds of companies with nearly identical fitness tracker hardware, Fitbit was able to master brand, recurring customer engagement, and retail strategy.

And this one, on the kinds of business models that Bolt likes to fund:

Plenty of companies have built big businesses by selling hardware at a 30% gross margin. Why can’t you just run a Kickstarter and sell a ton of units through Best Buy when to scale up? You can, you’re just entering into a game of diminishing returns with an extremely slim chance of winning in the long-run.

Recurring revenue matters because it fundamentally changes your business. There are good reasons investors are averse to hardware but love software. One of the leading reasons revolves around future revenue. Investors pay huge premiums to own stock in companies betting on the likelihood that future revenue will be drastically larger than current revenue. If you’re in a traditional hardware business, future revenue is confined to cyclic product sales. This roughly means you get one shot at revenue with each customer per product development cycle: each sale must be painfully acquired by building a new product every 18 months or so. […]

This is where the brilliance of the Keurig model shines. The initial sale of a $120 Keurig brewer isn’t that difficult or costly. Keurig doesn’t spend a lot on marketing or advertising and the product isn’t complex to manufacture or service. In my rough estimation, the BOM for a brewer is around $40, giving Keurig about a 25% gross margin on the product. Time from PO to FOB is likely less than 2 months, yet high-margin K-cup sales start immediately and continue for years. Keurig spends less than $0.015 on each K-cup and charges 100% more per unit than bagged, ground coffee. Yet few people complain about this cost.

This is resonant; I was just complaining about Eye-fi moving to a subscription model, after all. Competition in this market has increased to the point where traditional business models aren’t viable — excepting efforts by highly motivated folks who will eventually wish they’d known better.

You can still be successful in investor-backed hardware ventures, but the models seem to have become more complicated:

  • You can achieve a level of sophistication and vertical integration that makes profitable competition against you impossible. This grows more difficult by the year, though. Companies like Apple can design their own silicon or purchase market-shifting quantities of aluminum-milling robots, but this is not a viable strategy for most.
  • You can “dominate the retail channel” which I take to mean some combination of anticompetitive practices and managing consumer perception — here’s the Bolt blog approvingly discussing the success of Beats headphones:

    I estimate that the COGS without labor or shipping is $16.89 – yet Beats is able to successfully retail these headphones for $199+. This is the power of brand; Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have leveraged their personal backgrounds and a sleek design to launch a remarkable brand that’s become fundamental to music pop culture.

    There’s nothing wrong with selling people a brand experience, except insofar as the creation of those experiences can be done more or less cheaply, freeing resources for stuff that has to cost money.

  • Or you can create a business with recurring revenue by ensuring your product’s usefulness is tied to ongoing payments, like the Keurig.

I think most of us amateur observers are used to thinking about globalization in terms of its impact on labor and consumer prices — not its affect on how we relate to products or the business models that shape those relationships. As we collectively revisit the antiprotectionist consensus of the last few decades, it’s interesting to consider the other impacts that increased international economic friction could have. I am no expert, and I wouldn’t dare guess whether such measures could boost manufacturing employment. But it’s fascinating to consider how a moderate level of protectionism could — paradoxically — reinvigorate business models with a simpler, more transactional and less predatory relationship to customers.

Neuralink is horrifying

This is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while. I may be missing context, but it seems that Elon Musk’s various ventures have settled on giving important product announcements and exclusive access to a cartoon science blogger named Tim Urban (Randall Munroe was presumably too expensive or inquisitive). Over many, many words, Urban explains the idea behind Musk’s newest astoundingly ambitious venture: Neuralink, which aims to accelerate the development of direct brain-to-machine interfaces.

It’s impossible to know the extent to which Urban’s account actually reflects Neuralink’s plans. It’s built on the kind of homunculus-riddled explanations of cognition that one is warned against repeatedly, even in the undergrad classes that make up the entirety of my education on these questions. But from Neuralink’s perspective this might be a feature, not a bug: Urban can’t have gotten it quite right, so everything is deniable.

To the extent that it is accurate, the essay itself perfectly recapitulates Neuralink’s strategy: just as the reader must slog through tens of thousands of unobjectionable words before reaching the punchline, Neuralink’s real aims are buried beneath a bunch of shorter-term medical goals that are unquestionably admirable. Sensory prostheses, cures for paralysis–only a monster would object to these. But that’s not all they want to do. Ultimately, they want to connect human minds seamlessly to digital communication technologies. Memory and computation would be partially offloaded to computers. Nonverbal forms of interpersonal communication might be possible. Collective forms of cognition could arise.

Given the power of network effects and the pathetically small incidence of technological abstinence in our society (picture a Western teenager without a smartphone) is it plausible that such a change could really be called optional? Can there be any doubt that this would transfigure humanity into something unrecognizable? Can there be any argument that this would constitute the end of our species’ current intellectual and cultural history?

And who gets to make this decision, anyway? An overextended Silicon Valley weirdo? His board of venture capitalists? I spent years of my professional life working to transform American political institutions on behalf of a billionaire philanthropist who was so-empowered because he happened to write some early auction software. All I can say in defense of this decisionmaking system is that we were not all that effective.

A good response to this is that there has never been a deliberative process for these sorts of things: humanity blunders into new technologies and always will. The best you can hope for is some queasy retrospective essays about the Manhattan Project. I don’t have an alternative to suggest, but I find this insufficient. My sense is that we were enormously lucky that nuclear weapons happened to be developed in cultural and social systems that turned out to have brinksmanship as their equilibrium state (so far, anyway). Our species has occasionally invented societies that do not work that way.

But back to the matter at hand. Naturally, the justification offered for destroying humanity is that this is the only way to save it: Musk says he’s worried that we’re about to invent vengeful superpowered AI, and that a hivemind superconsciousness is the only path to protecting ourselves. It’s hard not to notice that this theory contains a number of things that are optional, unlikely or could simply not work.

Personally, I think a more parsimonious explanation is that Musk suffers from a psychosis by which he finds various science fiction-y ideas utterly irresistible and is compelled to do everything in his power to realize them. I say this with both horror and admiration: if even one of his various non-Hyperloop projects works out, he will have made himself into a figure of world-historical significance. Even if I had the talent to do these sorts of things (obviously I don’t), I think the wiser and more ethical path is a family, a career, a home, and then historical oblivion. But it’s hard not to marvel at someone who is actually able to live your daydreams.

The crucial difference is that electric cars and solar panels and batteries and rockets and terraforming Mars all seem like good or at least sane ideas. This is not obviously true of Neuralink.

I won’t bore you with obvious arguments about such technologies’ capacity for totalitarian control or simple hacking. Instead I’ll ask: how is the electronic communication project looking, do you think?

Brain-to-brain interaction could easily be a singularity-level development, something with consequences that cannot be anticipated. It could even have Fermi Paradox implications! Reasoning about it might be impossible. But apparently we have to, and so we should probably start by asking what has happened over the last century as we learned to use electricity to make communication instantaneous, then digital, then networked.

I’m not sure whether or how to count world wars against being able to Facetime with your grandkid, so let’s just call that stuff a wash. I find the very recent history of many-to-many, pan-society frictionless communication to be extremely discouraging. Social media makes us less happy, as our evolved impulses for status competition and tribalism are supercharged. At a larger scale, the U.S. media and political ecosystem seems to have been successfully manipulated to a mind-boggling conclusion by a foreign power during our last election, despite the fact that the manipulation was detected as it was in progress. We can quibble about which part of this era of unprecedentedly efficient communication is responsible for our seemingly unstoppable descent into bitter factionalism and individual discontent; whether technologically enabled forms of suffering are new or merely more humane substitutes for older torments; whether the humanitarian benefits still being realized by technological diffusion outweigh the ennui that sets in after its arrival. But I don’t think many would disagree that the hedonic, intellectual, spiritual and institutional returns to a fully networked contemporary lifestyle are looking pretty suspect.

This is a tragedy. You could not find many people more enthusiastic than my younger self about the cathartic deliverance that perfect communication would provide. I ran a BBS as a kid; I built grandiose, essay-filled websites; I was consumed by technology and absolutely convinced that millennia-old liberal ideals about knowledge and deliberation would finally reach their apotheosis now that an age of universal democratic access was dawning. I count the failure of this vision as one of the great disappointments of my life.

In my younger self’s defense: it’s still early days. The jury is out on all of this. Yes, we are responding to social media and institutional decentralization badly, but populations sometimes evolve resistance to new pathogens after an initial wave of devastation. It’s possible we will develop the cultural practices necessary to avoid the helpless emotional and social debasement that currently pervade a fully wired existence.

(On the other hand that lifestyle still only reaches a tiny fraction of very wealthy people. Things will probably get much worse in the short term.)

I have no idea how this will work out in the future, but it seems obvious that blithely accelerating these processes today is unwise. If we do learn how to endure this changed way of living, I will agree it’s a shame that Elon and I will have missed our chance to be a part of its completion. But we all owe each other caution and care on matters this enormous, and maybe this is the cost of that duty. All that history owes us is oblivion. If Elon cannot learn to be content with that, I pity him. But not enough to release him from his responsibility to me.

DIY eye-fi server: docker, flickr, all sorts of good stuff

The Eye-fi is an SD card with an embedded wifi chip. Configure it, put it in your camera and it can wirelessly upload photos without human intervention. It’s a neat gadget, even if I never did manage to get my mother’s working for her.

Alas, Eye-fi’s software accomplishes this feat by running in the background of an always-on desktop computer. Worse, they’ve been steadily eroding their services’ capabilities, stripping away integration with photosharing sites people actually use in favor of their own cloud photo service (don’t worry, the first year is free).

A few intrepid geeks reverse-engineered the early Eye-fi cards, but enthusiasm seems to have diminished as Eye-fi’s services changed and their early-gen cards stopped working. Nevertheless, the techniques they discovered and software they wrote still work… well, they almost worked. There were some rough spots.

I have a baby on the way (did I mention that?) and expect to be generating lots of photos. So I have taken one low-dependency-count open source project and given it a fresh coat of paint. In addition to the satisfaction of knowing you are running slightly more reputable Python, the system is now able to upload your photos to Flickr, if you let it. And it runs in Docker (renamed as of today to Moby, ugh), which should remove many of the idiosyncratic configuration headaches that would otherwise make sharing a project like this a masochistic declaration of one’s intent to provide free tech support, forever.

If any of this sounds useful I hope you’ll give it a look. It has already happily uploaded many debug photos of my coffee table to Flickr from my a household Raspberry Pi. Perhaps it will prove equally helpful to you.

bike hack night

I gave a talk at Bike Hack Night a couple of weeks ago, and have finally managed to put the audio and slides online. It runs about 12 minutes long and describes how I used the ESP8266 wifi microcontroller, ultrasonic rangefinding sensors, a homegrown iOS app and some data analysis to examine how much space cars afford me when passing me as I ride my bike.

It was a fun project! The big takeaway for me was the accessibility of these tools, both in terms of learning the technology and in terms of price. If you assume a smartphone is already handy, total bill of materials doesn’t even hit the $20 mark.

You can find the slides and audio here: http://sbma44.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/bike-hack-night/index.html.

I watched some CBS shows and you should probably ignore me

I got horribly sick around 10pm on Thanksgiving night. It wasn’t the food (no one else got sick) but by early afternoon the next day I was in the ER getting IV fluids and a CT scan to ensure my appendix was in one piece. It was! But the rest of the stuff in there remained unhappy and I didn’t eat anything but gatorade and two bananas for the next 48 hours. I’m feeling much better now but the recovery process has involved watching a hell of a lot of TV. Which reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. Specifically: the cultural salience of the CBS primetime lineup. It’s the key to everything. Bear with me.

CBS’s loud claims to being America’s top network need to be taken with a grain of salt. The numbers are actually pretty close, and the rankings switch around if you start removing sports from the equation. Still, their shows are indisputably popular. And indisputably stupid. Very, very stupid. This is the network that made America’s top comedy a show defined by the catchphrase “Bazinga!” — a detail so on-the-nose that it reads like Pynchon losing a step.

The strategy is boringly obvious: lowest common denominator. Some of this is simple, like cloning successful formulae into new franchise spinoffs or using the hoariest TV tropes (their newest show’s tagline: “he’s not a lawyer — he’s a trial consultant”). Normally this is merely banal and unworthy of notice. But now, in a year when we’ve all learned some horrifying things about what appeals to the masses, I find myself pondering what else they might like.

Identifiability is clearly important to these shows’ success. Leads wear casual clothing and are often unshaven. They are not cerebral except when they are specifically meant to be nerds. Credentials are never mentioned (well, except badges). Not to be unkind, but there are quite a lot of fat people. Some shows seem specifically engineered to have no distinguishing characteristics except a cast as heavy as its audience. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why a formerly cut-up action star like Chris O’Donnell led a top action series behind a doughy torso and loose neckline. Now I think it might be more of a feature than a bug. These are shows for an audience that has let itself go. Or has had to.

It’s also a set of shows expressing personal dynamics so anachronistically conventional that it feels like they must be there specifically for reassurance. The shows are overwhelmingly white, but then it’s not uncommon for television networks to target racially-defined audiences. The treatment of women is sexist — plenty of comments about how sexy everyone is — but always with plausible deniability (it’s mostly villains or rakish one-off characters making the remarks). Slightly more unusual is the frequency with which these series are anchored by a somewhat weatherbeaten white guy who’s generationally separate from the rest of the cast. I take this to be a promise to an aging audience that virility hasn’t left them entirely behind. That they’re still in charge.

But this is so much pointy-headed snobbery. Less important than how the viewers see themselves is how they see the world.

There is a larger military presence on CBS than the other networks combined. So many characters who used to be in the service; not too long ago, so many shows structured around weirdly civilian corners of the armed forces. Arguably this is merely a twist on TV’s love of police departments as a means of structuring four acts and a teaser: martial rather than municipal. Still, pair it with an utterly blase attitude toward and presumption of omnipresent surveillance, and it all starts to feel a little authoritarian and bad.

Finally, while I think the moment has passed, I got started on this line of thought during the burst of forensic investigator shows–CSI, Bones et al. Some of this is just the usual network copycattery. Still, it’s remarkable to see America fall in love with shows obsessed with human remains as religious affiliation (and, presumably, belief in an afterlife) falls off a cliff. CSI debuted in 2000; the correlation with this methodologically questionable index is probably too good to be true. But the broader trend is hard to deny.

I don’t have any grand observations to make about all of this. That’s probably why it’s never made it past the drafts folder before now. Still, it’s striking how different media looks when it’s only courting an audience, only chasing dollars. And winning.

(I should acknowledge that overthinking these shows is not an idea that’s wholly mine. Years ago my friend Matt tried to pitch a TV recap series about the top (dumb) broadcast shows at work, as a fun differentiator from the overwhelming mass of prestige cable recaps. Alas, I understand it went nowhere. I was already noodling on some crackpot theories about the above but his argument made me resolve to write them down… someday. It’s worth mentioning that CBS shows’ dialogue and the marketing specifically recapitulates his thesis about the family unit’s renewed primacy in entertainment.)

AirBnB

Steph and I have been AirBnBing our guest bedroom for about a year and a half now, and it’s been mostly great. It’s not a ton of extra money, but it’s not an insignificant amount, either. We occasionally meet interesting people. We are regularly reminded that the world is full of people unlike ourselves, and that it’s possible to get along with them, at least when the interaction is supervised by an app’s influential reputation system.

And it seems like it’s probably good for us. I love my job dearly, but it does involve a lot of playing with computers and eating free snacks. Spending a few hours a month scrubbing toilets for money makes me feel like I might have at least a slim chance of surviving the revolution.

The aforementioned reputation system does a good job of driving nearly everyone within it toward neurotic approval-seeking. You are not just supplying a service for money; you are also hoping your guests will have a good time and compliment your home and be impressed with your lifestyle. They are not just paying for lodging; they are trying not to be a bother and giving you coffee from their home country and making implausible offers to put you up if you ever visit COUNTRY/CITY X. It’s all a little bit charming and let’s be honest more than a little pathetic, but the five-star ratings really do seem to weed out the sociopaths. It works pretty well.

Despite their business being built on overeager social fumbling, AirBnB is taking steps to make interactions more impersonal through the use of their Instant Book feature, by which hosts relinquish their ability to approve requests from prospective guests one by one. They have both good and bad reasons for this. Good, in that there is strong evidence of racial and no doubt other forms of iniquity in how hosts accept guests. Bad, in that they were pushing Instant Book well before the bias conversation, presumably because lowering coordination costs leads to more transactions and revenue.

I am in favor of systematizing away opportunities for human odiousness, but Steph and I are unlikely to enable Instant Book. In our experience, the worst AirBnB interactions occur when expectations are mismatched. A first-time user with poor English expects to get a full condo, rather than just a room, for eighty bucks a night. A high school kid from suburban Maryland expects to stay at our place with his girlfriend. A couple of friends expect a third to maybe join their weekend trip on a whim and crash on our living room couch. A new graduate’s parents have never been out of China before and expect to order room service. Or maybe Steph and I just have an inkling of plans for a week we haven’t thought to block off yet. Reviewing potential guests allowed us to avoid several of these catastrophes. Plus the silly letter the guest has to compose gets the stilted courtship described above off on the right foot.

Most guests are nice but boring folks. They typically hole up in the room they’ve let and do their thing without much bother. We have learned to identify risk factors for those who will spend a bunch of time at home (when they do this you have to pretend not to mind):

  • Those at the end of very long trips will be exhausted and will just want to surf the web rather than continuing to fake enthusiasm for seeing cultural treasures or whatever.
  • The young will be too poor to spend time outside of the house except for whatever their Big Planned Event is. Also their blase attitude toward their creeping mortality makes them feel like they have all the time in the world to visit the National Archives someday, but you know what, young man, you don’t.
  • The old, particularly those who have clearly been dragged along by their spouses, might just want to watch TV, which in our household often requires moderate-to-advanced skill at TCP/IP network configuration. We try our best but some of them don’t even know how to run a traceroute.

We have been charmed by several guests. There was the Parisian atmospheric scientist who flew planes to take air samples, who Steph still pines for. There was the bartender who was back to take the bar for the third time after missing the date for the one near his home in New York City. There was the Eastern European flight attendant who met his internet language-learning community girlfriend for the first time in our house on Valentine’s Day, followed her home to Southeastern Virginia, proposed, was not allowed to meet her family, flew home without a ring or engagement, and was still so polite as to respond to our thirsty AirBnB requests for details about how it all went. I think fondly of all of them.

But if I were to offer only one piece of advice about how to charm your AirBnB host it would have to be this: try not to leave too much hair behind. Honestly, this is all I care about. Maybe avoid putting wet garbage in the bin, too, so I can reuse the liner after I empty it. Otherwise, go nuts. My dream guests are an aging and profoundly bald gay couple. No stray hairs, in bed at a reasonable hour, and maybe they can tell us some good stories over a glass of wine. God bless them.

If you are considering AirBnB hosting, I have a longer list of suggestions:

  • Consider the cost of room turnover and the cost of guests letting their guard down and beginning to transgress boundaries. For us this means bookings of 3-5 nights, which is a narrow window that probably hurts earnings but minimizes stress.
  • Use AirBnB’s free photography service. It makes your place look great, though it can take a while to get an appointment and our listing makes it look like we have a Christmas tree up year-round.
  • Buy some makeup removal wipes and leave them in a prominent spot, or else you will eventually wind up with some destroyed towels. The first time you see a guest heading out for the evening in unexpectedly high heels you should immediately buy another towel set on Amazon.
  • Get some programmable door locks or a key lock box, obviously. Alternately, prepare yourself to get upset over guests not respecting your arrival policies. You will be irate but they will not understand the problem at all, like a dog getting yelled at for drinking out of the toilet. It’s water, isn’t it? I don’t see what the big deal is.
  • Ask existing hosts for testimonials to get over the “is this new listing a scam that will steal my kidneys” hump.
  • If your guest shower has a hose sprayer, great, bully for you. If not, get one of these things. It will make your bathroom cleaning so, so much faster. A little handheld vacuum is also a substantial time-saver.
  • It’s maybe overkill but we installed some fan timers and USB outlets to encourage non-moldy bathrooms and fewer questions about borrowing chargers.
  • We’ve found that guests leave reviews about how much they like having a good neighborhood guide, a comfy bed, immaculately clean bathrooms and an electric kettle in the room. They don’t seem to care about the cheap Trader Joe’s wine we gave away for a while. I guess we weren’t fooling them.

Sometimes we are attentive, sometimes we are busy, sometimes we are maybe even a little surly. The guests don’t seem to notice. The AirBnB review is by now a well-understood compositional form. Give them a fair deal and they will write you one, like a traveling bard composing a song. You’ll meet some strangers and it’ll basically be okay, sometimes a little worse but often better than you’d think.

black hat and def con

A week ago I was in Las Vegas, surrounded by thousands of people attending Black Hat and DEF CON, the computer security industry’s two most important US gatherings. I had never been, and I loved it. I loved it.

What could be more hyperbolic than an army of hackers building a hive within Las Vegas, a place that is already a cartoonish, predatory and vacuum-sealed daydream? We have all watched decades of hacker movies and shitty quasi-martial CBS procedurals where geeks have piercings and weird hair and (when in front of a keyboard) superpowers. My expectations had been set by portrayals I knew to be bad. Surely the reality would be different, which is a euphemism adults use for “disappointing”.

But it wasn’t. It was a wonderland. Those production designers did a better job than I thought. And the superpowers are real, albeit demanding of much more time and tedious scrutiny of IDA Pro output than can comfortably fit in three acts and 46 minutes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I did not understand the difference between Black Hat and DEF CON before going. Black Hat is more professional, I had heard. DEF CON is cheaper. A lot of the same people go to both. All of this is true, but it’s a shallow explanation.

Black Hat is an expertly-produced conference for security professionals, a category that includes researchers, software vendors and surely more than a few cybercriminals. Its escalatingly expensive tiers of access allow participation in the frenzied vendor hall; attendance at the “briefings” where new and sometimes dangerous research is presented; and “classes” where specific attacks are taught–to use a not entirely hypothetical example, a fun class exercise might involve bringing Iran’s IP address block to its knees for an hour or two.

I was surrounded by khaki pants and polo shirts and a pervasive air of menace. My most vivid memory of the conference is among my first: walking into the keynote, an impossibly vast space even by Vegas’s improbable standards. Far above me the ventilation system exhaled a low, cavernous breath. The only light came from the projection screens that relayed the distant speaker’s image, bright like windows in a spaceship orbiting a blue-white star. By that light I could make out the silhouettes of the audience, thousands and thousands of them sitting in shadow, waiting to learn something new and frightening. You don’t take photos of other people at Black Hat, but in a room like that it would be hard, anyway: they’re not even lit by their own screens. Bringing a computer into such a hostile network environment is considered by most not to be worth the risk. I’ve never seen fewer computers in a conference audience than at this computer security conference. Everyone there learned long ago that if you are in the business of having prey you are also in the business of being still and unnoticed.

It freaked me out. Black Hat’s lightning talk track is called “Arsenal”; on Twitter, observers complained about talks that didn’t come with working code. This is not an academic conference.

DEF CON begins as Black Hat ends, and it is fundamentally a social gathering. The Black Hat attendees slip into a less stony kind of crypsis, cheerfully blending in with people whose skills and interests are similar to theirs but who possess vastly less discipline. Things become a lot more fun. $240 — cash only — at the considerably seedier Bally’s got me a skull-shaped electronic entry badge with ciphertext printed across it, connection pins that would whisper more secrets if hooked to the right hardware, and absolutely no instructions. If you solve the puzzles built into it and the lanyards and the conference signs and the schedule booklet and a hidden subdirectory on the welcome CD-ROM and who knows what else, you win free entry for life.

This was just one of many badges. I stood in line to get a kit that let me build a different badge, this one associated with an annual cyberpunk role-playing game. I soldered it together at the hardware hacking village’s free workstations; afterward I could use its infrared LEDs to trade handles with other players, then send them radio messages. There were badges that could connect to your car’s diagnostic network, badges for the LGBTQ and women-focused subcons, and badges made by groups of friends where you just had to know a guy to get one. They blinked LEDs, and paired with each other, and had secret accessories.

The badges are only a small part of the con, though. In a little over 48 hours I learned about beating airport wifi portals, lockpicking, dumping and decompiling router firmware, messing with tamper-evident seals and hacking Italian parking meters. The vendor hall was full of booths devoted to hawking t-shirts rather than to collecting CISO emails; I bought gadgets to let me spy on Bluetooth network traffic and a USB thumbdrive that injects exploit code at a thousand characters per second. Around midnight on Friday I found myself in safety glasses, a nylon net cage, a 26th floor suite, and a state of considerable intoxication, all at once, as I prepared to pilot a drone against three other people vying to be the first to pop a balloon at the cage’s center. Across the hall you could get an RFID chip implanted in your hand for $60.

I was jealous of the kids whose parents had brought them. They were finding this place so early. There is a certain type of person with certain types of interests and this is where they occasionally gather, like migratory animals, for those rare experiences unmediated by LCD screens.

My ebullience at finding so many people of the same type as myself powered me through most of the weekend. But at some point I had to start asking myself what type of person that was, exactly.

On Saturday my badge was malfunctioning. It wouldn’t blink the way it was supposed to. I had no relevant tools to tinker with, and was eventually referred up to one group’s suite for help. There an exhausted man behind a mountain of soldering equipment and several empty Surge tallboys was explaining, to a semicircle of my fellow newbies, how he had designed and thought about the group’s badge. No, the group wouldn’t accept sponsorship, he said. They paid for it out of their own pockets. To get a badge you had to be cool, that was it. They never had as many to give away as they would like. He didn’t want to see them in the hands of certain people, people whose names I had never heard of but which he practically spat. No, this wasn’t his day job, he–he trailed off. “I don’t make a lot of money,” he said, breaking eye contact.

He was generous with me, and after attending to a long line of questions and requests for aid that had arrived ahead of me, he performed a simple diagnostic test and declared, reasonably, that the repairs I needed were beyond the tools he had present.

It was about five minutes into our interaction before I realized he was open-carrying a glock on his hip. That’s the kind that doesn’t have a safety. This made me pretty uncomfortable, but of course I didn’t say anything. I was his guest, in his and his friends’ suite. I thanked him earnestly and honestly and left to find someone else to help me with my badge.

That gun was jarring to me, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. What are all of these exploits, these network packet captures, these lockpicking sessions about, anyway, if not having power over others? All of us there wanted secret knowledge to make ourselves stronger. For some it’s because we can’t forget being weak before. For others it’s probably something uglier. But it’s hard for me to imagine any of it being born of an impulse that’s particularly noble.

At best, it can be enough to know when you have gained that strength, to limit its expression to sly winks and low-grade mischief shared with the similarly afflicted. That’s DEF CON. If you begin using that new strength for a living, or find yourself forced to face the people who do–Black Hat. Worse things, if you ask me.

Well, I might find its emotional foundation suspect, but DEF CON was a hell of a lot of fun, and I will be back. Eventually, I’d like to better understand why I want to go so badly. But my short-term goal is just to get faster with my new lockpicks.

black hat sessions I have attended, translated into their wizarding equivalents

introductory OpenStreetMap politics

None of the following will be of much interest to people already familiar with OSM, except perhaps as an opportunity to take offense. The internet has plenty of those; I encourage you to trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect. I offer this both to satisfy my own commitment to write more and because I’ve recently been thinking that saying things that seem obvious can be important. Sometimes they turn out not to be that obvious after all.

Mike Migurski has a characteristically thoughtful post about OpenStreetMap and how he feels the community must adapt to be more welcoming of automated edits (“robot mappers”) and communities focused on improving the map for emergency response (“crisis mappers”). He characterizes the interests of these communities as being at odds with the original participants in OpenStreetMap, which he names “craft mappers”.

In comments, several OSM doyens object to this characterization even while betraying some of its truth: Frederik Ramm cops to the project’s import as a social mechanism, and Richard Fairhurst (who I hasten to add seems like he might be the most reasonable person ever to use the internet) extolls the project as a vehicle for personal expression and empowerment.

One has to admit that this is a bit of stacked deck. Crisis mapping is enormously important but it’s also a rhetorical atom bomb. Saving lives is always going to be more important than preserving the hobby of a few map obsessives.

So let me complicate Mike’s typology by adding one more constituency: passive users of OpenStreetMap data. Naturally I am thinking of Mapbox customers, but also people using MapQuest and Mapzen and Carto and Maps.me and countless other businesses. It’s not entirely clear to me how much the earliest mappers of OSM care about their efforts finding use, or whether they are content to build a beautiful scale model of the world. The project’s relative inattention to building consumer-friendly services has always seemed to me an intelligently-chosen strategy of allowing the competitive market to handle distributing the project’s achievements. But I suppose indifference is an equally plausible explanation.

Still, I don’t think there can be any doubt that an enormous number of people benefit from OSM as mediated by commercial entities like Mapbox. Anyone who owns a smartphone can understand the growing importance of geodata. Finding the nearest coffeeshop is a modest benefit compared to being pulled from a collapsed building by rescue workers, but it happens considerably more often. It’s reasonable to be wary of equating profit with good, but commerce generally does indicate that someone is having their needs or wants satisfied. And there’s plenty of money in maps.

This community has no meaningful franchise within OpenStreetMap, and is instead represented by the commercial actors who serve them (:waves:). Those actors command both the resources and resentment you might expect of profiteers in a volunteer community: valued for the contributions of effort, software and money that professionalization affords, but viewed with understandable suspicion as to motives. We can do a lot of things, but people are quick to assume that we are doing them for bad reasons.

It is not a very democratic circumstance, but no one claimed otherwise: OpenStreetMap is often referred to as a “do-ocracy”, implying that those who contribute work have outsize influence. Fair enough, but this means that when the work that must be done includes discussion, conflict that amounts to a veto is the overwhelmingly likely outcome.

And that means that stasis is the order of the day. A slowly growing map, best in places where people have enough time and money to support a particular type of eccentric hobbyist. Across from them, another group of professionals, this one anxious to build the map everywhere, and quickly, before the next earthquake or funding round.

Everyone involved is as earnest and passionate as you might imagine, but there are probably only a few hundred of us bothering to write heartfelt blog posts and send snarky tweets from conference sessions. Oblivious to all of this are the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of active mappers; the tens of millions of people using OSM data without knowing it; and the billions of people who could be safer, or richer, or freer if OpenStreetMap or a project like it became the understood commons where we map our shared world.

I think mapping is a great and interesting problem, but it’s my job, not my hobby. Perhaps this makes it too easy for me to follow my utilitarian open data beliefs and say that OSM should be built as quickly and unselfishly as possible. But there it is.