March 21, 2015

I know several people who’d want one of these

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Want a new exotic toy to show off to your buddies after you say “Here, hold my beer”? How about a personal flamethrower?

Personal flamethrower 1

Personal flamethrower 2

Personal flamethrower 3

November 21, 2014

Paging Delos D. Harriman – come to the Kickstarter courtesy phone, please

Filed under: Britain,Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

This is a use of crowdfunding I didn’t expect to see:

A group of British scientists have taken to Kickstarter in order to get the first set of funds to attempt a landing on the Moon. All ex-teenage (very much ex-teenage, sadly) sci-fi addicts like myself will obviously be cheering them on (and recalling Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon no doubt) and possibly even subscribing. They’re looking for £ 600,000 or so for the planning phase and will need £ 3 billion to actually carry out the mission. That’s probably rather more, that second number, than they can raise at Kickstarter.

However, over and above the simple joy of seeing boffins doing their boffinry there’s a further joy in the manner in which such projects disintermediate around the political classes. That is, we’ve not got to wait for the politicians to think this is a good idea, we’ve not even got to try and convince any of them that it is. We can (and seemingly are) just getting on with doing it ourselves.


Here’s what they’re proposing:

    In arguably the most ambitious crowdfunded project ever attempted, a British team is planning to use public donations to fund a lunar landing.

    Within ten years, they believe they can raise enough money to design, build and launch a spacecraft capable of not only travelling to the Moon, but drilling deep into its surface.

    They also want to bury a time-capsule, containing digital details and DNA of those who have donated money to the venture as well alongside an archive of the history of Earth. Finally, the mission will assess the practicality of a permanent manned base at the lunar South Pole.

There’s no doubt at all that the Apollo and similar Russian space adventures had to be run by government. The technology of the time was such that only a government had the resources necessary to drive such a large project. But, obviously, the cost of rocket technology has come down over time.

November 18, 2014

The Wikipedia editors circle the wagons

Filed under: Media,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 06:50

Virginia Postrel talks about the greatest danger to the long-term health of Wikipedia — the diminishing central group of editors who do the most to keep it going:

Few of the tens of millions of readers who rely on Wikipedia give much thought to where its content comes from or why the site, which is crowdsourced and open (at least in theory) for anyone to edit, doesn’t degenerate into gibberish and graffiti. Like Google or running water, it is simply there. Yet its very existence is something of a miracle. Despite its ocean of content, this vital piece of informational infrastructure is the work of a surprisingly small community of volunteers. Only about 3,000 editors contribute more than 100 changes a month to the English-language Wikipedia, down from a high of more than 4,700 in early 2007. Without any central direction or outside recognition, these dedicated amateurs create, refine, and maintain millions of content pages.

But they don’t really do it for you. Wikipedia “is operated by and for the benefit of the editors,” writes Richard Jensen, one of their number, in a 2012 article in the Journal of Military History. (Jensen, a retired history professor, is a credentialed scholar, which makes him unusual among Wikipedia’s editors.) Unlike open-source software contributions, working on Wikipedia provides few career advantages. It’s a hobby, offering a combination of intrinsic and social rewards. People edit Wikipedia because they enjoy it.

And that is both the genius and the vulnerability of the organization. Wikipedia’s continued improvement — indeed, its continued existence — depends on this self-selected group of obsessives and the organizational culture they’ve developed over time. But the open structure that enabled the creation of so many entries on so many topics also attracts a never-ending stream of attacks from outright vandals and other bad actors. Forced to defend the site’s integrity, incumbent editors become skeptical, even hostile, toward the newcomers who could ensure its future. If Wikipedia eventually fades away, the reasons will lie in a culture that worked brilliantly until it devolved from dynamism to sclerosis.

May 11, 2014

Market disruption and innovation

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Business,Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:19

Innovation often leads to challenges to established markets. Existing players in those established markets have three choices when faced with a disruptive new competitor or technological change: they can innovate themselves, they can retrench and avoid direct competition, or they can do what most incumbents do — get the government regulators to fight their battles for them.

Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.

A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.

Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.

April 2, 2014

Enigma’s 21st century open sourced descendent

Filed under: History,Military,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:51

The Enigma device was used by the German military in World War 2 to encrypt and decrypt communication between units and headquarters on land and at sea. Original Enigma units — the few that are on the market at any time — sell for tens of thousands of dollars. You may not be able to afford an original, but you might be interested in a modern implementation of Enigma using Arduino-based open-source hardware and software:

Actual hand-crafted Final design

Actual hand-crafted Final design

Enigma machines have captivated everyone from legendary code breaker Alan Turing and the dedicated cryptographers from England’s Bletchley Park to historians and collectors the world over.

But while many history buffs would surely love to get their hands on an authentic Enigma machine used during WWII, the devices aren’t exactly affordable (last year, a 1944 German Enigma machine was available for auction at Bonhams with an estimated worth of up to $82,000). Enter the Open Enigma Project, a kit for building one from scratch.

The idea came to Marc Tessier and James Sanderson from S&T Geotronics by accident.

“We were working on designing and building intelligent Arduino-based open-source geocaching devices to produce a unique interactive challenge at an upcoming Geocaching Mega Event,” Tessier told Crave. “A friend of ours suggested we use an Enigma type encrypting/decrypting machine as the ultimate stage of the challenge and pointed us to an Instructables tutorial that used a kid’s toy to provide some Enigma encoding. We looked all over to buy a real Enigma machine even if we had to assemble it ourselves and realized that there was nothing available at the moment. So we decided to build our own.”


“Our version is an electronic microprocessor-based machine that is running software which is a mathematical expression of how the historical mechanical machine behaved,” Sanderson told Crave. “Having never touched a real Enigma M4, we built our open version based on what we read online. From what we understand, the real electro-mechanical devices are much heavier and a little bigger.”

They took some design liberties — replacing the physical rotors with LED units and replacing the light bulbs with white LEDs. The replica can be modified by changing the Arduino code and can communicate to any computer via USB. Future versions may include Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth.

March 31, 2014

Market research, disguised as crowdfunding

Filed under: Business,Economics,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:01

Virginia Postrel has an interesting take on the current brouhaha over Facebook’s acquistion of formerly crowdfunded Oculus:

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo represent a classic entrepreneurial phenomenon: Once you roll out your great idea, customers use it in ways you didn’t imagine, and you wind up in a different business than you expected.

Kickstarter’s founders wanted to help artists raise money. Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann pictured aiding capital-strapped small-businesses owners like her parents. Neither intended their site to act as a test market. But, as the rags-to-riches story of virtual-reality firm Oculus shows, that’s what they have become.

“It’s a way to access capital, but what it’s also become is a market-testing and validation platform,” Ringelmann told the Dent the Future conference on Tuesday. “What we’re doing is creating pre-markets for ideas,” she said.


Now that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion, critics are reverting to the original assumption that crowdfunding is primarily about raising money. “Talking people out of $2.4 million in exchange for zero percent equity is a perfectly legal scam,” wrote my colleague Barry Ritholtz.

But it’s not a scam at all. It’s market research. In effect, customers placed pre-orders and received early products; why are they griping that they don’t own a part of the business?

The backlash is largely Kickstarter’s fault. It may not be running a scam, but it definitely sends mixed messages. Unlike Indiegogo, which prides itself on operating a neutral platform giving anybody’s idea a market test, Kickstarter hasn’t embraced its de facto transformation. It strictly curates the campaigns it hosts and, although it makes its biggest profits on technology products, it still exudes an artistic sensibility that isn’t entirely comfortable with disruptive technology or large enterprises. It still talks as though it’s PBS. “Kickstarter is not a store,” it declares.

March 26, 2014

Oculus in the news

Filed under: Business,Media,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

Raph Koster reflects on the promise of Oculus:

Metaverse RoadmapRendering was never the point.

Oh, it’s hard. But it’s rapidly becoming commodity hardware. That was in fact the basic premise of the Oculus Rift: that the mass market commodity solution for a very old dream was finally approaching a price point where it made sense. The patents were expiring; the panels were cheap and getting better by the month. The rest was plumbing. Hard plumbing, the sort that calls for a Carmack, maybe, but plumbing.


Look, there are a few big visions for the future of computing doing battle.

There’s a wearable camp, full of glasses and watches. It’s still nascent, but its doom is already waiting in the wings; biocomputing of various sorts (first contacts, then implants, nano, who knows) will unquestionably win out over time, just because glasses and watches are what tech has been removing from us, not getting us to put back on. Google has its bets down here.

There’s a beacon-y camp, one where mesh networks and constant broadcasts label and dissect everything around us, blaring ads and enticing us with sales coupons as we walk through malls. In this world, everything is annotated and shouting at a digital level, passing messages back and forth. It’s an ubicomp environment where everything is “smart.” Apple has its bets down here.

These two things are going to get married. One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.


The virtue of Oculus lies in presence. A startling, unusual sort of presence. Immersion is nice, but presence is something else again. Presence is what makes Facebook feel like a conversation. Presence is what makes you hang out on World of Warcraft. Presence is what makes offices persist in the face of more than enough capability for remote work. Presence is why a video series can out-draw a text-based MOOC and presence is why live concerts can make more money than album sales.

Facebook is laying its bet on people, instead of smart objects. It’s banking on the idea that doing things with one another online — the thing that has fueled it all this time — is going to keep being important. This is a play to own walking through Machu Picchu without leaving home, a play to own every classroom and every museum. This is a play to own what you do with other people.

Update: Apparently some of the folks who backed the original Kickstarter campaign have their panties in a bunch now that there’s big money involved.

Attendees wear Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted displays as they play EVE: Valkyrie, a multiplayer virtual reality dogfighting shooter game, at the Intel booth at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus for $2bn in stocks and shares is big news for a third company: Kickstarter, which today celebrates the first billion-dollar exit of a company formed through the crowdfunding platform.

Oculus raised $2.4m for its Rift headset in September 2012, exceeding its initial fundraising goal by 10 times. It remains one of the largest ever Kickstarter campaigns.

But as news of the acquisition broke Tuesday night, some of the 9,500 people who backed the project for sums of up to $5,000 a piece (the most popular package, containing an early prototype of the Rift, was backed by 5,600 for a more reasonable $300) were rethinking their support.


For Kickstarter itself, the purchase raises awkward questions. The company has always maintained that it should not be viewed as a storefront for pre-ordering products; instead, a backer should be aware that they are giving money to a struggling artist or designer, and view the reward as a thanks rather than a purchase.

Kickstarter Is Not a Store” is how the New York-based company put it in 2012, shortly after the Oculus Rift campaign closed. Instead, the company explained: “It’s a new way for creators and audiences to work together to make things.”

But if Kickstarter isn’t a store, and if backers also aren’t getting equity in the company which uses their money to build a $2bn business, then what are they actually paying for?

“Structurally I have an issue with it,” explains Buckenham, “in that the backer takes on a great deal of risk for relatively little upside and that the energy towards exciting things is formalised into a necessarily cash-based relationship in a way that enforces and extends capitalism into places where it previously didn’t have total dominion.”

March 11, 2014

Surveillance game – Nothing to Hide

Filed under: Gaming,Government,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:50

If you’re not worried about the government (or other governments) watching your every move — because you’ve “got nothing to hide” — you might be interested in this game:

The tongue-in-cheek game Nothing to Hide was born out of creator Nicky Case’s dedication to privacy rights. Using the game, he intends to chip away at confidence in National Security Agency (NSA) procedures and give advocates something to think about.

The “anti-stealth” framework is an “inversion” of more familiar stealth-based video games. In the Panopticon-inspired environment, players must control behavior to please monitoring powers. Rather than avoid surveillance equipment, players actively work to remain in sight of yellow, triangle cyclops-eyed cameras. If a player walks outside the view of the camera, he or she risks death by summary, trial-free execution — because clearly he or she is a criminal with something to hide.

The name Nothing to Hide is, of course, taken from a common blasé reaction to state surveillance: “Well, I’ve got nothing to hide.” The game confronts this attitude by drawing attention to the unpleasantness of being constantly monitored. Players are thrust into a dystopian environment devoid of privacy. Digital posters with creepy comments like “Smile for the camera” and “Thank you for participating in your own surveillance” cover the walls.

March 8, 2014

“If you would like a refund, please contact a fan of my work directly for your money”

Filed under: Business,Law,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:55

Reason‘s Brian Doherty reports on a fascinating Kickstarter campaign by comic artist John Campbell:

For those who think Ayn Rand was just crazily overwrought in the “unrealistic” characters she created to dramatize the anti-capitalist mentality, you might want to see this addendum to the Kickstarter page of comic artist John Campbell, who raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter to publish a book of his comics Sad Pictures for Children.

He got tired of having to mail the books he promised, apparently (believe me, I know that’s a drag) and so decided to burn a copy for every person who asked about where the book they’d been promised was.

The page has a video of him doing the burning.

He has elevated the annoyance of mailing 127 packages to an anti-market rant of marvelous proportion. Excerpts, though whole thing is worth reading, after he talks about how rich people he knew as a kid mistreated a pet rat:

    I got a lot of requests from backers to get books sent before Christmas, which I was able to do for some people. I could not do this for other people before leaving for the holidays, and many of them asked for refunds.

    I refunded them with money I got from selling the original art I made for my webcomic from 2009-2012. This was money I planned to ship orders with. After this happened, I could have made another update explaining I had issued refunds and then tried to sell more things or asked for more shipping money. Instead I thought for a long time about what has been happening…

    If you would like a refund, please contact a fan of my work directly for your money. This is where the money would come from anyway. I am cutting out the middle man.

March 30, 2013

Looking at crowdfunding as a replacement for venture capital

Filed under: Business,Economics,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:43

ESR looks at where crowdfunding fits in the traditional tech start-up food chain:

In How crowdfunding and the JOBS Act will shape open source companies, Fred Trotter proposes that crowdfunding a la Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is going to displace venture capitalists as the normal engine of funding for open-source tech startups, and that this development will be a tremendous enabler. Trotter paints a rosy picture of idealistic geeks enabled to do fully open-source projects because they’ll no longer feel as pressed to offer a lucrative early exit to VCs on the promise of rent capture from proprietary technology.

Some of the early evidence from crowdfunding successes does seem to point at this kind of outcome, especially near 3D printing and consumer electronics with a lot of geek buy-in. And I’d love to believe all of Trotter’s optimism. But there’s a nagging problem of scale here that makes me think the actual consequences will be more mixed and messy than he suggests.

In general, VCs don’t want to talk to you at all unless they can see a good case for ploughing in at least $2 million, and they don’t get really interested below a scale of about $15M. This is because the amount of time required for them to babysit an investment (sit on the company’s board, assist job searches, etc.) doesn’t scale down for smaller investments — small plays are just as much work for much less money. This is why there’s a second class of investors, often called “angels”, who trade early financing on the $100K order of magnitude for equity. The normal trajectory of a startup goes from friends & family money through angels up to VCs. Each successive stage in this pipeline is generally placing a larger bet and accordingly has less risk tolerance and a higher time discount than the previous; VCs, in particular, will be looking for a fast cash-out via initial public offering.

The problem is this: it’s quite rare for crowdfunding to raise money even equivalent to the low-end threshold of a VC, let alone the volume they lay down when they’re willing to bet heavily. Unless crowdfunding becomes an order of magnitude more effective than it is now (which seems to me possible but unlikely) the financing source it will displace isn’t VCs but angels.

March 1, 2013

Kickstarter promotion: win a day with Chris Kluwe

Filed under: Business,Football,Gaming — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:33

Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has been in the news a heck of a lot for any non-quarterback. He’s probably the most newsworthy punter in the NFL in the last 25 years or more. A new Kickstarter initiative is trying to take advantage of Kluwe’s popularity to raise money for their project:

Former Chicago Bears’ linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer has designs on launching something called “Overdog.” According to this interview with Hillenmeyer in Forbes, what Overdog is designed to do is connect athletes that like to play video games to … well … other people that like to play video games.

[. . .]

Before Overdog can launch, Hillenmeyer wants to raise $100,000 for various aspects of the project. In order to do this, they’ve done what pretty much everyone with a project is doing these days. . .started their own Kickstarter to raise money. Like other Kickstarter drives, there are various levels of pledges you can give, with a higher pledge giving you a higher level of recognition, access, whatever. One of the levels you can pledge at … and there are only four spots available at this level … will give you the following:

    The Kluwe Experience. Describing a day with OverDog advisory board member Chris Kluwe any other way would be shortchanging him. One lucky fan will have the chance to receive a punting lesson (in Minneapolis), play some video games (likely World of Warcraft), and soak in the wisdom from the NFL’s most interesting man. Unfortunately, travel is not included but a Forever Subscription is.

February 9, 2013

Crowdfunding the NanoLight

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:51

Cassandra Khaw at TechHive on the attempt to crowdfund a new LED light:

NanoLight prototype

Part lightbulb, part spaceship component, the LED NanoLight (funding through March 8) is being touted as the world’s most energy efficient lightbulb.

Using just 12 watts of electricity, the NanoLight should generate 1600 lumens, the equivalent of a 100-watt lightbulb. The estimated cost of running a NanoLight (for three hours a day) is less than $2 a year, and the bulb is expected to last 25 to 30 years.

Aside from looking rather stellar and being economical with the usage of power, the NanoLight also differs from the average LED lightbulb in that it’s capable of emulating the omnidirectional nature of your classic lightbulb—but cool enough not to mimic its habit of scorching your flesh if you make the mistake of touching it when it’s been on for a while. And unlike most compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, the NanoLight provides full brightness as soon as you turn it on.

March 1, 2012

A Kickstarter campaign for … Greece

Filed under: Europe,Humour,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:12

I guess it’s about their last available option:

Greece is a small country in the south of Europe known for inventing democracy and western philosophy and for its national motto, “Release the Kraken!” Our shores are a popular destination for backpackers and tourists wishing to relax amid sun-drenched beaches by day and intoxicated British tourists by night.

We wish to continue this good work, but to do so our creditors are demanding €14.5 billion ($18.6 billion) by March 20. We do not have this money, nor do we think we can raise it in time: Our asset sales have gone nowhere, and the EU has nixed our plan to close shop and re-open a few blocks away as “Greeze”. And so we come to you, our friends, for help.

A donation of any amount is appreciated, and gifts are available for those who give at premium levels. We promise these funds will be used only to pay down debt, and any funds received above the requested amount will be rolled over to our next, inevitable Kickstarter campaign.

February 25, 2012

Tim Harford: The problem of “interdisciplinary problems”

Filed under: Economics,Science,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:25

Tim Harford recently visited Oxford Martin School to discuss the phenomenon of problems that are seen as intractable when viewed from within a “silo” or single discipline, but which yield solutions when approached in co-operation with multiple disciplines:

In academia, the challenge of encouraging interdisciplinary research is at least recognised as a problem. The advancing frontier of scientific knowledge forces most researchers to specialise in ever narrower fields and, as a result, collaboration between these silos is essential. I recently visited the Oxford Martin School, a seven-year-old initiative designed to foster cross-disciplinary projects at the University of Oxford. I talked to the school’s director, Ian Goldin, about the challenges of breaking down academic silos.

He thinks these silos are mostly artificial. Academic journals are largely specialised rather than interdisciplinary and official funding bodies shy away from interdisciplinary projects. The result is that academics with interdisciplinary interests have few ways to fund the research and few credible outlets for publishing the results. The Martin School has funding, but most of the researchers are either junior, with some freedom to experiment, or professors so senior they no longer need to worry about their publication record. The mid-career academics are missing. It is nice to hear the tenure system sometimes produces the hoped-for courage and independence, but not so nice that there is no career track for interdisciplinary researchers.

[. . .]

If problems are one focal point for collaboration, tools can be another. An example: systems needed to deal with the gigantic data sets generated in finance, astronomy and oceanography. Such tools naturally bring together computer scientists and the statisticians, economists and scientists who might use the data. Goldin points to “crowdsourcing” as a second example of a cross-disciplinary tool, complexity science as a third and (optimistically, I feel) practical ethics as a fourth.

Perhaps the real lesson is that promoting cross-disciplinary research need not require a mysterious blend of social-networking tools and funky collaborative architectural spaces. All that is sometimes required is a shared problem, or a shared set of tools, and, above all, the money to pay for the job to be done.

July 12, 2011

An amusing copyright tale (for a change)

Filed under: Cancon,Law,Media,Technology — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 16:06

Jesse Brown has the most entertaining copyright story I’ve read in quite a while:

But some of the hooligans exposed on Youtube found a clever way to get the video removed—copyright claims. Under Youtube’s “Notice and Takedown” policy, all you need to do is claim you own the rights to a video and demand that it be removed, and Youtube will remove it. The video’s uploader will be informed of the allegation and then have a chance to challenge it.

But here’s the rub: in order to claim ownership of a video’s copyright, you have to identify yourself. And when Youtube informs the uploader that they’re being accused of a copyright violation, they have to tell them who their accuser is. So rioters are indirectly handing their names over to the very people who were trying to identify them.

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