3-D Printed Guns: Congress Ready to Extend the Ban

3D_printed_weaponsEarlier this month, mere days before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, Congress began proposing to extend a ban placed plastic firearms capable of evading metal detectors and X-ray machines. Narrowly beating a midnight deadline on Monday, Dec. 9th, the ban was extended for a period of ten years, though efforts to strengthen the restrictions were narrowly blocked by Congressional Republicans.

This was a bittersweet moment for advocates of gun control, but the implications of this decision go beyond the desire to not see another school shooting take place. With the growth of 3-D printing technology and fears that guns could be created using open-source software and store bought printers, preemptive measures were seen as necessary. Simply shutting down Distributed Defense’s website seemed insufficient given the interest and ease of access.

Cody-Wilson-Defense-Distributed-Wiki-Weapon-3-d-printed-gunBans on plastic and undetectable firearms were first passed during the administration of Ronald Reagan, and have been renewed twice – first in 1998 and again in 2003. But such weapons have become a growing threat and due to 3-D printing, which are becoming better and more affordable. And though public access is still limited to weapons made from ABS plastic, it may be only a matter of time before something more sophisticated becomes available.

However, advocates of gun control emphasize that this extension contains two key defeats. For starters, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s desire to strengthen the ban by requiring that such weapons contain undetachable metal parts was blocked. In addition, the fact that the ban was extended for a ten-year period as is means it cannot be revisited and strengthened again in the near future.

3dmetalgun-640x353In this respect, the ban highlights a year of failure of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats to toughen gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Despite this tragedy and other mass shootings – such as the one that took place at the Washington Naval Yard – and the fact that some 90% support tougher gun laws, it seems that pro-gun lobbyists and the NRA are destined to have their way for the time being.

In the meantime, we can only hope that industrial 3-D printing, which allows for objects to be created out of metal parts, does not become readily available to average citizens. The one saving grace of the 3-D printed gun is the fact that it is entirely composed of plastic, making it an ineffective (if undetectable) weapon. And here’s hoping 2014 sees a lot less violence and a lot more humanity!

Source: cbc.ca, huffingtonpost.com

Jack Andraka and I Have a Chat!

photo(1)Folks, today I have a rare privilege which I want to share with you. Not that long ago, I reached out to a certain brilliant mind that’s been making waves in the scientific community of late, a young man who – despite his age – has been producing some life saving technologies and leading his own research team. This young man, despite his busy schedule, managed to get back to me quite quickly, and agreed to an interview.

I am of coarse referring to Jack Andraka, a man who’s medical science credentials are already pretty damn impressive. At the age of 16, he developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one that was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests, and 1/26,000th the cost. For this accomplishment, he won first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

Winning at the 2012 ISEF
Winning at the 2012 ISEF

Afterward, he and the other finalists formed their own research group known as Generation Z, which immediately began working towards the creation of a handheld non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. In short, they began working on a tricorder-like device, something for which they hope to collect the Tricorder X PRIZE in the near future.

While this project is ongoing, Andraka presented his own concept for a miniature cancer-detecting device at this year’s ISEF. The device is based on a raman spectrometer, but relies on off-the-shelf components like a laser pointer and an iPod camera to scan tissue for cancer cells. And whereas a raman spectrometer is the size of a small car and can cost upwards of $100,000, his fits in the palm of your hand and costs about $15.

Talking with the Prez
Talking with the Prez

Oh, and I should also mention that Jack got to meet President Obama. When I asked what the experience was like, after admitting to being jealous, he told me that the President “loves to talk about science and asks great questions. [And] he has the softest hands!” Who knew? In any case, here’s what he had to tell me about his inspirations, plans, and predictions for the future.

1. What drew you to science and scientific research in the first place?

I have always enjoyed asking questions and thinking about how and why things behave the way they do. The more I learned about a subject, the more deeply I wanted to explore and that led to even more questions. Even when I was 3 I loved building small dams in streams and experimenting with what would happen if I built the dams a certain way and what changes in water flow would occur.

When I entered 6th grade, science fair was required and was very competitive. I was in a charter school and the science fair was really the highlight of the year. Now I did not only love science, but I was highly motivated to do a really good project!

That's him, building is dams.
That’s him, building his dams

2. You’re litmus test for pancreatic cancer was a major breakthrough. How did you come up with the idea for it?

When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go-to source of information, Google and Wikipedia, to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.

I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer.

andraka_profileOf course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad.

Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen!). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in.

I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.

ISEF2012-Top-Three-Winners3. What was your favorite thing about the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – aside from winning, of course?

My brother had been a finalist at Intel ISEF and I attended as an observer. I was blown away by the number and quality of the projects there and loved talking to the other finalists. It became my dream to attend Intel ISEF as well. My favorite thing about getting to be a finalist was the sense that I was among kids who were as passionate about math and science as I was and who were curious and creative and who wanted to innovate and push their limits. It felt like I had found my new family! People understood each other and shared ideas and it was so exciting and inspiring to be there with them, sharing my ideas as well!

4. What was the inspiration behind you and your colleagues coming together to start “Generation Z”?

I met some other really interesting kids at Intel ISEF who were making huge advances. I am fascinated by creating ways to diagnose diseases and pollutants. We started talking and the subject of the X Prize came up. We thought it would be a fun challenge to try our hand at it! We figure at the very least we will gain valuable experience working on a team project while learning more about what interests us.

5. How did people react to your smartphone-sized cancer detector at this years ISEF?

Of course people came over to see my project because of my success the previous year. This project was not as finished as it could have been because I was so busy traveling and speaking, but it was great to see all my friends and make new ones and explain what I was aiming for.

Tricorder X6. Your plans for a tricorder that will compete in Tricoder X are currently big news. Anything you can tell us about it at this time?

My team is really coming together. Everyone is working on his/her own piece and then we often Skype and discuss what snags we are running up against or what new ideas we are thinking about.

7. When you hear the words “The Future of Medicine”, what comes to mind? What do you think the future holds?

I believe that the future of medicine is advancing so fast because of the internet and now mobile phones. There are so many new and inexpensive diagnostic methods coming out every month. Hopefully the open access movement will allow everyone access to the knowledge they need to innovate by removing the expensive pay walls that lock away journal articles and the important information they contain from people like me who can’t afford them.

Tricorder X_prizeNow kids don’t have to depend on the local library to have a book that may be outdated or unavailable. They can turn to the internet to connect with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), professors, forums and major libraries to gain the information they need to innovate.

8. What are your plans for the future?

I plan to finish my last 2 years of high school and then go to college. I’m not sure which college or exactly what major yet but I can’t wait to get there and learn even more among other people as excited about science as I am.

9. Last question: favorite science-fiction/fantasy/zombie or superhero franchises of all time, and why do you like them?

I like the Iron Man movies the best because the hero is an amazing scientist and engineer and his lab is filled with everything he would ever need. I wonder if Elon Musk has a lab like that in his house!!

Yeah, that sounds about right! I’m betting you and Musk will someday be working together, and I can only pray that a robotic exoskeleton is one of the outcomes! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we had a Superhero Challenge here on this site, where we designed our own characters and created a fictional crime-fighting league known as The Revengers! We could use a scientifically-gifted mind in our ranks, just saying…

Thank you for coming by and sharing your time with us Jack! I understood very little of what you said, but I enjoyed hearing about it. I think I speak for us all when I say good luck with all your future endeavors, and may all your research pursuits bear fruit!

Drone Wars: New Revelations and Broken Promises

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????People concerned about the use of drones might remember fondly how President Obama, in a speech held late last month, promised that the “drone surge” was effectively at an end. As it turns out, it took the President and his administration only eight days to break that promise. In a new strike, which killed four people it has been made clear that the clandestine war continues.

In Obama’s speech, he contended that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaida and its associated forces, and even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained.” Among those constraints are the use of detainment instead of execution, and “respect for state sovereignty”. Perhaps most importantly, Obama underscored the drones will for now on only target “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)To clarify this point, the White House even released a fact sheet clarifying whom it will and will not kill in the future. It stated that:

[T]he United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

However, this latest strike, which took out Wali ur-Rehman – the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban – and three other members shows that this is anything but the case. Rehman and his ilk are not members of Al-Qaeda, nor do they represent a terrorist group that is targeting the US and its citizens. Most importantly, they are not operating inside Afghanistan.

talibanFact is, Rehman and his compatriots pose a threat to only Pakistan, which is involved in an ongoing war with fundamentalist factions in its western provinces. They are the enemies of the Pakistani state, which is a nominal ally in the war on terror and with the war in Afghanistan. This makes his execution at the hands of the US a matter of protecting political and strategic interests, not anti-terrorism.

What’s more, there are indications that this strike may have been counterproductive for Pakistan. Pakistani military sources told Reuters in December that Rehman was “a more pragmatic” leader than incumbent Hakimullah Mehsud, with whom Rehman was said to be feuding. While Rehman was said to pursue reconciliation with the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military officers speculated that his rise “might lead to more attacks across the border in Afghanistan” on U.S.-led forces.

drone_warSo any way you slice it, this latest drone strike was a clandestine operation made by a government that claimed to be finished with such things. Lucky for us, there may be a way to gleam the truth about the secret history of the drone war and their ongoing use as tools of government policy.

As it turns out, there are ways to hack and record drone video feeds to see what they see right before they unleash death and destruction. And in an ironic twist, much of the credit for this revelation may go to a group of Iraqi insurgents. In 2008, U.S. troops in Iraq declared that Shi’ite insurgents had figured out how to tap and record video feeds from overhead American drones.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaBuilding on this, Josh Begley, a 28-year-old NYU grad student, is creating a software application that will allow anyone with basic coding skills to organize, analyze and visualize drone-strike data from Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia dating back to 2002. Based on information collected by the U.K. Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Applicable Programing Interface (API) can be used to create interactive Websites that elaborate on the information and give it context.

The drone API, which is actually Begley’s master’s thesis, is not his first foray into capturing robot-attack data. His @dronestream Twitter feed documents all reported UAV attacks. Last year Begley created an iPhone app that tracks drone strikes, but Apple rejected it. Other developers have jumped on the bandwagon, too. London-based artist James Bridle runs a Tumblr blog that matches overhead satellite imagery to reports of drone attacks.

drone_target_1In an interview with Wired’s Danger Room, Begley explained that the purpose behind this software is the desire to bridge the “empathy gap” between Western audiences and drone-attack victims:

To Americans like me, what may have previously been blank spots on the map all of a sudden have complex stories, voices of their own. From 30,000 feet it might just be cars and buildings. But there are people in them. People who live under the drones we fly.

The public release of Begley’s API, which took five months to complete, is timed to coincide with the White House-promoted National Day of Civic Hacking on June 1. Hacking Day aims to “liberate government data for coders and entrepreneurs.” The ACLU, for one, is commemorating the event with an API linked to the group’s vast database of documents related to U.S.-sanctioned torture of terror suspects.

drone_map1After twelve years of drone strikes and promises that don’t appear to be being honored, the arrival of this app might just be what the public needs. And even though software giants like Apple may not be interested in developing it further, there are no shortages of talented individuals, professional hackers and hobby labs that will take up the cause.

It wouldn’t be too farfetched to think that a plethora of websites will begin to emerge that can track, monitor, and record all drone strikes, perhaps even as they happen. And combined with recent revelations about state-run data mining operations and software that is being designed to combat it, private citizens may be able to truly fight back against clandestine operations and government surveillance.

Sources: Wired.com, (2)

Messages of Hope for Boston

boston-marathon-explosion-1I think it’s fair to say that the weekend bombing attack in Boston was a shock to us all. Worse yet was the horror faced by those who were at ground zero when it happened, men, women and children taking part in a public sporting event that was hurting no one and served no political purpose. The deaths and injuries sustained to these people who were simply out for a run with hundreds of their fellow Bostonians is an outrage to say the least.

And of course, there has been plenty of speculation and attempts at recrimination, the kind of thing that always follows in the wake of a terrorist bombing. Though no guilty parties have been identified and no one has come forward to claim responsibility, there are those who want to point fingers and start beating the war drums, demanding blood and vengeance for the terrible crime. At a time so soon after the tragedy struck, this kind of attitude can only add to the hurt and difficulty.

Boston_projectorAnd yet, in the midst of this tragedy, there are thing that remind us that there’s always reason for hope, like in how people overcome their differences in times of strife to show mutual love and support. A perfect example is how last night in Brooklyn, a glowing message of hope appeared on the face of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here, New Yorkers were treated to a series of messages offering their support for the city of Boston in the wake of the Marathon bombings, such as “Brooklyn Loves Boston” and the Martin Luther King quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

But here’s where it gets especially inspiring! The lights were the work of a van that was outfitted with special projection technology that was originally designed for the Occupy Wall Street protests. As a mobile offshoot of the “We Are The 99%” projections that were placed on the sides of skyscrapers some years back, this vehicle was planned for upcoming Tax Day, projecting the message “Tax Evader”. However, it quickly retooled the moment news of the bombings broke. Hence, what was originally intended as a message of protest promptly switched to one of support, peace and love.

boston-marathon-bombingAnd then there was another news story to come out of the carnage, something which reminds us that human beings are capable of exceptional good when the chips are down. With all the news about how social media has been used for evil (i.e. to document cases or rape or bully people into committing suicide), the Boston Marathon presented a side of social media that shows how effective it can be in a crisis.

Within seconds of the first bomb blast, pictures, video and news of the horrific event were pulsing over social networks. For many, this was how news of the attack first came to light, and first responders and police even used Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr and other networks to get valuable information out, like warning people to stay away from the crisis area. In times of mass panic, when conventional means of communication can be overwhelmed, this kind of response can be invaluable.

Boston Marathon ExplosionThe memes that quickly emerged from the event involved the sharing of photos and questions about how to reach loved ones when cell coverage was down in large parts of the Boston Area. Google immediately set up a “person finder” system for posting and finding information about specific people. And while major news outlets covered the casualties and law enforcement’s efforts to locate more bombs, citizens reached out to each other with the best factual information they could find.

Granted, there were some offensive memes, but by and large, the efforts of bloggers had the effect of providing real-time information on the bombing and allaying fears. Some even went as far as to correct misinformation and rumors spreading about the attack, about the bombers, and to place the events in a global context. One blogger reminded people of the recent bombings in Iraq which killed 37 people and left 140 injured. It says something about people when, even in the face of fear and sadness, they are able to remind people that there are some that have it worse.

Whereas many people think that social media is little more than a means of spreading rumors, gossip, or the hurtful trifecta known as FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), thus making a crisis situation that much worse, the speedy response and responsible use of social media sites in the midst of this crisis was actually very helpful and may have averted further problems. I for one hope this is a sign of things to come, how technology can and will be used responsibly to deal with challenges and extend help to those in need.

At this point, I hope this spirit of support, love and mutual assistance continues on into the foreseeable future. As 9/11 reminded us, terrorist attacks and tragedies can so easily become the fodder of extreme intolerance and questionable agendas. Thought it’s not clear yet who did this or why, I am hopeful that what President Obama said about finding the people responsible and holding them accountable proves true, and soon.

Sources: IO9, fastcoexist.com

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)

RIP Hugo Chavez: Venezuelan Strongman and Master Troll

hugo_chavezThe death of Hugo Chavez, which took place on March 5th, has not only left a vacuum in Venezuelan politics, but deprived the world of one of its most prolific trolls. In his many years dominating South American politics, Chavez distinguished himself as more of a nuisance than a threat to US and western interests. But what a nuisance! And his tool of choice in this onslaught? Social media!

While he once thought Twitter was a tool of terrorism, Chavez became convinced it was an asymmetric tool to combat what he called a “conspiracy” of pro-American opponents. As a lover of hyperbole and over-the-top statements, how could he not take to a forum that rewarded such behavior? And like all good trolls, Chavez was evangelical in his vitriol, comparing his enemies to fascists and barbarians, making grandiose boasts, and dispensing exclamation points from a virtual pez dispenser!

And of course, his tweets kept pace with political intrigue, both domestic and foreign. In May 2011, when the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions against the Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA for selling gasoline reformate to Iran, Chavez’s cash-cow was blocked from receiving U.S. export licenses. In response, Chavez tweeted:

Sanctions against the homeland of [Simon] Bolivar? Imposed by the gringo imperialist government? Well: Welcome Mr Obama! Do not forget we are the children of Bolivar!

When Tripoli fell, the result of rebellions against Gadhafi and Coalition support, the long-time supporter of the Libyan dictator responded in the following way:

We must stop the unleashed imperial madness! World, good world, humane world, do not be overwhelmed by the barbarism!

And when Syria’s Alawite regime began to show signs of going the same way, also the result of uprisings from pro-democracy groups, Chavez moved quickly to declare his support for the Bashar Assad. In the midst of the regime using live fire to murder civilians, Chavez declared openly:

I talked a few minutes with the Syrian President, our brother Bashar. Syria is the victim of a fascist attack. God help Syria!!

And of course, he used Twitter plenty to disseminate plenty of self-serving propaganda at home. He dispensed advice on dealing with “traitors”, which amounted to a “raging socialist revolutionary offensive!” On accusations about poverty in Venezuela, he replied: “There is no poverty in Venezuela! Factory capitalism is poverty!” He also trolled an opposition primary debate: “The opposition is once again a fool!”

The US did not engage in flame wars with the former presidente, but the White House did release a statement offering condolences over his death. However a statement from President Obama on Tuesday evening was admittedly curt and seemed to hint that they were happy to be rid of his influence:

At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.

Without a doubt, Chavez’ successor will have his hands full with regards to Venezuela’s economy and its internal political divisions. And I have to say, regardless of Chavez’s ongoing and annoying bombastic personality, he did pull much of Venezuela’s working class out of poverty. And even if you hated him, you had to admit, the man was interesting! RIP Hugo Chavez, you annoying bastard! Can’t imagine how quiet it’s going to be without you…