9 October 2015

Digital Diva Keeps Her Mouth

Ava Virtue programmers win in Appeals Court

Federal judge Willard Li upheld a district court's decision against Russian pop star Valentina Markova, who sued ImageIn Software for copying the image of her mouth as part of the construction of the virtual singer Ava Virtue, ImageIn's major money maker. The court held that "while it is clear that the defendants used one or more of Ms. Markova's facial characteristics, the composite face cannot be mistaken for Ms. Markova by any reasonable person." The judge did overturn the part of the ruling that required the Markova camp to pay ImageIn's legal fees.

ImageIn, for it's part, claims it has been nothing but upfront about the matter from the start. "We never once claimed that we didn't base Ava's mouth on Ms. Markova's," said Jeff Johansen, founder and CEO of the company. "We are all huge fans of her work. But we created a composite character, and we're glad the courts continue to agree that it infringes on the rights of no one."

Ava split a headline last night with Japanese virtual performer Hatsune Miku. Unlike her more cartoonish (and famous) Japanese counterpart, Ava is photorealistic. The two haven't let that difference get between them—their combined tour, "Beings of Light", is scheduled to hit most major cities in the US and Japan, with a simultaneous finale in LA and Tokyo on 6 November.

During last night's performance at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, Ava performed Markova's 2014 hit "Вечность (Eternity)"—ironically, with her permission.

Background links: 




29 March 2021

“Official” Rumors: Motorola EEG Phone On the Way

Dispatches has obtained a semi-official PR leak from a Google evangelist with some details on the long-awaited mind operated smartphone. The Motorola Psyche will be basically an upgrade on the Callisto X, which has been the workhorse of the Motorola Mobility Google stable since its release in the summer of 2019. The standard goodies are here: 200 GHz OMAP processor, half a terabyte of RAM with a 3 TB removable millipede. But that’s not why you clicked, is it?

Photo CC-BY-SA 2.0, Emily Walker

The semi-official word is that the Psyche’s headband was produced in-house by Google after it acquired MindOver, a Stanford University spinoff, in 2018. MindOver’s GENi mental interface system tested well, but was too clunky for the Goog, who spent two years shaping it into the headband that ships with Psyche. From the leak: “The headband that ships is wired into a port on the Psyche, with a Bluetooth option to become available in early 2022.”

Google will recommend that users spend about four hours a day for two or three days getting used to the headband interface before relying on it “in the wild”. The training requires users to sharpen their mental focus, using a poster-sized “target map” that contains the functions that can be accessed via the headband. The target map includes five speed-dials, the call function, the end-call button, text messaging, voicemail, map search, and web search. It’s clear that the headband interface will not replace voice functions completely, and an upgraded version of the Ami personal assistant ships with Psyche.

The headband works by measuring the magnetic field created by the brain, which it interprets based on feedback from the training modules the user completes. After ten hours of training, the system usually has an accuracy rate of about 94%. More training will lead to fewer errors, and Google testers have measured a 98% accuracy rating for at least one user, after several additional training hours.

The Psyche is scheduled to be available for preorder in May of this year and will ship starting August 2.

Background info: Mind Dialing from UCSD


7 March 2016

Mattel Releases 3-D Printing Licenses for Toys

Mattel announced this morning in a press conference that it would begin selling limited-use licenses to print copies of its popular toys on 3-D printers. The “Designerz” line, sold on the company’s website as a download and in stores as a DRM-protected memory stick, will allow users to print up to five copies of a toy on any commercially-available 3-D printer, including MakerBot.

A "vintage" 2010 Thing-O-Matic, photo CC-BY Bre Pettis

“We’re excited to give children around the world an opportunity to make their favorite Mattel-brand toys right in their own homes,” spokesman Matt Reich said at the conference. The first release of toy schematic files will be a tie in with Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3, which is coming to theaters this summer. The Cars 3 toy files will be released in April, with files for printing Barbie-related objects coming in August.

No official word has been given regarding pricing, but an anonymous inside source claims the licenses for the Cars 3 toys will cost $15, which will include five reprints per license.

The process requires users to install a program called “Toy Factory” which tracks the number of licenses used. While the process will involve the open AMF file format, Toy Factory will ensure that proprietary designs are not illegally copied by the user. This hasn’t gone over well with everyone, notably a consortium of MakerBot users called “The Jolly Elves”, who operate a database of free, open-source toy schematic files.

The Jolly Elves posted this statement on their homepage:

“Dozens of designers have spent thousands of hours making quality toy schematics that can be used on any 3-D printer, at any time, at no cost. Purchasing a DRM-hobbled system from a major corporation is a waste of your time and money. Teach your children to appreciate quality, not over-branding. We, the Jolly Elves, will always welcome you into our humble workshop.”

The Jolly Elves are the creators of Ballpeen, an open-source toy design tool, and have been operating since the summer of 2014.



12 October 2015

The Mysterious World of "Secret Sites"

Clairvoyant infodumps target seemingly random people.

Somewhere in a Los Angeles apartment, a 21-year-old woman is interrupted in the midst of conversation by the ping of her smartphone’s notification system. She politely excuses herself from her party, buzzing with excitement over what she expects to see on her device—and there it is: an otherwise unidentifiable is.gd-shortened link. She races home to her laptop, clicks open her browser and reads. She is one of the lucky few and she knows it. She is on the Secret Site Listserv. She is, as they call themselves, a “Siter”.

This young lady (we’ll call her Amber), who spoke to Dispatches on condition of anonymity, received her first Secret Site email last November. The introduction to the listserv was short and sweet: “You, Amber [last name], are one of the lucky few identified as important enough to receive an invitation to discover things that will be popular tomorrow. The art, culture, politics, science, and technology found in these links is mostly unknown today, but will soon explode onto the scene. You are among those privileged to be the first to know.”

The links to the Secret Sites are actually links to entries on a site called Quick Forget, a favorite site for sharers of clandestine information. The links from Quick Forget disappear forever after they’re viewed, and the pages themselves appear to be on randomly generated IP Addresses. These pages all look the same: Clean, gray text on a dark blue background, each with a bold, unhelpful title: Dump, Repository, Heap, Stuff, etc.

Amber recounts her first experience with the Secret Sites: “I was sure this was some kind of prank or marketing pitch or something, but of course I couldn’t help myself. The creepy part was the email was right—all the stuff I saw on the site was stuff I’d never heard of, but within, like, a month, I saw all of it on the news or on Twitter or Facebook,” she told us.

At the beginning, Amber recalls, she was worried about sharing the information from the secret sites—she was afraid that if the Sender (Siters tend to capitalize “Sender”) found out that she was spilling information, she would be cut off from the listserv.

“I found a forum one time, in the comments section of an article I saw about the Site, just for Siters. I went on and found out there were dozens of us. It freaked me out. All I could think was ‘What if the Sender finds this, you guys?’ A couple of weeks later the forum had been taken down, and I was just glad I never posted on it. I don’t want to lose my connection.”

The desire to share, however, beat out her initial fears, and she’s begun posting content from the Site on her Twitter feed. She says she has no idea why the Sender chose her specifically: “I’m just a normal college student. There’s nothing interesting about me, and I only have, like, 200 Twitter followers. I’ve never been famous or even really that popular.”

The Site information she shares, however, has made a few waves. Amber tells the story of when one of her posts was retweeted by a major political commentator: “So, I posted a Reuters story about the French Parliament talking about lifting the burqa ban. The Site said that the ban would be lifted before the end of the month, so that’s what I posted. And this guy, [name redacted], who I later found out was pretty famous, RTed me and said something like ‘Wishful thinking, friend.’ And then, two weeks later they voted and the ban was over.”

Dispatches has contacted dozens of leads in the pursuit of this story, and all of them except Amber have led down the same two paths: the supposed Siters we’ve contacted turned out to be frauds or dupes, or real Siters we’ve reached out to have been flatly unwilling to talk to the media. And they all have the same reason: The Sender.

Nobody knows who the Sender could be, and if curious Siters have any clues, they aren’t sharing them with anyone. A recent Wired post suggests a few likely suspects: SEO companies experimenting with secret branding, political parties, internet entrepreneurs, or even governmental organizations. But no one has a solid lead.

“I have no clue,” said Amber when we asked her, “but whoever it is is pretty damned smart.”


5 September 2017

"English" Virus Lances Botnets

In April, we reported on the recently-spotted “English” virus, a computer bug that appears to have escaped from somewhere in the US Northwest. We quoted a representative from the Department of Homeland Security as saying, “From all our analysis and the analysis of independent security groups, we’re guessing that the English Trojan is aiming at building a botnet of unparalleled size.”

Turns out he was wrong. Both Symantec and McAfee have released reports within the last two weeks that seem to show a correlation between the spread of the virus and the drastic drop in the size of international botnets. Even the two largest active botnets, Conficker and SuperHi, have suffered devastating losses. 

Marko Numminen of Avira Operations, the group that produces the free anti-virus software of the same name, said, “[English] appears to be downloading an anti-virus payload—it’s not any of the commercially available products out there, so we’re guessing the virus writer created his or her own anti-viral product and is using that to clean machines that would otherwise be under control of a botnet master.”

Officials from Symantec have warned that while English (also known as FastEnglish, UK_EN, and White Knight) has been damaged botnets around the world, the extent of its payload is unknown. “It may just be clearing the field for an even bigger botnet later down the road,” said Stacia Wilkie, a member of Symantec’s New Trojan Working Group. “If you suspect you’ve been infected by English, we recommend downloading any one of the free removal tools available from us or any other respectable computer security organization.” Dispatches has a list of removal tools here.

Numminen further indicated that English doesn’t spell the end of botnets forever—botnet masters will certainly fight back against the bloc of English-protected computers, which he calls the “notnet”. It’s unclear whether the anti-virus behind the notnet will be able to keep pace with the most virulent computer infections of our time, but one thing is for sure: With hundreds of millions of virus-infected computers on networks around the world, the stakes could not be higher.

15 May 2017

Renewable Power Play in NM

New Mexico Governor Jim Garcia revealed a blockbuster of an energy plan this morning to a crowd of investors and energy company executives congregated at the State House. The plan would call for unprecedented modifications of land use in the state along with the sale of energy bonds, investments from foreign and domestic sources, and applications for US renewable energy grants, to facilitate an innovation contest with a massive grand prize.

Photo by Lynn Rosentrater, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

The Southwest Electrical Energy Technology Initiative, or the SWEET Initiative for short, leverages the Land of Enchantment’s massive swath of unpopulated sun-drenched desert, small patch of windmill-ready land, and progressive state government in an attempt to produce 42 million gigawatt-hours of energy a year starting in 2025. In 2016, that number would have accounted for about 9% of total US electricity usage.

“We plan for the SWEET Initiative to revolutionize the State of New Mexico, bringing much-needed jobs, lowering the price of power, revitalizing our infrastructure, and showing the country—and the world—that sustainable energy production is not only possible but practical and profitable,” said Mr. Garcia in this morning’s meeting.

The plan calls for land to be made available for three companies or consortia of companies based on the results of a contest in which low-cost, renewable energy production facilities are judged by a panel of experts on cost-effectiveness, impact on the environment, and long-term sustainability. The three winning plans will be given prize monies and gifted land for building—up to one-twelfth of the state’s footprint, if necessary.

Jane Ketterer, head of the US Renewable Energy Association, applauded the move. “It’s high time states and counties got involved in renewable energy in a serious way. The SWEET Initiative should be taken as a model by all states with significant green energy production capacities.”

Not everyone, of course, is on board. Brittany Wheeler, Senate Minority Leader for the State Senate held a press conference to express GOP dissent from the plan. “Time and time again, the Democratic Party has shown that it has no respect for the average working American. This plan, if it doesn’t make New Mexico a national laughingstock, will bankrupt local power producers, kill jobs, and raise taxes on those who can’t afford them. [The New Mexico GOP] will stand firm against this bitter pill being forced down the throats of New Mexicans and will work to repeal it.”

The deadline for the facility design contest is January 6, 2019, the state’s 107th birthday and the date of the next projected solar eclipse. Many of the designs submitted are expected to include solar thermal tower plants, solar panel farms, and wind farms. Other possible solutions include urban and highway piezoelectric generation and graphene-enabled solar harvesting.


30 January 2014

Social Media Mapping Initiative to Start

An independent research organization is setting out to build a roadmap of social media information flows.

Jon Shackleford, former online political organizer and open-source software guru, has turned his attention to a more academic pursuit: finding out just how information travels down that series of tubes we’ve all come to depend on. His new group, Internet Influence Analysts, was formed in May 2013 and announced this flagship project just after New Year’s Day.

The group’s press release indicates that the project, called the Independent Social Media Audit, or ISMA, will pick up where previous studies and services left off, by attempting to identify what IIA calls “covert influencers”—people with little or no name recognition who nonetheless make huge impacts on the content that propagates through social media networks. IIA has named Dr. Li Junbao of MIT to head the project, and is in negotiations with DataFarms, a Colorado Springs-based datacenter contractor, to house the ISMA servers.

Shackleford told Dispatches via email, “The point of this project isn’t to find the next Maria Popova or Cory Doctorow. This is all about finding people who are under the radar, but who end up drastically changing the narrative two or three steps down the chain. It’s about finding that butterfly in India that makes a hurricane hit Miami.”

IIA has not indicated what it will do with the data it collects from its target social media sources, primarily Twitter, along with specialty SM like Pinterest, Instagram, GitHub, and Netroil. Should the project succeed and the data be made available for purchase, Shackleford and crew will certainly make a healthy profit on this information.

The project is slated for completion in early 2015. No budget has been released by IIA.