6pm Tonight at SF MOMA: DJ Spooky’s Soundtrack Premiere to Paul Robeson’s 1925 Silent Film Debut

By Lisa Rein

The legendary Paul Robeson in his acting debut – A 1925 Silent Film, “Body & Soul” – Directed by Oscar Micheaux.

When: Thursday, July 12, 2018

Time: 6pm

Where: SF MOMA, Phyllis Wattis Theater

Tonight Only: See the film with contemporary soundtrack by DJ Spooky


See “Body and Soul” – the first masterpiece of the silent screen era written, directed, and produced by prolific director Oscar Micheaux.- Tonight at SF MOMA, with a special Introduction by DJ Spooky.

Besides telling you that Paul Robeson stars in it, I really don’t want to give anything away, but these African American-focused “race” films – made by Black filmmakers, featuring an all-Black cast, and intended for Black audiences – are few and far between. Micheaux was not only considered the first African American to produce a feature length film. He wrote, produced, and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948.

Robeson himself is something of a legend; besides being an actor, he was an All American football player, a lawyer, a political activist and a powerful and inspirational singer.

As SF MOMA explains:

 “A true pioneer, Micheaux and his’s films answered the challenges of racial segregation and provided black moviegoers with an alternative to the mainstream films being produced by a segregated Hollywood.”

The movie is available at the Internet Archive, but this is your chance to see it with DJ Spooky’s new awesome soundtrack for it – and with an introduction, in person, by DJ Spooky too.

Paul Robeson in Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” – 1925.



Ask Matteo Borri: What Do The Methane Patterns On Mars Tell Us About The Possibility of Life There?

By Lisa Rein

The Curiosity Rover has found that the levels of the complex molecule “Methane” on Mars vary with its seasons, just like here on Earth. Credit: NASA/GSFC

You can see many of Matteo Borri’s creations at Robots Everywhere, LLC. He is a member of the Swartz-Manning VR Destination‘s Advisory Board. (The Swartz-Manning is an Aaron Swartz Day Production.)

NASA made an announcement recently about its latest finding about Mars.  Specifically, they found Methane, which clearly suggests that life is either there now, or was there, a long time ago.

Lisa Rein: Matteo, would you please summarize the implications of the Methane material NASA found on Mars?

Matteo Borri: Well, we already knew that there is Methane on Mars. What is interesting and new is that we have now figured out it comes out of the ground seasonally.

Methane on Earth mostly comes about by biological means, from bacteria, but surprisingly enough, the large share of it that comes out of cows’ hindquarters is enough to muddle the data, so we are not sure about it.

However, there is also a seasonal component to how much of it is released in the atmosphere. We now know that Methane is released during the summer and fall. On earth, Methane is also released seasonally. Typically during the end of summer.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

LR: So is part of the excitement that Mars is exhibiting more Earth-like characteristics?

MB: Yes. It’s one more point in common between the two planets.

LR: When they say they’ve found “organic compounds” one of the complex molecules required for life,” what does that mean?

MB: It means that there are complex molecules. “Organic compound” simply means a non-simple molecule containing Carbon. Historically, it was thought that only life-related processes could make those, but we’ve known that this is not the case for more than a century now. (However, the name stuck, which can cause confusion.)

LR: The NASA article said “It should take methane several hundred years to break apart in the presence of UV light, but that’s not what happened on Mars. The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there’s not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well.” What the heck is a “methane sink?”

MB: A methane sink is a type of rock that absorbs methane when the condition for it. Carbonate rocks will fit the bill; so will Granite.

LR: What’s the connection between the Tryptophan that we just learned about in the last article, and these “complex molecules required for life” such as Methane?

MB: If we find Tryptophan, we know that we’ve got a life sign. Methane is actually a simple molecule, five atoms total, and can come about in an inorganic way.

Finding Methane in some parts of Mars, and not others, raises many interesting questions about the Methane’s origin. Might we have stumbled upon ancient Methane deposits from hardy bacteria that are no longer living? Or something else entirely?

There isn’t enough data right now. We have to go back and look, but this recent discovery gives us a place to start looking. It’s never a bad thing if you have even a hint of where to land your rover.


Matteo Borri Explains: How The Next NASA Mars Rover Will Use Lasers to Search For Life On Mars

By Lisa Rein

The NASA Mars Rover takes a selfie. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When we last left Matteo Borri and his company, Robots Everywhere LLC, he had built a chlorophyll spectroscope for NASA and the Mars Society, for the next Mars Rover. It uses a laser beam to zap the surface and then detect the reactive chlorophyll from other complex molecules. It was tested successfully over the last few months by the Mars Society, and will fly to Mars in 2020 on the next Mars Rover.

I checked back in with Matteo to see what new and exciting projects he is working on, and to help us better understand the science behind his laser-driven life-detecting inventions.

Matteo Borri is on the Advisory Board for the Swartz-Manning VR Destination. (An Aaron Swartz Day Production)

Lisa Rein: Hey Matteo how’s it going? What’s the latest on your NASA Mars Rover experimental research?

Matteo Borri: Well, if you remember, I had managed to figure out how to make a Chlorophyll detector that did not require cutting up a leaf and putting it in a little box. This is significant because we wanted to be able to mount the laser on a rover and have it scanning the surface as the rover moves along the surface of mars, and notifying the rover to stop when it detects something worth stopping for, like, the presence of Chlorophyll.

So, that worked so well, NASA decided to give me another hard problem to solve; could I develop a spectroscope that would cause a reaction to Tryptophan the way I got the chlorophyll to react to the other spectroscope?

LR: Why Tryptophan? I think of that being in turkey and making you tired on Thanksgiving. When my grandpa played professional baseball, they wouldn’t let them eat turkey on the day of a game.

MB: The sleepiness is an urban legend. We now know that Tryptophan doesn’t make you tired. But it is the same ingredient known to be in turkey.

But just as Chlorophyll exists in every piece of plant life on earth, tryptophan exists in not all but almost all pieces of animal life on earth.

So, if we had one laser spectroscope detecting Chlorophyll molecules, and the other detecting Tryptophan molecules, we will always be able to detect the existence of life (as we know it) there.

LR: We can only look for molecules that we already know to exist in “life” here on planet Earth?

MB: Correct. But we also have good reason to believe that any “life” found on other planets would still actually be composed of the same kinds of molecules found in “life” here.

LR: So the idea is to look for the most basic molecular substances that would have to be there along with anything else that was plant or animal living there.

Photo: NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science Systems

Read more “Matteo Borri Explains: How The Next NASA Mars Rover Will Use Lasers to Search For Life On Mars”

Come to DJ Spooky’s Phantom Dancehall Record Release Party – In Brooklyn On June 13

Who: DJ Spooky with François K.

Date: Wednesday, June 13

Time: 10pm – 3am

Location: Output, 74 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, New York 11249


DJ Spooky’s new album “Phantom Dancehall” is a Jamaican Dancehall Mashup album available now on Jamaica’s VP Records. Greensleeves, their reggae sublabel, is the catalogue he explored and sampled on the album. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here, and you can here it on SoundCloud here. There is also a limited edition vinyl version that is currently available in record stores and online.

Phantom Dancehall debuted at #3 on Billboard Reggae and has settled in comfortably in the top five for the foreseeable future.

Phantom Dancehall combines sampled reggae tracks, woven in to a finely detailed tapestry of chill electronic beats and melodies. This sample track we are including below is a collaboration of DJ Spooky and Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. Other tracks include the keyboard work of Alex Thompson aka Fourth Shift. Walshy Fire (Major Lazer) on vocals and dancehall new comer Sanjay added to vocal samples of Busy Signal, Lady Saw and Garnett Silk. Everything is blended to give the project an eclectic, modern dancehall flavor.

DJ Spooky celebrate the release of Phantom Dance Hall on vinyl, available online.

Vinyl is available on the VP Records website.

I caught up with DJ Spooky while he was in San Francisco, before he hopped back over to Brooklyn for Wednesday night’s record release party.

Lisa Rein: What’s going on at Wednesday night’s record release party?

DJ Spooky: It’s just a straight up party so people can hear these songs. Most of these were recorded in Jamaica at VP Records’ Fun Studio. VP records is legendary; They are the biggest record label in Jamaica. “VP” stands for “Vincent and Patricia Chin” – so “VP.” They are Chinese-Jamaican, which I have always loved. The fact that they are just quirky, kind of at the heart of Jamaican culture; Chinese and Indian. Jamaica is very multicultural. So the idea was to represent a little bit of an update on Dancehall with a downtown New York flavor. Ya know, there are so many classics you could look at that show how reggae influenced Rock n Roll, Jazz, Hip Hop; you name it.

You could say the beginning of Hip Hop was all about sound systems. When I say “sound systems,” I’m talking like ya know Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on…Those are legendary figures who began Hip Hop as we know it. So, it’s sort of looking at that synthesis between Hip Hop, Dancehall, and that sort of New York/Kingston connection.

LR: So you’ll be blending the new songs into the mix?

DJS: Right. Turntables, scratching. Ya know, doing crazy fun party stuff.

LR: Francois K. is opening, right?

DJS: Yes. It’s a famous party for New York for people who are really into dancing, and who just really want to hear good music that’s got a kind of a Dub & Jamaica connection. So people go there ready to dance. You can just hang out and get a good vibe and it’s fun. Simple stuff. Like the simple pleasure of dancing to good music. There’s no pretension. There’s no extra annoying stuff. You just go ready to party and have a good time. The music’s great and they’ve chosen a really good sound system, and it’s clear. It’s a good party with a clear vision of how electronic music and dance hall music connect.

LR: The other night, when we were walking in the Mission, you noticed that the clubs were playing Jamaican Dancehall. It was such a vibrant scene.

DJS: Yeah. Right in the middle of San Francisco. Every single bar we walked by.

LR: Right. Even the Indian restaurant we tried to go to (Bissap Baobab) was totally packed, with everyone dancing, and Jamaican Dancehall blaring out the windows. So, why do you think this is happening now? It seems like something’s happening, doesn’t it?

DJS: Yeah it’s a retro-future thing. Dancehall was at the beginning of a lot of electronic music, and I think that anybody that goes out to a party and hears it; It’s catchy. It’s immersive, and it pulls you in. That 80s and 90s catchiness, while a lot of the music now is very cold. I try as much as possible to build a bridge between the older styles and some of the contemporary styles.

LR: Yes it was interesting looking these people up, as there is a lot of history there. You went through VP Records’ back catalog, right? What was that process like?

DJS: The idea was to go through some of those memories that those songs triggered, and then update. So, some of it’s old school stuff, mashup-wise. I would go through Dancehall classics, basically.

LR: Is this vinyl that you are going through?

DJS: Yes.

LR: So this is Jamaican Dancehall vinyl from the 80s and 90s?

DJS: And older, yes, from Greensleeves Records. I’ve done projects before with Greensleeves Records.

LR: Greensleeves is a sub-label of VP Records?

DJS: Yes. Exactly. They are both legendary for different reasons. Let’s put it this way. Dancehall is more of a digital approach, and Dub is more analog. What I wanted to do was build a bridge between those two, analog and digital. Some of the producers of VP records influenced my thinking. Digital B a.k.a. Digital Bobby, and there’s also another gentleman, Bobby Konders, who did a whole bunch of projects mixing Hip Hop, Dancehall, and House Music in the 90s. I’ve listened to their styles for a long time. I wanted to make a statement about it and keep it fun; a party vibe.

If you go through old records, you realize, you know, 40 years is a long time for music, but that stuff is still fresh. It’s incredible. The 80s was just incredible. That’s when I was a kid. Ya know Shabba Ranks and so many others.

LR: So we have a song included here in this article, “Buju Banton.” It’s a track you collaborated on with Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. How’d you guys meet and start working together?

DJS: He’s a younger producer who’s getting on the scene, and he’s been working hard on a project with PBS where he goes to different countries and teaches younger kids how to work with beats. I really enjoyed the educational aspect of what he’s up to. So, we had a conversation, and, generally, I’m crazy busy, so I thought I’d give him a shot to help with the project, and it just went from there.

Check out the track: Buju Banton_PhantomDancehall_Dj_Spooky_Apple Juice Kid

LR: So what’s your creative process like when you collaborate with someone on a track?

DJS: The idea is, you make beats, and then you tweak, edit, combine. I’ll come up with a first draft. He’ll come up with a different draft. And we send files back and forth until the track is done.

LR: You are the producer though, technically?

DJS: Yes. I suppose. But I don’t look at it like that. It’s a DJ Spooky “album project” where I have invited others to share in the conversation. I really think of it as an “album project.”

For this project, I was going through VP Records’ releases, and listening to all the Dancehall records, and then editing beats and samples I select from their material.

LR: So, how did you hook up with VP Records?

DJS: They had heard a project I did with Trojan Records a long time ago, and then asked me to do a mixtape. They had asked Diplo to do one. Then they asked me to do the second one. They are legendary. They put out Bob Marley and stuff from the sixties. They’re huge.

LR: You mentioned that you recorded this project at VP Records’ Fun Studio, had you ever been to Jamaica before this project?

DJS: Yes. I’ve been to Jamaica. My mom was an art critic for the Kingston Daily Gleaner in Jamaica. It’s like the New York Times in Jamaica. We knew people there and I would go there every summer.

LR: Ah. Ok. Tell me more about your mom.

DJS: My mom was a Historian of Design, and she wrote for the Kingston Daily Gleaner as an art critic covering Caribbean Art. And we would go every summer because we had “god cousins” there. (People that are like family at an abstract level.) My mother had been room mates with several Jamaicans in college. Everybody stayed in touch. For many years, we visited. And they visited us.

LR: You would go there every summer?

DJS: Oh yes. Constantly. And that’s what left that kind of vibe in my head space.

LR: So you’re mom, Rosemary E. Reed Miller, was an art critic and historian?

DJS: Yes. A Historian of Design. Her main book is called The Threads Of Time: The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present.

LR: So you totally grew up living in the art world, with your art critic mom taking you to art openings? No wonder the two of you have a lot in common.

DJS: Yes, we do. And we really both have had a deep relationship with Jamaica. Because there is both a literary component and an art component there, there was always something that felt like a powerful connection for us.

LR: So this is going back to your roots a little bit. I didn’t realize you grew up there. Even though it was only in the summer; doing that every year can strong cultural influence.

DJS: Absolutely. It just was fun and really life affirming. Jamaica’s got this whole really vivid, flavorful kind of colorful sensibility.

LR: Well I wish I was closer to Brooklyn. It sounds like it’s going to be an incredible show.

If you are in New York, remember to go to the show Wednesday night at the Output. (Tickets)

Limited edition vinyl is available at your local record store & online. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here. You can hear it on SoundCloud here.

DJ Spooky in San Francisco, California, June 2018.

How a little “working group” stopped Oakland from becoming a mini-fusion center for the Department of Homeland Security.

How The Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group became Oakland Privacy

By Lisa Rein.

Tracy Rosenberg of Oakland Privacy

This is the first of interviews with Tracy Rosenberg. (Here is the second interview with Tracy, about the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance project.)

I have been working with Tracy Rosenberg (Oakland Privacy), Dave Maass (EFF), and Daniel Rigmaiden on the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project.

Soon, we will be publishing the documents that we received from our first city (Sacramento).

I asked Tracy Rosenberg if she would explain the history and origin of Oakland Privacy, which she had mentioned to me actually started out as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group.” I enjoyed learning that the organization that has been so pivotal in helping put Oakland’s current surveillance policy framework in place had its roots in Occupy Oakland. (We will be talking to Tracy more about that framework, and how it can be used as a model for every city across the country.) 

But I had no idea what a relevant slice of history I had unearthed, and it seems like we could all benefit from learning more about it.

This is the first of two interviews with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg. (Second Interview here.)


Lisa Rein: Okay so it’s January 2012. Occupy Oakland is still alive, but waning.

Tracy Rosenberg: Right. So, Occupy Oakland, as you know, had a reputation as one of the more militant occupy encampments. It was one of the later ones. One of the last ones. After about two weeks of occupation in the plaza it was forceably busted by police, with tear gas and multiple injuries. Veteran Scott Olsen had his head basically split open by the police.

LR: With a tear gas grenade, correct?

TR: Yes. There were a bunch of re-occupations and episodes that continued up through January 28, 2012 or so, which was one of the last confrontations between Occupy Oakland and the police happened.

Occupy Oakland’s January 28 event was an attempted occupation of an abandoned building. An abandoned, county-owned building in the City of Oakland. The idea was that spaces that weren’t being used by the government needed to be available as public spaces or common spaces for people who were economically disenfranchised. (Economically disenfranchised = The homeless and people who were just displaced.)

So, the #J28 “occupation” of this government building was militant and controversial. Essentially, it sort of drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. There were people who sort of identified with the general idea of Occupy, but weren’t super duper comfortable with militant activism and the physical occupation of public property that was increasingly appening with Oakland Occupy. And, ultimately, a lot of people walked away after #J28.


Occupy Wall Street starts

September 17, 2011

Occupy Oakland starts

October 10, 2011

Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group starts

July 2, 2013

Oakland Privacy starts

July 15, 2016

Adbuster’s image which incorporates the 3 dimensional work of Arturo Di Modica titled “Charging Bull”.

LR: I heard that there were a lot of problems with the businesses in that area during Occupy. What was going on there?

TR: Well, there were a lot of business in the downtown area, which, at that time, were struggling somewhat. These last seven years, we have had a lot of gentrification in downtown Oakland, but back then, in 2011, Downtown Oakland was a hard place to have a business. So, there were a lot of small businesses – a lot of “mom and pop” stores – that were just beside themselves.

LR: Wait I’m sorry. I don’t understand. How was the occupation affecting them negatively? I would have thought it would have brought in more business for them, by drawing more people out in mass numbers for so many weeks in a row. (I know in San Francisco, after a protest, all the restaurants are packed.) So why were they “beside themselves?”

TR: They said that their customers were too frightened of the Plaza to come down and patronize their business.

LR: Oh. So, it gave downtown a bad reputation for a bit because people didn’t know what to expect? But that wasn’t really the protesters’ fault was it. Wasn’t it more because people were afraid of possible police confrontations, often unprovoked, in that area?

TR: Yeah, it was a combination of things. Occupy Oakland kind of wrapped itself up with the “Fuck the Police” ethos. Especially towards the end. Many folks who had been involved with it started to think about the fact that they’d seen a lot of police ammunition and equipment driving around the encampments. There seemed to be a lot of federal agencies participating.

These folks weren’t really sure what had been used on them, or how. So they started to do a little bit of research on these issues. What equipment had been used? What police tactics were being used? What were some of these other agencies? People started taking pictures of the federal trucks. “What was all of this?” They wondered. “What exactly were they using against us?”

Read more “How a little “working group” stopped Oakland from becoming a mini-fusion center for the Department of Homeland Security.”

Interview with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg On The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project

This is the second of two interviews with Tracy. Here is the first interview, which is about how Oakland Privacy’s roots are based in the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group”.

By Lisa Rein.

The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project is all about developing a larger strategy for determining what police and sheriff departments have already purchased, and putting “surveillance policy frameworks” in place to monitor and regulate the use of that equipment against their residents.

The project first started during Aaron Swartz Day 2017’s Sunday hackathon. Before that event was even over, it was clear that it had been really successful and we were all very pumped and decided to just keep going on our projects, through till next year’s event.

Tracy Rosenberg of Oakland Privacy.

Aaron Swartz filed a lot of FOIA requests, and it made me want to start a project at the hackathon that would continue the tradition. (Note: FOIAs are “Freedom of Information Act Requests – and are Federal. This article discusses “public records requests” at the local, or municipal level.)

To that end, I met in with Tracy Rosenberg, of Oakland Privacy, and Daniel Rigmaiden (who revealed the Stingray to the world).

Tracy has been teaching me about how powerful the information obtained from public records requests can be, because it is literally the police or sheriff department saying, themselves, “Yup. We have this piece of equipment. Here is our purchase receipt.” (For example.)

However, writing the letters and filing the requests can be time consuming, even with systems like Muckrock, that vastly improve the process. So, our first idea was to automate the process of using Muckrock, so someone could fill out a form that would connect to Muckrock seamlessly. It turned out though, that except for the automation, Muckrock already had everything we needed. So, we decided to use Muckrock, and focus on saving folks time by providing all of the letters ahead of time for every single piece of equipment (including requesting details about how the data from these devices was collected and stored).

Tracy wrote up all the letters ahead of time, turning the job of writing and submitting 18 public records requests into a quick cut and paste job. Together, we filed together 18 public records requests; 9 to the City of Sacramento and 9 to the county of Sacramento, in just under over two hours, but it was our first time. (We will be publishing our results very soon.)

In the meantime, I took a few moments to talk to Tracy about the implications of filing public records requests, and how the information obtained from them eventually led to a first of its kind Privacy Commission and surveillance policy framework, in Oakland, California.

Lisa Rein: First, let’s talk about the kinds of information we can uncover with public records requests

Tracy Rosenberg: We get a pretty clear example of the kinds of things that we can find out using this latest find about license plate readers as an example.

Read more “Interview with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg On The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project”

MarsVR: Explore The Surface of Mars Like A Real Human Mars-bound Astronaut

Congratulations to the Mars Society for reaching its kickstarter goal for MarsVR.

The actual surface of Mars. Photo credit: Nasa/JPL

The long-term goal of the MarsVR program is to enable you to explore Mars in VR using the same ground breaking VR platform that will be used to train the crew members at the Mars Desert Research Station, an analog simulation of Mars in the Utah desert, organized by the Mars Society. the entire VR environment, including all 3-D models and terrain around the MDRS, will be released under open source licenses to be made available to researchers and the general public.

This photo was taken by the Mars Pathfinder on the surface of Mars. The area is known as “Twin Peaks” – Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

MarsVR will be a fully immersive VR Experience that allows you to explore a simulated Mars environment. The Mars Society is pioneering the use of virtual reality for pre-mission crew training, as well as expanding Mars advocacy and outreach among the global community. Training and documentation will also be provided in the hopes that a whole ecosystem can be built around the project. 

MarsVR is one of the first projects of its kind, but I believe it is the kind of system that everyone will be building in the years to come. A VR-enabled datasharing platform has implications for just about every area of scientific research, and may just “change everything” by accelerating breakthroughs at an exponential rate (due to everything being open-sourced and shared with the public).

The Mars Society’s James Burk

Meet James Burk, the IT Director of the Mars Society and the one leading the organization into its first foray of CrowdExploration (an emerging field of collaboration between the first astronauts on Mars and VR experts and enthusiasts back on Earth).

James and his team have a few different phases of the project planned. “Phase 1” will focus on designing training simulations for the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. The simulations that take place there help to provide crucial information and situation preparedness to the participating MDRS crew members, via analog research and testing. These help prepare future astronauts to learn what they can in a simulated environment and make the most of their time on Mars.

The first phase of MarsVR will be focused on the MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station), providing a virtual reality platform for serious research to support the exploration of the “real” Mars in the future. But since it is virtual, we can all come along for the ride.

The Phase 1 goal is to build a complete high-resolution simulation of the entire MDRS habitat, both inside and out. This will ship in October, but there should be a beta finished as early as September 2018.


A few happy crew members at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Photo Credit: The Mars Society.
A crew looks across the barren landscape of “Mars.” (In the Utah desert.) Photo Credit: The Mars Society.

Read more “MarsVR: Explore The Surface of Mars Like A Real Human Mars-bound Astronaut”

Chelsea Manning, Caroline Sinders, and Kristian Lum: “Technologists, It’s Time to Decide Where You Stand On Ethics”

By Lisa Rein

Chelsea Manning at the Aaron Swartz Day Ethical Algorithms Panel, November 4, 2018

A lot of folks were wondering about what Chelsea Manning‘ meant when she discussed a “Code of Ethics” during her SXSW talk, last March. Well there’s no need to wonder, because Chelsea discussed this in detail, with her co-panelists Kristian Lum (Human Rights Data Analysis Group) and Caroline Sinders (Wikimedia Foundation), during the Ethical Algorithms track at the last Aaron Swartz Day at the Internet Archive.

Here’s a partial transcript to shed some light on the situation.


(Left to Right) Kristian Lum, Caroline Sinders, Chelsea Manning.

The panel discussed the issue of valid data and how companies have become more concerned with whether they can sell an algorithm-driven software product, and less concerned with whether the damned thing works and who its results might affect, should they be inaccurate.

Link to the complete video for Ethical Algorithms panel.

Lisa Rein: Okay first question: Are the software companies who are making these algorithm-based products are just selling them to whomever they can, for whatever they can apply them to? And if so, how can we stop this from happening?

These companies are powerful and getting larger and more powerful all the time. Yet, no one seems to care; even the companies buying the snake oil products; as long as they can resell the services somehow, and the money keeps coming in. What can we do?

Chelsea Manning: Me personally, I think that we in technology have a responsibility to make our own decisions in the workplace – wherever that might be. And to communicate with each other, share notes, talk to each other, and really think – take a moment – and think about what you are doing. What are you doing? Are you helping? Are you harming things? Is it worth it? Is this really what you want to be doing? Are deadlines being prioritized over – good results? Should we do something? I certainly made a decision in my own life to do something. It’s going to be different for every person. But you really need to make your own decision as to what to do, and you don’t have to act individually. We can work as a community. We can work as a collective entity. People in technology, we’re not going to be able to explain to people – all this stuff. People know that everything’s messed up, and they know that things are messed up because of the algorithms that we have. We’ve educated them on that. They understand that. They understand that viscerally, because they see the consequences and the results of these things that are happening every day.

The problem is that people in technology aren’t paying attention, and even some of us who are paying attention, aren’t doing anything about it. We’re waiting for somebody to do something about it. Somebody else isn’t going to do it. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Kristian Lum and Caroline Sinders.

Caroline Sinders: Even if you feel like a cog in the machine, as a technologist, you aren’t. There are a lot of people like you trying to protest the systems you’re in. Especially in the past year, we’ve heard rumors of widespread groups and meetings of people inside of Facebook, inside of Google, really talking about the ramifications of the U.S. Presidential election, of questioning, “how did this happen inside these platforms?” – of wanting there even to be accountability inside of their own companies. I think it’s really important for us to think about that for a second. That that’s happening right now. That people are starting to organize. That they are starting to ask questions.

I think especially looking at where we are right now in San Francisco – inside the hub of Silicon Valley – in a space where it’s very amenable to protest is very amiable to supporting ethical technology. How do we build more support for other people. Is it going to spaces we’re not usually in? Is it going to other tech meet ups? Maybe. Is it having hard conversations with other technologists? Probably. How do we push the politics of our community into the wider spread community? We have to go and actually evangelize that I think.

Is the company even using the algorithm in the way it was intended to be used? Often a company purchases an algorithm that is made for one kind of analytics and it gets used for a completely different thing, and then you get these really skewed results.

Lisa Rein: Wait a minute. I can’t believe I’m asking this, but, are you saying that, as long as they like the results, nobody cares if the results are accurate?

Caroline Sinders: ‘How sure are we that it’s true?’ is not the question that I’m hearing in the conference room. It’s more like ‘we’ve gotten these results and these people have purchased it.’ or ‘It’s selling really well.’ Cause we are in the age of people building software as a product, capabilities as a product, APIs as a product. (Meaning that you buy access to an API that’s like a pipeline.) And if it’s returning certain results that a company can then use and put in a portfolio to sell to other different kinds of clients, like, it doesn’t actually matter how much it works, if it has the appearance of working; if it’s pumping out ‘results.’ So, I can’t speak to like academic verifiability of different kinds of APIs. I can speak to “that I have not ever heard people really talk about that.

Chelsea Manning: Yeah. I’ve had experience with this in particular… For verifiability of data, it’s purely academic. That’s what I’ve found. When you are working in a corporate or a business setting or whether your are working in a government setting – military context or whatever – it’s ‘results, results, results.’ Nobody cares how verifiable the data is. Everybody’s cutting corners. Everybody’s trying to meet deadlines. That’s why we — people in technology – we need to be thinking more ethically. We need to be very cognizant of the systems that we’re building, and not just sitting there, continually meeting deadline and meeting priorities that our set by our leadership, or by clients or by senior corporate, ya know, C Suite people.

You really need to think about what you’re doing. What the consequences of what you’re doing are. Because these (questions) are not happening, and they should be happening. In many cases, for some of these systems, maybe the question of whether we should be doing a system like this at all is a question that should be asked – at least asked, in some of these rooms. It’s not, and it’s not going to be.

Caroline Sinders: I think there is a big push though, if you work in industry software, to really understand the ethical ramifications of the products your using, or the software that you’re using, and how it effects your users. And how this effects even unintended bystanders – people that have not opted in to the system, or into the product, right? And that’s where you get into like, different surveillance systems, or systems that are in the whole vein of the Internet of Things, right? How many people are “accidentally” a part of a data set that they didn’t get to opt in to. 

Aaron Swartz Ceramic Statue (by Nuala Creed) and Kristian Lum.

Kristen Lum: And in some cases, remember, you yourself can act as a sponge for accountability. Because now, let’s say you have a system that’s been purchased, that’s been created by “peer reviewed science” or very expensive technology, and it’s saying to do the thing that your organization kinds of wants to do anyway. Well, maybe do some research and show the people your working with, and say “hey we may be over policing this community.” Because, otherwise, it’s like “Hey, this software we spent all this money on is telling us to do it,” which gives them justification to do what they want to do anyway. So, try to maybe act like a buffer, between these viewpoints, by being able to ask, and question, ‘why are you doing that?’

Lisa Rein: Would opening up the “black box” solve everything?

Chelsea Manning: It’s not just that it’s a black box, even when the code is available to you, sometimes how it’s actually coming up with the predictions it’s coming up with — apart  from doing pure math, when you’re trying to come up with something that’s understood by humans for an explanation, it can escape you sometimes. So I think that’s one of the dangers of depending on showing the entire algorithm. We have to fully understand these algorithms and not just see how they work from a code perspective or an algorithmic perspective.

What scares me with that is some of these algorithms being used in like, Bail hearings… You literally changing this person’s life, because they are going to stay in jail, because they are in a bail hearing, where an algorithm — made by some company — decided that you’re more predicted to be arrested. It’s not evidentiary in any way, but it’s being used in an evidentiary manner. It’s just a mathematical prediction based on false data — or poor data — and it’s actually tearing people’s lives apart. And it’s also feeding into this feedback loop, because they’re seen as being re-arrestable. Therefore, it reinforces the data set.

Kristen Lum: There are a lot of models now predicting whether an individual will be re-arrested in the future. Here’s a question: What counts as a “re-arrest?” Say someone fails to appear for court and a bench warrant is issued, and then they are arrested. Should that count? So I don’t see a whole lot of conversation about this data munging.

Caroline Sinders: Specifically, I think some of the investigative reporting that Pro Publica has done specifically on this is really worth highlighting.

(Editor’s Note: Parts of this partial transcript were rearranged slightly for flow and readability.)

(Author’s Note: Lisa Rein thanks ThoughtWorks, for their support of the Ethical Algorithms Panel and Track at Aaron Swartz Day 2017.)

Meet Matteo Borri & His Most Recent Inventions

Matteo Borri is an Advisory Board member for the Swartz-Manning VR Destination (a project of Aaron Swartz Day).

By Lisa Rein

Matteo Borri is an inventor and engineer in San Rafael, California that is currently working with NASA and the Mars Society. His chlorophyll detector will be included on the equivalent of the next Mars Rover.

Matteo’s company, Robots Everywhere LLC, has been working with NASA to create three different prototypes for detecting Chlorophyll in unchartered territory. These devices use “chlofluorescence” to detect the presence of Chlorophyll. They are all handheld devices that can be used indoors or outdoors, and are often operated using a simple Android phone.

Matteo Borri in his San Rafael shop – March 2018


LR: So how did you discover this technique for detecting Chlorophyll?

MB: I got the idea from an experiment I did in college. I wanted to build a day-for-night filter that didn’t use any post processing. What I ended up with instead was a filter that would show green fabric one color, and green plants of the same hue another color. Adding a laser to that in order to only “trip” the right fluorescent frequency was done by trial and error.

LR: And when we are detecting Chlorophyll, we are essentially looking for “life” on another planet, right?

MB: Yes. Mars is not seismically active like for example Europa is, so the Sun would be needed to put energy into anything living. If it doesn’t use chlorophyll, it will use a molecule that has to work in a similar way, so it will have to react to sunlight in a similar

Photo 1 (above) – A rendering of chlorophyll molecules


Photo 2 (above): A microscopic picture of actual chloroplasts inside plant cells.

LR: So, what’s “chlofluorescence” exactly? Is it as simple as a color shade? Or is there something more complex being detected?

MB: Chlorophyll is a lot more efficient than solar panels, but it’s not 100% efficient. So, it transmits out some of the light it receives back out. The tricky part is detecting it! It’s a bit like trying to see a weak LED turning on or off in sunlight.

LR: So was the review basically: This works great! Except 1) we need to make sure a flourescent green sharpy marker doesn’t work and 2) we need a larger interface to accommodate the astronauts clunky gloves? 🙂

Photo 3 (above): A screenshot of the Chlorodetector Interface, running on an older Motorola Android phone.

MB: Yes. There are a few false positives, notably green fluorescent markers — not a big surprise there given that they are green and fluorescent! — but if we find those on Mars, well, someone has beat us there. As for the gloves, it was a complaint from a research team: the real instrument is not going to have a touch screen, but it was cheaper to wire in a phone (with a touch screen) as the camera and CPU than work from scratch, for the purpose of this test.

LR: Tell me about this stuff you invented to help Puerto Rico. It is really interesting. The solar cell phone charger and the thing you call a “Vampire Charger,” that enables you to get whatever battery power is left out of any battery without the danger of blowing up your phone if the voltage doesn’t match.

MB: Yes. I named it the “Vampire Charger.” It is an inefficient but flexible device which will take any voltage that you might find in the world – from 1.5 volts to 12 volts – to even 110! (That’s when it stops, as 220 will blow it up, but 220 is not a common voltage in the U.S., so if you’re over here, it’s not a problem. I’ll have to come up with an European adapter 🙂

LR: So this is for when something bad has happened, obviously, and you need whatever power you can get, right?

MB: Yes. The idea is that you can use it with any kind of source of power that still works. You don’t know the voltage, you don’t know the current. You don’t even know which is plus and which is minus. You don’t even know if it’s AC or DC!

It has two alligator clips.You connect them to ANY two contacts of the part in question, in any way. (To be clear: the color it doesn’t even matter, in this case.) And it gives you USB power, safely! Read more “Meet Matteo Borri & His Most Recent Inventions”

Edward Snowden Explains The Direct Connection Between John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of Cyberspace” & His Historic Surveillance Disclosures

Edward Snowden

John Perry Barlow woke me up. He raised a message sounded an alarm, that I think we all heard. He didn’t save the world. None of us can, but perhaps he started the movement that will.

Complete transcription and MP4 available for download from the Internet Archive.

Edward Snowden: Thank you. (Applause.) I’m never going to get used to this. (Standing ovation at the Internet Archive)

There are a lot of things that can be said about John Perry Barlow, or, as I called him, JPB. He was a good man. He was a brave man. He was an original thinker. This was an incredibly talented charismatic individual.

He had no obligation to live a life that was touched by the struggles and challenges and politics that we’re made to deal with and confront every single day. For many of us, it’s not a choice. We have no alternative. We have no special talent. We are not rock stars. But he chose to side with us. He chose that. And it is that shrewdness that I think is the mark of highest distinguishment for his character.

This was a man who actively sought discomfort when he had every opportunity to sort of stay in bed with the wonderful and interesting people that were involved in his life, and he never lost this. In fact, as he got older, in the brief time that I knew, and I had the rare opportunity to share a stage with him, he became ever more politically involved. Ever more politically astute and ever more self-sacrificing.

This was a man who was not afraid to say things that others were not. This was a man who was not afraid to ask questions that would make people uncomfortable, and yet were necessary. And it was this trait that he put into the organization and lives that he was connected to that brought be forward.

One of the stories that is very little told in the media, perhaps untold, is this story: I’m sitting at the NSA as a high school dropout being paid an extraordinary amount of money to help build and run machines to spy on you. And there were over 30,000 people working at the NSA at the time. This was a comfortable life. This was an easy life. And it was certainly the path of least resistance for me.

Now I started out as a true believer. I too, had a choice, but as I climbed higher and higher levels of the government I gained access to more and more highly classified information. And eventually, I reached the sort of highest peak of security clearance. I realized that something wasn’t right. I realized that what was legal was not necessarily what was moral. I realized that what was being made public was not the same as what was true. And eventually this reached the point where we had the most senior intelligence official in the United States government, General James Clapper, who went before Congress, and swore an oath to tell the truth nothing but the truth. You know, we’ve all heard it. And he was asked by Senator Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA spying on millions, or hundreds of millions, of American’s communications.” The general immediately starts sweating, rubs his head, realizes he’s on camera. Thinks about it for a second. He’s gotten these questions 24 hours in advance. And he says “No. No sir. Not wittingly.”

This was a problem that John Perry Barlow understood, even though he didn’t know exactly how that was a lie. He knew it didn’t sit right. He talked to me about this after the fact, after I had come forward. But the idea here is this story from 2013 of the mass surveillance revelations was never about the surveillance. It was about democracy. What does it mean that when we have a system of government? When we have elected officials… when we have the highest powers in our country accountable the lowest standards of behavior. At the same time, if we break the smallest law, as ordinary people, we face the highest consequences.

Well, JPB created this organization, The Electronic Frontier Foundation,with his friends. He created the Freedom of the Press foundation, that I would later join myself and have the privilege of serving on the board with him. And the idea is this…. It’s an argument that he put to me when I shared a stage talking about the future of democracy. And I was talking about sort of where I thought the systems were breaking down; where things were working, and where they weren’t working in a very technical sort of engineer’s way, because I’m not a politician by training. And he said that he thought I was missing the point. He said, in the unique case of these United States the whole question of national security, this entire area of conversation topic, is being misrepresented by the government to the detriment of the public. “National security” doesn’t mean what they try to make you think it means. “National Security” is not about terrorism. “National security” is not about military.

“National Security” means the security of our founding principles. It’s not our borders. It’s not our culture. It’s not anything except those founding documents that we still profess to believe in. According to him. And if we are insecure in our beliefs and our willingness to protect and preserve those beliefs, that is a threat to national security, and perhaps the only one that matters. Now I’m not even sure he knew this at the time, but when I was going about my sort of dark work at the NSA gathering information about crimes against the public on a previously unprecedented scale, I was wearing a hoodie from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It was a parody of the NSA. When I came forward, it was in the very first photograph that was made public of me in Hong Kong, where I was meeting with journalists, to provide them this material, which then I lost access to. Because, I didn’t want to be exploited. I didn’t want to be the person who’s making the choices of what should and should not be made public. I felt this was the role of the fourth estate. This is the proper function; the necessary purpose of press in a free society. To contest the government’s monopoly control of information. As much as it’s wonderful when hackers go out and get this information for us — and as much as I think it is necessary for whistleblowers to share with us the information that we need to know — I wasn’t elected president of disclosure. And I don’t think anyone else is either. This is why the First Amendment is first.

In every free society, the legitimacy of government derives from a single principle; the consent of the governed. But that consent it only meaningful if it’s informed. What happens when we cast votes for politicians who make certain campaign promises, and then, not only do they not deliver on them, they actually expand the surveillance programs that they pledged to terminate. And this is that part of John Perry Barlow’s sincerity that I admired. And this is the reason, ultimately, that led me to many of the choices in life that I have made.

When I was a young man. I was reading his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, and perhaps that may have been that seed of radicalization. I’ve said before that I used to work for the government and now I work for the public. I’m not sure JPB ever had any other allegiance. His love was for all of us. This is why he spent that long life that could have been so comfortable — so frictionless — constantly searching for the next thing. Constantly searching for the next struggle.

He told me on that same day — on that same stage — one of the things that he struggles with, is people who turn away. People who don’t think. People who are so in love with comfort that they forget that struggle is what drives us forward. He shared with me a saying that he says he got from the Navajo, which is the kind of thing that only an interesting guy like him could just pass off as a throwaway comment: “You can’t awaken somebody who’s pretending to be asleep.”

John Perry Barlow woke me up. He raised a message — sounded an alarm, that I think we all heard. He didn’t save the world. None of us can, but perhaps he started the movement that will. I want to thank him for everything that he did for me, for us, for the United States, and for this world. He was an incredible person. He was an inspiration to me and it was an honor to have known him. There is one thing that I I’d like to say from him, which I will keep with me for the rest of my life as I think about what comes next for myself and hopefully those of you in the room as well.

I said, when we’re looking at all of these problems that face the world today, that face our politics today: the partisanship, incivility, the inhumanity, the injustice that fills every conversation and we try to make the people who are in power confront that and fix it and do their jobs. I struggle with the question of how it is that we correct this. What is it that we’re supposed to do, and why is it that they feel so comfortable. And it came down, finally, to this feeling of immunity, of unaccountability, that these powerful institutions all seemed to enjoy. It didn’t matter whether it was the Attorney General breaking the law. It didn’t matter who was the CEO of Citibank breaking the law. They had a different standard behavior. And when they saw the world… when they saw the system… when they saw how much control they had and how little we had they said, “Well what are you going to do about ?”

And he sat, and he thought. Just a long pause on stage in front of so many people which is the kind of thing that only somebody like him could really get away with. I know I personally feel obligation to fill the silence. Then he said “The United States such as it is today exists to look at precisely that claim. “What are you going to do about it? And to answer that question, and to answer it right.”

Ladies and gentlemen the life of John Perry Barlow was an example to everybody. Thank you.

Transcription courtesy of Lisa Rein, co-founder, Aaron Swartz Day.

Edward Snowden “on stage” with (left to right) Trevor Timm, Cory Doctorow, Cindy Cohn, (Brewster Kahle in foreground.)