A fortnightly round up of science, technology, secrets, and good news. Not necessarily in that order.

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The Crunch # 52

Is privacy the price of progress? Plus, neuromorphic computing, mosaic brains, a tribute to Ursula Le Guin, and good news on smoking, suicides and plastic bans in Europe.

The internet has shaken up so many parts of our lives, from media and manufacturing, to mattresses, makeup and making out. It's weaponised our narratives, created heroes and villains, brought us closer together and in some cases, driven us further apart. It's also created a lot of collateral damage, especially when it comes to privacy.

Over the last decade, we've watched a major battle play out. On the one side, privacy activists, who view freedom from surveillance as an inalienable right essential to the healthy functioning of modern society. On the other side, those who insist that for our own good, governments and corporations should be allowed to track and monitor our most private information. 

That battle has been won by the companies and the surveillance state. The Snowdens and Mannings and Winners and thousands of unsung heroes put up a great fight, but in the end Goliath prevailed. Our secrets used to be our own. Now they're owned by the platforms and databases where we store them, and those are easy to penetrate. If telecom firms have it - and they do - the government now has the ability to get it. As Alan Davidson, the former chief lobbyist for Google once put it, “If you keep it, they will come." 

Most of us have been willing collaborators in this privacy invasion. We confess our mental health problems on Facebook, tell advertisers how many kids we have, and happily allow weather and traffic apps to know where we are at all times. That's not totally unreasonable. Sure, we've given tech companies unlimited access to our data, allowing them to sell those insights and earn money from adverts, but in return we've received wonderful services such as email, intercontinental video calls, social media and better weather predictions. We gave up our privacy, but we also allowed law enforcement officials to solve more crimes and disrupt terrorism, exposed more political corruption, fueled social movements and helped topple totalitarian regimes.

There's no such thing as a free lunch right? As Henry Drummond says in Inherit the Wind (1960), the classic film about the Scopes Monkey Trial:

So is privacy the price we need to pay for progress? 

Not so fast. We don't have to accept its loss. We can still actively protect it. 

The language of political philosophers and international lawyers can be useful here. They talk about two kinds of freedoms. The first are positive freedoms - the freedom to perform an action, to access a resource, to control and direct one's own life. For conservatives these include things like the right to bear arms and the right to assemble and speak freely; for progressives they include the right to safe reproductive care, the right of sanctuary for refugees, equal pay and the right to unionise. The second are negative freedoms - freedom from external interference that causes you harm. These include the right to live free from socioeconomic insecurity, or from the threat of environmental disaster, or the hazard of preventable injury and disease. 

Most of the interesting stuff in politics happens when either one or both kinds of freedoms are lacking, or are at odds with each other. There's a great moment in The Handmaid's Tale for example, where Aunt Lydia says to Offred, “There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Over the course of the novel, the truth is revealed to be the exact opposite - turns out there's no point in having freedom from harm if you don't have the freedom to make your own choices. 

Right now we still have the freedom to make our own choices when it comes to our digital lives. However, that kind of freedom, the freedom to actively protect our privacy, comes at a cost. If we want access to digital tools that allow us to remain incognito, then we have to understand that the same tools can be used by criminals, terrorists, and shady politicians. If we think that diversity and freedom are valuable parts of human existence in a global, hyper digital, 21st century society, then we have to give up a little bit of security.  

We think that this is where the next big privacy battle is going to be fought - over the right to use digital tools and services that hide us from prying eyes and obnoxious advertising, without fear of prosecution. We shouldn't have to give up our data unless we choose to. And if we do decide to give it up, it should be an active choice that we make, in the full knowledge that for minorities fighting persecution at home and abroad, for activists on the frontlines of environmental and social battles, and for democracy campaigners in authoritarian regimes, the right to privacy isn't a choice - it's life and death. 

So if you think this is a fight worth having, perhaps we could invite you to get serious about your privacy right now. Take control of your digital hygiene, in the same way that you would take control over your health, or your savings, or your right to vote.


1. Protect yourself from advertisers
You wouldn't allow advertisers to put up posters in your home, so why let them pollute your online experience? Adblockers keep ads from appearing when you're online, and they're great. The best is Adblock Plus

2. Stop advertisers from tracking you
Ghostery is a browser extension that will scan a website as it loads and show you all the the tracking cookies that load with that site. It also gives you the option to turn them off, and prohibit them from following you across the internet.

3. Change your settings on Facebook
This link will take you to the ads preferences page on Facebook. It will show you what brands Facebook thinks you like, what advertisers you’ve interacted with, and the categories Facebook uses to advertise to you. You can delete all that information. Facebook may still have it all, but it will no longer allow advertisers to use that info to advertise to you. 

4. Download and install a VPN
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) allows you to browse the internet without anyone tracking your IP address. Decent ones aren't free, but well worth the investment, and you can use them across multiple devices such as your phone or other computers. Our favourite is IPVanish, which costs about $60 a year, and you can put it on up to five devices. If you're a little daunted and want something super easy, then try TunnelBear, which more user friendly. 

5. Check to see whether your privacy has been compromised
There's a great free online service called have i been pwned? which allows you to enter your email address and see whether any accounts have been hacked. It also allows you to set up a notification in case other accounts are ever compromised. If you have been hacked, change your password on that website and then...

6. Start using encrypted email
Obviously you're not going to be able to switch all of your email over to a new account overnight - but it's worth making a start. One good way of doing this is to set up a new address and start using it with your family, partner or a small group of friends... and then go from there. We recommend ProtonMail, an open source service developed by CERN and MIT scientists and protected by Swiss privacy law.

7. Protect your messaging
At a minimum, you should already be using Whatsapp for all your texting. And if you want to get serious about messaging privacy, use Edward Snowden's preferred service, Signal. Same idea - start with a small circle of friends and expand outwards.

8. Install a password manager
If you're not already, you should be using a password manager, which a service that generates random passwords for you for each of your online services, and keeps them all in one place. They're pretty user friendly - your best bet is 1Pass, which will do all the work for you. Yes you have to pay, but the peace of mind you get is well worth it. 

9. Make sure you're using 2 Factor Authentication (2FA)
If you really want to be secure, you need to enable 2FA on any site that allows it. This adds another step to the login process for popular services like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and it's the best way of ensuring security. At bare minimum, enable it for all your Google services. It's easy to do, here's a simple online guide to using the best one, Google Authenticator

Good news you probably didn't hear about

Chile has managed to quadruple its clean energy sources since 2013, resulting in a 75% drop in the average cost of electricity. C'mon Australia. IPS News

Russians are drinking and smoking less than at any point since the fall of the Soviet Union, with tobacco use down by a fifth since 2009, and alcohol by 20% since 2012. Straits Times

Following the legalisation of medical marijuana in US states that border Mexico, robberies have declined by 19%, murders by 10%, and drug-related homicides by 41%. Forbes

After a 30 year long fight, the Norwegian Animal Rights Organization (NOAH) has just announced that Norway will implement a total ban on fur farming. Live Kindly

The number of suicides in Japan dropped by 3.5% in 2017, marking the eighth straight year that the overall rate has come down. NHK World

The United Kingdom is creating a forest of 50 million trees between Liverpool and Hull, and China will plant 6.66 million hectares of new forests this year, an area the size of Ireland.

Plastic bans go into effect this month in Montreal, Vanuatu & the United Kingdom, Iceland has become the first major supermarket to say it will eliminate plastic within five years, and the European Union says it will make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. 

Y'all motherfu©kas need science

Scientists have discovered huge ice sheets in eight regions on Mars that are shallow enough to reach with a spade, and extend 100 meters below the planet's surface. NPR

After more than a century of making vehicles for humans to drive, General Motors has ripped the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal out of their new 2019 model. Wired

In a major breakthrough for neuromorphic computing (you heard it here first), engineers at MIT have created a functioning artificial synapse, built from silicon germanium. MIT

A team from Glasgow has built a 3D printed system for creating drugs on demand, and tested it by successfully recreating a muscle relaxing drug, baclofen. TechXplore

Researchers at John Hopkins University have developed a blood test that diagnoses eight common cancers, and has been up to 98% accurate in early trials. The Conversation

Scientists have mapped the entire nervous system of a simple worm, put it into digital form, and then uploaded it into a simple Lego robot which now emulates its actions. Youtube

Chinese scientists have revealed how they sent quantum encrypted images and video across a distance of 7600km between Beijing and Vienna, a historic moment that lays the foundation for a global quantum-secured satellite communication network. XinhuaNet

The Xinglong Observation Station in Hebei province, one of five ground stations used for communicating with China's Micius, the first ever quantum satellite.

The information superhighway is still awesome

Steven Johnson's New York Times Magazine cover story on the open protocol argument for blockchain is masterful (although we gotta say it... we were early to this idea!). 

Productivity articles aren't usually our thing; they smell suspiciously of late capitalism. Jason Zook's latest, on how to break out of the 40 hour work week, is an exception. 

Misogynists are fascinated by the idea that human brains are biologically male or female. But they’ve got the science wrong. The brain isn't binary. It's a mosaic. Aeon

Gus has been meditating for 2-3 years, and has tried almost every app there is. Since November last year he's been using Insight Timer, and says it's the best, by miles. 

Carrie Grace is the former China Editor for the BBC. She quit after discovering her male colleagues were being paid more, and her resignation letter is well worth reading. 

Your next documentary on Netflix should be AlphaGo, the story of how Deepmind's team of AI researchers beat the best player of the world's most complex game. Profound. 

The incomparable Ursula Le Guin passed away this week. In honour of her memory, here is her greatest short story. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Put your money where your mouth is

At the end of last year, we launched a Patreon campaign. The goal was to get our subscribers (yes, that's you, the person reading this right now) to pay us for creating content. The model is simple. We fleece people out of their hard earned cash by getting them to pay for something they're getting for free anyway, and then we give it all away!

Right now we're gathering up all the money that we earned from this edition and the last one, and thinking about a charity or initiative we can give it to. We'll be announcing who that is in the next newsletter. If you'd like to get fleeced too, check out our Patreon page. 

OK we're done. Thanks for hanging in there. You can let people know that they can subscribe to this newsletter right here. We promise to keep everyone's details private :)

Much love,

Gus and Tane
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