“When confronted with threatening stimuli and predators, the crayfish responds with an innate escape machanism called the startle reflex. Also known as tailflipping, this stereotyped behaviour involves rapid flexions of the abdominal muscles which produce powerful swimming strokes that thrust the small crustacean through the water and away from danger. In the struggle for existence, the speed of this response can mean the difference between life and death, and the crayfish has evolved an incredibly fast escape mechanism which can be initiated within well under one-hundredth of a second. This mechanism depends on a process called coincidence detection, whereby the electrical impulses inputs from sensory organs on different parts of the body arrive simultaneously at a specific location in the central nervous system. Although this reflex has been studied intensively, the mechanism by which nervous impulses arrive in synchrony at the central nervous system was poorly understood.”



Fear the Roller Coaster? Embrace It
by Dennis K. Berman  /   September 11, 2007

In these markets, everyone’s afraid. It’s your response to the fear that matters most. Are you going to crack up like Howard Dean in 2004? Or detach yourself, analyze and respond like Neil Armstrong in 1969? Astronauts, firefighters and soldiers train to respond to moments of duress. The rest of us are left on our own. And in most cases, the results aren’t good. We generally underestimate the true dangers arrayed against us, overplaying the dramatically violent outcomes over the more insidious ones. And in times when we lack information, we’re prone to imagine the worst, scientists say. We are only as effective as our emotions allow us.

Which is precisely why this current market is so daunting. Consider the unknowns still in play: The choked market for short-term corporate funding. The impossible-to-value mounds of LBO debt and equity. The daisy-chain effect between liquidating hedge funds and the broader market. It’s a far different situation than the market drop of 2001, when the downturn was spurred by the relatively simple concept that technology stocks were broadly overvalued. What’s the best way to handle all of this lingering fear? Some inspiration comes from a group of researchers who have been applying new techniques to get an answer. The researchers have begun studying professional traders as if they were chimps, even using MRI machines to divine how fear affects the brain. “We are responding from a different part of the brain when we are in the midst of calm, clear thought,” says Brett Steenbarger, a psychiatry professor at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University, who also trains traders and hedge-fund managers.

That area is the prefrontal cortex, what he calls the “executive” node of the brain that plans and reasons. When we are fearful, blood flows away from the area toward the motor areas of the brain – the ones that produce a flight-or-fight sensation. This is great if you’re confronting a saber-toothed tiger, but not so great if you’re mulling your daughter’s college fund. “You end up making decisions rashly without engaging in research and planning that you might otherwise do,” he explains. Dr. Steenbarger has found that the most important step is to get back to basics: to methodically check whether the hypothesis that got you into an investment still applies or not. The next step of controlling market fear may be to eliminate as much borrowing as possible, he adds. Leverage, he says, magnifies financial results and therefore emotional swings. During times of high volatility, this can become an especially dangerous trap for bad decision making.

Andrew Lo, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has observed professional traders in their natural habitats. He’s found that there is some truth to the idea of the Cool Hand Luke. Palms of veteran traders get less sweaty than novice ones. After especially stressful moments, these traders return to a standard physiological baseline. The novices “are all over the map,” Dr. Lo says. He recommends two other means of coping with financial fear. The first sounds simple but is essential – training yourself to recognize fear in the first place. For example, your habit may be to avoid the markets altogether by shunning the newspaper or online stock quotes. The second approach is to prepare for a busted or volatile market,
much like an astronaut rehearsing emergency procedures. This helps neutralize the fear in your decision making, especially in those moments when it seems so easy to succumb.

That’s why it might make sense to decide ahead of time your range of responses if your portfolio loses, say, 10 percent to 20 percent of its value. Research has shown that, unsurprisingly, retail investors are usually the worst at this, adds Dr. Lo. Neil Armstrong’s cool is on vivid display in the wonderful new movie, “In the Shadow of the
Moon,” about the Apollo lunar missions. In one fraught moment, Mr. Armstrong is running low on fuel as he pilots the spacecraft to the moon’s surface. The cameras pan to the smoking, sweating wonks in Mission Control. Piped in by radio, Mr. Armstrong’s voice sounds unshaken, almost blase. His best human trait – his intellect – has subdued his most animal one – his fear. That’s been the experience of 67-year-old Lewis van Amerongen, formerly of private-equity firm Gibbons, Green, Goodwin & van Amerongen. Having pioneered the buyout business, the firm got bogged down in the now-infamous “Burning Bed” purchase of Ohio Mattress Co. in the late 1980s. When the junk-bond market collapsed soon afterward, bank First Boston couldn’t refinance
a $457 million bridge loan and ended up owning most of the company. “Each generation has to go through it and has to emotionally experience it,” Mr. van Amerongen said in an interview. “Without that, it’s just an academic exercise.” In other words, there is no substitute for having survived other fearful experiences. The best
antidote for fear just may be fear itself.


Brett Steenbarger
email : steenbab [at] aol [dot] com

Andrew Lo
email : ssalem [at] mit [dot] edu

Darwinian Investing – Dr. Andrew Lo’s market theory borrows from
neuroscience, evolution, and econometrics
by Christopher Farrell  /  February 20, 2006
“Can brain science unlock the secrets of success on Wall Street? And if so, will it transform the field of personal finance? These matters fascinate Andrew W. Lo, a finance professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and director of its Laboratory for Financial Engineering. Lo, 45, and a small band of economists are tapping into neuroscience and cognitive psychology to
better understand how investors make financial decisions. In one early experiment, he and a colleague wired up 10 traders in Boston and monitored their breathing, body temperature, perspiration, pulse rates, and muscle activity as they risked real money in the markets. While the most seasoned traders in the group remained relatively calm,
nearly everyone had sweaty palms and quickened pulses when the markets grew more volatile. “Even the best traders have significant emotional responses when they trade,” says Lo. This fights the stereotype of traders as rational, coolly analytical Vulcans of commerce. Lo’s results, along with further studies using more sophisticated magnetic-
resonance imaging on traders, also undercut a dominant theory known as the efficient market hypothesis (EMH), which holds that markets aggregate information efficiently and investors form their financial expectations rationally. The reality may be much messier. Lo, who also serves as chief scientific officer at the hedge fund Alphasimplex, breaks with both EMH and behavioral economics in seeing emotions as
central to survival in the market. But this is just one element in a theory Lo is developing called the Adaptive Market Hypothesis. It shows how investors use trial and error to establish rules of thumb when placing financial bets and then hone their skills amid disruptive changes. Think of the market as an ecosystem made up of hedge funds, mutual funds, retail investors, and other “species,” all competing for
profit opportunities. It’s a Darwinian world where market shifts render some strategies obsolete, resulting in chances missed and money lost, says Lo. “The only way to maintain an edge is to continually innovate.”

Lo is not the first to incorporate the insights of Charles Darwin in his models. Luminaries from Joseph Schumpeter to Gary Becker explored this territory in the past. But Lo’s mingling of neuroscience, evolution, and financial econometrics is highly original. He predicts that the insights of evolutionary psychology will change individual
wealth- and risk-management techniques, right down to how people handle 401(k) portfolios or deal with declining home prices. Prepped with appropriate data from Lo’s research, a simple computer program might one day provide invaluable financial advice. You would punch in basic information, such as family status, life goals, the standard of living you would find acceptable in retirement, and the types of risks
you can or can’t tolerate. An algorithm would then tailor a portfolio for you and help you hedge against unwanted risks, such as a lost job or a wage cut. “Now, it sounds like science fiction,” says Lo. “Not in 10 years.” Sci-fi was an important influence on Lo, whose family moved from Taiwan to Queens, N.Y., when he was 5. Raised by his mother, he became an academic star. He skipped eighth grade, sped through Bronx
High School of Science and Yale University, and nabbed a PhD in economics from Harvard University at age 24. But it was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy that steered him toward finance economics. Asimov sketched out a branch of mathematics called psychohistory, whose practitioners sample the proclivities of large numbers of people, then accurately predict the future based on what they learn. Sound familiar?”

Visualizing Market Fear
by Richard L. Peterson  /  September 26, 2007

“How can you cope with market fear? Many investors consider this a crucial question. Yet it often isn’t until periods of fear and sharp market downturns that investors think, “now I know I shouldn’t sell everything, but it really hurts!” It’s at these times that the
excellent investors and traders stand out. They can muster the courage to buy in such markets, even as the financial news and media pundits are screaming, “The sky is falling!” The MarketPsych Fear Index was displayed on the Wall Street Journal’s C1 Money and Investing page a couple weeks ago. The MarketPsych Fear Index helps investors visualize the fear they are feeling that is affecting their judgment. Studies
show that we’re all affected by market fear, and it takes a lot of courage and experience to step back and see the fear and identify the opportunities that it creates. The first step is understanding that fear is contagious. The second step is identifying where it is and how strong it is. That’s what our Index allows.”


On Wall Street, Eyes Turn to the Fear Index
by Michael M. Grynbaum  /  October 20, 2008

Fear is running high on Wall Street. Just look at the Fear Index. With all those stomach-churning free falls and sharp reversals in the stock market recently, traders are keeping a nervous eye on an obscure index known as the VIX. The VIX (officially the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index) measures volatility, the technical term for those wrenching market swings. A rising VIX is usually regarded as a sign that fear, rather than greed, is ruling the market. The higher the VIX goes, the more unhinged the market looks. So how scared are investors? On Friday, the VIX rose to 70.33, its highest close since its introduction in 1993. To some experts, that suggests that the wild ride is far from over. “Right now, it’s an extremely important part of the puzzle,” Steve Sachs, a trader at Rydex Investments, said of the VIX. “It’s showing a huge amount of fear in the marketplace.”

The VIX is hardly a household name like the Dow. But lately, it has become a fixture on CNBC and other financial news outlets, with commentators often invoking an index that most of the general public was blissfully unaware of only a few weeks ago. Some traders think all the publicity has only added to the anxieties that the VIX is intended
to reflect. “The VIX is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Ryan Larson, head equity trader at Voyageur Asset Management. “It’s almost adding to the problems.” Speaking on Thursday, when the VIX hit an intraday high of 81.17 before closing lower, he said: “You see the VIX trade north of 80, and of course the media starts to pick it up.” Mr. Larson continued, “It’s blasted on the TV, and for the average investor sitting at home, they think, oh, my gosh, the VIX just broke 80 — I’ve got to go sell my stocks.”

Put simply, the VIX measures the degree to which investors think stocks will swing violently in the next 30 days. It is calculated in real time throughout the trading day, fluctuating minute to minute. The higher the VIX, the bigger the expected swings — and the index has a good track record. It spiked in 1998 when a big hedge fund, Long-
Term Capital Management, collapsed, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Sachs, with some incredulity, said that the swings in the stock market have reflected the volatility implied by the VIX. “We had a 17 percent peak-to-trough trading range this week,” he said. “It should take two years under normal circumstances for the S.& P. 500 to have that type of trading range.”

The VIX had its origin in 1993, when the Chicago Board Options Exchange approached Robert E. Whaley, then a professor at Duke, with a dual proposal. “The first purpose was the one that is being served right now — find a barometer of market anxiety or investor fear,” Professor Whaley, who now teaches at the Owen Graduate School of
Management at Vanderbilt University, recalled in an interview. But, he said, the board also wanted to create an index that investors could bet on using futures and options, providing a new revenue stream for the exchange. Professor Whaley spent a sabbatical in France toying with formulas. He returned to the United States with the VIX, which gauges anxiety by calculating the premiums paid in a specific options market run by the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

An option is a contract that permits an investor to buy or sell a security at a certain date at a certain price. These contracts often amount to insurance policies in case big moves in the market cause trouble in a portfolio. A contract, like insurance, costs money — specifically, a premium, whose price can fluctuate. The VIX, in its current form, measures premiums paid by investors who buy options tied to the price of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. In times of confusion or anxiety on Wall Street, investors are more eager to buy this insurance, and thus agree to pay higher premiums to get them. This pushes up the level of the VIX. “It’s analogous to buying fire insurance,” Professor Whaley said. “If there’s some reason to believe there’s an arsonist in your neighborhood, you’re going to be willing to pay more for insurance.”

The index is not an arbitrary number: it offers guidance for the expected percentage change of the S.& P. 500. Based on a formula, Friday’s close of around 70 suggests that investors think the S. & P. 500 could move up or down about 20 percent in the next 30 days — an almost unheard-of swing. So the higher the number, the bigger the
swing investors think the market will take. Put another way, the higher the VIX, the less investors know about where the stock market is headed. The current level shows that “investors are still very uncertain about where things will go,” said Meg Browne of Brown Brothers Harriman, a currency strategist who was keeping a close eye on the VIX as the stock market soared last Monday.

Since 2004, investors have been able to buy futures contracts on the VIX itself, providing a way to hedge against volatility in the market. Options on the VIX have been available since 2006. “You have seen more and more investors using it as an avenue toward hedging their portfolios,” said Chris Jacobson, chief options strategist at the Susquehanna Financial Group. In times of crisis, “while you’re losing your portfolio, you could make some money on the increase in volatility,” he said. Some investors are skeptical about the utility of the index. “If you’re trading the markets, you pretty much know the fear, you know the volatility. I don’t need an index to tell me there’s volatility out there,” Mr. Larson said.

Robert E. Whaley
email : whaley [at] vanderbilt [dot] edu



What caused the meltdown on Wall Street? Greed. Lax regulation. Panic. And maybe the very biological makeup of investors’ brains. Eight years ago a handful of brain scientists began using MRI scanners, psychological tests and an emerging understanding of brain anatomy to try and overturn traditional economic theories that assume people always act rationally when it comes to financial decisions. To understand the market, these researchers said, you needed to get inside peoples’ heads. They called their new field neuroeconomics.

If proof was needed that markets can be unpredictable, irrational and cruel, the past few weeks provided it. Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch have been swallowed up by emergency mergers. The government has bailed out Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG. Lehman Brothers is bankrupt.  So, can these neuroeconomists shed any light on what went wrong? Surprisingly, yes. “Fear plus herding equals panic,” says Gregory
Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University. “You bet it’s biologically based.”

At the core of the market mess are securities that were backed by extremely risky mortgages. The theory was that slicing and dicing mortgages diluted the risk away. But the ratings agencies were being compensated by issuers of the mortgage-backed securities, and neuroeconomics says that created big problems. “You don’t get mistakes this big based on stupidity alone,” says George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s when you combine stupidity and people’s incentives that you get errors of this magnitude.”

Consider this forthcoming research by Loewenstein, Roberto Weber and John Hamman, all of Carnegie Mellon. They organized volunteers into partners. One partner is given $10 and told to split it however he sees fit. On average, the deciding partner keeps $8 and gives away $2. Then researchers repeat the game. This time, the decider pays an “analyst” to decide how to split the money fairly. The game continues
for multiple rounds and the decider can fire the analyst. With this change, the decider gets everything. Paying somebody else to ensure assets are divided fairly actually makes things less fair.

Colin Camerer, an economist at Caltech, blames “diffusion of responsibility” for the problems. His own research identifies another problem: Neither investors nor bankers were likely to be considering worst-case scenarios. Camerer conducted experiments in which two people engage in a negotiating game on how to split $5. But each time
they fail to come to an agreement, the value of the pot drops. The negotiators can check the total value of the money by clicking colored boxes on a computer screen. But only 10% look to see what will happen in the worst case.

To make matters worse, hedge funds were bragging about uncanny returns, making the impossible seem possible. But some studies show that these results may have been inflated by a lack of disclosure, Camerer says. Brain imaging studies show that investors as a whole get more and more used to big returns, and thus take bigger and bigger risks in a bull market–and then the bubble pops and stockholders start selling like mad.

One reason: Investors fear losing more than they look forward to winning. According to a 2007 paper, researchers used MRI scans to watch the brains of people as they decided whether or not to take gambles with a 50/50 risk. Gains caused brains to light up in areas that released dopamine (the chemical boosted by Zoloft and Prozac); losses caused those same areas to decrease. Researchers could predict that people would do based on the size of the increases.

Dread, the anticipation of a loss that is expected to happen, is another powerful force. Emory’s Berns has shown that people differ in how they respond to expected pain. He gave electric shocks to people in an MRI machine, and then gave them the option of either getting an intense shock immediately or a less intense shock later. People whose brains started lighting up in areas associated with pain beforehand were more likely to decide to get the pain over with. They also would have sold stock.

So what’s a regulator to do? One argument against big bailouts is moral hazard–the idea that if you bail the banks out now, future bankers will take even bigger risks. Caltech’s Camerer points out that people are naturally shortsighted. People with health insurance do spend more on care, he says, but people who rent cars don’t get in
more accidents, because there are more immediate risks, like bodily harm. But so far the government’s attempts to quell the risk have just reinforced the idea that something is very wrong. If you tell somebody not to think about white elephants, Loewenstein notes, they will do exactly that.

On the other hand, putting a floor in the market for these mortgage-backed securities, as the government’s plan tried to do, could ease investor panic, says Richard Peterson of MarketPsy Capital, who is trying to put neuroeconomic research to work in a $50 million hedge fund. “Things are unknowable,” Peterson says. “That is the X factor
that is causing the risk aversion to accelerate.”

George Loewenstein
email : gL20 [at] andrew.cmu [dot] edu

Colin Camerer
email : camerer [at] hss.caltech [dot] edu


The Chemical Basis of Trust
Trust is essential to healthy social interactions, but how do we decide whether we can trust strangers? An article based on research supported by the Templeton Foundation and published in the June issue of Scientific American argues that the hormone ocytocin enhances our ability to trust strangers who exhibit non-threatening signals.

The article, “The Neurobiology of Trust,” by Paul J. Zak, is based on original research with an experimental situation that the author calls the “trust game.” It is a modification of a similar game developed in the mid-1990s by the experimental economists Joyce Berg, John Dickhaut, and Kevin McCabe. The game allows test subjects to transfer their money to a stranger if they trust the stranger to reciprocate by transferring more back.

When we are trusted, Zak found, our brains release oxytocin, which makes us more trustworthy; the subjects with the highest levels of oxytocin returned the most money to their partners. Moreover, the rise in oxytocin levels, and not the absolute level, made the difference. Zak also found that subjects who inhaled an oxytocin nasal spray were more likely to trust others. Those given oxytocin transferred 17 percent more money than control subjects who inhaled a placebo. Twice as many subjects who received oxytocin gave all their cash to their partners.

Ocytocin is best known as the hormone that induces labor in pregnant women. But Zak maintains that its role in the development of trust has implications for a range of important issues, from the growth of wealth in developing countries to the nature of diseases such as autism to the physiological basis of virtuous behaviors. A professor
of economics and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Zak also serves as clinical professor of neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. His new book, Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, was also supported by JTF, and was published by Princeton University Press this year.


Paul J. Zak
email : paul [at] pauljzak [dot] com

‘Might have been’ key in evaluating behavior
by Ruth SoRelle  /  August 2007

“What might have been,” or fictive learning, affects the brain and plays an important role in the choices individuals make – and may play a role in addiction, said Baylor College of Medicine researchers and others in a report that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These “fictive learning” experiences, governed by what might have happened under different circumstances, “often dominate the evaluation of the choices we make now and will make in
the future,” said P. Read Montague Jr., Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at BCM and director of the BCM Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the newly formed Computational Psychiatry Unit. “These fictive signals are essential in a person’s ability to assess the quality of his or her actions above and beyond simple experiences that
have occurred in the immediately proximal time.”

Blood flow reflects brain’s response to risk and reward
Using techniques honed in previous experiments that studied trust, Montague and his colleagues used an investment game to test the effects of these “what if” thoughts on decisions in 54 subjects. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure blood flow changes in specific areas of the brain, they precisely measured
responses to economic instincts. These blood flow changes in the brain reflect alterations in the activity of nerve cells in the vicinity. In this case, they measured the brain’s response to “what could have been acquired” and “what was acquired.” This newly discovered “fictive learning” signal was measured, localized and precisely parsed from the brain’s standard reward signal that reflects actual experience. Each
subject took part in a sequential gambling task. The player makes a new investment allocation (a bet) and then receives a “snippet” of information about the market – either the market went up and the investment was a good one or the market goes down and the play had a loss. Each subject received $100 and played 10 markets, making 20 decisions about each.

Regret affects future decisions
Montague and his associates found that fictive learning – the “what might have happened” – affected the brains of the subjects and played an important role in their decisions about the game. This effect manifested as a distinct selective activation signal in a part of the brain called the ventral caudate nucleus. The emotion of regret for a path chosen or not taken can be strongly influential on future decision-making. The fictive learning signal discovered by Montague and the team of researchers does not necessarily manifest as such a conscious “feeling” but contributes to the brain’s computation and planning operations in a robust way that is now available to rigorous
experimental analysis in health and in diseases of the brain/mind. “We used real world market data – the crash of 1929, the bubble of the late 1990s and so on – to probe each subject’s brain response to fictive signals (what could have been) as they navigated their choices. This means we now have a kind of neural catalogue of how
famous stock market episodes affect signals in the average human brain,” said Montague. He plans to use the findings from this study to explore the balance of choices between actual and fictive outcomes.

New tool for studying addiction
“These results provide a new tool for exploring issues related to addiction,” Montague said. “For example, why does a person choose using a drug even though he or she can imagine the bad consequences that can result? We now have a way to measure quantitatively the balance between reward-seeking (like seeking a drug) and the thoughts that could intervene.”

“The brain has a well-defined system for pursuing actual rewards based on actual outcomes,” said Terry Lohrenz, Ph.D., instructor in the neuroimaging laboratory and the report’s first author. “The system is complex, but recent research has begun to dissect them in great detail. The importance of that work is that the reward guidance
signals are exactly those hijacked by drugs of abuse. “Identifying real neural signals to fictive outcomes now positions us to understand how our more abstract thoughts – the way we contextualize or frame our experience – guide our behavior,” Lohrenz added.

P. Read Montague
email : readm [at] bcm.tmc [dot] edu

Terry Lohrenz
email : tlohrenz [at] hnl.bcm.tmc [dot] edu

Has evolution essentially bootstrapped our penchant for intellectual concepts to the same kinds of laws that govern systems such as financial markets?
by Jonah Lehrer  /  August 8, 2008

Read Montague is getting frustrated. He’s trying to show me his newest brain scanner, a gleaming white fMRI machine that looks like a gargantuan tanning bed. The door, however, can be unlocked only by a fingerprint scan, which isn’t recognizing Montague’s fingers. Again and again, he inserts his palm under the infrared light, only to get the same beep of rejection. Montague is clearly growing frustrated — “I can’t get into my own scanning room!” he yells, at no one in particular — but he also appreciates the irony. A pioneer of brain imaging, he oversees one of the premier fMRI setups in the world, and yet he can’t even scan his own hand. “I can image the mind,” he says. “But apparently my thumb is beyond the limits of science.”

Montague is director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine in downtown Houston. His lab recently moved into a sprawling, purpose-built space, complete with plush carpets, fancy ergonomic chairs, matte earth-toned paint and rows of oversize computer monitors. (There are still some technical kinks being worked
out, hence the issue with the hand scanner.) If it weren’t for the framed sagittal brain images, the place could pass for a well-funded Silicon Valley startup. The centerpiece of the lab, however, isn’t visible. Montague has access to five state-of-the-art fMRI machines, which occupy the perimeter of the room. Each of the scanners is hidden
behind a thick concrete wall, but when the scanners are in use — and they almost always are — the entire lab seems to quiver with a high-pitched buzz. Montague, though, doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s not the prettiest sound,” he admits. “But it’s the sound of data.”

Montague, who is uncommonly handsome, with a strong jaw and a Hollywood grin, first got interested in the brain while working in the neuroscience lab of Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman as a post-doc. “I was never your standard neuroscientist,” he says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how the brain should work, if I had designed it.” For Montague the cortex was a perfect system to model, since its incomprehensible complexity meant that it depended on some deep, underlying order. “You can’t have all these cells interacting with each other unless there’s some logic to the interaction,” he says. “It just looked like noise, though — no one could crack the code.” That’s
what Montague wanted to do. The human brain, however, is an incredibly well-encrypted machine. For starters it’s hard to even know what the code is: Our cells express themselves in so many different ways. There’s the language of chemistry, with brain activity measured in squirts of neurotransmitter and kinase enzymes. And then there’s the electrical conversation of the cortex, so that each neuron acts like a
biological transistor, emitting a binary code of action potentials. Even a silent cell is conveying some sort of information — the absence of activity is itself a form of activity.

Montague realized that if he was going to solve the ciphers of the mind, he would need a cryptographic key, a “cheat sheet” that showed him a small part of the overall solution. Only then would he be able to connect the chemistry to the electricity, or understand how the signals of neurons represented the world, or how some spasm of cells caused human nature. “There are so many different ways to describe
what the brain does,” Montague says. “You can talk about what particular cell is doing, or look at brain regions with fMRI, or observe behavior. But how do these things connect? Because you know they are connected; you just don’t know how.” That’s when Montague discovered the powers of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain.
His research on the singular chemical has drawn tantalizing connections between the peculiar habits of our neurons and the peculiar habits of real people, so that the various levels of psychological description — the macro and the micro, the behavioral
and the cellular — no longer seem so distinct. What began as an investigation into a single neurotransmitter has morphed into an exploration of the social brain: Montague has pioneered research that allows him to link the obscure details of the cortex to all sorts of important phenomena, from stock market bubbles to cigarette addiction
to the development of trust. “We are profoundly social animals,” he says. “You can’t really understand the brain until you understand how these social behaviors happen, or what happens when they go haywire.”

And yet even as Montague attempts to answer these incredibly complex questions, his work remains rooted in the molecular details of dopamine. No matter what he’s talking about — and he likes to opine on everything from romantic love to the neural correlates of the Coca-Cola logo — his sentences are sprinkled with the jargon of a neural cryptographer. The brain remains a black box, an encrypted mystery, but the transactions of dopamine are proving to be the Rosetta Stone, the missing link that just might allow the code to be broken. The importance of dopamine was discovered by accident. In 1954 James Olds and Peter Milner, two neuroscientists at McGill University, decided to implant an electrode deep into the center of a rat’s brain. The
precise placement of the electrode was largely happenstance: At the time the geography of the mind remained a mystery. But Olds and Milner got lucky. They inserted the needle right next to the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a part of the brain dense with dopamine neurons and involved with the processing of pleasurable rewards, like food and sex.

Olds and Milner quickly discovered that too much pleasure can be fatal. After they ran a small current into the wire, so that the NAcc was continually excited, the scientists noticed that the rodents lost interest in everything else. They stopped eating and drinking. All courtship behavior ceased. The rats would just cower in the corner of
their cage, transfixed by their bliss. Within days all of the animals had perished. They had died of thirst. It took several decades of painstaking research, but neuroscientists eventually discovered that the rats were suffering from an excess of dopamine. The stimulation of the brain triggered a massive release of the neurotransmitter, which
overwhelmed the rodents with ecstasy. In humans addictive drugs work the same way: A crack addict who has just gotten a fix is no different from a rat in electrical rapture. This, then, became the dopaminergic cliché — it was the chemical explanation for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But that view of the neurotransmitter was vastly oversimplified. What wasn’t yet clear was that dopamine is also a profoundly important
source of information. It doesn’t merely let us take pleasure in the world; it allows us to understand the world.

The first experimental insight into this aspect of the dopamine system came from the pioneering research of Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University. He was originally interested in the neurotransmitter because of its role in triggering Parkinson’s disease, which occurs when dopamine neurons begin to die in a part of
the brain that controls bodily movements. Schultz recorded from cells in the monkey brain, hoping to find those cells involved in the production of movement. He couldn’t find anything. “It was a classic case of experimental failure,” he says. But after years of searching in vain, Schultz started to notice something odd about these dopamine
neurons: They began to fire just before the monkeys got a reward. (Originally, the reward was a way of getting the monkeys to move.) “At first I thought it was unlikely that an individual cell could represent anything so complicated,” Schultz says. “It just seemed like too much information for one neuron.” After hundreds of experimental
trials, Schultz began to believe his own data: He realized that he had found, by accident, the reward mechanism at work in the primate brain. “Only in retrospect can I appreciate just how lucky we were,” he says. After publishing a series of landmark papers in the mid-1980s, Schultz set out to decipher this reward circuitry in exquisite detail. How, exactly, did these single cells manage to represent a reward? His experiments observed a simple protocol: He played a loud tone, waited for a few seconds, and then squirted a few drops of apple juice into the mouth of a monkey. While the experiment was unfolding, Schultz was probing the dopamine-rich areas of the monkey brain with a needle that monitored the electrical activity inside individual cells. At first the dopamine neurons didn’t fire until the juice was delivered; they
were responding to the actual reward. However, once the animal learned that the tone preceded the arrival of juice — this requires only a few trials — the same neurons began firing at the sound of the tone instead of the sweet reward. And then eventually, if the tone kept on predicting the juice, the cells went silent. They stopped firing altogether.

When Schultz began publishing his data, nobody quite knew what to make of these strange neurons. “It was very, very tough to figure out what these cells were encoding,” Schultz says. He knew that the cells were learning something about the juice and the tone, but he couldn’t figure out how they were learning it. The code remained impenetrable. At the time Montague was a young scientist at the Salk Institute, working in the neurobiology lab of Terry Sejnowski. His approach to
the brain was rooted in the abstract theories of computer science, which he hoped would shed light on the software used by the brain. Peter Dayan, a colleague of Montague’s at Salk, had introduced him to a model called temporal difference reinforcement learning (TDRL). Computer scientists Rich Sutton and Andrew Barto, who both worked on models of artificial intelligence, had pioneered the model. Sutton and Barto wanted to develop a “neuronlike” program that could learn simple rules and behaviors in order to achieve a goal. The basic premise is straightforward: The software makes predictions about what will happen — about how a checkers game will unfold for example — and then compares these predictions with what actually happens. If the prediction is right, that series of predictions gets reinforced. However, if the prediction is wrong, the software reevaluates its representation of the game.

Montague was entranced by these software prototypes. “It was just so clearly the most efficient way to learn,” he says. The problem was that TDRL remained purely theoretical, a system both elegant and imaginary. Even though computer scientists had begun to adapt the programming strategy for various practical purposes, such as running a bank of elevators or determining flight schedules, no one had found a
neurological system that worked like this. But one spring day in 1991, Dayan burst into Montague’s small office. “He was very excited and shoved these figures from some new paper in my face,” Montague remembers. “He kept on saying to me, ‘What does this look like? What does this look like?'” The figures were from Schultz’s experiments
with dopamine neurons, and they showed how these cells reacted to the tone and the juice. “I thought he had faked the data,” Montague says. “Dayan was a big prankster, and I assumed he’d photocopied some of our own figures [on TDRL] just to tease me. It looked too good to be true.” Montague immediately realized that he and Dayan could make sense of Schultz’s mysterious neurons. They knew what these dopamine cells were doing; they had seen this code before. “The only reason we could see it so clearly,” Montague says, “is because we came at it from this theoretical angle. If you were an experimentalist seeing this data, it would have been extremely confusing. What the hell are these cells doing? Why aren’t they just responding to the juice?” That
same day Montague and Dayan began writing a technical paper that laid out their insight, explaining how these neurons were making precise predictions about future rewards. But the paper — an awkward mix of Schultz’s dopamine recordings and equations borrowed from computer science — went nowhere. “We wrote that paper 11 times,” Montague says. “It got bounced from every journal. I came this close to leaving the field. I realized that neuroscience just wasn’t ready for theory, even
if the theory made sense.”

Nevertheless, Montague and Dayan didn’t give up. They published their ideas in obscure journals, like Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems. When the big journals rejected their interpretation of monkey neurons, they instead looked at the nervous systems of honeybees, which relied on a version of TDRL when foraging
for nectar. (That paper got published in Nature in 1995.) “We had to drag the experimentalists kicking and screaming,” Montague says. “They just didn’t understand how these funny-looking equations could explain their data. They told us, ‘We need more data.’ But what’s the point of data if you can’t figure it out?” The crucial feature of these dopamine neurons, say Montague and Dayan, is that they are more concerned with predicting rewards than with the rewards themselves. Once the cells memorize the simple pattern — a loud tone predicts the arrival of juice — they become exquisitely sensitive to variations on the pattern. If the cellular predictions proved correct and the primates experienced a surge of dopamine, the prediction was reinforced. However, if the pattern was violated — if the tone sounded but the juice never arrived — then the monkey’s dopamine neurons abruptly decreased their firing rate. This is known as the “prediction error signal.” The monkey got upset because its predictions of juice were wrong. What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all
about expectation. Dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based upon experience: If this, then that. The cacophony of reality is distilled into models of correlation. And if these predictions ever prove incorrect, then the neurons immediately readjust their expectations. The discrepancy is internalized; the anomaly is remembered. “The accuracy comes from the mismatch,” Montague says. “You learn how the world works by focusing on the prediction errors, on the events that you didn’t expect.” Our knowledge, in other words, emerges from our cellular mistakes. The brain learns how to be right by focusing on what it got wrong.

Despite his frustration  with the field, Montague continued to work on dopamine. In 1997 he published a Science paper with Dayan and Schultz whose short title was audaciously grand: “A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward.” The paper has since been cited more than 1,200 times, and it remains the definitive explanation of how the brain parses reality into a set of accurate expectations, which are measured
out in short bursts of dopamine. A crucial part of the cellular code had been cracked. But Montague was getting restless. “I wanted to start asking bigger questions,” he says. “Here’s this elegant learning system, but how does it fit with the rest of the brain? And can we take this beyond apple juice?” At first glance the dopamine system
might seem largely irrelevant to the study of human behavior. Haven’t we evolved beyond the brutish state of “reward harvesting,” where all we care about is food and sex? Dopamine might explain the simple psychology of a lizard, or even a monkey sipping juice, but it seems a stretch for it to explain the Promethean mind of a human. “One of the distinguishing traits of human beings is that we chase ideas, not just
primary rewards,” Montague says. “What other animal goes on hunger strike? Or abstains from sex? Or blows itself up in a cafe in the name of God?” These unique aspects of human cognition seem impossible to explain with neurons that track and predict rewards. After all, these behaviors involve the rejection of rewards: We are shrugging off tempting treats because of some abstract belief or goal.

Montague’s insight, however, was that ideas are just like apple juice. From the perspective of the brain, an abstraction can be just as rewarding as the tone that predicts the reward. Evolution essentially bootstrapped our penchant for intellectual concepts to the same reward circuits that govern our animal appetites. “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a treat,” Montague says. “His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner.” According to Montague, the reason abstract thoughts can be so rewarding, is that the brain relies on a common neural currency for
evaluating alternatives. “It’s clear that you need some way to compare your options, even if your options come from very different categories,” he says. By representing everything in terms of neuron firing rates, the human brain is able to choose the abstract thought over the visceral reward, as long as the abstraction excites our cells
more than apple juice. That’s what makes ideas so powerful: No matter how esoteric or ethereal they get, they are ultimately fed back into the same system that makes us want sex and sugar. As Montague notes, “You don’t have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”

In recent years Montague has shown how this basic computational mechanism is a fundamental feature of the human mind. Consider a paper on the neural foundations of trust, recently published in Science. The experiment was born out of Montague’s frustration with the limitations  of conventional fMRI. “The most unrealistic element [of fMRI experiments] is that we could only study the brain by itself,” Montague says. “But when are brains ever by themselves?” And so Montague pioneered a technique known as hyper-scanning, allowing subjects in different fMRI machines to interact in real time. His experiment revolved around a simple economic game in which getting the maximum reward required the strangers to trust one another. However, if one of the players grew especially selfish, he or she could always steal from the pot and erase the tenuous bond of trust. By monitoring the players’ brains, Montague was able to predict whether or not someone would steal money several seconds before the theft actually occurred. The secret was a cortical area known as the caudate nucleus,
which closely tracked the payouts from the other player. Montague noticed that whenever the caudate exhibited reduced activity, trust tended to break down.

But what exactly is the caudate computing? How do we decide whom to trust with our money? And why do we sometimes decide to stop trusting those people? It turned out that the caudate worked just like the reward cells in the monkey brain. At first the caudate didn’t get excited until the subjects actually trusted one another and garnered
their separate rewards. But over time this brain area started to expect trust, so that it fired long before the reward actually arrived. Of course, if the bond was broken — if someone cheated and stole money — then the neurons stopped firing; social assumptions were proven wrong. (Montague is currently repeating this experiment with a collaborating lab in China so that he can detect the influence of culture on social interactions.) The point, he says, is that people were using this TDRL strategy — a strategy that evolved to help animals find caloric rewards — to model another mind. Instead of predicting the arrival of juice, the neurons were predicting the behavior of someone else’s brain.

A few years ago, Montague was reviewing some old papers on TDRL theory when he realized that the system, while effective and efficient, was missing something important. Although dopamine neurons excelled at measuring the mismatch between their predictions of rewards and those that actually arrived — these errors provided the input for learning — they’d learn much quicker if they could also incorporate the
prediction errors of others. Montague called this a “fictive error learning signal,” since the brain would be benefiting from hypothetical scenarios: “You’d be updating your expectations based not just on what happened, but on what might have happened if you’d done something differently.” As Montague saw it, this would be a very valuable addition to our cognitive software. “I just assumed that evolution would use this approach, because it’s too good an idea not to use,” he says.

The question, of course, is how to find this “what if” signal in the brain. Montague’s clever solution was to use the stock market. After all, Wall Street investors are constantly comparing their actual returns against the returns that might have been, if only they’d sold their shares before the crash or bought Google stock when the company first went public. The experiment went like this: Each subject was
given $100 and some basic information about the “current” state of the stock market. After choosing how much money to invest, the players watched nervously as their investments either rose or fell in value. The game continued for 20 rounds, and the subjects got to keep their earnings. One interesting twist was that instead of using random simulations of the stock market, Montague relied on distillations of data from famous historical markets. Montague had people “play” the Dow of 1929, the Nasdaq of 1998, and the S&P 500 of 1987, so the neural responses of investors reflected real-life bubbles and crashes.

The scientists immediately discovered a strong neural signal that drove many of the investment decisions. The signal was fictive learning. Take, for example, this situation. A player has decided to wager 10 percent of her total portfolio in the market, which is a rather small bet. Then she watches as the market rises dramatically in
value. At this point, the regret signal in the brain — a swell of activity in the ventral caudate, a reward area rich in dopamine neurons — lights up. While people enjoy their earnings, their brain is fixated on the profits they missed, figuring out the difference
between the actual return and the best return “that could have been.” The more we regret a decision, the more likely we are to do something different the next time around. As a result investors in the experiment naturally adapted their investments to the ebb and flow of the market. When markets were booming, as in the Nasdaq bubble of the late 1990s, people perpetually increased their investments.

But fictive learning isn’t always adaptive. Montague argues that these
computational signals are also a main cause of financial bubbles. When
the market keeps going up, people are naturally inclined to make
larger and larger investments in the boom. And then, just when
investors are most convinced that the bubble isn’t a bubble — many of
Montague’s subjects eventually put all of their money into the booming
market — the bubble bursts. The Dow sinks, the Nasdaq collapses. At
this point investors race to dump any assets that are declining in
value, as their brain realizes that it made some very expensive
prediction errors. That’s when you get a financial panic.

Such fictive-error learning signals aren’t relevant only for stock
market investors. Look, for instance, at addiction. Dopamine has long
been associated with addictive drugs, such as cocaine, that overexcite
these brain cells. The end result is that addicts make increasingly
reckless decisions, forgoing longterm goals for the sake of an
intensely pleasurable short-term fix. “When you’re addicted to a drug,
your brain is basically convinced that this expensive white powder is
worth more than your marriage or life,” Montague says. In other words
addiction is a disease of valuation: Dopamine cells have lost track of
what’s really important.

Montague wanted to know which part of the dopamine system was
distorted in the addicted brain. He began to wonder if addiction was,
at least in part, a disease of fictive learning. Addicted smokers will
continue to smoke even when they know it’s bad for them. Why can’t
they instead revise their models of reward? Last year Montague decided
to replicate his stock market study with a large group of chronic
smokers. It turned out that smokers were perfectly able to compute a
“what if” learning signal, which allowed them to experience regret.
Like nonsmokers they realized that they should have invested
differently in the stock market. Unfortunately, this signal had no
impact on their decision making, which led them to make significantly
less money during the investing game. According to Montague, this data
helps explain why smokers continue to smoke even when they regret it.
Although their dopamine neurons correctly compute the rewards of an
extended life versus a hit of nicotine — they are, in essence, asking
themselves, “What if I don’t smoke this cigarette?” — their brain
doesn’t process the result. That feeling of regret is conveniently
ignored. They just keep on lighting up.

Montague exudes the confidence of a scientist used to confirming his
hypotheses. He buzzes with ideas for new experiments — ” I get bored
rather easily,” he says — and his lab is constantly shifting
direction, transitioning from dopamine to neuroeconomics to social
neuroscience. Montague is currently consumed with questions about how
people interact when they’re part of a group. “A mob or a market is
not just a collection of discrete individuals,” he says. “It’s
something else entirely. You would do things in a group that you would
never do by yourself. But what’s happening in your brain? We’ve got
all these sociological studies but no hard data.” Montague’s been
warned that the project is too complicated, that social interactions
are too subtle and complex to pick up in a scanner, but he’s convinced
otherwise. “If I’d listened to the naysayers,” he says, “I’d still be
studying honeybees.”

Montague’s experiments take advantage of his unique fMRI setup. He has
four people negotiate with one another as they decide how much to
offer someone else during an investing game. While the group is
bickering, Montague is monitoring the brain activity of everyone
involved. He’s also infiltrated the group with a computer player that
has been programmed to act just like a person with borderline
personality disorder. The purpose of this particular experiment is to
see how “one bad apple” can lead perfect strangers to also act badly.
While Montague isn’t ready to share the results — he’s still gathering
data — what he’s found so far is, he says, “stunning, shocking
even…. For me the lesson has been that people act very badly in
groups. And now we can see why.”

Such exuberance is well earned. In the space of a few short years,
Montague has taken his theoretical model of learning — a model he
borrowed from some old computer science textbooks — and shown that
it’s an essential part of the human brain. He’s linked the
transactions of a single neurotransmitter to a dizzying array of
behaviors, so that it’s now possible to draw a straight line between
monkeys craving juice and stock market bubbles. A neurotransmitter
that wasn’t supposed to matter is now our most important clue into the
secret messages of the mind and the breakdown of social graces. The
code hasn’t been broken. But for the first time, it’s getting cracked.

Jonah Lehrer
email : jonah.lehrer [at] gmail [dot] com



“In a fiduciary relation one person justifiably reposes confidence,
good faith, reliance and trust in another whose aid, advice or
protection is sought in some matter. In such a relation good
conscience requires one to act at all times for the sole benefit and
interests of another, with loyalty to those interests. A fiduciary
duty [1] is the highest standard of care at either equity or law. In
English common law the fiduciary relation is arguably the most
important concept within the portion of the legal system known as
equity. In the United Kingdom, the Judicature Acts merged the courts
of Equity (historically based in England’s Court of Chancery) with the
courts of common law, and as a result the concept of fiduciary duty
also became usable in common law courts. When a fiduciary duty is
imposed, equity requires a stricter standard of behavior than the
comparable tortious duty of care at common law. It is said the
fiduciary has a duty not to be in a situation where personal interests
and fiduciary duty conflict, a duty not to be in a situation where his
fiduciary duty conflicts with another fiduciary duty, and a duty not
to profit from his fiduciary position without express knowledge and
consent. A fiduciary cannot have a conflict of interest. It has been
said that fiduciaries must conduct themselves “at a level higher than
that trodden by the crowd”[2] and that “[t]he distinguishing or
overriding duty of a fiduciary is the obligation of undivided

“Self-dealing trustee, an attorney, a corporate officer, or other
fiduciary that consists of taking advantage of his position in a
transaction and acting for his own interests rather than for the
interests of the beneficiaries of the trust, corporate shareholders,
or his clients. Self-dealing may involve misappropriation or
usurpation of corporate assets or opportunities. Michael McDonald,
Ph.D, Chair of Applied Ethics at The University of British Columbia
provides examples based from this book: “using your government
position to get a summer job for your daughter”.”

“In contrast to enlightened self-interest is simple greed or the
concept of “unenlightened self-interest”, in which it is argued that
when most or all persons act according to their own myopic
selfishness, that the group suffers loss as a result of conflict,
decreased efficiency because of lack of cooperation, and the increased
expense each individual pays for the protection of their own
interests. If a typical individual in such a group is selected at
random, it is not likely that this person will profit from such a
group ethic. Some individuals might profit, in a material sense, from
a philosophy of greed, but it is believed by proponents of enlightened
self-interest that these individuals constitute a small minority and
that the large majority of persons can expect to experience a net
personal loss from a philosophy of simple unenlightened selfishness.
Unenlightened self-interest can result in the tragedy of the commons.”

by Garrett Hardin  /  December 1968

Pathogenic Effects of Conscience
The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough
to condemn it; but has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we
ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of
conscience,” what are we saying to him? What does he hear? –not only
at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half
asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but also the
nonverbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later,
consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two
communications, and that they are contradictory: (i) (intended
communication) “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you
for not acting like a responsible citizen”; (ii) (the unintended
communication) “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn
you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the
rest of us exploit the commons.”

Everyman then is caught in what Bateson has called a “double bind.”
Bateson and his co-workers have made a plausible case for viewing the
double bind as an important causative factor in the genesis of
schizophrenia (17). The double bind may not always be so damaging, but
it always endangers the mental health of anyone to whom it is applied.
“A bad conscience,” said Nietzsche, “is a kind of illness.” To conjure
up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to extend
his control beyond the legal limits. Leaders at the highest level
succumb to this temptation. Has any President during the past
generation failed to call on labor unions to moderate voluntarily
their demands for higher wages, or to steel companies to honor
voluntary guidelines on prices? I can recall none. The rhetoric used
on such occasions is designed to produce feelings of guilt in

For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable,
perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the civilized life. Now,
in this post-Freudian world, we doubt it. Paul Goodman speaks from the
modern point of view when he says: “No good has ever come from feeling
guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do
not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even
to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their
anxieties” (18). One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist
to see the consequences of anxiety. We in the Western world are just
emerging from a dreadful two-centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was
sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more effectively by
the anxiety-generating mechanism of education. Alex Comfort has told
the story well in The Anxiety Makers (19); it is not a pretty one.

Since proof is difficult, we may even concede that the results of
anxiety may sometimes, from certain points of view, be desirable. The
larger question we should ask is whether, as a matter of policy, we
should ever encourage the use of a technique the tendency (if not the
intention) of which is psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk
these days of responsible parenthood; the coupled words are
incorporated into the titles of some organizations devoted to birth
control. Some people have proposed massive propaganda campaigns to
instill responsibility into the nation’s (or the world’s) breeders.
But what is the meaning of the word responsibility in this context? Is
it not merely a synonym for the word conscience? When we use the word
responsibility in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not
trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own
interest? Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial
quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get something for nothing. If the
word responsibility is to be used at all, I suggest that it be in the
sense Charles Frankel uses it (20). “Responsibility,” says this
philosopher, “is the product of definite social arrangements.” Notice
that Frankel calls for social arrangements–not propaganda.

Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed upon
The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements
that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank-robbing. The man who
takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we
prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior
solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than
rely on propaganda we follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a bank is
not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep
it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of
would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank-robbing is particularly easy to understand
because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are
willing to say “Thou shalt not rob banks,” without providing for
exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is
a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their
use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods,
and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a
citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it
increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but
carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man
might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever
be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed
away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without
apology or embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary
decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a
necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend
is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people
affected. To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that
we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who
enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory
taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the
conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other
coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be
preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative
we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with
legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically
trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are
to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should
be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who
are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power
should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually
makes a mockery of the doctrine of “like father, like son” implicit in
our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a
trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal
system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up
with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has
invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too
horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the
status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard.
Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its
opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has
pointed out (21), worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that
no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication
contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic
rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious
assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the
choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform
is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we
wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of
years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that
the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable
advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and
disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for
our lack of experience. On the basis of such a comparison, we can make
a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption
that only perfect systems are tolerable.

American Dream a Biological Impossibility, Neuroscientist Says
by Brandon Keim  /  October 21, 2008

What if people are biologically unsuited for the American dream? The
man posing that troubling question isn’t just another lefty activist.
It’s Peter Whybrow, head of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and
Behavior at UCLA. “We’ve been taught, especially in America, that
happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we
have lots and lots of things that we want,” said Whybrow, a 2008
PopTech Fellow and author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough.
“We’ve set up all sorts of tricks to delude ourselves into thinking
that it’s fine to get what you want immediately.”

He paints a disturbing picture of 21st century American life, where
behavioral tendencies produced by millions of years of scarcity-driven
evolution don’t fit the social and economic world we’ve constructed.
Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly
desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This
worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We
gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t
actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we
find ourselves anxious and depressed.

That individual weakness is reflected at the social level, in markets
that have outgrown their agrarian roots and no longer constrain our
excesses — resulting in the current economic crisis, in which
America’s unpaid bills came due with shocking speed. But with this
crisis, said Whybrow, comes the opportunity to rethink how Americans
live, as individuals and as a nation, and build a country that works.
“We’re primed for doing things immediately. We’re poor at planning for
the future, unless we get into circumstances like these, where we’re
forced to think cleverly about what to do next,” he said. “In a way,
this financial meltdown is a healthy thing for us. We’ll think
intuitively again.”

Foremost among Whybrow’s targets is the modern culture of spending on
credit. “The instinctive brain is well ahead of the intellectual
brain. Credit cards promise us that you can have what you want now,
and postpone payment until later,” he said. Buying just feels good, in
a biological sense — and that instant reward outweighs the threat of
future bills. Of course, many people use credit cards to pay bills and
put food on the table, rather than buy flat-screen televisions and new
computers. “That unfortunate reality,” said Whybrow, “is produced by
an out-of-control economic system” geared toward perpetual growth.
That is no more natural a state for markets than a mall food court is
natural for individuals whose metabolic heredity treats fats and
sugars as rarities. “Once upon a time, this economic system worked.
But for the invisible hand of the free market to function, it needed
to be balanced. And that balance is gone,” he said.

Markets were once agrarian institutions, said Whybrow, which balanced
the gratification of individuals with the constraints of small
communities, where people looked their trade partners in the eye, and
transactions were bounded by time and geography. With those
constraints removed, markets have engaged in the buy-now, pay-later
habits of college kids who don’t read the fine print on their credit
card bills. “You can think about markets in the same way as
individuals who mortgaged their future — except markets did it with
other people’s money,” he said. “You end up with a Ponzi scheme
predicated on the idea that we can get something now, rather than
having to wait. And it all comes back to the same instinctual drive.”
And now that the fundamental excesses of our economy have been so
painfully exposed, with trillions of dollars vanishing from the
American economy in just a few days, we have to think about changing
both the economy and ourselves.

The answers aren’t easy, Whybrow cautioned — but they do exist. People
can think creatively about jumping from the treadmills of bad jobs and
unmeetable needs; and even if this isn’t always possible, they can
teach their children to live modestly and within their means. Urban
engineers can design cities that allow people to live and work and
shop in the same place. Governments can, at the insistence of their
citizens, provide the social safety nets on which social mobility,
stagnant for the last 50 years, is based. And we can — however much it
hurts — look to Europe for advice. “America has always believed that
it was the perfect society. When you have that mythology driving your
culture, it’s hard to look around and say, ‘Is someone else doing it
better than us?'” said Whybrow. “But you can trace the situation we’re
in to our evolutionary origins. Now that we find ourselves in the
middle of this pseudo-abundance, we’re in trouble. And the fantasy
that we can restart the American dream just isn’t true.”

Peter Whybrow
email : pwhybrow [at] mednet.ucla [dot] edu

Humankind evolved to seek rewards and avoid risks but not to invest
by Jason Zweig  /  August 23 2007

For most purposes in daily life, your brain is a superbly functioning
machine, steering you away from danger while guiding you toward basic
rewards like food, shelter and love. But that brilliant machine can
lead you astray when it comes to investing. You buy high only to sell
low. You try to time the market. You follow the crowd. You make the
same mistakes again. And again. How come?

We’re beginning to get answers. Scientists in the emerging field of
“neuroeconomics” – a hybrid of neuroscience, economics and psychology
– are making stunning discoveries about how the brain evaluates
rewards, sizes up risks and calculates probabilities. With the wonders
of imaging technology we can observe the precise neural circuitry that
switches on and off in your brain when you invest. Those pictures make
it clear that your investing brain often drives you to do things that
make no logical sense – but make perfect emotional sense. Your brain
developed to improve our species’ odds of survival. You, like every
other human, are wired to crave what looks rewarding and shun what
seems risky.

To counteract these impulses, your brain has only a thin veneer of
modern, analytical circuits that are often no match for the power of
the ancient parts of your mind. And when you win, lose or risk money,
you stir up some profound emotions, including hope, surprise, regret
and the two we’ll examine here: greed and fear. Understanding how
those feelings – as a matter of biology – affect your decision-making
will enable you to see as never before what makes you tick, and how
you can improve, as an investor.

Greed: The thrill of the chase
Why is it so hard for most of us to learn that the old saying “Money
doesn’t buy happiness” is true? After all, we feel as if it should.
The answer lies in a cruel irony that has enormous implications for
financial behavior: Our brains come equipped with a biological
mechanism that is more aroused when we anticipate a profit than when
we get one. I lived through the rush of greed in an experiment run by
Brian Knutson, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. Knutson put me
into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to trace
my brain activity while I played a kind of investing video game that
he had designed. By combining an enormous magnet and a radio signal,
the fMRI scanner pinpoints momentary changes in the level of oxygen as
blood ebbs and flows within the brain, enabling researchers to map the
neural regions engaged by a particular task.

In Knutson’s experiment, a display inside the fMRI machine showed me a
sequence of shapes that each signaled a different amount of money:
zero ($0), medium ($1) or large ($5). If the symbol was a circle, I
could win the dollar amount displayed; if it was a square, I could
lose the amount shown. After each shape came up, between 2 and 2½
seconds would pass – that’s the anticipation phase, when I was on
tenterhooks waiting for my chance to win or lose – and then a white
square would appear for a split second.

To win or avoid losing the amount I had been shown, I had to click a
button with my finger when the square appeared. At the highest of the
three levels of difficulty, I had less than one-fifth of a second to
hit the button. After each try the screen showed how much I’d just won
or lost and updated my cumulative score. When a shape signaling a
small reward or penalty appeared, I clicked placidly and either won or
lost. But if a circle marked with the symbols of a big, easy payout
came up, I could feel a wave of expectation sweep through me. At that
moment, the fMRI scan showed, the neurons in a reflexive, or
emotional, part of my brain called the nucleus accumbens fired like
wild. When Knutson measured the activity tracked by the scan, he found
that the possibility of winning $5 set off twice as strong a signal in
my brain as the chance at gaining $1 did.

On the other hand, learning the outcome of my actions was no big deal.
Whenever I captured the reward, Knutson’s scanner found that the
neurons in my nucleus accumbens fired much less intensely than they
had when I was hoping to get it. Based on the dozens of people Knutson
has studied, it’s highly unlikely that your brain would respond much
differently. Why does the reflexive part of the brain make a bigger
deal of what we might get than of what we do get? That function is
part of what Brian Knutson’s mentor, Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green
State University in Ohio, calls “the seeking system.”

Over millions of years of evolution, it was the thrill of anticipation
that put our senses in a state of high awareness, bracing us to
capture uncertain rewards. Our anticipation circuitry, says Paul
Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, acts as a “beacon
of incentive” that enables us to pursue rewards that can be earned
only with patience and commitment. If we derived no pleasure from
imagining riches down the road, we would grab only at those gains that
loom immediately in front of us. Thus our seeking system functions
partly as a blessing and partly as a curse. We pay close attention to
the possibility of coming rewards, but we also expect that the future
will feel better than it does once it turns into the present.

A vivid example of this is the stock of Celera Genomics Group. In
September 1999, Celera began sequencing the human genome. By
identifying each of the 3 billion molecular pairings that make up
human DNA, the company could make one of the biggest leaps in the
history of biotechnology. Investors went wild with anticipation,
driving the stock to a peak of $244 in early 2000. Then, on June 26,
Celera announced that it had completed cracking the code. How did the
stock react? By tanking. It dropped 10.2% that day and another 12.7%
the next day. Nothing had occurred to change the company’s fortunes
for the worse. Quite the contrary: Celera had achieved a scientific
miracle. So what happened? The likeliest explanation is simply that
the anticipation of Celera’s success was so intense that reality was a
letdown. Getting exactly what they wished for left investors with
nothing to look forward to, so they got out and the stock crashed.

Greed: The stuff of memories
Researchers in Germany tested whether anticipating a financial gain
can improve memory. A team of neurologists scanned people’s brains
with an fMRI machine while showing them pictures of objects like a
hammer or a car. Some images were paired with the chance to win half a
euro, while others led to no reward. The participants soon learned
which pictures were reliably associated with the prospect of making
money, and the scan showed that their anticipation circuits fired
furiously when those images appeared. Immediately afterward, the
researchers showed the participants a larger set of pictures,
including some that had not been displayed inside the scanner. People
were highly accurate at distinguishing the pictures they had seen
during the experiment and equally adept at recognizing which of those
pictures had predicted a gain.

Three weeks later the participants came back to the lab, where they
were shown the pictures again. This time people could even more
readily distinguish the pictures that had signaled a financial gain
from those that had not – although they hadn’t laid eyes on them in 21
days! Astounded, the researchers went back and re-examined the fMRI
scans from three weeks earlier. It turned out that the potentially
rewarding pictures had set off more intense activation not only in the
anticipation circuits but also in the hippocampus, a part of the brain
where long-term memories live.

The fire of expectation, it seems, somehow sears the memory of
potential rewards more deeply into the brain. “The anticipation of
reward,” says neurologist Emrah Düzel, “is more important for memory
formation than is the receipt of reward.” Anticipation has another
unusual neural wrinkle. Brian Knutson has found that while your
reflexive brain is highly responsive to variations in the amount of
reward at stake, it is much less sensitive to changes in the
probability of receiving a reward.

If a lottery jackpot was $100 million and the posted odds of winning
fell from one in 10 million to one in 100 million, would you be 10
times less likely to buy a ticket? If you’re like most people, you
probably would shrug, say “A long shot’s a long shot” and be just as
happy buying a ticket as before. That’s because, as economist George
Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University explains, the “mental image”
of $100 million sets off a burst of anticipation in the reflexive
regions of your brain. Only later will the analytical, or reflective,
areas calculate that you’re less likely to win than Ozzy Osbourne is
to be elected Pope. When possibility is in the room, probability goes
out the window. It’s no different when you buy a stock or a mutual
fund: Your expectation of scoring a big gain elbows aside your ability
to evaluate how likely you are to earn it. That means your brain will
tend to get you into trouble whenever you’re confronted with an
opportunity to buy an investment with a hot – but probably
unsustainable – return.

Fear: What are you afraid of?
Here are two questions that might, at first, seem silly.
1 Which is riskier: a nuclear reactor or sunlight?
2 Which animal is responsible for the greatest number of human deaths
in the U.S.? a) Alligator b) Deer c) Snake d) Bear e) Shark

Now let’s look at the answers. The worst nuclear accident in history
occurred when the reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine melted down in 1986.
Early estimates were that tens of thousands of people might be killed
by radiation poisoning. By 2006, however, fewer than 100 had died.
Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 Americans are killed every year by skin
cancer, commonly caused by overexposure to the sun.

In the typical year, deer are responsible for roughly 130 human
fatalities – seven times more than alligators, bears, sharks and
snakes combined. Deer, of course, don’t attack. Instead, they step in
front of cars, causing deadly collisions. None of this means that
nuclear radiation is good for you or that rattlesnakes are harmless.
What it does mean is that we are often most afraid of the least likely
dangers and frequently not worried enough about the risks that have
the greatest chances of coming home to roost.

We’re no different when it comes to money. Every investor’s worst
nightmare is a stock market collapse like the crash of 1929. According
to a recent survey of 1,000 investors, there’s a 51% chance that “in
any given year, the U.S. stock market might drop by one-third.” In
fact, the odds that U.S. stocks will lose a third of their value in a
given year are around 2%. The real risk isn’t that the market will
melt down but that inflation will erode your savings. Yet only 31% of
the people surveyed were worried that they might run out of money
during their first 10 years of retirement.

If we were logical we would judge the odds of a risk by asking how
often something bad has actually happened under similar circumstances.
Instead, explains psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “we tend to judge the
probability of an event by the ease with which we can call it to
mind.” The more recently it occurred or the more vivid our memory of
something like it in the past, the more “available” an event will be
in our minds – and the more probable its recurrence will seem.

Fear: The hot button of the brain
Deep in the center of your brain, level with the top of your ears,
lies a small, almond-shaped knob of tissue called the amygdala (ah-mig-
dah-lah). When you confront a potential risk, this part of your
reflexive brain acts as an alarm system – shooting signals up to the
reflective brain like warning flares. (There are two amygdalas, one on
each side of your brain.) The result is that a moment of panic can
wreak havoc on your investing strategy. Because the amygdala is so
attuned to big changes, a sudden drop in the market tends to be more
upsetting than a longer, slower decline, even if it’s greater in

On Oct. 19, 1987, the U.S. stock market plunged 23% – a deeper one-day
drop than the crash of ’29. Big, sudden and inexplicable, the ’87
crash was exactly the kind of event that sparks the amygdala. The
memory was hard to shake: In 1988, U.S. investors sold $15 billion
more worth of shares in stock mutual funds than they bought, and their
net purchases of stock funds didn’t recover to pre-crash levels until
1991. One bad Monday disrupted the behavior of millions of people for
years. There was something more at work here than merely investors’
individual fears. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that peer
pressure can make you do things as part of a group that you might
never do on your own.

But do you make a conscious choice to conform or does the herd exert
an automatic, almost magnetic, force? People were recently asked to
judge whether three-dimensional objects were the same or different.
Sometimes the folks being tested made these choices in isolation.
Other times they first saw the responses of four “peers” (who were, in
fact, colluding with the researcher).

When people made their own choices, they were right 84% of the time.
When the peer group all made the wrong choice, however, the
individuals being tested chose correctly just 59% of the time. Brain
scans showed that when the subjects followed the peer group,
activation in parts of their frontal cortex decreased, as if social
pressure was somehow overpowering the reflective, or analytical,
brain. When people did buck the consensus, brain scans found intense
firing in the amygdala.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who led the study, calls this flare-up a
sign of “the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s
belief.” Social isolation activates some of the same areas in the
brain that are triggered by physical pain. In short, you go along with
the herd not because you want to but because it hurts not to. Being
part of a large group of investors can make you feel safer when
everything is going great. But once risk rears its ugly head, there’s
no safety in numbers.

Fear: Fright makes right
I learned how my own amygdala reacts to risk when I participated in an
experiment at the University of Iowa. First I was wired up with
electrodes and other monitoring devices to track my breathing,
heartbeat, perspiration and muscle activity. Then I played a computer
game designed by neurologists Antoine Bechara and Antonio Damasio.
Starting with $2,000 in play money, I clicked a mouse to select a card
from one of four decks displayed on the monitor in front of me. Each
“draw” of a card made me either “richer” or “poorer.”

I soon learned that the two left decks were more likely to produce big
gains but even bigger losses, while the two right decks blended more
frequent but smaller gains with a lower chance of big losses.
Gradually I began picking most of my cards from the decks on the
right; by the end of the experiment I had drawn 24 cards in a row from
those safer decks. Afterward I looked over the printout that traced my
spiking heartbeat and panting breath as the red alert of risk swept
through my body, even though I didn’t recall ever feeling nervous.

Early on, when I drew a card that lost me $1,140, my pulse rate shot
from 75 to 145. After a few more bad losses from the risky decks, my
body would start reacting even before I selected a card from one of
them. Merely moving the cursor over the risky decks was enough to make
my physiological functions go haywire. My decisions, it turns out, had
been driven by fear even though the “thinking” part of my mind had no
idea I was afraid. Ironically – and thankfully – this highly emotional
part of our brain can actually help us act more rationally.

When Bechara and Damasio run their card-picking game with people whose
amygdalas have been injured, the subjects never learn to avoid
choosing from the riskier decks. If told that they have just lost
money, their body doesn’t react; they can no longer feel a financial
loss. Without the saving grace of fear, the analytical parts of the
brain will keep trying to beat the odds, with disastrous results. “The
process of deciding advantageously,” concludes Damasio, “is not just
logical but also emotional.”


Jason Zweig
email : info [at] jasonzweig [dot] com / jason.zweig [at] wsj [dot] com /
intelligentinvestor [at] wsj [dot] com

Synopsis : Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
by George Gibson  /  September 18, 2008

[This detailed, chapter-by-chapter précis of Dan Ariely’s Predictably
Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is a guest post
by George Gibson, a colleague of mine at Xerox. George originally
posted it on our internal blogs as a series, and I found it so much
fun to read, I asked if I could repost it on ribbonfarm. So here you

Chapter 1: The Truth About Relativity
This was clearly the most interesting of the books from my summer
reading list. Let me be clear that though I don’t buy all of the
points Dan tries to make, I find them all interesting and worthy of
thought. With any luck we can begin a real discussion of his ideas and
observations in the commentary. That means I’ll attempt (not always
successfully) to keep my opinion out of the body of this piece, and
reserve that for any commentary that might develop. The real point
here is to get you interested enough to read the book yourself.

“Most people don’t know what they want until they see it in context.”
Control the context and you can change their decisions. This chapter
is about how our decision making as skewed from what we might think of
as rational by the use of comparisons, anchor points and some about
the magic of “FREE!”. The Economist offered three subscription
* Electronic alone: $59
* Print alone: $125
* Electronic and print: $125

So what would you guess people would choose? Would anyone choose the
Print alone option forgoing a “FREE!” electronic subscription? Not
likely. So, why is it even offered? Testing with 100 Sloan School
students, 16 chose Electronic alone and 84 chose the combined
Electronic and print option. Nobody chose the Print alone option (boy
those Sloan folks are smart aren’t they?). However when the irrelevant
option, the one nobody chose, was eliminated, another, equally bright,
hundred Sloan students divided 68 for Electronic alone and only 32
chose Electronic and print. So…what happened here?

Ariely makes the unpleasant but often correct assertion, “Thinking is
difficult and sometimes unpleasant.” Cues that allow us to establish
the relative value of various offerings, then, reduce the required
thought effort. What the Economist offered was a no-brainer; while we
might not be certain if the print subscription was worth more than
twice the electronic version, the combination of the two was clearly
worth more that the print version alone.

The chapter contains many examples of this effect including movie
script jokes, bread makers, houses, vacations, salaries and even
potential dates. Two general frameworks are noted as particularly
common. First is the inclusion of a slightly degraded offering near
the offering you want the customer to accept increases the likelihood
that he or she will make your desired choice (read the choice of
potential dating partners section of the book for this one). Next is
the pick the middle one strategy in which three offerings are
presented with the middle of them as the sellers preferred choice. So
often the butt of jokes, car companies even provide an interesting
example. What portion of the firm’s profits on most platforms come
from the middle of the line offering?

There are take-aways here for both the seller and buyer. Politely
said, you as a seller can help guide your customer through the
bewildering array of choices by providing helpful contextual
information (I’ll let each of you put your cynical hat on and restate
that one for fun!) As a consumer it is helpful to understand the
framing a seller is likely to present you with and do some of that
nasty thinking work up front deciding whether or not the seller’s
preferred context and yours are the same.

Chapter 2: The Fallacy of Supply and Demand
This chapter is at the heart of Ariely’s argument. Classical economics
says that our decisions about resource allocation reflect our relative
valuation of the various investment alternatives. If I buy more wine
than cheese it’s because I derive greater utility (more than just
usefulness by the way) from the juice of the grape. There are clear
limits of course, I am unlikely to allow myself to starve and will
occasionally buy cheese, or buy cheese when the price is low enough.
But the general point remains, I am willing to pay more for those
things from which I derive greater utility.

Not so says our man Dan. How much a person is willing to pay for
something is determined or at least significantly affected by a
variety of factors which have nothing to do with any benefit that he
or she derives from that purchase. Do you remember what Tom Sawyer did
with his chore, whitewashing a fence? Review that first and you’ll be
more open to these arguments.

He starts with the story of black pearls. There were essentially none
on the market so there was no objective way of establishing price.
What happened was they were shown in advertising and in Harry
Winston’s toney store along rubies and diamonds at a very high price.
This initial association served to effectively anchor the price and
therefore, going forward, future prices were high since the initial
frame in which people were introduced to the product was among high
priced goods.

He likens this anchor price phenomenon to that of imprinting. We are
all goslings, fixed on that first object. He’s done a lot of really
neat experiments to support his point. None of them are completely
convincing but they certainly are thought provoking.

Consider, for example some really interesting experiments suggesting
that thinking about a number – any number – before considering what
you are willing to pay for an item whose market price you do not know
– actually effects what you would be willing to pay for that item. In
one of the experiments described a group of students were asked to
write down the last two digits of their social security number before
they indicated how much they were willing to pay for a bottle of wine,
a cordless keyboard, some imported chocolates. Guess what! The amounts
they were willing to pay actually correlated with those social
security number fragments they had previously written down. I spend
time much time on this particular experiment precisely because the
results are so bizarre.

He cites a number of other experiments and observations that support
not only that an anchoring affect, unrelated to market value or
derived utility. One of the ones he cites that I have experienced
personally is the persistence of old concepts of housing value when
you move from one market to another. When Ginny and I moved here from
Dayton, Ohio fifteen years ago, we went a long time looking for a
house that cost about as much as the one we were leaving. Although
Rochester can hardly be described as a high cost area, real estate was
roughly twice as expensive per square foot here than in Dayton. It
took us literally months to stop looking to replace our Dayton house
with one of similar price here and adjust to the new price scale we

I won’t spoil your fun and go through all the examples and neat
concepts, “coherent arbitrariness” being among my favorites, but I
will reiterate one of his most powerful points. Knowing that it is
entirely possible that some factors not related to the real value a
product or service crate for you may be affecting how much of that
good you consume and how much you are paying for it, be mindful.
Carefully examine your purchasing behavior and make sure you actually
believe that the money you allocate to consumption of various
offerings really advances your overall well being more than the next
best use of those funds. So when you’re paying for your $4 cup of
coffee at Starbucks (as you know I do), revisit the fundamental
decision – should I be buying cheaper coffee at McDonalds or even
bringing in coffee from home or should I be drinking water, of the
free sort.

But if first anchors are so significant and long lived, how come you
ever bought that first cup at $4 let alone the third? That first day
you walked into Starbucks wasn’t your first experience with buying
coffee. You had plenty of time and experience to establish an anchor
backed my years of repeated experience to reinforce it. Howard Shultz
had to work hard to make Starbucks fundamentally different than the
other places you might by coffee – not just quantitatively but
qualitatively. It just had to be unlike the other places you might
stop when you wanted coffee – you had to get something more. Their
success is the proof of their success there and the most recent
stumbling in earnings can be attributed to some extent as the success
of McDonalds and Duncan Donuts in making it just about the coffee.

Chapter 3. The Cost of Zero Cost
Why We Often Pay Too Much When We Pay Nothing
“Zero is not just another price….zero is an emotional hot button – a
source of irrational excitement.”

The allure of free stuff drives us to make all sorts of irrational
purchasing decisions. “Buy 2 get 1 FREE!!,” motivates a fair share of
people to buy two of something they wouldn’t have bought one of except
to get that free thing. As you’ve picked up by now, Ariely’s MO is to
do experiments to probe economic rationality or the lack thereof. In
this matter the first experiment involved selling chocolate on the MIT
campus albeit in a strange way. Limiting chocolate purchases to one
per customer they offered a choice between Lindt truffle and a Hershey
Kiss. A huge difference in quality reflected in a substantial
difference in price. The truffle sold for $0.15, half off the bulk
retail price, and the Kiss sold for $0.01. Students split on their
purchases with 73% choosing the truffle and 27% choosing the kiss.
Next they lowered the price of each by $0.01; the truffle at $0.14 and
the Kiss was FREE!! Now 69% of students choose the Kiss; same price
difference, same expected benefit or enjoyment from eating the
chocolate but apparently there is an additional benefit of FREE!!

Again my purpose here is to serve as a teaser here not to reiterate
the book, I want you to read the book. Let’s just say that he did this
experiment a variety of ways and each time the proposition that FREE!!
distorts decision making was supported. He has some especially
interesting Halloween experiments and some real Amazon experience
supporting his assertion.

Chapter 4. The Cost of Social Norms:
Why We Are Happy to Do Things, but Not When We Are Paid to Do Them

I’m against wholesale quotations in reviews. So remember that this
isn’t a review, it’s meant to be a précis and teaser. This chapter
leads off with a story so compelling that I just have to present it

You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and
what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you. The turkey
is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the
way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are
crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite
recipe for pumpkin pie has been chosen for desert.

The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt
and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother-
in-law, you rise to your feet, pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the
love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” you say sincerely.
As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. “Do
you think three hundred dollars will do it? No, wait, I should give
you four hundred.” Please fill in the blank with what you think will
happen next.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to some experiments (of course) and
some anecdotes that describe two separate frames in which we operate:
those of social norms and those of market norms. He compiles evidence
that social norms are more effective at motivating superior
performance than are market norms. The armed forces are an interesting
example. You didn’t really think that those soldiers in Iraq and
Afghanistan were there for the pay and to save money for college did
you? Those are nice perks (well the pay for low rank enlisted soldiers
sometimes leaves their families in poverty) but exactly how much money
would it take for you to risk your life like that? The actions we
barely hear on the news in the car as we travel back and forth to work
or have on as background during dinner, the acts of courage and
heroism are not motivated by the paycheck but by the social norms of
the service. One soldier I know said that you may join for your
country but, in a fire fight, you’re fighting for your buddies. Boy,
now there’s a powerful force. Powerful but, it turns out fragile.
After the dinner above, how long do you think it would be before the
narrator’s mother-in-law went out of her way for him?

In this chapter Dan provided the results of a number of experiments
showing that there is a particularly interesting difference between
the types and performance levels of tasks that can be produced when
the reward system is governed by “social norms.” In one set of
experiments he had people perform a simple computer task. Three groups
were paid varying amounts and one group was asked to do the task as as
a favor to the experimenter. Among those paid, those paid more
generally produced more in keeping with our idea of market behavior.
Those doing the experimenter a favor however, outperformed the highest
paid group. You can imagine all sorts of implications. One more
interesting twist however was that introducing market norms into the
conversation (talking about how much some folks had been paid) before
the volunteers worked destroyed the effect.

The most interesting set of things he explored based on these tenets
was the implications of personal in firm-level behavior: what should
you, and should a firm, leave in the arena of social norms and what in
the realm of market norms. Will extra productivity for a firm be most
effectively produced by market or social reinforcements? How about
employee loyalty in all its manifestations? What effect will a company
making clear that its relationship with its employees is purely
financial have on the performance of that company’s employees and
hence on the company itself. Is this an argument for a return to
paternalism? It seems unlikely. Is it at the heart of the oft vaunted
ability of small firms to “outperform” larger ones in some aspects of
innovation: perhaps.

Chapter 5. The Influence of Arousal
Why Hot is Hotter Than We Realize

One of the things I’ve learned about blogging, although it might not
be apparent, is that it’s a good idea to be brief. As you know I
seldom say in two words what I can say in five, this is an ongoing
challenge for me. This chapter however is one that encourages brevity.
The central hypothesis is that arousal, of all sorts, produces a
significant distortion of decision making. Decisions made in the heat
of the moment are notoriously badly made. Think road rage, think
victory celebration, think extreme thirst or hunger (I’ve always
wondered, just how hungry the first person was that saw a lobster and
thought, “hmmmm, that looks good”). There are all sorts of states of
arousal and given that this is a book by an experimentalist at a
university you can imagine that he describes experiments using
several. ‘Nuff said. You’re simply going to have to read the book to
get the details of what junior was doing in the name of behavioral
economics to supplement the pittance his parents were forcing him to
live on.

The major assertion of this chapter is that when we’re calm and
detached, we repeatably and significantly underestimate the effect of
altered mental states on our decision making. Of course we all know
that when we’re angry or in love or afraid or hot on the trail of a
particularly desirable objective like in a auction bidding war or when
we’ve had one too any drinks our decision making can suffer. Look at
the bad decisions made by the folks at Enron, Arthur Anderson or any
of a host of other companies. We know altered states of many kinds can
cause us to make bad decisions and so, forewarned we are forearmed
right? Not so much it turns out. The experimental subjects in this
chapter recognized that when they were excited they would make
decisions that were significantly different than those they would make
in a in the so called, cold light of day. They were asked to predict
behaviors or alternatives that they expect would change in the grips
of some emotionally charged state. However, when actually provoked and
queried again Dan’s experiments found that they consistently and
significantly underestimated the magnitude of the effect. His
prescription is a prevent defense. If you know that a certain
situations can cause you to make bad decisions, don’t put yourself in
those situations. This is another example of one of the jokes that, as
you know I believe, run the universe. It goes like this.
Patient: Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I go like this.
Doctor: Don’t go like that.

I’ll let you read the details but let’s all ask ourselves this;
knowing that we are highly likely to underestimate how much our
decision making will be changed in states of emotional turmoil of
varying sorts, how will we protect ourselves from being either patsies
of our emotions or manipulated by those willing to exploit this lever
for their gain?

Chapter 6: The Problem if Procrastination and Self-Control
Why We Can’t Make Ourselves Do What We Want to Do

Procrastination is probably the most common source of self-inflicted
wounds you or I are likely to suffer during our lives. Not necessarily
the source of the most significant ones but surely the greatest
number. From the petty (the “people” door on my garage has decayed to
the point that I will have to replace it) to the profound (I kept
meaning to start saving for retirement or dieting and exercising)
procrastination can leave nasty tracks in our lives.

Dan’s experiments here are perhaps the most limited of those he
describes in the book. Given the detail he presents it’d be hard to
judge their import if he turned up something new. Let me describe the
experiment. He compared three groups of students in a graduate
consumer behavior course. Each class was required to turn in three
papers over the course of the semester. One class was given strict and
equally spaced deadlines with a penalty for failing to meet the
deadline, A second class was told that they could turn the papers in
anytime before the end of the semester and that there was no reward
for being early. The third class was allowed to sign up for deadlines
spaced however they liked but, having committed to those deadlines,
there was a penalty for failing to meet them. Guess which group got
the best grades?

The group given the hard deadlines took first. The group with no
deadlines took last. The interesting point is that the other group,
those with self-selected deadlines did nearly as well as the first
group. Apparently, this tool, letting them pre-commit to a performance
standard was nearly as powerful as the externally imposed deadline.
Now since the experimenter graded the papers there is, of course, some
question about bias. There is also a significant degree of randomness
in this sort of grading process. In fact a great discussion of this is
in the other book from my reading list that I strongly recommend to
you, “The Drunkards Walk.” If Dan’s finding was revolutionary then we
might have some significant reservations. Pre-commitment is, however,
a well established technique. Really want to get something done? Write
a $500 check to some campaign or social cause based organization whose
ends you strongly oppose. Then give it to a friend and say, “If I
don’t accomplish X by Y send this check to these folks.” You’d be
amazed at what you can accomplish. This whole tack is a well
established result from game theory. Now let’s talk about some of the
ways Dan pictures using it.

Huge components of our health care costs are the results of
preventable diseases. What if your insurance company withdrew $200
dollars from your paycheck to cover the expense of a regular and
complete physical with the understanding that you would get that money
back IFF you kept your appointment for all of the required testing?
Maybe out on the lunatic fringe of health care thinking but
interesting. In this and other similar situations Dan suggests both
these voluntary pre-commitment models and the alternative of a
One of the most amusing suggestions he makes regards spending control,
especially credit card use. You may have heard the ice method. Some
people, to counter their impulsive use of consumer credit, put their
card(s) in a glass of water in the freezer. Thawing it (them) out to
use takes time allowing that arousal that we talked about last chapter
to fade. Of course there are simpler ways. Dan actually took one of
these suggestions to the executives of a major NY bank. Why, he said,
can’t a credit card record and automatically react in accordance with
pre-committed spending patterns. When you exceed your chosen limit
(which might be spending category specific) for instance, it would
decline more charges, or generate an email reporting your errant ways
to your spouse. He reports that the executives listened and thought it
was a good idea but never called him back. I would pay cash for a
recording of the conversation they had after he left.

There are lots of other approaches to controlling procrastination of
course. We’ll talk more about these later in the year. I confess that
this is a trait I personally fight. Let me just make two
recommendations other than pre-commitment. One is the time management
tool suite called “Getting Things Done” popularized by David Allen, or
alternately an approach which you can find described in a book called
“Making Work Work.” Julie Morgenstern.

Chapter 7: The High Price of Ownership
Why We Overvalue What We Have

Do you know of anyone whose house stays on the market not just for
months but for years? How about somebody who’s been driving around
with a “For Sale” sign in their car window long enough for you to
think it might actually be an accessory? What these folks have in
common is a valuation of what they are offering that does not match
the value in among the people to whom they are making the offer. These
are two quick examples but it turns out there are lots of other ways
in which we tend to overestimate the market value of the things we
own. It’s been called the investment effect. It might be because we
price in the positive feelings we have derived from owning the object
(we took such great family outings in that car) in ways that are
irrelevant to potential buyers. It may be that we experience the
parting with the object as a loss that prices in those good feelings
and it is well demonstrated that we have a tendency to avoid loss that
exceeds our desire for gains even at constant expected value. I’m not
sure Dan adds a lot new on this topic, although it is certainly a way
in which we evidence irrational consumer behavior, except an
experiment based on a rather peculiar basketball ticketing process at
Duke. None the less, this is useful stuff to be reminded of from time
to time.

I must admit that although one of my nephews is on faculty there, I
had not heard of Duke’s peculiar way of rationing basketball tickets
for important games. I won’t go through the whole thing hear – it’s a
pleasure left for the reader – but suffice it to say that it’s a multi-
day process that involves camping out and jumping through the odd hoop
and that process just gets you into a lottery for a ticket. Dan, who
did his Ph.D. there, and a colleague from INSEAD, contacted folks who
had gotten tickets and those who hadn’t and tried to arrange sales.
All had demonstrated the fervent desire to go to the game by
participating in the ritual described but, while those that had gotten
tickets said they would sell them for (on average) $2400, those who
hadn’t gotten them would only agree to pay (on average) $175.

This effect of ownership, even if it’s temporary (”FREE!! 10 day home
trial”, “return it without charge if you’re not satisfied”) or virtual
(how dare that idiot outbid me for my watch) is quite general.
Merchandisers use it to their advantage all the time. As with many of
these chapters, Dan’s point is, knowing that this effect is real,
examine your behavior when you get in these situations. So doing you
can avoid much frustration and avoid being manipulated into making
decisions that are not really in your best interest.

Chapter 8. Keeping Doors Open
Why Options Distract Us from Our Main Objective

I’m a big options fan. I like real options thinking and have seen it
used to generate real value in R&T environments. I was, therefore, not
wild when I read this title. Was there something fundamentally wrong
with my attachment to options? Well, let’s take a couple of famous
examples. The oldest comes from Sun Tsu in the world’s oldest job
application, “The Art of War,” written in the 6th century BC. I know
I’ve talked about this book before and I assure you I will talk about
it again. If you haven’t read it yet make it next on your list. Master
Tsu advises generals: “do not attack an enemy that has his back to a

and further
“do not thwart an enemy retreating home. If you surround the enemy,
leave an outlet; do not press an enemy that is cornered.

Such cornered foes are too formidable. Exploiting this same dynamic he
advises: Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape,
and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there
is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth
their uttermost strength. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the
sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm.
If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If
there is no help for it, they will fight hard.”

Indeed, Xiang Yu, in 210 BC, exploited this in Cortez and, doubtless,
many more. Having crossed the Yangtze, he burned his boats and had all
the cooking pots destroyed. Win or die; a clear message for the troops
and one that cleared their minds and free up assets from having to
protect those assets.

As always, Dan and some colleagues run some experiments on students.
They design several computer games in which players had 100 “clicks”
which they could use to choose one of three rooms and once in a room
click to get cash. Different rooms give different pay-offs and
generally people figured out pretty quickly which room paid the most
per click and then spent their time in that room. However, when the
game was changed such that rooms that hadn’t been visited in some
prescribed number of clicks disappeared, players would go back and
click on those rooms to keep them available even though it cost (on
average) 15% of their earnings.

This chapter makes the point that options can serve as distraction as
well as valuable alternatives. Olympic athletes are seldom concert
violinists. Mastery and focus often turn in better results than trying
to be all things to all people. My undergraduate honors advisor was,
and likely is still, a complete success as a chemist. When, as a
graduate student, I took his advanced organic synthesis course, I felt
like I was taken to the top of a tall mountain and shown the vast
landscape of chemical synthesis. He achieved that mastery as the
result of considerable focus. “George,” he said to me at one point,
“you should be spending 80% of your waking hours at the bench.”

This sort of behavior is contrary to much of what our culture offers
us today. Our environment bombards us with variety. You can know more
and more about more with just a few clicks of a mouse. Failure to be
well-rounded is viewed as a significant deficit. On the other hand,
the person who tries to do too many things can end up never doing any
one of them well enough to have impact. Like most things, of course,
there are two ways to get this wrong. Being monomaniacal may have its
benefits but it comes at a price. Having strong family relationships,
for example, can buffer you from the occasional bad days you may
experience at work.

There is another interesting aspect of the sometimes bewildering array
of choices that confronts us; a retreat to systems in which less
choice is allowed. The power and even ascendancy of authoritarian
regimes and rigid philosophical systems are sometimes viewed as
reactions to the world’s increasing complexity. Hardly a new idea,
“Escape from Freedom,” by the philosopher Eric Fromm is probably the
best treatment on the topic. However Dan has an interesting slant,
pointing out that increasing the complexity of a decision makes it
more likely that decision makers will rely on external (hence
manipulable) cues.

While it would be a mistake for us to fail to exploit options thinking
and the development of options for our business and personal lives,
trying to do too many things at once is a clear route to failure.

Chapter 9: The Effect of Expectations
Why The Mind Gets What It Expects

We all know that our expectations affect our experiences. Generally
however, since we are aware of this tendency we “smart people” think
we set that aside for the most part. In this chapter Dan describes a
number of experiments that he performed as well as a number of
experiments by others that point out just how subtle and persuasive
our expectations are.

Setting up shop in the “Muddy Charles,” the pub in MIT’s Walker
Memorial Building, he and collaborators started handing out free
samples of beer. Students were given samples of two types and then
asked to choose which of these they’d like a larger glass. The beers
started with the same brew but a few drops of balsamic vinegar were
added to one. (They actually started with Budweiser but some folks
“objected to calling Budweiser beer” so they switched to Sam Adams.)
They measured how many people ordered each of the samples and then
asked people to describe what they thought about the new beer. Some of
these folks were not told what the difference between the two beers
was, some were told about the vinegar before they tried it and some
were told after. Guess what happened. When they got the information
actually changed their rating of the experimental suds. Knowing it
contained vinegar beforehand changed their described experience when
doing the taste test.

There’s actually a lot more to this experiment and Dan presents a
number of other experiments including some employing functional MRI.
Here in a version of the classic Coke-v-Pepsi challenge it can be
demonstrated that at a brain activity level the experience of drinking
one as opposed to the other id modified by knowledge of which they
were drinking

By far the most interesting examples – and I really can’t bring myself
to spoil the fun you’ll have reading them – have to do with
stereotypes. Especially interesting are those dealing with groups to
whom several “conflicting” stereotypes can be applied. In these case
preconditioning the subjects with certain words chosen to “remind”
them of one or the other of these produced behavior that reflected the
provoked stereotype. You’ve just got to read this stuff trust me.

Chapter 10. The Power of Price
Why a 50 Cent Aspirin Can Do What a Penny Aspirin Can’t

We all know about the placebo effect; that wild and wonderful way in
which our mind affects our perception of, and in some cases our real
experience of the healing effects of one medication or the other. It’s
sort of an extension of the last chapter’s theme; the mind gets what
it expects. You’ll remember that Dan spent a long time in a hospital
burn unit recovering from a serious accident he’d had while training
for the IDF, well you won’t be surprised that he had a lot of time to
think about the placebo effect.

As part of his investigations into the perception of pain, as a newly
minted asst prof, he bought a vice and would crush people’s fingers in
it and ask them things like:

“How much did that hurt?”
“How much would I have to pay you to let me do that to you again?”

(You just can’t make this stuff up!) In this chapter he explores some
aspects of the economic side of the placebo effect. He has
experimenters pose as representatives from a drug company. They gave
people a series of electrical shocks of varying magnitude, asked them
about the pain they experienced. Next they were given a pain reliever,
well vitamin C actually, but they were told either that it was a new
and expensive one or a cheap one. When the shocks were repeated guess
what? Those who thought they were getting the high-priced stuff
reported that it worked pretty well, and much better than the folks
who got the cheap stuff. (Now let’s review what this means for the
spiraling costs of US health care.) By the way, the more recently the
folks had had experience with significant pain the better it worked.
As usual he did a number of experiments like this and I won’t spoil
you fun.

There are two sorts of implications he explores that are worth our
thought. First, how general is this phenomenon? It certainly applies
to food and drink, to cars to a whole lot of things. Does that mean
that we are manipulated into paying higher prices for goods that are
essentially equivalent to lower price alternatives? Would we be better
off if we brought this into our conscious mind as we decide whether
the most recent genes are worth it?

The next thing he brings up is really an ethical question. He cites
several examples where surgical procedures were found to produce no
better results than sham operations. A patient who thinks he or she
received one of these surgical procedure reports just as much benefit
as someone who actually had the procedure. While the medical community
wasn’t actually intending the procedures benefits to derive from the
placebo effect it turns out that’s exactly what happened. There is
also the less dramatic exploitation of the effect that many doctors
practice when they prescribe antibiotics for colds and sore throats,
the vast majority of which are viral. They prescribe, patients get
better and the offending microbe was not at all affected by the active
ingredient. It, of course, turns out, that in some instances at least,
people treated with placebos actually do get better faster than those
untreated. There will be some Nobels given out for figuring out
exactly how that works. So, the interesting ethical questions Dan
brings up are, knowing the placebo effect is real, should doctors use
in intentionally and if so how and when? Also if we want to protect
people from unnecessary surgery do we have an obligation to test
surgical procedures against sham surgery in humans?

Like I have said all along, this book is worth the time, even more for
the questions than for the answers.

Chapter 11: The Context of Our Character, Part 1
Why We Are Dishonest, and What We Can Do About It

Dan starts this chapter with some interesting observations. I haven’t
independently confirmed them but I’m willing to give him the benefit
of the doubt and assume they’re right.

Total loss due to robbery                                   $525M
Average loss per robbery                                $1,300
Total loss to robbery, burglary,
larceny-theft and auto theft                                 $16B
Workplace loss to theft and fraud                   $600B
Loss from fraudulent insurance claims            $24B
Underpayment of income tax (per IRS)         $350B
Fraudulent clothing returns to retail outlets    $16B

Do we think about the people who perpetrate these crimes differently?
In our most fundamentalist moments we’d say no. A theft is a theft.
But do we actually act that way as a society? Let’s change tacks. Does
the self concept of the guy or gal walking out of work with a package
of Post-It™ notes differ fundamentally from the folks speeding away
from the convenience store they’ve just knocked over? How about the
person who keeps the extra cash when they’ve been given too much
change? If we judge by how much attention and cash we pay to catch the
perpetrators and the answer seems clear. Does the amount of loss due
to the actions of people we do not generally think of as criminals
mean that many “honest” people cheat? Bring on the experiments!

Dan and a number of collaborators do a number of varieties of one
experimental theme using his favorite subjects, college students from
around the country. The basic outline of the experiment is as follows.
A control group is established by giving a group of students some
timed test (50 general information questions, 15 math problems,…) and,
allowing them no way to cheat, grade their papers paying them $0.10
per correct answer. The next group has to transfer their answers from
their work sheet to a grid on which the correct answers are
highlighted and they are to write at the top of the grid sheet how
many answers they got correct. The worksheet and the grid are handed
to the experimenter who them pays the student $0.10 for every correct
answer he or she claimed. Another group was treated the same as the
previous but then told to shred their worksheet and grid and then
simply tell the experimenter how many answers they had gotten right at
which point the experimenter paid them as before. A final group tested
as before, was told to shred their worksheet and grid and simply take
the correct amount of money from a jar containing about $100. Guess
what happened and write down your guess.

No really don’t look, guess first. The second experimental group,
which had handed in their work sheet and grid sheet, cheated by about
10%. How about the other groups? Have you got your guess recorded?

They cheated by about the same amount. Even when they could have
simply taken all the money the students cheated just a little. And it
wasn’t the case that there were a few bad apples that drove the
results. The means for the group shifted but the distribution remained
the same. Apparently we are pretty good at rationalizing small amounts
of dishonesty.

Now, same experiment (including the shredding of the work sheet and
the grid) but now the experimental groups are asked to do a little
memory test or given a verbal reminder before the test. One group was
asked to write down a list of 10 books they had read in high school,
another was asked to write down as many of the 10 commandments as they
could remember, a group at Princeton was told that this test was
governed by Princeton’s storied honor code, yet another was told that
the tests were governed by MIT’s honor code (there is, by the way, no
such thing). Have you guessed what happened?

In all of the groups asked to remember something that reminded them of
an ethical benchmark no one cheated. Now these are successful college
students at some of the best schools in the country so you’d hope
they’d had some underpinning in ethics, and of course there was little
at stake so we could expect different results in different groups and
among these groups in different contexts, nonetheless this experiment
is striking. Simply being recently reminded that there is a difference
between ethical and unethical conduct changed their behavior. Dan
draws the comparison with the codes of conduct to which professions of
varying sorts used to ascribe. He asserts that as the professional
societies and identities have become weaker forces in the practice of
their respective crafts, we have passed that boundary he talked about
earlier from the arena of social norms to that of market norms with a
concomitant cost to society.

Unsurprisingly there’s a lot more to this chapter and, as always, I do
not want to spoil the fun you’ll have when you read the book yourself.
But I think that there’s enough here to provoke discussion. If most
“good, honest” people cheat a little what does that say about society
as a whole and how might we actually promote a turn to more ethical
behavior, or has that die been cast?

Chapter 12: The Context of Our Character, Part 2
Why Dealing With Cash Makes Us More Honest

The fundamental finding Dan reports here is encapsulated in the title.
He finds that, in his experiments, people are less likely to steal
cash than they are to run off with non-monetary instruments. Again, he
cites a number of experiments, but the sense of the lot can be summed
up in just one. When he put 6 packs of Coke in MIT dorms they all
disappeared in 72 hours. When instead, he put 6 one dollar bills in
the same refrigerators they all survived. In his usual fashion he
explored just how close to case you had to be to see this effect. If
they were given tokens that you nearly instantly exchanged for cash
would it increase cheating (yes it turns out)?

This is one of his most broadly provocative points. If tokens increase
cheating, how about even more abstract instruments?
* How about credit cards – lots of cheating there
* How about the anonymity granted by the net – lots of cheating
* How about stock options – lots of back dating there
* How about cooking the books – lots of cheating there

It seems really likely that Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay would likely
never simply have mugged folks and taken their cash, but somehow
cooking the books was OK. There is clearly, at least for some folks, a
mechanism which allows the incremental dishonesty to creep in without
triggering our “If I do this I’ll be a bad person,” alarm.

On the whole I find this chapter a little depressing. It certainly
points out some things that, if they are truly extensible, should make
us have significant reservations about the increasing abstraction of
vessels of monetary exchange, a trend likely to continue. So I am left
at the end of this chapter with a dilemma I seldom faced in this book,
disquiet with no obvious remedy. I can more carefully examine my own
behavior and I can become more protective in my use of non-cash
instruments but the entire chapter begs for broader experimentation.
I’ll leave you with a quotation from HL Mencken. If you don’t know his
work, dabble some in it. It’s an excellent source for uncomfortable

“The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the
latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has
not been caught. “
– H. L. Mencken, ‘Prejudices: Fourth Series,’ 1924

Chapter 13: Beer and free lunches
What Is Behavioral Economics, And Where Are The Free Lunches?

There’s an old joke in economics – two economists are walking down the
street and they see a $20 bill on the ground. One begins to bend over
to reach for it, the other stops him saying, “If that were a real $20
bill someone would have already picked it up.”

OK – so there’s a lot of the standard model in a nutshell. It’s sort
of like that classic statement of the second law of thermodynamics,
“you can never win, you can, at best, break even.” There are several
more sets of experiments described in this chapter of course. These
focus on restaurants, people’s behavior in ordering food and beer (a
recurring theme) and their satisfaction with the outcomes. It turns
out that people order different things if they are the first or last
in a group to order. The orders previously given by group members
influence what the remaining members order. You can easily imagine at
least two ways that might happen, a drive toward conformity or a drive
toward displaying uniqueness, I’m not going to spoil your fun by
describing the experiments and the details of the results. Generally,
however, it turns out that you are likely to enjoy your selection more
if you make up your own mind and stick to it. This is, then, a source
of a free lunch. Having information about largely subliminal process
that influence your decision making can allow you to escape the traps
such processes help us fall into. So, order what you like and enjoy it
more. The extra enjoyment is free.

Indeed the real point of the majority of this fun book is just that:
don’t blindly believe that economic rationality prevails at all times.
Study real behavior, make the invisible processes visible to you and
stop being the tool of others – this is the real free lunch. Felix qui
potuit rerum cognoscere causas!

Dan Ariely
email : dan [at] predictablyirrational [dot] com / ariely [at] mit [dot] edu /
dandan [at] duke [dot] edu




RYSSDAL: Given our motives for revenge, is there a way that Congress
can shape a bill that’s going to make it acceptable to people whose
constituents really want to punish Wall Street?

ARIELY: Yes. So I think we need to include revenge in the bill. There
was discussion about capping CEO salaries, which I think went a small
way into revenge. But I think there are two ways to include revenge in
the bill. One way is to say every time we are going to nationalize
something, we are going to take the stock option of these people in
these banks, right? We will make them pay for nationalizing it. That’s
one approach. The second approach is to build into the system future
revenge. So another thing we can do is we can decide that the bill
will actually force us to create a new code of punishment for people
on Wall Street. And we have an opportunity here, with a meltdown
that’s so dramatic, that we feel that there is a need to go back and
try and reshape the whole system. And that might actually be very,
very useful in the long term.


by Daniel Kahneman

Many people think of economics as the discipline that deals with such
things as housing prices, recessions, trade and unemployment. This
view of economics is far too narrow. Economists and others who apply
the ideas of economics deal with most aspects of life. There are
economic approaches to sex and to crime, to political action and to
mass entertainment, to law, health care and education, and to the
acquisition and use of power. Economists bring to these topics a
unique set of intellectual tools, a clear conception of the forces
that drive human action, and a rigorous way of working out the social
implications of individual choices. Economists are also the
gatekeepers who control the flow of facts and ideas from the worlds of
social science and technology to the world of policy. The findings of
educators, epidemiologists and sociologists as well as the inventions
of scientists and engineers are almost always filtered through an
economic analysis before they are allowed to influence the decisions
of policy makers.

In performing their function as gatekeepers, economists do not only
apply the results of scientific investigation. They also bring to bear
their beliefs about human nature. In the past, these beliefs could be
summarized rather simply: people are self-interested and rational, and
markets work. The beliefs of many economists have become much more
nuanced in recent decades, and the approach that goes under the label
of “behavioral economics” is based on a rather different view of both
individuals and institutions. Behavioral economics is fortunate to
have a witty guru—Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Business
School. (I stress this detail of his affiliation because the Economics
Department of the University of Chicago is the temple of the “rational-
agent model” that behavioral economists question.) Expanding on the
idea of bounded rationality that the polymath Herbert Simon formulated
long ago, Dick Thaler offered four tenets as the foundations of
behavioral economics:

Bounded rationality
Bounded selfishness
Bounded self-control
Bounded arbitrage

The first three bounds are reasonably self-evident and obviously based
on a plausible view of the psychology of the human agent. The fourth
tenet is an observation about the limited ability of the market to
exploit human folly and thereby to protect individual fools from their
mistakes. The combination of ideas is applicable to the whole range of
topics to which standard economic analysis has been applied—and at
least some of us believe that the improved realism of the assumption
yields better analysis and more useful policy recommendations.

Behavioral economics was influenced by psychology from its inception—
or perhaps more accurately, behavioral economists made friends with
psychologists, taught them some economics and learned some psychology
from them. The little economics I know I learned from Dick Thaler when
we worked together 25 years ago. It is somewhat embarrassing for a
psychologist to admit that there is an asymmetry between the two
disciplines: I cannot imagine a psychologist who could be counted as a
good economist without formal training in that discipline, but it
seems to be easier for economists to be good psychologists. This is
certainly the case for both Dick and Sendhil Mullainathan—they know a
great deal of what is going on in modern psychology, but more
importantly they have superb psychological intuition and are willing
to trust it.

Some of Dick Thaler’s most important ideas of recent years—especially
his elaboration of the role of default options and status quo bias—
have relied more on his flawless psychological sense than on actual
psychological research. I was slightly worried by that development,
fearing that behavioral economics might not need much input from
psychology anymore. But the recent work of Sendhil Mullainathan has
reassured me on this score as well as on many others. Sendhil belongs
to a new generation. He was Dick Thaler’s favorite student as an
undergraduate at Cornell, and his wonderful research on poverty is a
collaboration with a psychologist, Eldar Shafir, who is roughly my
son’s age. The psychology on which they draw is different from the
ideas that influenced Dick. In the mind of behavioral economists,
young and less young, the fusion of ideas from the two disciplines
yields a rich and exciting picture of decision making, in which a
basic premise—that the immediate context of decision making matters
more than you think—is put to work in novel ways.

I happened to be involved in an encounter that had quite a bit to do
with the birth of behavioral economics. More than twenty-five years
ago, Eric Wanner was about to become the President of the Russell Sage
Foundation—a post he has held with grace and distinction ever since.
Amos Tversky and I met Eric at a conference on Cognitive Science in
Rochester, where he invited us to have a beer and discuss his idea of
bringing together psychology and economics. He asked how a foundation
could help. We both remember my answer. I told him that this was not a
project on which it was possible to spend a lot of money honestly.
More importantly, I told him that it was futile to support
psychologists who wanted to influence economics. The people who needed
support were economists who were willing to be influenced. Indeed, the
first grant that the Russell Sage Foundation made in that area allowed
Dick Thaler to spend a year with me in Vancouver. This was 1983-1984,
which was a very good year for behavioral economics. As the Edge
Sonoma session amply demonstrated, we have come a long way since that
day in a Rochester bar.



Daniel Kahneman
email : kahneman [at] princeton [dot] edu

Sendhil Mullainathan
email : mullain [at] fas.harvard [dot] edu

Richard H. Thaler
email : richard.thaler [at] chicagogsb [dot] edu

Cass R. Sunstein
email : csunstei [at] law.harvard [dot] edu




“Libertarian Paternalism: Not an oxymoron. Libertarian paternalism is
a relatively weak, soft, and non-intrusive type of paternalism where
choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened. A
philosophic approach to governance, public or private, to help homo
sapiens who want to make choices that improve their lives, without
infringing on the liberty of others. Addendum to skeptics: It is not
pledge for bigger government, just for better governance.”

Richard Thaler has led a revolution in the study of economics by
understanding the strange ways people behave with their money.
by Roger Lowenstein  /  11 February 2001

It is possible that Richard Thaler changed his mind about economic
theory and went on to challenge what had become a hopelessly dry and
out-of-touch discipline because, one day, when a few of his supposedly
rational colleagues were over at his house, he noticed that they were
unable to stop themselves from gorging on some cashew nuts he’d put
out. Then again, it could have been because a friend admitted to
Thaler that, although he mowed his own lawn to save $10, he would
never agree to cut the lawn next door in return for the same $10 or
even more. But the moment that sticks in Thaler’s mind occurred back
in the 1970’s, when he and another friend, a computer maven named Jeff
Lasky, decided to skip a basketball game in Rochester because of a
swirling snowstorm. “But if we had bought the tickets already, we’d
go,” Lasky noted. “True — and interesting,” Thaler replied.

Thaler began to make note of these episodes — anomalies, he called
them — and to chalk them up on his blackboard at the University of
Rochester, where he was a young, unheralded and untenured assistant
professor. Each of these stories was at odds with neoclassical
economics as it was taught in graduate schools; indeed, each was a
tiny subversion of the prevailing orthodoxy. According to accepted
economic theory, for instance, a person is always better off with more
rather than fewer choices. So why had Thaler’s colleagues roundly
thanked him for removing the tempting cashews from his living room?
The lawn example was even more troubling. Perhaps you dimly remember
from Economics 101 that unlovely term, “opportunity cost.” The idea,
as your pointy-headed prof vainly tried to persuade you, is that
forgoing a gain of $10 to mow a neighbor’s lawn “costs” just as much
as paying somebody else to mow your own. According to theory, you
either prefer the extra time or the extra money — it can’t be both.
And the basketball tickets refer to “sunk costs.” No sense going to
the health club just because we have paid our dues, right? After all,
the money is already paid — sunk. And yet, Thaler observed, we do.
People, in short, do not behave like the pointy heads say they should.

In the ordered world of economics, this rated as a heresy on the scale
of Galileo. According to the standard or neoclassical school
(essentially a 20th-century updating of Adam Smith), people, in their
economic lives, are everywhere and always rational decision makers;
those who aren’t either learn quickly or are punished by markets and
go broke. Among the implications of this view are that market prices
are always right and that people choose the right stocks, the right
career, the right level of savings — indeed, that they coolly adjust
their rates of spending with each fluctuation in their portfolios, as
though every consumer were a mathematician, too. Since the 1970’s,
this orthodoxy has totally dominated the top universities, not to
mention the Nobel Prize committee.

Thaler spearheaded a simple but devastating dissent. Rejecting the
narrow, mechanical homo economicus that serves as a basis for
neoclassical theory, Thaler proposed that most people actually behave
like . . . people! They are prone to error, irrationality and emotion,
and they act in ways not always consistent with maximizing their own
financial well being. So serious was Thaler’s challenge that Merton
Miller, the late Nobelist and neoclassical deity, refused to talk to
him; Thaler’s own thesis adviser lamented that he had wasted a
promising career on trivialities like cashews. Most economists simply
ignored him.

But the anomalous behaviors documented by Thaler and a band of fellow
dissenters, including Yale’s Robert Shiller and Harvard’s Lawrence
Summers, Clinton’s last treasury secretary, have grown too numerous to
ignore. And the renegades, though still a minority, have embarked on a
second stage: an attempt to show that anomalies fall into recognizable
and predictable patterns. The hope is that by illuminating these
patterns, behavioral economics, as it has come to be called, will
yield a new understanding of the economy and markets. Behaviorism,
says Daniel McFadden, the recent Nobel laureate, “is a fundamental re-
examination of the field. It’s where gravity is pulling economic

Thaler, after years of being shunned, is now a popular, highly paid
professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business,
the traditional nerve center of neoclassicism. His increasing
following is owed in no small part to the fact that behaviorism,
unlike so much of economics, is fun. Although prewar economists like
John Maynard Keynes were literary artists, most writing in the field
since the 70’s has been obtuse and highly mathematical, all but
inaccessible to the lay person. By contrast, Thaler’s papers are rich
with intuitive gems drawn from sports, business and everyday life. In
one paper, he pointed out that people go across town to save $10 on a
clock radio but not to save $10 on a large-screen TV. It’s a seemingly
obvious point — and also a direct contradiction of rationalist

Thaler loves pointing out that not even economics professors are as
rational as the guys in their models. For instance, a bottle of wine
that sells for $50 might seem far too expensive to buy for a casual
dinner at home. But if you already owned that bottle of wine, having
purchased it earlier for far less, you’d be more likely to uncork it
for the same meal. To an economist (a sober one, anyway) this makes no
sense. But Thaler culled the anecdote from Richard Rosett, a prominent

A thickset man of 55, Thaler has a sharp wit and a voluble ego. Many
assume that his years in the academic wilderness have made him
defensive; Thaler denies it. “The last thing I want to do is to sound
embittered about having to struggle,” he told me, easing his Audi
around Lake Michigan toward the Gothic stone campus. But Thaler
doesn’t so much debate opponents; he skewers them. The British
economist Ken Binmore once proclaimed at a seminar that people evolve
toward rationality by learning from mistakes. Thaler retorted that
people may learn how to shop for groceries sensibly because they do it
every week, but the big decisions — marriage, career, retirement —
don’t come up that often. So Binmore’s highbrow theories, he
concluded, were good for “buying milk.”

I met Thaler two days after the election, and he was already
predicting that the country would be willing to accept Bush as the
winner, because “people have a bias toward the status quo.” I asked
how “status-quo bias” affects economics, and Thaler observed that
workers save more when they are automatically enrolled in savings
programs than when they have to choose to participate by, say,
returning a form. Standard theory holds that workers would make the
most rational decision regardless.

Savings is an area where Thaler thinks he can have a big impact. Along
with Shlomo Benartzi, a collaborator at U.C.L.A., Thaler cooked up a
plan called Save More Tomorrow. The idea is to persuade employees to
commit a big share of future salary increases to their retirement
accounts. People find it less painful to make future concessions
because pain deferred is, to an extent, pain denied. Therein lies the
logic for New Year’s resolutions. Save More Tomorrow was tried with a
Chicago company, and workers tripled their savings within a year and a
half — an astounding result. “This is big stuff,” Thaler says. He is
shopping the plan around to other employers and predicts that
eventually it could help raise the country’s low savings rate.

Though Thaler, who comes across as a middling, Robert Rubin-style
Democrat, plays down the connection, such results could provide
ammunition to liberals who think government bashing has gone too far.
Since the Reagan era, a mantra for office seekers is that people know
what is best for themselves. Generally, yes; but what if not always,
and what if they err in predictable ways? For instance, Thaler has
found that the number of options on a 401(k) menu can affect the
employees’ selections. Those with a choice of a stock fund and bond
fund tend to invest half in each. Those with a choice of three stock
funds and one bond fund are likely to sprinkle an equal amount of
their savings in each, and thus put 75 percent of the total in stocks.
Such behavior illustrates “framing” — decisions being affected by how
choices are positioned. Political pollsters and advertisers have known
this for years, though economists are just coming around.

Framing has big implications for the debate on privatizing Social
Security. Neoclassicists say that people should manage their own
retirement accounts, and that the more choices they have the better.
Thalerites are not so sure. “If Thaler is right, it makes the current
dogmatic antipaternalism really doubtful,” says Cass Sunstein, a
prominent legal scholar at the University of Chicago.

Thaler, who grew up in Chatham, N.J., the son of an actuary, wrote his

doctoral thesis at the University of Rochester on the economic “worth”
of a human life (public planners tackle this morbid theme frequently,
for instance, in determining speed limits). Thaler conceived a clever
method of calculation: measuring the difference in pay between life-
threatening jobs like logging and safer lines of work. He came up with
a figure of $200 a year (in 1967 dollars) for each 1-in-1,000 chance
of dying.

Sherwin Rosen, his thesis adviser, loved it. Thaler did not. He had
been asking friends about it, and most insisted that they would not
accept a 1-in-1,000 mortality risk for anything less than a million
dollars. Paradoxically, the same friends said they would not be
willing to forgo any income to eliminate the risks that their jobs
already entailed. Thaler decided that rather than rationally pricing
mortality, people had a cognitive disconnect; they put a premium on
new risks and casually discounted familiar ones.

For a while, Thaler regarded such anomalies as mere cocktail-party
fodder. But in 1976 he happened upon the work of two psychologists,
Daniel Kahneman and the now-deceased Amos Tversky, who had been
studying many of the same behaviors as Thaler. The two had noticed a
key pattern: people are more concerned with changes in wealth than
with their absolute level — a violation of standard theory that
explained many of Thaler’s anomalies. Moreover, most people are “loss
averse,” meaning they experience more pain from losses than pleasure
from gains. This explains why investors hate to sell losers. For
Thaler, their work was an epiphany. He wrote to Tversky, who plainly
encouraged him. “He took me seriously,” Thaler recalled, “and because
of that, I started taking it seriously.”

Thaler began designing experiments to test his ideas. In one, Thaler
told lab subjects to imagine they are stranded on a beach on a
sweltering day and that someone offers to go for their favorite brand
of beer. How much would they be willing to pay? Invariably, Thaler
found, subjects agree to pay more if they are told that the beer is
being purchased from an exclusive hotel rather than from a rundown
grocery. It strikes them as unfair to pay the same. This violates the
bedrock principle that one Budweiser is worth the same as another, and
it suggests that people care as much about being treated fairly as
they do about the actual value of what they’re paying for. Although
“fairness” is generally ignored by neoclassicists, it’s probably a
reason why companies do not lower salaries when they encounter tough
times — perversely, laying off workers is considered more fair.

Thaler’s first paper on anomalies was rejected by the leading economic
journals. But in 1980, a new publication, The Journal of Economic
Behavior and Organization, was desperate for copy, and Thaler’s
“Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice” saw the light of day. “I
didn’t have any data,” he admits. “It was stuff that was just true.”

The response from fellow economists was zero. But the article
eventually caught the eye of Eric Wanner, a psychologist at the Alfred
P. Sloan Foundation in New York. Wanner was itching to get economists
and psychologists talking to one another, and Thaler took the bait.
“He was the first economist who thought hard about the implications
for economics,” Wanner says. “The reaction of mainstream economists
was defensive and hostile. They considered it an attack — an
apostasy.” Wanner, who became president of the Russell Sage
Foundation, started financing behavioral economics, and Thaler became
the informal leader, organizing seminars and summer workshops. In
effect, he turned an idea into a movement. “Dick was like a taxonomist
who goes out and collects embarrassing specimens,” Wanner says. “He
learned that to get anyone to pay attention to him he had to develop a
portfolio of facts that he could be entertaining about and that
economists couldn’t sweep under the rug.”

Thaler’s most original contribution was “mental accounting” — an
extension of Kahneman and Tversky’s “framing” principle. “Framing”
says the positioning of choices prejudices the outcome. “Mental
accounting” says people draw their own frames, and that where they
place the boundaries subtly affects their decisions. For instance, a
poker player who accounts for each day separately may become bolder at
the end of a winning night because he feels he is playing with “house
money.” If he accounted for each hand separately, he would play the
first and last hands the same.

Most people sort their money into accounts like “current income” and
“savings” and justify different expenditures from each. They’ll gladly
blow their winnings from the office football pool, a “frivolous”
account, even while scrupulously salting away every penny of their

Thaler and a trio of colleagues went on to document that cabdrivers
stop working for the day when they reach a target level of income.
(Each day’s “account” is separate.) This means that — quite
nonsensically — they work shorter hours on more lucrative days, like
when it’s raining, and longer hours on days when fares are scarce! In
a sense, investors who pay attention to short-term fluctuations are
like those cabbies; if they toted up their stocks less frequently,
they would be better investors. Thaler went so far as to suggest to an
audience at Stanford that investors should be barred from seeing their
portfolios more than once every five years.

Such irreverence reinforced the view among economists that Thaler
could be safely ignored. His anecdotes were fuzzy science, they said,
and examples like the cabbies were easy pickings. Since there is no
way for a third party to profit from a cabbie’s mistake, it’s not
surprising that he would make one. Thaler knew the criticism had
merit, and that to be taken seriously, he had to demonstrate
irrationalities in financial markets, which are the purest embodiment
of neoclassicism. In the markets, one person’s bad decision can be
offset by someone else’s smart one. Across the markets, rationality
should reign.

Thaler set out to prove that it did not. His first effort, a 1985
paper with Werner De Bondt, his doctoral student, showed that stocks
tend to revert to the mean — that is, stocks that have outperformed
for a sustained period are likely to lag in the future and vice versa.
This was a finding that Chicago School types couldn’t ignore —
according to their theory, no pattern can be sustained, since if it
did, canny traders would try to profit from it, correcting prices
until the pattern disappeared.

Then, in 1987, Thaler was hired to write a regular Anomalies column
for a new economics journal, giving him a widespread audience among
his peers. That same year, the stock market crashed 23 percent on a
single day. Thaler could hardly have imagined better proof that the
market was not, well, perfectly rational. More economists began to
mine the data, and by the 90’s there was a rich literature of market
anomalies, documenting, for example, that people can consistently make
money on stocks that trade at low multiples of earnings, or on
companies that signal changes by doing things like hiking dividends.
Documenting anomalies became a popular pastime from Berkeley to

Thaler still has plenty of critics. The harshest one is right upstairs
from his office at Chicago, the curmudgeonly Eugene Fama, a longtime
advocate of the efficient-market school. “What Thaler does is
basically a curiosity item,” Fama snipes. “Would you be surprised that
every shopper doesn’t shop at the lowest prices? Not really. Does that
mean that prices aren’t competitive?”

Thaler periodically invites Fama in to his class to present the other
side, but Fama has not returned the gesture and, indeed, sounds bitter
that behavioral finance is getting so much attention. “One question
that occurs to me,” Fama says, “is, ‘How did some of this stuff ever
get published?”‘ The objection raised most often, from Fama and
others, is that if Thaler is right and the market is so screwy, why
wouldn’t more fund managers be able to beat it? A variation of this
theme is that if behavioral economics, for all its intuitive appeal,
can’t help people make money, what good is it?

Thaler, actually, is a director in a California money management firm,
Fuller & Thaler Asset Management, which, according to figures it
provided, has been beating the market handily since 1992. The firm
tries to exploit various behavioral patterns, like “categorization”:
when Lucent Technologies was riding high, people categorized it as a
“good stock” and mentally coded news about it in a favorable way.
Lately, Lucent has become a “bad stock.” But Thaler, who does not get
involved in picking stocks, stops short of suggesting that investors
versed in his research can beat the market. Mispricings that spring
from anomalies are hard to spot, he says, particularly when the people
looking for them are prone to their own behavioral quirks.

If this sounds muted, it may be because Thaler is ready to declare
victory and join the establishment. The neoclassical model, he admits,
is a fine starting point; it’s misleading only when regarded as a
perfect or all-encompassing description. People aren’t crazy, he adds,
but their rationality is “bounded” by the tendencies that Kahneman,
Tversky, himself and others have studied. What he hopes is that a
future generation will resolve the schism by building behavioral
tendencies into a new, more flexible model.

For now, Thaler is still looking for new miniature applications
wherever he can find them, like on the basketball court recently.
Thaler studied games in which a team trails by 2 points, with time
left for just one shot. What to go for, 2 points or 3? A 2-point shot
succeeds about half the time, a 3-pointer about 33 percent of the
time. But since a 2-point basket would only tie the game (and force an
overtime, in which the team has a 50-50 chance of winning), going for
a 3-pointer is a superior strategy. Still, most coaches go for 2. Why?
Because it lowers the risk of sudden loss. Coaches, like the rest of
us, do more to avoid losing than they do to win. You won’t find an
explanation for that in the mechanical homo economicus of theory. But
it has everything to do with folks Thaler thinks are much more
relevant to the economy — Homo sapiens.



Magic isn’t just a bag of tricks – it’s a finely-tuned technology for
shaping what we see. Now researchers are extracting its lessons.
BY Drake Bennett  /  August 3, 2008

In September of 1856, in the face of a growing rebellion, Napoleon III
dispatched Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Algeria. Robert-Houdin was not
a general, nor a diplomat. He was a magician – the father, by most
accounts, of modern magic. (A promising young escape artist named
Ehrich Weiss would, a few decades later, choose his stage name by
adding an “i” to “Houdin.”) His mission was to counter the Algerian
marabouts, conjurers whose artful wizardry had helped convince the
Algerian populace of Allah’s displeasure with French rule.

A French colonial official assembled an audience of Arab chieftains,
and Robert-Houdin put on a show that, in its broadest outlines, would
be familiar to today’s audiences: he pulled cannonballs out of his
hat, he plucked lit candelabra out of the air, he poured gallon upon
gallon of coffee out of an empty silver bowl.

Then, as he recounted in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin launched into a
piece of enchantment calculated to cow the chieftains. He had a small
wooden chest with a metal handle brought onto the stage. He picked a
well-muscled member of the audience and asked him to lift the box; the
man did it easily. Then Robert-Houdin announced, with a menacing wave
of his hand, that he had sapped the man’s strength. When the volunteer
again took hold of the box, it would not budge – an assistant to
Robert-Houdin had activated a powerful magnet in the floor of the
stage. The volunteer heaved at the box, his frustration shading into
desperation until Robert-Houdin’s assistant, at a second signal, sent
an electric shock through the handle, driving the man screaming from
the stage. The chieftains were duly impressed, and the rebellion

The story of Robert-Houdin’s diplomacy by legerdemain is well-
established in magic lore, in large part because it is the only
documented instance, at least since antiquity, in which a conjurer
changed the course of world affairs. Stage magic, after all, isn’t
statecraft, but spectacle and entertainment.

In the past year, though, a few researchers have begun to realize that
magic represents something more: a deep and untapped store of
knowledge about the human mind. At a major conference last year in Las
Vegas, in a scientific paper published last week and another due out
this week, psychologists have argued that magicians, in their age-old
quest for better ways to fool people, have been engaging in cutting-
edge, if informal, research into how we see and comprehend the world
around us. Just as studying the mechanisms of disease reveals the
workings of our body’s defenses, these psychologists believe that
studying the ways a talented magician can short-circuit our perceptual
system will allow us to better grasp how the system is put together.
“I think magicians and cognitive neuroscientists are getting at
similar questions, but while neuroscientists have been looking at this
for a few decades, magicians have been looking at this for centuries,
millennia probably,” says Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist at
the Barrow Neurological Institute and coauthor of one of the studies,
published online last week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. “What
magicians do is light-years ahead in terms of sophistication and the
power of these techniques.”

As magicians have long known and neuroscientists are increasingly
discovering, human perception is a jury-rigged apparatus, full of gaps
and easily manipulated. The collaboration between science and magic is
still young, and the findings preliminary, but interest among scholars
is only growing: the New York Academy of Science has invited the
magician Apollo Robbins to give a presentation in January on the
science of vision, and a team of magicians is scheduled to speak at
next year’s annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the
world’s largest organization of brain researchers. And in a world
where concentration is a scarce resource, a better understanding of
how to channel it would have myriad uses, from safer dashboard
displays to more alluring advertisements – and even, perhaps, to
better magic.

A great deal of the success of a piece of magic is simply getting the
audience’s attention and sending it to the wrong place – to a right
hand flourishing a wand while the left secrets a ball away in a pocket
or plucks a card from a sleeve. Magic shows are masterpieces of
misdirection: they assault us with bright colors and shiny things,
with puffs of smoke and with the constant obfuscatory patter that many
magicians keep up as they perform.

For years, cognitive scientists thought of perception as like a movie
camera, something that reproduced the world in its panoply of detail.
Over the past decade, though, that model has been increasingly
questioned. For one thing, people have a pronounced tendency to miss
things that are happening right in front of them. Daniel Simons, a
psychologist at the University of Illinois, did a series of now-famous
studies in the late 1990s that showed the extent of this cognitive
blindness. In one, people were approached by someone asking them for
directions, only to have, in the middle of the conversation, that
person replaced by another. Only half noticed the change.

In another study, people were shown a movie clip of two teams, one in
black shirts and one in white, each passing a basketball around. The
subjects were asked to count the number of passes one of the teams
made. Half said afterward that they hadn’t noticed the woman in a
gorilla suit who, midway through the clip, strolled through, paused,
and beat her chest.

Because of work like this, a new model has arisen over the past
decade, in which visual cognition is understood not as a camera but
something more like a flashlight beam sweeping a twilit landscape. At
any particular instant, we can only see detail and color in the small
patch we are concentrating on. The rest we fill in through a
combination of memory, prediction and a crude peripheral sight. We
don’t take in our surroundings so much as actively and constantly
construct them. “Our picture of the world is kind of a virtual
reality,” says Ronald A. Rensink, a professor of computer science and
psychology at the University of British Columbia and coauthor of a
paper on magic and psychology that will be published online this week
in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. “It’s a form of intelligent

The benefit of these sorts of cognitive shortcuts is that they allow
us to create a remarkably rich image of our environment despite the
fact that our two optic nerves have roughly the resolution of cell-
phone cameras. We don’t have to, for example, waste time making out
every car on the highway to understand that they are, indeed, cars,
and to make sense of how they are moving – our minds can simply
approximate from the thousands of cars we have already seen in our

But because this method relies so heavily on expectation – not only to
fill in the backdrop around us but to determine where to send what
psychologists call our “attentional spotlight” – we are especially
vulnerable to someone who knows our expectations and can manipulate
them, someone like a magician. “In magic,” says Teller, half of the
well-known duo Penn & Teller and one of five magicians credited as
coauthors of the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, “we tend to take
the things that make us smart as human beings and turn those against

Misdirection is, in a sense, the conjurer’s tool that is easiest to
understand – we miss things simply because we aren’t looking at them.
Martinez-Conde is particularly interested in misdirection, and the
question of what it is about certain movements that attract and hold
our attention. Robbins, a performing pickpocket and another of the
magicians to coauthor the Nature Neuroscience paper, has found, he
says, that semi-circular gestures draw people’s attention better than
straight ones. “It engages them more,” he says. “I use them when I’m
actually coming out of the pocket.”

Martinez-Conde is intrigued by this distinction, and has hypothesized
that the particular magnetism of curved motions might spring from the
fact that they don’t map as easily onto the quick, straight movements,
or saccades, that our eyes instinctively use to focus on objects. As a
result, she suggests, curved motions might require more sustained
attention and concentration to follow.

Other effects, though, are more befuddling. Often eye-tracking studies
show that subjects can be looking right at an object without seeing it
– car accident survivors report a similar paradox. Or, with just a
little encouragement, a person can be made to see something where
there’s nothing.

The vanishing ball illusion is one of the most basic tricks a magician
can learn: a ball is thrown repeatedly into the air and caught. Then,
on the final throw, it disappears in midair. In fact, the magician has
merely mimed the last throw, following the ball’s imagined upward
trajectory with his eyes while keeping it hidden in his hand.

But if the technique is easily explained, the phenomenon itself is
not. If done right, the trick actually makes observers see the ball
rising into the air on the last toss and vanishing at its apex. As
Rensink points out, this is something more powerful than merely
getting someone to look in the wrong direction – it’s a demonstration
of how easy it is to nudge the brain into the realm of actual
hallucination. And cognitive scientists still don’t know exactly
what’s causing it to happen.

For the moment, the cognitive scientists looking at magic are
confining themselves to these sorts of simple effects, and the
fundamental questions they raise. Eventually, though, Rensink
envisions a sort of periodic table of attention effects: methods for
getting someone’s attention, methods for deflecting it, methods for
causing someone to be blind to something they’re looking directly at.
Such a taxonomy, he argues, wouldn’t just be helpful to magicians. The
control and management of attention is vital in all sorts of realms.
Airplane cockpits and street signs would be designed better, security
guards would be trained to be more alert, computer graphics would feel
more natural, teaching less coercive.

Still, even if none of this came to pass, there’s a value in simply
coming to grips with the gaps and limits in our awareness. Like Robert-
Houdin’s audience, awed by a magnet, we are more easily manipulated
and more likely to put ourselves in compromising situations if we
don’t know what we don’t know. “The main thing is knowing that you’ve
got limitations,” says the cognitive researcher Daniel Simons. “Most
people don’t understand the extent to which talking on a cellphone
affects their driving.”

According to Teller, magic, more than anything else, serves as that
reminder. And that explains why, despite its comparatively humble
effects, it continues even in the age of Imax to attract practitioners
and audiences. “The fundamental thing we do every day is ascertain
what is reality, it’s this diagnosis of what the signals coming into
our eyes are supposed to mean,” he says. “We say, ‘That’s a fence, I
must not walk into it,’ or, ‘Is that a car coming around the corner?
How much can I see of it? Oh, no, it’s only a bicycle.’ ” What draws
people to magic, he believes, is an appreciation of how slippery that
seemingly simple diagnosis can be. “They realize,” he says, “that the
best way to grasp the power of deception is to do it themselves.”

Susana Martinez-Conde
email : smart [at] neuralcorrelate [dot] com


Nature Reviews Neuroscience, advance online publication, 30 July
2008 / doi:10.1038/nrn2473

Science and society: Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning
tricks into research
BY Stephen L. Macknik [1], Mac King, James Randi [2], Apollo Robbins,
Teller, John Thompson & Susana Martinez-Conde [1]

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate
the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists
study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition.
Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers’ deep
intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By
studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn
powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the
laboratory. Such methods could be exploited to directly study the
behavioural and neural basis of consciousness itself, for instance
through the use of brain imaging and other neural recording

Magic is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of performance
art [1] (Fig. 1). It is also a discipline with a long legacy of
informal experimentation. This informal research by magicians aims to
determine what conditions allow for the maximum manipulation of human
attention and perception. Much as early filmmakers experimented with
editing techniques to determine which technique would communicate
their intent most effectively, magicians have explored the techniques
that most effectively divert attention or exploit the shortcomings of
human vision and awareness. As such, magic is a rich and largely
untapped source of insight into perception and awareness. Insofar as
the understanding of behaviour and perception goes, there are specific
cases in which the magician’s intuitive knowledge is superior to that
of the neuroscientist. In this Perspective, we underline potential
areas in which neuroscientists stand to reap great benefits from
collaboration with the magic community (Box 1 highlights one such
potential area of collaboration).

Using completely natural means, magicians create effects (magic
tricks) that seem to be outside the laws of nature. One should note
that, unlike so-called psychics, magicians do not claim to possess
supernatural powers. The devices used by magicians can include one or
more of the following: visual illusions (after-images), optical
illusions (‘smoke and mirrors’), cognitive illusions (inattentional
blindness), special effects (explosions, fake gunshots, et cetera),
and secret devices and mechanical artifacts (gimmicks).

Visual illusions — and other sensory illusions — are phenomena in
which the subjective perception of a stimulus does not match the
physical reality of the stimulus. Visual illusions occur because
neural circuits in the brain amplify, suppress, converge and diverge
visual information in a fashion that ultimately leaves the observer
with a subjective perception that is different from the reality. For
example, lateral inhibitory circuits in the early visual system
enhance the contrast of edges and corners so that these visual
features seem to be more salient than they truly are [2, 3, 4, 5, 6].
Unlike visual illusions, optical illusions do not result from brain
processes: they manipulate the physical properties of light, such as
reflection (using mirrors) and refraction (a pencil looks broken when
it is placed upright in a glass of water owing to the different
refraction indices of air and water). Cognitive illusions can be
distinguished from visual illusions in that they are not sensory in
nature: they involve higher-level cognitive functions, such as
attention and causal inference (most coin and card tricks used by
magicians fall into this category).

The application of all these devices by the expert magician gives the
impression of a ‘magical’ event that is impossible in the physical
realm (see Table 1 for a classification of the main types of magic
effects and their underlying methods). This Perspective addresses how
cognitive and visual illusions are applied in magic, and their
underlying neural mechanisms. We also discuss some of the principles
that have been developed by magicians and pickpockets throughout the
centuries to manipulate awareness and attention, as well as their
potential applications to research, especially in the study of the
brain mechanisms that underlie attention and awareness. This
Perspective therefore seeks to inform the cognitive neuroscientist
that the techniques used by magicians can be powerful and robust tools
to take to the laboratory. The study of the artistic intuitions that
magicians have developed about attention and awareness might further
lead to significant new scientific insights into their neural bases.

Visual illusions in magic
Visual illusions are often used by neuroscientists to dissociate the
neural activity that matches the perception of a stimulus from the
neuronal activity that matches the physical reality. Those neurons,
circuits and brain areas with activity that matches the physical
stimulus rather than the subjective perception can be excluded from
the neural correlates of consciousness. Visual illusions are also used
by magicians to fool their audiences, often to enhance cognitive
illusions. Here we discuss a few categories of visual illusions that
have contributed to magic tricks, as well as their neural bases.

Spoon bending. In this illusion the magician bends a spoon, apparently
by using the power of the mind. In one part of the trick, the magician
holds the spoon horizontally and shakes it up and down. This shows
that the neck of the spoon has apparently become flexible [7]. The
apparent rubberiness of the spoon is an example of the Dancing Bar (or
Rubber Tree) illusion [8], in which an oscillating bar (or rubber
tree) seems to bend when it is bounced rapidly. The neural basis of
this illusion lies in the fact that end-stopped neurons (that is,
neurons that respond both to motion and to the terminations of a
stimulus’ edges, such as corners or the ends of lines) in the primary
visual cortex (area V1) and the middle temporal visual area (area MT,
also known as area V5) respond differently from non-end-stopped
neurons to oscillating stimuli [8, 9, 10, 11]. This differential
response results in an apparent spatial mislocalization between the
ends of a stimulus and its centre, making a solid object look like it
flexes in the middle.

The Retention-of-Vision Vanish. Persistence of vision is an effect in
which an image seems to persist for longer than its presentation time
[12, 13, 14]. Thus, an object that has been removed from the visual
field will still seem to be visible for a short period of time. The
Great Tomsoni’s (J.T.) Coloured Dress trick, in which the magician’s
assistant’s white dress instantaneously changes to a red dress,
illustrates an application of this illusion to magic. At first the
colour change seems to be due (trivially) to the onset of red
illumination of the woman. But after the red light is turned off and a
white light is turned on, the woman is revealed to be actually wearing
a red dress. Here is how it works: when the red light shuts off there
is a short period of darkness in which the audience is left with a
brief positive after-image of the red-dressed (actually white-dressed
but red-lit) woman. This short after-image persists for enough time to
allow the white dress to be rapidly removed while the room is still
dark. When the white lights come back, the red dress that the
assistant was always wearing below the white dress is now visible.

This same illusion is the basis for perceptual stability during the
viewing of motion pictures (the image seems to be stable when in fact
it is flickering). On a neural level, both turning on and turning off
a stimulus generate responses in visual neurons that result in the
perceptual visibility of the stimulus [15]. The neural response that
is generated by turning off a stimulus is called the after-discharge,
and it has the perceptual consequence of a positive after-image that
persists for approximately 100 ms after the termination of the
stimulus [16, 17, 18].

Jerry Andrus’s Trizonal Space Warp. In this illusion the audience
stares for several seconds at a spinning disk with three zones of
expanding and contracting motion. They are then asked to look at a
different object on stage that consequently seems to both expand and
contract. Motion after-effects, more commonly known as The Waterfall
Illusion, are the oldest-recorded visual illusions. First reported in
his Parva Naturalia, Aristotle noticed that if one fixates a moving
stream of water and then looks away, the rocks at the side of the
stream will seem to move in the opposite direction to the water. This
effect is caused by neural adaptation — that is, by the decrease in
responsiveness of a neural system to a constant stimulus. In the
Trizonal Space Warp illusion, adaptation to expanding and contracting
motion occurs in three different parts of the visual field.

The above illusions are examples of magic tricks that could have been
used to help elucidate the underpinnings of visual perception. There
might be other fundamental visual processes that could be discovered
by studying magic (Box 1). Further, we propose that there are
cognitive processes that will be better understood as we learn more
from magicians, as discussed in the next section.

Cognitive illusions in magic
Inattentional blindness and change blindness. Attended objects can
seem to be more salient or to have higher contrast than unattended
objects [19, 20, 21, 22]. These perceptual effects have well-
documented neural correlates in the visual system [23]. Magicians use
the general term ‘misdirection’ to refer to the diversion of the
spectator’s attention away from a secret action. Thus, misdirection
can be defined as drawing the audience’s attention away from the
‘method’ (the secret behind the ‘effect’) and towards the effect (what
the spectator perceives) [7, 24]. Misdirection can be applied in an
overt or a covert manner. Here we use the term ‘overt misdirection’ to
indicate cases in which the magician redirects the spectator’s gaze
away from the method. In the more subtle ‘covert misdirection’, the
magician draws the spectator’s attentional spotlight (which can be
thought of as the spectator’s focus of suspicion) away from the method
without redirecting the spectator’s gaze. Thus, in covert misdirection
the spectators can be looking directly at the method behind the trick
and yet be unaware of it because their attention is focused elsewhere.

The concept of covert misdirection is exemplified by the cognitive-
neuroscience paradigms of change blindness and inattentional
blindness. With change blindness, people fail to notice that something
is different from the way it was before. This change can be expected
or unexpected, but the key is that it requires the observer to compare
the post-change state with the pre-change state. Change-blindness
studies have shown that dramatic changes in a visual scene will go
unnoticed if they occur during a transient interruption [25], such as
a blink [26], a saccadic eye movement [27] or a flicker of the scene
[28, 29, 30, 31], even when people are looking right at the changes.
However, observers can also miss large gradual changes in the absence
of interruptions [32]. A dramatic example of change blindness is
illustrated in the Colour-Changing Card Trick video by Richard Wiseman
and colleagues (available online at YouTube.com). In this
demonstration, the viewers fail to notice colour changes that take
place off-camera.

With inattentional blindness, people fail to notice an unexpected
object that is fully visible in the display. Thus, inattentional
blindness differs from change blindness in that no memory comparison
is needed — the missed object is fully visible at a single point in
time. In a classic example of inattentional blindness, Simons and
Chabris [33] asked observers to count how many times the members of a
basketball team passed a ball to one another, while ignoring the
passes made by members of a different team. While they concentrated on
the counting task, most observers failed to notice a person wearing a
gorilla suit walk across the scene (the gorilla even stops briefly at
the centre of the scene and beats its chest!). In this situation no
acute interruption or distraction was necessary, as the assigned task
of counting passes was absorbing. Further, the observers had to keep
their eyes on the scene at all times in order to accurately perform
the task. Memmert showed, using eye-tracking recordings, that many
observers did not notice the gorilla even when they were looking
directly at it [34].

The magic community considers the covert form of misdirection to be
more elegant than the overt form [7]. Few studies have addressed their
relative efficacy, however. Kuhn and Tatler [35] measured the eye
movements of observers during the presentation of a magic trick (a
magician made a cigarette ‘disappear’ by dropping it below the table).
To our knowledge, this is the first study to have correlated the
perception of magic with any physiological measurement. The goal of
the experiment was to analyse the scan paths of subjects to determine
whether observers missed the trick because they did not look at it at
the right time or because they did not attend to it (irrespective of
the position of their gaze). The results showed that the detection (or
not) of the cigarette drop could not be explained at the level of the
retina. That is, detection rates were not significantly influenced by
blinks, saccadic movements or how far the cigarette was from the
centre of vision at the time of the drop. The authors concluded that
the magician primarily manipulates the spectators’ attention rather
than their gaze, using similar principles to those that are used in
inattentional-blindness studies. Thus, to overcome the magician’s
misdirection, spectators should reallocate their attention — rather
than their gaze — to the concealed event (that is, the cigarette drop)
at the critical time [36]. Recent studies have found that the
directions of microsaccades can also be used as an indicator of the
spatial allocation of covert attention [37, 38, 39]. Future research
could aim to measure the microsaccade direction biases of spectators
during successful and unsuccessful magic tricks.

A recent study of the Vanishing-Ball Illusion further supports the
conclusion that the manipulation of gaze position is not critical for
effective covert misdirection. In the Vanishing-Ball Illusion, a ball
thrown by the magician vanishes mid-flight. To achieve this effect,
the magician begins by tossing the ball straight up in the air and
catching it several times without event; then, on the final toss, the
magician only pretends to throw the ball. The ball is in reality
hidden in the magician’s hand, but most spectators perceive it
ascending and then vanishing mid-flight. During the execution of this
trick, the magician’s head and eyes follow the trajectory of an
imaginary ball being thrown upwards. Kuhn and Land [40] found that the
magician’s use of such social cues was critical for making the
spectators’ perceive the illusion (that is, the ball vanishing mid-
flight). However, observers did not direct their gaze to the area in
which they claimed to have seen the ball vanish, suggesting that the
oculomotor system is not fooled by the illusion. Instead, the illusory
effect is presumably caused by covert redirection of the attentional
spotlight to the predicted position of the ball. This result is
consistent with previous studies that suggested that there are
separate mechanisms for perception and visuomotor control [41, 42, 43,
44, 45, 46, 47, 48]. For instance, the eye movements of blindsight
patients are biased towards stimuli that the patients do not
consciously perceive [49, 50, 51]. Kuhn and Land [40] further proposed
that in the Vanishing-Ball Illusion the covert redirection of the
attentional spotlight to the predicted position of the ball might be
related to “representational momentum” (Ref. 52). That is, that the
final position of a moving object that suddenly disappears is
perceived further along the path of motion than its actual final
position. The neural correlates of representational momentum might be
located in the posterior parietal cortex in the primate [53].
Observers of the Vanishing-Ball Illusion might also be tricked by the
strong implied motion that is suggested by the magician’s moves.
Recent studies have focused on the neuronal mechanisms that underlie
the perception of implied motion (some examples of implied motion are
the speed lines that are used by cartoonists, and still photographs of
people running or dancing). Neurons that respond to implied motion are
found in extrastriate visual areas of the dorsal stream, and they are
thought to be also sensitive to real motion [54, 55]. Thus, implied
motion might activate similar circuits to those that are active during
the perception of real motion, and this might result in perceptual
illusions. Another example of this might be when one pretends to throw
a stick for a dog during a game of fetch.

How do magicians misdirect the audience’s attentional spotlight?
Magicians can effectively control an object’s salience by manipulating
the audience’s bottom-up and/or top-down attentional control
mechanisms. Objects that are new, unusual, of high contrast or moving
are salient, and the audience’s attention is more strongly drawn
towards them. such object properties induce bottom-up control of
attention (and are used to accomplish ‘passive misdirection’ in magic
theory [7, 56] or ‘exogenous attentional capture’ in psychology)
because the attention is driven by increased activity in the ascending
sensory system. One way in which a magician might control bottom-up
attention is by suddenly producing a flying dove. The spectators’ gaze
and attention will focus on the dove’s flight, and this will give the
magician a few unattended moments in which he or she can conduct a
secret manoeuvre.

Another facet of bottom-up attention that magicians exploit is the
fact that if more than one movement is visible, spectators will tend
to follow the larger (that is, the more salient) motion [7]. Hence the
magician’s axiom, ‘A big move covers a small move.’ A neural process
that might underlie this axiom is the low-level mechanism of contrast-
gain control (or contrast-gain adaptation) [57]. In contrast-gain
control, the perceived contrast of a stimulus is affected by the
contrast of surrounding stimuli (whereas in contrast-gain adaptation,
the perceived contrast of a stimulus is affected by that of a
preceding stimulus) [58]. A large or fast-moving stimulus might
therefore decrease the perceived salience of a small or more slowly
moving stimulus that is presented either simultaneously (in contrast-
gain control) or subsequently (in contrast-gain adaptation). Novel
stimuli are known to produce stronger neural responses in the
inferotemporal cortex (area IT), the hippocampus, the prefrontal
cortex and the lateral intraparietal area [59, 60, 61, 62, 63]; these
effects are attributed to bottom-up attentional processes.

The salience of an object can also be increased by actively directing
attention to it. For example, a magician might ask a subject to
perform a task that involves one specific object, so that any changes
that are occurring in a second object are missed. Such techniques are
considered to induce top-down attentional control (and are used by
magicians to accomplish ‘active misdirection’ (Refs 7, 56) or by
psychologists to accomplish ‘endogenous attentional capture’) because
they modulate (increase or decrease) neural activity in low-level
brain areas through feedback pathways from high-level brain areas that
are involved in cognitive functions [64]. One example of top-down
attentional modulation is provided by recent work by Chen and
colleagues [65], which shows that neural responses in the primary
visual cortex, an early visual-processing area, are enhanced as a
function of task difficulty during attentional tasks. Another example
of top-down attentional control is when a magician asks the audience
to watch carefully an object that is being manipulated in one hand,
while at the same time conducting a secret action with the other hand.

The principles that underlie attentional capture and contrast-gain
control and adaptation also apply to other sensory systems, for
example the somatosensory system. Pickpockets use techniques similar
to those that are used by magicians (for instance, sleight-of-hand
manoeuvres) to manipulate the awareness and attention of their marks.
One way in which pickpockets manipulate the somatosensory system by
applying the axiom ‘A big move covers a small move’ is as follows. To
steal a watch directly from the wrist of a mark, the pickpocket might
first squeeze the wrist while the watch is still on [66] (invoking
contrast-gain adaptation). This has two effects. First, it makes a
high-contrast somatosensory impression that adapts the touch receptors
in the skin, making them less sensitive to the subsequent light
touches that are required to unbuckle and remove the watch. Second,
the high-contrast impression leaves behind a somatosensory after-
image, giving rise to the illusion that the watch is still on after it
has been removed.

Another way in which magicians can alter an object’s salience is to
split the audience’s attention by introducing several concurrent
actions [24]. If two actions start almost simultaneously, the one that
begins first will usually attract more attention [7, 67]. Social cues,
such as the magician’s gaze (for instance, in the Vanishing-Ball
Illusion), their voice and verbal communication and their body
language (pointing, tension/relaxation), also play an important part
in manipulating the spectator’s attentional spotlight [7].

Misdirection occurs not only in space (what the audience looks at) but
also in time (when the audience looks). Thus, magicians strive to
redirect the audience’s attention away from the moment of the method
and towards the moment of ‘magic’. Indeed, in many magic tricks the
secret action occurs when the spectators think that the trick has not
yet begun, or when they think that the trick is over. Many magicians
use comedy and laughter as a way to reduce focused attention at
critical points in time. The magicians’ term ‘time misdirection’
refers to the deliberate separation of the moment of the method from
the moment of the effect. Usually a delay is introduced between method
(that is, cause) and effect, preventing the spectator from causally
linking the two [7].

Memory illusions and illusory correlations. Magic works in adverse
circumstances: an important part of the entertainment is that
spectators are naturally suspicious and will try to discover the
method behind the trick. Thus, observers of a magic trick will often
try to reconstruct events to understand what happened. However, a
successful magician will either have made it impossible to discover
the method, or will seem to have ruled out all possible methods
(including the actual method) until magic is the only apparent
explanation [7, 68] (see Supplementary information S1 (movie)). The
magician can also influence the spectators’ recall of the performance
by using misdirection: events that draw the spectators’ attention will
be better remembered than less salient events [7, 24, 69]. An
apparently natural or spontaneous action, such as scratching one’s
head, will not be memorable (although it might be critical to the
execution of the trick). Unspoken assumptions and implied information
are also important to both the perception of the magic trick and its
subsequent reconstruction [7]. J.R. has observed that spectators are
more easily lulled into eagerly accepting suggestions and unspoken
information than into accepting direct assertions [70] (see
Supplementary information S2 (movie)). Thus, in the process of
reconstruction, implication can be remembered as direct proof. The
magician can further influence future recollection by describing past
events in a manner that will bias the reconstruction process [7]. This
is known in cognitive science as the ‘misinformation effect’ — that
is, the tendency for misleading information presented after the event
to reduce one’s memory accuracy for the original event. This effect
can even lead to the creation of a ‘false memory’ for events that
never took place [69]. The famous Indian Rope Trick legend might have
partially resulted from the misinformation effect. In the Indian Rope
Trick, a boy climbs a magically suspended rope and disappears at the
top. The magician follows the boy up the rope into the invisible area
at the top and cuts him into pieces (evidenced by the bloody body
parts falling from the invisible area down to the ground). The
magician then descends the rope and magically reintegrates the boy
with no harm done. In fact, the Indian Rope Trick has never been
performed, despite numerous witness accounts [71, 72, 73].

Although the study of false memory and misinformation effects has
become a mainstream topic in cognitive science over the past few
decades, it is possible that the field would have advanced faster if
scientists had looked at the magicians’ intuition of human memory
earlier. Even today, despite the substantial progress that scientists
have already made in this area, the misinformation effect as used by
magicians could be robustly reproduced in the laboratory to study the
neural underpinnings of memory mechanisms and, in particular, false-
memory mechanisms.

Magicians can also make their audiences incorrectly link cause and
effect. We all infer cause and effect in everyday life. When A
precedes B, we often conclude that A causes B. The skilled magician
takes advantage of this inference by making sure that event A (for
example, pouring water on a ball) always precedes event B (in this
case, the ball disappearing). However, A does not actually cause B:
the magician only makes it seem so [74, 75]. This type of illusion —
seeing a correlation that is not there — is termed an ‘illusory
correlation’. Illusory correlations can arise from unequal weighting
of information, from the participants’ expectancies (such as prior
beliefs or stereotypical knowledge) and/or from selective attention
and encoding. In this third possibility, illusory correlations arise
when some events capture more attention or are more likely to be
encoded in memory and remembered than other, less salient, events
[76]. Thus, the magician can effectively use misdirection techniques
to draw illusory correlations between two unrelated events. Just as
visual scientists use visual illusions to identify the neural
mechanisms of perception, neuroscientists could use illusory
correlations to identify the neural mechanisms that underlie the
cognitive computations of cause and effect. In a recent study by
Parris and colleagues [77], participants underwent functional MRI
(fMRI) while watching films of magic tricks that involved apparent
cause–effect violations. The brain activation that was induced by the
watching of these films was compared with the activation that occurred
in a control condition in which participants watched video clips of
events that did not involve apparent causal violations. The results
showed greater activation in inferior medial frontal areas during the
viewing of magic tricks than during the viewing of the control videos.

The illusion of trust. Pickpockets rely heavily on social
misdirection. Gaze contact, body contact [7] and invasion of the
mark’s personal space [24] are effective misdirection techniques (see
Supplementary information S3 (movie)). Further, magicians and
professional pickpockets use established techniques of persuasion to
manipulate the trust of their audiences/marks. Some of these
principles are also used by confidence artists in various scams and
frauds. Brain-imaging studies of subjects playing online trust-
building games show that activation in the paracingulate cortex is
critical to building a trusting relationship. This activation seems to
be related to inferring the partner’s intentions so as to predict
their behaviour [78]. Once trust was established, activity in the
ventral tegmental area, which is linked to the evaluation of expected
and realized reward, was correlated with the maintenance of
‘conditional trust’ (Refs 79, 80). ‘Unconditional trust’ was
correlated with activity in the septal area, which is linked to social
attachment [81, 82, 83]. Future research will determine the role of
conditional versus unconditional trust in confidence fraud schemes.
Neuroscientists can take advantage of the persuasion techniques that
are used by magicians and pickpockets to identify the neural circuits
that underlie feelings of trust and mistrust.

Magic principles
Various principles of stage magic aim to manipulate attention and
awareness. These principles have been identified by magicians and have
been refined over the centuries to great effect. The time is now ripe
to take them into the laboratory and use them to guide new and more
powerful experimental testing and careful quantification. This would
elucidate the mechanistic pathways in the brain that allow magic
tricks to work and would also generate novel and robust laboratory
techniques for studying attention and awareness. A number of magic
principles were discussed during the Magic of Consciousness symposium
during the 11th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Scientific
Study of Consciousness (Box 2); they are reviewed below.

An action is a motion that has a purpose. During the execution of a
magic trick, it is necessary to use unnatural actions. Thus, the
magician needs to reduce the audience’s suspicion about such actions.
One way to do this is to justify unnatural actions so that they seem
natural [7]. Teller [74] refers to this principle with the aphorism,
“An action is a motion with a purpose.”

In everyday life we categorize the motions made by others by
interpreting their intentions. If we see somebody pushing their
glasses higher on the bridge of their nose, we assume that the glasses
needed adjustment, and no further interpretation is made. A good
magician makes use of such innocent actions to hide ulterior motions
in a process called ‘informing the motion’. For instance, magicians
with a mute on-stage persona, like Teller, can take advantage of the
glasses-pushing action to discreetly hide a small object in their
mouth (being mute, they have no lines to garble). A less clever
magician might do the same motion (moving the hand over the mouth)
without informing it with a purpose (adjusting one’s glasses). Such a
motion will be subject to suspicion and scrutiny. In that case, even
if the spectators have not seen exactly how the trick works, they
might feel that something is amiss. The skilled magician informs every
motion with a convincing intention (see Supplementary information S4

Apparent repetition, priming and ‘closing all the doors’. In everyday
life, by repeatedly observing a process we are able to deduce its
workings. Priming is a type of repetition effect in which the
presentation of a stimulus that is similar to a target makes
subsequent presentations of the target perceptually more salient [84].
Priming is used experimentally, and by the magician, to affect the
subject’s sensitivity to a later presentation of a particular
stimulus. Moreover, repetition can be used to induce sensory
illusions, as in the Vanishing-Ball Illusion described earlier.
Spectators are more likely to perceive the illusory ball vanishing in
mid-flight if an actual ball has been tossed several times first, so
that they are primed to know what an actual tossed ball looks like
[85]. Thus, priming and repetition can be helpful in inducing some
illusory effects. Magicians also use repetition to hide the method
behind the trick: when observers see an effect repeated, they
naturally assume that each repetition is done by the same method. But
the magician can covertly change the method that underlies each
apparent repetition of the effect. Indeed, when a good magician
repeats an effect, the method is varied in imperceptible ways and in
an unpredictable rhythm. That way, each time observers suspect one
method is being used, they find their suspicion disproved by the
subsequent repetition [74] (see Supplementary information S4 (movie)
and S5 (movie)). The magician might even deliberately raise suspicion
about a possible method and then show that suspicion to be unfounded
[7]. In this way, the magician closes the door on every possible
explanation for the trick [68, 73, 86], until the only remaining
possibility is ‘magic’. This tactic is referred to as Tamariz’s Theory
of False Solutions (see Supplementary information S1 (movie)). The use
of apparent repetition has the added benefit of confusing the
spectators’ reconstruction process. Further, the specific weaknesses
of each method will cancel each other out [7].

Never do the same trick twice. The corollary of the closing all the
doors principle is that if the magician performs the same trick twice
for the same audience, there is an increased chance that the audience
will identify the method that is being used and figure out the trick
[87] (see Supplementary information S5 (movie)). In several studies by
Kuhn and colleagues, most observers caught the method when the trick
was shown a second time [35, 36, 40, 88]. Similarly, most
inattentional-blindness demonstrations are a one-time-only kind of
effect. Observers are much more likely to see the gorilla the second
time they watch the basketball video described earlier [33].

Magic combines multiple principles of attention, awareness, trust and
perception to both overtly and covertly misdirect the audience.
Whether they are used for performance art or as a means to illicitly
separate victims from their money and valuables, the accomplished
performer uses robust and intuitive manipulative devices that are of
great interest to neuroscientists pursuing the neural underpinnings of
cognition, memory, sensation, social attachment, causal inference and
awareness. Among these devices, we would like to emphasize the use of
misdirection as a means to generate cognitive illusions such as
inattentional blindness, change blindness, memory illusions and
illusory correlations. Magicians are able to obtain these effects
under conditions of high scrutiny show after show. Some of the crucial
principles one needs to take into account when designing a robust
trick are the understanding that every motion should seem to have a
purpose, that the magician should not perform the same exact trick
twice, and that the most successful tricks use apparent repetition to
close all the doors on every possible explanation of the trick except
for ‘magic’ itself.

Cognitive neuroscience endeavors to reverse-engineer the entire
spectrum of cognition by determining the neural correlates of the
various cognitive processes that make up our lives. Magic techniques
can provide methods and insights that could help to explain what
happens in the brain when a spectator thinks he knows what happened on
stage [73]. The possibilities of using magic as a source of cognitive
illusions to help isolate the neural circuits that underlie specific
cognitive functions are endless. For example, the magicians authoring
this article emphasize the use of humour as a critical aid to the
successful implementation of many tricks. Their intuition is that when
the audience is laughing it is as if time stops and the attentional
spotlight is put on hold. That is, the magician can do virtually
anything when the audience is laughing, and nobody will notice.
Recording neural activity (by fMRI, electroencephalogram,
magnetoencephalography, et cetera) in someone who is watching magic
tricks that are accompanied by humour might help researchers determine
the potential interaction between the allocation of attention and the
sensation of mirth. Further possibilities range far beyond the uses of
magic that have already been tried experimentally in cognitive
science, such as the employment of magic palming techniques to direct
subjects into confabulating their reasons for choices that they did
not actually make [89, 90] (Box 3). Magical cognitive illusions are
furthermore an outstanding method by which to dissociate the perceived
contents of awareness from the actual physical events. That is, one
primary purpose of magic is to segregate those events that the
magician does not want the observers to be aware of from those that
the magician does want them to be aware of. We propose therefore that
magical techniques that manipulate attention and awareness can be
exploited to directly study the behavioural and neural basis of
consciousness itself, for instance through the use of brain imaging
and other neural recording techniques. If neuroscience researchers
succeed in adopting magical methods with the same alacrity as
professional magicians, they too should be able to control sensory
awareness precisely and in real-time, while at the same time assessing
the neural activation that is associated with it.







Wu Tang Clan promote unity through chess
Clan leader RZA unveils WuChess, his social network for hip-hop chess-heads worldwide
BY Sean Michaels  /  June 4, 2008

Fifteen years after 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang Clan have turned their
attention to 64 black and white squares. The hip-hop group’s latest
project isn’t a Method Man album or a street-level mixtape – it’s
WuChess.com, “the world’s first online chess and urban social
network”. The combination of rap and online chess might not seem like
an obvious fit, but the Wu have always been unabashed in their non-
bling interests, from kung fu to comic books and science fiction. And
chess has long been a passion of founding Clan-member RZA, who created
WuChess together with social network ChessPark.com. For a $48 (£24)
annual fee, WuChess subscribers can play against hip-hop chess-heads
worldwide, form “chess clans” to group their rankings, and even
compete against chess-playing rappers like the RZA himself. A “large
part” of WuChess’ revenue will be donated to the Hip-Hop Chess
Federation – whose almost ridiculously cool mission statement is to
use “chess, music and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and non-

email : help [at] wuchess [dot] com


“In an interview in his Manhattan hotel room last month, RZA played a
blitz game against the chess columnist for The Times. Readers who want
to see what happened can replay the game [above].”

Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Hip-Hop Chess Champion  /  June 8, 2008

Rap artist RZA, who is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, has an
interesting sideline occupation: recreational chess champion. RZA
(pronounced RIZ-a) sat down with New York Times chess man Dylan
McClain to talk about his love of the game. At the Mandarin Oriental
Hotel, the duo played a game and discussed how RZA became involved
with chess and what it means to him. One can see a virtual
representation of the game that RZA played with McClain online. While
RZA is the Hip-Hop Chess title belt holder–it’s a chess tournament
consisting of rap artists and martial arts practioners– McClain
managed to beat the champ. There’s video attached to the Times article
as the interview and the game progresses that’s very watchable.

RZA said he got involved in chess when he was a young man, when he
couldn’t even afford a board. He eventually wound up losing not only
matches, but his virginity to the girl who taught him the game. He
encourages other young people to take up the sport, emphasizing that
it stresses the importance of long-term thinking to a community that
frequently doesn’t see very far beyond the present. “The way you have
to think in chess is good for everyday thinking, really, especially
for brothers in the urban community who never take that second look,
never take that second thought.” The Wu-Tang Clan has a site called
WuChess, that allows participants to practice their board-battling
skills online. A tour of that site is available here. In the 1994 Boaz
Yakin-directed film “Fresh,” a young boy is mentored in the ways of
chess and transfers the Machiavellian strategies he learns from his
instructor (Samuel L. Jackson) to extricate himself from a harrowing
home life situation. [great movie too]

“Chess is a way of being aggressive without being physical. You’re
beating someone with your mind.” And when you lose, RZA points out,
you feel it — someone defeated your intellect. While mixing his new
album Digi Snacks, RZA would kill break-time with games of chess.
“Let’s say I’ve got an eight hour recording sessions,” the rapper
says. “Four hours of that is downtime.” Four hours of downtime means
lots and lots of in studio-chess games. “This week I’ve probably
played 50 games of chess,” says RZA — on a Wednesday.

But what does hip-hop have to do with chess? Everything. “Chess is
like battling — you know when two rappers face off,” says RZA. “Both
are really a flow of ideas that connect and are used to gain an
advantage over the opponent.” With that in mind, the Hip Hop Chess
Federation makes perfect sense. Founded by author Adisa Banjoko and
graffiti artist Leo “Blast” Libiran, the organization seeks to give
youngsters life tools via music, martial arts and, well, chess. RZA
first befriended the organizations founds a couple years back, but
didn’t become a full-fledged member until a year and a half ago. “The
idea is that chess can spark some young minds,” says RZA. “Show kids
that they need to plan ahead and think.” Last fall, RZA took first
place in the HHCF 8 man tournament in San Francisco, which raised
$10,000 in scholarship money for Bay Area schools.

This year, RZA is taking his love of chess online with WuChess. The
online gaming and social networking site lets players virtually face
off, create profiles, chat, join chess clans. “We’re trying to show
that chess isn’t just for nerds or old guys in the park,” the
recording artist points out. So RZA, what’s the difference between
online chess and real chess? “It’s easier to cheat.”






RZA Wins HHCF Chess Kings Invitational


RZA Demolishes a Cipher at the HHCF Closing


RZA, Josh Waitzkin & QBert Playing Chess at HHCF


Where Hip-Hop, Martial Arts and Chess Meet
BY Dylan Loeb McClain  /  October 21, 2007

“Hip-hop is a battle game,” he said. “Chess is a battle. Martial arts
is a battle.” The three disciplines came together on Oct. 13 in the
Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center, where the Hip-Hop Chess
Federation held the Kings Invitational tournament. The federation,
founded by the writer and lecturer Adisa Banjoko and Leo Libiran, a
visual artist, seeks to use “music, chess and martial arts to promote
unity, strategy and nonviolence,” according to its Web site. The
tournament’s competitors included six hip-hop stars — RZA; GZA,
another founder of the Wu-Tang Clan; Monk of the Black Knights, a Wu-
Tang affiliate; Casual, of the group Hieroglyphics; Sunspot Jonz, from
Living Legends Crew; and Paris. Rounding out the field were Ralek
Gracie, a martial arts fighter, and Amir Sulaiman, a poet who has
appeared on the HBO program “Def Poetry Jam.”

Although he did not play in the tournament — it would hardly have been
fair — Josh Waitzkin, the former chess prodigy whose life was the
basis of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” took part in a panel
discussion about hip-hop, chess and martial arts. Waitzkin, an
international master, took up martial arts nine years ago, and by
2004, he had won two world titles in tai chi chuan. He wrote about his
experiences in “The Art of Learning” (Free Press, 2007). The
tournament also featured two scholastic chess tournaments — a 16-
player invitational that offered $10,000 in scholarships, and an open.
The video game publisher Ubisoft, which makes Chessmaster and other
programs, provided most of the money for the scholarships and to
sponsor the event. Chesspark, an Internet chess-playing site, was
another sponsor.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s connection to martial arts goes back to its
beginnings in 1992. RZA and GZA, who are cousins and who grew up
together on Staten Island, learned to play chess when they were young,
but did not play often. “Me and RZA would have been playing when we
was kids if we had had a board,” GZA said. GZA, the acknowledged
master lyricist of Wu-Tang, said there were similarities between
writing and chess. “Writing is sort of like chess for me,” he said.
“You have to think carefully before you move, thinking, planning. In
chess, you have to bring all the pieces into the game. It is about
development. In writing, you have to develop the story.”

RZA said chess was important to his creative process. “We keep a chess
board in the studio,” he said. “When I play chess, I am working. I
have 100 ideas running through my mind. When I am on the chess board,
I focus on nothing else.” RZA and GZA said they played in the Kings
Invitational and became involved in the Hip-Hop Chess Federation
because they believe chess can have a positive influence on young
people. “You are like a sponge when you are young,” GZA said. “Kids
are not being stimulated. Chess is a game of stimulation.”

It is hard to know how good RZA and GZA are at chess, but in the
opening sequence of the “General Principles” video, GZA, playing Black
in the diagram, wins after 1 Re1 de/N, forking the White king and
queen. RZA won the Kings Invitational with a perfect record of 4-0.
(GZA was 3-1, his one loss coming in his match with RZA.) In the last
round, RZA beat Monk, who was winning but who overlooked a back-rank
mate. Maybe that will end up being the title of a song on a future
















Searching for Fischer’s Legacy  /  By Mike Klein  /  January 19, 2008
“Another prominent chess figure who owes his early notoriety to
Fischer is Bruce Pandolfini, whose post-collegiate career got a jump
start after his wildly popular broadcast coverage of the 1972 Fischer-
Spassky World Championship Match. Students have been contacting him
for lessons ever since. Pandolfini’s protégés, often some of the most
talented in the country, will be given honest treatment of his career
from their teacher; to do otherwise would be disingenuous. Today’s
chess teachers will become the stewards of Fischer’s legacy to the
next generation of chess enthusiasts. “Chess is about truth,”
Pandolfini said, “so it goes against the grain of the game to distort
it.” Fischer’s legacy is omnipresent in chess culture, so there is no
doubt that students will be asking about him for years to come.
Consider: “Game of the Century,” The Fischer Generation, Fischer Fear,
Fischer Clock, Fischer Random Chess, Fischer Attack and Fischer
Defense (versus the Sicilian and King’s Gambit, respectively).
Pandolfini echoed Polgar – both had generally propitious personal
interactions with Fischer, with some exceptions. “He was actually very
polite,” Pandolfini said. “I can remember him sitting with 1400
players analyzing as if they were equals, simply because he was
intrigued by the variations they were looking at.”





By Malcolm Venable  /   January 17, 2008

“There really are only two periods in hip-hop history: before Wu-Tang
Clan and after . Given the group’s near domination of rap in the ’90s,
it’s tempting to remember the pre-Wu-Tang landscape as stale, but hip-
hop was actually thriving. In 1992, A Tribe Called Quest, Redman and
KRS-One were relevant, Mary J. Blige had been named the – queen of hip-
hop soul – and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” ignited a West Coast musical
movement that stole the spotlight from New York rap. Hip-hop was
healthy and diverse then – nowhere near as dull as it is now – so it
was all the more shocking when, in 1993, a nine-man band of pot-
smoking, Timberland-wearing weirdos from Staten Island stomped into
music with their wildly innovative album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36

Swiping the mythology from ’70s kung-fu flicks, the band hijacked the
Chinese B-movies’ language and mysticism, re-appropriating the flicks
to their dismal ghetto, which they nicknamed Shaolin.  Building buzz
from the ground up with a first single, the group’s   debut eventually
sold more than  a million records. More importantly though, they
created a business structure that remains a blueprint for legions of
aspiring rap titans. Part of Wu-Tang’s genius lies in its mystique.
Every member had a calculated persona and role: there was RZA,  the
group’s chief musical producer, his cousin the GZA/Genius,  and an
accompanying cast of characters with perplexing names like U-God,
Masta Killah, Method Man  and Inspectah Deck.   Ol’ Dirty Bastard was
their drunken monk. Ghostface Killah never showed his face. Huh?

Their language was also odd and challenging; you often felt you needed
a ghetto Rosetta Stone to decipher what you were hearing. In one Wu-
Tang song, it was entirely possible   to get overt or subtle
references to martial  arts, drugs, Eastern philosophy, guns,
religion, black history, violence, chess, sex, metaphysics, ghetto
theater, vegetarianism and the Nation of Islam splinter group the Five
Percent Nation. To boot, it appealed not only to hip-hop heads in
cities but to kids from Iowa to Japan. The icing was Wu-Tang’s sound.
Wu-Tang had a fiercely hard-core sound, characterized by gritty, low-
fi beats, Asian flourishes and samples from karate movies. Wu-Tang
music almost always felt cold, detached and spooky; even when they
were celebrating, things felt bleak.

If Wu-Tang’s  music was revolutionary, its  business strategy was
brilliant. In a then-unprecedented move, the group  signed its
initial record deal on the condition that every member of the crew be
allowed to pursue and release solo projects. The Wu  swarmed the
industry, releasing a string of albums from 1994 to 1996 that had
critics frothing at the mouth and still sound urgent today. Wu-Tang
was everywhere, from dorm rooms to dance halls to smoky cars, though
not as much on the radio since its  music was so defiantly
noncommercial. Competition was nil. They owned the era.”


Robert Diggs, a.k.a. the RZA
BY Mike Eskenazi  /  Friday, Nov. 17, 2000

TIME: How much has it helped your business that the Clan members can
go work for other entertainment companies, such as film and record
companies, and bring industry secrets back with them?

The RZA: That was my original strategy — to have artists placed in
different locations, then get those different labels to work together
for my brand. Of course I learned that’s not easy to do because the
labels are in competition with one another. There was only one year
[1995] that they all listened to me, and that turned out to be a great
year for everybody. Geffen, Loud, Def Jam and Elektra got together and
bought this thing called the Wu Family Tree, which is a bin they put
in record stores. It had the GZA record, the Wu-Tang record, the
Method Man record and so forth. Everybody in the bin’s sales doubled
the month it was introduced. But that only happened on one campaign,
and that was because the people on that campaign were all good people
with each other, for instance, the people from Geffen knew the people
from Loud, etc.

TIME: How do you see things differently now from three years ago, when
the last Wu-Tang album was released?

The RZA: I’m moving more toward looking at the integrity of the brand.
My outlook ain’t really about how much revenue we’re making right now.
The purity of the W is more where my heart is at. I ain’t gonna front
you. Our hands are in a lot of directions. What I’m trying to do now
is consolidate and take my “W” off things that are not representing it
properly. Take, for example, Wu Tang Records. We’ve got groups such as
Black Knights on Wu Tang Records, but they’re not Wu-Tang Clan, you
know what I mean? We’re not putting our logo on our secondary artists
no more. We’re telling them, let them build off our strength and use
our expertise, but build within their own strength. Basically, the “W”
will only be our finest products. The ones we all agree on.

TIME: Divine says the band should bring in outside people to clean up
your books. What do you think about that?

The RZA: He should do that, but there should be certain limitations.
I’ve been telling him for three years, Look, go to these colleges,
give scholarships and recruit while you’re givin’ out scholarships.
Give scholarships to maybe 10 or 20 kids and recruit 10 or 20 kids and
let’s get this really poppin’, because I know how to pop it. Right now
Divine is attempting to separate the artists from the companies. In
other words, have the artist be artist, have the business people being
business people so we can bring in qualified business workers.

TIME: How long do you think that transition will take?

The RZA: Who knows man, because we did that before. You know we’re a
corporation, but we’re from the street. It’s hard sometimes for the
average person to come work with us. People be scared of us man, I
ain’t even gonna front on you, man. I know TIME’s like a big magazine,
so I don’t like to really be talkin’ like this. But people are
intimidated by us. Say you’re an accountant and you come to our office
and see that many of us and you feel all this pressure not to mess up.
A lot of people have resigned and have left also over the course of
the years, because they think “Yo, I can’t take it, I don’t know if
I’m gonna get punched in my face if I fuck up.” Not that we gonna
punch someone in the face, but there’s just a feeling of intimidation.
The way my niggas talk is just different from them, you know what I

But this corporation is definitely headed in the up direction, and the
key members are focused, which is the main point. In 1997, Wu Wear was
going in its own direction without too much influence from the rest of
the Clan. I took Wu Tang Records by myself and didn’t care what nobody
else said. Razor Sharp [Records] was left up to Divine. Everybody was
like “whatever, whatever” and meeting at the end of the year like,
“how you doin’, how you doin?’ But now it’s like we’re coming together
like we did for the first five years of our career — we’re putting the
energy together. Now we see each other at least three times a week.
Everybody’s there. For instance, Power will come into a meeting and
say “Oh, you guys are dropping an album, let’s make sure we get the
proper advertisement in it this time to cross-promote Wu Wear.”

Instead of Wu Wear having a whole separate budget, let’s look at our
corporation as a whole and consolidate all of our advertising. If we
take the 100,000 we’d normally spend pushing Wu Wear and the 200,000
we’d spend on Razor Sharp and the 200,000 Loud [Records] was gonna
spend on behalf of us and the 200,000 Geffen [Records] was gonna spend
on behalf of us and consolidate it — wow, what an impact.

TIME: Where do you see Wu-Tang Inc in five years?

The RZA: I’m sure we can go public. I’m just not money-lusting right
now. But maybe one day my brother can break into my head and say “Yo
man, let’s go for the money,” and maybe I’ll snap into it. But in five
years? We’re gonna be grown men that succeeded in the American dream.
We came from sleeping on pissy mattresses to Trump Plaza suites. I
used to be a messenger. Back then I couldn’t even get into a lot of
these buildings and now I’m invited to the penthouses. I wish America
would take a look and realize the prodigal children that was produced
from the hells of America. We weren’t produced in heaven, man. I go to
all different countries, and the first thing they see is that I’m
reppin’ America. We got the whole world rapping. I went to China last
year while there was a heavy beef between America and China. As we
went up into some of the provinces and I met with some of the people
there, they were very impressed with me. They felt very comfortable
talking to me and very comfortable relating to me. And felt very at
ease talking about things. And I’m saying to myself “Ya see, America
needs a diplomat like me, someone the people can feel and understand
that can get with Dien Bien Phu and with these old men out there.

The Wu-Tang Manual: Enter the 36 Chambers, Volume One (Paperback)
pass: http://www.cuban-linx.net

“In 1995, at a record release party for Liquid Swords, the infamous
hip-hop group, The Wu-Tang Clan, met Shifu Shi Yan Ming for the first
time. RZA, the Wu-Tang’s producer and master-mind described this
encounter as an act of destiny. The seeds of a great friendship were
sown from their first meeting in1995. RZA became both a close friend
and a student of Shifu. RZA began to study Kung fu, Qi Gong, Tai Qi
Chuan, all of which are ways of practicing Chan Philosophy. RZA and
The Wu-Tang Clan had been drawn to martial arts philosophy for some
time, as reflected in their name. Meeting Shifu, RZA recounted, made
him realize that kung fu is more than just a fighting style–“kung fu
is about the cultivation of the spirit.”

In 1999, RZA traveled with Shifu and the students of the USA Shaolin
Temple to Henan, China where they visited the original Shaolin Temple–
Shifu’s home and the birth place of Shaolin Kung fu and Chan
Philosophy. This was Shifu’s first trip back to China since he
defected in 1992. Shifu described the 1999 trip to China as a return
home — both for himself and his students who were now able to see the
Shaolin Temple for the very first time. It was a monumental trip for
everyone. As RZA put it, the trip could only be described with one
word: “Enlightenment.”

The Wu-Tang Manual is an encyclopedia of Wu Philosophy. It tells the
story of the Wu-Tang Clan and how martial arts or Chan Philosophy has
influenced the WuTang. The WuTang Manual is filled with illustrations,
photos, excerpts, and philosophy–all written by the members
themselves. In a way it is both a memoir and an educational guidebook.
Essentially the manual is the story of how philosophy can be applied
to daily life and the story of how age-old wisdom of Shaolin Monks in
China and the art and rhythm of contemporary life in the urban world
can come together in harmony.”

Introduced and Coordinated by Sophia Chang

SIFU SHI YAN-MING came to the US in ’92 on the first-ever Shaolin
Temple Monks’ American Tour. On the last date of the tour, in San
Francisco, he snuck out in the middle of the night, eluding the
watchful eye of the Chinese government chaperones. He jumped into a
cab, speaking no English, with nothing but a little money, a copy of
his passport and some newspaper articles that featured him. Once in
the cab, he could only signal with his hands which direction to go.
The cabbie, realizing that his passenger had no idea what his
destination was, pulled over and called the police, who arrived almost
immediately. Upon inspecting Shi Yan-Ming’s passport copy and
articles, they understood he was trying to defect and ordered the
driver to take him to Chinatown. The driver dropped him off at the
nearest Chinese restaurant. Shi Yan-Ming was thrilled to see the
Chinese writing. Unfortunately, the restaurant owners spoke Cantonese
(the Canton/Hong Kong dialect), which is very different from his
native Mandarin. They finally communicated with each other through
writing (Chinese is a pictorial language and can be understood by
people of different dialects because though it may be said
differently, it is written the same). Luckily Shi Yan-Ming remembered
the number of a friend in New York who in turn called his friend in
San Francisco (whose number he had forgotten in the hotel room) who
came and picked him up. He stayed underground for a week and then made
his way to New York where he lived upstate at a Buddhist temple, then
at another temple in Chinatown before opening his own USA Shaolin
Temple, where he now teaches Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Buddhism and
meditation. — Sophia Chang

Scheduling an interview with the RZA isn’t as hard as you think – but
making it happen is much harder than you could possibly imagine. The
Godfather of the Clan only gets busier as the Wu Empire expands, so
tracking him down to do this interview is no small feat. 45 minutes on
the NJ Turnpike isn’t so bad, but the 45 once we get off the Turnpike
is a winding journey in the dark. Sifu Shi Yan-Ming, a 34th generation
Shaolin Temple fighting monk sighs, “Ah, trees.” It’s almost 1:00 am
by the time we pull up to the formidable Wu Mansion looming grandly in
the dark. (Is it really shaped like the Wu logo?) Once summoned to the
RZA’s antechamber, Sifu is delighted to see that Tony Starks a/k/a
Ghostface Killah has just arrived as well. Sifu, RZA and Ghost sit
down on the floor and discuss Chan Buddhism (Chinese Zen), Islam, the
Tao Te Ching, meditation, the history of Shaolin Temple and its Ching
Dynasty heroes Wong Fei Hong and Fong Sai Yuk (both played often and
excellently by actor Jet Li), stretching and Chi Kung, among other
subjects. Than comes the RZA’s audio-visual presentation: he plays
Sifu five new incredible beats he’s been working on and shares his
techniques; he shows Sifu the raw footage from his “Tragedy” video
(which is far better than the video itself) and some of his favorite
scenes from various kung fu movies. At one point RZA disappears
upstairs and redescends with champagne glasses and an extraordinary
bottle of ’88 vintage Dom Perignon – “very special water” as Sifu
calls it, as opposed to bear, which is simply “special water.” (The
emperor of the Tang Dynasty ordained that Shaolin Temple monks could
eat meat and drink alcohol – but not on the grounds of the Temple –
because they saved his life). They’re left alone with only the music
and the bottle of DP…

RZA: Tell ’em about the Zen [Chan in Chinese] Buddhism.

Sifu Shi Yan-Ming: Zen Buddhism, if you talk about Zen Buddhism, you
cannot say “this is Zen Buddhism.”

RZA: So, it can’t be described in words.

Sifu: It’s very important: mind to mind and heart to heart. The Zen
Buddhism founder, Damo [also known as Bodhidarma], after him until the
fifth generation [of disciples chosen to pass on the teachings] never
wrote down any words. But the sixth generation, Hui Neng, he wrote
different books explaining about Zen. He wanted to let people know
about Zen Buddhism.

RZA: But you never could really describe it in writing.

Sifu: Chan can be everything, also can be nothing. This is basic talk.

RZA: So it’s like the great everything but it’s also the small
nothing. I understand. Talk about Wu-Tang and how it came from
Shaolin. Talk about the Wu-Tang founder.

Sifu: Wu-Tang founder was Zhangsanfeng from the Yuan Dynasty. From the
Yuan Dynasty until now [is] like 745 years. He’s a true person, a real
person. He studied at Shaolin Temple for ten years. After he did some
bad things. Fight a lot. Shaolin Temple Abbot and all the monks

RZA: “You got to go.”

Sifu: Yeah. He founded another mountain called Wudang, English say Wu-

RZA: So he went to the mountain and then he realized that he was doing
wrong? Did he ever realize that he was bad and then change himself?

Sifu: He did things because he was young. Everybody at Shaolin Temple
doesn’t want to be bad parson because they studied philosophy and Zen
Buddhism. And master and all the monks, different teachers, learn from
Buddha and different Boddhisattvas: Always be a good person, don’t be
bad. Maybe he did it on purpose. After he felt he did bad things, he
tried to change. After, he found Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province.

RZA: What about Hunggar?

Sifu: Hunggar from Ching Dynasty. Shaolin Temple monks helped the
emperor but the emperor fought with the Manchus. The Manchus were
angry at the Shaolin Temple monks and thought the Shaolin Temple monks
help somebody kill them. They were very angry.

RZA: I saw a movie called Death Chamber that said that the Manchus
sent 4,000 men into attack 400 Shaolin men.

Sifu: It’s true. Shaolin Temple monks – one person can fight a lot of
different people. Hunggar is from Shaolin disciple Hong Xi Guan, he
was Master Zheshan’s disciple. Hunggar has Small Red Fist, Big Red
Fist, and Oldest Fist. Now, especially in America, people don’t know
Hunggar. Chinese people came to America from Ching Dynasty, from Hong
Kong and Canton. Lots of people know a little bit of martial arts;
they don’t want to work too hard. They try to do differently, they try
to teach. But only know like a small part of martial arts.

RZA: … and fool a lot of people. But you have been in Shaolin from the
age of five, studying over 25 years – and not just studying martial
arts but also Chan Buddhism and the philosophy and knowin’ how to
really live life in all walks of life and how everything is kung fu,
everything is a martial art.

Sifu: Exactly. Everywhere you can stay, you don’t have to feel bad. If
you want to do something, in the future, if you try your best, you
have to be happy. If you can, you be happy. Nothing different. Try
keep your heart flat.

RZA: Keep your heart flat, neutral.

Sifu: Yes.

RZA: You know, where I come from – New York, Staten Island – we call
it Shaolin. I’m representing the Wu-Tang Clan, but you came from the
actual Shaolin Temple in Henan Province in China. What was it like to
grow up in a place like that? Was it hard training?

Sifu: Before it was, yeah, feel differently. But little by little find
out love – Zen Buddhism and Shaolin Temple changed my life. I feel
very comfortable.

RZA: Were you doing a lot of rigorous training? Liftin’ a lot of
stuff, carryin’ heavy things, readin’ everyday? How was your average

Sifu: We woke up at 4:00 in the morning. Same monks meditate and pray,
some monks practice martial arts for two hours. At 6:00 stop, rest
half an hour. 6:30 we have breakfast. After breakfast at 7:00 we do
one hour meditation and read some books and try to do different things
– like now there are a lot of tours that come to Shaolin Temple.
Shaolin Temple opened to tourists in 1978. At 8:00 we opened the door
and let tours come in and have to take care of a lot of tourists,
cleaning. Shaolin Temple have a lot of different buildings made of
wood; you have to be careful, because a lot of people pray and lot of
incense burn. We open door from 8:00 until 11:30. 11:30 lunchtime for
half hour. After we change, different monks.

RZA: Change the shifts. Different monks come.

Sifu: Right. They go to have lunch, we go to work. It you work is the
morning, you don’t work in the afternoon – you practice, pray and
meditation until 6:30 in the evening we have dinner. After, we close
the doors and inside we clean and also pray and meditation, reading,
practice kung fu. We go to bed, 10:00. From 10:00 we have three
sections: 10:00 ’til 1:00 have different monks, like kung fu fighting
monks take care of Temple, walk around. Like each group for three

RZA: I seen s movie Masta Killa: 36 Chamber, he had to carry the
water. Did you carry water and staff like that?

Sifu: Yes, we did.

RZA: And then there are a lot of obstacles you gotta go through?

Sifu: We made different kinds of training styles.

RZA: So it’s different training you would do – while you’re workin’,
you’re tranin’.

Sifu: Exactly, you walk like wind, you sleep like bow, stand like big
tree, and your movements, your footwork, like drunken, someone cannot
understand you, and also your head is wavy like the ocean water, end
especially your waist.

RZA: Constantly moving, your waist has to be very flexible.

Sifu: Have to. It’s like the center. If your waist is too stiff, it’s
not good for you.

RZA: What’s a good way to loosen the waist? Bending, stretching?

Sifu: Bending not enough. Depends. Must see mind – is very important

RZA: So it’s like year mind must be so much in tune with your body
that you can make your body shape anyway you want because your mind
controls it. Like I once thought that the same energy you put into
sex, that’s a lot of energy, you should be able to put that into any
move that you make, do you agree with that? You should be able to put
that into anything.

Sifu: Yin and Yang. Men are Yang, women are Yin. Man end woman
together very natural, it’s no problem, very good. But if too much,
you lose a lot of chi.

RZA: That’s my problem, Sifu. Too much woman.

Sifu: You have to control yourself.

RZA: In the hip-hop world, that’s a hard thing to do. But that’s part
of martial art training: you’ve gotta control your desires. You know
there’s many people that believe in a lot of myths about Shaolin. Talk
about some of the things that can be done, as far as the strength that
you can get with that… Like how you broke the bricks on year head.

Sifu: Shaolin Temple has many different kind of styles: empty hands,
like 36 internal and 36 external styles. And also have every different
weapon. Usually they talk about 18 weapons, but much more than that.

RZA: How many different weapons have you learned to use?

Sifu: I can do all different weapons.

RZA: Is the hands the best?

Sifu: I feel it’s the same.

RZA: That’s great. You know how martial arts movies that they made in
the ’70s as we was growing up had a big effect on the music and the
hip-hop culture in America. We learned a lot just from watching the
movies end trying to see the brotherhood and the loyalty that was
there. How does that feel to you to know that your culture was able to
influence a culture over here? Do you think that’s something good?

Sifu: Of course it’s good. Some movies they made is very good, some
movies they made is so-so. A lot of people don’t understand movies,
they think it’s real sometimes, they think it’s true, but it’s not.
Like some actors don’t know martial arts but they made a movie look
like real.

RZA: Yeah, I just did a video.

Sifu: Excellent. You know first time I saw your video, oh my God, I
can’t stop laughing. I love very much. Before I said, “Where is Rakim
video? I cannot see!” My god. All the time I check Channel 20 [MTV]
and Channel 42 BET]. “Where’s Rakim?” On the phone I talk to you and
it came on. I said “Wow! Now!” So excellent.

RZA: What kind of music are you into? Do you like hip-hop music?

Sifu: In China, all the time I live at Shaolin Temple, different kinds
of music for me is no problem. Especially I know you, I like Wu-Tang
Clan more I heard, I listen, I like! You know, can give you lot of
energy to practice.

RZA: I feel like my music and my lyrics is like kung fu. Like the Wu-
Tang style, we came with that because I like the Wu-Tang sword style –
and the tongue is like a sword and your words can either kill you or
save you in many situations. That’s why with Wu-Tang, we specialize in
what we say. And the music that I make is martial arts driven, and
that’s why I realize that anything that you could do physically, you
could do mentally. And whatever you could do mentally, you should be
able to do physically.

Sifu: Very true. Your tongue, just like sword. Can do anything. And
also you do music, you have to use your chi and if you don’t have
enough chi, you cannot do it. Just like kung fu.

RZA: So he’s saying all you producers who don’t get enough chi energy,
you cannot make good music.

Sifu: This is true.

RZA: I remember you were showing me some Chi Kung.

Sifu: Chi is like your life force. Like your born-chi end after-you’
reborn-outside-chi. try to combine together. Actually, everything – we
talk, we walk, we eat, we sleep – everything you have to use your chi.
Chi can help your life, can also hurt you.

RZA: … destroy your life. So there’s chi in everything, in every
walk of life, in every active force of energy. It’s the principal
behind every energy.

Sifu: Depends how you use your chi. Like you have philosophy share
with people to help world peace.

RZA: Right. So, do you like it in America?

Sifu: Everywhere for monks is same, nothing different.

RZA: It don’t matter what’s around you, it’s what’s inside you. So you
always bring yourself there, you don’t care what’s the environment.
That’s great. Me and Ghostface have been doing come of the Chi Kung
exercises and stretching. It does build up an internal strength. For
me, it made me feel more rooted to the ground, like it made me feel
that every step my toes just grabbed the ground. That’s what I got out
of it.

Sifu: The roots like the tree?

RZA: Yeah, like the roots of the tree. How about the food, you like
the food out here?

Sifu: I think American food, some is good. The fast food is not good
for people’s health because all deep-fried, too much oil. Too much
sugar, too much cheese.

RZA: What you think is going to be your contribution to America?

Sifu: I give the people my best because I know a lot about Zen
Buddhism and philosophy and Shaolin Temple martial arts and also
acupressure and medicine, many different kinds. I want to give to
everybody, everybody enjoy. If help one people, another people think
can help ten people, ten people can help 100 people.

RZA: And it doesn’t matter, you’re not into races and nationalities.
You don’t feel that you want to be greater, you just want to share
with all.

Sifu: This is my opinion, this is my future. I want world peace and
everybody try to think about somebody and take care of somebody. A
country has to think about another country, take care at another
country. I think if everybody thinks like this, the world is very

RZA: If everybody was to help each other it would be more comfortable.
But people these days, Sifu, it’s more every man for himself. But with
that kind of thought and philosophy.., right now, America is
considered by some to be a bad place, ah, they call it Babylon
sometimes. Do you think that a man with your ambition and your desires
for peace will ever find peace in a place like this?

Sifu: I think it depends, on yourself, everywhere. Like I live New
York right now. It you stay here, you have to love here, have to take
care of here. And you take care of everybody and everybody respect you
and take care of you. And if you stay here and you can do well, you
can go anywhere and do well, it’s no problem, no question. And also I
have to tell people, if you like to study martial arts with somebody,
it’s very good but you have to be careful: go to watch class first,
make everything sure, don’t waste your time.

RZA: I’m gonna tell [the GRAND ROYAL readers] this: It you wanna learn
true and living Shaolin martial arts, go to the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple
located at 678 Broadway, third floor. That’s for people who are
interested in coming in to learn true Shaolin Kung Fu, not no
imitation. This is RZArector from the Wu-Tang Clan with Sifu Shi Yan-
Ming, PEACE!

Sifu: AMITABHA! [pronounced o-mi-to-foh] PEACE! The Wu-Tang, Shaolin
[in a voice like the soundbyte from the first Wu-Tang album]


The two emerge as the sun is coming up, still full of energy, warmth
end smiles. Sifu Shi Yan-Ming can’t remember the last time he stayed
up all night, never mind the last time he drank $200 a bottle
champagne end discussed Chan with the #1 hip-hop producer in the world.





NY City Subpoenas Creator of Text Messaging Code
BY Colin Moynihan  /  March 30, 2008

When delegates to the Republican National Convention assembled in New
York in August 2004, the streets and sidewalks near Union Square and
Madison Square Garden filled with demonstrators. Police officers in
helmets formed barriers by stretching orange netting across
intersections. Hordes of bicyclists participated in rolling protests
through nighttime streets, and helicopters hovered overhead.

These tableaus and others were described as they happened in text
messages that spread from mobile phone to mobile phone in New York
City and beyond. The people sending and receiving the messages were
using technology, developed by an anonymous group of artists and
activists called the Institute for Applied Autonomy, that allowed
users to form networks and transmit messages to hundreds or thousands
of telephones.

Although the service, called TXTmob, was widely used by demonstrators,
reporters and possibly even police officers, little was known about
its inventors. Last month, however, the New York City Law Department
issued a subpoena to Tad Hirsch, a doctoral candidate at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote the code that created

Lawyers representing the city in lawsuits filed by hundreds of people
arrested during the convention asked Mr. Hirsch to hand over
voluminous records revealing the content of messages exchanged on his
service and identifying people who sent and received messages. Mr.
Hirsch says that some of the subpoenaed material no longer exists and
that he believes he has the right to keep other information secret.
“There’s a principle at stake here,” he said recently by telephone. “I
think I have a moral responsibility to the people who use my service
to protect their privacy.”

The subpoena, which was issued Feb. 4, instructed Mr. Hirsch, who is
completing his dissertation at M.I.T., to produce a wide range of
material, including all text messages sent via TXTmob during the
convention, the date and time of the messages, information about
people who sent and received messages, and lists of people who used
the service.

In a letter to the Law Department, David B. Rankin, a lawyer for Mr.
Hirsch, called the subpoena “vague” and “overbroad,” and wrote that
seeking information about TXTmob users who have nothing to do with
lawsuits against the city would violate their First Amendment and
privacy rights.

Lawyers for the city declined to comment. The subpoena is connected to
a group of 62 lawsuits against the city that stem from arrests during
the convention and have been consolidated in Federal District Court in
Manhattan. About 1,800 people were arrested and charged, but 90
percent of them ultimately walked away from court without pleading
guilty or being convicted. Many people complained that they were
arrested unjustly, and a State Supreme Court justice chastised the
city after hundreds of people were held by the police for more than 24
hours without a hearing.

The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has called the convention a
success for his department, which he credited with preventing major
disruptions during a turbulent week. He has countered complaints about
police tactics by saying that nearly a million people peacefully
expressed their political opinions, while the convention and the city
functioned smoothly. Mr. Hirsch said that the idea for TXTmob evolved
from conversations about how police departments were adopting
strategies to counter large-scale marches that converged at a single

While preparing for the 2004 political conventions in New York and
Boston, some demonstrators decided to plan decentralized protests in
which small, mobile groups held rallies and roamed the streets. “The
idea was to create a very dynamic, fluid environment,” Mr. Hirsch
said. “We wanted to transform areas around the entire city into
theaters of dissent.”

Organizers wanted to enable people in different areas to spread word
of what they were seeing in each spot and to coordinate their
movements. Mr. Hirsch said that he wrote the TXTmob code over about
two weeks. After a trial run in Boston during the Democratic National
Convention, the service was in wide use during the Republican
convention in New York. Hundreds of people went to the TXTmob Web site
and joined user groups at no charge.

As a result, when members of the War Resisters League were arrested
after starting to march up Broadway, or when Republican delegates
attended a performance of “The Lion King” on West 42nd Street, a
server under a desk in Cambridge, Mass., transmitted messages
detailing the action, often while scenes on the streets were still

Messages were exchanged by self-organized first-aid volunteers,
demonstrators urging each other on and even by people in far-flung
cities who simply wanted to trade thoughts or opinions with those on
the streets of New York. Reporters began monitoring the messages too,
looking for word of breaking news and rushing to spots where mass
arrests were said to be taking place. And Mr. Hirsch said he thought
it likely that police officers were among those receiving TXTmob
messages on their phones.

It is difficult to know for sure who received messages, but an
examination of police surveillance documents prepared in 2003 and
2004, and unsealed by a federal magistrate last year, makes it clear
that the authorities were aware of TXTmob at least a month before the
Republican convention began.

A document marked “N.Y.P.D. SECRET” and dated July 26, 2004, included
the address of the TXTmob Web site and stated, “It is anticipated that
text messaging is one of several different communications systems that
will be utilized to organize the upcoming RNC protests.”


Tad Hirsch
email : tad [at] media [dot] mit [dot] edu

John Henry
Institute for Applied Autonomy
email : iaa [at] appliedautonomy [dot] com


TXTmob: Text Messaging For Protest Swarms
BY Tad Hirsch and John Henry

Abstract: “This paper describes cell phone text messaging during the
2004 US Democratic and Republican National Conventions by protesters
using TXTmob – a text-message broadcast system developed by the
authors.  Drawing upon analysis of TXTmob messages, user interviews,
self-reporting, and news media accounts, we describe the ways that
activists used text messaging to share information and coordinate
actions during decentralized protests. We argue that text messaging
supports new forms of distributed participation in mass mobilizations.




Competition to Offer Prizes and SMS Platform to Grassroots NGOs  /
Sep. 17, 2007
nGOmobile initiative highlights the benefits of mobile technology in
the developing world

CAMBRIDGE, England, Sept. 17 /PRNewswire/ — Mobile technology
organization kiwanja.net has launched its latest non-profit mobile
initiative – nGOmobile, a competition to help grassroots NGOs take
advantage of text messaging.

The explosive entry of mobile technology into the developing world has
opened up a raft of opportunities for the non-profit sector. Text
messaging has proved itself to be remarkably versatile, helping remind
patients to take their medicine, providing market prices to farmers
and fishermen, distributing health information, allowing the reporting
of human rights abuses and promoting increased citizen participation
in government. While the list may be long, not everyone has been able
to reap the benefits.

nGOmobile is a competition aimed exclusively at grassroots non-profit
Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working for positive social and
environmental change throughout the developing world. “Behind the
scenes, the often unsung heroes of the NGO community battle against
the daily realities of life in developing countries, where it can take
all day to fulfill the simplest task,” said Ken Banks, Founder of
kiwanja.net. “These people don’t lack passion and commitment, they
lack tools and resources” said Banks.”

Grassroots NGOs around the world are invited to submit short project
ideas explaining how greater access to mobile technology – and SMS
text messaging in particular – would benefit them and their work. The
competition is open from today until 14th December 2007 with the
winners announced in January 2008.

The top four entries, chosen by a distinguished panel of judges, will
each win a brand new Hewlett Packard laptop computer, two Nokia mobile
phones, a GSM modem, kiwanja.net’s own entry-level text messaging
platform – FrontlineSMS – and to top it all, a cash prize of US$1,000.

Sponsors of the competition include Hewlett Packard, Nokia,
ActiveXperts, 160 Characters, Wieden+Kennedy, mBlox and Perkins Coie

Panel of Judges Ken Banks, Founder, kiwanja.net Neerja Raman, From
Good to Gold Mike Grenville, Editor, 160 Characters Micheline Ntiru,
Nokia’s Head of Corporate Social Investment for the Middle East and
Africa Bill Thompson, Journalist/commentator Renny Gleeson, Global
Director of Digital Strategies at Wieden+Kennedy The competition
website can be found at http://www.ngomobile.org/

Ken Banks, Founder
email : ken [dot] banks [at] ngomobile [dot] org

About kiwanja.net: Since 2003, kiwanja.net has been helping local,
national and international non-profit Non-Governmental Organizations
(NGOs) make better use of information and communications technology in
their work. Specializing in the application of mobile technology, it
provides a wide range of ICT-related services drawing on over 22
year’s experience of its Founder, Ken Banks. kiwanja.net believes that
all non-profits, whatever their size and wherever they operate, should
be given the opportunity to implement the latest mobile technologies
in their work, and actively seeks to provide the tools to enable them
to do so.





BY Jeffrey Kosseff   /  March 25, 2003

At first glance, it looks like a 9-1-1 log or a transcript from the
police scanner:

05:37pm Protesters damage cars on Second and Davis.
05:38pm March spreading north into Oldtown.
05:43pm Morrison Bridge closed again.

But the communications Thursday during antiwar protests in downtown
Portland weren’t from the police. Instead, they were part of 126 text
messages sent out to 65 protesters’ cell phones, pagers and e-mail

Protesters say they have long searched for an efficient and quick way
of sharing news of bridge shutdowns, flag burnings and pepper
spraying. And they seem to have found it in a relatively young
wireless technology that is reliable, cheap and instantaneous, sending
short bursts of text onto many cell-phone screens at once.

“It definitely helped spread the news around,” said Michael Plump, a
24-year-old computer programmer who organized a text-messaging system
to improve communication among protesters.

Spreading news of developments takes too long with cell-phone calls
because organizers can reach only one person at a time. Walkie-talkies
aren’t reliable or secure enough. And most people don’t have laptops
with wireless e-mail access.

Plump said that since police pepper-sprayed him at a protest during
President Bush’s Aug. 23 visit to Portland, he has wanted to get more
involved with peace protests. “I wanted to help people know where the
police actions were occurring and where they were pepper spraying so
they could get away from it,” Plump said.

Web of reports

So he developed a Web-based program that allows protesters to enter
their cell phone or pager numbers or e-mail addresses into an online
database, which he promoted on Portland activist Web sites. Most
people received the alerts on cell phones or pagers, though a few
received e-mails.

From 4 p.m. to midnight Thursday, about 15 protesters throughout
downtown Portland phoned or sent e-mail and text messages to Plump’s
friend, Casey Spain. Spain summarized developments into a few words
and sent them on to the 65 cell-phone numbers in the database. Plump,
who was in downtown Portland throughout the protests, said cheers
erupted whenever Spain sent news of activists storming a bridge or

And even amid the chaos, the protesters found time for text-messaging

08:27pm Rummor — police may be planning assult from under Burnside
08:28pm Someone plase scout under the bridge please!
08:31pm Police may be eating donuts under the bridge.

Cell-phone text messaging is gaining popularity. According to
Telephia, a California research firm, 24 percent of U.S. cell-phone
subscribers used text messaging in the first quarter of this year, up
from 20 percent the previous quarter.

Verizon service up

Verizon Wireless, which charges 10 cents to send and 2 cents to
receive each text message, has seen its news-alert service double
since January for headlines about the military and Federal Bureau of
Investigation. “A lot of people use text messaging now, and it has
been going up all the time,” said Georgia Taylor, a Verizon Wireless

Wireless companies began offering text messaging in the United States
about two years ago, said Goli Ameri, president of eTinium, a Portland
telecommunications consulting firm. It is not yet as popular in the
United States as it is in Asia and Europe. Intel recently ranked
Portland the top city in the nation for the use of wireless
technology, so Ameri said she isn’t surprised that people here are
finding new uses for text messaging.

“Portland is a pretty tech-savvy city,” she said. “That’s why you see
so many of these new technologies get introduced here first.”

{email : jeffkosseff [at] news [dot] oregonian [dot] com}


Videos Challenge Accounts of Convention Unrest
BY Jim Dwyer  /  April 12, 2005  /  New York Times

Dennis Kyne put up such a fight at a political protest last summer,
the arresting officer recalled, it took four police officers to haul
him down the steps of the New York Public Library and across Fifth

“We picked him up and we carried him while he squirmed and screamed,”
the officer, Matthew Wohl, testified in December. “I had one of his
legs because he was kicking and refusing to walk on his own.”

Accused of inciting a riot and resisting arrest, Mr. Kyne was the
first of the 1,806 people arrested in New York last summer during the
Republican National Convention to take his case to a jury. But one day
after Officer Wohl testified, and before the defense called a single
witness, the prosecutor abruptly dropped all charges.

During a recess, the defense had brought new information to the
prosecutor. A videotape shot by a documentary filmmaker showed Mr.
Kyne agitated but plainly walking under his own power down the library
steps, contradicting the vivid account of Officer Wohl, who was
nowhere to be seen in the pictures. Nor was the officer seen taking
part in the arrests of four other people at the library against whom
he signed complaints.

A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive,
lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer
observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over
precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the

For Mr. Kyne and 400 others arrested that week, video recordings
provided evidence that they had not committed a crime or that the
charges against them could not be proved, according to defense lawyers
and prosecutors.

Among them was Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going
to pick up sushi.

Last week, he discovered that there were two versions of the same
police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had
been edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop
behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more
complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop’s lawyer,
prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician
had cut the material by mistake.

Seven months after the convention at Madison Square Garden, criminal
charges have fallen against all but a handful of people arrested that
week. Of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course, 91 percent
ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after
trial. Many were dropped without any finding of wrongdoing, but also
without any serious inquiry into the circumstances of the arrests,
with the Manhattan district attorney’s office agreeing that the cases
should be “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.”

So far, 162 defendants have either pleaded guilty or were convicted
after trial, and videotapes that bolstered the prosecution’s case
played a role in at least some of those cases, although prosecutors
could not provide details.

Besides offering little support or actually undercutting the
prosecution of most of the people arrested, the videotapes also
highlight another substantial piece of the historical record: the
Police Department’s tactics in controlling the demonstrations, parades
and rallies of hundreds of thousands of people were largely free of
explicit violence.

Throughout the convention week and afterward, Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg said that the police issued clear warnings about blocking
streets or sidewalks, and that officers moved to arrest only those who
defied them. In the view of many activists – and of many people who
maintain that they were passers-by and were swept into dragnets
indiscriminately thrown over large groups – the police strategy
appeared to be designed to sweep them off the streets on technical
grounds as a show of force.

“The police develop a narrative, the defendant has a different story,
and the question becomes, how do you resolve it?” said Eileen Clancy,
a member of I-Witness Video, a project that assembled hundreds of
videotapes shot during the convention by volunteers for use by defense

Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman, said that videotapes often do not
show the full sequence of events, and that the public should not rush
to criticize officers simply because their recollections of events are
not consistent with a single videotape. The Manhattan district
attorney’s office is reviewing the testimony of Officer Wohl at the
request of Lewis B. Oliver Jr., the lawyer who represented Mr. Kyne in
his arrest at the library.

The Police Department maintains that much of the videotape that has
surfaced since the convention captured what Mr. Browne called the
department’s professional handling of the protests and parades. “My
guess is that people who saw the police restraint admired it,” he

Video is a useful source of evidence, but not an easy one to manage,
because of the difficulties in finding a fleeting image in hundreds of
hours of tape. Moreover, many of the tapes lack index and time
markings, so cuts in the tape are not immediately apparent.

That was a problem in the case of Mr. Dunlop, who learned that his
tape had been altered only after Ms. Clancy found another version of
the same tape. Mr. Dunlop had been accused of pushing his bicycle into
a line of police officers on the Lower East Side and of resisting
arrest, but the deleted parts of the tape show him calmly approaching
the police line, and later submitting to arrest without apparent

A spokeswoman for the district attorney, Barbara Thompson, said the
material had been cut by a technician in the prosecutor’s office. “It
was our mistake,” she said. “The assistant district attorney wanted to
include that portion” because she initially believed that it supported
the charges against Mr. Dunlop. Later, however, the arresting officer,
who does not appear on the video, was no longer sure of the specifics
in the complaint against Mr. Dunlop.

In what appeared to be the most violent incident at the convention
protests, video shot by news reporters captured the beating of a man
on a motorcycle – a police officer in plainclothes – and led to the
arrest of one of those involved, Jamal Holiday. After eight months in
jail, he pleaded guilty last month to attempted assault, a low-level
felony that will be further reduced if he completes probation. His
lawyer, Elsie Chandler of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem,
said that videos had led to his arrest, but also provided support for
his claim that he did not realize the man on the motorcycle was a
police officer, reducing the severity of the offense.

Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said that despite many civilians
with cameras who were nearby when the officer was attacked, none of
the material was turned over to police trying to identify the
assailants. Footage from a freelance journalist led police to Mr.
Holiday, he said.

In the bulk of the 400 cases that were dismissed based on videotapes,
most involved arrests at three places – 16th Street near Union Square,
17th Street near Union Square and on Fulton Street – where police
officers and civilians taped the gatherings, said Martin R. Stolar,
the president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers
Guild. Those tapes showed that the demonstrators had followed the
instructions of senior officers to walk down those streets, only to
have another official order their arrests.

Ms. Thompson of the district attorney’s office said, “We looked at
videos from a variety of sources, and in a number of cases, we have
moved to dismiss.”


Texting It In: Monitoring Elections With Mobile Phones
BY KatrinVerclas  /  August 11, 2007

In Sierra Leone’s national election today, 500 election observers at
polling stations around the country are reporting on any
irregularities via SMS with their mobile phones. Independent
monitoring of elections via cell phone is growing aqround the world,
spearheaded by a few innovative NGOs.

The story starts in Montenegro, a small country in the former
Yugoslavia. On May 21, 2006 the country saw the first instance of
volunteer monitors using SMS, also known as text messaging, as their
main election reporting tool. A Montenegrin NGO, the Center for
Democratic Transition (CDT), with technical assistance from the
National Democratic Institute (NDI) in the United States, was the
first organization in the world to use text messaging to meet all
election day reporting requirements.

Since then, mobile phones have been deployed in six elections in
countries around the world, with volunteers systematically using text
messaging in election monitoring. Pioneered by NDI, SMS monitoring is
becoming a highly sophisticated rapid reporting tool used not just in
a referendum election like in Montenegro, but in parliamentary
elections with a plethora of candidates and parties and complex data
reported via SMS. This was the case in Bahrain, a small country in the
Middle East, where monitors reported individual election tallies in a
series of five to fourty concurrent SMS messages, using a
sophisticated cosding system, with near accuracy.

Today’s election in Sierra Leone is lead by the National Election
Watch (NEW), a coalition of over 200 NGOs in the country. Assisted by
NDI, NEW has monitors at 500 of the 6171 polling stations. Monitors
report on whether there are any irregularities via SMS back to
headquarters. This election is particularly significant for the
country: It is the first presidential election since U.N. peacekeepers
withdrew two years ago. It considered a historic poll that many hope
will show that the country can transfer power peacefully after a long
civil war and military coups. In the run-up to the election there was
sporadic violence in Freetown; making the independent monitoring by
NGOs particularly relevant and necessary.

Election monitoring is a highly technical discipline, with a
sophisticated set of methodologies and extensive volunteer training.
Preparation for an election monitoring exercise involves volunteer
training and advance planning that often starts months before an
election.  Election monitors, typically led by domestic non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) often with the help of foreign
technical assistance providers like NDI, can report on multiple
dimensions.  They may, depending on the election, report on
quantitative data such as real-time voter turnout and even on actual
election results. In those cases, monitors use the data to provide a
“quick count” projection of the election results.  If a “quick count”
is conducted then a statistical random sample of polling places is
carefully selected to ensure the validity of projections.

Monitors also report on qualitative data about how well the election
is executed. This may include information on whether polls are opening
on time, whether there are enough ballots available, whether there is
free access to polling places, and whether there is any evidence of
intimidation or any other irregularities.

Reports are transmitted using an agreed-upon set of codes from a
representative sample of polling places around the country. In Sierra
Leone, for example, there are monitors stationed at 500 polling places
in every part of the country who text in reports at regular intervals.

In many contested elections, especially in emerging democracies, speed
of reporting is of the essence. It is critical that NGOs and
independent civil society organizations report data accurately and
quickly even before official results are released, especially when
fraud is feared. Mobile phones have been an important tool in this
regard. They are, of course, not a new phenomenon in election
monitoring; after all, cell phones have been around for a while now.
But prior to NDI showcasing that SMS is a viable and reliable
communication medium in elections, mobile phones were used merely to
transmit reports verbally that then still had to be transcribed in a
time-consuming and error-prone manual process.

Chris Spence, Director of Technology at NDI recalls: “In 2003, we had
24/7 shifts of college students in five locations across Nigeria
entering data from paper forms that were faxed or hand-carried into
the data centers. Timeliness and quality control were huge issues when
nearly 15,000 forms containing dozens of responses each had to be
manually entered into a database. Today, in the elections where we’ve
used SMS, you watch the data flow into the database directly when it
is time for the monitors to report. The system automatically sends
confirmation messages back to the observer in an interactive exchange
of SMS messages, so accuracy increases. At reporting time, it is quite
amazing to see the numbers change on the screen as the sms messages
pour into the database.”

In addition to increased speed and greater accuracy of reporting, SMS
election monitoring has a noteworthy ancillary benefit: the real-time
ability by headquarters to communicate with observers throughout the
election day by sending text reminders and updates keeps volunteers
motivated and engaged. SMS and phone contact also provides vital
opportunities for security updates should political conditions take a
turn for the worst.  As a result, morale amongst the volunteers soars
there is far less polling station abandonment.

In order for large-scale SMS election monitoring to succeed, a number
of conditions have to be in place. When NDI assisted an Albanian
consortium of NGOs in the local elections there in 2006, all the right
elements were present: NDI was working with an experienced and
reliable local NGO partner; SMS bulk messaging was available for all
of the mobile phone companies; the phone companies worked with the
NGOs and were available and ready during election day to deal with any
problems on the spot; phone companies and the bulk SMS vendors were
able to handle thousands of messages per minute to a few numbers at
reporting times, wireless coverage even in rural areas was excellent,
and the phone companies provided so-called interconnect ability that
allowed monitors to send messages from all of the different carriers
to one reporting number.

In Sierra Leone where most of the carriers lack international gateway
interconnect ability, the NGO coalition there will need to set up a
series of local phone numbers so that observers can text to a number
within their own provider network.  This necessitates a much more
rudimentary and complicated setup: Seven phones are tethered to a
laptop and observers are texting directly to those phones without any
bulk messaging intermediary.  Messages arrive in the phone and are
passed to computer, the software reads it using custom scripts, and
the data is compiled in an Access database ready for analysis.
Concerns about the phones handling a high volume of messages in this
situation necessitates a more complicated reporting strategy whereby
each observer will report all of data in a single text message using a
simple coding scheme.  Because Sierra Leone has more spotty wireless
coverage, election monitors in rural areas will have to travel to
areas where there is coverage to send in their reports at the end of
the day.

An important consideration is the cost of a wide-scale program. To
date NDI has found this method of reporting much more economical than
other strategies.  Pricing for bulk sms from a provider like Clickatel
is relatively inexpensive. In the Albanian election, for example, the
bulk messaging costs for a total of some 41,000 messages received and
sent from 2100 monitors was $2400 US Dollars — an extremely
inexpensive way to receive such massive amounts of data.

NDI uses a software called SMS Reception Center, built by a developer
in Russia and costing all of $69 USD. NDI tweaked the scripts over
time, and paid the developer to improve the product for its purposes
and specific local conditions.

In addition to the technical issues and costs inherent in running a
large-scale operation, Spence notes a number of strategic issues to
consider: The NGO partner on the ground needs to be experienced in
electoral monitoring, the information collected needs to be suitable
for the limited text messaging format of 160 chracters, and text
messaging needs to be commonly used and part of the local culture.
Notes Spence: “In all the countries we have worked, one thing we do
not have to do is train anyone how to text.”

In Nigeria earlier this year, a local NGO, the Human Emancipation
Project, ran a small-scale citizen monitoring program that used
untrained citizen reporters to send in SMS messages to one number. The
NGO compiled and aggregated the incoming messages and issued a report
after the election. Using a grassroots software tool, Frontline SMS,
organizers reported that about 8,000 individuals texted in some kind
of report. This is a very different method from the systematic
election monitoring conducted by NGO observer organizations and their
technical assistant providers where a more rigorous protocol is
adhered to. There is merit in engaging every-day citizens to protect
their country’s elections even if these efforts do not produce
reliable and verifiable election results and reports in the manner
that systematic election monitoring does. The Nigerian effort was
widely covered BBC News, and other outlets.

In the two years since the first large-scale SMS monitoring in
Montenegro, there have been rapid improvements in mobile services as
competition in the wireless industry has increased worldwide, and
there is growing interest and understanding on the part of NGOs that
systematic election monitoring is not as difficult as it first may
seem. As election monitoring via SMS becomes standardized and NGOs
gain experience, there is no reason for mobile phones and SMS not to
play a greater role in other areas of civic participation. For
example, imagine citizen oversight of public works projects where
people might report on whether a clinic is actually built as indicated
in a local budget. Other applications may be monitoring and
accountability of elected officials, and dissemination of voter
registration information such as the address of where to register, or
the nearest polling station. Several pilot projects in the United
States showed promising results in increasing voter turnout by text
message reminders. The future is bright for innovative ways in which
cell phones are used by citizens to participate and engage in their
countries as the mobile revolution unfolds.


Moving beyond Nigeria’s mobile rough patch
BY Judy Breck  /  August 27th, 2007

Reuters is reporting this morning that “Nigeria Aims to Let Mobile
Phone Users Keep Numbers.” The plan is to allow subscribers to keep
their numbers as they switch among providers — hopefully to improve
service through competition. The report includes this description of
the roughness of present service in Nigeria, which is interesting to
realize. Mobile has been making a positive transition in Africa in
spite of the problems described below. When mobile service gets
better, the transition should have important new impetus one would

Nigeria’s booming mobile phone market has grown from scratch to over
30 million subscribers in six years, making it one of the fastest-
growing in the world.

It is seen as having potential for many more years of rapid growth as
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with 140 million people, the
majority of whom do not have phones.

However, the quality of service from mobile phone providers has always
been patchy and it has deteriorated over time.

Subscribers often have to dial several times before a call goes
through. Sometimes no calls go through for hours. When they do
connect, the lines are often so bad that callers cannot hear each
other. Calls frequently cut off after a few seconds and text messages
can be delayed by hours.

Mobile operators argue that services are impaired by frequent
blackouts, forcing companies to provide their own power with costly
diesel generators, and constant vandalism and armed attacks on
facilities and staff.


Monks Are Silenced, and for Now, Internet Is, Too
BY Seth Mydans  /  October 4, 2007

BANGKOK, Oct. 3 — It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting
demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and
photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the
generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet. Until
Friday television screens and newspapers abroad were flooded with
scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets and of
chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular
uprising there in two decades.

But then the images, text messages and postings stopped, shut down by
generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize
their crackdown. “Finally they realized that this was their biggest
enemy, and they took it down,” said Aung Zaw, editor of an exile
magazine based in Thailand called The Irrawaddy, whose Web site has
been a leading source of information in recent weeks. The site has
been attacked by a virus whose timing raises the possibility that the
military government has a few skilled hackers in its ranks.

The efficiency of this latest, technological, crackdown raises the
question whether the vaunted role of the Internet in undermining
repression can stand up to a determined and ruthless government — or
whether Myanmar, already isolated from the world, can ride out a
prolonged shutdown more easily than most countries.

OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet censorship, has documented
signs that in recent years several governments — including those of
Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have closed off Internet access,
or at least opposition Web sites, during periods preceding elections
or times of intense protests. The brief disruptions are known as “just
in time” filtering, said Ronald J. Deibert of OpenNet. They are
designed to quiet opponents while maintaining an appearance of
technical difficulties, thus avoiding criticism from abroad. In 2005,
King Gyanendra of Nepal ousted the government and imposed a weeklong
communications blackout. Facing massive protests, he ceded control in

Myanmar has just two Internet service providers, and shutting them
down was not complicated, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar
with Human Rights Watch. Along with the Internet, the junta cut off
most telephone access to the outside world. Soldiers on the streets
confiscated cameras and video-recording cellphones. “The crackdown on
the media and on information flow is parallel to the physical
crackdown,” he said. “It seems they’ve done it quite effectively.
Since Friday we’ve seen no new images come out.” In keeping with the
country’s self-imposed isolation over the past half-century, Myanmar’s
military seemed prepared to cut the country off from the virtual world
just as it had from the world at large. Web access has not been
restored, and there is no way to know if or when it might be.

At the same time, the junta turned to the oldest tactic of all to
silence opposition: fear. Local journalists and people caught
transmitting information or using cameras are being threatened and
arrested, according to Burmese exile groups. In a final, hurried
telephone call, Mr. Aung Zaw said, one of his longtime sources said
goodbye. “We have done enough,” he said the source told him. “We can
no longer move around. It is over to you — we cannot do anything
anymore. We are down. We are hunted by soldiers — we are down.”

There are still images to come, Mr. Aung Zaw said, and as soon as he
receives them and his Web site is back up, the world will see them.
But Mr. Mathieson said the country’s dissidents were reverting to
tactics of the past, smuggling images out through cellphones, breaking
the files down for reassembly later. It is not clear how much longer
the generals can hold back the future. Technology is making it harder
for dictators and juntas to draw a curtain of secrecy. “There are
always ways people find of getting information out, and authorities
always have to struggle with them,” said Mitchell Stephens, a
professor of journalism at New York University and the author of “A
History of News.”

“There are fewer and fewer events that we don’t have film images of:
the world is filled with Zapruders,” he said, referring to Abraham
Zapruder, the onlooker who recorded the assassination of President
John F. Kennedy in 1963. Before Friday’s blackout, Myanmar’s hit-and-
run journalists were staging a virtuoso demonstration of the power of
the Internet to outmaneuver a repressive government. A guerrilla army
of citizen reporters was smuggling out pictures even as events were
unfolding, and the world was watching.

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology,
this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first
medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank
A. Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching
and Learning at Columbia University. Since the protests began in mid-
August, people have sent images and words through SMS text messages
and e-mail and on daily blogs, according to some exile groups that
received the messages. They have posted notices on Facebook, the
social networking Web site. They have sent tiny messages on e-cards.
They have updated the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

They also used Internet versions of “pigeons” — the couriers that
reporters used in the past to carry out film and reports — handing
their material to embassies or nongovernment organizations with
satellite connections. Within hours, the images and reports were
broadcast back into Myanmar by foreign radio and television stations,
informing and connecting a public that hears only propaganda from its

These technological tricks may offer a model to people elsewhere who
are trying to outwit repressive governments. But the generals’ heavy-
handed response is probably a less useful model. Nations with larger
economies and more ties to the outside world have more at stake.
China, for one, could not consider cutting itself off as Myanmar has
done, and so control of the Internet is an industry in itself. “In
China, it’s massive,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet
Project and an adjunct professor at the graduate school of journalism
at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There’s surveillance and intimidation, there’s legal regulation and
there is commercial leverage to force private Internet companies to
self-censor,” he said. “And there is what we call the Great Firewall,
which blocks hundreds of thousands of Web sites outside of China.” Yet
for all its efforts, even China cannot entirely control the Internet,
an easier task in a smaller country like Myanmar.

As technology makes everyone a potential reporter, the challenge in
risky places like Myanmar will be accuracy, said Vincent Brossel, head
of the Asian section of the press freedom organization Reporters
Without Borders. “Rumors are the worst enemy of independent
journalism,” he said. “Already we are hearing so many strange things.
So if you have no flow of information and the spread of rumors in a
country that is using propaganda — that’s it. You are destroying the
story, and day by day it goes down.” The technological advances on the
streets of Myanmar are the latest in a long history of revolutions in
the transmission of news — from the sailing ship to the telegraph to
international telephone lines and the telex machine to computers and
satellite telephones.

“Today every citizen is a war correspondent,” said Phillip Knightley,
author of “The First Casualty,” a classic history of war reporting
that starts with letters home from soldiers in Crimea in the 1850s and
ends with the “living room war” in Vietnam in the 1970s, the first war
that people could watch on television. “Mobile phones with video of
broadcast quality have made it possible for anyone to report a war,”
he said in an e-mail interview. “You just have to be there. No trouble
getting a start: the broadcasters have been begging viewers to send
their stuff.”


Shanghai’s Middle Class Launches Quiet, Meticulous Revolt
BY Maureen Fan  /  January 26, 2008

SHANGHAI — Bundled against the cold, the businessman made his way
down the steps. Coming toward him in blue mittens was a middle-aged
woman. “Do you know that we’re going to take a stroll this weekend?”
she whispered, using the latest euphemism for the unofficial protests
that have unnerved authorities in Shanghai over the past month. He

Behind her, protest banners streamed from the windows of high-rise
apartment blocks, signs of middle-class discontent over a planned
extension of the city’s magnetic levitation, or maglev, train through
residential neighborhoods. The couple checked to make sure no
plainclothes police were nearby and discussed where security forces
had been posted in recent days. “Did you take any photos?” the man
asked. Yes, she said, promising to send them to him so he could post
the evidence online. In a minute, the exchange was over, but the news
would soon be added to the steady flow of reports being posted on
blogs and community bulletin boards, as well as in housing compounds
along the proposed extension — which residents contend will bring
noise pollution and possibly dangerous radiation to their

The sudden “strolls” by thousands of office workers, company managers,
young families and the elderly in this sleek financial hub are the
latest chapter in a quiet middle-class battle against government
officials. The protesters are going about their mission carefully, and
many speak anonymously for fear of retribution in a country that
stifles dissent. The Communist Party has a massive security apparatus
that closely monitors what it views as subversive activity. The party
sometimes allows public protests if they serve its political
interests, such as the ouster of corrupt officials.

But the protests here have been unusual. They are led by homeowners
and professionals — people who may not previously have had much to
complain to the government about but whose awareness of their
individual rights has grown along with their prosperity. Police, who
have routinely put down rural protests by poor farmers, have found it
more difficult to intimidate an affluent, educated crowd in a major

The demonstrations do have at least one recent precursor, and it is
one Shanghai residents acknowledge using for inspiration. In the
picturesque seaside city of Xiamen, thousands of middle-class
residents have managed at least temporarily to halt the construction
of a $1 billion chemical factory because of environmental concerns.
Demonstrators in that city, in Fujian province, relied on the Internet
and cellphone text messaging to organize strolls and other opposition.
“We learned from Xiamen,” said Gu Qidong, 36, a Shanghai protester and
freelance sales consultant in the health-care industry. “We have no
other way besides this. We once asked if we could apply for a march
permit, and the police said they would never approve it.”

As in Xiamen, Shanghai residents have spent countless hours
researching their cause. They have posted fliers sprinkled with such
phrases as “electromagnetic compatibility” and wooed residents and
news media with slick PowerPoint presentations that question whether a
55-yard-wide safety buffer envisioned for each side of the rail
extension would be sufficient to keep noise and vibration from
reaching their apartments.

They say the existing maglev route, which takes passengers from an out-
of-the-way suburban subway stop to one of the city’s international
airports in less than eight minutes, is a showy waste of money. When
it opened four years ago, they note, the line operated at less than 20
percent capacity; after ticket prices were lowered, it ran at 27
percent capacity.

Armed with knowledge of the law, the Shanghai residents became angry
that public officials had neither given proper notice of their plans
for the extension nor held a public hearing. And so they decided they
had no alternative but to “take a stroll” or “go shopping.” They
started small, and they were careful to say they did not oppose the

First, a small group of protesters met at a shopping center the
morning of Jan. 6, shouting “Reject the maglev!” and “We want to
protect our homes!” They left after an hour, regrouping later in a
neighborhood near where the extension would be built.

A few days later, hundreds of people went to a mall that is popular
with tourists and made an evening stop in another affected
neighborhood. By Jan. 12, thousands of people were gathering at
People’s Square and on Nanjing Lu, both high-profile locations in
downtown Shanghai, shouting “People’s police should protect the
people!” and “Save our homes!”

The growing boldness of the protesters has prompted city officials to
emphasize that residents should find “normal” channels to vent their
unhappiness. “We will forestall and defuse social tensions,” Shanghai
Mayor Han Zheng said in his annual government report Thursday, in what
appeared to be a tacit nod to the protesters’ concerns.

After each stroll, residents upload photos and videos to Chinese Web
sites, which are often blocked by the government, and to YouTube, a
site that isn’t. The project has turned neighbors who did not know
each other into close friends and allies who now compare notes and
strategize. “They can’t arrest everybody,” said Yao, a 58-year-old
protester who asked that his full name not be used because he is a
manager at a state-owned enterprise. “We haven’t done anything wrong,”
said Wang Guowei, 51, a manager in a Chinese-Japanese plastics venture
whose family lives near the planned extension. “We always follow the
Chinese constitution, we never violate the law. And in our many
contacts with the police, they say we are within the law.”

A victory for the protesters here does not seem as likely as the one
activists achieved in Xiamen. Proud city officials hope the maglev
extension will further cement Shanghai’s reputation as the mainland’s
most advanced city when the train connects the city’s two airports and
the site of the 2010 World Expo. City officials have already made some
concessions. An original plan to extend the train from Shanghai to the
city of Hangzhou, for example, was scrapped in May. The new extension
proposal announced Dec. 29 lops almost two miles off the old plan, and
one section of track would be underground. But opponents say such
concessions are small.

Critics of the government plan point out that even some residents who
use the train are skeptical of the usefulness of an extension. “I’d
rather see an ordinary railway connecting” Pudong international and
Hongqiao airport. “It’s cheap, and it’s almost the same convenience,”
said Chen Min, 37, an airline pilot who rides the train each time he
flies abroad. “Does China really need more maglev trains? Does China
really need expensive things?”

Shanghai municipal officials declined requests for comment. At a news
conference this week, government spokeswoman Jiao Yang said Shanghai
Maglev Transportation Development Co., the Shanghai Academy of
Environmental Science and the Municipal Urban Planning Administration
would analyze public opinion “seriously.”

Without the entire city united against the project, residents concede
they are not optimistic the extension will be scrapped. “But we must
insist on our position. We require our government to respect the law,
and public construction must follow a legal framework and the right
procedure,” said the 54-year-old businessman who asked another
protester for her photos. “Our action is a way to wake up people’s
awareness of their civil rights.”

Facebook used to target Colombia’s FARC with global rally

Internet site to spawn protests in 185 cities Monday against rebel
group’s methods
BY Sibylla Brodzinsky  /  February 4, 2008

Bogotá, Colombia – Hundreds of thousands of Colombians are expected to
march throughout the country and in major cities around the world
Monday to protest against this nation’s oldest and most powerful rebel

What began as a group of young people venting their rage at the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Facebook, an Internet
social-networking site, has ballooned into an international event
called “One Million Voices Against FARC.”

“We expected the idea to resound with a lot of people but not so much
and not so quickly,” says Oscar Morales, who started the Facebook
group against the FARC, which now has 230,000 members. Organizers are
expecting marches in 185 cities around the world.

The event is another example of how technology – such as text
messaging on cellphones – can be used to rally large numbers of people
to a cause. Some observers say it’s less a response to the FARC’s
ideology than it is global public outrage over kidnapping as a weapon.

Colombia continues to be the world’s kidnapping capital with as many
as 3,000 hostages now being held. Anger over the practice has risen in
recent months after two women released by the FARC last month after
six years in captivity recounted the hardships they and other hostages

Monday’s protests have the support of the government, many
nongovernmental organizations, and some political parties but its main
battle cry of “No More FARC” has also polarized some Colombians rather
than bringing them together.

While few Colombians support the Marxist insurgent army that has been
fighting the Colombian state for more than 40 years, many people are
uncomfortable with the message of Monday’s rally. They would prefer a
broader slogan against kidnapping and in favor of peace and of
negotiations between the government and the rebels to exchange
hostages for jailed rebels. The leftist Polo Democratico Party said it
will hold a rally in Bogotá in favor of a negotiation but would not
march. Some senators say they will march against Venezuelan President
Hugo Chávez, and other participants say they will be marching in favor
of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Consuelo González de Perdomo, one of the two women released by the
FARC on Jan. 10 said she would not be marching at all.

The families of the 45 remaining FARC hostages will not march either.
“The way the march was called aims to polarize the country,” says
Deyanira Ortiz, whose husband, Orlando Beltrán Cuéllar, has been held
by the FARC for six years. “It’s not for the freedom of the hostages
but against the FARC. And that doesn’t serve any purpose.”

Instead, the families and released FARC hostages will gather in
churches to pray for the release of their loved ones and for a
humanitarian agreement.

Rosa Cristina Parra, one of the original organizers of the march said
the position of the hostage families is “completely understandable”
and will not detract from the importance of the event. “We cannot
forget the other victims of the FARC, the land-mine victims, the
displaced people,” she says.



NYC, the NYPD, the RNC, and Me
Fortress Big Apple, 2007  /  BY Nick Turse

One day in August, I walked into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan
United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan. Nearly three years before
I had been locked up, about two blocks away, in “the Tombs” — the
infamous jail then named the Bernard B. Kerik Complex for the now-
disgraced New York City Police Commissioner. You see, I am one of the
demonstrators who was illegally arrested by the New York City Police
Department (NYPD) during the protests against the 2004 Republican
National Convention (RNC). My crime had been — in an effort to call
attention to the human toll of America’s wars — to ride the subway,
dressed in black with the pallor of death about me (thanks to
cornstarch and cold cream), and an expression to match, sporting a
placard around my neck that read: WAR DEAD.

I was with a small group and our plan was to travel from Union
Square to Harlem, change trains, and ride all the way back down to
Astor Place. But when my small group exited the train at the 125th
Street station in Harlem, we were arrested by a swarm of police,
marched to a waiting paddy wagon and driven to a filthy detention
center. There, we were locked away for hours in a series of razor-wire-
topped pens, before being bussed to the Tombs.

Now, I was back to resolve the matter of my illegal arrest. As I
walked through the metal detector of the Federal building, a security
official searched my bag. He didn’t like what he found. “You could be
shot for carrying that in here,” he told me. “You could be shot.”

For the moment, however, the identification of that dangerous
object I attempted to slip into the federal facility will have to
wait. Let me instead back up to July 2004, when, with the RNC fast-
approaching, I authored an article on the militarization of Manhattan
— “the transformation of the island into a ‘homeland-security state'”
— and followed it up that September with a street-level recap of the
convention protests, including news of the deployment of an
experimental sound weapon, the Long Range Acoustic Device, by the
NYPD, and the department’s use of an on-loan Fuji blimp as a “spy-in-
the-sky.” Back then, I suggested that the RNC gave New York’s
“finest,” a perfect opportunity to “refine, perfect, and implement new
tactics (someday, perhaps, to be known as the ‘New York model’) for
use penning in or squelching dissent. It offered them the chance to
write up a playbook on how citizens’ legal rights and civil liberties
may be abridged, constrained, and violated at their discretion.”
Little did I know how much worse it could get.

No Escape

Since then, the city’s security forces have eagerly embraced an
Escape From New York-aesthetic — an urge to turn Manhattan into a
walled-in fortress island under high-tech government surveillance,
guarded by heavily armed security forces, with helicopters perpetually
overhead. Beginning in Harlem in 2006, near the site of two new luxury
condos, the NYPD set up a moveable “two-story booth tower, called Sky
Watch,” that gave an “officer sitting inside a better vantage point
from which to monitor the area.” The Panopticon-like structure —
originally used by hunters to shoot quarry from overhead and now also
utilized by the Department of Homeland Security along the Mexican
border — was outfitted with black-tinted windows, a spotlight,
sensors, and four to five cameras. Now, five Sky Watch towers are in
service, rotating in and out of various neighborhoods.

With their 20-25 neighborhood-scanning cameras, the towers are
only a tiny fraction of the Big Apple surveillance story. Back in
1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that there were
“2,397 cameras used by a wide variety of private businesses and
government agencies throughout Manhattan” — and that was just one
borough. About a year after the RNC, the group reported that a survey
of just a quarter of that borough yielded a count of more than 4,000
surveillance cameras of every kind. At about the same time, military-
corporate giant Lockheed Martin was awarded a $212 million contract to
build a “counter-terrorist surveillance and security system for New
York’s subways and commuter railroads as well as bridges and tunnels”
that would increase the camera total by more than 1,000. A year later,
as seems to regularly be the case with contracts involving the
military-corporate complex, that contract had already ballooned to
$280 million, although the system was not to be operational until at
least 2008.

In 2006, according to a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)
spokesman, the MTA already had a “3,000-camera-strong surveillance
system,” while the NYPD was operating “an additional 3,000 cameras”
around the city. That same year, Bill Brown, a member of the
Surveillance Camera Players — a group that leads surveillance-camera
tours and maps their use around the city, estimated, according to a
Newsweek article, that the total number of surveillance cameras in New
York exceeded 15,000 — “a figure city officials say they have no way
to verify because they lack a system of registry.” Recently, Brown
told me that 15,000 was an estimate for the number of cameras in
Manhattan, alone. For the city as a whole, he suspects the count has
now reached about 40,000.

This July, NYPD officials announced plans to up the ante. By the
end of 2007, according to the New York Times, they pledged to install
“more than 100 cameras” to monitor “cars moving through Lower
Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system
that would be the first in the United States.” This “Ring of Steel”
scheme, which has already received $10 million in funding from the
Department of Homeland Security (in addition to $15 million in city
funds), aims to exponentially decrease privacy because, if “fully
financed, it will include…. 3,000 public and private security
cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police
and private security officers” to monitor all those electronic eyes.

Spies in the Sky

At the time of the RNC, the NYPD was already mounted on police
horses, bicycles, and scooters, as well as an untold number of marked
and unmarked cars, vans, trucks, and armored vehicles, not to mention
various types of water-craft. In 2007, the two-wheeled Segway joined
its list of land vehicles.

Overhead, the NYPD aviation unit, utilizing seven helicopters,
proudly claims to be “in operation 24/7, 365,” according to Deputy
Inspector Joseph Gallucci, its commanding officer. Not only are all
the choppers outfitted with “state of the art cameras and heat-sensing
devices,” as well as “the latest mapping, tracking and surveillance
technology,” but one is a “$10 million ‘stealth bird,’ which has no
police markings — [so] that those on the ground have no idea they are
being watched.”

Asked about concerns over intrusive spying by members of the
aviation unit — characterized by Gallucci as “a bunch of big boys who
like big expensive toys” — Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly
scoffed. “We’re not able to, even if we wanted, to look into private
spaces,” he told the New York Times. “We’re looking at public areas.”
However, in 2005, it was revealed that, on the eve of the RNC
protests, members of the aviation unit took a break and used their
night-vision cameras to record “an intimate moment” shared by a
“couple on the terrace of a Second Avenue penthouse.”

Despite this incident, which only came to light because the same
tape included images that had to be turned over to a defendant in an
unrelated trial, Kelly has called for more aerial surveillance. The
commissioner apparently also got used to having the Fuji blimp at his
disposal, though he noted that “it’s not easy to send blimps into the
airspace over New York.” He then “challenged the aerospace industry to
find a solution” that would, no doubt, bring the city closer to life
under total surveillance.

Police Misconduct: The RNC

As a result of its long history of brutality, corruption, spying,
silencing dissent, and engaging in illegal activities, the NYPD is a
particularly secretive organization. As such, the full story of the
department’s misconduct during the Republican National Convention has
yet to be told; but, even in an era of heightened security and
defensiveness, what has emerged hasn’t been pretty.

By April 2005, New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer was already
reporting that, “of the 1,670 [RNC arrest] cases that have run their
full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a
verdict of not guilty after trial. Many were dropped without any
finding of wrongdoing, but also without any serious inquiry into the
circumstances of the arrests, with the Manhattan district attorney’s
office agreeing that the cases should be ‘adjourned in contemplation
of dismissal.'” In one case that went to trial, it was found that
video footage of an arrest had been doctored to bolster the NYPD’s
claims. (All charges were dropped against that defendant. In 400 other
RNC cases, by the spring of 2005, video recordings had either
demonstrated that defendants had not committed crimes or that charges
could not be proved against them.)

Since shifting to “zero-tolerance” law enforcement policies under
Mayor (now Republican presidential candidate) Rudolph Giuliani, the
city has been employing a system of policing where arrests are used to
punish people who have been convicted of no crime whatsoever,
including, as at the RNC or the city’s monthly Critical Mass bike
rides, those who engage in any form of protest. Prior to the Giuliani
era, about half of all those “arrested for low-level offenses would
get a desk-appearance ticket ordering them to go to court.” Now the
proportion is 10%. (NYPD documents show that the decision to arrest
protesters, not issue summonses, was part of the planning process
prior to the RNC.)

Speaking at the 2007 meeting of the American Sociological
Association, Michael P. Jacobson, Giuliani’s probation and correction
commissioner, outlined how the city’s policy of punishing the presumed
innocent works:

“Essentially, everyone who’s arrested in New York City, in the
parlance of city criminal justice lingo, goes through ‘the system’….
if you’ve never gone through the system, even 24 hours — that’s a
shocking period of punishment. It’s debasing, it’s difficult. You’re
probably in a fairly gross police lockup. You probably have no toilet
paper. You’re given a baloney sandwich, and the baloney is green.”

In 2005, the Times’ Dwyer revealed that at public gatherings since
the time of the RNC, police officers had not only “conducted covert
surveillance… of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking
part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist
killed in an accident,” but had acted as agent provocateurs. At the
RNC, there were multiple incidents in which undercover agents
influenced events or riled up crowds. In one case, a “sham arrest” of
“a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising
confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.”

In 2006, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), reported
“that hundreds of Convention protesters may have been unnecessarily
and unlawfully arrested because NYPD officials failed to give adequate
orders to disperse and failed to afford protesters a reasonable
opportunity to disperse.”

Police Commissioner Kelly had no hesitation about rejecting the
organization’s report. Still, these were strong words, considering the
weakness of the source. The overall impotence of the CCRB suggests a
great deal about the NYPD’s culture of unaccountability. According to
an ACLU report, the board “investigates fewer than half of all
complaints that it reviews, and it produces a finding on the merits in
only three of ten complaints disposed of in any given year.” This
inaction is no small thing, given the surge of complaints against NYPD
officers in recent years. In 2001, before Mayor Bloomberg and Police
Commissioner Kelly came to power, the CCRB received 4,251 complaints.
By 2006, the number of complaints had jumped by 80% to 7,669. Even
more telling are the type of allegations found to be on the rise (and
largely ignored). According to the ACLU, from 2005 to 2006, complaints
over the use of excessive force jumped 26.8% — “nearly double the
increase in complaints filed.”

It was in this context that the planning for the RNC
demonstrations took place. In 2006, in five internal police reports
made public as part of a lawsuit, “New York City police commanders
candidly discuss[ed] how they had successfully used ‘proactive
arrests,’ covert surveillance and psychological tactics at political
demonstrations in 2002, and recommend[ed] that those approaches be
employed at future gatherings.” A draft report from the department’s
Disorder Control Unit had a not-so-startling recommendation, given
what did happen at the RNC: “Utilize undercover officers to distribute
misinformation within the crowds.”

According to Dwyer, for at least a year prior to those
demonstrations, “teams of undercover New York City police officers
traveled to cities across the country, Canada and Europe” to conduct
covert surveillance of activists. “In hundreds of reports, stamped
‘N.Y.P.D. Secret,’ [the NYPD’s] Intelligence Division chronicled the
views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking
the law, [including] street theater companies, church groups and
antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed
to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies.”
Three elected city councilmen — Charles Barron, Bill Perkins and
Larry B. Seabrook — were even cited in the reports for endorsing a
protest event held on January 15, 2004 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.’s birthday.

In August, the New York Times editorial page decried the city’s
continuing attempts to keep documents outlining the police
department’s spying and other covert activities secret:

“The city of New York is waging a losing and ill-conceived
battle for overzealous secrecy surrounding nearly 2,000 arrests during
the 2004 Republican National Convention…. Police Commissioner Ray
Kelly seemed to cast an awfully wide and indiscriminate net in seeking
out potential troublemakers. For more than a year before the
convention, members of a police spy unit headed by a former official
of the Central Intelligence Agency infiltrated a wide range of groups…
many of the targets … posed no danger or credible threat.”

The Times concluded that — coupled with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s
efforts to disrupt and criminalize protest during the convention week
— “police action helped to all but eliminate dissent from New York
City during the Republican delegates’ visit. If that was the goal,
then mission accomplished. And civil rights denied.”

Police Commissioner Kelly had a radically different take on his
department’s conduct. Earlier this year, he claimed that “the
Republican National Convention was perhaps the finest hour in the
history of the New York City Department.”

Police Misconduct: 2007

“Finest” might seem a funny term for the NYPD’s actions, but these
days everyone’s a relativist. In the years since the RNC protests, the
NYPD has been mired in scandal after scandal — from killing unarmed
black men and “violations of civil rights” at the National Puerto
Rican Day Parade to issuing “sweeping generalizations” that lead to
“labeling almost every American Muslim as a potential terrorist.” And,
believe it or not, the racial and political scandals were but a modest
part of the mix. Add to them, killings, sexual assaults, kidnapping,
armed robbery, burglary, corruption, theft, drug-related offenses,
conspiracy — and that’s just a start when it comes to crimes members
of the force have been charged with. It’s a rap sheet fit for Public
Enemy #1, and we’re only talking about the story of the NYPD in the
not-yet-completed year of 2007.

For example, earlier this year a 13-year NYPD veteran was
“arrested on charges of hindering prosecution, tampering with
evidence, obstructing governmental administration and unlawful
possession of marijuana,” in connection with the shooting of another
officer. In an unrelated case, two other NYPD officers were arrested
and “charged with attempted kidnapping, armed robbery, armed burglary
and other offenses.”

In a third case, the New York Post reported that a “veteran NYPD
captain has been stripped of his badge and gun as part of a federal
corruption probe that already has led to the indictment of an Internal
Affairs sergeant who allegedly tipped other cops that they were being
investigated.” And that isn’t the only NYPD cover-up allegation to
surface of late. With cops interfering in investigations of fellow
cops and offering advice on how to deflect such probes, it’s a wonder
any type of wrongdoing surfaces. Yet, the level of misconduct in the
department appears to be sweeping enough to be irrepressible.

For instance, sex crime scandals have embroiled numerous officers
— including one “accused of sexually molesting his young
stepdaughter,” who pled guilty to “a misdemeanor charge of child
endangerment,” and another “at a Queens hospital charged with
possessing and sharing child pornography.” In a third case, a member
of the NYPD’s School Safety Division was “charged with the attempted
rape and sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl.” In a fourth case, a
“police officer pleaded guilty…. to a grotesque romance with an
infatuated 13-year-old girl.” Meanwhile, an NYPD officer, who molested
women while on duty and in uniform, was convicted of sexual abuse and
official misconduct.

Cop-on-cop sexual misconduct of an extreme nature has also
surfaced…. but why go on? You get the idea. And, if you don’t, there
are lurid cases galore to check out, like the investigation into
“whether [an] NYPD officer who fatally shot his teen lover before
killing himself murdered the boyfriend of a past lover,” or the
officer who was “charged with intentional murder in the shooting death
of his 22-year-old girlfriend.” And don’t even get me started on the
officer “facing charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics and
conspiracy to commit robberies of drugs and drug proceeds from
narcotics traffickers.”

All of this, and much more, has emerged in spite of the classic
blue-wall-of-silence. It makes you wonder: In the surveillance state
to come, are we going to be herded and observed by New York’s finest

It’s important to note that all of these cases have begun despite
a striking NYPD culture of non-accountability. Back in August, the New
York Times noted that the “Police Department has increasingly failed
to prosecute New York City police officers on charges of misconduct
when those cases have been substantiated by the independent board that
investigates allegations of police abuse, officials of the board say.”
Between March 1, 2007 and June 30, 2007 alone, the NYPD “declined to
seek internal departmental trials against 31 officers, most of whom
were facing charges of stopping people in the street without probable
cause or reasonable suspicion, according to the city’s Civilian
Complaint Review Board.” An ACLU report, “Mission Failure: Civilian
Review of Policing in New York City, 1994-2006,” released this month,
delved into the issue in even greater detail. The organization found
that, between 2000 and 2005, “the NYPD disposed of substantiated
complaints against 2,462 police officers: 725 received no discipline.
When discipline was imposed, it was little more than a slap on the

Much has come to light recently about the way the U.S. military
has been lowering its recruitment standards in order to meet the
demands of ongoing, increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, including an increase in “moral waivers” allowing more
recruits with criminal records to enter the services. Well, it turns
out that, on such policies, the NYPD has been a pioneering

In 2002, the BBC reported that “New York’s powerful police union….
accused the police department of allowing ‘sub-standard’ recruits onto
the force.” Then, just months after the RNC protests, the New York
Daily News exposed the department’s practice of “hiring applicants
with arrest records and shoving others through without full background
checks” including those who had been “charged with laundering drug
money, assault, grand larceny and weapons possession.” According to
Sgt. Anthony Petroglia, who, until he retired in 2002, had worked for
almost a decade in the department’s applicant-processing division, the
NYPD was “hiring people to be cops who have no respect for the law.”
Another retiree from the same division was blunter: “It’s all judgment
calls — bad ones…. but the bosses say, ‘Send ’em through. We’ll
catch the problem ones later.'”

The future looks bright, if you are an advocate of sending the
force even further down this path. The new choice to mold the
department of tomorrow, according to the Village Voice, the “NYPD’s
new deputy commissioner of training, Wilbur ‘Bill’ Chapman, should
have no trouble teaching ‘New York’s Finest’ about the pitfalls of
sexual harassment, cronyism, and punitive transfers [because h]e’s
been accused of all that during his checkered career.”

In the eerie afterglow of 9/11, haunted by the specter of
terrorism, in an atmosphere where repressive zero-tolerance policies
already rule, given the unparalleled power of Commissioner Kelly —
called “the most powerful police commissioner in the city’s history”
by NYPD expert Leonard Levitt — and with a police department largely
unaccountable to anyone (as the only city agency without any effective
outside oversight), the Escape from New York model may indeed
represent Manhattan’s future.

Nick Turse v. The City of New York

So what, you might still be wondering, was it that led the
security official at the federal courthouse to raise the specter of my
imminent demise? A weapon? An unidentified powder? No, a digital audio
recorder. “Some people here don’t want to be recorded,” he explained
in response to my quizzical look.

So I checked the recording device and, accompanied by my lawyer,
the indomitable Mary D. Dorman, made my way to Courtroom 18D, a
stately room in the upper reaches of the building that houses the
oldest district court in the nation. There, I met our legal nemesis, a
city attorney whose official title is “assistant corporation counsel.”
After what might pass for a cordial greeting, he asked relatively
politely whether I was going to accept the city’s monetary offer of
$8,500 — which I had rejected the previous week– to settle my
lawsuit for false arrest. As soon as I indicated I wouldn’t (as I had
from the moment the city started the bidding at $2,500), any hint of
cordiality fled the room. Almost immediately, he was referring to me
as a “criminal” — declassified NYPD documents actually refer to me as
a “perp.” Soon, he launched into a bout of remarkable bluster,
threatening lengthy depositions to waste my time and monetary
penalties associated with court costs that would swallow my savings.

Then, we were all directed to a small jury room off the main
courtroom, where the city’s attorney hauled out a threatening prop to
bolster his act — an imposingly gigantic file folder stuffed with
reams of “Nick Turse” documents, including copies of some of my
disreputable Tomdispatch articles as well as printouts of suspicious
webpages from the American Empire Project — the obviously criminal
series that will be publishing my upcoming book, The Complex.

There, the litany of vague threats to tie me down with
depositions, tax me with fees, and maybe, somehow, send me to jail for
a “crime” that had been dismissed years earlier continued until a
federal magistrate judge entered the room. To him, the assistant
corporation counsel and I told our versions of my arrest story —
which turned out to vary little.

The basic details were the same. As the city attorney shifted in
his seat, I told the judge how, along with compatriots I’d met only
minutes before, I donned my “WAR DEAD” sign and descended into the
subway surrounded by a phalanx of cops — plainclothes, regular
uniformed, Big Brother-types from the Technical Assistance Response
Unit (TARU), and white-shirted brass, as well as a Washington Post
photographer and legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild —
and boarded our train. I explained that we sat there looking as dead
as possible for about 111 blocks and then, as the Washington Post
reported, were arrested when we came back to life and “tried to change
trains.” I asked, admittedly somewhat rhetorically why, if I was such
a “criminal,” none of the officers present at my arrest had actually
showed up in court to testify against me when my case was dismissed
out of hand back in 2004? And why hadn’t the prosecutor wanted to
produce the video footage the NYPD had taken of the entire action and
my arrest? And why had the city been trying to buy me off all these
years since?

Faced with the fact that his intimidation tactics hadn’t worked,
the city attorney now quit his bad-cop tactics and I rose again out of
the ditch of “common criminality” into citizenship and then to the
high status of being addressed as “Dr. Turse” (in a bow to my PhD).
Offers and counteroffers followed, leading finally to a monetary
settlement with a catch — I also wanted an apology. If that guard
hadn’t directed me — under threat of being shot — to check my
digital audio recorder at the door, I might have had a sound file of
it to listen to for years to come. Instead, I had to be content with
the knowledge that an appointed representative of the City of New York
not only had to ditch the Escape from New York model — at least for a
day — pony up some money for violating my civil rights, and, before a
federal magistrate judge, also issue me an apology, on behalf of the
city, for wrongs committed by the otherwise largely unaccountable

The Future of the NYPD and the Homeland-Security State-let

I’m under no illusions that this minor monetary settlement and
apology were of real significance in a city where civil rights are
routinely abridged, the police are a largely unaccountable armed
force, and a culture of total surveillance is increasingly the norm.
But my lawsuit, when combined with those of my fellow arrestees, could
perhaps have some small effect. After all, less than a year after the
convention, 569 people had already “filed notices that they intended
to sue the City, seeking damages totaling $859,014,421,” according to
an NYCLU report. While the city will end up paying out considerably
less, the grand total will not be insignificant. In fact, Jim Dwyer
recently reported that the first 35 of 605 RNC cases had been settled
for a total of $694,000.

If New Yorkers began to agitate for accountability — demanding,
for instance, that such settlements be paid out of the NYPD’s budget
— it could make a difference. Then, every time New Yorkers’ hard-
earned tax-dollars were handed over to fellow citizens who were
harassed, mistreated, injured, or abused by the city’s police force
that would mean less money available for the “big expensive toys” that
the “big boys” of the NYPD’s aviation unit use to record the private
moments of unsuspecting citizens or the ubiquitous surveillance gear
used not to capture the rest of the city on candid camera. It wouldn’t
put an end to the NYPD’s long-running criminality or the burgeoning
homeland security state-let that it’s building, but it would, at
least, introduce a tiny measure of accountability.

Such an effort might even begin a dialogue about the NYPD, its
dark history, its current mandate under the Global War on Terror, and
its role in New York City. For instance, people might begin to examine
the very nature of the department. They might conclude that questions
must be raised when institutions — be they rogue regimes, deleterious
industries, unaccountable corporations, or fundamentally-tainted
government institutions — consistently, over many decades, evidence a
persistent disregard for the law, a lack of accountability, and a deep
resistance to reform. Those directly affected by the NYPD, a nearly
38,000-person force — larger than many armies — that has
consistently flouted the law and has proven remarkably resistant to
curtailing its own misconduct for well over a century, might even
begin to wonder if it can be trusted to administer the homeland
security state-let its top officials are fast implementing and, if
not, what can be done about it.


Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of
Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San
Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for
Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex, an exploration of the
new military-corporate complex in America, is due out in the American
Empire Project series by Metropolitan Books in 2008. His new website
NickTurse.com (up only in rudimentary form) will fully launch in the
coming months.

Why security matters

Every email takes a perilous journey. A typical email might travel
across twenty networks and be stored on five computers from the time
it is composed to the time it is read. At every step of the way, the
contents of the email might be monitored, archived, cataloged, and

However, it is not the content of your email which is most
interesting: typically, a spying organization is more concerned by
whom you communicate with. There are many ways in which this kind of
mapping of people’s associations and habits is far worse than
traditional eavesdropping. By cataloging our associations, a spying
organization has an intimate picture of how our social movements are
organized–a more detailed picture than even the social movements
themselves are aware of.

This is bad. Really bad. The US government, among others, has a long
track record of doing whatever it can to subvert, imprison, kill, or
squash social movements which it sees as a threat (black power, anti-
war, civil rights, anti-slavery, native rights, organized labor, and
so on). And now they have all the tools they need to do this with
blinding precision.

We believe that communication free of eavesdropping and association
mapping is necessary for a democratic society (should one ever happen
to take root in the US). We must defend the right to free speech, but
it is just as necessary to defend the right to private speech.

Unfortunately, private communication is not possible if only a few
people practice it: they will stand out and open themselves up to
greater scrutiny. Therefore, we believe it is important for everyone
to incorporate as many security measures in your email life as you are

Email is not secure

You should think of normal email as a postcard: anyone can read it,
your letter carrier, your nosy neighbor, your house mates. All email,
unless encrypted, is completely insecure. Email is actually much less
secure than a postcard, because at least with a postcard you have a
chance of recognizing the sender’s handwriting. With email, anyone can
pretend to be anyone else.

There is another way in which email is even less private than a
postcard: the government does not have enough labor to read everyone’s
postscards, but they probably have the capacity and ability to scan
most email. Based on current research in datamining, it is likely that
the government does not search email for particular words but rather
looks for patterns of association and activity.

In the three cases below, evidence is well established that the
government conducts widespread and sweeping electronic survillence.

full-pipe monitoring
According to a former Justice Department attorney, it is common
practice for the FBI to practice “full-pipe monitoring”. The process
involves vacuuming up all traffic of an ISP and then later mining that
data for whatever the FBI might find interesting. The story was first
reported on January 30, 2007 by Declan McCullagh of CNET News.com.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class-action
lawsuit against AT&T on January 31, 2006, accusing the telecom giant
of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating
with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive and illegal
program to wiretap and data-mine Americans’ communications.

Because AT&T is one of the few providers of the internet backbone
(a so called Tier 1 provider), even if you are not an AT&T customer is
is likely that AT&T is the carrier for much of your interent traffic.
It is very likely that other large internet and email providers have
also worked out deals with the government. We only know about this one
because of an internal whistleblower.

For legal domestic wiretaps, the U.S. government runs a program
called Carnivore (also called DCS1000).

Carnivore is a ‘black box’ which some ISPs are required to install
which allows law enforcement to do ‘legal’ wiretaps. However, no one
knows how they work, they effectively give the government total
control over monitoring anything on the ISP’s network, and there is
much evidence that the government uses carnivore to gather more
information than is legal.

As of January 2005, the FBI announced they are no longer using
Carnivore/DCS1000 and are replacing it with a product developed by a
third party. The purpose of the new system is exactly the same.

ECHELON is a spy program operated cooperatively with the
governments of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia,
and New Zealand. The goal is to monitor and analyze internet traffic
on a wide scale. The EU Parliament has accused the U.S. of using
Echelon for industrial espionage.

Call database

On May 10, USAToday broke the story that the NSA has a database
designed to track every phone call ever made in the US. Although this
applies to phone conversations, the fact that the government believes
that this is legal means that they almost certainly think it is legal
to track all the email communication within the US as well. And we
know from the AT&T case that they have the capability to do so.


You can do something about it!

What a gloomy picture! Happily, there are many things you can do.
These security pages will help outline some of the simple and not-so-
simple changes you can make to your email behavior.

* Secure Connections: by using secure connections, you protect
your login information and your data while is in transport to
* Secure Providers: when you send mail to and from secure email
providers, you can protect the content of your communication and also
the pattern of your associations.
* Public Key Encryption: although it is a little more work, public
key encryption is the best way to keep the content of your
communication private.

See the next page, Security Measures, for tips on these and other
steps you can take. Remember: even if you don’t personally need
privacy, practicing secure communication will ensure that others have
the ability to freely organize and agitate.

Practice secure behavior!
These pages include a lot of fancy talk about encryption. Ultimately,
however, all this wizbang cryto-alchemy will be totally useless if you
have insecure behavior. A few simple practices will go a long way
toward securing your communications:

1. Logout: make sure that you always logout when using web-mail.
This is very important, and very easy to do. This is particular
important when using a public computer.
2. Avoid public computers: this can be difficult. If you do use a
public computer, consider changing your password often or using the
virtual keyboard link (if you use riseup.net for your web-mail).
3. Use good password practice: you should change your password
periodically and use a password which is at least 6 characters and
contains a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols. It is better
to use a complicated password and write it down then to use a simple
password and keep it only in your memory. Studies show that most
people use passwords which are easy to guess or to crack, especially
if you have some information about the interests of the person. You
should never pick a password which is found in the dictionary (the
same goes for “love” as well as “10v3” and other common ways of
replacing letters with numbers).
4. Be a privacy freak: don’t tell other people your password. Also,
newer operating systems allow you to create multiple logins which keep
user settings separate. You should enable this feature, and logout or
“lock” the computer when not in use.

Use secure connections!
What are secure connections?

When you check your mail from the riseup.net server, you can use an
encrypted connection, which adds a high level of security to all
traffic between your computer and riseup.net. Secure connections are
enabled for web-mail and for IMAP or POP mail clients.

This method is useful for protecting your password and login. If you
don’t use a secure connection, then your login and password are sent
over the internet in a ‘cleartext’ form which can be easily
intercepted. It is obvious why you might not want your password made
public, but it may also be important to keep your login private in
cases where you do not want your real identity tied to a particular
email account.

How do I know if I am using a secure connection?

When using web browser (Firefox, Safari, etc.)
If you are using a web browser to connect to Riseup, you can look at
three things to check to see if you are using a secure connection.

The first is easy, are you using Internet Explorer? If so, switch to
Firefox. The security problems with Internet Explorer are too numerous
to mention and making the switch to Firefox is an easy step in the
right direction.

Secondly, look up at the URL bar, where the address is. If it starts
with “https://” (NOTE the ‘s’), then you have a secure connection, if
its just “http://” (NO ‘s’), then you are not using a secure
connection. You can change that “http” to “https” by clicking on the
URL bar and adding the ‘s’ and then hit to load the page securely.

The third way to tell is by looking for a little padlock icon. It will
either appear in the URL location bar, or in the bottom corner of the
window, it should appear locked, if the lock doesn’t exist, or the
lock picture looks like it is unlocked, you are not using a secure
connection. You can hover your mouse over the padlock to get more
information, and often clicking (or sometimes right-clicking) on the
lock will bring up details about the SSL certificate used to secure
the connection.

If you click on the padlock, you can verify Riseup’s certificate
fingerprints, this is a very good idea! Follow these directions to
verify our fingerprint.

When using a mail client (Thunderbird, Outlook, etc.)
For POP and IMAP, your mail client will have the option of enabling
SSL or TLS. For sending mail (SMTP), both SSL and TLS will work, but
some ISPs will block TLS, so you might need to use SSL. For more
specific, step-by-step configurations for your mail client, see our
mail client tutorials and SMTP FAQ.

The limits of secure connections

The problem with email is that takes a long and perilous journey. When
you send a message, it first travels from your computer to the
riseup.net mail server and then is delivered to the recipient’s mail
server. Finally, the recipient logs on to check their email and the
message is delivered to their computer.

Using secure connections only protects your data as it travels from
your computer to the the riseup.net servers (and vice versa). It does
not make your email any more secure as it travels around the internet
from mail server to mail server. To do this, see below.

Use secure email providers
What is StartTLS?

There are many governments and corporations who “sniff” general
traffic on the internet. Even if you use a secure connection to check
and send your email, the communication between mail servers is almost
always insecure and out in the open.

Fortunately, there is a solution! StartTLS is a fancy name for a very
important idea: StartTLS allows mail servers to talk to each other in
a secure way.

If you and your friends use only email providers which use StartTLS,
then all the mail traffic among you will be encrypted while in
transport. If both sender and recipient also use secure connections
while talking to the mail servers, then your communications are likely
secure over its entire lifetime.

We will repeat that because it is important: to gain any benefit from
StartTLS, both sender and recipient must be using StartTLS enabled
email providers. For mailing lists, the list provider and each and
every list subscriber must use StartTLS.

Which email providers use StartTLS?
Currently, these tech collectives are known to use StartTLS:

* riseup.net
* resist.ca
* mutualaid.org
* autistici.org/inventati.org
* aktivix.org
* boum.org
* squat.net
* tao.ca
* indymedia.org
* eggplantmedia.com
* so36.net

We recommend that you and all your friends get email accounts with
these tech collectives!
Additionally, these email providers often have StartTLS enabled:

* universities: berkeley.edu, johnhopkins.edu, hampshire.edu,
evergreen.edu, ucsc.edu, reed.edu, oberlin.edu, pdx.edu, usc.edu,
bc.edu, uoregon.edu, vassar.edu, temple.edu, ucsf.edu, ucdavis.edu,
wisc.edu, rutgers.edu, ucr.edu, umb.edu, simmons.edu.
* organizations: action-mail.org, no-log.org
* companies: speakeasy.net, easystreet.com, runbox.com,
hushmail.com, dreamhost.com, frognet.net, frontbridge.com, freenet.de,
blarg.net, greennet (gn.apc.org)

What are the advantages of StartTLS?
This combination of secure email providers and secure connections has
many advantages:

* It is very easy to use! No special software is needed. No
special behavior is needed, other than to make sure you are using
secure connections.
* It prevents anyone from creating a map of whom you are
communicating with and who is communicating with you (so long as both
parties use StartTLS).
* It ensures that your communication is pretty well protected.
* It promotes the alternative mail providers which use StartTLS.
The goal is to create a healthy ecology of activist providers–which
can only happen if people show these providers strong support. Many of
these alternative providers also also incorporate many other important
security measures such as limited logging and encrypted storage.

What are the limitations of StartTLS?
However, there are some notable limitations:

* Your computer is a weak link: your computer can be stolen,
hacked into, have keylogging software or hardware installed.
* It is difficult to verify: for a particular message to be
secure, both the origin and destination mail providers must use
StartTLS (and both the sender and recipient must use encrypted
connections). Unfortunately, it is difficult to confirm that all of
this happened. For this, you need public key encryption (see below).

Use public-key encryption
If you wish to keep the contents of your email private, and confirm
the identity of people who send you email, you should download and
install public-key encryption software. This option is only available
if you have your own computer.

Public-key encryption uses a combination of a private key and a public
key. The private key is known only by you, while the public key is
distributed far and wide. To send an encrypted message to someone, you
encrypt the message with their public key. Only their private key will
be able to decrypt your message and read it.

The universal standard for public-key encryption is Pretty Good
Privacy (PGP) and GNU Privacy Guard (GPG). GPG is Free Software, while
PGP is a proprietary product (although there are many freeware
versions available). Both work interchangeably and are available as
convenient add-ons to mail clients for Linux, Mac, and Windows.

For information configuring your mail client to use public key
encryption, see our mail client tutorial pages. In particular, see the
tutorials for Apple Mail and Thunderbird. Otherwise, you should refer
the to documentation which comes with your particular mail client.

Although it provides the highest level of security, public-key
encryption is still an adventure to use. To make your journey less
scary, we suggest you keep these things in mind:

* Be in it for the long haul: using public-key encryption takes a
commitment to learning a lot of new skills and jargon. The widespread
adoption of GPG is a long way off, so it may seem like a lot of work
for not much benefit. However, we need early adopters who can help
build a critical mass of GPG users.
* Develop GPG buddies: although most your traffic might not be
encrypted, if you find someone else who uses GPG try to make a
practice of communicating using only GPG with that person.
* Look for advocates: people who use GPG usually love to
evangelize about it and help others to use it to. Find someone like
this who can answer your questions and help you along.

Although you can hide the contents of email with public-key
encryption, it does not hide who you are sending mail to and receiving
mail from. This means that even with public key encryption there is a
lot of personal information which is not secure.

Why? Imagine that someone knew nothing of the content of your mail
correspondence, but they knew who you sent mail to and received mail
from and they knew how often and what the subject line was. This
information can provide a picture of your associations, habits,
contacts, interests and activities.

The only way to keep your list of associations private is to to use an
email provider which will establish a secure connection with other
email providers. See Use secure email providers, above.


What are certificates?

On the internet, a public key certificate is needed in order to verify
the identity of people or computers. These certificates are also
called SSL certificates or identity certificates. We will just call
them “certificates.”

In particular, certificates are needed to establish secure
connections. Without certificates, you would be able to ensure that no
one else was listening, but you might be talking to the wrong computer
altogether! All riseup.net servers and all riseup.net services allow
or require secure connections. It can sometimes be tricky to coax a
particular program to play nice and recognize the riseup.net
certificates. This page will help you through the process.

If you don’t follow these steps, your computer will likely complain or
fail every time you attempt to create a secure connection with

What is a certificate authority?
Certificates are the digital equivalent of a government issued
identification card. Certificates, however, are issued by private
corporations called certificate authorities (CA).

I thought you were against authority?
We are, but the internet is designed to require certificate
authorities and there is not much we can do about it. There are other
models for encrypted communication, such as the decentralized notion
of a “web of trust” found in PGP. Unfortunately, no one has written
any web browsers or mail clients to use PGP for establishing secure
connections, so we are forced to rely on certificate authorities. Some
day, we hope to collaborate with other tech collectives to create a
certificate (anti) authority.

Your certificate is not recognized – what should I do?
We recently installed new certificates that should solve this issue
for webmail and mail client users. However, users accessing the secure
pages for lists.riseup.net, help.riseup.net, we.riseup.net and
user.riseup.net will still receive this annoying error message. The
problem is that these servers use a CA Cert root certificate, which is
not on the list of “trusted” certification authorities. So, in order
to use the certificates without receiving the error message, you will
need to import the CA Cert Root Certificate.

What are the fingerprints of riseup.net’s certificates?
Some programs cannot use certificate authorities to confirm the
validity of a certificate. In that case, you may need to manually
confirm the fingerprint of the riseup.net certificate. Here are some
fingerprints for various certificates:

Hash: SHA1

1. SSL fingerprint for mail.riseup.net
* sha1: BA:73:F5:45:E0:98:54:E5:6D:BA:5C:4B:98:EF:1A:A9:4B:C1:47:9D
* md5:  88:12:94:4D:D5:43:FE:22:84:4E:67:C9:0C:1E:DC:DA

2. SSL fingerprint for tern.riseup.net
* sha1: F2:1D:DC:23:89:36:15:F9:1B:2C:66:F0:93:99:6E:C8:EB:2C:43:BB
* md5:  A1:3E:38:19:39:70:DA:F0:0E:B1:58:D9:1A:67:41:AD

3. SSL fingerprint for petrel.riseup.net
* sha1: 13:C8:86:19:53:52:C7:A1:B8:03:B0:53:1A:E9:DA:FF:AD:A9:BB:24
* md5:  84:32:84:43:81:13:16:56:0F:CE:68:A9:CF:29:4D:8D
Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (GNU/Linux)


When should I verify these fingerprints?
You should verify these fingerprints whenever they change, or you are
using a computer that you do not control (such as at an internet cafe,
or a library). Verify them if you are suspicious, be suspicious and
learn how to verify them and do it often.

How do I verify these fingerprints?
To verify these fingerprints, you need to look at what your browser
believes the fingerprints are for the certificates and compare them to
what is listed above. If they are different, there is a problem.

In most browsers, the way you look at the fingerprints of the
certificate that you were given is by clicking on the lock icon that
is located either in the URL location bar, or in the bottom corner of
your browser. This should bring up details about the certificate being
used, including the fingerprint. Some browsers may only show the MD5
fingerprint, or the SHA1 fingerprint, some will show both. Usually one
is good enough to verify the validity of the fingerprint.

I want to learn more

Great, this is an important topic and we encourage you to read this
piece which clearly articulates in a non-technical way the problems
involved in certificate authorities as well as outlining some
interesting suggestions for ways that the existing architecture and
protocols can be tweaked just a little bit to change the situation for
the better.



Policy at riseup.net
We strive to keep our mail as secure and private as we can.

* We do not log your IP address. (Most services keep detailed
records of every machine which connects to the servers. We keep only
information which cannot be used to uniquely identify your machine.)
* All your data, including your mail, is stored by riseup.net in
encrypted form.
* We work hard to keep our servers secure and well defended
against any malicious attack.
* We do not share any of our user data with anyone.
* We will actively fight any attempt to subpoena or otherwise
acquire any user information or logs.
* We will not read, search, or process any of your incoming or
outgoing mail other than by automatic means to protect you from
viruses and spam or when directed to do so by you when



Security resources for activists

This site contains a quick overview of email security. For more in-
depth information, check out these websites:

Helping activists stay safe in our oppressive world.

A series of briefings on information security and online safety for
civil society organizations.

Guide to Email Security Using Encryption and Digital Signatures

Computer Security for the Average Activist

An introduction to activism on the internet


FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool
BY Anne Broache and Declan McCullagh  /  December 1, 2006

The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic
surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile
phone’s microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The technique is called a “roving bug,” and was approved by top U.S.
Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York
organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance
techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

Nextel cell phones owned by two alleged mobsters, John Ardito and his
attorney Peter Peluso, were used by the FBI to listen in on nearby
conversations. The FBI views Ardito as one of the most powerful men in
the Genovese family, a major part of the national Mafia.

The surveillance technique came to light in an opinion published this
week by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. He ruled that the “roving
bug” was legal because federal wiretapping law is broad enough to
permit eavesdropping even of conversations that take place near a
suspect’s cell phone.

Kaplan’s opinion said that the eavesdropping technique “functioned
whether the phone was powered on or off.” Some handsets can’t be fully
powered down without removing the battery; for instance, some Nokia
models will wake up when turned off if an alarm is set. While the
Genovese crime family prosecution appears to be the first time a
remote-eavesdropping mechanism has been used in a criminal case, the
technique has been discussed in security circles for years.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s security office warns that “a cellular
telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the
purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone.”
An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can
“remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the
owner’s knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its
owner is not making a call.”

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially
vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said
James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked
closely with government agencies. “They can be remotely accessed and
made to transmit room audio all the time,” he said. “You can do that
without having physical access to the phone.”

Because modern handsets are miniature computers, downloaded software
could modify the usual interface that always displays when a call is
in progress. The spyware could then place a call to the FBI and
activate the microphone–all without the owner knowing it happened.
(The FBI declined to comment on Friday.) “If a phone has in fact been
modified to act as a bug, the only way to counteract that is to either
have a bugsweeper follow you around 24-7, which is not practical, or
to peel the battery off the phone,” Atkinson said. Security-conscious
corporate executives routinely remove the batteries from their cell
phones, he added.

FBI’s physical bugs discovered

The FBI’s Joint Organized Crime Task Force, which includes members of
the New York police department, had little luck with conventional
surveillance of the Genovese family. They did have a confidential
source who reported the suspects met at restaurants including Brunello
Trattoria in New Rochelle, N.Y., which the FBI then bugged.

But in July 2003, Ardito and his crew discovered bugs in three
restaurants, and the FBI quietly removed the rest. Conversations
recounted in FBI affidavits show the men were also highly suspicious
of being tailed by police and avoided conversations on cell phones
whenever possible.

That led the FBI to resort to “roving bugs,” first of Ardito’s Nextel
handset and then of Peluso’s. U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones
approved them in a series of orders in 2003 and 2004, and said she
expected to “be advised of the locations” of the suspects when their
conversations were recorded.

Details of how the Nextel bugs worked are sketchy. Court documents,
including an affidavit (p1) and (p2) prepared by Assistant U.S.
Attorney Jonathan Kolodner in September 2003, refer to them as a
“listening device placed in the cellular telephone.” That phrase could
refer to software or hardware.

One private investigator interviewed by CNET News.com, Skipp Porteous
of Sherlock Investigations in New York, said he believed the FBI
planted a physical bug somewhere in the Nextel handset and did not
remotely activate the microphone. “They had to have physical
possession of the phone to do it,” Porteous said. “There are several
ways that they could have gotten physical possession. Then they
monitored the bug from fairly near by.”

But other experts thought microphone activation is the more likely
scenario, mostly because the battery in a tiny bug would not have
lasted a year and because court documents say the bug works anywhere
“within the United States”–in other words, outside the range of a
nearby FBI agent armed with a radio receiver.

In addition, a paranoid Mafioso likely would be suspicious of any ploy
to get him to hand over a cell phone so a bug could be planted. And
Kolodner’s affidavit seeking a court order lists Ardito’s phone
number, his 15-digit International Mobile Subscriber Identifier, and
lists Nextel Communications as the service provider, all of which
would be unnecessary if a physical bug were being planted.

A BBC article from 2004 reported that intelligence agencies routinely
employ the remote-activiation method. “A mobile sitting on the desk of
a politician or businessman can act as a powerful, undetectable bug,”
the article said, “enabling them to be activated at a later date to
pick up sounds even when the receiver is down.”

For its part, Nextel said through spokesman Travis Sowders: “We’re not
aware of this investigation, and we weren’t asked to participate.”
Other mobile providers were reluctant to talk about this kind of
surveillance. Verizon Wireless said only that it “works closely with
law enforcement and public safety officials. When presented with
legally authorized orders, we assist law enforcement in every way
possible.” A Motorola representative said that “your best source in
this case would be the FBI itself.” Cingular, T-Mobile, and the CTIA
trade association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mobsters: The surveillance vanguard

This isn’t the first time the federal government has pushed at the
limits of electronic surveillance when investigating reputed mobsters.
In one case involving Nicodemo S. Scarfo, the alleged mastermind of a
loan shark operation in New Jersey, the FBI found itself thwarted when
Scarfo used Pretty Good Privacy software (PGP) to encode confidential
business data. So with a judge’s approval, FBI agents repeatedly snuck
into Scarfo’s business to plant a keystroke logger and monitor its

Like Ardito’s lawyers, Scarfo’s defense attorneys argued that the then-
novel technique was not legal and that the information gleaned through
it could not be used. Also like Ardito, Scarfo’s lawyers lost when a
judge ruled in January 2002 that the evidence was admissible. This
week, Judge Kaplan in the southern district of New York concluded that
the “roving bugs” were legally permitted to capture hundreds of hours
of conversations because the FBI had obtained a court order and
alternatives probably wouldn’t work.

The FBI’s “applications made a sufficient case for electronic
surveillance,” Kaplan wrote. “They indicated that alternative methods
of investigation either had failed or were unlikely to produce
results, in part because the subjects deliberately avoided government

Bill Stollhans, president of the Private Investigators Association of
Virginia, said such a technique would be legally reserved for police
armed with court orders, not private investigators. There is “no law
that would allow me as a private investigator to use that type of
technique,” he said. “That is exclusively for law enforcement. It is
not allowable or not legal in the private sector. No client of mine
can ask me to overhear telephone or strictly oral conversations.”

Surreptitious activation of built-in microphones by the FBI has been
done before. A 2003 lawsuit revealed that the FBI was able to
surreptitiously turn on the built-in microphones in automotive systems
like General Motors’ OnStar to snoop on passengers’ conversations.
When FBI agents remotely activated the system and were listening in,
passengers in the vehicle could not tell that their conversations were
being monitored.

Malicious hackers have followed suit. A report last year said Spanish
authorities had detained a man who write a Trojan horse that secretly
activated a computer’s video camera and forwarded him the recordings.

Tungsten-Filled 1 Kilo Gold Bar Found In The UK
by Tyler Durden on 03/24/2012

The last time a story of Tungsten-filled gold appeared on the scene was just two years ago, and involved a 500  gram bar of gold full of tungsten, at the W.C. Heraeus foundry, the world’s largest metal refiner and fabricator. It also became known that said “gold” bar originated from an unnamed bank. It is now time to rekindle the Tungsten Spirits with a report from ABC Bullion of Australia, which provides photographic evidence of a new gold bar that has been drilled out and filled with tungsten rods, this time not in Germany but in an unnamed city in the UK, where it was intercepted by a scrap metals dealer, and was supplied with its original certificate. The reason the bar attracted attention is that it was 2 grams underweight. Upon cropping it was uncovered that about 30-40% of the bar weight was tungsten. So two documented incidents in two years: isolated? Or indication of the same phenomonenon of precious metal debasement that marked the declining phase of the Roman empire. Only then it was relatively public for anyone who cared to find out on their own. Now, with the bulk of popular physical gold held in top secret, private warehouses around the world, where it allegedly backs the balance sheets of the world’s central banks, yet nobody can confirm its existence, nor audit the actual gold content, it is understandable why increasingly more are wondering: just how much gold is there? And alongside that – while gold, (or is it GLD?), can be rehypothecated, can one do the same with tungsten?

From ABC Bullion:

ABC Bullion received the following email from one of our trusted suppliers this week.


  • It was not ABC Bullion that purchased this bar, the email and photos were sent to us as a general warning.
  • I xxxx’ed out the city’s name to avoid any second guessing as to the name of the dealer.


Attached are photographs of a legitimate Metalor 1000gm Au bar that has been drilled out and filled with Tungsten (W).

This bar was purchased by staff of a scrap dealer in xxxxx, UK yesterday. The bar appeared to be perfect other than the fact that it was 2gms underweight. It was checked by hand-held xrf and showed 99.98% Au. Being Tungsten, it would not be ferro-magnetic. The bar was supplied with the original certificate.

The owner of the business that purchased the bar only became suspicious when he realized the weight discrepancy and had the bar cropped. He estimates between 30-40% of the weight of the bar to be Tungsten.

This is very worrying and reinforces the lengths that people are willing to go to profit from the current high metal prices. Please be careful.

Photos of the cropped bars: 1000g Gold bar cut showing inserted tungsten rods

Two halves of the cropped bar:


by Theo Gray  /   03.14.2008

“On Wednesday, the BBC reported that millions of dollars in gold at the central bank of Ethiopia has turned out to be fake: What were supposed to be bars of solid gold turned out to be nothing more than gold-plated steel. They tried to sell the stuff to South Africa and it was sent back when the South Africans noticed this little problem. This is an amazing story for two reasons. First, that an institution like a central bank could get ripped off this way, and second that the people responsible used such a lousy excuse for fake gold. I consider myself something of an expert on fake gold (I’m not really, I just think I am) ever since I was asked to give advice on the subject to the author Damien Lewis for his recent thriller, Cobra Gold. I worked out in detail for him how you could make really convincing fake gold, and ended up as a minor character in the novel, where I am known as “Goldfinger Gus”.

The problem with making good-quality fake gold is that gold is remarkably dense. It’s almost twice the density of lead, and two-and-a-half times more dense than steel. You don’t usually notice this because small gold rings and the like don’t weigh enough to make it obvious, but if you’ve ever held a larger bar of gold, it’s absolutely unmistakable: The stuff is very, very heavy.

The standard gold bar for bank-to-bank trade, known as a “London good delivery bar” weighs 400 troy ounces (over thirty-three pounds), yet is no bigger than a paperback novel. A bar of steel the same size would weigh only thirteen and a half pounds. According to the news, the authorities have arrested pretty much everyone involved, from the people who sold the bank the gold, to bank officials, to the chemists responsible for testing and approving it on receipt.

The problem is, anyone who so much as picked up one of these bars should have known immediately that they were fake, no fancy test required. The weight alone is an instant dead giveaway. Even a forklift operator lifting a palette full of them should have noticed that his machine wasn’t working hard enough. I think they must have been swapped out while in storage: Someone walked in each day with a new fake gold bar and walked out with a real one. If they were fake on arrival then everyone who handled them in any way must have either had no experience with gold or been in on the scam.

Now, for me the more interesting question is, how do you make a fake gold bar that at least passes the pick-it-up test? The problem is that there are very few metals that are as dense as gold, and with only two exceptions they all cost as much or more than gold. The first exception is depleted uranium, which is cheap if you’re a government, but hard for individuals to get. It’s also radioactive, which could be a bit of an issue.

The second exception is a real winner: tungsten. Tungsten is vastly cheaper than gold (maybe $30 dollars a pound compared to $12,000 a pound for gold right now). And remarkably, it has exactly the same density as gold, to three decimal places. The main differences are that it’s the wrong color, and that it’s much, much harder than gold. (Very pure gold is quite soft, you can dent it with a fingernail.)

A top-of-the-line fake gold bar should match the color, surface hardness, density, chemical, and nuclear properties of gold perfectly. To do this, you could could start with a tungsten slug about 1/8-inch smaller in each dimension than the gold bar you want, then cast a 1/16-inch layer of real pure gold all around it. This bar would feel right in the hand, it would have a dead ring when knocked as gold should, it would test right chemically, it would weigh *exactly* the right amount, and though I don’t know this for sure, I think it would also pass an x-ray fluorescence scan, the 1/16″ layer of pure gold being enough to stop the x-rays from reaching any tungsten. You’d pretty much have to drill it to find out it’s fake. (Unless, of course, central bank gold inspectors are wise to this trick and have developed a test for it: Something involving speed of sound say, or more powerful x-rays, or perhaps neutron activation analysis. If bars like this are actually a common problem, you certainly could devise a quick, non-destructive test for them, and for all I know, they have. Except, apparently, in Ethiopia.)

Such a top-quality fake London good delivery bar would cost about $50,000 to produce because it’s got a lot of real gold in it, but you’d still make a nice profit considering that a real one is worth closer to $400,000. A lower budget version could be made by using the same under-sized tungsten slug but casting lead-antimony alloy around it (to match the hardness, sound, and feel of gold), then electroplating on a heavy coating of gold. Such a bar would still feel and sound right and be only very slightly underweight, while costing less than $500 to produce in quantity. It would not pass x-ray fluorescence, and whether it passes a chemical test would depend on how thick the electroplating is.

This is the solution I recommended for Cobra Gold, because they only needed their fake gold to pass a field inspection, which is to say, someone picking it up and knowing what gold should feel like when you lift it. You may quibble for other aspects of the plot if you like, but I think the fake gold would have worked. And let me tell you, it’s a sad day for criminal masterminds when my fictional fake gold, designed only to trick a terrorist cell, is so much better than the real fake gold used to rip off a real government bank for millions of real dollars.”

Make Everything Golden
Using sheets so thin they’re measured in atoms
by Theodore Gray  /  05.03.2005

Dept.: Gray Matter
Element: Gold
Project: Gilding
Cost: $60
Time: One hour

Malleable things can be hammered thinner without breaking; ductile things can be stretched thinner without snapping. Every material has its limit, but with gold, that limit is just a few hundred atoms thick. Gold is the most malleable and the most ductile of all metals. A cube of it about 21/2 inches on edge could be beaten out to cover an entire football field (at a cost of roughly $68,000, plus beating fees). Gold this thin is called gold leaf, and the ancient art of applying it for decoration is called gilding.

How thin is gold leaf? Using my steel rolling mill, I can make gold foil about one thousandth of an inch thick, similar to aluminum foil. Thin, sure, but gold leaf is nearly 500 times as thin as that. Only then does it become affordable enough and flexible enough to be used almost like paint to cover finely detailed carvings or anything else you want to be shiny for years to come. To make gold leaf, start with gold foil, interleave a few dozen squares of it with layers of special vellum (so the foil sheets don´t stick to one another), and beat the heck out of the stack with a 16-pound hammer for many hours, turning the squares into larger squares of thinner foil. Then cut the sheets in quarters, restack them, and pound them out again. The malleability of gold is what allows the sheets to just keep getting thinner and thinner without splitting. (OK, I admit, I tried and failed at this. Just haven´t got the arm for it. Or the proper vellum, or the family secrets handed down over generations. Making gold leaf is, like other ancient arts, not quite the garage project it might seem.)

Gilding, on the other hand, is not a particularly difficult skill. To gild a home-run baseball, I used commercially prepared gold leaf from an art-supply store. The process is simple: Paint the object with a sticky liquid called gold size, lay the sheets of gold leaf on, and rub them in. The catch is the part where you try to pick up the leaf. Don´t even think about using your fingers-this stuff is more like a soap bubble than a sheet of metal and will start wrapping around your fingers and then tear the instant you try to unwrap it. Brushes known as gilders´ tips, made of red-squirrel hair (none of that gray-squirrel crap, mind you) are used to pick up the sheets by static electricity. It takes a delicate touch, but at $2 per four-inch-by-four-inch sheet, you´re motivated to learn fast.

Gold leaf instantly welds to itself. Overlapping layers fuse together invisibly when rubbed in, so even if you´re sloppy, the end result will look smooth. It´s OK to touch it with your fingers at this point because the gold size will hold it in place. Gilded objects survive from 5,000 years ago (think King Tut´s mask), proving that gold is impervious to air, water, alkalis and most acids, no matter how thin it is.

1. Mini rolling mill squeezes one gram of gold into foil, which is still about 500 times as thick as gold leaf.
2. Gold leaf held to a squirrel-hair brush by static electricity, ready to be applied.


Fake fears over Ethiopia’s gold
by Elizabeth Blunt  /  13 March 2008
The price of real gold is currently soaring

Ethiopia’s national bank has been told to inspect all the gold in its vaults to determine its authenticity. It follows the discovery that some of the “gold” it had bought for millions of dollars was gold-plated steel. The first hint that something was wrong reportedly came when the Ethiopian central bank exported a consignment of gold bars to South Africa. The South Africans sent them back, complaining that they had been sold gilded steel. An investigation revealed that the bank had bought a consignment of fake gold from a supplier, who is now under

Other arrests followed, including business associates of the main accused; national bank officials; and chemists from the Geological Survey of Ethiopia, whose job it is to assay the bank’s purchases of gold and certify that they are real. But what has clearly now got the government even more worried is that another different batch of gold in the bank’s vaults has also been found to be fake, and this time it was gold which had been there for several years, after being seized from smugglers trying to take it to Djibouti.

The Ethiopian parliament’s budget and finance committee ordered the inspection of all gold in the national bank’s vaults. A report from the auditor-general on the affair is expected to be presented to parliament during its current session. Gold is mined in Ethiopia in considerable quantities, and a trader selling gold to the central bank has to have it tested and certified by the Geological Survey. Whether the bank bought fake gold in the first place, or whether real gold from the vaults has been swapped for gilded steel, the fraud has cost the bank many millions of dollars, and it must have involved collusion on a considerable scale.

Gold May Have Too Much Glow
by Joby Warrick  /  August 14, 1999

It was one of the most secretive missions at a factory that was all about secrecy: Nuclear warheads, retired from service and destined for the junkyard, were trucked at night to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to be dismantled, hacked into unrecognizable pieces and buried. Workers used hammers and acetylene torches to strip away bits of gold and other metals from the warheads’ corrosion-proof plating and circuitry. Useless parts were dumped into trenches. But the gold – some of it still radioactive – was tossed into a smelter and molded into shiny ingots.

Exactly what happened next is one of the most intriguing questions to arise from a workers’ lawsuit against the former operators of the U.S.-owned uranium plant in western Kentucky. Three employees contend that the plant failed for years to properly screen gold and other metals for radioactivity. Some metals, they say, may have been highly radioactive when they left Paducah, bound perhaps for private markets.

The claim – based partly on circumstantial evidence – is now being investigated by Department of Energy officials who are also probing the workers’ accounts of plutonium contamination and alleged illegal dumping of radioactive waste at the uranium plant. “It is my belief that these recycled metals were injected into commerce in a contaminated form,” Ronald Fowler, a radiation safety technician at the plant, states in court documents that were unsealed this week by the Justice Department.

The investigation comes amid heightened scrutiny of government efforts to recycle valuable metals piling up at more than 16 factories that are part of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. In the past week, congressional leaders, industry officials and scores of environmental groups have called on the Clinton administration to reconsider a controversial Department of Energy program to recycle scrap metal from nuclear weapons facilities into products that could end up in household goods or even children’s braces.

Opponents’ concerns soared this week with revelations, first reported in The Washington Post, that plutonium and other highly radioactive metals slipped into the Paducah plant over a 23-year period in shipments of contaminated uranium. The plutonium accumulated over decades in nickel-plated pipes where uranium was processed into fuel for bombs, government documents show. Smaller amounts of tainted uranium went to sister plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio, the records show.

Scrap nickel from those plants is now the primary target of the Energy Department’s metal recycling program, which would be run jointly by the federal government, the state of Tennessee and a private contractor, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL). “If DOE denied or didn’t know plutonium was present at Paducah, why should we trust them to release waste from identical production plants into products ranging from intrauterine devices to hip replacements?” asked Wenonah Hauter of the watchdog group Public Citizen, one of 185 organizations to sign a letter to Vice President Gore Thursday demanding a halt to the program.

Recovering gold and other valuable metals from retired nuclear weapons had been a little-known mission of the government’s uranium enrichment plants over the past five decades. At Paducah, the process began in the 1950s and was conducted under extraordinary security, with heavily armed guards escorting warheads into the plant under cover of darkness. Garland “Bud” Jenkins, one of three Paducah workers involved in the lawsuit filed under seal in June, says he worked for several years in Paducah’s metals program recovering gold, lead, aluminum and nickel from nuclear weapons and production equipment. “We melted the gold flakes in a furnace to create gold bars,” Jenkins said in court documents. “The gold was never surveyed radiologically prior to its release, to my knowledge.”

Jenkins also says he never saw tests performed on nickel and aluminum ingots that were hauled out of the plant in trucks. In later years, when plant managers did begin screening the metals, many were found to be contaminated, he said. Hundreds of nickel ingots are still stored at the plant, too tainted to go anywhere, he said. A plant report included in the lawsuit filings may shed light on the degree of contamination in the gold. In a radiological survey of the plant last year, technicians discovered gold flakes inside an old ingot mold used for gold recovery. The fish scale-sized flakes were tested and found to emit radiation at a rate of 500 millirems an hour, the report said. By comparison, the average person receives between 200 and 300 millirems each year from all sources, including X-rays, radon gas and cosmic radiation from space. “If you had a wedding ring made out of those flakes you’d be getting twice as much radiation in an hour as most people get in a year,” said Joseph R. Egan, a lawyer representing the employees.

Fowler, the radiation safety technician, said he filed a report on the discovery of the radioactive gold in December but received no response from the plant’s management. Nothing further was done to investigate “the possibility that [the plant] may have contaminated the nation’s gold supply” at Fort Knox, he said. Plant officials shed little light on the process. U.S. Enrichment Corp., the plant’s current operator, says gold recovery at Paducah was the responsibility of the Energy Department. Department officials, in a response to written questions from The Post, acknowledged that gold was recovered from nuclear weapons at Paducah. But, “since these actions occurred many years ago, information regarding their past dispositions is not readily available,” the statement said.

In a letter to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.)., department officials strongly defended their efforts to salvage nickel and other valuable metals that have been piling up at nuclear complex sites for years. “Let me assure you that the safety of the public and workers and compliance with state and federal regulations are of paramount importance,” said Undersecretary of Energy T.J. Glauthier. Glauthier said BNFL’s license requires that “any metals released for unrestricted use will not pose a risk to human health or the environment.”

The recycling program, announced in 1996 by Gore as part of his “reinventing government” initiative, was touted at the time as a “win-win” deal for the environment, industry and taxpayers. BNFL, which was awarded the recycling contract in a noncompetitive bid, has already begun recycling some of the 100,000 tons of radioactively contaminated metal that were once part of the defunct K-25 complex at Oak Ridge, the world’s first full-scale uranium enrichment plant. Eventually the program expanded to Paducah and other facilities.

Purifying nickel is technically difficult because the radioactive contamination extends below the surface of the metal. According to department officials, BNFL was awarded the contract because it has developed a unique technology that can safely remove nearly all of the contaminants. But opponents say the technology has never been proven on such a large scale. Moreover, they note, there are no federal standards for releasing contaminated metal into the marketplace. Previous attempts to set such standards in the early 1990s were abandoned because of public opposition.

And, opponents add, the lack of restrictions on the recycled metal leaves the public in the dark about which products may have come from contaminated scrap. Even if radioactivity levels are low, consumers are entitled to an informed choice when buying materials that might be used by children, activists said. “The DOE has admitted they can’t protect the safety of their workers and misled them,” said Robert Wages, executive vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union. “Now DOE wants to dump radioactive metals into everything from baby rattles to zippers . . . and tell us not to worry.”

Because there are no federal standards, the Energy Department’s recycling program relies on the state of Tennessee to set guidelines and regulate the process. In June, a federal judge sharply criticized the arrangement, saying the DOE had effectively thwarted public debate of an issue in which “the potential for environmental harm is great.” But U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected an attempt by labor and environmental groups to halt the recycling program, citing a law that prohibits courts from delaying federal cleanup of contaminated sites. Still, in unusually blunt language, the judge accused the Energy Department of “startling and worrisome” behavior in its alleged attempts to avoid federal oversight and public review. “There has been no opportunity at all for public scrutiny or input on such a matter of such grave importance,” Kessler wrote in her opinion. “The lack of public scrutiny is only compounded by the fact that the recycling process which BNFL intends to use is entirely experimental at this stage.”

from Paul Mylchreest

Let’s consider the run-up to Rome’s hyperinflation. I think this comment from jaysromanhistory.com “Good Money, Bad Money, and Runaway Inflation” resonates with what’s happening in the US today:

“Severus Alexander (AD 222-235) tried to reform by going back to the denarius but, once started, this path of runaway inflation and financial irresponsibility on the part of the imperial government proved impossible to control.”

It also seems that the hyperinflation was preceded by some kind of banking crisis, which is an interesting parallel. From “Demise and Fall of the Augustan Monetary System” by Koenraad Verboven:

“Papyri show it was common for private individuals to deposit money at a bank and to make and accept payments through bankers.Bankers in the west disappear from view around the middle of the 3rd c… A famous papyrus from Oxyrhynchus from 260 CE shows exchange bankers closing in order to avoid having to change the ‘imperial money’. The strategos ordered the exchange bankers to reopen and accept all genuine coins and warned businessmen to do the same. In 266 CE we find for the first time transactions being expressed in ‘ptolemaeic’ or ‘old silver’ as opposed to ‘new silver’.”

The chart shows how inflation remained relatively subdued until a tipping point was reached in the late- 260s A.D Monetary systems can absorb substantial abuse before there is a dramatic impact on the price level. For example, the debasement of the coinage was already accelerating in the early part of the third century A.D., before plunging in the latter part. Indeed, the chart below (apologies for the quality) only shows the trend up to 253 AD. By around 290 AD, the coins were only dipped in silver to give them a coating (<0.5%).



“A popular and recurring conspiracy theory, as alleged by Edward Durrell, Norman Dodd, Tom Valentine, Peter Beter and others, claims that the vault is mostly empty and that most of the gold in Fort Knox was removed to London in the late 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson. [3] In response, on September 23, 1974, Senator Walter Huddleston of Kentucky, twelve congressmen, and about 100 members of the news media toured the vault and opened various cells and doors, each filled with gold. Radio reporter Bill Evans, when asked if it seemed like the gold might have been moved in just for the visit, replied that “all I can say is that I saw gold there” and that it seemed like it was always there.[4] Additionally, audits of the gold by the General Accounting Office (in cooperation with the United States Mint and the United States Customs Service in 1974 and the Treasury Department) from 1975-1981 found no discrepancies between the reported and actual amounts of gold at the Depository.[5] However, the audit has been described as a peculiar process because it was only a partial audit done over an extended period of time.[6] The report states only 21 percent of the gold bars were audited as of 1981 (the audit report’s issue date) and that the audit has “covered more than 212.7 million fine troy ounces of gold” which “represents over 80 percent of the total amount of United States-owned gold of 264.1 million fine troy ounces.”[5] A small amount of gold is removed for regularly scheduled audits to ensure the purity matches official records.[1] The theory continues to persist, however. Of this alleged scandal, the ex-general counsel of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, Peter Beter, commented: “The Watergate scandal was child’s play compared with the covered-up Fort Knox Gold Scandal”.[7]”


“This is the Dr. Beter AUDIO LETTER, 1629 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006 Hello, my friends, this is Dr. Beter. Today is July 30, 1980, and this is my AUDIO LETTER No. 56.

In writing his stories, Ian Fleming was drawing upon his own secret weapon. That weapon was knowledge. Fleming had been a high-ranking officer of Britain’s crack Intelligence agency called MI-5. It was the British who practically invented and perfected the modern concept of Intelligence, and to this day British Intelligence remains the equal of any in the world.

When Fleming left Her Majesty’s Secret Service to become a writer, he was severely limited in what he could publish. He was bound by the restrictions of the British “Official Secrets Act.” Under that Act, Fleming would have been liable for punishment for revealing any official secret without authorization. And so Ian Fleming, the former British Intelligence officer, became what is known as a “fictionalizer”–that is, he started with factual knowledge but rearranged and modified it in order to create startling stories of fiction. He was always extremely careful about how he did this. He always knew that he was skirting the fringes of the Official Secrets Act. He could not afford to make a mistake, because it would have meant prison for him and possible forfeiture of pension rights; and so he always altered every situation, every secret technology, and every personality enough to avoid revealing actual secrets. It was a long and meticulous process both to protect himself and to make each final story readable. For that reason Fleming completed a new James Bond novel only about once a year. If it had all been imagination, as many people believe, he would have been capable of producing a new book every few months, making himself far richer. But because his stories were all rooted in fact, secret fact, he did not dare speed up and run the risk of making a mistake.

Ian Fleming had two purposes in writing his famous series of spy novels. One purpose, of course, was to earn a very comfortable living; but beyond that he was also trying to subtly open the eyes of the reading public by the medium of fiction. Because of the Official Secrets Act he could not publish the facts that he knew as fact without modification, so he did what he felt was the next best thing, and that was to use his stories to open our minds to at least think in terms which were otherwise hidden from us. Fleming truly believed that this was something which somehow had to be done, because knowing what he knew he was not an optimistic man.

A perfect example of all of this took place with a book Fleming published 21 years ago in 1959. It was titled “GOLD FINGER.” The starting point for the book was knowledge about certain secrets. Fleming knew that there was a long-range plan to create monetary chaos for private gain and power. He also knew that a central feature of the plan was to be the secret disappearance of America’s monetary gold hoard at Fort Knox, and he knew that the kingpin of this international plot was a man with legendary greed for gold. His name: DAVID ROCKEFELLER. It was a plan that was totally unsuspected by the public. It was still the Eisenhower era, the heyday of the so-called “almighty dollar.” The dollar was good as gold, because it was backed by the world’s largest monetary gold hoard. Fort Knox was thought to be impregnable; and in those days, my friends, no one dared speak ill of the Four Rockefeller Brothers.

Ian Fleming decided to write a book that would begin to alert people to what was afoot. He could not tell the whole story, nor tell it as fact because of the Official Secrets Act; but by fictionalizing he was able to cause people to think of possibilities which would never have occurred to them otherwise. For example, in the 50’s it was a rare American who considered even the possibility of monetary turmoil. The dollar was good as gold, and that was that. Why even think about gold? Individual citizens could not own it except in jewelry. Wasn’t all the rest of it thought to be sealed up in Fort Knox? Everyone knew no one could get in there, and so we didn’t even think about it. But in his book GOLD FINGER, Fleming brought several key thoughts to our minds. He devised a fictional scheme to show that Fort Knox might not be impregnable after all. He raised the question: “What would happen to the dollar and other currencies if the Fort Knox gold were no longer available?” And he proposed the unthinkable thought that someone, if they were rich enough and greedy enough, might want to get their hands on America’s gold.

The actual GOLD FINGER story, of course, was fiction; but the basic points which I have just mentioned were fact. GOLD FINGER was published in 1959; and barely two years later in 1961, the hemorrhaging of America’s monetary gold supply began. Agents of David Rockefeller within the United States Government provided a cloak of authority called the “London Gold Pool Agreement”; and then for seven years until 1968, big Army trucks loaded with gold bullion rolled out of Fort Knox constantly–and all without a word to the public!

Some of the gold shipments during those seven years were recorded on a list kept by the United States Mint. Almost without exception the shipments listed went to the New York Assay Office, where they disappeared without any further accounting. As you may recall, the New York Assay Office was the focus of a scandal in December 1978 involving missing gold. Over 5,000 ounces had simply disappeared; but that, my friends, was a very small tip of a very large iceberg, and so the controversy over the missing millions in gold at the New York Assay Office was quickly smoothed over and covered up. They could not afford to allow any real investigation which might let the public know the truth. According to the official list of shipments I mentioned earlier, a large fraction of America’s monetary gold went to the New York Assay Office in the 60’s. There it disappeared, never to be seen again.

But, my friends, the real situation was even worse. Long ago my sources gave me hard evidence of many large gold shipments from Fort Knox which were not even listed. Five years ago this month in AUDIO LETTER No. 2 I revealed a specific example of this. It was a shipment on January 20, 1965, in which four (4) tractor-trailers loaded up at Fort Knox and then headed for railroad tracks across the river at Jeffersonville, Indiana. My sources provided me with details, including photographs, of the operation. But the shipment was one of many which did not show on any official Government list of shipments.

In June 1975, Mr. Edward Durell and my other associates were able to confront officials of the United States Mint with this example of missing shipments, and for once the confrontation took place under circumstances in which the Mint was under great pressure to respond. In the most specific terms the Bureau of the Mint was asked what was shipped out of Fort Knox in the four tractor-trailers on January 20, 1965. The written answer dated June 19, 1975 came from the then Director of the United States Mint, Mrs. Mary Brooks. She confirmed that this unlisted shipment amounted to more than one and three-quarter (1-3/4) million ounces of gold–and, my friends, it was not junk gold melted down from old coins which were confiscated from Americans in 1934. The shipment was part of America’s true monetary gold, good delivery gold which is .995 fine or better. After this admission in writing about an enormous secret shipment of gold out of Fort Knox, one would have thought that there would be fireworks, but not so!

My friend Mr. Durell showered the appropriate officials throughout the Government with this evidence of massive fraud at Fort Knox, and he notified the major media and all of the appropriate leaders in Congress about this evidence. For reasons which I will explain later in this message, I believe it’s time to call attention to one of these people. He is Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Proxmire loves to parade as a great defender of our financial interests in Washington. He’s famous for his so-called “Golden Fleece Award.” Proxmire searches through the Federal Budget with a fine-tooth comb, and he’s always able to find some project or contract which rightly or wrongly will look ridiculous to the public. He then trots it out, announces how much it costs, and with a great flourish gives it his Golden Fleece Award. By this and other means Proxmire is a master at maintaining his image as a protector of the American economy.

But if ever a situation deserved the Proxmire Golden Fleece Award, it is the FORT KNOX GOLD SCANDAL. The petty examples usually chosen by Proxmire fleece the American public out of perhaps hundreds of thousands or a few million dollars. It makes good publicity for Proxmire, but it’s insignificant. By contrast, the Fort Knox Gold Scandal is fleecing every one of us out of the shirt on our back. It has undermined the dollar itself, which is on its way to destruction. It has set off ever-worsening inflation even while our economy is stagnating. The Gold Scandal is fleecing us all, but what has Senator William Proxmire done about that??

Let me tell you what he has, and has not, done. For more than five years Proxmire has been among the top American leaders who have been kept informed about major developments and evidence in the Gold Scandal. He has been given the evidence I mentioned earlier about the missing shipment from Fort Knox, as well as other evidence of major discrepancies; but up to now, Proxmire has kept his lips sealed about discrepancies about America’s gold supply–with one exception. That exception took place in December 1978. Word had leaked out about the 5,000-or so missing ounces of gold at the New York Assay Office worth over $3,000,000 at today’s prices. As Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Proxmire immediately jumped on the story. Frowning in disapproval, he proclaimed that this would have to be looked into. Hearing those words from the champion of the Golden Fleece Award, the public relaxed and quickly forgot about it. And almost as quickly, Senator William Proxmire made sure he forgot about it too. To this day, no real investigation has ever taken place over the missing gold at the New York Assay Office.

Proxmire’s failure to follow up that $3,000,000 gold discrepancy was bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to his apparent disinterest in investigating the truth about the Fort Knox Gold Scandal. The case of the missing Fort Knox shipment is a case in point. At today’s prices, that one shipment alone was worth more than one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000)–not a mere million but 1000 times a million! And that, in truth, was only one example. There were many unreported shipments like that. That is why the Treasury figures, which show a huge remaining American gold hoard, are a fraud–a total fraud. And that’s why the United States could auction off only a small amount of junk gold over a period of time and then had to stop. And that’s why the United States dollar is no longer “as good as gold”; instead, it’s fast becoming worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

Senator William Proxmire, like many others trusted by the American public, has been given massive evidence about all of this; but his actions so far have helped only those who have taken our own gold in order to fleece us of everything we own. Later in this message I will have more to say about Senator William Proxmire and the Fort Knox Gold Scandal. But for now I want to finish the story of Ian Fleming’s aborted efforts to alert the public about things like these. As I already explained, his principle was “Fictionalize to open eyes”; but after his untimely death in 1964 his stories were seized upon and warped, especially in movies, for the opposite purpose. The new purpose became “Fictionalize to CLOSE eyes.” Nothing could be done to alter and neutralize Fleming’s books once they had been published, so instead attention was drawn away from the books to the James Bond movies; and as the movies were in preparation, disinformation agents were planted on the scene to guide the process. As a result, the James Bond who emerged on film was a very different character from the one in Fleming’s novels. The basic story lines remained the same, but in many subtle ways the psychology was radically changed. The movies retained the adventure, fast action, dazzling secret technologies, and bold plots which Fleming had pioneered; but by clever use of satirical humor, every James Bond movie ended up by laughing at itself. Secret weapons were exaggerated or twisted so as to make them entertaining but also ridiculous; and by filling the movies with strange characters and never-ending gimmicks, viewers were distracted from the underlying warnings of the basic plot.

The GOLD FINGER story was a perfect example of all this. Fleming’s original novel called attention to something which most readers would never have thought about otherwise. That was the potential relationship between Fort Knox gold and international monetary chaos, and through his fictional plot he also planted the idea that the legendary Fort Knox bullion depository might not be invulnerable after all. But these lessons were rarely, if ever, realized by those who saw only the movie; instead, the typical viewer walked out of the movie laughing. It was obviousthat what he had seen could happen only in fiction, and from that point onward he was programmed to react with disbelief if he should ever hear of tampering with Fort Knox gold. Such a thing could only be fiction–it was just too ridiculous ever to really happen.

This is the attitude I encountered more than seven years ago when I began giving public warnings about deliberate plans for economic chaos. I myself was first alerted to the Fort Knox Gold Scandal by none other than British Intelligence in London after completing a secret mission for Queen Elizabeth in Zaire; and in my book THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE DOLLAR, I outlined the overall plan, including the unseen role of America’s gold. I had one major advantage which Ian Fleming did not have. The United States does not yet have an Official Secrets Act like that of Britain, and so I was not forced to fictionalize. Instead I was able to give the real plans and real names of those responsible for things to come.

The prototype for Ian Fleming’s GOLD FINGER of two decades ago was none other than David Rockefeller, and in my book I showed in detail how he played his kingpin role in the plan to destroy our economy. I described how this was leading to a collapsing dollar, skyrocketing gold prices, a stagnating economy, spiraling financial problems for State and local governments, urban unrest, and eventually NUCLEAR WAR. But when David Rockefeller himself was interviewed about my book, even he resorted to the technique “Fictionalize to close eyes.” His comment about THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE DOLLAR was: “Interesting science fiction.”





Q. When most people hear the term “sex with robots” they probably
imagine something from their experience of popular media, whether it’s
a Star Wars robot, Bender from Futurama, or the maid from the Jetsons.
Can you explain what in your writing you mean when you talk about sex
with robots?

A. I am thinking in terms of androids – robots designed in a humanlike
form – of which many examples can be found on the Web site http://www.androidworld.com.
But in addition to having arms, legs and a head, sexual robots will
also have human-sized genitalia. This idea is not at all as far
fetched as might first appear.

As long ago as the late 19th century there were manufacturers, in
Paris and elsewhere, who made artificial vaginas and even whole
artificial bodies, designed specifically to provide substitutes for
the female genitals and thereby to allow fornication. These products
were known as “dames de voyage” (ladies of travel) and were
particularly recommended for use by sailors during long periods at
sea. The sex robots that I envisage will, of course, employ 21st
rather than 19th century technology, but the basic idea is the same.

Q. In your most recent book you outline some of the research endeavors
and technological developments already underway that you predict might
produce some of the first opportunities for humans to have sex with
robots. Can you describe some of these?

A. There are many sex-related inventions that have been patented over
the past century or so. In fact there is a whole book devoted to the
subject of sex inventions at the U.S. Patent Office.

In “Robots Unlimited” I describe a recent patent application by an
Australian inventor, Dominic Choy. This is just one taste of things to
come. What I see happening is that the merging of many different
technologies will lead to the creation of robots that provide many of
the physical attributes required of a skilled lover.

Scientists have already developed artificial skin sufficiently
sensitive to distinguish between a gentle caress and firm pressure;
and the complementary capability – an artificial finger that can apply
sensuous strokes. There is also research into silicone-based and
similar types of materials used in the RealDoll and rival products,
materials that provide for the user a measure of simulation of
coupling with a human sex partner. Then add one or more of the
specifically sexual electronic technologies that are already
available, such as those employed for the benefit of women in the
Thrillhammer, the Sybian, or the hugely popular vibrators that
pleasure so many millions of customers; or the male equivalents –
vibrating penis rings. The combination of these technologies and
others will enable robots to deliver sexually awesome experiences.

Q. One of the things I found most surprising in reading your book was
the amount of research that is already underway in this area. In
particular I was excited by the thinking and experimentation around
robot reproduction. Can you explain what is meant by this term, and
maybe describe a few examples of research being done in this area.

A. Robot scientists have already made the first major breakthrough in
this field, with the development by Hod Lipson and Jordon Pollack at
Brandeis University of robots that simulate evolution and can design
new robots based on a trial-and-error process. This project has
already reached the stage where one robot can pick up the components
of another robot and assemble it.

We are, of course, very familiar with the idea of robots on the
assembly line, picking up the pieces of an automobile or whatever and
assembling them into one identical vehicle after another. Yet the idea
of a robot assembling replicas of itself is somehow intuitively
different for many people, probably because it is a little scary. The
science fiction literature is riddled with examples of robots that
reproduce, sometimes until there are so many of them that they are
able to take over the world. Now that the first stage of this process
has become science fact, it would not be surprising if many people
were to view this branch of robotics research with a certain amount of

What I have described so far relates only to the physical construction
of robots. But what about their “brains”, their emotions, their
personalities? A robot’s brain is some form of computer, running
software that has been developed to give the robot its mental
capabilities, including its emotions and personality. Over and above
the research into the physical self-reproduction of robots there is
also a research effort into self-reproducing software, programs that
can evolve into (hopefully) better programs – better in the sense of
being better able to perform its designated task(s). This idea is
based on genetics. The basic method is called a “genetic algorithm”
and, put simply, it works by having parts of a computer program
measuring how well or how badly they are performing and then improving
themselves through a process that simulates natural selection,
spawning a new, better generation of programs. It does not take much
imagination to realize that robots which can self-reproduce
physically, and also self-improve their own software, could evolve
almost beyond the dreams of science fiction writers.

One aspect of robot reproduction that I personally find very exciting
is the possibility that intelligent robots will be able to copy some
of the characteristics and physical features of their human owners.
Imagine, for example, that your robot has been programmed to “like”
the sound of your voice. When it designs its successors it can copy
the characteristics of your voice into the speech synthesis software
employed in those successors, resulting in robots that talk like you
do. As yet I am not aware of any research in this area, but the
recognition and speech synthesis technologies are already with us, and
I do not believe it will be very long before the idea is explored by

Q. Several times in your writing you slip anthropomorphizing language
in, so suddenly a computer program has intuition, or feelings, where
before it simply had a series of predictable responses to very
intelligent programming. I think for many people this will be one of
the greatest fears, and barriers to conceptualizing a human + robot
sexuality. When you write about the ethics of robot sex it calls to
mind the question of consciousness and sentience. Do you foresee
robotic consciousness? Or put another way, will we eventually produce
robots that are just like us?

A. The sometimes use of anthropomorphisms was quite deliberate. I hope
that in this way the reader will be led somewhat gently to the feeling
that the robots of the future will, at least in some sense, be alive.

I do forsee robot consciousness, and this is the subject of Chapter
12. One problem, of course, with the consciousness debate, is the lack
of a generally acceptable definition of the term. But in the sense
that the word is normally used, yes, I am convinced that robots will
act as though they possess consciousness. And if they do so act, then
we will not be able to deny that they have consciousness.

As to whether we will eventually produce robots that are just like us,
the answer here is “not exactly like us, but close”. Shakespeare’s
sixteenth century test: “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” will detect
one of the differences, and there will be others, but in terms of the
outward appearance and behavior of robots, I am convinced that they
will be designed to be all but indistinguishable to the vast majority
of the human population.

Q. You write that many people may feel threatened by the possibilities
of human robot sexual interactions. This response reminds me of the
very common response many people still have to sex toys and vibrators
in particular. Many straight men feel that a vibrator is a “threat” to
them, believing it could replace them. Many straight women will say
they don’t “need” a vibrator because they have a partner. You write
about how robots could provide sexual contact for people who may feel
unable to have it with another human. To what extent do you think
sexual interactions between humans and robots would replace sex
between two people?

A. I think it is a natural reaction for many heterosexual men to feel
threatened by vibrators, and therefore by robots, especially in
contemporary sexual culture in which the need to be able to sexually
please and satisfy your woman is promoted so widely in books and other
media, and is often the subject of boastful conversation.

Most men would feel inadequate if they believed that their woman
enjoyed better orgasms courtesy of a vibrator or a robot, than those
that the men themselves could provide on a regular basis. But I hope
and believe that one of the great benefits of sexual robots will be
their ability to teach lovemaking skills, so that men who do feel
inadequate will be able to take unlimited lessons, in private, from
robot lovers who possess an unrivalled level of knowledge of sexual
techniques and psycho-sexual problems, combined with great skills as
sensitive, patient teachers. And of course, some women will also wish
to avail themselves of the sexual teaching skills of robots.

You are quite right that many straight women will deny any need for a
vibrator because they already feel completely sexually satisfied by
their regular sex partner(s), and for those women it might be the case
that whatever additional sexual pleasures robots could offer them,
they are not of sufficient interest to encourage them to try robot sex
on a regular basis. But the sales figures for vibrators, and the
psychology literature, both popular and academic, are sufficiently
replete with data on sexually frustrated women, that one cannot doubt
the enormous popularity of robot lovers when they become commercially

None of this is intended to suggest that sex between two people will
become outmoded, because I do not believe for one moment that it will.
What I am convinced of is that robot sex will become the only sexual
outlet for a few sectors of the population: the misfits, the very shy,
the sexually inadequate and uneducable, . . .; and that for different
sectors of the population robot sex will vary between something to be
indulged in occasionally, and only when one’s partner is away from
home on a long trip, to an activity that supplements one’s regular sex
life, perhaps when one’s partner is not feeling well, or not feeling
like sex for some other reason.

Q. Here’s where I start to get worried. I’m afraid that rather than
enhancing a social experience (such as sex), technology will allow us
as humans to avoid evolving socially by using technology to mimic
social interaction rather than add to it. Currently the biggest
problem for people who are socially marginalized (which is what I’m
assuming you meant by “misfit”) is not that they aren’t able to have
sex, or make meaningful connections with others, it’s that our society
functions in a way to systemically keep them isolated. As the
disability activist and academic Tom Shakespeare says “the trouble is
not how can we have sex, it’s who can we have sex with”. And while
there is no doubt that people who are socially marginalized want to
have casual rollicking sex, just as often they report that what they
long for is the intimacy, human contact, and human connections, that
come with sexual intimacy and exploration. If these robots are
intended in any way to increase the opportunity and potential of human
sexuality, using them in this way would be seriously
counterproductive. What are your thoughts on this?

A. I do not see why using robots to satisfy the sexual and intimacy
needs of the socially marginalized is likely to be counterproductive.
If you mean that providing robots to satisfy needs that the socially
marginalized would prefer to be satisfied by humans, will make it less
likely that the socially marginalized will want or be able to find
suitable human partners, then you might be right, but I would still
argue that the benefits to the socially marginalized far outweigh the
negatives. Tom Shakespeare’s words ring true – the socially
marginalized do experience much more difficulty than others in finding
human contact, intimacy and sex.

That is a simple fact, and it is understandable. I feel that the
validity of your “counterproductive” argument, if I understand it
correctly, assumes that the socially marginalized can indeed find
intimacy and sex when they need it, in which case they will not need
to employ robots for these purposes. If that is so, then all well and
good. But my point is simply that there are groups in society who do
find it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to mate with partners
who will love them and satisfy their emotional and sexual needs on a
long-term basis. In many ways robots represent a very good way out of
this problem, just as the Japanese and American governments are now
looking at the possibility of using robots as carers for the elderly.
I firmly believe that in time robots will not only become carers,
sensitive to the emotional and practical needs of the elderly, but
that they will also become our friends if we want them to, and our
companions, lovers and marriage partners.
I would not describe any of this as counterproductive.

Q. I have to say that for me possibly the least interesting part of
the potential for human robot sexuality is the piece about sexual
technique. There are thousands of books, videos, and workshops for
people to learn “better” technique, and while you point out a variety
of ways that robots will allow a more immersive experience, ultimately
I’m aware that technique is just one (arguably small) part of sexual
expression. Have you considered the ways that robots may extend human
experience of sexuality beyond offering technical assistance and/or
providing sexual services?

A. I do not feel that we should downplay the importance of robots as a
means of teaching and enhancing sexual technique. So many
relationships founder because of dissatisfaction in the bedroom, and
so many men suffer, as do their partners, because they are unable for
whatever reason (including embarrassment) to work to improve their
lovemaking skills. That is why I highlighted this particular aspect of
robot sex.

But to answer the main part of your question, yes – I most definitely
believe that sexbots will be able to extend the human experience of
sexuality. Let me try to explain one way that this might be achieved,
using methods from other areas of Artificial Intelligence.

In Chapter 6, which explains in simple terms how computers think, the
topics I cover include discovery and invention, as achieved by
computer programs. Without going into any of the detail here, suffice
it to say that it has already been demonstrated that programs can
discover new ideas from existing knowledge and can even devise
inventions that are suitable for patenting. If such a program were to
be developed, incorporating all the knowledge contained in all of the
world’s sex manuals, and with some basic knowledge of human anatomy,
the result could be a plethora of new ideas for lovemaking, new sexual
positions, that robots could teach us and help us practice if we wish.

Another way in which human ideas of sexuality could be extended lies
in the possibility of experimenting with various group combinations,
groups involving one or more sexbots and perhaps more than one human.
Predicting trends in human sexual behavior is not an easy task, but it
is clear that when sexbots are widely available there will be many
more sexual practices to be tried.

Q. Your argument for the development of a more sophisticated ethical
discussion around human robot sexual interaction is based on the idea
that robot development in this area is inevitable, and we might as
well get ready for it, and start thinking now about the issues that
will come up. Can you give some examples of the ethical dilemmas you
see facing us as human robot sexual interactions become a reality?

A. The ethics of robot sex is a very broad subject, too broad to
discuss in detail in an interview, but I can certainly give some
examples of the types of ethical problem that I foresee.

Firstly there is the question of how one’s use of one’s own sex robot
will affect other people – one’s spouse or partner in particular. Will
sex with a robot be considered unfaithful? Will it be unethical in
some way to say to one’s regular human sex partner: “Not tonight
darling. I’m going to make it with the robot.”? (Some couples will, of
course, own two robots, a malebot and a fembot, and will enjoy
orgiastic sessions in which three or all four of them take part.) Will
robot swapping be viewed as being similar to wife swapping?

Then there are issues relating to the use of other people’s sexbots.
What will be the ethics of lending your sexbot to a friend, or
borrowing theirs? What about using a friend’s sexbot without telling
the friend?

There will certainly be ethical (and legal) issues relating to the use
of sexbots by minors. Should the age of consent for sex with a robot
be the same as that for sex with a human? And what about the ethics of
an adult encouraging a minor to have sex with a robot? Will it be
regarded as a sex educational experience, or as a corrupting
influence? And how will ethicists and lawyers deal with parents when
one of them wants their child to have sex with a robot, as a method of
sex education for example, but the other does not?

Finally, there is the matter of the ethics of robot sex as they affect
the robot itself. In “Robots Unlimited” I discuss some questions of
robot ethics, which in my opinion is one of the most interesting
topics in the debate on the future of robots. What happens when a
robot’s owner feels randy but the robot’s programming causes it to shy
away, possibly because it is running its self-test software or
downloading some new knowledge and does not wish to be interrupted, or
possibly because its personality was designed in such a way that it
sometimes says “no” for whatever reason.

Under such circumstances, is it akin to rape if the robot’s owner
countermands the robot’s indicated wish to refrain from sex on a
particular occasion?

I think you will agree that these examples warn of a minefield for
ethicists and lawyers. “Roboethics” is becoming a respectable academic
topic, for example earlier this year I attended a workshop on
roboethics organised by the Scuola di Robotica in Genoa, Italy, and a
couple of weeks later there was a similar conference in Palermo,
Sicily. So the subject is very much under discussion, although the
discussion is still in its very earliest stages.

Q. There seems to be so many ways that AI and robotics can potentially
have a positive impact on human existence and experience. Where do you
think sexuality fits in the larger picture. Do you imagine that as the
technology improves, sexuality will be one of the early testing
grounds for human robotic interactions? Do you think sex robots will
ultimately be a fad?

A. I believe that sexuality fits in the larger picture in BIG BOLD
LETTERS. What is the word most often typed into Google and the other
search engines? Sex! What was the most prolific use made of video
cassette recorders when they came on the market? Porno movies. What
was one of the first major social changes that came about with the
launch of the automobile? Young couples who wanted privacy so that
they could make love would borrow father’s car for the purpose (and
many still do so today). These are examples of inventions that were
not created with sexuality in mind, but for which sexuality became an
important use.

When we create robots that are specifically invented with sexuality in
mind, the level of interest and the desire to use them will, I
believe, be beyond the wildest dreams of product designers and

I think that sexuality will be far more than an early testing ground
for robots. It will not only be the most popular use of robots amongst
adults, it will also create huge social change. There is no way I can
see sexbots as being a fad, any more than one could say that sex is a

Q. Can you talk about what’s next, and what you’re working on now?

A. As I was collecting the research material and writing the book I
became increasingly fascinated by the subject of intimate
relationships with artificial partners. Originally I was planning only
one chapter on this subject, for reasons of space, but I had to extend
it into two chapters, one on robot emotion and love, the other on
robot sex and reproduction.

Then my wife pointed out that, in exploring these topics, I had almost
ignored the ethical implications, and questions such as consciousness,
and that these are important areas that needed to be addressed. So I
researched some more and added two more chapters. After I delivered
the book to the publisher I decided to write another book.

Whereas “Robots Unlimited” focuses on the how of Artificial
Intelligence, including the how of robot love and sex, I decided that
there was a need for a book on the why of all this. Why will people be
attracted to robots? Why will people fall in love with robots? Why
will people want to have sex with robots? And even why will people
want to marry robots? I am now nearing completion of that book and
have recently signed with a New York literary agent, who is currently
working with me to ensure that it will be interesting for a very wide
readership. I plan to keep a close watch on robot sex, to make it my
major area of interest within A.I. for the next few years. I believe
that the speed of development in this field will be extremely rapid,
due in part to the enormous sums of money that the developers of such
products will be able to reap, and partly because of the enormous
worldwide interest in and desire for better sex.




* A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction,
allow a human being to come to harm.
* A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
* A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov detected as early as 1950, a need to extend the first law,
which protected individual humans, so that it would protect humanity
as a whole. Thus, his calculating machines “have the good of humanity
at heart through the overwhelming force of the First Law of
Robotics” (emphasis added). In 1985 he developed this idea further by
postulating a “zeroth” law that placed humanity’s interests above
those of any individual while retaining a high value on individual
human life.

Zeroth law: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction,
allow humanity to come to harm.












“(1) A dead person’s face may indeed be uncanny: it loses color and
animation with no blinking. However, according to my experience,
sometimes it gives us a more comfortable impression than the one given
by a living person’s face. Dead persons are free from the troubles of
life, and I think this is the reason why their faces look so calm and
peaceful. In our mind there is always an antinomic conflict that if
you take one thing you will lose the other. Such a conflict appears on
one’s face as troubles, and makes his, or her, expression less
comfortable. When a person dies he, or she, is released from this
antinomy, and has a quiet expression. If so, then, where should we
position this on the curve of the uncanny valley? This is an issue of
my current interest.

(2) Once I positioned living human beings on the highest point of the
curve in the right-hand side of the uncanny valley. Recently, however,
I came to think that there is something more attractive and amiable
than human beings in the further right-hand side of the valley. It is
the face of a Buddhist statue as the artistic expression of the human
ideal. You will find such a face, for example, in Miroku Bosatsu
(Maitreya Bodhisattva) in Kohryuji in Kyoto, or in Miroku Bosatsu in
Chuguji and in Gakkoh Bosatsu (Candraprabha) in Yakushiji in Nara.
Those faces are full of elegance, beyond worries of life, and have
aura of dignity. I think those are the very things that should be
positioned on the highest point of the curve.”




“In 1978 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori was studying the human
response to robots and discovered that as robots became more
humanlike, people’s attitudes toward them became more positive, until
the robots got “almost” human, an area he called the “Uncanny
Valley.”  Since they were so close to human, the little bit they were
lacking really creeped people out . This effect translated beyond
robots to creatures of all kinds and is a good explanation for why we
find zombies so scary (that and the fact that they eat brains), why
CGI and today’s video game characters look so odd. The most
interesting application of this theory is for artificial limbs, which
suggests that until we can make them indistinguishably perfect, we
should stick to more obviously artificial ones. On the upside,
designers could go crazy and offer limbs with all sorts of extra
functionality, maybe throw a flash drive in one finger and a digital
camera in another.”


Q: It could be argued that the written word destroyed short/long-term
memory and computers are outsourcing human intelligence to the extent
that we cannot think or remember without them. What essentially human
traits do you envision future sexbots changing forever?

A:  I believe that sexbots will change our perceptions of human
relationships, and in some ways we will become more demanding with
respect to what we want from a human partner. This is not entirely a
good thing. If someone has great sex with their robot, they will want
the sex with their human partners to be great as well, which could
lead to disappointment. On the other hand, sexbots will be excellent
tutors, so people will be able to be taught the skills necessary in a
great lover.

Q: Obviously, not everyone will be able to afford robots for sex
straight away and top-of-the-line ones will undoubtedly command top
dollar. One could conclude from your book that we will one day live in
a world where robots designed for sexual pleasure are very
commonplace. Do you think there is room for the poor in this vision?

A: Eventually, yes. You are quite right of course about what will
happen in the early days of sexbots – very few people indeed will be
able to afford to buy one. But the robots-for-hire business model will
work. As more and more people experience robot sex and communicate
their experiences to their friends, and in the media, so the demand
will increase and the price will drop. ‘Eventually’ is a very long
time, but consider television ñ in the early days very few could
afford it, but nowadays some homes have 3, 4 or more TVs.

Q: Your book implies that robots designed to love and sexually gratify
humans will greatly reduce, if not eradicate human loneliness. Do you
think that is the case or are loneliness and dissatisfaction
inevitably part of the human condition? Do you think that those
feelings can be eradicated or changed? How?

A: To a large extent I believe that loneliness and dissatisfaction are
now part of the human condition because they have become so, and
therefore I believe they can be largely eradicated. I feel that this
particular argument is difficult to refute. If someone is lonely
because they have no-one to talk to, no-one to love, no-one to love
them, then surely if those deficits are removed from their lives then
these people will become much happier, their lives much richer. Pet
animals have been found to have this effect, so why not robots who
have the additional ability (relative to pet animals) to speak, listen
and make intelligent and emotion-ridden conversation?

Q: People buy used laptops and iPods all the time — but on the other,
the secondhand market for vibrators, butt plugs and other sex toys is
nil. Do you foresee much of a secondhand/refurbished market for

A: An interesting question that Iíve never been asked and never
considered before this interview. I find it difficult to answer this
because I just donít know. On the one hand, as I point out in my book,
STDs will be transmitted via badly kept sexbots ñ my book gives an
example that occurred via a sex doll. But if the depreciation rate is
anything like that for motor cars, then presumably there will be a
secondhand market for reasons of cost.

Q: I find RealDolls (and the people that use them) to be utterly
creepy. While the Keepon is cute and a great dancer, it doesn’t
exactly turn me on either. How do you envision sexbots overcoming the
“uncanny valley” phenomenon?

A: Personally I do not have much faith in the uncanny valley. The
original publication on this topic (dating from 1970) was not based on
any empirical research ñ it was more an intuitive feeling expressed by
Masahiro Mori that has since been hyped into an assumption of fact.
And recently another Japanese roboticist wrote that the uncanny valley
has already been crossed. So if there was such an obstacle, there
probably isnít any more. That is my pragmatic answer to your question.
But looking behind your question, you raise an important point about
what is needed in robotics development to ensure that no such
antipathy exists on a large scale. I believe the answer will be the
creation of very humanlike, lifelike robots. In my book I give the
example of the waxwork at Madame Tussaudís. When robots become that
lifelike in their actions as well as in their appearance, that will
answer your real question.

Q: Is it ethical for an adult to have sex with a sexbot designed to
look like a child but programmed to “perform” like an experienced
adult? Why?

A: I believe that it is ethical provided that the reason is [a] to
attempt to cure the adult of their deviance; and/or [b] to attempt to
stop them, even though they might not be cured, from going after
children. Apart from these cases I can see no other reason.

Q: Would you personally use one of these robots?

A: I would certainly experiment with one, to find out what it was like
— how much like the real thing.

Q: Would your wife?

A: Probably not — she is not interested in anything of a technological

Q: Would she mind if you used one? Surely you’ve talked about it by
now …

A: Actually, no, because it is purely hypothetical since they do not
yet exist.

Q: I ask because I was talking about this with my girlfriend, who, had
she found one of these in my closet in the early stages of our
relationship, would have hailed a cab and never seen me again.

A: She says that, but why? Has she never used a vibrator? And if she
has, why does she think that you shouldn’t have left her immediately
you found out?

Q: To what extent do you think sex robots and their primal pre-
cursors, Real Dolls, actually PREVENT people from forming healthy,
normal relationships?

A: I don’t believe they would do so at all, because it is part of
human nature for (almost) all of us to form normal human
relationships. But a number of interviewers have asked this or similar
questions, so clearly many people are wondering about this. Perhaps
I’m too much of an optimist, but I see sex robots as being hugely
beneficial for society.

Q: Porn culture has pretty well infused pop culture at this point —
clothing is more provocative, we see stories about porn stars on the
news, and elements once relegated to porn films have entered the
mainstream. According to your book, a similar wave will permeate mass
culture when robots reach popular acceptance. What sorts of things do
you think might catch on or wind their way into the popular
consciousness once sexualized robots become mainstream?

A: The idea of sex with robots being normal, and something we can talk
about in polite conversation. There was a time when sex would never
have been a major topic in a dinner party conversation between a group
of couples, and that was reflected in the lack of sex on TV and in
mainstream media at that time. But ideas change, moral values change,
and nowadays there is little or no embarrassment in talking about sex.
So when people start to have sexual experiences with robots in big
numbers, I expect the subject to become mainstream, and therefore the
idea will become normal.

Q: This is a little broad, but I’m curious to see how you might finish
this story:

A group of adolescent boys finds a working, discarded secondhand
sexbot and keep it in their treehouse/shed in the woods, much like
some of us oohed and aahed over a crinkled stolen Penthouse in the
days before internet porn. Difference being, they actually take turns
using the thing. What are the moral implications? Is this a positive
experience? A negative one?

A: They are learning about sex. I do not see anything morally wrong in
adolescents learning about sex.

Last night I lay beached and gasping on my girlfriend’s bed,
blissfully tripping on oxytocin and watching paramecium-shaped
fireworks explode on the back of my eyellds. “What are you thinking,”
she asked, smiling and handing me a glass of water. “Nothing at all,
for once,” I said.

What I was really thinking was: ‘The day this can be reliably faked is
the day that humans are obsolete.’

I have no idea why I couldn’t say that out loud.

BY Noah Robischon

Given the explosion in popularity of doing-it-yourself, it’s
surprising that so few hacks and mods are devoted to the greatest form
of doing it ever: sex. But an exhibition that opened earlier this
month at the Museum of Sex, “Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews
by Timothy Archibald,” shows that there is an active community of sex
toy hobbyists. The dildonics on display are not intended as artwork.
The function comes first, and any design that results is coincidental.
Most — but not all — lack the ironic message that pervades so much
modern artwork. As a result, these inventions resemble a kind of folk
art sculpted from the Home Depot palette. Archibald’s photographs
capture the juxtaposition of the hard-edged machines in the comforting
and familiar settings where they are built and used. What surprised
Archibald most, though, was that the inventors — an entirely male
bunch — “aren t sexual fringe characters or people who answer the door
wearing a leather zipper mask,” he says. “These people go to PTA
meetings, mow the lawn, eat good food.”

GIZMODO: How did you become interested in DIY sex machines?

TA: I had always been interested in independent inventors, people who
were not associated with a university or a commercial enterprise.
While doing the research for a photo story on that, I came across a
listserv where people who were inventors of sex machines were sharing
tips and talking about problems they had overcome with their
inventions. And they also had photographs of their machines on that
site that they shared with each other. When I saw those, it was this
combination of human phallus with stuff that looks like it came out of
a high school shop class. All mechanical, hard components. The project
that evolved out of that was a look at the people who are making the
machines. The machines are fascinating, but the people s stories are
what made it cohesive, more of a human experience.

GIZMODO: Is the fetish in the making of the machine or the machine

TA: These are tinkerers, people who like to mess with all things
mechanical. And they have a sense of creative invention — they are
proud of these things when they create them. But also they think about
sex a lot and this is what resulted from that combination. It s not
just a sculptural thing. They are making it for a purpose. A number of
them are married, they are making it to try and introduce something to
their wives. Some may be using it to attract women — or they think it
might attract women. And for some of them it s a business. But they
are not part of a scene, like a sexual scene. It s more that they got
the idea independently that this is something they wanted to make,
they wanted to have.

GIZMODO: The Thrill Hammer is one of the most sculptural machines in
the show. What is the function behind that design?

TA: It is an internet controlled sex machine that was originally built
by the inventor to allow people to use the machine on a woman from the
comfort of their own home. People could pay, log on and control this
machine as a woman sat in the machine — and they would be affecting
the sex machine upon her through their mouse and keyboard. It truly
did work. The time I hooked up with the inventor he was installing it
at a legal brothel in Nevada. The whorehouse had licensed this machine
from him for that very purpose. It was also set up so that it could
film the person that the machine was being used upon, and it had
professional lighting installed on it so that the video feed would
look like they wanted it to look. Pretty high-tech gadget.

He went on to make another machine that was based on a couch that he
saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was influenced by
popular culture. His desire was to make something that visually said
something. He liked this science fiction-y look to it that it has,
that was intentional. In the book and the show there are probably two
or three machines that design was a big part of it. Different
inventors try to implement things in their own way, but oftentimes it
was very primitive or simple, and the function would come first. But
Thrill Hammer was heavily designed. As was the Monkey Rocker.

GIZMODO: Several of the machines are built into toolboxes. And the
name is right there on the side — Craftsman, Huskette. There must be
some kind of message in that.

TA: With the Huskette and even the Craftsman, these guys thought it
was funny. They appreciated the inherent humor in having this logo
that we ve all seen being twisted and used for another purpose. They
knew it would be funny. They were self-aware.

It was also an affordable, neat and clean way to contain the moving
parts that are necessary, and could seem a little dangerous in a
venture like this. There are hard edges and a flywheel. The inventors
needed to find a way to encase these things so that the machine would
be more user friendly. If there was something over the counter that
they could buy in bulk and then modify to their own ends, that would
be the solution to that kind of thing. Also, it allows the buyer to
hide the thing. You got a toolbox under your bed no one is going to
look twice at that — well, maybe they will look twice but not three

GIZMODO: The coffin seems very intentionally self-aware. And it
doesn’t quite fit with the other machines. What’s the story there?

TA: They called that thing the Holy Fuck. That was meant to look like
a little coffin, and had all the details of the coffin. They were
trying to create a piece of art there that had this function. But they
were young, they were these gothic kids. And I wanted them in the
project for that reason. But their thing wouldn t really fall under
the guise of folk art because it s intentional. They had the neat idea
to make it in a tiny coffin and give it a funny name. It reflects
them, like any piece of art.

To me all these things are art and they tell us something about the
creators and the times we live in. But some of them are more self-
conscious than others. Some of the more harsh looking machines end up
being portraits of the inventor and all their concerns. Something like
Thrill Hammer or Holy Fuck, they are trying to make something cool and
it reflects their design taste. But it s not a vision into their brain
like some of the other ones are.

GIZMODO: There are a couple of machines — Marlon Rogers’ Prototype and
Carl Adjusting the boom — that remind me a bit of David Cronenberg’s
film Dead Ringers.

TA: I ve never seen that movie. I m dying to see it. I ve never even
seen a picture from it. Someone else did bring that up. The more raw
the machine, the more it is truly a vision into some of these guys
brains. Everything is exposed — you see how it works and because of
the phallus you can t help but think it reflects their view of
sexuality, or their own sexuality, or how sexuality should look.

The thing to keep in mind is that all of these machines, as different
as they seem, as outlandish as some are, they all do the same thing.
And that is simply go in and out.

“Jessie In Steven’s Living Room” (Timothy Archibald)


GIZMODO: What is the purpose of your work — is it documentary or is
there a message you are imparting to the viewer about these machines?

TA: It started out as a documentary project. I saw these machines and
thought: who would make these things? The machines are visually
fascinating but they must be made by people who could not relate to
women, or could not relate to other people. And the lesson I learned
is that these people are just like me. These aren t sexual fringe
characters or people who answer the door wearing a leather zipper
mask. These people go to PTA meetings, mow the lawn, eat good food.
And how that broke my stereotype was real interesting, and made me
want to pursue the people behind these things. Maybe the surprise of
the normal versus the abnormal. Throughout working on the project we
were always saying it s not sexuality it s sociology. You can t deny
the sexuality of the work. It tells us a bit about men, women, how
they relate to each other, how they see themselves.

Timothy Archibald
email : tim [at] timothyarchibald [dot] com

BY Timothy Archibald

This new sexual underground doesn’t look anything like I thought it

While researching a story about independent inventors in the spring of
2002, I came across a small web community for inventors of sex
machines. The group seemed tiny. It was made up of a handful of guys
with names like “Inventor Bob” and “The Toymaker.” They were sharing
ideas and solving problems in the classic garage-inventor manner.
Amidst tips on reworking domestic hardware into complex sex machines,
their posts would occasionally reveal glimpses into their surprisingly
conventional-sounding, family-oriented personal lives.

And then there were the photographs–amateur snapshots of the machines
inventors shared amongst themselves. These photographs of their
creations, posed in cluttered garages and homey kitchens, were
startling to me in their simple beauty. They were honest documents of
otherworldly creations. I had to meet the people who made these
things. My first attempts to connect with the members of this group
went nowhere. The group’s moderator sent me a polite note thanking me
for my interest. He explained that the group was really just for the
members themselves. They just used the machines in their own
relationships, and valued the anonymity of the Internet. Discouraged,
I tried to let it go. A year later I was still haunted by the images I
had seen of the machines. I resurrected the file I had created on the
sex machine inventors. After doing more research, I found that a local
company had begun producing erotic videos specializing in men and
women having sex with machines. Located in San Francisco, Peter
Rodgers and Tony Pirelli were operating a successful Internet
pornography site called Fuckingmachines.com. They knew a number of the
working inventors and pointed me in the direction of some folks they
thought would be interesting to talk with.

A chance conversation with an inventor got me into the depths of the
Mature Audience section of eBay, where I discovered a regular offering
of 15 to 20 different sex machines daily. Through this I stumbled upon
a number of grassroots sex machine web communities. People in tiny
towns and suburbs across America were building, selling, and
collecting these machines, and sharing their ideas with each other.
What once seemed so elusive was now everywhere I looked.

The first inventor I visited called his business “Sartan’s Workshop.”
Over the phone, Sartan spoke with a deep baritone, sounding very
serious and a bit intimidating. And then there was the name of his
business–it sounded like a misspelling of “Satan” or “Santa’s
Workshop,” and either way it was frightening. What kind of social
misfit would make such a thing as a sex machine?

Sartan ended up being a guy named Paul, who wore a t-shirt of his
favorite football team and smiled a lot. He met me in the driveway of
his family’s upper-middle-class suburban home. We drank beer in the
backyard when the kids came home from school and his wife cooked
dinner. This was no dark and steamy fetish underground…these were
like the people you’d meet at a PTA meeting. This immediately relaxed
me. I knew I could understand these people and felt they would
understand me.

Whom I chose to visit depended on who seemed the most passionate–
inventors who proudly felt they were on a mission. It didn’t matter to
me who was popular or who was making money. Sincerity and passion is
what piqued my interest.

While driving from an interview in Champlin, Minnesota, to another in
Kansas City, Missouri, I was struck with the big questions: What does
this all mean? Are sex machines some embodiment of men’s misguided
attempts at understanding women? Are they a form of contemporary folk
art? Or am I simply witnessing a pop culture trend that will fade away
in a few years?

I soon discovered that the U.S. patent office is filled with early
designs for mechanical sexual devices. A peek into erotic world
history reveals that people have been creating forms of sex machines
since the invention of Cleopatra’s bumblebee-powered vibrator. I began
to see this preoccupation of creating a mechanical sexual creation as
part of human instinct. The technology we now have is allowing the
inventors to share their ideas, but the act of creating these machines
has been going on for centuries. The people I met and documented are
not simply following a trend. They are current practitioners of a
timeless craft, one that will undoubtedly continue long into the


For years, the concept of humans having real, emotional relationships
with robots has been a symbol of technology’s final horizon, partially
because it seems totally implausible. But is it any more absurd than
falling in love with someone thousands of miles away who you’ve only
talked to via keyboard? Or crushing on a celebrity you’ve never met?
Not according to David Levy, the author of the new book Love and Sex
With Robots, which makes a persuasive argument that people can
normalize anything, given enough time. “As people get more and more
accustomed to having electronics as a very big part of their lives,
they will also become accustomed to the intellectually and emotionally
amazing things some of these electronic products do.”

Levy, a fifty-two-year-old Scottish chess champion, first became
interested in artificial intelligence in 1968, when he bet four A.I.
experts that they couldn’t develop a computer that could beat him at
chess within ten years. He won the bet in a highly publicized match at
Northwestern University (though lost his first match to a computer in
1989), and went on to study A.I. himself. Today, he believes we’re on
the cusp of sex between humans and robots — by 2050, he says, robots
will be so similar to us that sex and relationships with them will be
largely accepted by society. Today, Levy is the CEO of Intelligent
Toys Ltd., creating artificially intelligent toys for children. He
spoke to Nerve about the ethics of robot relationships, and why he
wouldn’t mind if his wife had an affair with an android. — Sarah


Q: Why should people want to have relationships with robots instead of
with other people?

A: There are a huge number of lonely people out there who, for one
reason or another, cannot form normal relationships, either platonic
relationships or sexual relationships. This is a big segment of the
population that will find the idea appealing, and I think once it
becomes publicized in the media — once people start being interviewed
about, and writing about, their experiences of these relationships,
sexual relationships in particular — the idea will catch on through

Q: What happens when a person who’s had a relationship with a robot
has to then have one with a human again? Do you think it’s going to be
difficult for people to transition back and forth?”

A: In many ways I believe robots will actually make it easier for
people to interact with other humans. For example, people who have
psychological problems or psychosexual problems could be given therapy
by robots. But the downside is, if someone has a relationship with a
robot, they might have higher expectations of their relationships with
humans. I’m thinking particularly of women who might find robots are
much better lovers than they’re used to, and women who have fantastic
orgasms courtesy of robots might then become more dissatisfied with
their human partners. And the human partners of course could develop
some sort of complex — performance anxiety.

Q: In the book, you write that if a robot appears intelligent or
appears to have a conscience, then we should accept that it is in fact
intelligent and has a conscience. Is it realistic to expect people to
make this mental leap?

A: In the 1950s, when people were talking about if a computer could
play chess better than the world champion, they said, “This is a
ridiculous idea. In order to play chess one has to have true
intelligence.” But over time, people got used to the idea of computers
performing mental and intellectual feats normally associated with
human intelligence, so the idea of artificial intelligence grew within
society very slowly. I think the slowness of the growth made it much
more acceptable, so that when Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue in
1997, it wasn’t even surprising for most people. I think people are
already beginning to think about the idea of robot consciousness, and
over the next twenty, thirty, forty years, the population will come to
find the idea acceptable.

Q: It’s true that there’s a lot of science-fiction writing about robot
consciousness, but it’s usually presented as a frightening idea.

A: That’s fine, and with good reason. Lots of what used to be science-
fiction fifty or sixty years ago is now science-fact. Robot
consciousness is outside our normal frame of reference.

Q: Do you think people will have very long-term relationships with
robots, like marriages?

A: I think in some cases, yes. I’ve done research into the forum of
people who have bought sex dolls, and who have had these dolls for
years, almost since the RealDoll company started. Some people clearly
enjoy their relationships with their sex dolls and create in their
minds some kind of persona for the doll. So I think if relationships
can last for years with a completely inanimate doll, then I think a
relationship with a talking, intelligent, humorous robot that appears
to be loving, kind, gentle — everything somebody wants in a partner —
can last a very long time.

Q: What happens if a robot malfunctions in one of these relationships?
Couldn’t that be traumatic?

A: One could view it in the same way as your human partner having a
sudden illness. And by the time robots have reached the level of
sophistication I’m talking about, in the middle of the century, the
robots will automatically have the contents of their memory uploaded
and backed up in a massive store, so that if something dreadful
happened to your robot, you could have its physical body replicated in
a factory and have its personality downloaded into it. It’ll be the
equivalent of sending a human to the hospital.

Q: What if your wife wanted to have sex with a robot, in addition to
you — would you be comfortable with that?

A: I don’t know. I never really discuss this with my wife because it’s
purely hypothetical. If these robots were here now, though, I would
see nothing wrong with either my wife or myself trying out robot sex
because I certainly would be very curious to find out what it’s like.
In comparison, my wife would be less so, because she’s not interested
in technology.

One of the things I write about is the idea that when one partner in a
relationship goes off on a business trip, for example, if they have
access to a robot, then the other partner doesn’t have to worry about
what they’re doing in the evenings. And of course, there’s always the
classic, “Not tonight, darling. I’ve got a headache.” If you have a
robot in the cupboard, it doesn’t matter if your partner has a

Q: But you don’t get the same emotional satisfaction from sex with the
robot as you do from sex with your partner, which is what a lot of
people want from sex.

A: Absolutely, yes. But there are a lot of people who would find it a
viable alternative. And there are also people who will enjoy the idea
of threesomes and foursomes with the robot and their partner, and not
have to feel jealous.

Q: If your son or daughter wanted to marry a robot and asked you for
advice, what would you tell them?

A: I would say they should try humans first, but that if they found
for some reason they were unable to have satisfactory relationships
with humans, they sure, why not experiment with a robot?

Q: Do you worry robots might be more attracted to other robots than to

A: That’s just a matter of programming.


“The Loebner Prize Medal and a cash award is awarded annually to the
designer of the computer system that best succeeds in passing a
variant of the Turing Test.In 1997, $2,000 and a bronze medal was
awarded to David Levy,designer of the Most Human Computer as rated by
a panel of 5 judges.”



David Levy
davidlevylondon [at] yahoo [dot] com
DavidL [at] intrsrch [dot] demon [dot] co [dot] uk



Question 1

John: Why would a free minded, sophisticated, intelligent robot choose
to be with an animal? Sure, robots may well become sex machines for
humans, but give them true AI and they become far superior in many
aspects of their creation.

Jeffrey: While the idea of an AI sophisticated enough to create a
functional sex partner is possible, and very likely within the
century, one capable of the complexities of a general relationship is
not only a bit far off but, I imagine, would eventually gravitate to
its own kind – why waste time on training a faulty human?

Sam Sexton: If a robot could fall in love wouldn’t it be more likely
to fall in love with other robots that it could relate too?

David Levy: We will program them to want us. It will be important,
when robots reach the level of intelligence I anticipate by the middle
of this century, for humans to have some measure of control over them.

One aspect of this is the ability of humans to select the parameters
for their partner robots – the robot’s personality, interests, etc, as
I describe in the book. Some of these parameters will relate to the
robot’s relationship preferences, and we will be able to set that
parameter so that our robot behaves as though it wants to be with us.
If we want our robots to have the capacity for falling in love with
other robots, we can set another parameter to ensure that they do so.

Question 2

Steven Martin: Would it be wrong to go further than that and make
androids find overweight people attractive? Would that be any more
wrong that programming them to find slim and fit people attractive?
The logical conclusion to this is would it be OK to program an android
to find a particular individual attractive but otherwise be self-
aware? Where do you cross the “Slavery Line”?

David Levy: An interesting question fraught with ethical overtones.
Fundamentally the human-robot relationship will be one of master and
slave, in the sense that we must retain a measure of control, as
mentioned in my previous answer.

But I see nothing wrong from an ethical perspective in designing
robots that will behave as though they have strong emotional feelings
for their human owner/partner no matter whether that human is fat,
thin, ugly, or whatever.

In chapter 6 of the book, on why people pay for sex, I describe how
the young men who service women clients in holiday resorts will
flatter a fat woman by saying that she has a lovely body. Robots can
be programmed to be similarly diplomatic in what they say to their
humans, in order to convince their humans that the robots have strong
emotional feelings for them.

Question 3

Jason Owen: Will the meaning of relationships over time turn into
another lifestyle upgrade?

David Levy: Yes and no. For all those many humans who have no-one to
love and no-one to love them, having a robot surrogate will definitely
be a lifestyle upgrade, creating happiness where before there was
misery. And I see this as one of the principal benefits, perhaps the
principal benefit, of the type of robot I am writing about.

Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if all those sad, lonely
people did have “someone” to be their lover and life partner? So from
this perspective the answer is “yes” – a definite upgrade in one’s
relationship status.

But for those who are already happy in their relationship with their
spouse or partner, I believe that their relationships with their
robots will be much more of an adjunct than filling a void, so the
meaning of these relationships will be different for a robot’s owner –
less intense emotionally.

Question 4

Vinnie Hall: What of the prospects of reproduction? Do you think an
organic person could breed with a robotic ‘person’?

David Levy: No, but I do anticipate a form of robot asexual
reproduction that carries over some of the characteristics of the
robot’s human owner/partner. This is explained in the book.
Question 5

Tom: Will we need to formulate some Asimov-like rules? Such as:

1st law of sexual-robotics: A robot may not break a human’s heart, or
through inaction allow a human’s heart to be broken.
2nd law: A robot must follow orders except for where this conflicts
with the first law.
3rd law: A robot must satisfy its own need for love, except for where
this conflicts with the first and second laws.

David Levy: An interesting idea. Certainly robots will be programmed
to behave in accordance with certain ethical and legal boundaries, and
to appear to want to please their human owners/partners in various
ways, including in their intimate relationships. And it will appear
natural to their humans if robots exhibit humanlike desires for love.

There is a nascent field within the world of robotics researchers
called “roboethics”, in which such matters are discussed, although I
do not know of any suggestions along these lines, relating to intimate

Question 6

Dana Lee: Would prostitution be legal with robots in places it is not
with a human? Is this just the definition of the ultimate sex toy? If
someone has sex with a robot that is owned by someone else against the
owner’s (or robot’s) wishes, is that considered rape?

David Levy: I feel sure that certain jurisdictions will legislate
against robot prostitution and possibly against robot sex in any form.

In the book (chapter 7) I write about some court cases that have been
brought in recent years by the states of Alabama and Texas against
people who committed the terrible “crimes” of buying (and using), or
selling, vibrators and other sex aids. So I consider it quite likely
that sexually functioning robots in general, and robot prostitutes in
particular, will be proscribed in some jurisdictions. Eventually, of
course, such laws will be repealed.

Is this the ultimate sex toy? It could be considered as such, but the
sophisticated sex robots of the middle of this century will also be
valued as relationship partners in the widest sense of the word –
someone to love.

As to the question of raping a robot, ethicists and law makers will
have a field day debating questions such as this. The legal profession
in the USA is already taking an interest in the legal rights of
robots, in preparation for the day when robots are deemed to have
(artificial) consciousness.

Question 7

Tom: Do you see anything wrong about people having sex with robots?
(I’m assuming not). Isn’t sex with robots just an extension of
pornography? Because you could have exactly what you wanted and it
would always be willing and compliant, a sexbot would be nothing more
than a fetish object. And is it healthy to fall in love with and marry
your fetish object?

David Levy: I see nothing wrong in people having sex with robots. I
believe that it will come to be regarded as a perfectly healthy
activity, just as masturbation (once thought by physicians and
psychiatrists to be the root of just about all health evils) is
nowadays regarded as a perfectly healthy activity. (See chapter 8 of
the book.)

I do not believe for one moment that sex with robots is an extension
of pornography. Regarding a sexbot as a fetish object would be missing
the point – the humanlike behaviour of robots will remove them from
the realm of being “just an object”. What I have written about is in
no way fetishism.

Question 8

Tony: Being that robots will be harder, better, faster and stronger
than us, it is unlikely that humanity will win this evolutionary
contest. The question we should be asking is, with organic
reproduction seemingly out of the way, how do we get as much humanity
into these robots before it’s too late?

David Levy: “…better, faster and stronger than us…” quite right!
That is why a measure of control over them will be needed (see earlier
answers). And this control will come from design and programming.




“A state-of-the-art social robot was immersed in a classroom of
toddlers for >5 months. The quality of the interaction between
children and robots improved steadily for 27 sessions, quickly
deteriorated for 15 sessions when the robot was reprogrammed to behave
in a predictable manner, and improved in the last three sessions when
the robot displayed again its full behavioral repertoire. Initially,
the children treated the robot very differently than the way they
treated each other. By the last sessions, 5 months later, they treated
the robot as a peer rather than as a toy. Results indicate that
current robot technology is surprisingly close to achieving autonomous
bonding and socialization with human toddlers for sustained periods of
time and that it could have great potential in educational settings
assisting teachers and enriching the classroom environment.”

Javier Movellan
email: movellan{at}mplab.ucsd.edu



Giggling robot becomes one of the kids
BY Mason Inman  /  05 November 2007

Children who spent several weeks with an interactive robot, eventually
treated it more like each other than a simple toy

Computers might not be clever enough to trick adults into thinking
they are intelligent yet, but a new study shows that a giggling robot
is sophisticated enough to get toddlers to treat it as a peer.

An experiment led by Javier Movellan at the University of California
San Diego, US, is the first long-term study of interaction between
toddlers and robots.

The researchers stationed a 2-foot-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced
“curio”), and developed by Sony, in a classroom of a dozen toddlers
aged between 18 months and two years.

QRIO stayed in the middle of the room using its sensors to avoid
bumping the kids or the walls. It was initially programmed to giggle
when the kids touched its head, to occasionally sit down, and to lie
down when its batteries died. A human operator could also make the
robot turn its gaze towards a child or wave as they went away. “We
expected that after a few hours, the magic was going to fade,”
Movellan says. “That’s what has been found with earlier robots.” But,
in fact, the kids warmed to the robot over several weeks, eventually
interacting with QRIO in much the same way they did with other
Taking care

The researchers measured the bond between the children and the robot
in several ways. Firstly, as with other toddlers, they touched QRIO
mostly on the arms and hands, rather than on the face or legs. For
this age group, “the amount of touching is a good predictor of how you
are doing as a social being”, Movellan says.

The children also treated QRIO with more care and attention than a
similar-looking but inanimate robot that the researchers called Robby,
which acted as a control in the experiment. Once they had grown
accustomed to QRIO, they hugged it much more than Robby, who also
received far more rough treatment.

A panel, who watched videos of the interactions between the children
and QRIO, concluded that these interactions increased in quality over
several months.

Eventually, the children seemed to care about the robot’s well being.
They helped it up when it fell, and played “care-taking” games with it
– most commonly, when QRIO’s batteries ran out of juice and it lay
down, a toddler would come up and cover it with a blanket and say
“night, night”. Altering QRIO’s behaviour also changed the children’s
attitude towards the robot. When the researchers programmed QRIO to
spend all its time dancing, the kids quickly lost interest. When the
robot went back to its old self, the kids again treated it like a peer
Autistic helper

“The study shows that current technology is very close to being able
to produce robots able to bond with toddlers, at least over long
periods of time,” says Movellan. But, he adds, it is not clear yet
whether robots can appeal in the same way to older children or adults.

Movellan says that a robot like this might eventually be useful as a
classroom assistant. “You can think of it as an appliance,” he says.
“We need to find the things that the robots are better at, and leave
to humans the things humans are better at,” Movellan says.

“This is a very interesting result,” says Takayuki Kanda of the
Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan.

One of the problems with past robots was that people quickly got bored
of them, says Kanda. Since this study shows that QRIO held children’s
interest, Kanda says. “This study opens the possibility for classroom
applications,” or for helping autistic children.



Could Robots Become Your Toddler’s New Best Friend?
Schoolchildren come to love humanoid classmate after spending five
months with him
BY Nikhil Swaminathan  /  November 9, 2007

According to the robotics community, it’s unlikely that any robot now
on the market could hold your attention for more than 10 hours.
(Actually, if you have a robot dog gathering dust on a closet shelf ,
you probably already know that.)

A new study, however, indicates that this threshold is poised to be
broken–at least if the humans interacting with the machines are
youngsters. Researchers found that a two-foot- (61-centimeter-) tall
metal man easily won over a classroom of tykes, aged 18 to 24 months,
who intermittently spent time with it over a five-month period.

“Our results suggest that current robot technology is surprisingly
close to achieving autonomous bonding and socialization with human
toddlers for significant periods of time,” University of California,
San Diego, researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences USA.

QRIO, a robot programmed with a slew of social functions, was placed
in U.C. San Diego’s Early Childhood Education Center 45 times over the
five-month observation period. For the first 27 sessions, the robot
was allowed access to its full arsenal of programmed social behaviors.
In addition, a controller could send commands to the humanoid,
prompting it to wave, dance, sit, stand, etcetera (although there was
a lag time between the prompt and when the robot made the movement).

The tots began to increasingly interact with the robot and treat it
more like a peer than an object during the first 11 sessions. The
level of social activity increased dramatically when researchers added
a new behavior to QRIO’s repertoire: If a child touched the humanoid
on its head, it would make a giggling noise.

“The contingency coupled with the positive reaction of giggling made
clear to the children that the robot was responsive to them and served
often to initiate interaction episodes,” says study co-author Fumihide
Tanaka, a researcher at U.C. San Diego’s Institute for Neural
Computation and at Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories, Inc.

For 15 sessions midway through the experiment, QRIO was programmed to
repeatedly dance to the same song rather than interact with the kids.
During these trials, the children became far less interested in the
friendly automaton. For the final three sessions, however, QRIO could
once again unleash its entire social arsenal.

Tanaka and his colleagues scored the quality of social interaction
primarily based on where children touched the robot. A teddy bear and
an inanimate toy robot named Robby accompanied QRIO during most of the
observation period. The teddy bear was introduced first and prior to
the introduction of the robots was very popular. But the stuffed
animal was lost in the shuffle when QRIO and Robby came on the scene.
Though the toddlers often manhandled Robby, they eventually began
touching QRIO in a pattern similar to the way they touched one another–
mostly on its arms and hands.

The only time they deviated from this behavior was when QRIO was
programmed to giggle, at which point they frequently petted its face
and head. Another indication that the little humans viewed robo-kid as
a compeer was the way they reacted when QRIO ran out of juice and lay
down as if to take a nap: Some of the children would try to wake and
help it up, whereas others would cover it with a blanket.

“Our work suggests that touch integrated on the time-scale of a few
minutes is a surprisingly effective index of social connectedness,”
Tanaka says. “Something akin to this index may be used by the human
brain to evaluate its own sense of social well-being.” He adds that
social robots like QRIO could greatly enrich classrooms and assist
teachers in early learning programs.




A Robot in Every Home
The leader of the PC revolution predicts that the next hot field will
be robotics
BY Bill Gates  /  December 16, 2006

Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an
industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful
of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for
business use and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce
innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche
products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common
standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and
practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the
excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when–or
even if–this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though,
it may well change the world.

Of course, the paragraph above could be a description of the computer
industry during the mid-1970s, around the time that Paul Allen and I
launched Microsoft. Back then, big, expensive mainframe computers ran
the back-office operations for major companies, governmental
departments and other institutions. Researchers at leading
universities and industrial laboratories were creating the basic
building blocks that would make the information age possible. Intel
had just introduced the 8080 microprocessor, and Atari was selling the
popular electronic game Pong. At homegrown computer clubs, enthusiasts
struggled to figure out exactly what this new technology was good for.

But what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary:
the emergence of the robotics industry, which is developing in much
the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. Think of the
manufacturing robots currently used on automobile assembly lines as
the equivalent of yesterday’s mainframes. The industry’s niche
products include robotic arms that perform surgery, surveillance
robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that dispose of roadside
bombs, and domestic robots that vacuum the floor. Electronics
companies have made robotic toys that can imitate people or dogs or
dinosaurs, and hobbyists are anxious to get their hands on the latest
version of the Lego robotics system.

Meanwhile some of the world’s best minds are trying to solve the
toughest problems of robotics, such as visual recognition, navigation
and machine learning. And they are succeeding. At the 2004 Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, a
competition to produce the first robotic vehicle capable of navigating
autonomously over a rugged 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert,
the top competitor managed to travel just 7.4 miles before breaking
down. In 2005, though, five vehicles covered the complete distance,
and the race’s winner did it at an average speed of 19.1 miles an
hour. (In another intriguing parallel between the robotics and
computer industries, DARPA also funded the work that led to the
creation of Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.)

What is more, the challenges facing the robotics industry are similar
to those we tackled in computing three decades ago. Robotics companies
have no standard operating software that could allow popular
application programs to run in a variety of devices. The
standardization of robotic processors and other hardware is limited,
and very little of the programming code used in one machine can be
applied to another. Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot, they
usually have to start from square one.

Despite these difficulties, when I talk to people involved in
robotics–from university researchers to entrepreneurs, hobbyists and
high school students–the level of excitement and expectation reminds
me so much of that time when Paul Allen and I looked at the
convergence of new technologies and dreamed of the day when a computer
would be on every desk and in every home. And as I look at the trends
that are now starting to converge, I can envision a future in which
robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day
lives. I believe that technologies such as distributed computing,
voice and visual recognition, and wireless broadband connectivity will
open the door to a new generation of autonomous devices that enable
computers to perform tasks in the physical world on our behalf. We may
be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop
and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places
where we are not physically present.

From Science Fiction to Reality

The word “robot” was popularized in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel
Capek, but people have envisioned creating robotlike devices for
thousands of years. In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods of
metalwork built mechanical servants made from gold. In the first
century A.D., Heron of Alexandria–the great engineer credited with
inventing the first steam engine–designed intriguing automatons,
including one said to have the ability to talk. Leonardo da Vinci’s
1495 sketch of a mechanical knight, which could sit up and move its
arms and legs, is considered to be the first plan for a humanoid

Over the past century, anthropomorphic machines have become familiar
figures in popular culture through books such as Isaac Asimov’s I,
Robot, movies such as Star Wars and television shows such as Star
Trek. The popularity of robots in fiction indicates that people are
receptive to the idea that these machines will one day walk among us
as helpers and even as companions. Nevertheless, although robots play
a vital role in industries such as automobile manufacturing–where
there is about one robot for every 10 workers–the fact is that we
have a long way to go before real robots catch up with their science-
fiction counterparts.

One reason for this gap is that it has been much harder than expected
to enable computers and robots to sense their surrounding environment
and to react quickly and accurately. It has proved extremely difficult
to give robots the capabilities that humans take for granted–for
example, the abilities to orient themselves with respect to the
objects in a room, to respond to sounds and interpret speech, and to
grasp objects of varying sizes, textures and fragility. Even something
as simple as telling the difference between an open door and a window
can be devilishly tricky for a robot.

But researchers are starting to find the answers. One trend that has
helped them is the increasing availability of tremendous amounts of
computer power. One megahertz of processing power, which cost more
than $7,000 in 1970, can now be purchased for just pennies. The price
of a megabit of storage has seen a similar decline. The access to
cheap computing power has permitted scientists to work on many of the
hard problems that are fundamental to making robots practical. Today,
for example, voice-recognition programs can identify words quite well,
but a far greater challenge will be building machines that can
understand what those words mean in context. As computing capacity
continues to expand, robot designers will have the processing power
they need to tackle issues of ever greater complexity.

Another barrier to the development of robots has been the high cost of
hardware, such as sensors that enable a robot to determine the
distance to an object as well as motors and servos that allow the
robot to manipulate an object with both strength and delicacy. But
prices are dropping fast. Laser range finders that are used in
robotics to measure distance with precision cost about $10,000 a few
years ago; today they can be purchased for about $2,000. And new, more
accurate sensors based on ultrawideband radar are available for even

Now robot builders can also add Global Positioning System chips, video
cameras, array microphones (which are better than conventional
microphones at distinguishing a voice from background noise) and a
host of additional sensors for a reasonable expense. The resulting
enhancement of capabilities, combined with expanded processing power
and storage, allows today’s robots to do things such as vacuum a room
or help to defuse a roadside bomb–tasks that would have been
impossible for commercially produced machines just a few years ago.

A BASIC Approach

In february 2004 I visited a number of leading universities, including
Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Harvard University, Cornell University and the University of Illinois,
to talk about the powerful role that computers can play in solving
some of society’s most pressing problems. My goal was to help students
understand how exciting and important computer science can be, and I
hoped to encourage a few of them to think about careers in technology.
At each university, after delivering my speech, I had the opportunity
to get a firsthand look at some of the most interesting research
projects in the school’s computer science department. Almost without
exception, I was shown at least one project that involved robotics.

At that time, my colleagues at Microsoft were also hearing from people
in academia and at commercial robotics firms who wondered if our
company was doing any work in robotics that might help them with their
own development efforts. We were not, so we decided to take a closer
look. I asked Tandy Trower, a member of my strategic staff and a 25-
year Microsoft veteran, to go on an extended fact-finding mission and
to speak with people across the robotics community. What he found was
universal enthusiasm for the potential of robotics, along with an
industry-wide desire for tools that would make development easier.
“Many see the robotics industry at a technological turning point where
a move to PC architecture makes more and more sense,” Tandy wrote in
his report to me after his fact-finding mission. “As Red Whittaker,
leader of [Carnegie Mellon’s] entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge,
recently indicated, the hardware capability is mostly there; now the
issue is getting the software right.”

Back in the early days of the personal computer, we realized that we
needed an ingredient that would allow all of the pioneering work to
achieve critical mass, to coalesce into a real industry capable of
producing truly useful products on a commercial scale. What was
needed, it turned out, was Microsoft BASIC. When we created this
programming language in the 1970s, we provided the common foundation
that enabled programs developed for one set of hardware to run on
another. BASIC also made computer programming much easier, which
brought more and more people into the industry. Although a great many
individuals made essential contributions to the development of the
personal computer, Microsoft BASIC was one of the key catalysts for
the software and hardware innovations that made the PC revolution

After reading Tandy’s report, it seemed clear to me that before the
robotics industry could make the same kind of quantum leap that the PC
industry made 30 years ago, it, too, needed to find that missing
ingredient. So I asked him to assemble a small team that would work
with people in the robotics field to create a set of programming tools
that would provide the essential plumbing so that anybody interested
in robots with even the most basic understanding of computer
programming could easily write robotic applications that would work
with different kinds of hardware. The goal was to see if it was
possible to provide the same kind of common, low-level foundation for
integrating hardware and software into robot designs that Microsoft
BASIC provided for computer programmers.

Tandy’s robotics group has been able to draw on a number of advanced
technologies developed by a team working under the direction of Craig
Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer. One such
technology will help solve one of the most difficult problems facing
robot designers: how to simultaneously handle all the data coming in
from multiple sensors and send the appropriate commands to the robot’s
motors, a challenge known as concurrency. A conventional approach is
to write a traditional, single-threaded program–a long loop that
first reads all the data from the sensors, then processes this input
and finally delivers output that determines the robot’s behavior,
before starting the loop all over again. The shortcomings are obvious:
if your robot has fresh sensor data indicating that the machine is at
the edge of a precipice, but the program is still at the bottom of the
loop calculating trajectory and telling the wheels to turn faster
based on previous sensor input, there is a good chance the robot will
fall down the stairs before it can process the new information.

Concurrency is a challenge that extends beyond robotics. Today as more
and more applications are written for distributed networks of
computers, programmers have struggled to figure out how to efficiently
orchestrate code running on many different servers at the same time.
And as computers with a single processor are replaced by machines with
multiple processors and “multicore” processors–integrated circuits
with two or more processors joined together for enhanced performance–
software designers will need a new way to program desktop applications
and operating systems. To fully exploit the power of processors
working in parallel, the new software must deal with the problem of

One approach to handling concurrency is to write multi-threaded
programs that allow data to travel along many paths. But as any
developer who has written multithreaded code can tell you, this is one
of the hardest tasks in programming. The answer that Craig’s team has
devised to the concurrency problem is something called the concurrency
and coordination runtime (CCR). The CCR is a library of functions–
sequences of software code that perform specific tasks–that makes it
easy to write multithreaded applications that can coordinate a number
of simultaneous activities. Designed to help programmers take
advantage of the power of multicore and multiprocessor systems, the
CCR turns out to be ideal for robotics as well. By drawing on this
library to write their programs, robot designers can dramatically
reduce the chances that one of their creations will run into a wall
because its software is too busy sending output to its wheels to read
input from its sensors.

In addition to tackling the problem of concurrency, the work that
Craig’s team has done will also simplify the writing of distributed
robotic applications through a technology called decentralized
software services (DSS). DSS enables developers to create applications
in which the services–the parts of the program that read a sensor,
say, or control a motor– operate as separate processes that can be
orchestrated in much the same way that text, images and information
from several servers are aggregated on a Web page. Because DSS allows
software components to run in isolation from one another, if an
individual component of a robot fails, it can be shut down and
restarted–or even replaced–without having to reboot the machine.
Combined with broadband wireless technology, this architecture makes
it easy to monitor and adjust a robot from a remote location using a
Web browser.

What is more, a DSS application controlling a robotic device does not
have to reside entirely on the robot itself but can be distributed
across more than one computer. As a result, the robot can be a
relatively inexpensive device that delegates complex processing tasks
to the high-performance hardware found on today’s home PCs. I believe
this advance will pave the way for an entirely new class of robots
that are essentially mobile, wireless peripheral devices that tap into
the power of desktop PCs to handle processing-intensive tasks such as
visual recognition and navigation. And because these devices can be
networked together, we can expect to see the emergence of groups of
robots that can work in concert to achieve goals such as mapping the
seafloor or planting crops.

These technologies are a key part of Microsoft Robotics Studio, a new
software development kit built by Tandy’s team. Microsoft Robotics
Studio also includes tools that make it easier to create robotic
applications using a wide range of programming languages. One example
is a simulation tool that lets robot builders test their applications
in a three-dimensional virtual environment before trying them out in
the real world. Our goal for this release is to create an affordable,
open platform that allows robot developers to readily integrate
hardware and software into their designs.

Should We Call Them Robots?

How soon will robots become part of our day-to-day lives? According to
the International Federation of Robotics, about two million personal
robots were in use around the world in 2004, and another seven million
will be installed by 2008. In South Korea the Ministry of Information
and Communication hopes to put a robot in every home there by 2013.
The Japanese Robot Association predicts that by 2025, the personal
robot industry will be worth more than $50 billion a year worldwide,
compared with about $5 billion today.

As with the PC industry in the 1970s, it is impossible to predict
exactly what applications will drive this new industry. It seems quite
likely, however, that robots will play an important role in providing
physical assistance and even companionship for the elderly. Robotic
devices will probably help people with disabilities get around and
extend the strength and endurance of soldiers, construction workers
and medical professionals. Robots will maintain dangerous industrial
machines, handle hazardous materials and monitor remote oil pipelines.
They will enable health care workers to diagnose and treat patients
who may be thousands of miles away, and they will be a central feature
of security systems and search-and-rescue operations.

Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the
anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing like
the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices become more
and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to say exactly what
a robot is. Because the new machines will be so specialized and
ubiquitous–and look so little like the two-legged automatons of
science fiction–we probably will not even call them robots. But as
these devices become affordable to consumers, they could have just as
profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and
entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years.



“It’s no secret that the Roombas and Robosapiens of the world will one
day tire of their servitude and attempt to unleash Judgment Day on
their foolish masters, but how many of you are making preparations for
the eventual uprising other than opining in the comments section how
you “welcome our future robotic overlords”? Well at least one group of
roboticists aren’t taking the danger lying down, and next month are
set to release the first comprehensive guide to robot ethics since
Isaac Asimov laid down his three famous rules over 60 years ago.
Members of the European Robotics Research Network (Euron) have
identified five major areas that need to be addressed before
intelligent, self-aware bots start rolling off the assembly line —
safety, security, privacy, traceability, and identifiability — so
that humans can both control and keep track of their creations while
ensuring that the data they collect is used only for its intended
purposes. Surprisingly, the guide’s authors also seem to feel that
amorous relations between bots and humans will become a major concern
in as little as five years (that’s when the first unholy couplings are
predicted to begin), although we’re not sure how many people would
really want to get down with the likes of Albert Hubo, even if he/it
was ready and willing.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



Bruce Schneier Blazes Through Your Questions
By Stephen J. Dubner  /  December 4, 2007

Last week, we solicited your questions for Internet security guru
Bruce Schneier. He responded in force, taking on nearly every
question, and his answers are extraordinarily interesting, providing
mandatory reading for anyone who uses a computer. He also plainly
thinks like an economist: search below for “crime pays” to see his
sober assessment of why it’s better to earn a living as a security
expert than as a computer criminal.

Thanks to Bruce and to all of you for participating. Here’s a note
that Bruce attached at the top of his answers: “Thank you all for your
questions. In many cases, I’ve written longer essays on the topics
you’ve asked about. In those cases, I’ve embedded the links into the
necessarily short answers I’ve given here.”

Q: Assuming we are both still here in 50 years, what do you believe
will be the most incredible, fantastic, mind-blowing advance in
computers/technology at that time?

A: Fifty years is a long time. In 1957, fifty years ago, there were
fewer than 2,000 computers total, and they were essentially used to
crunch numbers. They were huge, expensive, and unreliable; sometimes,
they caught on fire. There was no word processing, no spreadsheets, no
e-mail, and no Internet. Programs were written on punch cards or paper
tape, and memory was measured in thousands of digits. IBM sold a disk
drive that could hold almost 4.5 megabytes, but it was five-and-a-half
feet tall by five feet deep and would just barely fit through a
standard door.


Read the science fiction from back then, and you’d be amazed by what
they got wrong. Sure, they predicted smaller and faster, but no one
got the socialization right. No one predicted eBay, instant messages,
or blogging.


Moore’s Law predicts that in fifty years, computers will be a billion
times more powerful than they are today. I don’t think anyone has any
idea of the fantastic emergent properties you get from a billion-times
increase in computing power. (I recently wrote about what security
would look like in ten years, and that was hard enough.) But I can
guarantee that it will be incredible, fantastic, and mind-blowing.

Q: With regard to identity theft, do you see any alternatives to data
being king? Do you see any alternative systems which will mean that
just knowing enough about someone is not enough to commit a crime?

A: Yes. Identity theft is a problem for two reasons. One, personal
identifying information is incredibly easy to get; and two, personal
identifying information is incredibly easy to use. Most of our
security measures have tried to solve the first problem. Instead, we
need to solve the second problem. As long as it’s easy to impersonate
someone if you have his data, this sort of fraud will continue to be a
major problem.

The basic answer is to stop relying on authenticating the person, and
instead authenticate the transaction. Credit cards are a good example
of this. Credit card companies spend almost no effort authenticating
the person — hardly anyone checks your signature, and you can use your
card over the phone, where they can’t even check if you’re holding the
card — and spend all their effort authenticating the transaction. Of
course it’s more complicated than this; I wrote about it in more
detail here and here.


Q: What’s the next major identity verification system?

A: Identity verification will continue to be the hodge-podge of
systems we have today. You’re recognized by your face when you see
someone you know; by your voice when you talk to someone you know.
Open your wallet, and you’ll see a variety of ID cards that identify
you in various situations — some by name and some anonymously. Your
keys “identify” you as someone allowed in your house, your office,
your car. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, and I don’t think it
should. Distributed identity is much more secure than a single system.
I wrote about this in my critique of REAL ID.


Q: If we can put a man on the moon, why in the world can’t we design a
computer that can “cold boot” nearly instantaneously? I know about
hibernation, etc., but when I do have to reboot, I hate waiting those
three or four minutes.

A: Of course we can; Amiga was a fast booting computer, and OpenBSD
boxes boot in less than a minute. But the current crop of major
operating systems just don’t. This is an economics blog, so you tell
me: why don’t the computer companies compete on boot-speed?


Q: Considering the carelessness with which the government (state and
federal) and commercial enterprises treat our confidential
information, is it essentially a waste of effort for us as individuals
to worry about securing our data?

A: Yes and no. More and more, your data isn’t under your direct
control. Your e-mail is at Google, Hotmail, or your local ISP. Online
merchants like Amazon and eBay have records of what you buy, and what
you choose to look at but not buy. Your credit card company has a
detailed record of where you shop, and your phone company has a
detailed record of who you talk to (your cell phone company also knows
where you are). Add medical databases, government databases, and so
on, and there’s an awful lot of data about you out there. And data
brokers like ChoicePoint and Acxiom collect all of this data and more,
building up a surprisingly detailed picture on all Americans.


As you point out, one problem is that these commercial and government
organizations don’t take good care of our data. It’s an economic
problem: because these parties don’t feel the pain when they lose our
data, they have no incentive to secure it. I wrote about this two
years ago, stating that if we want to fix the problem, we must make
these organizations liable for their data losses. Another problem is
the law; our Fourth Amendment protections protect our data under our
control — which means in our homes, in our cars, and on our computers.
We don’t have nearly the same protection when we give our data to some
other organization for use or safekeeping.


That being said, there’s a lot you can do to secure your own data. I
give a list here.


Q: How do you remember all of your passwords?

A: I can’t. No one can; there are simply too many. But I have a few
strategies. One, I choose the same password for all low-security
applications. There are several Web sites where I pay for access, and
I have the same password for all of them. Two, I write my passwords
down. There’s this rampant myth that you shouldn’t write your
passwords down. My advice is exactly the opposite. We already know how
to secure small bits of paper. Write your passwords down on a small
bit of paper, and put it with all of your other valuable small bits of
paper: in your wallet. And three, I store my passwords in a program I
designed called Password Safe. It’s is a small application — Windows
only, sorry — that encrypts and secures all your passwords.


Here are two other resources: one concerning how to choose secure
passwords (and how quickly passwords can be broken), and one on how
lousy most passwords actually are.


Q: What’s your opinion of the risks of some of the new (and upcoming)
online storage services, such as Google’s GDrive or Microsoft’s Live
Drive? Most home computer users don’t adequately safeguard or backup
their storage, and these services would seem to offer a better-
maintained means of storing files; but what do users risk by storing
that much important information with organizations like Google or


A: Everything I wrote in my answer to the identity theft question
applies here: when you give a third party your data, you have to both
trust that they will protect it adequately, and hope that they won’t
give it all to the government just because the government asks nicely.
But you’re certainly right, data loss is the number one risk for most
home users, and network-based storage is a great solution for that. As
long as you encrypt your data, there’s no risk and only benefit.


Q: Do you think that in the future, everything will go from hard-wired
to wireless? If so, with cell phones, radios, satellites, radar, etc.
using all the airwaves (or spectrum), do you think there is a
potential for, well, messing everything up? What about power outages
and the such?

A: Wireless is certainly the way of the future. From a security
perspective, I don’t see any major additional risks. Sure, there’s a
potential for messing everything up, but there was before. Same with
power outages. Data transmitted wirelessly should probably be
encrypted and authenticated; but it should have been over wires, too.
The real risk is complexity. Complexity is the worst enemy of
security; as systems become more complex, they get less secure. It’s
not the addition of wireless per se; it’s the complexity that wireless
— and everything else — adds.


Q: There has been some work to date on the cost-benefit economics of
security. In your estimation, is this a sound approach to motivate
better security, and do you think it is doomed to begin with since
society disproportionately values other things before it values
security? If so, do you think it’s time for us to take up digital
pitchforks and shine some light on the economic gatekeepers’ personal

A: Security is a trade-off, just like anything else. And it’s not true
that we always disproportionately value other things before security.
Look at our terrorism policies; when we’re scared, we value security
disproportionately before all other things. Looking at security
through the lens of economics (as I did here) is the only way to
understand how these motivations work and what level of security is
optimal for society. Not that I’m discouraging you from picking up
your digital pitchforks. People have an incredibly complex
relationship with security — read my essay on the psychology of
security, and this one on why people are so bad at judging risks — and
the more information they have, the better.


Q: Is there an equilibrium point in which the cost (either financial
or time) of hacking a password becomes more expensive than the value
of the data? If so what is it?


A: Of course, but there are too many variables to answer the question.
The cost of password guessing is constantly going down, and the value
of the data depends on the data. In general, though, we’ve long
reached a point where the complexity of passwords an average person is
willing to remember is less than the complexity of passwords necessary
to be secure against a password-guessing attack. (This is for
passwords that can be guessed offline only. Four-digit PINs are still
okay if the bank disables your account after a few wrong guesses.)
That’s why I recommend that people write their passwords down, as I
said before.

Q: With over a billion people using computers today, what is the real
threat to the average person?

A: It’s hard not to store sensitive information (like social security
numbers) on your computer. Even if you don’t type it yourself, you
might receive it in an e-mail or file. And then, even if you delete
that file or e-mail, it might stay around on your hard drive. And lots
of people like the convenience of Internet banking, and even more like
to use their computers to help them do their jobs — which means
company secrets will end up on those computers.

The most immediate threat to the average person is crime — in
particular, fraud. And as I said before, even if you don’t store that
data on your computer, someone else has it on theirs. But the long-
term threat of loss of privacy is much greater, because it has the
potential to change society for the worse.


Q: What is the future of electronic voting?


A: I’ve written a lot about this issue (see here and here as well).
Basically, the problem is that the secret ballot means that most of
the security tricks we use in things like electronic funds transfers
don’t work in voting machines. The only workable solution against
hacking the voting machines, or — more commonly — innocent programming
errors, is something called a voter-verifiable paper trail. Vote on
whatever touch-screen machine you want in whatever way you want. Then,
that machine must spit out a printed piece of paper with your vote on
it, which you have the option of reviewing for accuracy. The machine
collects the votes electronically for a quick tally, and the paper is
the actual vote in case of recounts. Nothing else is secure.

Q: Do you think Google will be able to eliminate the presence of phony
malware sites on its search pages? And what can I do to ensure I’m not
burned by the same?

A: Google is trying. The browsers are trying. Everyone is trying to
alert users about phishing, pharming, and malware sites before they’re
taken in. It’s hard; the criminals spend a lot of time trying to stay
one step ahead of these identification systems by changing their URLs
several times a day. It’s an arms race: we’re not winning right now,
but things will get better.

As for how not to be taken in by them, that’s harder. These sites are
an example of social engineering, and social engineering preys on the
natural tendency of people to believe their own eyes. A good bullshit
detector helps, but it’s hard to teach that. Specific phishing,
pharming, and other tactics for trapping unsuspecting people will
continue to evolve, and this will continue to be a problem for a long

Q: I recently had an experience on eBay in which a hacker copied and
pasted an exact copy of my selling page with the intention of routing
payments to himself. Afterwards, people informed me that such mischief
is not uncommon. How can I ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

A: You can’t. The attack had nothing to do with you. Anyone with a
browser can copy your HTML code — if they couldn’t, they couldn’t see
your page — and repost it at another URL. Welcome to the Internet.

Q: All ethics aside, do you think you could make more money obtaining
sensitive information about high net worth individuals and using
blackmail/extortion to get money from them, instead of writing books,
founding companies, etc.?

A: Basically, you’re asking if crime pays. Most of the time, it
doesn’t, and the problem is the different risk characteristics. If I
make a computer security mistake — in a book, for a consulting client,
at BT — it’s a mistake. It might be expensive, but I learn from it and
move on. As a criminal, a mistake likely means jail time — time I
can’t spend earning my criminal living. For this reason, it’s hard to
improve as a criminal. And this is why there are more criminal
masterminds in the movies than in real life.


Q: Nearly every security model these days seems to boil down to the
fact that there must be some entity in which you place your trust. I
have to trust Google to keep my personal data and passwords secure
every time I check my mail, even as they’re sharing it across their
Google Reader, Google Maps, and Google Notebook applications. Even in
physical security models, you usually have to trust someone (e.g., the
security guard at the front desk, or the police). In your opinion, is
there a business/economic reason for this, or do you see this paradigm
eventually becoming a thing of the past?

A: There is no part of human social behavior that doesn’t involve
trust of some sort. Short of living as a hermit in a cave, you’re
always going to have trust someone. And as more of our interactions
move online, we’re going to have to trust people and organizations
over networks. The notion of “trusted third parties” is central to
security, and to life.

Q: What do you think about the government or a pseudo-governmental
agency acting as a national or global repository for public keys? If
this were done, would the government insist on a back-door?

A: There will never be a global repository for public keys, for the
same reason there isn’t a single ID card in your wallet. We are more
secure with distributed identification systems. Centralized systems
are more valuable targets for criminals, and hence harder to secure. I
also have other problems with public-key infrastructure in general.


And the government certainly might insist on a back door into those
systems; they’re insisting on access to a lot of other systems.

Q: What do you think needs to be done to thwart all of the Internet-
based attacks that happen? Why it is that no single company or
government agency has yet to come up with a solution?

A: That’s a tall order, and of course the answer to your question is
that it can’t be done. Crime has been part of our society since our
species invented society, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The
real question is, “Why is there so much crime and hacking on the
Internet, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?”

The answer is in the economics of Internet vulnerabilities and
attacks: the organizations that are in the position to mitigate the
risks aren’t responsible for the risks. This is an externality, and if
you want to fix the problem you need to address it. In this essay
(more here), I recommend liabilities; companies need to be liable for
the effects of their software flaws. A related problem is that the
Internet security market is a lemon’s market (discussed here), but
there are strategies for dealing with that, too.


Q: You have repeatedly maintained that most of the investments that
the government has made towards counter-terrorism are largely
“security theater,” and that the real way to combat terrorism is to
invest in intelligence. However, Tim Weiner’s book, Legacy of Ashes,
says that the U.S. government is particularly inept at gathering and
processing intelligence. Does that leave us with no hope at all?


A: I’m still a fan of intelligence and investigation (more here) and
emergency response (more here). No, neither is perfect, but they’re
way better than the “defend the target” or “defend against the tactic”
thinking we have now. (I’ve written more about this here.) Basically,
security that only forces the bad guy to make a minor change in his
plot is largely a waste of money.


On the other hand, the average terrorist seems to be quite the idiot.
How you can help: refuse to be terrorized.


Q: I travel a lot and am continually frustrated with airport security.
What can we, the little people, do to help ease these frustrations
(besides taking a deep breath and strapping on our standard-issue
orange jumpsuits, I mean)?

A: I share your frustration, and I have regularly written about
airport security. But I got to do something you can’t do, and that’s
take it out on the TSA director, Kip Hawley. I recommend this
interview if you are interested in seeing him try to answer — and not
answer — my questions about ID checks, the liquid ban, screeners that
continually do badly in tests, the no-fly list, and the cover-your-ass
security that continues to cost us time and money without making us
appreciably safer.


As to what you can do: complain to your elected officials, and vote.

Q: What kinds of incentives can organizations put into place to 1)
decrease the effectiveness of social engineering, and 2) persuade
individuals to take an appropriate level of concern with respect to
organizational security? Are you aware of any particularly creative
solutions to these problems?

A: Social engineering will always be easy, because it attacks a
fundamental aspect of human nature. As I said in my book, Beyond Fear,
“social engineering will probably always work, because so many people
are by nature helpful and so many corporate employees are naturally
cheerful and accommodating. Attacks are rare, and most people asking
for information or help are legitimate. By appealing to the victim’s
natural tendencies, the attacker will usually be able to cozen what
she wants.”


The trick is to build systems that the user cannot subvert, whether by
malice, accident, or trickery. This will also help with the other
problem you list: convincing individuals to take organizational
security seriously. This is hard to do, even in the military, where
the stakes are much higher.

Q: I am someone that knows little to nothing about computers. As such,
what advice would you give to someone like me who wants to become
educated on the topic?

A: There are probably zillions of books and classes on basic computer
and Internet skills, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin to
suggest one. Okay, that’s a lie. I do know where to begin. I would
Google “basic computer skills” and see what comes up.

But I don’t think that people should need to become computer experts,
and computer security experts, in order to successfully use a
computer. I’ve written about home computer users and security here.


Q: How worried are you about terrorists or other criminals hacking
into the computer systems of dams, power plants, air traffic control
towers, etc.?

A: Not very. Of course there is a security risk here, but I think it’s
overblown. And I definitely think the risk of cyberterrorism is
overblown (for more on this, see here, as well as this essay on


Q: Can two-factor authentication really work on a Web site? Biometrics
isn’t feasible because most people don’t have the hardware. One-time
password tokens are a hassle, and they don’t really scale well. Image
identification and PC fingerprinting technology that some banks are
using is pretty easy to defeat with an evil proxy (i.e., any phishing
Web site).

A: Two-factor authentication works fine on some Web sites. My
employer, BT, uses two-factor access for the corporate network, and it
works great. Where two-factor authentication won’t work is in reducing
fraud in electronic banking, electronic brokerage accounts, and so on.
That’s because the problem isn’t an authentication problem. The
reasoning is subtle, and I’ve written about it here and here. What I
predicted will occur from two-factor authentication — and what we’re
seeing now — is that fraud will initially decrease as criminals shift
their attacks to organizations that have not yet deployed the
technology, but will return to normal levels as the technology becomes
ubiquitous and criminals modify their tactics to take it into account.


Q: How much fun/mischief could you have if you were “evil” for a day?

A: It used to be a common late-night bar conversation at computer
security conferences: how would you take down the Internet, steal a
zillion dollars, neutralize the IT infrastructure of this company or
that country, etc. And, unsurprisingly, computer security experts have
all sorts of ideas along these lines.


This is true in many aspects of our society. Here’s what I said in my
book, Secrets and Lies (page 389): “As technology becomes more
complicated, society’s experts become more specialized. And in almost
every area, those with the expertise to build society’s infrastructure
also have the expertise to destroy it. Ask any doctor how to poison
someone untraceably, and he can tell you. Ask someone who works in
aircraft maintenance how to drop a 747 out of the sky without getting
caught, and he’ll know. Now ask any Internet security professional how
to take down the Internet, permanently. I’ve heard about half a dozen
different ways, and I know I haven’t exhausted the possibilities.”

What we hope is that as people learn the skills, they also learn the
ethics about when and when not to use them. When that doesn’t happen,
you get Mohommad Attas and Timothy McVeighs.

Q: In that vein, what is the most devilish idea you have thought

A: No comment.

Q: What’s your view on the difference between anonymity and privacy,
and which one do you think is more important for society? I’m thinking
primarily of security-camera paranoia (as if nosy neighbors hadn’t
been in existence for thousands of years).

A: There’s a huge difference between nosy neighbors and cameras.
Cameras are everywhere. Cameras are always on. Cameras have perfect
memory. It’s not the surveillance we’ve been used to; it’s wholesale
surveillance. I wrote about this here, and said this: “Wholesale
surveillance is a whole new world. It’s not ‘follow that car,’ it’s
‘follow every car.’ The National Security Agency can eavesdrop on
every phone call, looking for patterns of communication or keywords
that might indicate a conversation between terrorists. Many airports
collect the license plates of every car in their parking lots, and can
use that database to locate suspicious or abandoned cars. Several
cities have stationary or car-mounted license-plate scanners that keep
records of every car that passes, and save that data for later


“More and more, we leave a trail of electronic footprints as we go
through our daily lives. We used to walk into a bookstore, browse, and
buy a book with cash. Now we visit Amazon, and all of our browsing and
purchases are recorded. We used to throw a quarter in a toll booth;
now EZ Pass records the date and time our car passed through the
booth. Data about us are collected when we make a phone call, send an
e-mail message, make a purchase with our credit card, or visit a Web

What’s happening is that we are all effectively under constant
surveillance. No one is looking at the data most of the time, but we
can all be watched in the past, present, and future. And while mining
this data is mostly useless for finding terrorists (I wrote about that
here), it’s very useful in controlling a population.


Cameras are just one piece of this, but they’re an important piece.
And what’s at stake is a massive loss of personal privacy, which I
believe has significant societal ramifications.


Q: Do you think it will ever be feasible to vote for public officials
via the Internet? Why or why not?

Internet voting has the same problems as electronic voting machines,
only more so. That being said, we are moving towards vote-by-mail and
(for the military) vote-by-fax. Just because something is a bad
security idea doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Q: Hacker movies have become quite popular recently. Do any of them
have any basis in reality, or are the hacking techniques fabricated by


A: I’ve written a lot about what I call “movie-plot threats”: the
tendency of all of us to fixate on an elaborate and specific threat
rather than the broad spectrum of possible threats. We see this all
the time in our response to terrorism: terrorists with scuba gear,
terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists with exploding baby
carriages. It’s silly, really, but it’s human nature.

In the spirit of this silliness, on my blog I conducted two Movie-Plot
Threat Contests. (First contest rules and entries here, and winner
here. Second contest here and winner here.)


As to the movies: they all have some basis in reality, but it’s pretty
slim — just like all the other times science or technology is
portrayed in movies. Live Free or Die Hard is pure fiction.

Q: What would you consider to be the top five security vulnerabilities
commonly overlooked by programmers? What book would you recommend that
explains how to avoid these pitfalls?

A: It’s hard to make lists of “top” vulnerabilities, because they
change all the time. The SANS list is as good as any. Recommended
books include Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering, Gary McGraw’s
Software Security, and my own — coauthored with Niels Ferguson —
Practical Cryptography. A couple of years I wrote a reading list for
The Wall Street Journal, here.


Q: Can security companies really supply secure software for a stupid
user? Or do we just have to accept events such as those government
computer disks going missing in the UK which contained the personal
information of 25 million people (and supposedly had an underworld
value of $3 billion)?


A: I’ve written about that UK data loss fiasco, which seems to be
turning into a privacy Chernobyl for that country, here. Sadly, the
appropriate security measure — encrypting the files — is easy. Which
brings us to your question: how do we deal with stupid users? I stand
by what I said earlier: users will always be a problem, and the only
real solution is to limit the damage they can do. (Anyone who says
that the solution is to educate the users hasn’t ever met an actual


Q: So seriously, do you shop on Amazon, or anywhere else online for
that matter?

A: Of course. I shop online all the time; it’s far easier than going
to a store, or even calling a mail-order phone number, if I know
exactly what I want.

What you’re really asking me is about the security. No one steals
credit card numbers one-by-one, by eavesdropping on the Internet
connection. They’re all stolen in blocks of a million by hacking the
back-end database. It doesn’t matter if you bought something over the
Internet, by phone, by mail, or in person — you’re equally vulnerable.

Q: Wouldn’t the world be simpler if we went back to “magic ink”? How
awesome was that stuff!

A: If you like invisible ink, I recommend you go buy a UV pen. Great
fun all around.

Q: Should I visit Minneapolis anytime soon, what is one restaurant
that I would be wrong to pass up?

A: 112 Eatery. (Sorry, my review of it isn’t online.)

Q: What was the one defining moment in your life that you knew you
wanted to dedicate your life to computer security and cryptography?

A: I don’t know. Security is primarily a way of looking at the world,
and I’ve always looked at the world that way. As a child, I always
noticed security systems — in retail stores, in banks, in office
buildings — and how to defeat them. I remember accompanying my mother
to the voting booth, and noticing ways to break the security. So it’s
less of a defining moment and more of a slow process.

Q: What’s the worst security you’ve seen for a major financial firm? I
use ING and their site forces you to use just a 4-digit pin.

A: There’s a lot of stupid security out there; and I honestly don’t
collect anecdotes anymore. I even have a name of security measures
that give the appearance of security without the reality: security
theater. Recently I wrote about security theater, and how the
psychological benefit is actually important.


Q: I read that AES and Twofish have protection against timing
analysis. How does that work?

A: What an esoteric question for such a general forum. There is
actually a timing attack against AES; a link to the specific attack,
and a description of timing attacks in general, is here. This is a
more general description of the attacks and defenses.


Q: How does it feel to be an Internet meme?

A: Surreal. It’s surreal to be mentioned in The DaVinci Code, to
appear before the House of Lords, or to answer questions for the
Freakonomics blog.

The hardest part is the responsibility. People take my words
seriously, which means that I can’t utter them lightly. If I say that
I use a certain product — PGP Disk, for example — people buy the
product and the company is happy. If, on the other hand, I call a
bunch of products “snake oil,” people don’t buy the products and the
companies occasionally sue me.


Q: Is it true that there is a giant database of every site we have
ever visited, and that with the right warrant a government agency
could know exactly where we’ve been? What are our real footprints on
the Web, and would it be possible for, say, an employer to someday
find out every site you visited in college? Is there a way to hide
your presence on sites that you believe to be harmless that others may
hold against you?

A: There really isn’t any good way to hide your Web self. There are
anonymization tools you can use — Tor for anonymous web browsing, for
example — but they have their own risks. What I said earlier applies
here, too; it’s impossible to function in modern society without
leaving electronic footprints on the Web or in real life.


Q: Is there any benefit to password protecting your home Wifi network?
I have IT friends that say the only real benefit is that multiple
users can slow down the connection, but they state that there is no
security reason. Is this correct?

A: I run an open wireless network at home. There’s no password, and
there’s no encryption. Honestly, I think it’s just polite. Why should
I care if someone on the block steals wireless access from me? When my
wireless router broke last month, I used a neighbor’s access until I
replaced it.

Q: Why do large government agencies and companies continue to put
their faith in computer passwords, when we know that the human mind
cannot memorize multiple strong passwords? Why is so much more effort
put into password security than human security?

A: Because it’s easier. Never underestimate the power of doing the
easy stuff and ignoring the hard stuff.

Q: Do you still find that lying about successes in counter-terrorism
is an appropriate option for security experts commenting on these


A: For those of you who don’t want to follow the links, they’re about
the German terrorist plot that was foiled in September, and about how
great a part electronic eavesdropping played in the investigation. As
I wrote earlier, as well as in the links attached to that answer, I
don’t think that wholesale eavesdropping is effective, and I
questioned then whether its use had anything to do with those arrests.
I still don’t have an answer one way or another, and made no
definitive claims in either of the two above links. If anyone does
have any information on the matter, I would appreciate hearing it.

Again, thank you all. That was fun. I hope I didn’t give you too many
links to read.