For two weeks, Motherboard writer Kate Lunau skipped her soap and deodorant—spritzing herself with a “live bacteria spray” instead. Her goal was to colonize her skin with ammonia-eating bacteria, which are supposed to neutralize the smell of sweat. There are a growing number of believers out there: chemist David Whitlock, who came up with this, hasn’t showered in 13 years. But are live bacteria products really the future of skincare? And, maybe more importantly, how bad did Kate smell by the end of it?
Sometime in the last few weeks, or months, or years, you may have heard about this idea called “universal basic income.” It’s the idea that maybe governments should give a monthly stipend—no questions asked—to everyone who lives there.
It’s an idea we’ve covered quite a bit over the years, and it’s one that’s increasingly gaining steam among people on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians say that it can simplify the bureaucracy associated with things like welfare and food stamps, and liberals like it because it would strengthen the social safety net.
Why do we need a basic income now? Well maybe you’ve noticed, but automation is slowly but surely replacing a lot of jobs that humans used to do with ones that robots, drones, software, and artificial intelligence can do. We’re looking at a future where it’s possible that there simply won’t be enough jobs for everyone. Maybe that’s a good thing—in a post scarcity society, do humans really need to do menial jobs?
And so basic income has been floated as both a cure to automation and potentially a better way to redistribute wealth. The movement is gaining steam around the world: Switzerland voted this last weekend on whether the country should “guarantee the introduction of an unconditional basic income.” The measure failed, but the fact that it was even on the ballot speaks to its increasing relevancy. In the United States, the startup incubator Y Combinator is doing an experiment that will give 100 people in Oakland between $1,000 and $2,000 per month to see how the “mechanics” of a basic income would work and to see what people do with the money.
That project is controversial for reasons we get into the podcast. I called up Matt Krisiloff, who is head of the basic income project at Y Combinator, and Elizabeth Rhodes, the research lead of the project, to talk about how it’ll work and why a Silicon Valley startup accelerator is interested in this idea. Then, we talk to Natalie Foster, who is a cofounder of the Universal Income Project, about why she finds the idea so compelling. Finally, we look at the history of basic income around the world and deconstruct the policy itself. Could it ever work?
Remember when Uber came to your city? It was probably exciting—you could hail a car without talking to anyone or standing on a cold, rainy corner. It’s so easy, maybe you thought. Maybe the taxi commission or some local politicians expressed worry about this new interloper from San Francisco. But Uber has this game down. It comes to town, becomes incredibly popular, worries about regulations later and usually wins because the general public likes the service.
Soon, you forget about there ever being a time before Uber existed. When did it come to town, anyway? There were just suddenly hundreds, maybe thousands of regular people happy to drive you and your friends around town. Maybe your coworker drives an Uber in his or her free time. Remember when you used to have to beg your friend for a ride to the airport? Me either.
As fast as Uber came to your city, it can leave. It might leave. With no physical infrastructure and no real employees, it’s trivial for Uber to expand to a new city, and just as easy for it to depart. Those thousands of contract drivers? Some of them lease or buy cars specifically to drive for Uber. Some of them drive Uber to support their new baby. When Uber leaves, overnight, hopefully those drivers have a backup plan. Uber is an app, after all. It’s a platform. It’s a business. It can leave. It just left Austin.
“There’s something unique about Uber because unlike a telecom company or other businesses that operate in a city—what the company requires as far as infrastructure is very minimal,” Rick Claypool, author of a new report about how Uber does politics, told me. “They can credibly threaten, ‘it’s my way or the highway and we’re going to go.’ It’s an app versus something that has brick and mortar buildings. They have no employees, they have no cars, so really what their investment is in the actual place is minimal. They have an extraordinary amount of leverage in that sense.”
Uber (and Lyft, for that matter) followed its basic gameplan in Austin, Texas. It came to town in early 2014. Local lawmakers and the taxi lobby wondered whether ridesharing companies were following commercial driver regulations about driver insurance, licensing, and driver background checks. By the time they got around to enforcing any sort of regulations, the services were too popular, and Uber and Lyft were given temporary permission to operate in the city.
But Austin still wanted regulations. The city council proposed that Uber and Lyft require its drivers to get a fingerprint background check administered by the city. Uber and Lyft said that would discourage people from driving and would impose an undue burden on their companies and their drivers. Uber and Lyft got signatures from community members to put a ballot initiative at the poll called “Proposition 1.” A vote for Prop 1 would preserve the status quo, allowing Uber and Lyft to operate as it does in most of the country. A vote against would be a vote for regulation.
Uber and Lyft started a political action committee called Rideshare Works for Austin to lobby for Prop 1. Rideshare Works for Austin hired former Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell to support Prop 1. It plastered Austin with billboards, radio ads, flyers and leaflets, and television ads. It advertised on Hulu. Rideshare Works for Austin spent $9.1 million trying to pass Prop 1, which was roughly six times more than had ever been spent on any local election in Austin for any reason.
“It looked like, it felt like they were buying every piece of airtime that could be bought in the city,” Nolan Hicks, a reporter for the Austin Statesman told me. “It was just total saturation, something that no one had ever seen before in municipal politics.”
On May 7, Prop 1 failed; the voters of Austin decided that any corporation that spent that much money couldn’t really be trusted. On May 9, Uber and Lyft were gone.
Uber and Lyft are currently working on getting the Texas state legislature to pass a law that would overrule Austin’s local regulations. It’s unclear if they’re ever going to come back. Uber and Lyft aren’t saying. The companies declined to be interviewed for this podcast.
“My friend, she was like, ‘I thought Austin kicked Uber and Lyft out,’” one local told us. “And I said, ‘No, we wanted them to comply with something and, Uber and Lyft basically said no, and, like a toddler, stomped off.’”
What happens when Uber and Lyft leave? Do we even need them? That’s what I wanted to find out with this podcast. I spoke to Austin Statesman reporter Nolan Hicks about the leadup to Prop 1, Claypool about how Uber’s tactics in Austin mirror those it’s used around the country, and Austin native Michael Humphreys about a new underground ridesharing network he’s created. Motherboard contributor Rollin Bishop collected interviews with normal Austinites on the ground for me. Mark Leombruni edited this episode.
Edgar Mitchell, who passed away in February at the age of 85, was exceptional, even among astronauts. Like an archetypal moon man, he was a Boy Scout and a military test pilot with a protestant upbringing and an impressive command of engineering and aeronautics. In February 1971, on Apollo 14, he became the sixth man on the moon. But more so than other astronauts, Mitchell’s brief exploration of outer space led to a deep exploration of inner space and the entire universe of phenomena explained and not. After conducting an ESP experiment in space, he became a connoisseur of parapsychology; later, he sought to show that aliens had visited Earth and that governments around the world had tried to cover up the truth. But he remained grounded on Earth too, and worried that civilization’s narrow perspectives were exceedingly dangerous for the future of the planet and humanity.
Even if you’re not a Trekkie, you’ve got to feel for the Klingons of Earth. Their language is under threat of being taken back by the very company that commissioned its creation, raising the very important question: Can a language even be copyrighted?
News that Paramount is suing the creators of a Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement quickly spread across the galaxy last week. More traditional copyright issues such as the likenesses of characters came into play, but the company also said it owned the Klingon language, a claim that could have far-reaching implications.
When I first heard about the lawsuit, I kind of rolled my eyes. I’m not a Trekkie, how could this possibly matter? It quickly became clear that if companies can copyright languages, they can copyright the means of creating culture. Paramount invented the language, but should it own Klingon translations of Hamlet? Should it own a novel completely unrelated to Star Trek that a passionate Klingon writes? Could it require licenses for people to recite their wedding vows in Klingon?
What about other constructed languages like Dothraki from Game of Thrones? And what about software and programming languages?
And so I decided to look at the issue from a few different angles. I called up Sai, founder of the Language Creation Society, to talk about why his organization is defending the Klingons. I called up qurgh lungqIj, a Klingon from the distant planet of Cincinnati, to talk about the rich Klingon culture that has evolved since it was first invented for the Star Trek movies. And then I called up Motherboard contributing editor and copyright expert Sarah Jeong to talk about whether the Klingons stand a chance.
Former Blink 182 guitarist Tom DeLonge has a new project: telling the world the truth about UFOs. DeLonge has always been interested in the supernatural, and he’s been researching and reporting the topic as part of a multimedia project called Sekret Machines that involves books, movies, music, and other moving parts. His first book, co-written by bestselling author AJ Hartley, is a pageturner novel called Chasing Shadows about a skeptical journalist who runs a UFO debunking website, a Holocaust survivor, an heiress whose father mysteriously dies, and a Marine pilot who gets recruited into a secret government technology project at Area 51. Somehow, their stories all intersect.
Motherboard talked to DeLonge about this project and whether he really believes all this stuff about aliens. We also dive into the weird and wonderful world of conspiracy theorists in the longest Radio Motherboard episode to date.
We often talk about the gender gap in Silicon Valley—there are far too few female computer engineers and startup founders—but there’s one field where women do dominate Silicon Valley: public relations.
Most research suggests that about 70 percent of all public relations professionals are women, and that number seems to hold up when you look specifically at the breakdown in tech PR. Anecdotally, when I deal with press people at tech companies, they are overwhelmingly women. In the vast majority of cases, these women are pitching startups founded by and dominated by men.
After a spirited discussion with the Motherboard staff, it turns out I’m not the only one who noticed this. I decided to do a little experiment. I went to the SXSW Interactive festival in early March—a Super Bowl for tech startups and for the PR people who represent them. I checked all of the emails I got from PR people for the first 10 days of March, which were the first few days before I got to the festival and the first few days after I left. I got emails from 127 different women PR people, and just 48 men.
I deal with public relations professionals on a daily basis, but I rarely think about what their job actually entails behind the scenes. After I started thinking about it, I wondered if it was weird for women in the so-called “pink collar” PR profession to primarily represent male clients and work in-house at companies that are primarily men. And so, I called some women who are in the profession and talked to them about their jobs.
It’s impossible to generalize the experience of an entire profession, but I quickly learned that, for a lot of women, working in tech PR is a way to get into tech—if you work at a small startup, you’re often wearing lots of different hats and, at companies with smart founders, they’ll be involved in major decisions at the company and will have the opportunity to climb the ladder.
There are, of course, lots of challenges as well, which the women I spoke to can articulate much better than I can. As always, thanks for listening to Radio Motherboard.
In this very special edition of Radio Motherboard we travel to the US-Mexico borderlands to gauge the viability of “remote control,” a new smuggling tactic in which smugglers guide migrants across the border by phone.
En esta edición muy especial de Radio Motherboard, viajamos a la zona fronteriza entre los Estados Unidos y México para evaluar la viabilidad de “control remoto,” una nueva táctica de contrabando en que los migrantes guía de contrabando a través de la frontera por teléfono celulares.
Ever notice that the piano part from “Dancing Queen” is tucked into the end of MGMT’s song “No Time To Pretend”? Or that The Album Leaf kept the squeaking of an old piano pedal in the final recording of their song “The Outer Banks?”
These are just a taste of the sonic details most listeners would miss before they’re revealed by Song Exploder, a podcast by Hrishikesh Hirway that has musicians like Bjork, Wilco, Ghostface Killah, and Iggy Pop peel back the layers of their songs and talk about how they’re made.
The process is obviously appealing to aspiring musicians or fans of the artists, but that’s not why we’re devoting this week’s episode of Radio Motherboard to talking with Song Exploder’s Hirway. What’s really interesting is why the show is compelling if you don’t know anything about music or haven’t even heard of the bands.
By stripping away anything but the isolated sounds, it’s bringing awareness to our sense of hearing, which is often overshadowed by the visual world. It basically opens up your ears, and the end result is you hear music in a richer, more enjoyable way, which is pretty awesome if you think about it.