Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 24 2016 4:02 PM

Why Milwaukee's Online Newspaper Archive Vanished Overnight

Michail Takach had bookmarked hundreds of articles and images from the archives of Milwaukee’s two big newspapers, theMilwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, which merged in 1995 to become the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Each one of those was linked to a story I wanted to tell from Milwaukee’s past,” he says. That history—digitized and made searchable by the Google News Archive, a project the internet giant began in 2006—was indispensable for Takach when he was working on his book LGBT Milwaukee.

And then, last week, it all vanished without warning. His research was gone. “It’s a handicap, a paralysis, to lose all those links and those resources,”

The newspapers are still accessible on microfilm, of course, at the research libraries of the University of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Library. But moving from a searchable, digitized archive to microfilm with a partial card catalog index, wrote one local researcher, was like going from playing chess on the internet to playing chess by snail mail.

Where had Milwaukee’s history gone?

Aug. 24 2016 3:03 PM

“The Flight Went Really Well and the Only Issue Was When It Landed”

The world’s largest aircraft may have set a second, less-dignified record on Wednesday, when it executed what was quite possibly the world’s slowest crash landing.

The 302-foot-long Airlander 10 airship, aka the “flying bum,” head-butted the ground Wednesday morning in an airfield in Bedfordshire, England. The airship’s crew were reportedly alive and well following the mishap, though the $33 million craft sustained damage to its cockpit.

Nose-diving into the ground on just its second flight might seem an ignominious setback for a vessel intended to resuscitate the long-dormant airship industry. But a spokesman for the Airlander’s owner, a British firm called Hybrid Air Vehicles, put a charmingly positive spin on it. “The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed,” he told the BBC.

Originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a military surveillance craft, the Airlander was jettisoned in the 2013 budget sequestration, in what now appears to have been a blessing in disguise. But Hybrid Air Vehicles, better known as HAV, purchased it and reconfigured it for the commercial market with the help of a $5 million British government grant. Its commercial applications are still to be determined, although HAV believes it holds potential for tourism, cargo missions, and data-gathering.

The Airlander was featured in a February New Yorker story about a resurgence of interest in airships, which fell out of favor after one called the Hindenburg exploded over New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people. In March, Lockheed Martin inked a $480 million agreement to build 12 of its LMH1 airship, which is designed to carry 20 tons of cargo to remote areas. A California-based firm called Worldwide Aeros Corp. pivoted from advertising blimps to surveillance blimps after Sept. 11, 2001, and it’s now building its own rigid airship, the Aeroscraft ML866, which at over 550 feet in length would dwarf even the Airlander.

The Airlander is what’s called a “hybrid airship,” a type of dirigible that obtains lift via a helium-filled hull, but has a rigid frame that gives it some characteristics of more conventional aircraft. The company says it’s designed to stay aloft for up to five days and use far less energy than other forms of air transport. It can carry more than 22,000 pounds of cargo at up to 90 mph, with a maximum altitude of 16,000 feet.

Its maiden flight, originally scheduled for March, was delayed due to technical glitches. It eventually took to the sky on Aug. 17, and the flight was a success, prompting HAV chief executive Stephen McGlennan to proclaim the Airlander 10 “a great British innovation.”

The second flight ended less gloriously on Wednesday. Still, HAV said the airship flew for 100 minutes and completed “all the planned tasks” before experiencing what the company called “a heavy landing.”

The blooper comes less than a year after a U.S. Army blimp broke free from its tethers in Maryland and drifted languidly into Pennsylvania, trailing a 6,700-foot mooring cable that sliced through power lines as F-16 fighter jets trailed helplessly alongside. State troopers eventually shot the blimp down, and Congress cut the project’s funding this year.

Aug. 24 2016 1:57 PM

Excel Created Major Typos in 20 Percent of Scientific Papers on Genes

Excel is responsible for errors in 20 percent of scientific papers dealing with genes, according to a new study.


Aug. 24 2016 12:42 PM

The Red Cross Wants Italians in Earthquake Disaster Area to Deactivate Wi-Fi Passwords

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a devastating magnitude-6.2 earthquake struck Central Italy, killing dozens and reportedly leaving many more trapped in the rubble. While rescue and recovery efforts are still underway, the Italian Red Cross has made a surprising appeal to those still in the area, requesting over Twitter that they remove password protection from their Wi-Fi routers.

During a disaster, mobile technologies can sometimes become inaccessible, either because infrastructure goes down or because bandwidth proves inadequate. Researchers have proposed in the past that home and business Wi-Fi networks might provide an alternative to other communications technologies, offering rescue teams a better way to remain in contact with one another and find survivors.

The image attached to the the Red Cross’ Twitter post provides step-by-step instructions for deactivating password protection. As Google Translate (slightly modified below) indicates, it reads:

Get access to the Internet by typing the [router’s LAN address] into your browser.
Enter your username and current password that you find in the instructions or on the device.
Log in and go to “options.”
Remove the protections by selecting Network “Free/unsecure.”
Perform a router reset by holding down the power button for 10 seconds.

Such precise details are necessary in part because few of us know how our routers really work. Here at Future Tense, we’ve regularly written on the importance of router security. As Josephine Wolff writes, it’s all too important to forget how important they can be—and how many elements of our lives filter through them.* Under ordinary circumstances, there are a host of precautions you should take to ensure that yours remains secure. These, however, are not ordinary circumstances.

*Correction, Aug. 24, 2016: This piece originally misspelled Josephine Wolff’s last name.

Aug. 24 2016 11:35 AM

McDonald’s Tried to Encourage Healthy Living but Ended Up Literally Burning Children

Wearables have become a cheaper and more accessible commodity in the United States over the last few years. But as McDonald's learned this month, we may not be quite ready to mass-produce the technology—and especially not for children.

The fast food giant made a splash when it said that starting Aug. 9 it would replace the traditional Happy Meal toy in the United States and Canada with a McDonald's-branded fitness tracker called Step-iT. Per the press release issued by McDonald's, “Physical activity is important to everyone of all ages. We very much support children’s well-being. Step-it is in line with McDonald’s general philosophy for Happy Meal toys, which is to make toys that encourage either physical or imagination-based play.”

Available in six colors to encourage kids to collect 'em all, the tracker looked to complement apple slices and milk as replacements for soda and fries in the children's menu, the latest attempt to win over the hearts and minds of doting helicopter parents everywhere. It was a noble endeavor, for sure. But it didn't go quite as the corporate bigwigs hoped.

On Aug. 17, it was announced that McDonald's was discontinuing distribution of the Step-iT bands due to concerns about skin irritations and burns and a bevvy of complaints about the devices on social media. Just under one week later, the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of all bands that had been distributed.

Though the corporate press release was mild and brief, McDonald's also launched a very specific FAQ document, available through the Happy Meal promotional website. It's there that it revealed this very interesting tidbit: It had no absolutely idea where things went so wrong.

Q5: What is causing the skin irritation or burns from the wristbands? 
A5: McDonald's is aggressively investigating this issue and hopes to have more information in the near future. While we do not yet know what may be causing these incidents, we believe it is appropriate to recall these wristbands from consumers in an abundance of caution.

That's basically the corporate-speak equivalent of the shruggie.

While it's not immediately clear whether McDonald's will resume this endeavor in the future, it's safe to say that we learned a valuable lesson here: We're just not ready to mass-produce wearable tech that can be paired with fast food. And we certainly shouldn't be giving it to children.

Aug. 24 2016 10:37 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Human Supervision Required

Greetings, Future Tensers,

You will read no more harrowing and hilarious testament to the state of our times this week than this interview with a woman whose robot vacuum spread dog poop all over her home. It’s a silly story, but it’s also one that conveys an important reminder: Most robots still need a supervision, a lesson that Uber has already internalized: It's releasing self-driving cars that somehow also have two human drivers onto the streets of Pittsburgh. In some situations, though, finding the right people to loop in can be tricky: It might, for example, be a bad idea to have Reddit commenters help teach a computer to talk.

At a more mundane level, that need for human involvement speaks to why the new game No Man’s Sky, with its quintillions of algorithmically generated planets, turns out to be often dull—except when it's sublime. Even when computers do manage to make intriguing things on their own, it’s not always clear how we should understand them. Indeed, copyright law still applies ambiguously to computer-generated artwork, partly because our existing standards and norms are built around the assumption of human authorship.

Here are some of the other stories we read while rethinking the strength of our passwords:

  • Cyberwar: The recent NSA data breach presents a number of enigmas, not least of which is what the hackers were actually seeking to do.
  • Free speech: Trying to apply First Amendment guidelines to online spaces is a mistake, Kate Klonick argues. We should be thinking in terms of norms and platform governance instead.
  • Surveillance: If you want to understand racially biased policing more fully, you have to look at the technologies authorities use to monitor the populace.
  • Cyber history: In 1991, when a Russian coup attempt shut down many conventional communications channels, the internet helped spread information throughout the embattled country.

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Aug. 23 2016 5:59 PM

Why Elon Musk Built a Tesla That’s Race-Car Quick

On a test drive of a Tesla Model S P90D last fall, I pulled up to a stoplight on Manhattan’s West Side Highway and glanced over to find a McLaren 570 in the next lane. I had the urge to jokingly rev the engine, the universal signal for “let’s drag-race.” Unfortunately, the Tesla Model S’s engine doesn’t really rev, because it’s electric. When the light turned, I punched the gas, just in case the McLaren driver happened to do the same. He did not, thus ending my dream of racing an exotic supercar in a four-door family sedan.

Believe it or not, this is apparently a serious use case in the mind of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. On Tuesday, he announced a new version of the Model S that actually accelerates from zero to 60 mph faster than that McLaren—and every other production car on the market today. (A production car is basically a vehicle that you can buy, as opposed to a concept car.)

The Tesla Model S P100D Ludicrous—yes, that is its actual name—comes with a newly reconfigured 100-kWh battery that will boost its EPA-rated range to 315 miles on a charge and give it a mind-bending zero-to-60 time of 2.5 seconds. The only production cars ever to beat that time, by Tesla’s calculations, are the Ferrari LaFerrari and the Porsche 918 Spyder, neither of which is currently available for sale.

To be precise, this is not the fastest production car on the market: Its top speed is capped at a jaunty-but–not-breathtaking 155 mph. But near-instant acceleration is a virtue of all-electric motors, and in a call with reporters Tuesday, Musk argued that zero-to-60 is “what really matters” if you’re talking about speed you can use on the street, as opposed to on a racetrack.

“For an electric car, one which has four doors, to be the fastest car in production of any kind—I think this is really going to send a great message to the public that sustainable transport is the future,” he said.

It’s safe to say this new Model S is not for everyone. The price starts at $135,000, although the same 100-kWh battery will also be available to existing P90D Ludicrous owners as a $20,000 upgrade. That said, if your goal is simply to beat a McLaren in a drag race, this would probably count as a bargain relative to the other options available.

And if your goal is not to beat a McLaren in a drag race, why should you care about this new Tesla? And, for that matter, why should Tesla care? After all, the company has always insisted that its mission is to help move the world toward sustainable energy sources, not to help reckless rich folks win pink slips.

Asked a version of that question on Tuesday’s conference call, Musk had two answers ready.

First, he said, it’s about the image of electric cars: “The public really pays attention to superlatives, and for the first time, the world’s fastest production car in zero-to-60 is an electric car. I think that is really going to send a great message to the public that sustainable transport is the future.”

Second, he said, pricey offerings like the P100D have always been, for Tesla, a means to subsidize the hard work of building an electric car that the middle class can afford—namely, the forthcoming Model 3: “People who care about the Model 3 should appreciate, if someone’s buying a P100D Ludicrous, they’re helping to pay for their car’s development.”

The 100-kWh pack will also be available on Tesla’s new SUV, the Model X, enabling it to go from zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds.

Impressively, Tesla says the new 100-kWh battery pack is the same external size and shape as its 90-kWh predecessor. The company achieved the performance gains by optimizing the mechanics and the software of the pack, rather than through any kind of technological breakthrough at the level of the individual battery cell. “We did a complete re-do on the cooling architecture,” Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel said.

Musk added that the 100-kWh battery is “very close to the theoretical limit” of what’s possible with current technology in a pack of that size.

Aug. 23 2016 5:19 PM

Study: Some Hospitals Lack Even Basic Data Protection for Patient Records

Hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other care facilities could be doing a better job of protecting medical records, according to a new study that looked at U.S. health care providers’ cybersecurity.

Aug. 23 2016 2:58 PM

The Epidemic Archives of the Future Will Be Born Digital

Colorful AIDS education posters from the 1980s. Black-and-white photos of mid-twentieth-century anatomy lessons for midwives. Eighteenth-century instructions for the administration of patent medicines. While a paper archival collection in the U.S. National Library of Medicine might contain items like these—handwritten or typed journals, correspondence, educational materials, and official reports, some digitized many years after their creation—the next generation of health information lives online.

Aug. 23 2016 12:46 PM

Haunted by Harambe, Cincinnati Zoo Shutters Social Accounts

Though Harambe the gorilla was killed by Cincinnati zookeepers in May—shot in order to save a 4-year-old boy who tumbled into the enclosure—the slain primate has led a robust afterlife, thanks to internet users who turned the gorilla into a macabre phenomenon. Depending on your tastes, the Harambe memes are either funny or out of line, but for the Cincinnati Zoo, (and its harassed social media team), the endless stream of Harambe tweets was simply too much.