The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 24 2014 12:38 PM

Australians and Canadians Are Turning to Virtual Private Networks to Access U.S. Netflix  

Perhaps we should thank the intractable cable TV providers of Canada and Australia. Because of their stranglehold over film and television rights, which continue to block decent streaming services like Netflix, Canadian and Australian Breaking Bad fans may, accidently, be some of the securest people online.

Netflix operates in Canada, but because of rights deals, Canadians can’t access the same amount of content as U.S. customers (4,000 titles compared with the American Netflix’s 10,000 or so—with popular shows missing, like the American version of The Office and 30 Rock). Australia has some homegrown streaming option but no Netflix, and people have to pay much more overall, often double the price, than the U.S. for music, film, and television. And yet recent reports suggest that there are an estimated 200,000 Australian Netflix customers and plenty of Canadians who are somehow getting past the geographically determined barriers around U.S. Netflix. So, how are these members of the Commonwealth freely perusing “witty workplace comedies”? All through the power of virtual private networks.

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July 24 2014 12:15 PM

Yelp’s New Data Tool Is the Best Thing Since Cronuts Surpassed Sliced Bread

To celebrate its 10th birthday, Yelp has released a tool that will finally tell us exactly when craft beer surpassed PBR, ombre overtook Brazilian blowouts, and macarons began to take a bite out of cupcakes.

Yelp Trends is sort of like Google Ngrams for customer reviews instead of books. Enter up to three keywords, then choose your city and business category, and it will plot a graph showing the terms’ relative frequency in Yelp reviews over time.

Are macarons really the new cupcakes? Not quite, it seems:

cupcake macaron donut New York

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

Remember when Ritual was San Francisco’s frothiest coffee roaster? Blue Bottle steamed ahead in about 2008, and Philz followed a few years later.

Blue Bottle Ritual Philz San Francisco best coffee

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

Now Sightglass and Four Barrel are right there with it:

Ritual Four Barrel Sightglass SF coffee

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

The rise of ombre hair color in Los Angeles tracks pretty well with the fall of Brazilian blowouts:

Ombre Brazilian blowout hair trends

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

Watch Chicagoans switch from Scotch to bourbon:

bourbon scotch chicago

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

San Franciscans know exactly when their favorite vegetables are in season:

heirloom asparagus butternut

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

Angelenos just eat them any old time:

seasonal vegetables Los Angeles

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

And who says you can’t compare apples to oranges?

comparing apples to oranges

Screenshot / Yelp Trends

Feel free to try it yourself and share your results in the comments.

Previously in Slate:

July 23 2014 4:57 PM

Now There Are Two Weird Holes in Siberia

Late last week, helicopter video of a mysterious hole emerged in a remote part of northern Siberia, sending conspiracy theorists into a tizzy worldwide.

(Spoiler alert: Turns out, that last theory isn’t so far off.)

Now, a second hole has been found.

From the Moscow Times:

Reindeer herders in Russia's Far North have discovered yet another mysterious giant hole about 30 kilometers away from a similar one found days earlier.
Located in the permafrost of the subarctic Siberian region of Yamal, which means “end of the earth” in the local Nenets language, both craters appear to have been formed in recent years and have icy lakes at their bases.

A new video released by the Siberian Times on Friday shows a brief glimpse inside the first hole as an impromptu scientific expedition visited last week.

According to a Siberian Times interview with the scientists, there’s a clear connection with climate change:

Anna Kurchatova from the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre thinks the crater was formed by a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. 
Gas accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and that this was mixed with salt—some 10,000 years ago this area was a sea.
Global warming, causing an “alarming” melt in the under soil ice, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork, she suggests.

It’s as if the Earth is celebrating. Soon, no more humans!

Around the time the first crater is estimated to have formed—2012 or 2013—temperatures were unusually high for that part of Siberia. In general, the whole Arctic region is the fastest warming place on the planet, warming about twice as fast as global averages. A study published last year said the Arctic hasn’t been this warm in at least 120,000 years.

As permafrost melt accelerates across the Arctic, there’s increasing concern that the natural release of methane and other greenhouse gases will also accelerate. Arctic permafrost in Alaska, Canada, and Russia holds more frozen carbon (in the form of both carbon dioxide and methane) than currently exists in the entire atmosphere. Methane is more than 20 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Some studies have linked massive releases of methane to the biggest mass extinctions in Earth history.

Needless to say, it’s a region that scientists are following closely. It’s not likely that there will be a rapid, catastrophic release of methane from Arctic permafrost, but gradual methane farts (of the sort that this hole represents) could gradually escalate in the coming years due to global warming. The thing is, the Arctic is so remote that it’s difficult to get good numbers on how much methane is being released. For that reason, the Arctic continually surprises scientists, just like last week.

One leading theory says that a pingo—an uplift of frozen ground linked to ancient Arctic lakes—may be at work here. This unique type of landform appears only in permafrost regions.

Pingo formation.

Image: U.S. Geological Survey

In this case, the holes could have been caused by an unusually large pingo, which have been known to explode, thanks to melting permafrost. This theory was put forth by an Australian polar scientist before the Russian team arrived at the first hole. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

“We’re seeing much more activity in permafrost areas than we’ve seen in the historical past. A lot of this relates to this high degree of warming around these high arctic areas which are experiencing some of the highest rates of warming on earth,” Chris Fogwill told the Sydney Morning Herald.

In short, more global warming means more pingos. Apparently, exploding permafrost is now a thing. Thanks, climate change!

July 23 2014 3:01 PM

Netizen Report: Censorship and Social Media Sneakiness Abound in Southeast Asia

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Biddle, Hae-in Lim, Mong Palatino, Bojan Perkov and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Southeast Asia, where writers and activists across the region are feeling the chill of government restrictions on digital expression.

The Thai military junta has escalated its media war, now banning media organizations from publishing anything that “could create resistance against the junta”—the order specifically prohibited interviews with academics and civil servants who might distort the junta’s image. News organizations that defy the order could face immediate suspension. After a meeting with military officials, Thai media executives expressed guarded optimism that the edict would be toned down.

Adding to the growing trend of censorship of Facebook in Southeast Asia, the accounts of at least 30 leading political activists in Vietnam have been suspended—not by a widespread ban, but due to the alleged exploitation of Facebook’s “report abuse” function by Vietnamese government “opinion shapers.” The government appears to have given up on its failed attempts at a total ban in favor of a more targeted approach.

And a new Brunei-based chat application Chrends (a hybrid of “chat” and “trends”) claims to provide an anonymized platform for discussion of topics that may be considered taboo for citizens in the country, which recently implemented Sharia law.

Free Expression: Comment is not free in Colombia
A Colombian man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for posting a comment on mocking an administrative bureau of the federal government. In a post on Fundacion Karisma’s blog, free expression advocate and lawyer Carolina Botero expressed concern that if courts continue to process cases like this under the penal code, they will overshadow the tensions between fundamental rights in play.

Thuggery: Zone 9 bloggers charged with terrorism in unfair trial
Ethiopia’s Lideta High Court charged nine bloggers and journalists, including four members of Global Voices, with terrorism and related activities. The bloggers, who were arrested on April 25 and 26, had no legal representation present when the charges were issued, and their attorneys and families were given no prior notice about the hearing. The anti-terrorism law under which they have been charged was also used to jail journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, who have been in prison since 2011. In the lead-up to their trial, set for Aug. 4, the Zone9ers’ Trial Tracker blog will post updates and provide a platform for those who wish to give support.

Omani activists Noah Saad and Muawiyah Al-Rawahi were arrested for blogging about human rights violations in their country. Saad, who was arrested in 2011 for similar “offenses,” was arbitrarily detained by Oman’s national security intelligence agency and is reportedly being held incommunicado. Observers believe Al-Rawahi was targeted over a recent blog post in which he criticized the repressive practices of Omani authorities in response to a teacher strike in late 2013.

Internet Governance: African NGOs lead regional Internet rights declaration
A group of civil society organizations across Africa are sourcing contributions to a proposed African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms. The process is now in a public consultation phase, which will run until Aug. 4.

Surveillance: In Snowden’s wake, new laws reassert state security powers
The U.K. House of Commons, the lower chamber of Parliament, approved the emergency Data Retention Investigative Powers bill that will allow Britain’s security agencies to access citizens’ phone and electronic communication records, despite the European Court of Justice’s ruling against data retention last April. The bill was strongly opposed by civil liberties organizations, Internet law academic experts, and the Global Network Initiative. Several members of the House of Lords criticized the decision to rush this kind of legislation through the Parliament.

Australia’s attorney general proposed a new bill that would increase the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. The law extends criminal penalties for leaks of sensitive state information to private contractors. A leading criminal lawyer and spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance worried openly about what he called the “Snowden/Assange/Guardian/New York Times clause,” which could make journalists reporting on intelligence leaks liable for criminal prosecution and up to 10 years in prison. Even worse, the bill effectively condones illegal conduct by intelligence officers by granting them legal immunity for any actions taken during so-called “special intelligence operations.” The bill will be debated in the Australian Parliament in September.

Public records reveal links between the daughters of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev and its largest mobile phone business, Azercell, raising serious concerns about surveillance, free expression, and communications security within the country. The Aliyev family now appears to control nearly three-quarters of all mobile communication providers in the country, and thus has widespread capacity to monitor phone calls and Internet traffic.

Privacy: Europe Wrestles with Right-to-Be-Forgotten Fallout and Food Blogger Blues
Microsoft joined Google in removing links upon request from its Bing search engine, which holds 2.5 percent of the search market in Europe, under the new “right to be forgotten” ruling, which allows individuals to request that search engines remove certain kinds of results that are outdated or portray them in a negative light.

A new website called “Hidden from Googlecurates the links removed due to the ruling.

A French court ordered food blogger Caroline Doudet to change the title of a negative restaurant review she had written, with the goal of diminishing its prominence in search results. Ms. Doudet said the decision established a “new crime of being too highly ranked [on a search engine].” Bloggers in France believe the judge presiding over the case unfairly favored the plaintiff in the case.

Industry: Apple and China—hypocrites without borders?
China’s CCTV labeled the iPhone a threat to national security for its invasive location-tracking features. Apple responded with a statement detailing the iPhone’s privacy attributes.

Apple launched improved encryption measures in its iCloud email services this week. Though it has yet to make a formal announcement, the changes can be seen via Google’s transparency website. German-language publication Heise claims the company is using the minimally secure RC4 encryption, which is believed to have already been cracked by state security services.

Cool Things
Photographer Deni Bechard provides a close look at Kabul’s multimillion-dollar surveillance system, which includes 108 high-resolution camera feeds that are monitored 24 hours a day—a modern version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

Publications and Studies

July 23 2014 12:01 PM

Drones Really Do Find People in Search-and-Rescue Missions

Though drones are controversial, they can definitely do good sometimes. Last week a Colorado man went to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin and brought with him a drone, which he uses to film snow sport videos. And according to Gigaom, he ended up finding a missing person after offering to assist in a search-and-rescue effort.

David Lesh accidentally made a good argument for why consumer drones can be positive by being in the right place at the right time with his ski drone. He told NBC, “I never thought that I would be using it to find somebody.” The missing person was 82-year-old ophthalmologist Guillermo DeVenecia, who Lesh's drone spotted in a 200-acre bean field. The search and rescue had gone on for three days and had already involved dogs, hundreds of people, and a helicopter.

The rescue lends support to a movement against the FAA's strict commercial drone regulations, which essentially ban their use for organized search and rescue groups. The Texas-based company EquuSearch has been clashing with the FAA for months over drone bans and decided last week that it would simply ignore the FAA's warnings to stop using drones. A favorable ruling from a federal appeals court last week motivated EquuSearch to resume using its drones.

We already know why drones can be creepy and threaten privacy, but it’s hard to ignore the good side of their functions. The crucial thing here is just to avoid building a centralized, all-seeing eye of Sauron. I think we can all agree that that wasn't a good solution.

July 23 2014 11:22 AM

Unlock Your Phone With Your Tattoo

Locking your smartphone is important for securing your data in case of loss or theft, but lots of people don't do it. Why? Because it’s annoying. Entering a pin or drawing a design gets old when you check your phone a million times a day, which you do. So Google wants to make it easier. What if you could have a tattoo that unlocked your phone?

It sounds great but also scary. Is it an implanted chip like in every sci-fi movie ever? Is it a tattoo drawn with really metallic ink? Time to chill out—it’s a temporary tattoo. It sticks on! Based on super thin and flexible electronics like VivaLnk’s eSkinTM tech, the tattoos use the same near-field communication that you might have heard about in mobile payment systems to unlock your Moto X. They stick on anywhere and are about the size of a nickel. They adhere for roughly five days through showers, workouts, and anything else, and Motorola employees say they’re actually comfortable (though it'll be good to hear from impartial testers).

The tattoos are available from VivaLnk in 10 packs for $9.99, so it'll cost $80 to cover a whole year of tattoo unlocking. Motorola says it takes average users 2.3 seconds to unlock their phones, and they do it 39 times a day, so if your time is valuable enough, tattoos may actually be a bargain. At the very least it's a good conversation starter that isn't quite as ... aggressive as Google Glass. Or as permanently laughable as a QR code tattoo.

July 22 2014 7:11 PM

Space Station 76 Is Bringing 1970s Futurism Back

Space Station 76 (trailer below) looks like tons of movies we’ve already seen. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars—you know the type. But it’s not a relic from another time. Space Station 76 is a current movie about what people in the past thought about the future, and what people today should think about what they thought. Phew.

The film, which stars Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, and Jerry O’Connell, is an R-rated comedy, but it looks like it also offers serious commentary about what future predictions say about the present they’re made in. In Space Station 76, people smoke, do yoga, and have alcoholic beverages brought to them by droids—it’s what life might have been like if the future that people imagined in the 1960s and ’70s actually came to fruition. Humans are still humans even if they live in space stations, and computers are still as fallible as the people who made them. (That’s a rule George Lucas respected—he has said that he wanted to make sure his alternate universe wasn’t sterile, or even clean.)

Since I write for a blog called Future Tense, I think about the future a lot. And no matter how much cool research I learn about or how many awesome gadgets I cover, I try to keep in mind that people who take themselves too seriously in the present are the ones who get made fun of by people the future. And that seems to be the overarching message of Space Station 76. New ideas and progress are great, but beware, smartwatches have been teetering on the line between awesome and ridiculous since the days of Dick Tracy, and even decades later it’s still not clear which way they’re going to go.

July 22 2014 5:28 PM

Luigi’s Death Stare Joins the Canon of Classic Memes

Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8 for Wii U is a big hit. Released in May, it has won positive reviews and a big fan base. But the meme that has emerged from the game has nothing to do racing or Mario himself—it’s all about Luigi’s death stare. And Nintendo’s new ad for Mario Kart 8 (below) is definitely milking the craze.

In the promotional footage of Kart 8, when Luigi executes a good move, like bumping another driver or hitting them with a shell, he makes a weirdly evil, even maniacal face. I always thought there was something a little bit sinister about Luigi’s engine room in the original Mario Party, but this confirms it. Maybe he resents being portrayed as Mario’s dopey sidekick in game after game.


Gif by Lily Hay Newman.

Whatever the explanation, Luigi’s death stare supports a meme theory I’ve had for awhile now: It's always funny when someone (or an animal) looks back over his shoulder at you. Dramatic chipmunk couldn’t have reached such notoriety without that unintentional physical comedy. Even robots channel it a little bit. All that side eye really shows that Luigi and the chipmunk mean business.

July 22 2014 4:51 PM

The MH17 Disaster Demonstrates the Dangers of “Right to Be Forgotten”

Sometimes we don’t want to forget—and in fact are compelled to remember. Take, for example, the following statement posted to Russia’s VKontakte website (think of it as a Russian Facebook) on July 17: "In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured." So claimed Igor Girkin, a Ukranian separatist known as “Strelkov,” before reports of the apparent shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all passengers and crew. As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, after these reports emerged, the post was deleted, an unsurprising move by a militant who apparently just discovered that the military transport plane he thought he had downed was in fact a commercial airliner in which almost 300 innocent lives were violently destroyed.

So should Girkin have the legal right to delete his inaccurate statement once it became available on the Internet? It would be nearly impossible for Girkin to invoke such a right, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, it bears asking: Should we, as a society, want the right to choose to “forget” this piece of information supplied by Girkin? Those two questions, which focus on similar facts but are in fact very different questions, are at the heart of the relatively new and nebulous “right to be forgotten” as most recently articulated by a European Union court in May.

The “right to be forgotten” is really the “right to ask that information be misplaced.” That is because that at its core, the “right to be forgotten,” as articulated by the European Commission, is an individual’s right to request that a search engine remove “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” personal information from its search results. This right is balanced against “freedom of expression and of the media,” and is examined on a “case-by-case” basis. In other words, if used, information becomes less “forgotten” than purposely de-indexed and misplaced.

Enter the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine which scrapes the Internet and stores copies of webpages. Although it is not a complete record of the Internet, it fortunately did happen to copy Girkin’s (and other) pages, showing before-and-after versions of events. Thus, we have evidence that helps policymakers, diplomats, and the public understand who might be behind this horrific act. But a “right to be forgotten” more robust than what the EU has now could functionally destroy the Internet Archive, with significant consequences for policy and world affairs.

The “right to be forgotten” implicates real-life concerns about what and how much information is available to governments, corporations, policymakers, and the public. This right is at the heart of our ongoing online privacy debates: How much information do we have to share with others, and how can we control what others know about us?

But complete information, including that which one may prefer misplaced, is also about making good decisions. And while the Internet Archive does not present a complete or uniformly accurate picture of the Internet, it is nonetheless a useful tool that helps us get there. Deleting information from the searchable Internet, whether Girkin’s first-person radical boasting or third-person smear campaigns, even for good reasons, can also be viewed as a modern way of burying evidence. In an information-driven economy and society, that is a serious matter. Indeed, thorough evidence and information, or the lack thereof, can have impact far beyond the individual, as it is a necessary prerequisite to good decision-making.

Do we really need a “right to misplace the evidence?” In a world where decision-makers should strive for complete and accurate information, and often fail in their quest, we need to be careful about the rights that we grant ourselves. If we need such a right, should this right run differently depending upon the identity of the speaker, who wants the information and/or how it will be used? Reflecting a modern devotion to complete information, the answer to both questions must be “maybe, but we need more evidence.”

July 22 2014 1:55 PM

Japan Says That What the 2020 Olympics Needs Is Robot Athletes

It’s fun to follow the Olympics, but something is missing. It’s certainly not human narratives or drama. It’s not excitement. It’s robots. Where are the robots? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the same question, and since Japan is hosting the 2020 summer games in Tokyo, he’s in a position to do something about it.

Agence France-Presse reports that Abe is laying groundwork. He announced last week that Japan is putting together a task force to expand the country’s robotics industry as well as the market for robots. Japan’s Jiji Press agency reports that Abe said, “We want to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy.”

But most importantly, he said he wants to organize a Robot Olympics. “In 2020 I would like to gather all of the world's robots and aim to hold an Olympics where they compete in technical skills,” Abe said, according to the AFP. Between robot-assisted parathletes at Cybathlon and the Robot Olympics, this is going to be the decade of robot sports. Finally.