The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 26 2015 7:46 PM

Police Oppose Police-Tracking Function in GPS App Waze

The GPS app Waze crowdsources a lot of real-time data, and with 50 million users contributing information in 200 countries, the app can show a lot. There are traffic updates, accident reports, and toll warnings. Users can even contribute the location of police they happen to spot, so drivers behind them know to stay within the speed limit and generally drive safely. But law enforcement agents are not happy about it.

Though the feature has existed since around the time Waze launched in 2008, law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about it since two New York police offers were shot to death in December. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, does not seem to have used Waze to locate the two officers he killed (because he was not carrying his smartphone for a few hours prior to his attack), but he did use the Waze police-tracking function in December and even posted screencaps of it to his Instagram.

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Waze is owned by Google, and as the Associated Press reports, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck sent the company a letter on Dec. 30 explaining that Waze could "endanger police officers and the community" by tracking law enforcement.

During the National Sheriffs Association winter conference in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, Bedford County, Virginia, Sheriff Mike Brown said, "The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action."

But civil liberties advocates say that as long as Waze users are reporting police sightings that occur in public, they are conveying information in a reasonable and protected way. Nuala O'Connor, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the AP, "I do not think it is legitimate to ask a person-to-person communication to cease simply because it reports on publicly visible law enforcement."

Given the extensive data and geolocation tracking techniques law enforcement is able to use on both a state and federal level (often without a warrant) to monitor United States citizens—and others—it seems contradictory that citizens shouldn't be able to share information about police officers who are in plain sight.

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Jan. 26 2015 5:27 PM

The Simpsons Imagines How Elon Musk Could Save and Destroy the Future

You can probably guess who guest-starred in Sunday's Simpsons episode, "The Musk Who Fell to Earth." And not just because it's in the headline of this post. And the name of the episode. Whatever, you could have predicted it because Elon Musk is everywhere these days. He's a major face of innovation. But The Simpsons has a lot more to say about him.

The premise of the episode is that Musk is out of radical futuristic ideas and has come to Springfield in his SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft. "I've hit a dry patch," he tells Homer. "I'm blocked. In my personal drought, I'm traveling the country quietly by spaceship, looking for inspiration."

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As has happened before, Homer's simplistic worldview and childlike wonder inspire Musk, and he quickly gets his world-changing mojo back. At one point, Homer proudly says, "Wow! Between your genius and my nothing, we make a great team!" Whenever Homer's rambling inspires a Musk idea, the opening of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor plays.

Musk gets to work partnering with C. Montgomery Burns (who, as you ought to know, owns the nuclear power plant that employs much of the town) to electrify everything, including self-driving cars—a nod to Tesla. The idea is that if everything runs on electricity, Burns will make a fortune selling power to the town. The problem is that the setup doesn't turn out to be commercially viable, and Burns loses money. He has to do massive layoffs at the power plant, and Springfield sinks into a serious economic depression. "But Musk was our savior!" Homer's buddy Carl yells. "Your so-called savior isn't interested in saving anything but the world," Burns replies.

And that's how the whole episode goes. Musk is lauded for his (real-world) intelligence and achievements, and for sparking extensive technological progress, but as always, The Simpsons is wary of grandiose promises about the future. In Springfield, people love their self-driving cars because they can drink alcohol while driving around town. Terrified hamsters demonstrate how fast you can go in a Hyperloop, and later, citizens made homeless by the power plant layoffs are forced to live in the half-constructed loop. Spaceships, like the one Musk comes and goes in, seem to have been perfected, though as Lisa points out, Musk sure burns a lot of rocket fuel for someone who promotes green electrification. "I don't care how much he likes me, I don't want to be friends with him anymore," Homer says. "None of his pie-in-the-sky ideas ever work out. Sky pies are lie pies."

The Verge argues that Musk gets "the usual celebrity treatment" and that "it's mostly just compliments dressed up as criticisms." But to me, the episode seems like more of a condemnation of obsessive futurism than a glorification of Musk. Sure, Musk comes out of it looking smart and self-assured, but that's his public persona anyway. As his character tells Mr. Burns, "We sacrifice now to take care of the future in a way totally determined by me." It doesn't sound so great.

Jan. 26 2015 3:31 PM

My Grandmother’s House Is the Birthplace of Apple Computers

As a kid, I always looked forward to going to my grandma’s house. It was a 25-minute drive across the South Bay from where my family lived in San Jose. I always knew we were within five minutes of my grandma’s house when we exited the 280 Freeway onto Foothill Expressway. As we turned onto my grandma’s street, we passed a strip mall with a Chevron Gas Station, a Trader Joe’s, and a Peet’s Coffee. When our car pulled into the driveway, my grandma would open the front door, smiling and waving at us from the porch. I always jumped out of the car and greeted her with one of my biggest hugs.  

My grandma’s house is where I met my newborn brother for the first time because I was staying with her while my parents were in the hospital. It’s the place I went to after preschool to wait for my parents to pick me up and eat spoonfuls of smooth Skippy peanut butter while curled up in a reclining chair. It’s the place I went when I was sick, snuggling in bed to watch Tom and Jerry. It’s the place where, to this day, my family still goes to celebrate birthdays and eat my grandma’s delicious cake.

Throughout my childhood, my parents always mentioned that Grandma’s house was a special place, and to me it was, but in a completely different way. So when I was 10 and my parents told me about the wider significance of my grandma’s house, I shrugged it off with a laugh. How could this quaint place have been Ground Zero for such a world-famous company that steered the course of today’s technology?

Jan. 26 2015 12:51 PM

Good News: Replicas of 16th-Century Sculptures Are Not Off-Limits for 3-D Printers

The functional possibilities of 3-D printing are well known. After all, we’re printing wrenches in space now. Yet the technology’s artistic potential may be equally significant. Almost every physical object, from a spoon to Degas’ famous dancer sculptures, can be scanned and uploaded onto the Internet as a file, ready for download by anyone with a desktop 3-D printer. But like the digitization of music and books before it, the migration of objects of art and design online brings with it the baggage of America’s frustrating intellectual property regime.

A cast of Michelangelo’s famous 16th-century sculpture of Moses sits on the campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Jerry Fisher, who lives in the area, decided to create a 3-D printable version of the artwork using photogrammetry—analyzing 2-D photos of an object and turning them into a digital 3-D model.

Only a few days after posting a downloadable file of Michelangelo’s Moses on the 3-D printing website Thingiverse in the fall of 2014, Fisher says he was contacted by a representative of Augustana College. They requested that he take it down, he told me, citing fuzzy copyright and ownership concerns.

Jan. 26 2015 11:32 AM

Small Drone Shows Up on White House Lawn

It's going to be months, or probably years, before the Federal Aviation Administration releases drone regulations, but there are some things we know right now. You can’t fly drones in/over national parks, and you shouldn’t fly them too close to hawks. It’s also probably illegal to fly a drone onto the White House grounds, which I bring up because someone did.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama said on Monday that a small drone was found within the walls of the White House compound. The drone didn’t seem to be a threat, but, as the New York Times reports, the Secret Service is investigating.

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The president and first lady are currently in India, but daughters Sasha and Malia are in Washington, D.C.

The situation is surprising—or not surprising—given criticism of the Secret Service in recent months. One major lapse involved an intruder who jumped the White House fence and got all the way inside the building. Quadcopters and other small drones may not have been viewed as a threat in securing the airspace over the White House. That should probably be reconsidered now.

Jan. 25 2015 5:05 PM

This Week’s East Coast Blizzard Could Be the Biggest on Record

After a relatively snow-free winter so far, a major blizzard is set to bring parts of the Northeast to a standstill early this week.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in New York City is calling the potential for epic snowfall “historic,” while the Boston office says the incoming storm is a “textbook case for a major winter storm/blizzard.” Three-day snow totals could reach 24–36 inches in each city—good enough to rival the biggest Northeast snowstorms on record.

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This week’s storm has the makings of a record-breaker in New York City. Since 1869, the biggest single storm on record was 26.9 inches in 2006.

Image: National Weather Service

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That kind of forecast is jaw-dropping, even for the most jaded meteorological aficionado. Blizzard warnings have been posted from coastal New Jersey to Maine, including New York City and Boston. “Blizzard” is actually a technical meteorological term that requires near-zero visibilities and sustained winds or frequent gusts exceeding 35 mph for at least three consecutive hours. These criteria are typically met in the Northeast only once every few years. The Boston NWS office warns “travel may become impossible and life-threatening.” If the storm comes as forecast, it would be enough to temporarily cripple the region. In its latest update Sunday afternoon, the New York City NWS office said to expect gusts up to 50 mph in the city, with brief gusts up to hurricane force on Eastern Long Island. Wow.

The NWS warns that, in addition to the snow and wind, coastal storm surge could reach four feet in Western Long Island Sound and in Eastern Massachusetts—that’s on top of 10- to 15-foot waves, which would be big enough to damage coastal properties. If you live on the waterfront, it’s probably best to treat this storm more like a close brush with a tropical storm or hurricane. The NWS in Boston says, “[T]his is a storm that could produce one or more new inlets along exposed east and northeast facing barrier beaches.”

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The latest snowfall maps show a 50-50 chance of New York City’s biggest snowstorm on record. Expect one to three feet of snow plus near whiteout conditions from Philadelphia to Maine.

Image: NWS

For snow lovers, this is the stuff of legend. For everyone else, it’s a time to take a deep breath and prepare to ride out a whopper. If you find yourself stuck at home this week, hyperbole aside, take solace in the fact that it’s very likely no one has experienced a storm quite like this for centuries. I mean, New York City could break its all-time snowfall record for a single storm by 10 inches.

What’s making this particular storm so potent? In sharp contrast to last week’s nor’easter, there’s no shortage of cold air this time around. A blocking high-pressure system to the north will slow the storm’s advance to a crawl—with the center spending up to 24 hours just off Long Island—right as it is peaking in strength. Combine that with a roaring, perfectly kinked jet stream, and you have all the ingredients for an explosive storm that will reach “bomb” criteria, funneling Arctic air southwards and converting it into a thick blanket of wind-whipped white. All the extra cold air may also boost snow totals, because “drier,” colder snow is up to 50 percent fluffier than “wet” snow that falls with temperatures nearer the freezing point. Very strong winds should create drifts the height of humans. The NWS in Boston expects “pockets of thundersnow” during the overnight hours late Monday.

All this means there’s very little chance of a bust. An experimental probabilistic snow forecast by the NWS shows a 67 percent chance of at least 18 inches in New York City. In Boston, the odds are 75 percent. I don’t know about you, but that’s seems good enough to invest in a snowblower.

Not that long ago, the thing to do on a week like this would be to camp out in front of the Weather Channel and live vicariously through Jim Cantore. But now the best place to watch a storm is on Twitter. Predictably, weather Twitter is already freaking out over this storm:

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A reverse trajectory model shows a Siberian weekend in store for New York City.

Image: NOAA ARL

The suddenly very active weather pattern may produce yet another snowstorm on Thursday night, with at least two major blasts of frigid Arctic air plunging Northeast temperatures to near zero Fahrenheit this weekend and next week. The air that’s set to comprise Saturday’s atmosphere over New York City is now somewhere over Eastern Siberia.

Jan. 23 2015 5:52 PM

State Department Wants Frozen PSAs About Climate Change

The apocalypse is closer than ever and people are taking private jets to climate change talks. This is not good. We need a new idea. Something to cut through the partisan rhetoric about global warming and give people the facts. Something that harnasses the power of imagination and Idina Menzel's voice. We need a Frozen sequel about climate change.

Conveniently, State Department envoy for the Arctic Robert Papp is all over it. As the Hill reports, he says he recently met with a Disney executive about how the Frozen characters could be used to teach kids about the effects of climate change. He's especially interested in getting the word out about “the plight of the polar bear, about the thawing tundra, [and] about Alaskan villages that run the risk of falling into the sea.”

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Speaking at a conference in Norway, Papp said that during the meeting he applauded Disney for teaching kids about the Arctic in Frozen. But he added that the movie's Arctic was, well, Disney-fied—it's a magical place without any sustainability issues. Meanwhile, the actual Arctic is in critical danger. “As I continued to talk I could see the executive getting more and more perplexed,” Papp said. “And he said, ‘Admiral, you might not understand. Here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings.’ ”

You can see how a Frozen sequel called Thawed might not do so well at the box office.

Jan. 23 2015 4:06 PM

People Who Are Great at Reading Social Cues Are Also Great With the Internet

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

Some people are better at navigating cocktail parties, family gatherings, and office meetings. And, as it turns out, they are better at the Internet, too.

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That’s the word from Anita Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been studying what it takes for groups to make smart decisions online, and her latest research unearthed a surprising discovery: People who were good at reading emotional cues face-to-face also happened to be pretty good at reading these cues in online discussions.

Even without seeing the other person’s face, they were able to read other’s mental states online, where misunderstanding can easily occur. And if you include these people in your online groups, your group will be smarter, too.

Scientists refer to this ability as “theory of mind.” There’s even a test for the thing. It’s called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, and it’s hard. You look at close-up photos of dozens of sets of eyes and try to determine whether the person is angry, despondent, jealous, panicked, or in some other state. “People who have this are able to represent what others are thinking or feeling based on subtle cues,” says Woolley. “What this enables somebody to do is to really fill in the blanks for somebody.”

According to researchers, if a group is filled with people who are good at this, it’s collectively smarter than groups who are not. And Woolley’s study shows this is true in the chat room as well as the board room.

This suggests that the way we figure out what other people are thinking may be deeper than we previously thought. And for managers and online group moderators, there’s a lesson here: It’s better to pad the group with good listeners rather than brainiacs.

In a sense, that’s one of the operating principles governing the online question-and-answer website, Quora, which is merciless toward trolls and even people who simply have to get the last word in during any discussion. “If you let jerks run the show, then they drive out everyone who is reasonable,” says Marc Bodnick, Quora’s community team manager.

In the online context, people who are strong at theory of mind are better at interpreting emoticon-free text, and even silence. “One of the toughest things to interpret in online communities is silence,” Woolley says. “When you don’t hear from somebody, [you wonder] ‘Are they offended by what I said, are they mad at me, do they not know the answer, or are they on vacation?' ”

And beware blowhards. People who make your online groups smarter are the ones who will tend to draw colleagues out in discussions, too. As the research shows, “how damaging it is if all you’re hearing from are one or two people and there are a bunch of people you’re not hearing from at all,” Woolley says.

Oh, and there’s one more important contributing factor when it comes to collective intelligence. Groups that have more women, she says, also tend to be smarter. Women, on average, score higher on the theory of mind test, Woolley says, “so when you have more women in the group, you raise the average.”

More from WIRED:

Jan. 23 2015 2:08 PM

Netflix Says Piracy Is Still Its Biggest Competitor

Amazon Instant, Hulu, HBO Go, and lots of other streaming services all vie for users, but Netflix still has a solid lead. By most accounts it controls close to 60 percent of video-streaming market share. So which opponent is Netflix itself most concerned about? Pirates.

In a letter to shareholders on Tuesday, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells wrote, “Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors.” It’s a surprising statement from a company that led the charge in erroding piracy’s appeal. But Netflix cites services—like Popcorn Time—that provide a simple interface for connecting people with torrents as a major concern.

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The letter links to this graph, which compares prevalence of Google searches for “netflix,” “HBO” and “Popcorn Time” in the Netherlands. “Popcorn Time’s sharp rise ... is sobering,” it says. But it doesn’t make a terribly strong case. Netflix has 50 million subscribers. It’s difficult to get a definitive total for Popcorn Time because the service is offered by multiple developers, but TorrentFreak reports that the most popular version of Popcorn Time has perhaps 5 or 6 million installs. Only a portion of that would represent active users.

Netflix could be raising the point to remind content owners that piracy is still a threat and motivate them to make sharing deals. Since the graph provided by Netflix shows keyword searches and not actual downloads or active use, it’s difficult to use is as conclusive proof of piracy’s sway. But if Netflix is saying it’s worried, it may be because access to torrents is getting easier. It’s hard to be cheaper than free, but at least Netflix is pretty close.

Jan. 23 2015 2:01 PM

Here’s How We’re Going to Solve the Global Chocolate Shortage

Witch’s broom. Frosty pod. Horse hair blight. No, those aren’t medieval hexes—they’re modern diseases that plague cacao trees, creating a worldwide chocolate shortage that experts say will only get worse.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve had this problem. In the 19th century, Trinidad and Tobego was among the world’s top five producers of cacao until disease decimated the country’s crop and its economy. That’s why Trinidad created the Cocoa Research Centre, which, along with the accompanying International Cocoa Genebank, houses 2,400 types of cacao. Now the center may just solve our current cacao conundrum and make chocolate taste better while doing so.

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