Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 30 2016 10:00 AM

We Need a Word for the Feeling of Mingled Happiness and Jealousy Caused by Facebook

Last summer, an old college friend had his first child. I know this because a photo of an adorable baby boy popped up on my Facebook news feed, 320 likes signaling that this is important! All the likes buoyed it to the top of the stream, ensuring that , far and wide, my friend’s friends saw the baby picture.

A few days after that, the same friend posted another baby photo. This time three large zucchinis surrounded his swaddled son: an orange baby with his green older brothers. It was like a postmodern Anne Geddes shot. The baby’s expression was a sweet mix of obliviousness and bewilderment.

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Along with the photo came an ominous caption. “Fair warning and full disclosure,” my friend announced. “My social media feed is about to go 95 percent babies and vegetables.”

I appreciated my friend’s candor. It made my decision a lot easier. With only a small pang of regret, I looked at his beloved face on my timeline. I looked at his baby, surrounded by zucchini. I looked at the "Unfollow" button.

Let he who has never secretly forsworn a friend to escape his infant-with-vegetable pics cast the first zucchini.

It’s not that I don’t like infants (or vegetables). Quite the opposite; I very much would like some of my own. And that is the problem. When I saw my old friend’s baby, I was truly happy for him – and, almost simultaneously, extremely and viscerally jealous.

Study after study links Facebook use to depression, as you compare your life achievements with those of friends and frenemies. Just look at the names of the papers: “‘They are happier and having better lives than I am.’” “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to User’s Life Satisfaction?” “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.” “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms.”

The heaviest users of Facebook believe that other people are happier. News feeds contain numerous “envy-inducing incidents,” and the more you skim, the more you compare yourself to others, leading to “invidious emotions.” Looking at your friends’ babies and vegetables might seem like a good idea at the time, but all those Anne Geddes shots will probably just make you sad.

But “sad” isn’t nearly a nuanced enough word for the confusing concoction of emotions at play. It’s sadness borne of envy – because your friend has what you want. Even acknowledging such envy can make you sadder, because you realize that underneath the jealousy, you really are genuinely happy for your friend. And there’s self-disappointment in the mix: You should be able to rise above your own jealousy, right? Aren’t you a good friend?

Facebook usage is increasing at a ridiculously fast rate. It’s only logical that the associated social-media-inspired feelings will continue apace. So we need a word that combines all of these emotions: elation at our friends’ life achievements, extreme envy, and just a dash of shame.

This word doesn’t appear to exist in the English language, and a quick survey of world languages didn’t uncover it. The feeling turns “schadenfreude” on its head: Instead of happiness over others’ misfortune, it is closer to sadness over others’ success. I’m not a fan of clumsily flipping “schadenfreude” around and calling it “freudenschade” – although many have had this idea before. Perhaps if we made it “freundenschade,” layering in the German word for “friend”?

A close pal, upon being informed of the topic of this post, had an immediate, great suggestion: “frenvy.” But it turns out that someone else on the Internet already came up with that word. (I was relieved, as I’d loved the term immediately, and was a little bit jealous—frenvious?—that he, not I, had dreamt it up.)

A wonderful word from Sanskrit and Pali, mudita, denotes the unselfish joy that arises from seeing the good fortune of others. It’s the purely positive and selfless counterpart of the happy-jealous mixture I’m describing here. Mudita is an important principle of Buddhism, which led me to wonder what Buddha would have made of Facebook, if he in fact has an account, and whether I should avoid friending him on the off-chance that I would grow to resent (but just ever so slightly!) his deep and abiding wisdom.

Aug. 29 2016 9:03 PM

FBI Warns Foreign Hackers Have Targeted State Voter Registration Systems

Concerns over the cybersecurity of November’s election and potential foreign interference took a turn for the troubling on Monday with reports that the FBI is investigating suspected foreign attempts to hack state election computer systems. Attempts to break into voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona have prompted the FBI to warn states to increase their cybersecurity measures.

Here’s more from the Washington Post:

The [FBI] told Arizona officials that the threat was “credible” and severe, ranking as “an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10,” said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. As a result, Secretary of State Michele Reagan shut down the state voter registration system for almost a week. It turned out that the hackers did not succeed in compromising the state system or even any county system, but rather had managed to steal the user name and password for one Gila County elections official…
In Illinois, officials discovered an intrusion into their state voter registration system in July… Although the hackers did not alter any data, the intrusion into the Illinois database marks the first successful compromise of a state election database, federal officials said.
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The Arizona intrusion has been linked to Russian hackers and following the DNC hack earlier this year has again raised questions about efforts to meddle with the election.

Aug. 29 2016 12:40 PM

Some Gamers Spent 70 Freaking Hours Playing No Man’s Sky. Now They Want a Refund.

Everything about the new video game No Man’s Sky is big: Thanks to procedural generation, it features 18 quintillion planets, each of them fully explorable, enormous, and unique. The promise of that much freedom inspired almost ecstastic anticipation in the two years leading up to the game’s release, creating a community that “often felt less like enthusiasts waiting excitedly for a piece of entertainment and more like acolytes waiting with bated breath for a religious ascension,” as Laura Hudson wrote in her Slate review.

Fan disappointment is equally big, it turns out. Now that the game—which came out in early August—is actually available, most of that pre-release fervor has died down, leaving nothing so much as an angry hangover in its wake. The frustration is understandable: Though those almost endless worlds are pockmarked with countless points of interest, traversing them can be an oceanically dull experience. In a largely favorable write up for the Ringer, Ben Lindbergh writes, “The environments, so striking and varied from afar, reveal their seams and sameness upon closer inspection.” Similarly, Hudson observes, “The vastness and variation of the game inevitably make it, at times, mundane; when the possibilities are nigh-limitless, they can’t all be interesting.”

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Perhaps unsurpisingly, then, some players—many of whom had pre-ordered the game far in advance—are trying to get their money back. (The game costs $60.) And, in some cases, they appear to be succeeding, even if they’ve already put in hours with the game’s expanisve universe. Over the weekend, gaming and pop culture publications reported that merchants were acknowledging such grumbling. Most notably, some outlets claimed that Steam, the online PC gaming marketplace from Valve, was offering refunds even to players who had put more than 70 hours into the game. Given that the company normally cuts off returns after two hours of play time, that would have marked a remarkable recognition of a single game’s supposed failures.

As it happens, however, Steam doesn’t appear to have actually changed anything. A statement on the game’s official page reads, “The standard Steam refund policy applies to No Man’s Sky. There are no special exemptions available.” Despite that, many players do seem to have jumped ship, even without the guarantee of cash back. As one Reddit user notes, the game lost almost 20,000 users between Aug. 26 and Aug. 27, going from 778,396 owners to 758,952.

Whatever the situation on Steam, other internet users claim to have received their money back from Sony after dozens of hours with the console version. That’s left some rolling their eyes: Shahid Kamal Ahmad, a former employee of Sony, has argued that if you seek a “refund after playing a game for 50 hours you’re a thief.” Ahmad arguably has a point: Putting 50 hours into a game that costs $60 is a relatively reasonable return on investment. It’s hard to imagine sticking with the game for that long if you weren’t getting something out of the experience.

Aug. 26 2016 1:56 PM

Hillary Clinton Used File-Clearing Software BleachBit. Is That Proof of Wrongdoing?

In an appearance on Fox News to discuss the revelations from the latest Hillary Clinton email findings, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House’s Benghazi committee, revealed that Hillary deleted mails using BleachBit, a file-deleting software program.

Aug. 26 2016 12:04 PM

Update Your iPhone Right Now

Apple rushed to release a new security update Thursday after system vulnerabilities were reported to the company following an attempted cyberattack on a human rights lawyer in the United Arab Emirates.

Aug. 25 2016 4:46 PM

New Zealand and Australia, World Leaders in Pizza Delivery by Drone  

On Wednesday, a Domino’s franchise used a drone to deliver a pizza in Auckland, New Zealand.

Aug. 25 2016 4:46 PM

The Army Isn’t Getting Much Use Out of Its Expensive Training Games

The United States Army has a problem: Its soldiers aren’t playing enough video games.

That, at any rate, is one conclusion you might draw from a recent Government Accountability Office report that examines the Army’s numerous—and often quite expensive—virtual training devices. Discussing that report in Motherboard, Richard Beckhusen concludes “the Army simply has too many games.” In some cases, that’s because the Army hasn’t properly integrated those systems into its constantly changing training regimes. In others, it may be because these pricey platforms simply don’t meet real needs in the first place.

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As the GAO report defines it, “virtual training devices are those devices that involve a simulator, a simulation, or a computer-generated battlefield.” As such, a medical dummy probably wouldn’t count, but a VR simulation of field surgery might. In theory, these systems seek to re-create “conditions that are not possible to achieve in live training,” either because it would be expensive to do so (heavy weaponry munitions don’t come cheap) or because it’s hard to reproduce varied field conditions on demand. Fittingly, then, many of the systems that GAO examines simulate vehicle operations, while others help soldiers familiarize themselves with unit tactics and operational protocols.

The proliferation of training simulations in the military might seem to be of a piece with the general shift toward gamification in civilian settings—and the concomitant expectation that learning a new job or skill should be fun. While such ideas may simmer in the background here, few of the systems discussed in the GAO report seem like they’d be that enjoyable to play. For more than a decade, the military has used the game America’s Army for recruitment, attempting to give players a feel for the actual demands of service. Such militainment isn’t really on the table in the GAO report, however. Indeed, while words like “funding” and “function” crop up repeatedly throughout, mere “fun” is nowhere to be found.

It’s hard to say how much use the Army is actually getting out of its virtual training devices, partly because it didn’t keep strong records of actual engagement. Nevertheless, the GAO report’s inventory of Army-operated systems suggests that usage is limited at best: In 2015, trainees logged a mere 435 hours of time with the Army’s 18 units of one bulky-looking system designed to help develop “driving and operating skills in simulated weather, urban operations, and complex virtual terrain.” Given that the $12 million system cost $744,405 to maintain in that year alone (and that there were 33,332 hours of available simulator time), that seems like a relatively poor return on investment.

Other training devices performed better: A $216 million system that “replicates live weapons training events” plopped soldiers in front of its simulated screens for more than 300,000 hours lin 2015. Similarly, Virtual Battlespace II—which seeks to improve skills like “cultural awareness, language, [and] explosive device recognition”—appears to have performed reasonably well, racking up 18,673 user hours.

This moderate success, however, arguably squares with a point that Beckhusen extracts from the report: Many of the army’s “games” may be too realistic for their own good. “It’s unnecessary to strap soldiers into an immobile vehicle and make them scan a wrap-around screen if they can accomplish the same basic tasks with a mouse and keyboard,” Beckhusen argues. One commenter on Slashdot suggests that this is hardly a new problem, writing, “[B]ack in the early 90s we’d go to the M-1 simulator and run through that. Then go back to the barracks and play M1 Tank platoon on my Amiga 500. It was a running joke I had my own simulator in my room.”

The Army’s bulkier simulators presumably offer things that more commercial modern games—never mind Amiga titles!—can’t, but more conventionally gamelike programs may still offer advantages. As Beckhusen notes, for example, Virtual Battlespace “scales better” than many of the more sophisticated systems designed to train users on a particular vehicle or scenario. Significantly, they may also be more cost effective: The Army spent about $8 million on the flexibly designed Virtual Battlespace, but put almost 10 times that number into its Conduct of Fire Trainer for M2/M3 Bradley vehicles, which includes a sophisticated-looking cockpit full of real knobs, buttons, and sensors.

Obviously, neither dollars spent nor training hours accumulated translate directly into true usefulness with these systems. In fact, many of these amounts likely seem like rounding errors relative to the military’s massive annual budget. Nevertheless, the report still suggests that the Army needs to more fully integrate those games into its training schemes—evaluating both their potential efficacy before developing them and investigating their effectiveness once they’ve been deployed.

Aug. 25 2016 2:26 PM

This Lawsuit-Financing Startup Uses Algorithms to Find Cases That Could Earn Big Bucks

Interest in financing lawsuits as a business opportunity seems to be growing even as prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel draws flak for financially backing the lawsuit that shut down Gawker. As Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Cromwell Schubarth writes, Legalist, a startup founded by Harvard grads Eva Shang and Christian Haigh, plans to use algorithms to vet and finance commercial lawsuits that could deliver significant returns to investors:

 

Aug. 25 2016 1:16 PM

FCC Support for Hackable Wireless Routers Is a Win for All of Us

It’s increasingly dawning on people that they don’t really own a lot of the goods they buy, not in a world where software is infiltrating everything and can be modified at the whim of the seller. Amazon can remove books people have “purchased” for their Kindles. Apple decides what software you’re allowed to load on an iPhone. Coffee-machine companies try to prevent customers from using competitive refills. And our legislators and regulators rarely seem to notice, much less block, such control-freakery.

So it’s a breath of fresh air when the government steps in and tells a manufacturer it should allow, even encourage, customers to modify devices that most of us use in our homes and businesses: Wi-Fi routers that let us do our computing and communications without being tethered to a wire.

That just happened, in a case at the Federal Communications Commission, and it’s a very, very good thing. If ever we needed the ability to modify a device by changing the software it shipped with, it’s this one. Many if not most routers are grossly insecure. Installing third-party operating software (sometimes called firmware) is sometimes the only way to plug gaping security holes. Moreover, changing the firmware can radically improve a router’s overall capabilities, such as creating community networks in places Big Telecom is slow to serve, and ensuring local communications in disasters. One of the most important community networks in the world, Guifi.net, in Spain’s Catalonia region, wouldn’t exist without hackable routers.

Aug. 25 2016 12:44 PM

Cooperative Behavior Could Make Artificial Intelligence More Human

This article originally appeared in the Conversation.

Cooperation is one of the hallmarks of being human. We are extremely social compared to other species. On a regular basis, we all enter into helping others in small but important ways, whether it be letting someone out in traffic or giving a tip for good service.

We do this without any guarantee of payback. Donations are made at a small personal cost but with a bigger benefit to the recipient. This form of cooperation, or donation to others, is called indirect reciprocity and helps human society to thrive.

Group-based behaviour in humans originally evolved to overcome the threat of larger predators. This has led to us having a sophisticated brain with social abilities, which is disproportionately larger in size than those of other species. The social brain hypothesis captures this idea: it proposes that the large human brain is a consequence of humans evolving in complex social groups where cooperation is a distinctive component.

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