The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 29 2014 6:17 PM

The CIA Still Redacts How Much It Paid for PCs in 1987

In 1987 the Amiga 500 cost $699, and the Amiga 2000 cost $2,395. I’m letting you in on these confidential CIA secrets because I trust you, but you’re not supposed to know.

Former CIA employee Jeffrey Scudder made a Freedom of Information Act request four years ago in an attempt to surface problems within the intelligence agency. Earlier this month the CIA finally released hundreds of relevant documents—including a paper with titled “NPIC, Amiga, and Videotape.” It’s about a CIA multimedia division called the National Photographic Interpretation Center (now part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), which was using PCs from Amiga to expand its capabilities in the late 1980s.


But a strange aspect of the paper, the secrecy policy blog Secrecy News points out, is this bizarre redaction. The paper says, “We bought our first Commodore Amiga in 1987 for less than [price redacted] including software.” Wait, how much was that again?

The redaction is labeled “(b)(3)(c),” meaning it is justified under the CIA Act of 1949, which says that the CIA doesn't have to disclose information about the “organization, functions, names, Officials, titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed.”

But since information about the cost of the computer at that time is publicly available, it seems strange that it would need to be redacted. Based on conversations with the CIA about related topics, though, Secrecy News theorizes that the CIA doesn’t want to disclose exactly how much it was willing to expend, even if the retail price of the machines is known. And the redaction seems to be consistent with a broader goal to redact all expenditures. As Secrecy points out, though, this blanket policy could lead to unnecessary withholding of information that should be public.

Maybe the CIA just got a criminally good deal on the computers.

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Sept. 29 2014 4:55 PM

On Facebook's New Ad Platform, Your Data Will Follow Everywhere

Facebook has a new way to make money off of your data—and, potentially, to learn more about you than it ever could before.

If you’re a Facebook user, the company’s machines already know all the things you’ve explicitly told Facebook over the years, like your name, age, email address, friends, likes, and interests. They also already know how you behave on Facebook, including which types of stories you’re likely to click on and which friends’ status updates you like the most.


Now they’re beginning to learn more about how you behave when you aren’t on Facebook. For instance, they have the ability to know whenever you visit a Web page that has a “like” button. For years Facebook insisted it wouldn’t use this sort of data to track your activity for commercial purposes. Recently, it decided it might start doing that after all.

On Monday, the company announced the next step: a new advertising platform called Atlas. Atlas will allow advertisers to harness Facebook’s data about you to target you on non-Facebook sites and apps, with ads not purchased through Facebook. Again, these are not Facebook ads, and they won’t be shown on Facebook—but they’ll be drawing on all of Facebook’s knowledge of you as an individual in order to target you. They’ll be able to do that even if you’re not logged into Facebook and have cookies turned off. Facebook calls this "people-based marketing."

The move puts Facebook in direct competition with Google’s DoubleClick service, offering advertisers the chance to target users and measure their ads’ reach on a potentially wide array of sites as well as mobile apps. The potential edge, for Facebook, is that Atlas won’t rely on browser cookies. Cookies can be cleared, they don’t cross from one browser to another, and they’re notoriously ineffectual on mobile devices. Google has been working to address this problem. But with Atlas, Facebook may be leaping ahead.

If you’ve ever logged into Facebook on your phone, Facebook has linked your phone’s unique identification number to your Facebook account. So when you use another app or a different browser on the same device, Facebook’s computers still know it’s you, and Atlas will be able to use that information to help advertisers reach you. Visit a site from your desktop computer using a browser on which you've logged into Facebook, and Facebook will know you’re the same person who visited it from your mobile phone awhile back.

Facebook has responded to privacy concerns by clarifying that Atlas won’t actually give third-party advertisers any information about you. It will just use that information to make sure they’re reaching their intended audience.

But one of the biggest long-term impacts of Atlas may be to expand Facebook’s own ability to track you across the Web and mobile apps. When you visit a site that uses Atlas to serve ads, you’ll be giving Atlas more information about yourself that it could potentially add to the ever-expanding database that Facebook has on you.

A Facebook spokesman told me that the information Atlas gleans about your browsing habits will not be sent back to Facebook. “Atlas doesn’t tell marketers who you are, and Atlas also doesn’t share information about you back to Facebook,” he said. Of course, Facebook has been known to change its mind about such things. When I asked the spokesman if he could promise users that Atlas would never share this information, he declined to comment.

Sept. 29 2014 4:29 PM

Barry Bonds Finally Admits to Glassing

Barry Bonds, Major League Baseball’s all-time home run record holder, has publicly admitted using Google Glass. A photo posted to Bonds’ Instagram account illustrates the controversial practice in vivid detail, putting an end to public speculation as to whether the retired outfielder has been using wearables. As if that wasn’t enough, he even spells it out in the photo’s caption: “I’m Glassing.”

In the photo, Bonds enjoys a coffee on a balcony while gazing out toward the horizon. (Or perhaps he is gazing into the device on his face? Who knows?!) As if to hammer the final nail into the coffin of pre-tech takeover San Francisco, he caps it off with the hashtag #Onlyinthebay.


The #glassing trend is the brainchild of designer Anthony Phills, and is not sponsored by Google. In an interview with Slate, Phills explained that he wanted to make the technology “a bit more personal.” Phills says he has worked with Bonds on projects in the past, and is currently testing a prototype of a Glass application that would document and authenticate athletic memorabilia as it is signed.

What better figure to put a human face on the oft-maligned wearables that than Barry Bonds? His April 2011 conviction on one count of obstruction of justice was upheld in September 2013, but a federal appeals court is now weighing whether to overturn that felony verdict. Bonds was never convicted of any charges relating to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but is still tainted by his association with steroids. If only Glass had existed in time to record his past interactions with trainer Greg Anderson, who was jailed for refusing to testify in Bonds’ trial, perhaps legacy-crippling scandal could’ve been avoided.

At the very least, the photo confirms that Google Glass frames can fit big-headed people, too. The cranially gifted among us needn’t worry about the pinching and poking that comes along with ill-fitting dumb-glasses. Thanks, Barry!

Sept. 29 2014 1:20 PM

North Korea Issues Cellphone Etiquette Guide

You know when you're on a crowded public bus and a guy is talking really loudly on his cellphone about how just because he once cared deeply for his ex-wife that doesn't mean he should be obligated to give her a kidney, and then once he gets off the phone all the commuters standing around him have an impromptu life talk about what he should do? OK, maybe that has only ever happened to me (and the other people on that New York City bus in 2006—shoutout!) but the point is that cellphone etiquette is important. 

And, surprising no one, the North Korean government takes it very seriously. There are almost 2.5 million North Koreans—about 10 percent of the population—using Koryolink, the wireless carrier for the country that launched in 2008.


That number may not go up unless prices go down: Last year BBC News reported that cell phones are prohibitively expensive for most North Koreans, given that Koryolink offers handsets for a few hundred dollars and estimated average North Korean salaries are less than $1,000 per year.

Nevertheless, the government clearly feels that cellphones are a growing trend, because a cultural magazine obtained by South Korean news agency Yonhap includes information about making and answering calls in public along with a general etiquette lesson. Don’t forget that all official media in North Korea is controlled by the regime.

According to Yonhap’s translation, the North Korean article explains, “As mobile phones are being used increasingly in today's society, there has been a tendency among some people to neglect proper phone etiquette. ... Speaking loudly or arguing over the phone in public places where many people are gathered is thoughtless and impolite behavior.”

The article seems to really emphasize appropriate and polite greetings: “On mobile phones, unlike on land lines, conversations usually take place with knowledge of the other person. However, even in such cases, one must not neglect to introduce oneself or offer greetings.” Caller ID is no excuse for rudeness!

And if someone calls you and doesn’t open the conversation by explicitly stating who they are, the article says you should prompt them by asking, “Hello? Is it you, comrade Yeong-cheol?” I mean, this is just common sense, people.

It seems unlikely that North Koreans are loudly divulging personal information while riding on public buses or walking around, given the constant threat of being sent to work camps or even being killed for inappropriate behavior. But maybe the etiquette guide is a way for the government to remind citizens, whether they can afford mobile phones or not, that North Korea is incredibly technologically advanced.

Sept. 29 2014 1:16 PM

Tweeting While Watching TV Linked to Fewer Brain Cells

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

If you are the sort of person who has a hard time just watching TV—if you’ve got to be simultaneously using your iPad or laptop or smartphone—here’s some bad news. New research shows a link between juggling multiple digital devices and a lower-than-usual amount of gray matter, the stuff that’s made up of brain cells, in the region of the brain associated with cognitive and emotional control.

Sept. 29 2014 12:23 PM

Antarctic Ice Melt Causes Small Shift in Gravity

Gravity—yes, gravity—is the latest victim of climate change in Antarctica. That’s the stunning conclusion announced Friday by the European Space Agency.

“The loss of ice from West Antarctica between 2009 and 2012 caused a dip in the gravity field over the region,” writes the ESA, whose GOCE satellite measured the change. Apparently, melting billions of tons of ice year after year has implications that would make even Isaac Newton blanch. Here’s the data visualized.


It reminds me of those first images of the ozone hole, decades ago.

To be fair, the change in gravity is very small. It’s not like you’ll float off into outer space on your next vacation to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The biggest implication is the new measurements confirm global warming is changing the Antarctic in fundamental ways. Earlier this year, a separate team of scientists announced that major West Antarctic glaciers have begun an “unstoppable” “collapse,” committing global sea levels to a rise of several meters over the next few hundred years.

Though we all learned in high-school physics that gravity is a constant, it actually varies slightly depending on where you are on the Earth’s surface and the density of the rock (or, in this case, ice) beneath your feet. During a four-year mission, the ESA satellite mapped these changes in unprecedented detail and was able to detect a significant decrease in the region of Antarctica where land ice is melting fastest.

The new results in West Antarctica were achieved by combining the high-resolution gravity field measurements from the ESA satellite with a longer-running but lower resolution gravity-analyzing satellite mission called Grace, which is jointly operated by the United States and Germany. Scientists hope to scale up this analysis to all of Antarctica soon, which could provide the clearest picture yet of the pace global warming is taking in the frozen continent. Current best estimates show that global seas could be as much as 50 inches higher by century’s end, due in large part to ice melt in West Antarctica.

Previous research with data from a third satellite, CryoSat (also from ESA), has shown ice loss from this portion of West Antarctica has increased by three-fold since just 2009, with 500 cubic kilometers of ice now melting each year from Greenland and Antarctica combined. That’s an iceberg the size of Manhattan, three-and-a-half miles thick.

Sept. 29 2014 10:29 AM

Flip Through the Skymall of the Near Future

When people attempt to make projections about the future, they typically come in two varieties. First is the perfect world in which software upgrades work and clean water is available at the touch of a button. Call that the advertising fantasy future. The second is the crumbling ruined apocalyptic bust. Call that the Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi future. We've been stuck with this dichotomy at least since George R. Stewart gave us the  prototype for the sci-fi post-apocalypse with Earth Abides.

But what about the near future that's as normal, ordinary, and everyday as, say, today? A near future where hope and intellect have overcome some challenges but in which we accept that the technology-solutionist approach will never solve everything. This would be an image of a near future in which people still live their lives with a spirit of adventure, curiosity, fun, ambition—some fear perhaps, but always with hope. It's neither the impossible fantasy future of beneficent cloud-based artificial intelligences, nor the crumbling vaporized future of biohazards and zombies. A near future that’s attainable and reasonable, yet still audacious.


This is what a group of us created with the “TBD Catalog.” It's a representation of a near future through the lens of a catalog. The Near Future Laboratory—a thinking, making, design, development, and research studio—called upon our network of designers, technologists, writers, and curators to ponder the question: What would a product catalog from the normal, ordinary, everyday future look like? When Chinese geneticists clone the Panda, will they unexpectedly reproduce prodigiously and begin to overrun urban sprawls requiring annual cullings and a boom market for Cactus-Wool™ Panda Jerky? How long before Luggage Without Wheels™ becomes the derigour brand of stylish, hip suitcases? Would you consider using MeWee Monitor—the IoT connected toilet accessory, for the discerning self-monitoring enthusiast? In a world where calories are scarce, might you chose Bacigalupi brand High Caloric Hot Sauce to add flavor and energy to your otherwise bland rations?

The TBD Catalog team met for three days to discuss, design, sketch, agree, and agree to disagree on the archetype and contents of such a product catalog. After visiting the remarkable archives of the Henry Ford Museum and the Detroit downtown facilities of the University of Michigan, we had a prototype of the catalog that represented the editorial flavor and the trends and themes that dictated the sort of products we might see.

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory
Mood Swaddle

© Near Future Laboratory

We did this because we're passionate about the marvels that an innovation-rich society can create, but we're concerned that those innovative, disruptive changes may proceed without a clear, tangible vision that one can iterate, reflect upon and design-to.

Let's take something right on the precipice of the infamous Gartner Hype Curve: the Internet of Things. I'm told—and I'm an engineer by training, so I get the tech—IoT will be a $40 trillion industry. But I haven’t heard many satisfying and compelling representations about what it might be like to live in an Internet of Things world, where everything is connected to everything else.

What does a world look like when my desk can connect to the lamp in my studio? What's the desk called? Does it have to be plugged in? What happens when the network goes down, or I spill my coffee? What about an IoT bathroom, where my scale, toilet, and toothbrush are all connected? Can I have it run Fiji water rather than normal city water, and have it billed direct to my bitcoin account?

We conjured up some normal, ordinary everyday objects. We then imagined them in a future where algorithms, the Internet of Things, Big Data analytics, and other of today's hot trends have normalized out to become things that are taken for granted. Think of our design template as similar to taking the laser—a Nobel Prize-winning invention—and imagining it as a toy to entertain your cat.

We call this approach design fiction. It's a particular kind of design prototyping, a way of breathing life into a hunch by making it feel tangible and real. Our design fiction in TBD Catalog resulted in 166 products and 62 classifieds that represent a world in which today’s emerging trends and tendencies become part of your normal, ordinary everyday life. Check out some of the sample products below and get to know your near future.

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory
Your Amazon Stuff

© Near Future Laboratory

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory

© Near Future Laboratory

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory
Home Data Wrangler

© Near Future Laboratory

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory

© Near Future Laboratory

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory
Garden ScareGnome

© Near Future Laboratory

Click to expand © Near Future Laboratory

© Near Future Laboratory

Sept. 26 2014 3:50 PM

Australia on the Verge of Permitting Alarmingly Broad Internet Surveillance 

On Thursday, the Australian Senate passed a bill that would increase the powers of domestic spy agency ASIO, giving it the ability to monitor all of the Australian Internet with a single warrant. It could also send anyone who “recklessly” discloses information that “relates to a special intelligence operation” to jail for up to 10 years. (Any operation can be considered special.) The bill is expected to pass the House, where it will be up for a vote on Tuesday at the earliest.

The bill has been met with harsh criticism from many, including attorneys and academics. But the government is presenting it as a shift toward security. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned citizens that “for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.” The legislation comes in response to recent terror threats.


The law will, if passed, dramatically increase the government’s powers of surveillance, but despite Abbott's reference to a "shift," it’s not necessarily inconsistent with existing Australian policy. Ryan Calo, assistant professor of the University Washington School of Law and author of a Brookings report on why the United States needs a federal robotics commission, pointed to Australia as a country with a more deliberate, and more consistently permissive, policy toward drones, surveillance drones included.

Permissiveness toward drones, of course, is not equivalent to a law that allows a network of computers (better known as the Internet) to be searched with a single warrant. But Australia’s surveillance history suggests that the new legislation isn’t necessarily the "shift" for the sake of security that the Australian government suggests. It’s a more dramatic allowance of mass surveillance—and in keeping with previously pursued policy.

Sept. 26 2014 2:45 PM

Goodbye, Aral Sea

The Aral Sea—a huge part of it at least—is no more.

According to NASA, “for the first time in modern history, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea has completely dried.”


Humans have been farming the Aral Sea area in Central Asia for centuries, and the lake has gone through spectacular boom-and-bust cycles in the past. But the lake hasn’t been this dry in a long, long time. Speaking with NASA, Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University, said, “it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea."

In the early 1900s, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. It has been dwindling since the 1960s, when a Soviet program of irrigated agriculture diverted the region’s major two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, largely to grow lucrative but water-intensive cotton. Sound familiar, California?

Since the Soviet Union dissolved, things have only gotten worse. According to a report (PDF) by the United Nations Environment Programme, more than 60 million people now live in the Aral region, up fourfold since 1960. At the same time, inflows into the lake are down sharply, a phenomenon possibly linked to climate change. With the help of the World Bank, in 2005 Kazakhstan built a dam as a last-ditch effort to save part of the lake, with mixed results. According to NASA, this year’s final push toward record-low lake levels came as a result of low snowpack in the mountains that feed the lake.


This isn’t a story of climate change, though. It’s a story of barreling ahead with the status quo amid a superfluity of stop signs. Rice and cotton fields are still widespread in the Aral region, though oil and gas exploration in the dry lakebed is becoming more common, too.

Without the steadying influence of the lake on local weather, winters in the surrounding region are now colder, and summers are hotter and drier. Blowing dust, laced with agricultural chemicals that have built up as a result of runoff into the lake over the years, has contaminated surrounding communities. This is not a place you’d want to live.

The tragedy of the Aral Sea should be a cautionary tale for people in the increasingly water-scarce American Southwest. After all, we have our own fair share of Aral Seas here, too. About 100 years ago, eager California farmers drained Lake Tulare, then the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. More recently, Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, now at record-low levels, has lost its title as the biggest reservoir in the country. (As of February of this year, it had fallen all the way to fourth.) Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, is starting this year’s rainy season at only 26 percent of total capacity.

There’s tenuous hope that California is finally starting to recognize the dire situation the mix of agriculture, urban growth, and climate fluctuations have put them in before it’s too late. California’s legislature recently passed a series of measures that will regulate groundwater pumping, the last Western state to do so. Last week, the governor signed the bill into law.

As for the desiccating Aral region, there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Sept. 26 2014 1:07 PM

Trendy Social Network Ello Doesn’t Seem That Great, but I’ll Use It if Everyone Else Does

Ello is a new social network that’s been getting a lot of attention this week. It’s currently in beta, so you can join only if you get an invitation from someone else. But those invites are now hot commodities, as people start to embrace it as an anti-Facebook. Ello doesn’t force people to use their real names—which has driven its popularity in the LGBTQ community—and it promises to never serve ads.

Of course we’ve heard that before, and who knows how long it will last, but Ello is trying to be serious about the no-ads thing. The WTF section says, “A social network that has ads is a social network created for advertisers, not for people. ... We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Duly noted.


Ello has standard features like the ability to write posts, at-mention other users, follow people’s accounts in either the “Friend” or “Noise” category, be followed by others, share multimedia, type emojis (!), and view posts from the accounts you follow in a chronological stream. The site has an attractive design, though it’s not the most intuitive to use. Since we’ve all used other social media services, though, it doesn’t take too long to pick up on things.

It’s unclear how the site will support itself as it grows, but that won’t matter if it doesn’t take off. And will it take off? All I can say is that if you all want to be on Ello, I’ll go, too.

It’s tough for me to be excited about a new social network that seems mostly similar to the old ones. I like Ello’s stance on ads if the founders can find a way to sustain it, but I don’t care that much. Also, part of Ello’s appeal is supposed to be an emphasis on design and visual art, but that’s not really something I’m looking for in a social network.

I’m hard to please, though, because I don’t really share much on social media in general. Occasionally I’ll upload a photo album, share a link, or join a conversation someone else has started, but I’m not that into generating content myself. (Most social media sites think I’m a mid-30s male since all they have to go on is my browsing habits.)

So since I interact relatively infrequently, the most important thing to me about social media is just being where everyone else is. I want to hear from smart and interesting people (my friends and others), and I want them to have the opportunity to hear from me if I ever do have something to say on a social platform. I want to be able to stalk people I haven’t seen in years. I want to know what’s going on with everyone’s pets/babies. But in terms of features, I basically have social media fatigue.

Wherever you all want to be is fine. I’m just in it for the otter videos.