Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison
Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the anonymous online black market Silk Road who was found guilty in February of seven counts related to computer hacking, conspiracy, narcotics, and money-laundering, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday. He is 31.
Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan told Ulbricht that “what you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric,” according to the New York Times. Ulbricht was facing a minimum sentence of 20 years for one of his counts.
Founded in 2011 and operated until a federal raid in 2013, Silk Road facilitated more than 1.5 million transactions between more than 100,000 accounts that were buying and thousands of accounts that were selling. Most goods on the site were illegal, like heroin and LSD. Ulbricht maintains that he founded Silk Road for philosophical reasons: He wanted to create a place where people could sell anything, and wasn't interested in making money himself.
Those who spoke against Ulbricht before his sentencing included the father of a man who died taking drugs bought on Silk Road. Wired reports that Ulbricht's legal team is planning an appeal.
“Google Plus Is Not Dead” Is the New “Google Glass Is Not Dead”
On Thursday, Google spent three hours announcing a barrage of new products and features, one after the next. (You can read about them all here.) One phrase that didn’t come up much: Google Plus.
The demise of Google’s social network has been rumored since at least last spring, when its chief architect, Vic Gundotra, announced he was leaving the company. Google insisted then that Google Plus was not going away, and its official stance has not budged. But it did not escape notice that the company’s new photos app, Google Photos, comes unencumbered by any affiliation with Google Plus. Photos’ departure from the Plus umbrella follows that of Google’s popular messaging service, Hangouts.
That leaves Plus itself with… not a whole lot, other than its core social-network features. It would be wrong to say that no one uses them. As I learned the last time I disparaged Google Plus, it has in fact caught on with swaths of professionals and hobbyists who enjoy talking shop on a social network that isn’t full of friends and cats and wedding announcements. Judging from all the indignant emails I got, their affection for the service is authentic and surprisingly passionate. So let’s say instead that Google Plus’ social features are not nearly as popular as Google once hoped they’d become.
It’s safe to assume that Google knew when it unveiled Photos on Thursday that it was inviting a fresh round of questions about Google Plus’ future. To counter them, it made Google Plus chief Bradley Horowitz available for an interview with Medium’s Steven Levy, which he published to coincide with Thursday’s announcements. The full Q&A is worth reading, but it yielded one priceless highlight:
So, no, Google Plus still isn’t dead. But it is shrinking in scope, Horowitz acknowledged. Not only has Google spun off its photo and messaging features, but it plans to refocus the social network around its strengths. For example, a new feature called Collections will allow users to post to a specific topic, like astronomy or vintage guitars. And you’ll be able to follow people’s posts about some topics, but unsubscribe from their posts about other things, like politics.
That sounds wise and somewhat useful, if not particularly promising as a hit product. Historically, interest-based online networks have struggled to attract a wide audience.
The best comparison for Google Plus at this point might Google Glass, which, you might recall, made headlines at this time last year for its own conspicuous absence from the Google I/O stage. Google continued to insist afterward that Glass was not dead—right up until it announced that, in fact, it was dead, at least as a consumer product in its present form. (It lives on in some workplaces, and Google hasn’t ruled out future iterations.)
Horowitz told Levy that dropping the name Plus “hasn’t seriously crossed my mind,” which, if you read closely, implies that it has crossed his mind. So don’t be shocked if Google quietly announces, sometime in the next year, that Google Plus is, ahem, “moving even more from concept to reality.”
Previously in Slate:
Flash Drives Could Help More Cubans Get Access to Independent News
A big question about normalized relations between the United States and Cuba is how the changing relationship will affect Cubans' access to technology. Currently Internet connectivity and mobile data are both scarce in the country. It's also difficult and expensive to acquire computers and other gadgets like external hard drives there. This limits the spread of information, especially from nongovernmental sources. But a new publication wants to use flash drives to make distribution easier.
Elaine Diaz is the first Nieman Fellow from Cuba. She spent 10 months completing a journalism fellowship at Harvard University and is now returning to Cuba to start Periodismo de Barrio, a publication about weather and natural disasters—a critical topic area in a region where tropical storms are a big concern.
The problem for Diaz and other independent news writers in Cuba is that media there is almost entirely government-controlled. Blogs have some flexibility because Cuba's constitution was written before the advent of the Internet, and therefore doesn't explicitly limit online media. But the reach of Cuban blogs is limited by lack of connectivity. Only about 5 percent of the population has Internet access. Cuba got its first public Wi-Fi hub in March.
To distribute news and digital entertainment, Cubans buy "paquetes semanales" or "weekly packets" on flash drives that have a mix of news, TV shows, movies, and other content. They get passed from person to person and decrease in value as they get older. "We get between 10 and 20 customers a day," seller Jorge Fernande told the Guardian in December. "The most popular shows are Vampire Diaries, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and The 100."
Diaz's idea is to optimize Periodismo de Barrio for these weekly packets instead of doing what some other sites do and retroactively converting their online content to a format that can be shared on flash drives. The idea is the make Periodismo de Barrio's content appealing and accessible by designing it with the weekly packets in mind. Diaz told Fast Company that she thinks of it as a "direct to packet" strategy. She plans to use her savings from the Nieman Fellowship to hire a developer, three journalists, and a part-time designer.
In the site's first post, Diaz wrote "Periodismo de Barrio is committed to a good, independent and fair kind of journalism capable of harmoniously becoming a part of Cuba’s current communication channels." Cuba ranks among Iran and North Korea in terms of poor press freedom, and Periodismo de Barrio won't change that on its own, but it could be an important step.
Google’s Latest Enhancements Come With Enhanced Privacy Concerns
Of all the adjectives we might apply to Google, relentless increasingly feels the most apt. The more you use the company's offerings, the more you should like this trait, because something enormously powerful is taking shape—a collection of services that will make a lot of people's daily lives easier to manage.
But as Google showed this week at its annual I/O conference for developers in San Francisco, that relentlessness comes at a price. We are collectively handing over not just our data to a corporate giant, but also the content of our lives—and in the process giving the company unprecedented power.
When I say “we” I'm including myself in part, but I hand over far less than most others. While I admire much of what Google has done and what it's doing, I'm not remotely willing to upload my digital existence into its global brain. More than not, and despite incidents that should worry everyone, I trust the current management not to abuse the power it's amassing as it collects, analyzes, and acts on all that information, but I have no doubt that some future management could laugh out loud at the quaint “Don't be evil” mantra that the company, more than not, tried to follow in its early days.
What the public sees and interacts with in the Google ecosystem doesn't seem especially deep: search, email, calendars, mobile, and more. But everything we do feeds the data maw that Google uses to improve the surface tools and services. It's all what people call a positive feedback loop—and Google's shareholders are ultimately getting the most from the deal.
At I/O, the company unveiled a new photo-management system called, unsurprisingly, Google Photos. I loaded the mobile app on a phone, and, indeed, it's a vast improvement over what I was using. But Google wants me to upload all of my photos, no matter when I took them, into its servers. In return I'll be able to look through them more efficiently, and Google will helpfully tag them, identify people in them, sort them in various ways, and in general give me better ways to manage them. I'm deleting the app, now that I've tried it, on the principle that the greater ease of use isn't worth the trade-off, just as I don't use Gmail for my primary email accounts.
When the company says this is all “for your eyes only,” as an executive did in the I/O keynote, I roll my eyes. In reality it's for my use, plus Google's and anyone who has a subpoena, court order, or National Security Letter.
Likewise, Google Now—a digital personal assistant based, externally, on voice interaction—looks more amazing every day. At I/O, it was all about context: bringing up links to services and other sites you're likely to need or want, without being asked. Yay! Yikes!
It's only fair to note that Google, unlike some tech companies, does pay more than lip service to giving users privacy and opt-out options (though not to the degree I believe it should). The next version of the Android mobile operating system will allow users to modify “app permissions” on a much more granular basis. This means we'll be able to block apps from doing things we don't want them to do, such as collecting our locations at all times when they have no legitimate reason for doing so. (I can do this now with my phone running the Cyanogenmod operating system, which is a version of Android that's been modified for better privacy and other enhancements.) It's not clear yet whether users will be able to lock down privacy invasions from Google's own apps and services; either way, it will speak to the company's commitment, or lack thereof, in this arena.
How will Google—and the other tech companies that have made surveillance their business model—protect our privacy when they persuade manufacturers to support their Internet of Things ecosystems? Google and others have made a half-compelling case for our homes and cars being smarter, more adaptable, and more efficient, but the industry has done very little to persuade me that they won't ultimately give spies, including themselves, a collection of windows into the most private parts of our lives.
Again, what's essential to remember in our understandable bedazzlement over the improved tools and services is what they're based on: feeding data to Google's beyond-massive databases, which then sends back relevant and useful information. Sure, our phones are more powerful today than “supercomputers” were a generation ago, but they have ant brains compared with the one inside Google's leviathan.
The Google global brain is still an adolescent. But it's growing up. Can we expect that the people who control it in the future will always have our interests at heart? If you believe they will, I'd like to know why.
All the Cool Stuff Google Just Announced, Ranked by Coolness
At its annual conference for software developers on Thursday, Google announced so much new stuff that tech reporters in the audience were begging for a pee break. Much of it was either “meh” or “me-too”—Google versions of products that rivals like Apple already offer. But things took a turn for the interesting at about the halfway mark, when Google veered from smartwatches and mobile payments into the sorts of things Google does best: creepy-smart A.I., massive free cloud storage, random experiments in virtual reality, and the like.
In the interest of sparing you the boring stuff, I’ve ranked Google’s new products according to how interesting I think they’ll be to the ordinary tech consumer. To be clear, I’m not a professional software developer and thus not the core audience for some of Google’s announcements, like the ones about app indexing. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a list of the stuff they found most interesting. This one’s for the normals.
1. A DIY virtual reality platform
My colleague Lily Newman has more on this, but here are the basics. A year ago the company announced Google Cardboard, a do-it-yourself virtual-reality kit so simple that it seemed to border on satire. It turned out to be pretty nifty, and more than 1 million people downloaded the app. (You can read my full Slate review of it here.) This year Google decided to build a whole ecosystem around it.
It has revamped the hardware to fit more phones, launched a new software kit for Cardboard app developers, and developed a platform called Jump that will allow people to create and view all sorts of virtual-reality content. To facilitate that, Google worked with GoPro to build a badass panoramic video camera called Array. Array has 16 separate cameras: Google’s software stitches together the footage to create seamless 360-degree video. Starting this summer, YouTube will support virtual-reality videos created via Jump.
All cool, yes, but is there a higher purpose? Google thinks so. For example, it touted a program called Google Expeditions aimed at school classrooms. Every student gets a smartphone and Cardboard, and the teacher uses a tablet to guide them all on a VR field trip of, say, the Great Wall of China, or—why not?—Mars.
So the Cardboard Expeditions are like the Magic School Bus, right? Where is Ms. Frizzle.— Christina Warren (@film_girl) May 28, 2015
2. A smarter, creepier personal assistant
Google Now is the Google feature that keeps tabs on your email, calendar, location, and more to send you notifications when your favorite sports team is about to be on TV or it’s time to leave for your next appointment. This, more than any other product, exemplifies the future of Google and maybe of mobile computing in general. And it’s about to get a lot more powerful.
The next step is called Now on Tap. It brings Google’s personal-assistant software into whatever you’re doing on your phone, including third-party apps. So if you’re listening to Skrillex on Spotify, you can ask your Android phone, “What’s his real name?” Google’s machine-learning software will intuit that “his” refers to Skrillex, and it will respond, without taking you out of the Spotify app: “Sonny John Moore.”
Now on Tap will also allow Google to butt into your private correspondence, just like a real personal assistant. For instance, say your deadbeat spouse sends you a text saying he forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, then asking if you want to get dinner at Evvia. Now on Tap will pull up a card for Evvia from which you can easily browse the menu, read Yelp reviews, make an OpenTable reservation, or ask how to pronounce “spanakotiropita.” And then it will pull up a second card suggesting that you set a reminder to pick up the dry cleaning yourself.
And with that, Google moves one step closer to building the Star Trek computer.
3. A great photo app with unlimited free storage
In the wasteland that is Google Plus, there has quietly existed one killer app: photo storage. My former colleague Farhad Manjoo sang the praises of Google’s photo-storage features two years ago, but they’ve remained tainted by association with the failed Google Plus brand. No more. Google announced on Thursday a new standalone service, Google Photos, that offers many of Google Plus’s best features without the clunky social-network trappings.
Those features include automatic organization—grouping your photos by people, place, time, and event—plus a powerful search function that lets you search for, say, “photos of that snowstorm in Toronto a few years back” and quickly pull up the images you had in mind. They also include some nifty auto-editing and collage-making tools. Your photos sync across all your devices, and the Google Photos app is available for iOS as well as Android and the Web. In an overdue development, you can now share your photos quickly and easily to your social network of choice—which Google has finally admitted probably does not include Google Plus.
Oh, and Google is offering unlimited storage of high-quality images and videos—up to 16MP for photos and 1080p for video. This is not great news for Flickr. Or Google Plus, for that matter.
4. Better privacy for Android apps
When you download an Android app, it asks you upfront for permission to access all sorts of private data stored on your phone. You have to say “yes” without having any real idea of how that data will be used. There’s an incentive to just sigh and hand over everything. This has also led to some unnecessary freakouts, like when people briefly went nuts over Facebook Messenger requesting access to their cameras and microphones.
Android M, the next version of Google’s mobile operating system, will come with a much smarter app-permission system that allows you to download an app first and then selectively allow or disallow access to various types of data as they become relevant. Not the sexiest update, but it’s an important one for privacy, security, and transparency.
offline Google maps is SO COOL k bai— Caroline O'Donovan (@ceodonovan) May 28, 2015
5. Offline directions for Google Maps
This one is pretty straightforward, but nonetheless welcome. By year’s end, Google says you’ll be able to do much of what you can do today on Google Maps, including getting turn-by-turn directions, without an Internet connection. It appears you’ll have to save a map of a given region to your Google account first. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to search it and get directions within it even when you’re offline, provided your phone’s GPS is working.
6. Data-saving features for people with crappy Internet
Android One is Google’s effort to make smartphone software that works better for people in rural areas and developing countries with limited Internet access. On Thursday it announced a new “light” search results page for that will let you search Google without using a bunch of data, starting with users in Indonesia. It also announced a version of Chrome that’s optimized for slow connections. This is great news for the millions of people who still struggle to get data on their phones. Maybe next Google can build a version of Chrome that actually works on a MacBook in the United States without crashing every seven minutes.
7. A battery-saving “deep sleep” mode for your phone
Android M will come with a feature called Doze that’s somewhere between “sleep” and “off.” When your mobile device detects that you haven’t touched it in a long time, it will go into a sort of hibernation, letting in only the most important kinds of notifications.
8. Another platform for all your Internet-connected junk
Brillo, which my colleague Lily Newman wrote about here, falls into the category of “things that Apple has already done.” For a while on Thursday, it looked like pretty much everything Google was announcing would fall into that category. But, as Newman explains, this is one where Google might have an edge. Brillo is Android software that will allow you to control stuff like your garage door, coffee maker, and thermostat from a single hub on your phone. Yes, that’s a lot like HomeKit, which Apple announced last fall. But HomeKit has been beset by delays and still isn’t ready.
9. Another way to pay for things with your phone
Did I mention that Google was playing a lot of catch-up Thursday? Android Pay sounds an awful lot like Apple Pay, with the chief difference being that it will be accepted at different places than Apple Pay is accepted. Which is fine, and Google has the right. But the whole point of paying with your smartphone was that you wouldn’t have to carry around five different competing credit cards anymore. Carrying around five different competing payment apps on your phone, each with its own protocol for accessing your bank account, is marginally less bulky, I suppose. But it doesn’t feel like quite the future we were promised.
10. Probably some other stuff
As I said, this was a long event. If I missed anything important, let me know in the comments. And no, an Android nanodegree does not count.
Google Just Announced Some Amazing Virtual Reality Tech, and It's Not a Fancy Headset
Virtual reality is one of those technologies that’s always supposed to be right around the corner, but it didn’t appear to be actually happening until Oculus and a few other companies started forging ahead a couple of years ago. Even then, VR didn’t really seem especially mainstream until Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014. Suddenly Samsung was debuting its Gear VR headset, and Microsoft was previewing HoloLens. But on Thursday Google made some VR announcements of its own, and they might be the biggest step forward yet.
Jump is the company’s new suite of VR production products. It includes a new camera rig developed with GoPro, software by Google that stitches footage from multiple cameras into seamless 360 degree film, and a player to host and display the finished product. The third component was relatively easy to implement, because it’s just YouTube. When you hear it, it makes so much sense that the way to get VR to take off is to host the content on the most popular video site in the world.
Google has also been developing new software and products for Jump, though. Google’s vice president of product management, Clay Bavor, explained that the company has created designs for a camera array that can be made out of different materials (like 3-D printer plastic, or machined metal) and arranges 16 cameras in a circle with the geometry specifically designed to optomize things like field of view and overlap. The plans will be available from Google for free, but the company also worked with GoPro, which will offer a version of the rig. For six months this device will be available to YouTube’s top creators—after which it will presumably get a consumer release.
The third component is Google’s specially designed software, which syncs every frame and uses context-aware algorithms to account for depth and eliminate seams where the footage is being melded together. Bavor said:
This is where the Google magic really begins. The Assembler takes 16 different video feeds and uses a combination of computational photography, computer vision, and a whole lot of computers to recreate the scene as viewed from thousands of in-between viewpoints everywhere along the circumference of the camera rig.
And after all of this, you don’t need a powerful computer or an expensive headset to view virtual reality footage on YouTube. Google’s solution is Cardboard, the simple viewer it debuted last year (and updated Thursday) that turns any smartphone into a VR headset. The plans are also freely available, and lots of companies have been developing apps for Cardboard or selling Cardboard kits. By letting the smartphones we already own be the limiting factor for graphics and processing power, Google is ensuring that average consumers will actually be able to access VR right away.
Google Just Stepped Up the Competition for Internet of Things Platforms
On Thursday, Google announced a new Internet of Things platform for Android called Brillo. Developed by Nest engineers, Brillo will work as a central place where users can access and control their Internet of Things devices through uniform standards that allow products from different manufacturers to coexist.
It's not a new idea. Almost a year ago, Apple introduced its HomeKit database, which had similar goals of standardizing protocols and partnering with third-party manufacturers to create interoperability. But it was clear at the time that Apple was a long way from offering an Internet of Things solution that “just works.” For one thing, the company’s HealthKit platform for quantified-self data came with a consumer app called Health in iOS 8. An analogous Home app was conspicuously missing.
Since then, it seems like HomeKit has been plagued with delays and setbacks. There are rumors that iOS 9 (which will probably be announced at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference in June) will finally include a Home app, but Apple has clearly missed its chance to get out in front and achieve Internet of Things dominance.
With Brillo’s common standard—called Weave—Google is working to enable any connected device to communicate with the cloud, a user’s smartphone, and also directly with users’ other smart devices. That last part is crucial, and if Weave works as well as Google claims, it will make it much easier to coordinate smart locks with thermostats or whatever other combinations you can imagine. It also doesn’t hurt that Google owns Nest, which makes products that might be the most recognizable face of the smart-home movement.
“We want to connect devices in a seamless and intuitive way and make them work better for users,” Google senior vice president Sundar Pichai said at Google’s I/O conference.
Resolved: Technology Will Take All Our Jobs. A Future Tense Debate.
Policy wonks and journalists like to fret about otherwise desirable technological progress subtracting millions entry-level jobs from the economy. For the most part, though, they haven’t worried over their own positions, preferring to speculate about those in manufacturing or the service sector. Surely no amount of computing power can write policy papers or newspaper columns, negotiate with Iran, oversee constituent services in a congressional office or, um, convene a debate at a think tank.
Or can it? Will the advent of truly nuanced, intuitive artificial intelligence render the majority of workers in all segments of the economy redundant? What would that mean for former think tank debate-conveners? Will we find ourselves in a glorious age of leisure for all, or will these developments merely intensify old inequalities? Or are all such questions just another tiresome bout of excessive hype (and Luddite angst) around technology that will invariably prove overblown?
We’ll debate these questions and more at 6:30 p.m. on June 4, 2015. Presented by Future Tense, the event will be held at ASU in D.C., 1834 Connecticut Avenue NW. It features a distinguished panel of participants arguing for and against the motion. You can find more information about the panelists below. To RSVP, click here.
The event will be streamed live on the New America website.
For the Motion:
Christine Rosen, Senior Editor, the New Atlantis
Gerry Canavan, Assistant Professor, English, Marquette University
Against the Motion:
James Kotecki, Manager of Media & Public Relations, Automated Insights
Ronald Bailey, Science Correspondent, Reason
Charter Promises Its Time Warner Cable Acquisition Won’t Hurt Net Neutrality
Charter is trying to acquire Time Warner Cable, but the company wants everyone to know it isn't like that other merger attempt. This one is wholesome, customer-centric, and respectful of net neutrality. At least that's what Charter's chief executive Tom Rutledge says.
Rutledge told the New York Times that the new Charter had no plans to “block, throttle or engage in paid prioritization of Internet traffic.” Net neutrality advocates will appreciate that claim, but they probably remember that other telecoms have made similar promises.
For example, a November Comcast blog post about the company's support of net neutrality said things like: "No blocking. We agree—and that is our practice" and "No throttling. We agree—and that is our practice." It sounded good, but the problem was that Comcast has totally blocked and throttled. At the time, Gizmodo went through the entire post to debunk Comcast's statements point by point.
Unfortunately, it's easy to find forums and other coverage indicating that Charter has probably engaged in throttling and blocking at various points, too. And as the Times points out, Charter and Time Warner Cable have relatively bad customer satisfaction ratings in surveys. Putting them together could create a whole new mess. Rutledge is optimistic. “I am not sure how the services will evolve, whether they will be sold in a big pack, a little pack or individually ... we are open to all of that,” he said.
You Don’t Have to Be a Snake Person to Laugh at This Chrome Extension That Turns Millennial Into Snake Person
When you are old, there are few things more sinister than a group of young people. They speak in an occult patois, they garb themselves in strange robes, and they work through the witching hour. Seen from the outside, youth is a secret society, and like all secret societies, it is equal parts contemptible, comical, and compelling.
This, at any rate, is the premise satirized by Millennials to Snake People, a new extension for Google’s Chrome browser that does more or less what it says on the tin, changing every instance of the word millennial on Web pages to snake person. As the extension’s author, Eric W. Bailey, winkingly explains, it “reveals the real truth behind” the loosely defined, much discussed generation.
Millennials to Snake People follows in the footsteps of a handful of similar extensions that playfully “fix” the language of the Internet. Last year, Slate’s Will Oremus extolled the merits of one that replaces every instance of the word literally—including those that are technically correct—with figuratively. And it has a more direct antecedent in Millennials Begone! which replaces millennial with pesky whipper-snapper.
Ultimately, neither Millenials to Snake People nor Millennials Begone! are making fun of the generation they pretend to mock. Instead, they’re parodying the way the way the media reports on millennials, capturing the weird attitude of geriatric demonology that inflects so many attempts to understand the young. These obsessive attempts to classify and characterize are ultimately empty gestures of control, attempts to regulate by naming and describing.
In this regard, it’s the little details that make Millennials to Snake People shine. Seen through the extension’s filter, one paragraph of the Terminology section of Wikipedia’s “Millennials” article reads, “Several alternative names have been proposed by various people: Caduceus Cult, Tannin’s Horde, Time of Nidhogg and the Damballa’s Coils,” referring to, among other things, a biblical sea serpent, a Norse dragon, and a powerful Haitian loa. These relatively obscure terms play off the similarly unfamiliar quality of the categories they replace, categories like “generation men” and “generation next” that failed to capture the public imagination.
If nothing else, Millennials to Snake People is good for a laugh or two. But if you install it, be warned: You may need to ask a snake person how to remove it from your browser.