The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 31 2014 1:52 PM

Horrid California Drought Gets Worse

New data released on Thursday from the U.S. Drought Monitor show a massive expansion of the worst level of drought conditions—“exceptional”—into Northern California over the last week.

California’s worst drought in 500 years began in 2011, and watching its spread is stunning:

California drought
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Exceptional drought now covers a majority of California, from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta, including the whole of the vast Central Valley, where America grows the bulk of dozens of agricultural commodities.

According to Brad Rippey, author of this week’s Drought Monitor report, the drought is creating lasting consequences. “California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year.” For perspective, 11.6 million acre-feet of water is equivalent to 3.8 trillion gallons—enough to provide eight glasses of drinking water per day for everyone on Earth for three years. That’s a lot of water.

The news comes after California announced statewide fines associated with water waste earlier this week, after earlier voluntary measures proved ineffective. From Time:

The new rules—the first statewide curbs on water use since the current drought began nearly three years ago—can lead to fines of up to $500 per day for using a hose to clean a sidewalk, running ornamental fountains that do not recirculate water and other wasteful behaviors.

Last week, a separate study by NASA and the University of California-Irvine found that more than 75 percent of Western water loss over the last 10 years came from excessive groundwater pumping. California is the only state that doesn’t restrict groundwater use, though state lawmakers are proposing legislation motivated by the worsening drought to change that. In my Thirsty West trip through the state earlier this year, it was clear that the continued expansion of politically powerful industrial agriculture is worsening the state’s water woes.

Should the drought get even worse over the coming months—which it may, now that a super strong El Niño is off the table—there isn’t any room left to upgrade it now that the official drought scales are maxed out. The painful phase of this drought has begun. It’s time for sacrifices.

Farmers: You’ve had your chance. It’s time to submit to restrictions on groundwater pumping, if only to ensure your future survival in the state. Cities: Prepare to pay more for food as a result. It’s a best-case tradeoff in a worst-case scenario.

The alternative is ugly: hordes of San Francisco hipsters invading stodgy Marin County, the last bastion of sub-exceptional drought.

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July 31 2014 1:04 PM

Are Smart Glasses Really a Thing That’s Happening?

Did you know that there are Google Glass competitors? Other smart glasses that project a screen in your field of view? I didn't. I guess I was vaguely aware that if Google is doing something, other companies must be trying it, too, but I wasn’t focused on it. Which was dumb of me.

It’s been a year since I first tried out Glass and two years since Google started talking about the product. That’s a lot of time in tech development terms—enough time for ideas that were nascent in 2010 or 2011 to turn into prototypes and even pilot programs. So in the past couple of weeks I decided to catch up and tried two different versions of smart glasses, offerings from Atheer Labs and Epson.

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These aren’t virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus. They don’t place you in what is essentially an immersive video. Instead they create a “screen” somewhere in your field of vision where you can get information or superimpose images onto what you’re seeing/encountering in the real world. Basically, the lenses use teeny projectors and optical technology to create a personal display. What you're seeing sort of looks like a hologram hovering in front of you. (Some smart glasses even display in 3-D.)

But what are they for, and do they work? Google Glass is primarily a consumer device that does similar things to a smartphone. You can write emails, read notifications, view Google Maps information, get directions, etc. There are professional uses, too: For instance, medical workers are trying out Glass for things like easily accessing patient information in a hospital setting.

Smart glasses seem like a logical next step in the evolution of smart devices because they can get infinitely small without sacrificing immersion. As Soulaiman Itani, the founder of Atheer Labs, notes, the devices we use now—like smartphones, tablets, and laptops—are redundant. What they’re each offering is a different degree of portability vs. screen size. They're also inherently contradictory because we want them to get smaller and lighter without sacrificing their ability to display content or our ability to control them. With smart glasses, the display can get bigger, better, and sharper while the physical technology contrinues to shrink.

Both Atheer and Epson are mainly marketing their smart glasses for professional settings. In fields like manufacturing and medicine, there’s a big need for all-in-one solutions, and attractiveness of the glasses and their software isn’t as important as it is in the consumer market. Furthermore, workers have to train extensively with any new tool anyway, so it doesn’t matter as much if it takes a little while to get comfortable using the glasses. Atheer has partners in construction that are doing things like aerospace design or civil engineering; Epson has automotive and appliance companies doing marketing and repair training with employees on the glasses. The idea is to replace tablets that require people to continuously look up and down, and also take advantage of the context-aware features in smart glasses that allow people to see and interact with 3-D renderings.

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Trying out Epson's Moverio glasses.

Photo by Michael Leyva.

You control Glass using voice commands and gestures on the side of the device near your right temple. The headset from Atheer Labs uses voice, head motions, and most importantly a touchscreen transposed onto the air for commands. Basically a camera mounted on the glasses tracks your fingers and does depth calculations to figure out when you’re “tapping” something you're seeing in your glasses. And the Moverio headset from Epson has a few touch inputs on the glasses themselves but mainly uses a physical trackpad to control a cursor.

All three devices are at different stages of actual functionality. Glass accepts commands pretty well once you learn the system of swipes and taps, though Glass offers audio output for things like phone calls that can be hard to hear in places with a lot of ambient noise. The glasses from Atheer Labs are the most impressive in terms of presenting elegant solutions that put you in control and make you feel like you're in Minority Report. (In the top photo I’m swiping away at the air while playing Fruit Ninja on the glasses. Fun!) But the tech needs to develop more to feel stable and reliable.

With the Moverio glasses, the battery and trackpad are in a little brick that you keep in your pocket, and it’s wired to the glasses. It’s a less futuristic solution, but certainly makes sense in the short term since getting long life out of a tiny battery is still a problem. It’s also a more intermediate step between current mainstream tech like laptops and the glasses of the future. The trackpad-and-cursor approach feels familiar in a good way. The problem is, the Moverio’s trackpad didn’t seem quite as sensitive and responsive as I wanted it to be, so using it was a little distracting.

Right now the technology is still limited, but unlike smartwatches that have yet to convince me of their usefulness, I could easily see how smart glasses could seamlessly enhance lots of situations. Google Glass famously costs $1,500 and is now available to anyone, though the product is still in beta and hasn’t had its commercial release. Epson’s Moverio glasses are already on the market, and you can order them for $700. I wouldn’t buy any of these now, but if, like me, you hadn't really thought about whether smart glasses other than Glass were even in development, consider yourself put on notice: They’re definitely here and they’re getting awesome.

July 31 2014 12:59 PM

Former NSA Chief Keith Alexander Is Profiting on Cybersecurity. But Is It Legal?

In his review of This Town, Mark Leibovich’s account of the machinations of Washington, D.C., Frank Rich noted that in 2008, Obama said, “When I am president, I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that’s allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers.” Perhaps he should have extended the hard word to ex-apparatchiks going into security consulting?

When Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency and head of the U.S. Cyber Command, announced he was retiring in 2013 and almost immediately added that he was going into cybersecurity consulting, no one was particularly shocked. Exiting administration officials moving to the private sector and monetizing the connections and knowledge they gained during their government days is unsavory, perhaps, but far from unusual. Eyes did water at the amount Alexander was purported to be asking for his advice, though—$1 million per month.

July 31 2014 11:00 AM

How the NSA Hurts Our Economy, Cybersecurity, and Foreign Policy

This piece also appeared in New America’s Weekly Wonk.

More than a year after the Snowden revelations, we’re clearly still grappling with the effects of NSA surveillance.

As Congress prepares for the August recess, Sen. Patrick Leahy has just introduced a new version of the USA FREEDOM Act, which aims to curb the NSA’s bulk collection and surveillance powers. Calls for immediate, serious reforms are growing louder by the day as new evidence continues to emerge about how much NSA surveillance is costing us—in terms of both the economy and our cybersecurity.

July 31 2014 10:49 AM

The Connected Home May Become the Collected Home  

The era of the smart home is upon us: Sensor-based devices throughout your living quarters will learn your behaviors to increase convenience and optimize savings. What most people haven’t considered, however, is how the personal data reflecting our intimate actions at home will merge with existing advertising data to provide “an inside track” on our lives. Someday soon our Kinect may register our facial expression during food commercials and send the data directly to our smart fridge and health insurance carriers.  Or blood pressure data during sex will be analyzed to spur Cialis sales.  Soon concierge robots centralizing multiple duties will be able to speak to us directly, making the old saw, “If these walls could talk” into a reality.  And the data mining and profiling practices already in place guarantee that those walls will also be listening.

July 30 2014 5:55 PM

Pretty Much Everyone Agrees That Bogus Charges on Your Cellphone Bill Need to Stop

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission accused T-Mobile of cramming, or adding unauthorized charges to users’ cellphone bills. And now both the FTC and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are coming out against the practice and reporting on its problematic ubiquity.

Cramming works by burying deceptive third-party charges in a bill’s list of fees so consumers won’t even notice or will assume the line item is warranted. Cramming dates back to bills for landlines, and telecom companies later evolved to hide charges in extra-cost text messages, known as premium short message services. But even though the practice has mostly been stopped for wired telephones and texts, it lives on in a system called direct carrier billing.

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In a report released on Monday, the FTC noted, “In six recent enforcement actions, the Commission has alleged that such practices have cost consumers many millions of dollars, and in just three of these actions, defendants have agreed to orders imposing judgments totaling more than $160 million.”

Meanwhile, in a report released on Wednesday, the Senate committee described cramming as a billion-dollar industry that garners revenues for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The committee said that these carriers can hold on to as much as 30 to 40 percent of the vendor charges on customer bills, and that the telecom industry has wrongly dismissed cramming as a minor problem when it actually costs consumers millions of dollars a year. The report explains, “vendors using websites and apps connect to carrier billing platforms. Direct carrier billing methods are relatively nascent, and it is not possible at this stage to predict the extent to which scammers will find ways to cram charges on wireless bills.”

The FTC and Senate committee both claim that they will prevent cramming from continuing. The commission concludes that it “will continue to monitor the issue of cramming on mobile phone accounts and evaluate whether other potential solutions—including legislative measures and additional regulatory changes–are necessary to ensure consumers are protected from unwanted and unauthorized charges.” And it outlines five industry best practices that would create a safer environment for consumers:

1. Mobile carriers should give consumers the option to block all third-party charges on their phone accounts.

2. Advertisements for products or services charged to a mobile bill must not be deceptive.

3. It is critical that consumers provide their express, informed consent to charges before they are billed to a mobile account, and that reliable records of such authorizations are maintained.

4. All charges for third-party services should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed to consumers in a non-deceptive manner.

5. Carriers should implement an effective dispute resolution process.

Based on how hard it’s been to shake the con so far, it seems unlikely that this wave of scrutiny will stamp it out for good, but in the meantime consumers can dispute charges they think are unwarranted, and hopefully with multiple agencies working on the issue, it will be easier for customers who think they’ve been wronged to seek protection.

July 30 2014 5:52 PM

Meet Johnny Dronehunter, Shotgun-Toting Defender of American Privacy

In the not-too-distant future, privacy will be a thing of the past, with drones roaming the skies and keeping tabs on the American public like the subjegated citizens of Panem. With a real-life Katniss nowhere to be found, who will be the only hope for us in this bleak, dystopian future? A tattooed vigilante named Johnny Dronehunter and his silenced shotgun, apparently.

That's the premise of a new—and particularly absurd—ad from Utah-based company SilencerCo for its new supressor line, the Salvo 12. In the hyperbolic promo (which you can watch above), our hero is seen chasing down a drone via car before he pulls over, grabs his large, silenced shotgun, and blasts the hovering symbol of tyranny right out of the sky. When five more drones close in, they meet a similar fate. Johnny Dronehunter does one thing exceedingly well (and quietly), and that's hunting drones. Sorry for the spoiler.

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According to SilencerCo CEO Josh Waldron—who was interviewed via email for the Vice blog Motherboard—the company "created Johnny Dronehunter and intend to continue a series of videos in this vein with him as the main character to represent the Americans who feel they don't have an appropriate voice in this privacy debate." As well as to, presumably, increase the sales of what SilencerCo is calling "the first commercially viable shotgun silencer."

There are, of course, a numbers of flaws in this general premise—like, for instance, is a suppressed shotgun really the optimal weapon for hunting drones? Also, why would there be a cluster of drones in the middle of the desert? That seems to be an especially wasteful use of surveillance resources. Mostly, though, given that the use of government drones on American soil is an issue that demands to be taken seriously, fantasizing about blowing them to pieces doesn't seem to lend itself being an appropriate voice in what should be an important and thoughtful debate.

Plus, not for nothing, but shooting down a drone is, by all accounts, almost impossibly hard to do.

But hey, sick silencer, Johnny.

July 30 2014 5:28 PM

It's Flash Flood Season in Colorado, and We May Not Even Know When They Start

With the American monsoon season in full swing (yep, there is such a thing), this is the time of year when epic dust storms sweep through Arizona and normally idyllic Colorado mountain streams can turn into raging torrents.

Right on cue, the National Weather Service has been tracking a potential flash flood threat along the Front Range of Colorado for days now.

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A second day of heavy rain is expected across northern Colorado on Wednesday.

Image: NOAA

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After heavy rain for the better part of two days, totals are starting to add up. Radar estimates and a network of citizen-science rain gauges indicate as much as 6 to 8 inches of rain have fallen in isolated parts of Colorado—half the annual average—though most places have received closer to 2 or 3 inches. On Tuesday, Denver set a new record for that day’s rainfall with 1.8 inches, breaking the previous mark of 1.44 inches set in 1989. Weather records in Denver begin in 1872.

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Radar estimates show that as much as 6 to 8 inches of rain has fallen across northern Colorado since Tuesday.

Image: National Weather Service

While the current round of flooding probably won’t cause widespread impacts, the weather pattern is still packing some hefty moisture content—around the 90th percentile for late July, according to the National Weather Service. Now that the ground is saturated pretty much all the way to Oklahoma, there’s nothing impeding all that water from reaching the mountains. The NWS says moderate rains should continue across Colorado “in full force” for the better part of the next seven days or so. Writing on his personal blog Tuesday night, hydrometeorologist Matt Kelsch said the current setup is similar to that which produced epic rains in the region just last year:

The general pattern today, last September, and in other big rain events share some basic similarities. 1) A weak atmospheric disturbance is enhancing mid-level “monsoon” moisture from the tropical Pacific, 2) humid easterly flow in the low levels will bring in Great Plains moisture, and 3) the upslope flow combined with instability will help to turn that moisture into clouds and precipitation.

In an email, he told me that while flooding this time may cause some problems, it’s “not on the order of last September.”

Although this has been a particularly well-forecasted event, meteorologists are flying partially blind due to the aftermath of record-breaking floods last year. Stream gauges along the Big Thompson River that were washed out by last September’s mega-flood are still out of commission. In 1976, the Big Thompson produced the deadliest flash flood in Colorado history. Last year’s flood was more widespread and lasted much longer than the 1976 flood.

Forecasting a flood and actually tracking one are two different things. To forecast floods, meteorologists use weather models and rainfall to estimate the probability of a big event happening. But when trying to track floods as they’re happening, nothing beats a stream gauge.

And many parts of the increasingly urbanized Front Range simply don’t have them. As Kelsch told me in an email, “The gauges were few and far between anyway. And in most small flash flood prone basins, there were never any stream gauges.”

Thanks to rapid urbanization (Colorado’s population has doubled since 1976) and global warming (a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor), the risk posed by heavy rainstorms in the mountains funneling their way through narrow canyons and into the urban conglomeration has never been higher.

If this week’s Front Range threat is any indication, meteorologists that measure and predict such floods are already having trouble keeping up.

July 30 2014 4:47 PM

What Other Secret Experiments Are Companies Running on You?

Facebook and the dating site OkCupid have each recently admitted to running secret experiments on their users.

Facebook loaded some users’ news feeds with more negative posts from their friends and family to see if it would make them less happy and engaged with the site. (Surprise: It did.) OkCupid lied to some users about their compatibility with potential dates to see if they’d still get together. (Surprise: They did, although not quite as often as they got together with people with whom they were actually compatible.)

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Both experiments led to consternation among users who didn’t appreciate being treated as psych subjects without their knowledge. But OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder set the whiners straight with a blog post vindicating the site’s actions. “Guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” The Harvard Business Review agrees: “The real problem in corporate America isn’t too many experiments—it’s too few.”

Thus reassured that we’re the crazy ones for expecting companies not to deceive us about their products and business practices, we couldn’t help but wonder: What other totally ethical clandestine experiments might our corporate overlords be running in the name of science and profit?

We won’t know until they deign to tell us. (Not that they owe us anything, of course. We’re just data points!) But here are a few guesses, along with the contributions to human knowledge that they might be expected to yield.

  • Does food poisoning make people less happy? Yelp investigates by switching its worst-rated sushi restaurants’ reviews with those of its most highly rated.
    Hypothesis: Some people will get sick, but others will eat the bad sushi and give it five stars.
  • Are alcohol’s effects partly psychosomatic? Inspired by the keg party episode from Freaks and Geeks, Anheuser-Busch substitutes O’Douls for Bud Light in every third six-pack.
    Hypothesis: Most customers will still act drunk, although some will wonder why their beer tastes slightly less metallic than usual.
  • Are counterfeit handbags really such a turn-off to fashionistas? Exploring cost-saving measures, Louis Vuitton tries replacing all the merchandise in a subset of its stores with knockoffs from New York City street vendors.
    Hypothesis: Kanye West
    will call for a boycott.
Companies conducting research
Why put the same product in every can when you could be conducting valuable scientific research?

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com

  • Is truth less profitable than fiction? The Mail Online runs an A/B test to find out whether real news stories get as many page-views as the ones it fabricates.
    Hypothesis: If you sensationalize the headlines enough, it makes very little difference.
  • Do empty inboxes make people lonely? The inquiring minds at Yahoo Mail introduce a software bug that halts delivery of messages to millions of users for days at a time.
    Hypothesis: Users will be sad and outraged, but most will not leave the service as long as Marissa Mayer
    apologizes very sincerely.
  • Are yuppie liberals as sensitive to gluten as they think? To get to the bottom of the latest food craze, Whole Foods injects gluten into some products labeled “gluten-free.”
    Hypothesis: Only a small percentage of customers will require hospitalization.
  • How gullible are heroin addicts? In the face of flagging sales, the Barksdale Crew renames its product and changes the caps from red to blue.
    Hypothesis: The junkies will eventually notice the difference, forcing the crew to strike a deal with Proposition Joe.
  • Nature or nurture? To help shed light on an age-old question, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center swaps 5 percent of babies at birth without notifying their parents.
    Hypothesis: Most parents will still love the children, and some will in fact greatly prefer them to their biological spawn.
  • Is one religion as good as the next? A scientifically curious group of priests, rabbis, and imams investigate by trading sermons for a few weeks.
    Hypothesis: Admission rates to heaven will remain unchanged.

Previously in Slate:

July 30 2014 3:47 PM

Netizen Report: Colombia May Jail Grad Student for Sharing a Research Paper Online

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Juan Arellano, Ellery Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Colombia, where two pending court cases concerning defamation and an alleged copyright violation could send free expression in the country on a rapid, downward spiral.

In one case, biology graduate student Diego Gomez could face between four and eight years in prison for posting another academic’s research on the file sharing site Scribd. The 26-year-old is being prosecuted under a criminal law that was reformed in 2006, as the result of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. Though it was intended to fulfill the trade agreement’s restrictive copyright standards, the law expanded criminal penalties for copyright infringement, increasing possible prison sentences and monetary fines.

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