The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 29 2015 6:17 PM

If You Want to Call Internet "Broadband," It Better Actually Be Fast

The Federal Communications Commission has defined broadband-caliber Internet rates as 4 Megabits per second download and 1 Megabit per second upload since 2010. But now the agency is cranking it up. It announced Thursday that as part of the 2015 Broadband Progress Report, it is changing the definition of "broadband" to 25Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

The FCC says that under these new standards, 17 percent of Americans don't have access to "broadband." And 53 percent of rural Americans (about 22 million people) lack access. "When 80 percent of Americans can access 25-3, that's a standard. We have a problem that 20 percent can't. We have a responsibility to that 20 percent," FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler said, according to the Verge.


The broadband definition revision is in line with another decision the FCC made in December to require companies receiving Connect America funding (available to Internet service providers expanding into rural areas) to provide users with 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.  

Having built up some momentum, it seems like the logical next step for the FCC to up the speeds required for a service to qualify as broadband, but not everyone agrees. The National Communications and Telecommunications Association, which represents the, ahem, cable industry, said in a statement, "While cable network Internet speeds already meet and exceed the FCC’s new broadband description, we are troubled that the Commission majority has arbitrarily chosen a definition of broadband."

There's still a lot to do to make consistent, high-quality Internet access available to everyone in the United States. As the FCC notes, "The divide is still greater on Tribal lands and in U.S. territories, where nearly 2/3 of residents lack access to today’s speeds. And 35 percent of schools across the nation still lack access to fiber networks." But the FCC's push to redefine "broadband" seems to be helping.

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Jan. 29 2015 5:34 PM

First-Class Flyers Get to Try Virtual Reality, Coach Passengers Stuck in Real Reality 

On most plane trips, I try to block out my sweaty, track pants–wearing fellow travelers with an eye mask and iPad. But from mid-March, I can ignore them behind an immersive, virtual reality headset—if I’m flying first class.

The Australian airline Qantas, in partnership with Samsung Electronics Australia, just announced that it will offer virtual-reality technology on some flights. For three months, a few lucky travelers in the Sydney and Melbourne International First Lounges and in the first class cabin on certain A380 flights between Australia and Los Angeles will be able to live out the roughly 13-hour trip in virtual reality—the kind not caused by vast quantities of Veuve Clicquot.


“From an inflight entertainment perspective, it’s an industry first,” said Qantas Group Executive Olivia Wirth in a press release. Passengers will be able to access tailored entertainment options with their Samsung Gear VR headsets, as well as preview some destinations. The Northern Territory tourism bureau is already on board, with Qantas to include a 3-D experience of the splendid Kakadu National Park.

The Samsung Gear VR, which currently retails at $199.99, recently went on sale at Best Buy. As The Verge noted, the move was somewhat surprising, given that Samsung has long insisted that the headset is in its first iteration, meant for “content creators and VR enthusiasts” rather than general consumers.

Apparently, it’s now ready for big-box store shoppers and, if Qantas’ promotional video is accurate, attractive young people, whose heads will be rotating like fairground clowns on your next Sydney–to–Los Angeles flight. You might think that there would be nothing more annoying than the passenger sitting next to you swiveling madly in their seat. However, let me gently point out the sheer size of the “pod” you get in Qantas’ A380 first class cabin (or take a look at the YouTube subcategory of gracious people who have documented their entire first-class trip).

The more virtual reality the better, I say. But give us plebeians a go. The rich already live in a more rarefied world than the rest of us. Now they get the virtual one, too?

Jan. 29 2015 4:17 PM

Horrible California Drought Is Now Even More Horrible

California’s epic drought is about to set another seemingly unbreakable record.

With just two days remaining in the month, no rain in the forecast, and a monster ridge of high pressure camped out overhead, San Francisco is now all but assured of its driest January in city history—exactly zero (that’s right, 0.00) inches have fallen so far.

If the dearth of raindrops holds out, it will beat the record set last year, when just 0.01 inches fell at the airport. The long-term average rainfall in San Francisco in January is about 4.5 inches, with records dating continuously back to 1850. In the past, the city has received up to 14.5 inches in January (in 1916).

Jan. 29 2015 3:02 PM

A 125-Year-Old Letter Dives Into the True Meaning Of the Word Hack

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

If you walk through the heart of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, you’ll find a rather imposing two-story mural painted by artist Brian Barnecio. It looks like a massive totem pole filled with abstract shapes that resemble lips and eyeballs and boxes of ping-pong balls, and in the middle of it all, there’s a single word: hack.


In the late ’80s and on into the ’90s and early 2000s, hack was a dirty word. It evoked danger and criminal activity. It was all about breaking into computer systems, telephone networks, and other vulnerable technology. People who knew their computer history disagreed, but the negative connotation took hold in the mainstream. But over the past decade, hacker has been rehabilitated. Today, it seems, everyone wants to be a hacker. Facebook has gone a long way towards renovating the word, building its massive successful company around the idea that hacking is a good thing, a way of transforming technologies into something better.

Hacking litters the Facebook campus. It was the subject of Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-IPO manifesto, titled “The Hacker Way.” And every year, the company runs a campuswide competition called “Hacktober,” where employees break into each others’ systems with an eye toward making them stronger, not weaker.

Thanks to Zuckerberg, Facebook, and so many other ambitious software developers across Silicon Valley, hack is today a word with two meanings. We have white-hat hackers who build cool new apps and creatively blaze new paths, and we have black-hat hackers who brazenly compromise Sony’s email systems.

What’s the true meaning of the word? Was that it originally positive or negative? The question is more complicated than you might think. We can’t give you a definitive answer, but we have turned up a new piece of the puzzle. Before it entered the world of technology, the word carried a special meaning in the world of 19th century cockfighting. And for what it’s worth, it was a kind of attack, not a means of creation.

The MIT Origins

Hack dates back to at least the Middle English period (sometime between 1150 and 1500), and even in modern times, its evolution is rather byzantine. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it arrived several hundred years ago, carrying another of its current meanings, namely to “cut with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion.”

But the sense that that gets thrown around Silicon Valley is, as you might expect, distinctly modern. You can trace its roots to the M.I.T. Tech Model Railroad Club, which in 1955 added this note to its minutes: “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”

If you browse through back issues of The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, you can see it evolve, always maintaining the more playful meaning. A 1959 announcement for an upcoming Sigma Phi Epsilon circus party has one fraternity member promising to “ ‘hack around’ in a gorilla suit.” And today at the university, “hacks” are what they call great pranks, preferably displaying awesome technical virtuosity.

For those in the black-hat camp, however, the clincher comes in November 1963. That’s the first known reference to computer hacking, and in that case, it clearly describes a criminal trespass, with hackers connecting a PDP-1 computer to the MIT telephone system and launching what’s known as a brute-force attack. The Tech’s headline: “Telephone Hackers Active.”

So the white-hat hackers get to say that their sense of the word is the oldest, while the black hats get to claim the first computer connection.

The Cockfighting Connection

And now, we have a little bit of sand to throw into this age-old and ultimately unresolvable dilemma. It comes courtesy Emily Brewster, an editor with Merriam-Webster. She dug through Merriam-Webster’s archives and came up with this April 4, 1890, letter written to G. & C. Merriam & Co. by one A.W. Douglas, on the letterhead of the Simmons Hardware Company, of St. Louis, Missouri.

Douglas notes that the current dictionary omits a word that is used colloquially and originated in cockfighting. “When one cock whips another and the vanquished always afterwards runs when he sees the victor. It is the word ‘hack,’ and to be ‘under hack’ is to be afraid of some one,” he writes.

Is it possible that Southern cockfighting jargon somehow made the leap to the stately campus of MIT more than 60 years later and then ultimately onto the walls of Facebook? Maybe. But Brewster doesn’t think so. “I’m sorry to say we have nothing so definitive as a direct relationship between cockfighting and either goofy pranks or malicious computer related activity,” she says. “It’s wholly possible that the meanings developed completely independent of one another.”

Merriam-Webster, by the way, says that the two modern meanings of hack (“to write computer programs for enjoyment” and “to gain access illegally to a computer”) are etymologically fused. “We have no evidence for these uses having different origins, so they’ll continue to have to share space in a single entry,” she says.

Still, given the U.S. current hysteria about the threat of hackers, the image of a frightened chicken “under hack,” carries at least a peck of metaphoric weight, even today.

Thanks for writing, Mr. Douglas.

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Jan. 29 2015 2:08 PM

Replica Mars Mission in Utah Desert Disrupted by Fire

At a simulated Mars research station in the Utah desert, a recent fire caused extensive damage to a central greenhouse. No one in the four-member crew was injured, but the incident is a sobering reminder of what could go wrong during a mission to Mars.

The idea of a manned mission to Mars is moving closer to feasability, but there are a lot of details to work out first. What are the ethical implications of such a mission? Should a Mars crew be all female? What's the best way to set up a station on Mars that can support human life? To answer these questions and many more, groups like the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), which is owned and operated by the Mars Society, explore the logistics of creating a safe and self-sustaining environment for humans on both a spacecraft and Mars itself.


On Dec. 29, the first day of a new mission, the MDRS crew members noticed an unusual power surge and then saw smoke coming from the greenhouse, nicknamed the GreenHab. An electrical heater placed too close to some wooden shelves had started a fire, which in turn was causing the power surge as it compromised outlets in the greenhouse. As reports, the crew attempted to extinguish the fire while it was still relatively small, but it grew, with flames reaching about 10 feet into the air.

After about a half-hour, the crew was able to contain the situation by cutting power to the GreenHab, and using fire extinguishers and water to control the flames. MDRS is 20 to 30 minutes away from the nearest town—Hanksville, Utah—so emergency response vehicles couldn't reach the site immediately. The Wayne County sheriff did respond later that day, though, and a few days after a fire marshal ruled the incident an accident.

"The fire did make me think about how to handle such a situation on Mars," said Nick Orenstein, the crew commander at the time of the fire. The GreenHab will eventually be rebuilt with nonwood materials, and Orenstein emphasized the importance of material choice in mission structures. "Training and protective equipment is also important so that in an emergency the crew can react quickly and with confidence. ... On real Mars, the long minutes it takes to put on a spacesuit may be the time it takes for the fire to grow out of control."

Orenstein noted that Wednesday was NASA's Day of Remembrance for individuals who have died while pursuing space exploration. "I honor their pioneering dedication," he said. And though the fire was a significant, and scary, setback, he added, "I'm still practicing for real Mars, and ready to go."

Jan. 29 2015 12:37 PM

Google Can’t Tell You When the Government Wants Your Data. Here’s a Sneaky Solution.

Let’s imagine a world where telecommunications providers and online services pay more than lip service to users' privacy and security. In such a place, they send an email to every customer and user each morning, with words to this effect:

“As of this date, we have not received any requests or demands from law enforcement, or any other parties, seeking information about your data and/or other activities with our service.”

One morning, in the case of a (hopefully) small number of recipients, the email would not appear. This would, in effect, be a notification that such a request or demand had, indeed, arrived.

Jan. 28 2015 5:34 PM

Would You Join a Social Network That Only Shows Posts From Friends Who Agree With You?

Social media is all about democratization of information, free expression, and widespread sharing. It's supposed to be a tool for getting closer to people and expanding open discourse. But that's not always what people are looking for when they log on. Often they just want others to affirm their beliefs. That's what JYNX is for.

The social network is a parody thought up by comedy network Above Average. On JYNX you only see posts from like-minded friends, and if you and a friend post the same thing you get jynxed! More jynxes mean a higher jynx score, which shows people how popular your opinions are, "regardless of whether they're right or wrong." The sketch explains:

With JYNX, you only see posts from friends who agree with your views on social issues, politics, and entertainment. ... You won't see any more updates from your slightly racist uncle unless you're slightly racist, in which case, that's all you'll see!

The sketch pokes fun at the ways in which our social circles are insular and homogenous. But it also brings up real questions about what it means to mute someone on Twitter or defriend them on Facebook (excluding attempts to reduce exposure to hate speech, of course). Some social networks are largely geared at people you know, or have at least met, in real life. If the people you know have similar views to yours, your feed will largely reflect that. But some services like Google Plus and Twitter allow you to see posts from pretty much any other user. Maybe those are the forums where you can get as far away from JYNX as possible.

Jan. 28 2015 4:48 PM

Governments Are Cracking Down on Drones. Why Are Drone-Makers Helping Them?

In the early morning hours Monday, a small drone operated by a drunk American spy agency employee crashed on the White House grounds. While many observers found the incident rather entertaining, the drone's manufacturer, DJI, did not: It announced that it was going to update the software controlling the drone to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. It will accomplish this by expanding the no-fly zones already coded into the aircraft's software. The ability of DJI to exert control from a distance over where its aircraft are flown is exemplary of what legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has called the threat code poses to liberty.

DJI is a privately held Chinese company. Company spokesman Michael Perry says that though DJI doesn't release specific sales figures, the Phantom line of drones (the type that crashed at the White House) are the world's most popular drones. DJI sells several variants of the Phantom, all of which are equipped with built-in GPS units. That GPS capability makes the Phantom easier to fly—it can, for instance, hover without pilot intervention at specific GPS coordinates even in a moderately strong wind. But the GPS also introduces the possibility of outside control.

Jan. 28 2015 2:44 PM

The Teeniest Chess Game Is 487 Bytes

In 2012 the average iOS mobile game was 60 MB and the average Android game was 40 MB. Those numbers have only increased since, but there's a countermovement happening, too. Writing tiny programs is challenging and engaging because every byte matters.

On Tuesday, Canadian development group Red Sector Inc. posted BootChess, which at 487 bytes takes the record for smallest digital chess game. The old record was held by the 1024 byte 1K ZX Chess, which reigned for 33 years. BootChess isn't flashy—there isn't a lot of room for graphics in 487 bytes—but most average chess players can enjoy the teeny version. (Skilled players will probably find BootChess easy to beat.)


The format uses standard chess notation with capital letters for white pieces and lower case letters for black pieces. BootChess runs on Windows, Linux, OS X, and other operating systems.

Since 1 MB equals 1,000,000 bytes and mobile games can easily reach 100 MB or even bigger (not to mention full desktop computer games), a 487-byte chess game is a tough thing to build. One commenter writes, "I just started a quick game ... i am already sure i'll win this, but hey, i am a club level chess player ;) Will dive deep into the code later, for now i'll just say : WOW! Great release!" Chess triumphs are happening all around us.

Jan. 28 2015 11:46 AM

The DOJ Gets It Wrong on Tor and Child Porn

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

The debate over online anonymity, and all the whistleblowers, trolls, anarchists, journalists, and political dissidents it enables, is messy enough. It doesn’t need the U.S. government making up bogus statistics about how much that anonymity facilitates child pornography.


At the State of the Net conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell discussed what she described as the dangers of encryption and cryptographic anonymity tools like Tor, and how those tools can hamper law enforcement. Her statements are the latest in a growing drumbeat of federal criticism of tech companies and software projects that provide privacy and anonymity at the expense of surveillance. And as an example of the grave risks presented by that privacy, she cited a study she said claimed an overwhelming majority of Tor’s anonymous traffic relates to pedophilia.

“Tor obviously was created with good intentions, but it’s a huge problem for law enforcement,” Caldwell said in comments reported by Motherboard and confirmed to me by others who attended the conference. “We understand 80 percent of traffic on the Tor network involves child pornography.”

That statistic is horrifying. It’s also baloney.

In a series of tweets that followed Caldwell’s statement, a Department of Justice flack said Caldwell was citing a University of Portsmouth study Wired covered in December. He included a link to my story. But I made clear at the time that the study claimed 80 percent of traffic to Tor hidden services related to child pornography, not 80 percent of all Tor traffic.

That is a huge, and important, distinction. The vast majority of Tor’s users run the free anonymity software while visiting conventional websites, using it to route their traffic through encrypted hops around the globe to avoid censorship and surveillance. But Tor also allows websites to run Tor, something known as a Tor hidden service. This collection of hidden sites, which comprise what’s often referred to as the “dark web,” use Tor to obscure the physical location of the servers that run them. Visits to those dark-web sites account for only 1.5 percent of all Tor traffic, according to the software’s creators at the nonprofit Tor Project.

The University of Portsmouth study dealt exclusively with visits to hidden services. In contrast to Caldwell’s 80 percent claim, the Tor Project’s director Roger Dingledine pointed out last month that the study’s pedophilia findings refer to something closer to a single percent of Tor’s overall traffic.

The Department of Justice didn’t respond to Wired’s questions about Caldwell’s comments.

Even with its focus on Tor hidden services, not general Tor use, the University of Portsmouth findings were troubling enough. The notion that the majority of the dark web’s visits involve pedophilia raises serious questions about the trade-offs between safety and privacy that Tor hidden services allow. But as Wired wrote at the time, the pedophilia sites represented only 2 percent of Tor hidden services—a small number of popular kiddie-porn sites draw a large percentage of the dark web’s traffic, it seems. Categories of sites ranging from drug markets to discussion forums to whistleblowing sites all accounted for larger slices of the dark web. Even Facebook has now launched its own Tor hidden service.

The Tor Project also identified numerous caveats that might have led to the overrepresentation of pedophilia sites in the study’s findings: Law enforcement and anti-abuse organizations often visit child-porn sites to track and infiltrate them. Hackers sometimes launch floods of fraudulent traffic at the sites with the aim of taking them offline. Unstable sites that frequently go offline might generate more visit counts in the study’s methodology. And sites visited through Tor2Web, a tool designed to make Tor hidden services more accessible to nonanonymous users, would be underrepresented, shifting more of the findings towards sites whose content requires strong anonymity.

But none of those possible fudges in the study comes close to the one Caldwell made in her statements Tuesday, conflating Tor hidden services with Tor itself. After all, some of the most central non-hidden-service applications of Tor are to enable Internet users in countries like China and Iran to evade their governments’ online repression, and even allowing U.S. intelligence and law enforcement to gather data online without detection. Both those uses explain why much of Tor’s funding comes directly from the American military and Department of State.

So to whoever at the Department of Justice is preparing these talking points for public consumption: Thanks for citing my story. Next time, please try reading it.

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