The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM

Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook

A New York City family court ruled on Sept. 12 that a Staten Island man could use Facebook to serve his ex-wife with a legal notice about child support. According to the New York Post, Staten Island Support Magistrate Gregory Gliedman noted in his decision that it was the first such decision in New York or the United States in general (excluding situations in which the person being served was overseas).

Noel Biscocho was allowed to serve Anna Maria Antigua through social media because he hadn’t been able to deliver the papers in any of the normal ways. Antigua moved with no forwarding address, Biscocho couldn’t find information about her whereabouts on Google, and his children didn’t respond to his messages.

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But the Post explains that Biscocho saw Antigua posting on Facebook frequently. She was liking photos posted by their mutual friends, and he said that she generally “maintains an active social media account with Facebook.” The court agreed that Biscocho had tried all of the standard approaches to serving her that he could. Gliedman, the family court official, wrote that Biscocho “does have a means by which he can contact [Antigua] … namely the existence of a social media account.”

Perhaps the courts will evolve on social media issues now to make it simpler to get access to people. But the easiest way to avoid all of this? Don’t give someone a reason to serve you, obviously. Or if it’s too late for that, then close your Facebook account.

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Sept. 22 2014 11:23 AM

Robot Plants Are the Latest in a Long Line of Robot Thingies

At long last, the robotic revolution is upon us. Any day now we'll have robot cars driving our roads, robot bees pollinating our flowers, robot plants exploring our soil—wait, what? The lonely teenage years I spent reading Asimov short stories had me fully prepared to see robots one day wading into the seas of Jupiter, but plants, with their signature boring motionlessness, hardly seemed a likely source for new, exciting advances in robotics. As it turns out, however, the sessile nature of plants has an unanticipated consequence: When plants do move, it tends to be in an unusually graceful and efficient manner. The result is that, in some cases, plants are pointing the way toward far more elegant solutions to robotics problems than researchers in the field could have otherwise come up with.

Although their habits are distinctly sedentary when compared to those of most animals, a close study of plants illuminates movements that are at once subtle and astonishing. Some of the most striking examples can be found in carnivorous plants, bladderworts and Venus flytraps and the like, whom evolution has provided with the ability to sense and react swiftly to the presence of the small animals, which they trap and digest inside themselves. That the effect is produced mechanically, without the aid of anything so crude as a central nervous system, only makes it more amazing when we learn that flytraps, for instance, can snap shut in less than a second when a fly brushes the tiny hairs the plant deploys to sense a snack. Other notable cases of rapid movement include plants that can eject pollen or react to touch with comparable swiftness, but all of these are outliers—the overwhelming majority of plant activities occur more slowly. They shift gradually to face the sun, lazily unfurl their petals, and grow shoots upward or roots downward.

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Whether fast or slow, plant motion generally happens in reaction to specific stimuli—light, warmth, touch, and moisture being the most common examples. Already, osmotic actuators based on the mechanism by which plants use osmotic pressure to drive movement have been developed as a means of supplying power to bio-inspired robots. Another potentially fruitful sources of inspiration include the decentralized, emergent behavior plants exhibit, which is so unlike the centrally orchestrated activity we're used to finding in the animal kingdom and could allow for greater flexibility and resilience in robots that incorporate this sort of behavior into their design.

So far, the most remarkable model for movement in plants may well be the growth patterns of their roots, which can creep through soil with astounding efficiency, avoiding obstacles and seeking water and nutrients in a coordinated manner reminiscent of the active seeking movements of animals. Although we don't usually think of growth as a way of moving through a space, of course it is one. In the case of roots, the motion is accomplished by adding new material to the farthest end of the root, while all the rest of it remains in place and serves it as an anchor. This means that the friction at most points along the structure is reduced to nothing, and is concentrated only at the tip, which is where the growth proceeds from. It’s this reduction in friction that makes growth so efficient when compared to the more standard strategies for movement, in which the entire object must be shifted from one position to another.

Robotic applications based on the close observation of root systems have already begun to be put into practice, at the European Center for Micro-BioRobotics at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. Coordinator Dr. Barbara Mazzolai and her team have developed PLANTOID, a robot prototype that moves through soil by “growing”— anchoring itself in soil and adding new material (which is spooled out from above) onto its furthest end. In this article for the journal Frontiers in Bioengeneering and Biotechnology, Mazzolai describes the vast increases in efficiency provided by the growth-mimicking movement used by PLANTOID (called elongation from the tip or EFT) compared with other soil exploration strategies. (She also provides an overview of the ways in which plant models may become useful in robotics, which I drew on substantially for this article.) Their next step will be to combine the novel, growth-mimicking motion with sensors to allow the robot to detect things like temperature, humidity, pH, salinity, phosphates, and nitrates in the soil. These sensors will help direct the robot's activity beneath the earth, as well as providing information about the composition of the soil around it to its handlers. Once perfected, bots that employed the root growth strategy could have applications in industries which rely on soil testing such as agriculture or mining, and could also be used to seek out and monitor contaminants in places where pollution has occurred or is suspected..

Wherever a robot is called upon to sense and respond to its environment, the manner of plants' movement may point towards unusual or unusually elegant solutions. Only time will tell if these PLANTOIDs will be followed by all manner of other robotic creations modeled after the vegetation around us. Who knows, perhaps we'll have robotic rocks as well—or robots that make up the soil itself. And lo, one day, a robot sun will gently sink behind emergent robot clouds, as weary robot bees return from pollinating robot trees.

Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM

The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone

As I stood in line at my local AT&T store Friday morning, preparing to plunk down $399 on Apple’s next big thing, a fear crept into my thoughts: What if the iPhone 6 Plus is too big to fit into my pants pocket? Am I going to have to start carrying a purse?

This, of course, is not a novel problem. Half the smartphone-buying population has been grappling with it stoically for years, because the pockets on women’s clothing tend to be Lilliputian. Only with the growing popularity of “phablets” like the 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note, however, has the pocket-or-purse dilemma begun to affect men. Predictably, we’re freaking out.

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As it turned out, however, I had no problem sliding the iPhone 6 Plus into the pockets of my Uniqlo chinos. One of my colleagues, whose sartorial taste skews toward elfin hipster jeans, had somewhat more difficulty when he tried my new phone on for size. I'm guessing he'll opt for a smaller version.

Yet just as I began to rejoice that I hadn’t wasted my money on a phone I couldn’t carry, a different drawback became apparent: There’s no easy way to use the device with just one hand.

Over the years, I’ve grown blithely accustomed to the notion that operating a smartphone is a single-handed endeavor. Not only can I comfortably cradle the iPhone 5 in my palm, but the tips of my fingers have no trouble reaching the farthest corners of the screen. I’ve even mastered the art of swatting home runs one-handed on my favorite little time-wasting mobile game, 9 Innings Pro Baseball.

No more. Just typing in your passcode to unlock the 6 Plus requires either a second hand or a feat of manual acrobatics. Reaching the top buttons on the home screen—you know, trivial things like “messages,” “photos,” and “camera”—is out of the question, unless you’re Kawhi Leonard.

When Apple announced the 6 Plus, I noted that it had included a feature that allows you to pull the top buttons halfway down the screen by double-tapping the home button. I did not anticipate that I would quickly come to rely on this feature for almost everything I need to do on the phone.

Opening my Gmail app and composing a message used to require just three actions:

  1. Tap to open the app
  2. Tap the “compose” button
  3. Start typing

Now it requires the following finger dance:

  1. Double-tap the home button to bring the Gmail app within reach
  2. Tap to open the app
  3. Double-tap the home button to bring the compose button within reach
  4. Tap the “compose” button
  5. Start typing

That might sound like a small difference. If you use your phone a lot, it isn’t. It nearly doubles the amount of time it takes to complete certain tasks. And while the double-tap feature makes it relatively easy to reach the top of the screen, it remains a struggle to reach the sides without dropping the device altogether. Two of the people to whom I briefly loaned the phone managed to fumble it within the first 30 seconds.

iPhone 6 next to iPhone 5S
This is how far my thumb can reach on the iPhone 5 (left) and on the iPhone 6 Plus (right).

Photo by Lily Newman / Slate

The obvious solution is simply to use two hands at all times. I get that. The 6 Plus works beautifully in landscape mode, and its spacious screen shines when it comes to reading articles, watching videos, or playing games. Its battery life, reputed to be significantly longer than that of the iPhone 6, was a major selling point for me. Like the Galaxy Note, this is a phone that some people will love even as others mock and eschew it. I have a feeling that my father, who happily sported a bulky Handspring Treo at a time when everyone else was buying Motorola Razrs, will be a fan.

Unlike the Galaxy Note, however (or the Treo, for that matter), the 6 Plus doesn’t come with a stylus, and it wasn’t explicitly marketed as a compromise between a phone and a tablet. No Galaxy Note buyer should be surprised to find that her device is ungainly. Apple addicts, on the other hand, may have been lulled by the company’s marketing to believe that it would never sell them a phone that didn’t feel Mama Bear’s–chair perfect in their palms.

A device that requires two hands is a device that demands your full attention. It’s not a device you can whip out of your pocket and glance at quickly in between other tasks. It’s not a device you can use to quickly scan your email while carrying a grocery bag or hanging onto a subway pole. And perhaps that was Apple’s intention all along: An awkwardly sized phone might be just the incentive some people need to buy a $350 smartwatch.

I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll eventually grow dexterous enough with the 6 Plus that its virtues begin to overshadow its limitations. But at this point, I’m also not ruling out the possibility that I’ll be back in line at that same AT&T store within two weeks to exchange it for something more manageable.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM

White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response

At first glance, White House IT oversight and the fight against Ebola seem like slightly ... different missions. But Steve VanRoekel, who is currently the White House chief information officer, is switching roles to bring his tech expertise to the government’s Ebola control initiatives.

VanRoekel, who worked at Microsoft for 15 years before transitioning into government work in 2009, will coordinate Ebola programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. A White House official told Politico that VanRoekel will be a senior adviser to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

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Shah says that VanRoekel has successfully worked with USAID in the past to improve efficiency. VanRoekel brings with him to USAID his extensive experience developing nascent technologies, plus familiarity with Big Data and open data. He said in a statement, “Technology is not the solution to this extremely difficult task but it will be a part of the solution and I look forward to partnering with our Federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector tech communities to help accelerate this effort.”

Politico points out that technology has already played a positive role in fighting the virus. The CDC has been distributing an outbreak-tracking app to field workers, and an automated data analysis tool has been helping to model and predict disease transmission. According to a new Vanity Fair piece, earlier in the outbreak the CDC “rushed to complete a computer program it had been developing to track outbreaks; the program needed to be translated into French so it could be used in Guinea.”

Deputy administrator Lisa Schlosser will become interim CIO until the Obama administration can replace VanRoekel.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been 2,622 deaths from Ebola in West Africa, with more than 5,335 cases reported.

Sept. 19 2014 11:40 AM

Apple Invented the Perfect Way to Handle Your Giant New Phone

People are lining up all over the world to get their hands on the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. But once they have these large new devices, where will they put them? Apple has the answer in a new product that’s nothing short ... of revolutionary.

Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM

By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion

It's difficult to forecast how the world's population will change in the next hundred years or so. Some researchers think it could decline, and others say there's nowhere to go but up. A new study published today in Science sides with the latter camp, forecasting that by 2100 the human population will have increased to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion.

The research, which was led by the United Nations and University of Washington, comes to similar conclusions as a 2013 report by the group. Both this new study and the one from 2013 used advanced statistical modeling on life expectancy and fertility data to narrow the U.N.'s previous range of estimates for the population in 2100. The U.N. prediction was formerly 7 billion to about 17 billion—a range that's too large to really be helpful. But the 2013 study brought the forecast to between 9 billion and 13 billion. Today's findings narrow the range further to a spread of 2.7 billion.

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Most of the growth is forecast to be in Africa, where the current population of 1 billion is predicted to grow to 4 billion by 2100. The study cites large family size and lack of access to birth control as factors that may contribute to the sharp rise. But it also notes that family planning initiatives and better access to contraception could reduce the increases the researchers are predicting both in Africa and worldwide.

The study also openly disputes a common belief that the world population will plateau around 9 billion by 2050. The researchers wrote, "Analysis of these data reveals that, contrary to previous literature, world population is unlikely to stop growing this century."

Sept. 18 2014 5:43 PM

Oracle’s Larry Ellison Steps Down, Will Be Replaced by Hurd’n’Catz

Oracle’s Larry Ellison is stepping down as CEO … and, presumably, onto the deck of one of his famous yachts.

CNBC reports that the world’s fifth wealthiest person announced his resignation on Thursday, “effective immediately.” He’s not sailing into the sunset just yet, though: Ellison, 70, will stay on for the time being as executive chairman and chief technology officer.

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Bizarrely, he will be replaced by not one but two new CEOs, and apparently their names are Herding Cats. Just kidding, their names are Hurd and Catz.

Mark Hurd and Safra Catz, who had been serving as the company’s presidents, will not be co-CEOs, CNBC clarifies. Rather, both will be named CEO. This may or may not end well.

Ellison’s unexpected departure marks a new tack for the Silicon Valley company that he-cofounded in 1977 and has led ever since. He built Oracle from a startup focused on relational-database software into a 120,000-employee multinational corporation focused on, well, relational-database software, but also some other types of hardware and software and, you know, business-y stuff.

Safra Catz and Mark Hurd
New Oracle CEO Safra Catz (left) and new Oracle CEO Mark Hurd (right).

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Over the years the brash Ellison has been a mainstay atop various lists of the world’s richest people, highest-paid CEOs, and most humongous boats. Last year the U.S. sailing team he sponsored won the America’s Cup in a comeback that stirred the hearts of seafaring folk and plutocrats worldwide.

Earlier this year Ellison’s lavish means of transportation made waves when the Wall Street Journal reported that he employs a guy in a powerboat to follow along behind his yacht and retrieve his errant basketball shots.

It will be interesting to see how Hurd’n’Catz fare in his place at the helm of a mature software company that remains profitable but faces challenges to its database dominance and is playing catch-up in the cloud.

At least we need not fear that Ellison’s departure will create a controversy vacuum at the top. Hurd brings to the table a checkered history from his time as chairman of Hewlett-Packard, where he resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment by a former reality TV actress.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 18 2014 5:03 PM

Bono, Apple Creating "Irresistible" Music Format. Prepare to Buy the White Album Again.

Uh-oh. Here we go again.

According to Time magazine, Apple is working with U2 on a “secret project” aimed at ensuring that we’ll all pay for the music we listen to in the future. Says the magazine, U2 frontman and doer of good works Bono “hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks.”

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Gee, I never lost the temptation to buy music. I admit I don’t buy as much as when I was in my 20s and playing music for a living. And I also gladly admit that I sometimes listen to “pirated” works online before deciding whether to make the actual purchase.

But when I saw Time’s breathless story, I flashed back to a scene from the wonderful aliens-on-Earth comedy from the late 1990s, Men in Black. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, explaining a device confiscated from visiting aliens, says it’ll replace the CD. “Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again,” he adds in one of the great throwaway lines in film history—a line that resonated deeply with everyone who was then over the age of, say, 30.

We all knew from experience what the music industry’s game had become, in a significant way: persuade or force us to pay, again and again. Vinyl LPs, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs: Every new format had its convenience over previous ones, but we were expected to repurchase what we already owned. With tapes, we could make copies even though the music industry insisted that wasn’t proper. With CDs, we were stuck, especially when vinyl LPs were discontinued. Ditto DVDs when VCRs faded away. That’s a good business if you can get away with it.

CDs didn’t sound as good as an LP on an excellent audio system, at least to many people’s ears. But they had the huge advantage of allowing easy conversion to an MP3 format that we could rip to our computers and other devices, and play to our hearts’ content without risking damage to the original.* They also fueled the first round of file-sharing (Napster, RIP.) and also launched pure panic in the Copyright Cartel. The music, film, publishing, and software industries, among others, are fine with digital distribution as long as they can devise ways to absolutely control it—and never mind the damage this does to society overall.

What, then, could possibly be so “irresistibly exciting” to music fans that we’d be willing to be conned—sorry, persuaded—to buy again? Here’s what might do it for me: a digital format that recaptured the richness of vinyl sound at the highest possible fidelity. Then again, my hearing has suffered over the years, almost certainly due to the live-music days. Maybe this “irresistibly exciting” format wouldn’t make enough difference to my enfeebled ears. For many music lovers, however, it might well be a good thing.

But this irresistible format also sounds like it wants to revisit an era that should be dead and buried: when music companies put DRM, or “digital rights management”—a misnomer since the expression really should be “digital restrictions management”—on the files to prevent us from playing them in any manner, or on any device, not specifically permitted by the seller. DRM is how Apple persuaded the industry to join the then-revolutionary iTunes ecosystem, but over the years, thanks in part to DRM-free competition from Amazon, this customer-controlling technology all but disappeared from our digital music files, at least the ones we could download or rip, and DVDs are still copy-protected by a system that’s been widely broken.

Which is why the Copyright Cartel is moving us as fast as possible toward a world where we own absolutely nothing, not even a physical CD. They want us to be renters, period. If this irresistible format isn’t largely being designed with that in mind—based on streaming from “cloud” servers—I’ll be amazed. In their new venture, Bono and Apple—the latter has become the tech industry’s most control-freakish company—are apt partners.

Time’s latest coverage of Apple and Bono may be a high-water mark in obsequious worship, and one sidebar includes this amazing passage:

But releasing the album free to iTunes subscribers does not mean the band has given the album away. “We were paid,” Bono tells TIME. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”
Amen.

Amen? Really, Time? Every note anyone plays should generate money? That'll be news to people (like me) who play in their living rooms, or at school, or in community centers, or jam sessions, or the countless other venues where so many of us play for the joy of it.

And while I’m not a Catholic, when did people start paying for sacraments? Is that another 21st-century business model?

*Correction, Sept. 18, 2014: This post originally misstated that CDs come with MP3 files. They don't come with MP3 files, but the songs can be easily ripped and converted to MP3s.

Sept. 18 2014 4:26 PM

Global Oceans Break All-Time Heat Record; World on Pace for Warmest Year Ever

The Earth’s oceans have never been this far beyond the bounds of normal.

New data released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that Earth’s oceans reached a level last month not seen since humans have been keeping comprehensive records. Global ocean temperatures in August 2014 warmed to “the largest departure from average for any month on record” according to a NOAA statement. The previous record was set just two months ago, in June 2014.

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Records date back to 1880, though there’s ample evidence that the new record hasn’t been matched in much longer than that.

Climate scientists took the news with a sense of foreboding:

The NOAA data also showed the temperature of the Earth as a whole hit a new all-time August record last month, confirming similar results earlier this week from NASA and the Japanese Meteorological Agency, which use slightly different ways of crunching the numbers.

Additionally, the combined temperature of June, July, and August was also unprecedented in historical records. According to the JMA, four of the last five months have now been record-breaking for that particular month. (July was No. 2, just a hair behind the super-charged El Niño year of 1998.) The eastern United States is among the only land areas on Earth still running below normal for 2014, a legacy of the polar vortex outbreaks of earlier this year.

Later Thursday morning, NOAA expanded on the implications of the new records in a conference call, saying that on its current pace—and with the help of a newly resurgent El Niño—2014 is poised to become the warmest year ever measured.

“If the next four months rank among the five warmest on record, 2014 will be the warmest on record for the globe,” said Jake Crouch of the National Climatic Data Center.

The warming effect of El Niño, which boosts temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, appears to have begun finally kicking into gear over the last week or so. In a separate announcement Thursday, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society declared that “borderline El Niño conditions have now returned in both ocean and atmosphere.” The El Niño is expected to persist until at least March 2015, affecting a range of weather patterns around the globe over the coming months.

Should 2014 become the new warmest year, a lingering El Niño means the record may not last long.

“Having an El Niño would increase the chances of 2015 at least starting out much warmer than average, and approaching record or near record warmth,” said Crouch.

The news came just days before a planned march in New York City, which organizers expect to be the largest ever mass demonstration on global warming in the world. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Sept. 18 2014 2:39 PM

Here's How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

With the release of Apple Pay and the recent celebrity photo leak from iCloud, Apple is making an effort to shore up its privacy reputation. Tim Cook published a letter this week pointing out that Apple doesn’t try to capitalize on your data (the way Google, Facebook and others do), and there’s a new dedicated privacy subsection of the Apple website. But if actions speak louder than words, the measure that seems most convincing is a change in iOS 8's encryption that will keep Apple itself out of your business.

In the new mobile operating system, all you have to do is add a passcode (which you should already have anyway!) to opt in to encryption that denies Apple special access to your data. Apple announced on Wednesday night that even if it gets a warrant from law enforcement for your data, it will be unable to comply if you have this encryption enabled.

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In the wake of NSA spying revelations, tech companies felt a backlash when it became clear that they were forking over user data to U.S. law enforcement without much resistence. By locking personal data down so companies themselves can't access it, they sidestep the issue of whether or not to comply, and avoid being accused of obstructing justice.

As the Washington Post explains, the difference in iOS 8 is that adding a passcode automatically opts users in to the new encryption. In previous versions of iOS, Apple maintained some backdoors into passcode-protected devices. In the company's new privacy section, it says:

On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.

Since iOS adoption rates tend to be high, it won't be long before Apple has very little access to devices running iOS. Whatever you're texting about, Apple won't be the one to rat you out.

Update, September 18, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Now Google is announcing that its next Android release, currently in beta and codenamed L, will have options for enabling encryption that prevents Google from accessing personal data on an Android device. As with Apple's iOS 8 announcement, this decision means that Google will not be able to comply with law enforcement requests for user data when that user has the encryption enabled. In a statement to the Washington Post, Google also noted that many Android devices have had this capability since 2011. But now the company will surface it more prominently and make it ubiquitous so more users can take advantage of it.

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