The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 20 2014 1:17 PM

Buffalo’s Superstorm of Snow Could Drop 100 Inches

An encore snowstorm is in progress in the Buffalo area Thursday, just two days after possibly the snowiest 24-hour period on record in the United States produced stunning images from a buried city.

Another 2 or 3 feet are on the way, falling in largely the same area that received a whopping 5 to 6 feet on Tuesday. As was the case earlier this week, the National Weather Service has again maxed out its forecasted snowfall graphic, which simply shows “greater than 30 inches” now expected for the south Buffalo region.

Five-day snow totals could approach 100 inches Friday.

Courtesy of NWS Buffalo

Tuesday’s has already been called the most extreme Lake Erie lake-effect snowfall on record. Should the path of Thursday’s snowfall align with Tuesday’s—and it mostly is so far—totals could top out near 100 inches. That’s about as much snow as the region typically gets all winter—and it’s not even technically winter yet. For perspective, Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau calculated that it’s taken Atlanta most of the last 44 years to record as much snow as will fall in Buffalo in just five days. (Atlanta famously had its own version of a civilization-paralyzing snowstorm last winter when just 2 inches fell.)

On Tuesday, as the first round was winding down, the National Weather Service tweeted that a qualified national record may have been set as well:

Truth is, we may never know if the record was broken. According to the Associated Press, some of the regular snow spotters the National Weather Service relies on to take measurements couldn’t get out of their house on Tuesday. For a snow measurement to be official, it must be taken every three hours, with the surface wiped clean in between to prevent compaction.

NASA points out that the wind pattern responsible for the current round of lake-effect snows can be traced back to Super Typhoon Nuri’s metamorphosis into a Bering Sea superstorm earlier this month.

Filmmaker and Buffalo-area resident Jim Grimaldi shot some gorgeous 4K video by drone in the midst of Tuesday’s epic snowstorm:

And also captured a surreal timelapse:

I reached him by phone in his snow-encased home in West Seneca, New York, to chat about what inspired him to make this video.

There’s really nothing else to do, I’m totally hemmed in here. The streets are totally impassable, and we’re getting another 2 feet tonight.

We’ve been through this before. It’s a whole lot of snow, but we’re Buffalonians, we can handle it. When storms like this come down, you see little villages up here. You see little communities that come together.

I opened my garage and I thought, “I’m not even going to try to shovel this.” I realized I had my little drone with a camera on it, and I said, “Ah, what the heck.”

On Wednesday, Grimaldi followed up with a day-after flight of the snowstorm’s aftermath:

Grimaldi said he did have a mishap with the drone being buffeted by the storm’s strong winds. “There’s a whole other video, I haven’t even looked at it, but I crashed into a tree. I had to devise a 20-foot pole to get it down.”

Did it feel kind of pointless to try to carve yourself out in a snowstorm like this? “Yes, absolutely. I’m just going to wait it out. I’m not going anywhere soon.”

Once again, the branch of the National Weather Service typically involved in forecasting severe thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks turned its attention to the potential of thundersnow in New York. Snowfall rates of more than 2 inches an hour are expected for most of the day Thursday.

After the shortest of respites, thundersnow is back.

Courtesy of NOAA SPC

The Buffalo Bills, whose football stadium is currently buried under more than 200,000 tons of snow, called for volunteers to help shovel (in return for $10 an hour and free tickets) in advance of a scheduled Sunday afternoon game with the New York Jets. “We have not had this much snow, as far as we know, in the history of our team.” Andy Major, a Bills vice president, told USA Today. “This is four times more snow than we’ve ever seen at our stadium.” However, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, citing the ongoing state of emergency, has called a Sunday game in Buffalo “impractical.”

Tragically, at least eight people have died so far in the snowstorm, most from shoveling-induced heart attacks. Latest forecasts show the snow may disappear as quickly as it came: A warm-up is on the way this weekend for Buffalo and the rest of the East. With temperatures in the 50s and 60s and rain expected, the streets of Buffalo could quickly turn from winter wonderland to a raging Niagara.

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Nov. 19 2014 6:43 PM

Look Out, Google: Yahoo Is Becoming a Search Engine Again

My headline here is slightly tongue-in-cheek. Google, whose pre-eminence among search engines is well-established, will probably not lose much sleep over Yahoo’s re-emergence in the search game.

That said, this is one of the most substantive moves that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has made yet—and it’s good news for anyone who fears that Google is gradually taking over the Web. The news is that Yahoo has reached a five-year deal with Mozilla to become the default search engine on its Firefox browser. Firefox had used Google as its main search engine since way back in 2004.

How big a deal is this? Well, for most Web users, it’s not as big a deal as it would have been five or 10 years ago, when Firefox was the main alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Today Firefox ranks as the third-most-popular desktop browser in the United States, behind IE and Google’s Chrome. But it’s a distant fourth if you count mobile browsing, where the popularity of Apple’s iOS gives its default Safari browser a leg up.

Still, for those who care about competition and a diversity of choices, the deal could be a bulwark against Google hegemony. And for both Yahoo and Mozilla, it’s momentous. It’s not an understatement to say that both organizations are staking their future on the partnership, albeit to different degrees.

Mozilla, a nonprofit dedicated to openness and innovation on the Web, had become overly dependent on Google, which reportedly accounted for the lion’s share of its revenue. It was also likely at odds with Google over its refusal to recognize users’ “do not track” browser settings. Under the deal, Yahoo will honor such settings for Firefox users.

Yahoo search gif
Improving Yahoo's search business has been a top priority for Marissa Mayer.

Gif courtesy of Yahoo / via Tumblr

For Yahoo, the partnership is a landmark in Mayer’s ongoing bid to rejuvenate a flagging company and restore its vital role in the tech landscape. Once the Web’s most popular search portal, Yahoo realized as early as 2000 that Google’s algorithm-based engine was superior to its directory in terms of quickly returning the most relevant results. By 2002, as Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan recounts, it made Google search the default on its own homepage. It later purchased Google rival Inktomi in an ill-fated bid to keep up. Eventually it conceded defeat and partnered with Microsoft to power its results.

Mayer has been vocal about wanting out of the Microsoft deal, but extricating Yahoo from the 10-year agreement will not be easy. In the meantime, the company has been upping its own search-technology game with engineering initiatives code-named “Fast Break” and “Curveball.” While there have been rumors that Mayer wants Yahoo to rekindle its search partnership with Google, her former employer, it seems more likely that she’s intent on Yahoo building viable search products of its own. The Firefox deal would give it a potent new venue for that. From Mayer’s blog post on Tumblr:

Our teams worked closely with Mozilla to build a clean, modern, and immersive search experience that will launch first to Firefox’s U.S. users in December and then to all Yahoo users in early 2015. The interactive and integrated experience also better leverages our world-class content and personalization technologies.
Search inspires us because we think it’s something that will change and improve dramatically, and because fundamentally, search is about human curiosity — and that is something that will never be finished.

Even if Microsoft continues to power the core of Yahoo’s search engine for the time being, it’s clear that Yahoo has plans to add its own twists to the experience. And again, it might ultimately pave the way for Yahoo to create an entirely new search engine that differs from both Google and Bing in important ways.

Whether this will be a boon for Firefox users is not yet clear: There’s a reason Google dominates search, and it’s that Google is very good at what it does. Mozilla is taking a major risk here. But at a time when Google searches are sending fewer people elsewhere on the Web, and keeping more of them within the ever-expanding Google universe, the Web should welcome another option.

Previously in Slate:

Nov. 19 2014 6:14 PM

Motorola Made a Way for Your Smartphone and Your Keys to Find Each Other

It’s great to be able to control the thermostat in your house from bed or check carbon monoxide levels from your office, but smart home devices still haven’t solved some of our most basic problems. If they had, no one would ever misplace their keys or smartphones again. Finding such a fix is a noble goal, and Motorola is working on it.

With its new Keylink fob, the company gives you the ability to page your keys from up to 100 feet away using an app for iOS and Android. And if you have your keys but can’t find your phone, the fob has a button that makes your phone start ringing from up 100 feet away. Of course, if you lose both your phone and your keys, you’ll be in a tougher situation, but you should be able to log into the app on someone else’s phone.

Keylink is $24.99, and Motorola says the replaceable battery will last for a year. If you don’t lose your keys often, that might sound kind of steep for a little dongle, but for some people it’ll be totally worth it.

Nov. 19 2014 3:42 PM

Prosecutor Would Rather Withdraw Surveillance Evidence Than Reveal How Police Got It

In a Baltimore Circuit Court robbery trial during a motion to suppress evidence, a city police detective refused to tell a defense attorney how police had tracked the defendant. Rather than compel the detective to reveal police methods, prosecutors withdrew the crucial evidence to maintain the secret.

As the Baltimore Sun reports, Detective John L. Haley, who works in Baltimore City police’s phone tracking unit, denied that his unit used stingrays (devices that collect data by mimicing cellphone towers to trick cellphones into connecting to them) to surveil cellphones, but he wouldn’t elaborate further, invoking a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams threatened to hold Haley in contempt, noting, “You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court.”

The situation echoes a broader national discussion about surveillance technologies—like stingrays—that local police use but claim they can’t discuss because of federal restrictions. The Sun notes that the Baltimore Police Department purchased a stingray for $133,000 in 2009.

In the robbery case, in which 16-year-old Shemar Taylor is being tried as an adult for robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint, detectives say that they did a “ride-by” of Taylor’s home while using unspecified technical equipment to identify cellphones in the house. But detectives also maintain that they get tracking data from cellphone carriers, in spite of admitting that they have independent ways to verify a cellphone’s location.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley strongly suspects that Baltimore police can’t talk about their methods for tracking Taylor because they used a stingray. Meanwhile, Baltimore prosecutors say they will proceed with the charges, even though suppressing the cellphone evidence also removes a .45-caliber handgun from consideration.

In another case before the same judge, Sgt. Scott Danielczyk also refused to talk about cellphone surveillance techniques. He said, “This kind of goes into Homeland Security issues, your honor.”

Judge Williams replied, “If it goes into Homeland Security issues, then the phone doesn’t come in ... I mean, this is simple. You can’t just stop someone and not give me a reason.”

Wow. You can’t just stop someone and not give me a reason. Between the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance revelations, real talk like this is a helpful (and apparently necessary) way to review citizens’ rights.

Nov. 19 2014 12:10 PM

Global Warming Is Probably Boosting Lake-Effect Snows

In the aftermath of a massive lake-effect snowfall event in western New York state on Tuesday, it’s worth asking: Is climate change playing a role here? Because, I mean, come on. Seventy—seven zero—inches, people. And another huge round is forecast for Thursday, by the way. Buffalo deserves answers.

The short answer is: yes. Global warming is probably juicing lake-effect snows, and we’ve had the data to prove it for quite some time.

A greater fraction of wintertime precipitation in the Northeast has fallen during extreme events over the past few decades.

Courtesy of NOAA

Here are the details:

Truly extreme lake-effect snows gather their energy from a wide temperature differential between the lake temperature and the air temperature. That temperature contrast produces atmospheric instability—the warm air immediately over the lake wants to surge upward through the colder air on top, bringing with it heaps of evaporated moisture. That moisture is quickly converted to snowfall in massive quantities, and deposited squarely on the hills and towns at the far end of the lake. As the Great Lakes warm due to climate change, there’s now more evaporation, and more of an opportunity for that drastic water-air temperature difference to manifest itself, especially during the kinds of intense cold air outbreaks that we’ve been seeing seemingly more of over the last few years.

In Tuesday’s storm, that difference approached a whopping 50 degrees Fahrenheit—with a pool of warmer-than-average water in Lake Erie joining forces with near-record-low temperatures in the lower part of the atmosphere.

The result was a highly unstable atmosphere, in which thundersnow flourished and snow totals skyrocketed.

Another massive early-season lake-effect event occurred in Buffalo back in October 2006, when Lake Erie water temperatures were even warmer than they were this week. Almost a million people lost power.

Lake Erie is warming (along with the rest of the planet) by a steady but measurable amount. Since 1960 that trend has been about a half of a degree Fahrenheit per decade. More important than this, though, Lake Erie has been losing its ability to freeze over in the winter, with a decline of about one sub-freezing day per year in recent decades.

Lake Erie’s ice cover has been slipping in recent decades, which is helping it to produce more lake-effect snow.

Courtesy of the EPA

In places such as Syracuse (downwind of Lake Ontario) and Buffalo, for the time being, that’s translated into more total snow each year. But it won’t always be this way. Several decades from now, the warming part of global warming will catch up, and total snowfall should begin a permanent decline. But for now, extreme snowfall events are winning out.

During our lifetimes, that means big lake-effect snowfall events like Tuesday’s are becoming more common, at least as a fraction of total snowfall. A 2003 study that used oxygen isotopes to distinguish local lake-effect snow from snow formed outside the region showed a sharp increase in lake-effect events over the last few decades. Follow-up research, including this study published last year, generally supports this conclusion.

Lake-effect snowfall has been on the rise, due to increasing temperatures of the Great Lakes. The above shows a composite of 15 sites, mostly in New York State.

Courtesy of Burnett, et al.

Earlier this year, New York state updated its assessment of statewide climate change impacts, essentially giving a forecast of the future of lake-effect snowfall in the state:

Annual ice cover has decreased 71 percent on the Great Lakes since 1973; models suggest this decrease will lead to increased lake-effect snow in the next couple of decades through greater moisture availability (Burnett et al. 2003). By mid-century, lake-effect snow will generally decrease as temperatures below freezing become less frequent (Kunkel et al. 2002). The high ice extent of the 2013-2014 winter highlights the fact that natural variability is expected to continue, even as long-term trends gradually shift the statistics in favor of low-ice winters.

All this is to say, if Slate suddenly transferred me to the Buffalo bureau, I’d be investing in a snow-blower.

Nov. 19 2014 11:58 AM

Netizen Report: U.K. Companies Vow to Censor “Terrorist” Websites

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts 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 the United Kingdom, where leading Internet service providers including BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, and Sky have agreed to begin blocking “terrorist” and “extremist” websites on their networks. Providers will install a button that will allow any user to report material they feel is terrorist or extremist in nature.

It is unclear what criteria will be used to determine whether websites should be blocked. Reports will be assessed by the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, a special division of the London Metropolitan Police that historically has concentrated on tracking and removing online images of child pornography and abuse. Several critics have noted that the criteria and approach for filtering “terrorist” content are entirely different, and they will require deep contextual knowledge and linguistic precision that may fall well beyond the means of the unit.

Nov. 19 2014 5:23 AM

It’s Great That Martha Stewart Loves 3-D Printing. But Did She Have to Call It “Artisanal”?

Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart cannot resist a shiny, new technology. She has confessed her affinity for drones with an op-ed in Time, “Why I Love My Drone,” and only last week detailed her affection for 3-D printers on CNN. So it seemed a natural progression this week, when desktop 3-D printer manufacturer MakerBot and Martha Stewart Living announced a homeware collaboration, the Trellis Collection. Martha fans will be able to purchase a 3-D-printed coaster, napkin ring, place card holder, or LED votive holder in specially branded filament colors named like Disney characters: Lemon Drop, Robin’s Egg, and Jadeite.

The collection will be available in MakerBot stores in New York, Boston, and Greenwich, Connecticut, as well as online. Individual designs (basically the templates for the objects) start at 99 cents, and the full collection is available for $2.99, although the filament necessary to create the goods will cost $25 for a half-pound spool and $65 for the 2-pound package, according to Variety.

FT-Martha Stewart1
Your Martha-approved, 3-D-printed napkin ring, votive candle holder, coaster, and place card holder.

Image via MakerBot

So far, so good. But Martha, did you have to go ahead and call the thing “artisanal”?

In her CNN piece, Stewart wrote, “With these tools, any inspired individual, in just about any design realm, can turn out a polished, finished product, quickly and economically, that still has the artisanal character of a handcrafted item.”

In a statement this week, she doubled down. “We are thrilled to work with MakerBot to bring our signature color palette and designs to the world of 3D printing. … 3D printing allows for cost-effective product design without compromising artisanal character.”

It’s 2014, so I’m sure by this point the word artisanal is deader than Google Reader, but let me object just this one time. If you press a button, enter your credit card details, and a robot arm builds a spool of plastic into a napkin holder, I think you’re pretty far away from the world of traditional handicrafts. DIY, maybe, but artisanal, no. The artisanal craze may have started with bearded urban youths killing and skinning their own elk to make Ugg boots, but it took a left turn at pickles, and has now gone belly up with Martha Stewart’s Trellis Collection.

So what other buzzy high-tech gadgetry can Martha deem artisanal? We can’t be that far from “Martha Stewart: Why I Love the Microbiome,” with tips on how to build your own artisanal microflora. How about Martha’s own artisanal e-payment system, MarthaCoin, that only lets you buy classic, investment pieces in neutral colors. Or even Martha’s artisanal augmented reality goggles? I’d wear those, if only they promised to transform whatever room I was in to Martha’s farmhouse living room on a crisp Thanksgiving morning.

Nov. 18 2014 7:38 PM

Court Decides That the FAA Can Enforce Its Aircraft Regulations for Drones

On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board—a federal agency that evaluates aviation accidents—held that the Federal Aviation Administration should be able to regulate small unmanned aircraft, like drones or model planes.

The FAA was appealing a lower-court ruling, which held that a Swiss pilot named Raphael “Trappy” Pirker did not have to pay a $10,000 fine imposed by the FAA for “reckless flight” at the University of Virginia, because his drone wasn’t an “aircraft” under FAA regulations. Since the agency has strict rules about reckless aircraft operation, allowing for blanket regulation of small drones could lead to a total ban of unmanned devices. (Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, has appeared on the New America Foundation’s DroneU podcast to talk about issues surrounding FAA regulation of small and/or autonomous aircraft.)

If the FAA just flat out banned drones, though, people would probably flip out, so it’s more likely that the agency would use the ruling to regulate drones in higher-risk areas like over cities and near airports.

Former FAA general counsel Kenneth Quinn told NBC News, “It’s a huge win for the FAA, and signals it’s not going to be the Wild West for drones, but a careful, orderly, safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

On the other hand, Peter Sachs, a Connecticut lawyer and founder of the Drone Pilots Association told Motherboard, “With this decision, the NTSB has declared model aircraft, paper airplanes and even children’s toys to be ‘aircraft,’ subject to the same regulations as 747s, which ignores entirely the fact that for decades none has ever been treated as such ... I don’t think that’s what Congress ever intended or that common sense and logic support today’s NTSB’s decision.”

Lots of things could happen next—Pirker could appeal, for example—but this decision is certainly a step backward for drone enthusiasts who want to roam the skies.

Nov. 18 2014 6:27 PM

Seventy—Seven Zero—Inches of Snow for Buffalo as Winter Overpowers America

A weather station on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, dipped to 30 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday morning, and the temperature hit 32 in Chepachet, Rhode Island, as a continental-scale Arctic front approached—the last two of all 50 states to check in with freezing temps. This comes on the heels of some other weather mayhem across the United States, bringing us all four seasons in just one week.  

Fall: Though the Arctic blast may bring the peak foliage to an abrupt end, the urban East Coast had quite a show this weekend.

Spring: A two-day tornado outbreak concluded on Monday with 11 reported tornadoes across five Southeastern states. The strongest of the bunch was an EF-2 with winds up to 130 mph that partially destroyed a Florida prison. It was also the longest-tracking tornado in the state of Florida since 2007, according to the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.

Summer: Record-breaking heat hit South Florida on Monday, with West Palm Beach (whose records date back to 1894) reaching 89 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat index was 94 in Miami.

But as the images below show, winter is undoubtedly winning. It’s nearly unheard of for a November day to get this cold. Tuesday featured the coldest November morning since 1976, with a whopping 85 percent of the territory of the lower 48 states below freezing. And for Buffalo, a city accustomed to heavy snows, Tuesday’s snowfall is bordering on the absurd.

At an afternoon press conference, officials announced that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called in the National Guard to help dig out the city.

A wall of lake-effect snow—and yes, some thundersnow, too—loomed ominously just south of downtown for most of the day.

The snows have a chance to be historic, not only for Buffalo, whose five-day snowfall record of 81.6 inches appears to be in jeopardy with another big storm on the way later this week, but for America, too. AccuWeather reports that at the storm’s current pace, a nationwide 24-hour snowfall record—76 inches in Silver Lake, Colorado, back in April 1921—could fall later today.

In Orchard Park, New York, just a few miles south of Buffalo and in the heart of the lake-effect snow band, 3 feet of snow had already fallen by 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the latest reports from the National Weather Service. An astounding 31 to 40 additional inches are expected later Tuesday. The Storm Prediction Center—a division of the National Weather Service better known for forecasting tornado outbreaks—is projecting snowfall rates of up to 4 inches an hour for most of this afternoon.

A bold warning from the Buffalo office of the National Weather Service urged people to stay home:


As I wrote last week, the current weather pattern is practically ideal for particularly intense lake-effect snow bands on all five Great Lakes. Unbelievably, Buffalo will get another lake-effect band on Thursday that’s expected to bring up to 2 feet of additional snow, putting its all-time November snowfall record at risk in the span of a week.


Image: NOAA

If you’re already sick of winter, don’t fret. There’s a warm-up on tap for both coasts for at least a few days next week. After that? You guessed it: back to winter. The outlook for Thanksgiving week could be even worse.

Nov. 18 2014 5:02 PM

When to Travel So You Avoid Thanksgiving Traffic, According to Google Maps Data

The worst thing about driving around Thanksgiving is that it feels like no matter when you pick to make your move, it’s always wrong. Left Wednesday night? You should have gone Thursday morning. Tried to sneak out on Tuesday? Wednesday before 2 p.m. would have been better. Now, since Google has so much access to maps and traffic data, the company is trying to help you learn from the country’s collective mistakes. It combed through information about 21 cities around the country to give you a sense of when to hit the road.

Google found that in general the worst traffic day of the whole Thanksgiving week is Wednesday. In Boston the worst day is Tuesday (everyone must be trying to outsmart each other by leaving early), and in Honolulu, Providence, and San Francisco the heaviest traffic comes on Saturday. Google points out that if you have to travel on Wednesday, there’s the most congestion between 3 and 5 p.m., so you should try to go earlier or later.

Wednesday is always kind of a disaster traffic-wise.

Image from Google

The company found that if you’re trying to be sneaky by traveling on Thanksgiving Day itself, you’re actually making a good call. Google Maps and Traffic data shows that Thursday has the least traffic of any day in the Thanksgiving week, especially if you drive before noon or after 2 p.m. In terms of going home at the end of the holiday, you might think that Sunday would be the worst option because everyone has to leave at once, but Google found that Sunday traffic is actually lighter than Saturday’s.

It’s great that Google analyzed its traffic data to put these tips together, but a word of caution: The whole project could backfire if everyone takes the advice to heart and starts traveling when Google recommends. You just can’t win.

It’s not all bad news, though! Google says that in Boston, Dallas, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Providence, traffic delays actually improved between 2012 and 2013. In general, Philadelphia, Austin, and Washington, D.C., are the top three cities that are most impacted by Thanksgiving traffic. Providence, Boston, and Denver were on the bottom of the list, and cities like Los Angeles and Tampa came in in the middle.

The top three places people search for on Google Maps the day before Thanksgiving are “ham shop,” “pie shop,” and “liquor store.” Last-minute stops are understandable, but what’s a ham shop?