The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 28 2014 10:26 AM

Today’s Google Doodle About Jonas Salk Is Patented. The Polio Vaccine Isn’t.

It’s not every day that you get to enjoy rich irony along with your morning look at the latest Google Doodle. But today is such a day. To celebrate Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday (he died in 1995 at 80), Google made him a thank-you Doodle that depicts healthy children and some adults playing and happily going about their lives. It’s a nice gesture! But it’s also funny.

As Nigel Cameron, the president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, pointed out on Twitter, there's a weird dissonance between the spirit of Salk’s vaccine discovery—as exemplified by his famous decision not to patent it—and the fact that Google spent 10 years lobbying to get Google Doodles patented, and eventually succeeded.

Google’s decision to patent its daily scribbles seems kind of absurd, especially since you would think that they would simply be protected under copyright laws. But as Business Insider explained when Google won its Doodle patent in 2011, you can't blame the company for participating in the system—after all, its  competitors do. The Doodle patent is for, “A system [that] provides a periodically changing story line and/or a special event company logo to entice users to access a web page.” That's a thing! Kind of ...

As Brian Palmer pointed out in an April Slate piece about Salk’s decision not to patent the vaccine, Salk's famous rhetorical question, “Could you patent the sun?” is an oversimplification of the complicated questions behind intellectual property. Salk’s contribution was significant, and his selflessness made him seem like even more of a hero, but his decision isn't widely applicable or practical.

Something is certainly weird, though, when a sketch is patented and one of the most important discoveries of modern medicine isn't.

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Oct. 27 2014 5:10 PM

Samsung’s Flameless Stovetop Range Now Projects Fake Fire So You Know It’s Hot

Induction stovetops, which use changing magnetic fields to generate heat from a pot or pan’s electrical resistance, sort of seem like magic. And Samsung is clearly worried that the technology is coming across as more fantastical than usable. So in its high-end Induction Chef Collection Range, the company is adding blue LED flame projections to lend a more tangible cooking experience.

The blue LEDs are tuned for brightness, so the brighter they are the hotter the burner setting. Induction stoves are known for providing amazingly consistent heat and quantified granular temperature controls (as opposed to, say, a gas range where you have to eyeball everything), but that can also be a disadvantage for people who want to cook by feel.

By linking the brightness intensity with the heat being put out, Samsung could be making the cooking experience a little more accessible for people who are unfamiliar with induction or are just distracted while they’re cooking and looking for a quick indicator. It might not be as satisfying as the classic look and feel of an open flame, but it’s a cool (get it??) innovation in an underappreciated cooking technology.

Oct. 27 2014 2:17 PM

An Army of Workers Overseas Suffer the Worst of the Internet So You Don't Have To

Despite the ongoing problem of online harassment, most of us go online these days with the reasonable expectation that we can look at baby pictures on Facebook without being surprised by a gruesome photo of a beheading, or search for music videos on YouTube without running into a videotaped rape or animal abuse. It would be nice if this were all because everyone online was behaving themselves, but as Adrian Chen found in a recent piece for Wired, there is an army of laborers who spend their days cleaning up the Internet so the rest of us can use it in relative peace.

"As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem," Chen writes. "Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies." The solution is to hire workers to spend all day combing over sites that depend on user-generated content to take that stuff down. 

The army of comment moderators is huge, "well over 100,000," Hemanshu Nigam, the head of online security firm SSP Blue, told Chen. Most of them work overseas, though many American companies do have squads in the United States to handle stuff that needs a little more cultural context. Chen visited offices in the Philippines, where people are paid a few hundred bucks a month to sift through the garbage people post online.

Oct. 27 2014 1:13 PM

The Airplanes of the Future Won’t Have Windows. You’ll Be Surrounded by Sky.

Vague, over-wing cloud photos are a staple of vacation albums across the Internet, but a British technology incubator wants to do away with them completely. You’ll still be able to see the sky, though. The Centre for Process Innovation is proposing the elimination of airplane cabin windows to make room for floor to ceiling wraparound screens showing continuous footage from outside the plane.

The goal of the proposal is to reduce how much commercial aircraft bodies, or fuselages, weigh thereby also reducing fuel consumption, costs, and carbon emissions. Windows add weight to aircraft cabins because of both the materials used to make them, and the additional components that must be added to the hull to strengthen and secure it.

Jon Helliwell of CPI told the Guardian, “We had been speaking to people in aerospace and we understood that there was this need to take weight out of aircraft. ... Follow the logical thought through. Let’s take all the windows out—that’s what they do in cargo aircraft.”

To keep people in “window” seats happy, and minimize general feelings of claustrophobia, CPI wants to use cameras mounted on the exteriors of planes and flexible OLED screens on the interior walls to project real-time footage of what's going on outside all over the cabin.

CPI says that more than 80 percent of a commercial plane’s takeoff weight is the vehicle itself and not passengers or baggage. And the group adds that for every 1 percent in weight reduction, companies can save about 0.75 percent on fuel. CPI doesn’t seem to be offering a specific estimate of how much weight it could reduce by eliminating windows, but it says that fuselages could be thinner and stronger through the process, which could mean wider seats.

Some of the logistics are unclear, but it looks like CPI’s design would allow the person in the “window” seat to control the view and vantage point for the wall screen next to their seat. CPI estimates that it will take about 10 years for the proposal to be consumer-ready so there’s plenty of time to figure out who controls what on the wall screen.

Time for those “On our way!” and “Leaving on a jet plane” captions to be a thing of the past.

Oct. 24 2014 5:46 PM

Google Senior VP Jumps From Stratosphere, Beats Red Bull’s Space-Diving Record

On Oct. 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon and fell 128,100 feet (24 miles) back to Earth at 843.6 mph. With funding from Red Bull, he broke the sound barrier and set a world record. But now a senior vice president of Google has taken the stunt a step further. On Friday Alan Eustace road a helium balloon 135,890 feet (more than 25 miles) off the ground and jumped.

The dive wasn’t sponsored by Google, though. In fact, the New York Times reports that Eustace declined the company’s offer for help with the jump because he didn’t want it to be a corporate stunt. Eustace also took a much simpler approach to the jump than Baumgartner and the Red Bull team did in 2012. For example, Eustace didn’t use a capsule to protect him during his ascent, and he asked Paragon Space Development, the company that made his suit, to create a pared-down pressure suit that would enable him to breathe pure oxygen during his fall.

The Times describes:

Mr. Eustace planned his jump in the utmost secrecy, working for almost three years with a small group of technologists skilled in spacesuit design, life-support systems, and parachute and balloon technology. He carried modest GoPro cameras aloft, connected to his ground-control center by an off-the-shelf radio. Although Mr. Baumgartner was widely known for death-defying feats, Mr. Eustace describes himself as an engineer first with a deep commitment to teamwork.

Eustace fell farther than Baumgartner but at a slower speed of 822 mph. But he still broke the sound barrier, and observers reported hearing the sonic boom. He also did two backflips before using a parachute to steady himself.

Eustace told the Times, “It was amazing. ... It was beautiful. You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere, which I had never seen before.” Sheesh, who hasn’t seen the layers of the atmosphere? Oh right, almost everyone.

Oct. 24 2014 1:55 PM

There Might Be a Way to Securely Reuse Abandoned Email Addresses

In June 2013 Yahoo decided to start freeing up inactive email addresses. The idea was to give addresses that hadn’t been used in more than a year a fresh start, so if wasn’t active, then some other Bob who would appreciate it more could snap it up. The Bobs of the world rejoiced.

But the program had some potential security problems. As Mat Honan pointed out in Wired at the time, “It means that people will be able to claim Yahoo IDs and use them to take over other people’s identities via password resets and other methods.” Facebook was concerned about the security implications as well, so it partnered with Yahoo to try to find a solution.

On Thursday the two companies announced a new proposed standard called Require-Recipient-Valid-Since (RRVS) that would use simple email timestamps to make sure that the email address that requested a reset didn’t suddenly have a new owner. Using the email protocol Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Facebook—and other sites that adopt RRVS—can put a timestamp in password recovery emails indicating when they last confirmed the ownership of a Yahoo email address. If a password reset request gets sent to an address after it has changed hands, Yahoo servers can recognize that there’s been a transition of ownership that Facebook’s servers aren’t aware of and keep the message from being delivered.

Facebook software engineer Murray Kucherawy wrote in a blog post:

Last year Yahoo announced that it was going to begin making long-dormant logins available for new registrations. This was a shift we knew we wanted to study closely to make sure we understood the impact to Facebook. ... [Our] new method for handling recycled email addresses is a new standard and it provides a way for senders to indicate to receivers a point in time when the ownership of the target mailbox was known to the sender.

Facebook and Yahoo are making RRVS available through the Internet Engineering Task Force as a proposed standard so other sites can start adopting it. This is crucial because recycled email addresses will still be a security concern until every Internet service is using RRVS. That may never happen, but the more big companies implement it, the more secure will be.

Oct. 24 2014 11:10 AM

Does the Internet Sleep? Depends on Where You Are.

Does the Internet ever sleep? Not if you live in America: A new paper from John Heidemann and his colleagues at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California shows that, in the U.S. relentless online participation is not just an inevitability during normal waking hours, whether you’re a 3 a.m. news junkie or you work for a corporate office where antivirus software updates at night.* But there are places where the Internet does sleep, as ISI discovered by tracking more than 500 million public IP addresses throughout the world.  

Heidemann and his colleagues looked at variations and patterns in public, active IP activity around the globe over 24-hour periods. Naturally, there are times when connection surges or wanes throughout a day, but after accounting for daily schedules, the researchers found that ebbs and spikes are more likely to occur in particular places, following what Heidemann calls a  “diurnal” network usage pattern. As shown in the animation below, some parts of the world have stable, continually active IPs, with less than 5 percent change over the course of a day (areas in white), whereas in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America, IP activity increases during the day and decreases during the night (areas in red or blue).

Variation is greater in countries with lower per-capita GDP and electricity use, Heidemann found—unsurprising, since a poorer consumer would likely have less constant access. She might go to an Internet café, which may be open for service only during certain hours, or she might turn off her home Internet connection at night to save on fees. By contrast, in the rich economies of Western Europe and North America, modems are generally left constantly running (so a public IP is still active), though you might shut off your computer (turning off your private IP, which Heidemann does not track). Infrastructure and governance make a difference, too: Places with “Internet maturity,” the researchers note, are marked by network access that is always on. (Part of the FCC’s definition of “broadband” is a telecommunications system where a network is available at any time.)

Moreover, there is greater commercial connectivity in rich economies as compared to poor ones. While people access the internet mostly during the day, Martin Libicki of the RAND Corporation points out that machine access is mostly at night—a company backing up its data into a cloud, say, or running algorithms for procurement is more efficient when there are fewer human users around. More of those activities probably contribute to keeping IP activity consistent over 24 hours; carrying them out depends on having continuous access.

Measuring the activity of global IP activity required that Heidemann and his colleagues probe a large sample within the pool of 4 billion public addresses. They did this by looking at 3.7 million “blocks” of IPs, where each block had 256 adjacent (sequentially related, and thus geographically close) addresses. Apart from a correlation with per-capita GDP, they also found that blocks with newer IPs were more likely to display diurnal activity. In less mature Internet blocks, there is more on-demand, dial-up connectivity, says Heidemann— an environment that drives periodic rather than constant activity.

The research cannot tell us exactly why IP activity stays steady in the West and regularly cycles in emerging economies. But a comparison of Internet robustness and usage between richer and poorer regions suggests the lack of quality and ubiquity are the two big reasons for variation. A mere 19 percent of Indians have Internet access, compared to 86 percent of Americans and more than 90 percent of Estonians, who declared Internet access a human right in 2000. (According to Heidemann’s study, Estonia’s Internet use is consistent—unlike much of Eastern Europe. Its per capita GDP is more than twice that of Belarus, where IP activity fluctuates by 15 percent each day.) Renesys, an Internet security firm, ranks China and countries in Eastern Europe and South America to be at greater risk connectivity outages. In a world where commerce, knowledge, and wealth are increasingly exchanged online, investing in constant connectivity would be wise: Its adoption elevates activity and is a “direct driver of GDP growth in an economy.” 

*Correction, Oct. 28, 2014: This post originally misstated John Heidemann's first name. 

Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM

South Florida’s Desperate Secession Movement

One way or another, South Florida is leaving the rest of the state. The Mayor of South Miami just wants to speed that process up a bit.

An unprecedented lucky streak of few serious hurricanes is lulling South Florida residents into a false sense of security. The threat from powerful storms, mixed with the now inevitability of 10 feet of sea level rise, means that Miami will likely be one of the first American cities to wink out of existence due to climate change.

Sooner or later, Miami will sink into the sea.

In a resolution passed by the mayor and city commission on a 3-2 vote earlier this month, the City of South Miami proposed that, because of the unique threat climate change poses to its part of the state, the region should immediately break away and form the 51st state:

Whereas, South Florida’s situation is very precarious and in need of immediate attention. Many of the issues facing South Florida are not political, but are now very significant safety issues; and

Whereas, presently, in order to address the concerns of South Florida, it is necessary to travel to Tallahassee in North Florida. Often South Florida issues do not receive the support of Tallahassee. This is despite the fact that South Florida generates more than 69 percent of the state’s revenue and contains 67 percent of the state’s population; and

Whereas, the creation of the 51st state, South Florida, is a necessity for the very survival of the entire southern region of the current state of Florida.

Mayor Philip Stoddard, quoted in the Orlando Sentinel—Disney World, by the way, would be part of the new state—didn’t mince words. “It’s very apparent that the attitude of the northern part of the state is that they would just love to saw the state in half and just let us float off into the Caribbean," Stoddard said. "They’ve made that abundantly clear every possible opportunity and I would love to give them the opportunity to do that.” The city’s vice mayor and author of the measure, Walter Harris, agreed in a lengthy interview with Vice News.

Secessionist movements like this one (and others in Colorado, California, Texas, and Vermont) have failed for generations. But this time feels different. For the first time, a region of the United States is in a for-real existential battle, and its central government­—personified by Gov. Rick “I’m not a scientist” Scott—doesn’t seem to care.

Our planet’s current carbon-guzzling path ensures Miami is a city living on borrowed time. But now, you can’t fault them for taking matters into their own hands.

Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM

One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability

PowerPoint. It's a situation as much as it is a product. And people do (aesthetically) terrible things with it. But now hackers are exploiting it in a new way. Microsoft announced on Tuesday that a vulnerability in nearly all versions of Windows is being attacked through PowerPoint files. We would expect nothing less.

The only version of Windows that's safe from this attack is Server 2003, which is kind of significant because Windows Server 2003 is sort of like the XP of server operating systems. Basically it's still around. But for everyone else, opening a compromised PowerPoint file could give a hacker remote system control.

Microsoft says that people who have encountered a malicious PowerPoint file often got a User Account Control prompt. That's sketchy and shouldn't happen just because you opened an Office document, so if you see that be on alert. Other office documents could spread the attack, too, or any file type that supports Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) protocol.

For now Microsoft has released a quick fix "OLE packager Shim Workaround" that fixes the PowerPoint issue, but isn't a full patch. That will presumably come as soon as Microsoft can churn it out. Microsoft also says that by operating Windows with limited permissions people can protect themselves from the attack.

Once and for all, just stay away from PowerPoint, okay?

Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM

Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey

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

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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 Twittersphere, where activists in Mexico, Venezuela, and Turkey have faced steep and sometimes fatal consequences for politically charged tweets over the last two weeks.

In Mexico, Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio was kidnapped and murdered in the northern border state of Tamaulipas in an apparent warning to citizen journalists reporting on drug-related violence. Photos of her corpse were posted on her Twitter account, which has since been suspended. Fuentes Rubio, who was a doctor, volunteered as a contributor to the citizen media platform Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas). An administrator of the platform later described her as “an angel who gave everything, her life, her future, her safety and peace ... for the good of the people of the state.”

In Venezuela, several users were arrested for sending tweets that police allege link them to the assassination of Robert Serra, a 27-year-old Socialist Party deputy who was found stabbed to death in his home on Oct. 1. All of those detained have voiced criticism of the current government on Twitter. Inés Margarita González (@inesitaterrible), a prominent voice on political issues, was detained and charged with "inciting crime" after tweeting her opinion on Serra's killing. She is currently being held incommunicado. 

The Turkish government briefly detained journalist Aytekin Gezici for tweets criticizing government officials and raided Gezici’s home, searching his computer, cell phone, camera and other electronics. Many believe this is the first use of Turkey’s new “reasonable doubt" rule, a pending amendment to the country's criminal code that will lower the threshold requirement for authorities to search and seize property in a criminal investigation. Now, rather than needing to show "strong suspicion based on concrete evidence", authorities must simply prove that they have a reasonable doubt of the suspect's innocence in order to obtain a search warrant.

China’s anti-rumor campaign continues
Daqin, a news website run by Tencent in Shaanxi province, is the latest casualty in China’s crackdown on “online rumors.” The site will be closed for seven days for its “lack of control on contents,” according to the Shaanxi Internet Information Office.

Hacks, hackers, and Russia’s proposed Internet fast lane
Russia may implement its own Internet fast lane as its Federal Anti-Monopoly Service considers allowing Internet service providers to collect fees from websites to prioritize delivery of their content. Citing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the FAS claims the fees would enable ISPs to make much-needed investments in national telecom infrastructure. But media freedom advocates argue they will endanger for the country’s already-threatened independent media space.

Russian hackers were able to spy on several Western governments, NATO, and the Ukrainian government, among others, by exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows, according to a report by computer security firm iSight Partners. It is unclear what information might have been retrieved through the attacks, which started as early as 2009 and ramped up this summer, but they were often tied to escalations in the standoff in Ukraine.