Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 14 2016 1:33 PM

An Ingress Veteran’s Lessons for New Pokémon Go Trainers

Since early last year, most of my free time has been spent playing Ingress, a game in which players battle for control of real-world locations, by actually going to those locations. If it sounds a bit like Pokémon Go, it should—both games were created by the software company Niantic (alongside Nintendo and the Pokémon Co. in the case of Pokémon Go). In fact, much of Pokémon Go’s map is based on that of Ingress. (In Ingress, instead of Pokéstops and Gyms, we have Portals. In addition to dueling for control over them, we link them up into networks, winning control over territory. This sounds more complicated than it is once you get used to it. TL;DR: My team, the Resistance, makes blue triangles to protect you from alien mind control. You’re welcome.)

Now my local Ingress stomping grounds are overrun with players of Pokémon Go, which seems to be a bona fide cultural phenomenon. I’m not an expert on the Pokédex; I was just old enough when Pokémon hit that I was aware of the phenomenon but never got into it. I wouldn’t know a Pidgey from Spearow if they landed on my head. I was, however, skulking around with my phone before it was cool. Here are a few tips from having spent many hours with Go’s older, weirder sibling:

Be safe
Seriously, rule No. 1: Don’t walk around staring at your phone. I know Ingress players who’ve been mugged. A player in Ireland died making a night run out a slippery pier to a lighthouse. If you want to listen to the game sounds, consider getting a pair of earbuds, and use one; you’ll attract less attention from anyone who might wish you ill and you’ll still be able to hear. Keep your eyes up, and look around to maintain situational awareness. If approached by law enforcement, worry more about making a positive impression than catching the Pikachu. And don’t try to play from the driver’s seat in the middle of traffic. It’s unsafe, and will get you a hefty ticket.

Play on a budget
The download is free, but you may spend money on gas, data overages or plan upgrades, accessories (like an external battery—GPS games maintain a continuous connection that will run down even the biggest phone batteries in a few hours), and in-game items. It’s fine to sink money into a hobby if you love it, but don’t end up with hundreds dollars on your credit card at the end of the month from a series of impulse buys.

They’re opponents, not enemies
Two different players have told me about getting grief from a teammate for maintaining friendships—which pre-date Ingress by years—with people who happen to play the other faction. So far it seems like the competition among Teams Mystic, Instinct, and Valor has not evolved to support the large-scale events we have in Ingress. But it probably will soon, and teams will be tempted to vilify one another. Nothing unites an “us” like a “them” to be defeated. But remember, you have more in common with a player from another team than either of you would with folks who aren’t in the game at all. Play to win, but treat your opponents with respect. A friendly wave and a “good game!” never hurt anyone.

See the world
You may be tempted to play from a car to cover ground faster. In exurban or rural areas, that may be the only realistic choice—if it’s 10 miles along roads with no sidewalks from one site to the next. But if you’re in a reasonably dense suburb, or an urban center, give the game a go on foot or on a bike. Even if you drive between sites, take time to park, hop out, and look around. PokéStops and Gyms are tied to real locations from Niantic’s Field Trip database of public art and attractions, or Ingress player submissions. Many of these locations are worth a close look. Don’t get so focused on your screen that you blithely walk right by something amazing. Always read the plaque!

People cheat
As soon as it becomes possible to trade gear between players, online stores will offer to sell things that can’t normally be bought in-game. Worse, if certain rare Pokémon are available only at limited locations, somebody will use a simulated phone, or developers’ tools on a real phone, to fake that location. Niantic has been fighting GPS spoofers in Ingress for years, and that battle will surely intensify with Go. As a player, there’s not much you can do aside from try to set a good example, and play with people who demonstrate integrity. And if you visit a remote location, take some selfies; somebody will ask whether you were really there.

You’re playing Calvinball
has been around for more than three years, and it’s still evolving from month to month. Sometimes updates will annoy you, or force you to rethink your strategy. The team at Niantic is trying to keep the whole system running smoothly for millions of players and make the game fun for everyone. Nobody’s done anything quite like this before. They’re going to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

Wheaton’s law
You’re helping to found a community. The character of that community, and how the rest of society will see it, is being determined by how you behave, right now. So don’t be a dick! Not to newbie teammates who are struggling to learn how to play well, not to your opponents, not to bystanders who have no idea what the game is about.

Have fun out there. And if you see me puzzling over Poliwags, say hi!

July 13 2016 10:27 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Dispatches From the Pokémoment

Pokémon played a seminal role in my life. An elderly millennial, I was just the right age to be baffled by the spell it was casting over the younger members of my generation when it emerged in the ’90s.  I soon became smugly out of touch, convincing myself that it was not I but the children who were wrong. I’ve always been uncool (as I admitted when I wrote about the hilarious social media prankster know as Da Share Z0ne this week), but Pokémon taught me that I was also desperately out touch.

out of touch


As such, I was woefully unprepared for Pokémon Go, the massive hit mobile game that’s taken over much of my Twitter feed in the past week. Fortunately, my colleague Lily Hay Newman, a lifelong Pokémon devotee, is far more clued in. She put her fandom to good use this week, penning an explainer of the pokénomenon that is every bit as fun as the game itself—and much funnier. Here you’ll find answers to questions about the game’s augmented reality mechanics, the source of its peculiar map data.

Once you’re caught up, go deep with us into the pokéticulars. Dawnthea Price shows us why it’s hard to play in the suburbs, while Chelsea Hassler details how the game took over her New York City life. Think you’re ready to jump in? Don’t be too hasty: There are still lingering security questions about the game, thanks to the dodgy—if unintentional—account permissions it requests from Google. We also looked into the conversations about mental health happening around it, worrying that some of the more extreme claims may accidentally reinforce negative stereotypes about video gamers more generally.

Here are some of the other stories we read while wishing we could edit our tweets:

  • Driverless cars: In the wake of the first fatal accident involving the Model S’ “autopilot” mode, Will Oremus explores why other companies think Tesla is approaching vehicular automation wrong.
  • Cyberlaw: Josephine Wolff looks at the overwrought claims that a court said it’s illegal to share your Netflix password with someone else.
  • Privacy: Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich inveigh against efforts to let law enforcement agencies access our browser histories, arguing that doing so is “almost like spying on … thoughts.”
  • Obituary: Alvin Toffler, who died in late June, was one of the first modern futurists, and though he got a great deal right, he may have been looking at the central problem all wrong. David Guston delves into the vexing complexities of Toffler’s legacy.


  • What concerted steps should Canada, Mexico, and the United States take to ensure that North America will become the world’s leading energy power for generations? Future Tense and the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute invite you to join them in Washington, D.C., at noon on Tuesday, July 26, for a conversation on what it will take for North America to fulfill its energy potential. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website, where the event will also be streamed live.

Clearing my cache,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

July 12 2016 5:30 PM

What It’s Like Playing Pokémon Go in the Middle of Nowhere

Pokémon Go doesn’t appear to have taken off in rural Virginia quite the same way it has in every other corner of the universe. There are no hordes of fledgling Pokémon Masters like Ash Ketchum (protagonist of the immortal Pokémon animated series) crowding around street art or monuments, laughing about things like Pidgeys and PokéGyms. Looking at your smartphone screen, there is no map crowded with landmarks and Lure Modules. There is no one around you chasing his or her iPhone, and if there was, the map would appear mostly empty—just wide open spaces occasionally disrupted by a lonely equestrian statue that dispenses Poké Balls. Playing Pokémon Go is nearly impossible out in the sticks.

After all, how could anyone reasonably play a game that requires walking if the incentivized locations are mostly churches or hard-to-reach roadside statues that you can’t even use, because they’re actually gyms and you’re not Level 5 yet, none of which really matters because they’re on roads that are hazardous to walk on anyway?

On Sunday, four days after Pokémon Go had launched, I was driving up U.S. 1 from Richmond, Virginia, while my passenger played Pokémon Go on both of our phones at once. For a road that runs from Maine to Florida, U.S. 1 gets very narrow in places: Had we attempted to get out and walk between the first Poké Stop we saw outside of Richmond (“Rooftop Teepee” in Glen Allen) and the third (the “Jackson’s March to Mechanicsville” marker in nearby Ashland), it would’ve taken more than an hour (and close to 4 miles) of walking along a sidewalk-less and poorly lit major highway that is also one of the region’s main throughways. Not exactly ideal Pokémon-hunting conditions.

Look at that variety.

Screenshot via Pokémon Go

In Pokémon Go, Poké Stops are vital for dispensing items and experience points; if there aren’t any nearby, the only way to gain experience is through catching Pokémon. Just as you will only find so many kinds of fauna on farms and in creeks, in Pokémon Go a trip to the country involves encountering a lot of the same pigeon-, insect- and rat-based Pokémon equivalents. For Pokémon Go players who don’t live near cities or denser concentrations of Poké Stops, leveling up in any reasonable timeframe might actually require traveling to an urban center just to catch ‘em all.

Or catching the same three Pokémon over and over and over again.

So, how do you play Pokémon Go in the middle of nowhere?

The game doesn’t work well if you’re moving faster than 20 mph, which might help explain why entrepreneurs are already offering Uber-like services for Pokémon Go players, as Gizmodo reports, but that’s not really an option here. One of Pokémon Go’s greatest attributes is that it’s a get-out-and-walk-there game—much like Ingress, gamemaker Niantic’s other major augmented reality project, which launched in beta in 2012.

As of Tuesday, there are still only a few surefire ways to locate concentrations of Poké Stops and Pokémon Gyms:

  • Go to the nearest town, city, college campus, or business park with lots of street art.
  • Search spaces like the Pokémon Go subreddit or Facebook for the nearest Pokémon Go group
  • Check Ingress’ database of “Portals,” which was used as a basis for Poké Stops and Gyms

Doing the last thing requires downloading a completely different battery-draining GPS game just to access the website, but the site itself is pretty straightforward and can be viewed as an Ingress map or a regular Street View map, with some weird blue and green dots and fields.

Portals versus PokéGyms as seen from the not-sticks of Arlington, Virginia.

Screenshots via Ingress and Pokémon Go

But, you might think, why not just add more landmarks to make the game more inclusive? According to Niantic’s frequently asked questions site for Ingress, that hasn’t been an option since September while the company has focused on “processing the backlog and on designing new and more efficient ways to evaluate Portal submissions and edits.” And after Niantic CEO John Hanke’s interview with Mashable on Sunday, it doesn’t really sound like the ability to suggest new stops or gyms is coming back anytime soon either. That leaves both Ingress and Pokémon Go players with whatever three years of user-driven submissions has yielded—including countless graffiti, sculptures, and street murals in every major city, as well as the Chipotle corporate art near my apartment.

The game will eventually open up trading with other players, which could improve the game for players whose locations haven’t allowed them to build a lot of variety into their Pokédex. Of course, if it requires in-person contact to trade, it’s back to square one unless you and a friend are OK with swapping easy-to-find Rattata, Pidgeys, and Weedles back and forth. Chalk it up as one of the ways augmented reality is still kind of in beta, too. If Ash Ketchum had played Pokémon Go, would he have been able to leave Pallet Town without hitchhiking to Viridian City?

July 12 2016 3:23 PM

Why Twitter Won't Give Us an Edit Button

In the midst of the chaos of the Dallas police shootings, at 12:52 a.m. Eastern on Friday, the Dallas Police Department tweeted a picture of a man they called a “suspect” and asked the public to help find him. It soon became clear he was innocent, but the tweet remained, and people continued to circulate his picture by the thousands. The Dallas police finally deleted the tweet Friday evening, after it had been retweeted more than 40,000 times and embedded in news stories around the Web. Yet the man in the picture is reportedly still in hiding, fearing for his life.

Deleting the tweet was probably the right thing to do, under the circumstances, even though it should have been done much earlier. Another option would have been for @dallaspd to reply to or quote its own tweet with a correction, declaring the man in the photo innocent. But that would have left the original tweet unaltered, for people to go on retweeting and viewing on news sites. Deleting the tweet at least halts its spread.

Yet deleting an inaccurate or otherwise problematic tweet is a seriously flawed solution, especially in cases where the original tweet was newsworthy, or when it has already circulated widely. The tweet simply disappears from the Web, replaced by an error page that tells you nothing about where it went or why.

Twitter deleted tweet
When you delete a tweet, an error page is all that's left behind.

Screenshot / Twitter.com

Replies to the tweet, and retweets that quoted it, are stripped of their context.

News stories that embedded the tweet are similarly affected, rendering them retroactively confusing or even nonsensical.

And yet, deleting the tweet does little to undo its damage. It lives on unaltered in screenshots, and in articles that embedded it in such a way that the text remains even after the tweet is gone.

The worst part of deleting an important tweet is that it precludes the possibility of replying to it with corrections, clarifications, or even apologies. Not only does it cut off discussion of the tweet by third parties, but the person or account that tweeted it can no longer leave a threaded reply with the correct information.

The solution to this problem is not a mystery. People have been asking for it for years: an editing function.

Allowing users to edit a tweet would solve multiple problems. In cases like the Dallas PD tweet, it would allow the police department not only to stop the spread of a damaging tweet, but to correct the record, clarifying that the man in the picture had nothing to do with the slaughter of police officers. Ideally, the edited tweet would replace the original, not only on Twitter, but everywhere that it had been embedded across the Web. It still wouldn’t reach all of the people who saw the original—corrections rarely do—but it would reach some of them, and a follow-up tweet could put the word out more widely.

There are also, of course, plenty of less fraught reasons why people might want to edit a tweet, such as correcting a typo, adding a link, or swapping in a different photo.

An editing feature makes so much sense that it’s almost hard to believe the company has existed for over a decade without one. A year ago this month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey himself seemed to endorse the idea, in response to a request from Kim Kardashian West.

Yet as Twitter has introduced one controversial service change after another under Dorsey’s leadership, the edit button has not been among them. What gives?

We got a partial explanation last fall from Kevin Weil, then the company’s head of product, who said at a Recode conference in October that nothing was imminent. “There are real challenges to editing tweets after you post them,” he said. For instance, an edit that changes the meaning of a tweet could present problems for those who had rebroadcast it, because their commentary around it might no longer make sense. In the worst case, a user could theoretically tweet something benign, get it circulated widely, then change it to something offensive or graphic.

OK, so: There are challenges. If only Twitter had a staff of hundreds of highly skilled engineers, designers, and product managers, plus $3.5 billion in cash on hand, perhaps it could solve them!

An obvious first step would be to build the edit feature in such a way that an edited tweet is marked as such, and includes an option to view the original so that you can see exactly what was changed. If you really wanted to minimize the risk of abuse, an edited tweet could be grayed out on sites where it’s embedded until the reader clicks to reveal it. You could even delete the tweet itself and replace it with a message that the tweet has been edited, along with a link to view both the original and the edited version.

Some of these proposals are admittedly a little clunky. But there’s little doubt that Twitter could find a way to allow edited tweets if it considered it a priority.

The real question, then, is why Twitter doesn’t consider it a priority. Twitter itself won’t say, and the company had no comment when I inquired. But I have a theory.

My theory is that an edit feature is the type of feature Twitter would have implemented long ago if its main goal were to make the service better for the people who use it. Of course Twitter does care about making the service better for the people who use it, and, to some extent, about the public interest as well. But ever since it went public in 2013 at a valuation of some $25 billion, the company has been under intense pressure from investors—and, oddly, the media—to grow much larger than it is today. One CEO and a slew of executives have already either stepped down or been ushered out for failing to overhaul the service in pursuit of rapid expansion.

The result is that Twitter can no longer afford to prioritize the interests of the people who use it. In order to vastly expand its active user base, the company must instead prioritize the putative interests of people who do not use it. For people who do not use Twitter today, an edit function is highly unlikely to be the change that lures them in at last. And that is why I believe we have not seen it, and probably won’t see it anytime soon.

July 12 2016 3:20 PM

How Our Own Genetic Code Could Make the Internet Last for Millennia

Researchers at Microsoft, with the help of a team at the University of Washington, have managed to store 200 megabytes of information inside a strand of synthetic DNA. According to a press release, the molecule was more than 1.5 billion nucleotides long and contained, among many other things, the music video for OK Go’s song “This Too Shall Pass.” While this project wasn’t the first to look into the storage capabilities of artificial DNA, the new achievement—a record in the field—is an early step on the way to larger goals: making internet storage cheaper, physically smaller, and much more permanent.

The technology that currently houses the internet has a few problems, the first being that it’s temporary. All information on the internet is located somewhere, in a physical storage device. These devices store that information using either an arrangement of electrons or magnetism, but because it’s hard to get a perfect electrical/magnetic insulation, some information may become demagnetized, and the electrons will inevitably shift around or escape, leading to data loss. What that means is that unless it is transferred periodically to a new piece of hardware, all data on the internet will eventually disappear.

Since this effect operates on the scale of hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on the exact equipment, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems in your day-to-day life, but at a societal level, the problems are more severe. Movie studios and record companies are wrestling with the question of how to format their archives, since movies and music made today are often “born digital” and must be converted back to analog if the creators want cheaper and longer-lasting storage. But in these industries, the convenience of leaving things digital often wins out. (Not that analog is an entirely safe medium; a 2007 report from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences estimated that at that time, only half of the movies made before 1950 still existed.) In the world of science, the situation is even worse; scientific research and experimental data are stored almost entirely online, on one of these ever-degrading servers, where continual transfer is necessary. To this end, the American Geophysical Union passed a policy in 1993 encouraging its members to archive their data in centers that promise to periodically transfer information to new hardware, to avoid data loss and preserve data sets for researchers in the future. Unless we find a way to save important information in a more permanent way, we may be eventually faced with a modern Library of Alexandria.

DNA-based storage offers a solution to the problem of impermanence. When the remains of wooly mammoths were discovered in recent years, researchers were able to sequence the genome, despite most specimens having died more than 10,000 years ago, thanks to the relative stability of the DNA molecule.

Our efficiency in converting binary data (ones and zeros) into physical DNA sequences (the A, C, G, and T that comprise the four possible nucleotides of genetic code) is improving rapidly. Last year, a team in Germany was able to encode 83 kilobytes of data into a DNA strand, making last week’s announcement a 1,000-fold increase in less than a year. If this trend continues, our cultural and intellectual breakthroughs could eventually be stored in what Microsoft envisions as a “vast digital attic,” where the most critical insights of our species are encoded into DNA, for long-term storage.

But constant decay isn’t the only obstacle to archiving the internet. We also have to grapple with its size, which is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. (That’s 44 zettabytes for you prefix sticklers.) This level of exponential growth poses a few logistical issues, many relating to the sheer cost of maintaining server farms that can span millions of square feet and require millions of dollars’ worth of electrical power each year.

DNA, however, is very dense. According to computer scientist Luis Ceze, the lead researcher for the University of Washington on this project, if all the information available online today were translated into DNA storage, it could fit into a shoebox. You could then pop that shoebox in a refrigerator set to just below freezing, and expect have readable information for hundreds of thousands of years. For archival purposes, this would save an almost unbelievable amount of money in maintenance. (That 2007 report from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found that it’s about 11 times more expensive to archive movies digitally instead of in an analog form.)

DNA is also appealing as a storage alternative because it is highly unlikely to become obsolete. Archivists have always struggled with the problem of obsolesce—data are stored on machines or media devices that become rapidly outdated, and must be quickly transferred to more current technology before the ability to read the older format is lost forever. However, given the ubiquity of DNA-based lifeforms on this planet, it’s unlikely that we will ever abandon DNA as a technology.

Eventually, it is possible that the technology may improve to the point of having DNA-based computers, although there are significant obstacles. More immediately, DNA-based storage may soon be preserving all those embarrassing photos of your childhood forever.

July 12 2016 1:33 PM

Study: Climate Change is Already Shifting Global Cloud Patterns, Boosting Warming

The biggest unknown in climate science just got a bit more known, and the results aren’t good.

A new study led by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego has systematically analyzed more than 25 years of cloud records, starting in 1983—a huge task. On balance, cloud patterns have been shifting toward the poles, the researchers found, and the tallest cloud tops have grown taller. Ramifications from these trends include the drying of places in the subtropics like California, South Africa, and southern Europe and a net warming of the planet.

The study, published on Monday in the journal Nature, demonstrates that satellites have been observing the Earth for a long enough time that we can conduct observational studies of climate change. That’s huge. But more importantly, the results themselves provide a critical first data point for a problem that’s been vexing climate scientists for decades.

“What this paper brings to the table is the first credible demonstration that the cloud changes we expect from climate models and theory are currently happening,” Joel Norris, an atmospheric scientist and lead author on the new study, said in a press release.

It’s never a good idea to put too much emphasis on the results of a single scientific study, but this is a biggie. It’s further evidence that significant climate change has already begun. It also bolsters growing evidence that future climate change could portend greater warming than previously thought.

For a long time, exactly what’s happening to clouds has remained a giant, but critical, question. The National Science Foundation, the nation’s largest source of scientific funding, has called the cloud problem “the wild card of climate change.”

At any given moment, clouds cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. And, as anyone who’s ever seen a cloud knows, they’re bright white. Clouds’ shiny nature tends to greatly increase the planet’s albedo—Earth’s ability reflect the sun’s energy back out into space, and therefore cool down. According to NASA, without clouds, Earth would absorb nearly 20 percent more energy from the sun than it currently does. Since the industrial era began, the leftover specks of sulfur from burning coal (which have increased sevenfold in recent decades) have helped clouds get even brighter by creating tinier cloud droplets. But changing amounts of clouds in key locations—that is, fewer clouds to reflect the sun in certain places—might be enough to offset that trend. That’s what the new study tried to measure.

Studying clouds is notoriously tricky, which is a big reason why there’s never been a study like this one. Clouds are ephemeral, and consistent observations from space are difficult to engineer. To overcome this, the study’s authors repurposed cloud data from weather satellites, removed artifacts in the data from changing orbits and other sources, and looked for signs of change in key areas over 27 years. Their results—that cloud patterns are indeed shifting—give more confidence to projections of future change.

By looking at clouds over the subtropics, Norris said in an email his study found “widespread reductions in albedo … just as the climate models projected,” signifying an already-occurring poleward expansion of deserts toward the midlatitudes. As a check against the possibility of the observed changes being a result of natural climate variability, the authors simulated 15,000 years of pre-industrial cloud patterns. Not one 27-year period showed as strong a cloud-induced warming signal as the period the authors examined.

This study isn’t the final say, however, and some parts of the planet showed an increase in cloud cover over the timespan analyzed. In the process of removing spurious data, the authors sacrificed the ability to analyze changes to overall global albedo.

Taken in context with other recent studies, the new results show the net effect of climate change on clouds could in fact be to encourage warming, in contrast to the consensus from just a few years ago. In the most recent full-scale Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released back in 2013, the consensus was that, on balance, changes in cloud albedo have tended to cool the climate in the more than 200 years since humans began burning fossil fuels at a hefty clip. But the error bars on this assessment were huge, wide enough to include the possibilities that clouds could potentially offset about half of global warming, or actually cause warming themselves.

By taking the first comprehensive look at the clouds themselves, the new study demonstrates that changes in clouds are probably causing more warming, not cooling, and the authors expect this warming feedback to continue. That clarity is good news for scientists who have been working for decades on this problem, but the findings could be bad news for the rest of us.

July 12 2016 11:45 AM

The Brilliant, and Surprisingly Funny, Computer Code Behind the Apollo 11 Mission

NASA’s Apollo 11 mission—the mission that put human beings on the moon for the first time—was launched in 1969, the year after I was born. My early Christmas presents were giant kids’ books full of pictures of that giant Saturn V rocket launching into space, the command and lunar modules, and of guys in bulky space suits walking on the moon. The first intelligible answer I gave to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was, “Astronaut.”

I did not end up becoming an astronaut.

Computers also captured my attention at an early age, and now I work as a developer for Slate. But my fascination with space endures—so needless to say, I was pretty excited when I heard that the source code for Apollo 11’s computer guidance systems was uploaded on July 8 to Github, a popular site used by programmers to share code and collaboratively build software. Anyone can now read the actual lines of programming code used to land men on the moon.

The code was written in the late ’60s by Margaret Hamilton and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Instrumentation Laboratory for the Apollo Guidance Computer. The code is pretty inscrutable to casual inspection: It’s not written in a programming language recognizable to modern coders. But Hamilton and her team wrote comments in their code (just like I do when I write code for Slate’s website) to help remind them what’s going on in a given spot in the program. Those parts are surprisingly readable. Here’s a block of code from a file called BURN_BABY_BURN--MASTER_IGNITION_ROUTINE.s (really, that’s what it’s called):


So, clearly, “don’t forget to clean out leftover DVTOTAL data when GROUP 4 RESTARTS and then BURN, BABY!” I have no idea what a DVTOTAL is, but I’m pretty sure that by BURNBABY, they mean “launch a 300-foot rocket ship into space.” And how totally and completely freaking awesome is that?

Altogether, with comments and some added copyright headers, the AGC code adds up to about 2 megabytes—a teeny tiny fraction of the amount of code packed into an Apple Watch. You probably downloaded more data in the process of loading this web page. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the limitations of the equipment the code ran on. The Apollo Guidance Computer was miraculously advanced for the late 1960s, able to be used on a very power-, space-, and weight-constrained space ship. Still, it could only run a couple of kilobytes of code at a time.

But what is surprising (and wonderful) about this pile of code is the human-ness shining through. They may have been rocket scientists, but at least one of the coders had a terrible habit of typing “WTIH” instead of “WITH” (like 20 times). And here, reading this block of code inLUNAR_LANDING_GUIDANCE_EQUATIONS.s, it’s not hard to picture a young MIT engineer writing code while imagining landing on the moon:


Under the right circumstances, the AGC could halt and abort operations without dumping memory, forcing the computer into Program 00, a condition called a “P00DOO abort.” Scattered throughout the comments are references to this condition where it’s typed out as “POODOO” (O’s and not zeroes), so it’s pretty clear how they pronounced it when discussing it aloud. There’s no question in my mind that 30 years before anyone had heard of Jar-Jar Binks, NASA engineers stood around chalk boards discussing how to prevent their programs from taking a poodoo.


When the AGC and the software that made it work were created, there was no Github, no Stack Overflow, no widely used and tested software design principles to follow. Everything these engineers did had to be imagined, built, tested, fixed, retested, reimagined, and tested again from scratch. With each and every instruction they wrote, it could never have been far from their minds that if this instruction fired as planned, humans would walk the moon for the first time. And if it failed, astronauts could lose their lives.

During the actual Apollo 11 mission, an unlikely set of circumstances caused the guidance computer to begin throwing alarms just three minutes before the lunar module was to land on the surface. A problem in the radar system used to recapture the landing module in the case of an abort caused its AGC program to start using more computing cycles than it was supposed to—at the very moment when another program, the one that was helping land the craft on the moon, was in its most critical phase. It was the robustness of the software design, which included routines to ensure that higher-priority instructions were executed over lower-priority ones, that allowed the AGC to continue working, thus ensuring that Apollo 11 could continue on to successfully land on the moon.

When I was a kid, I was inspired by the temerity and courage of astronauts walking on the surface of the moon. Now that I’m an aging computer nerd (and not an astronaut), looking at this code has reminded me that the magnitude of its technical and engineering achievement can’t be overstated. It’s thrilling to see the work of computer nerds who made typos and dumb jokes, who couldn’t really know that what they were doing would work—and who showed that there’s no limit to what people can do with enough brainpower and really hard work.

July 11 2016 7:52 PM

Be Careful About Logging Into Pokémon Go With Your Google Account

Pokémon Go is out of control right now. The mobile game has been downloaded millions of times and is exploding in popularity all over the world. As people hear about it, they’re rushing to sign up and join the fun. But that sign-up could come with more risks than you think.

Adam Reeve, the principal architect at the cybersecurity analytics firm RedOwl, pointed out in a blog post on Monday that when users sign in to Pokémon Go with a Google account, they risk granting the mobile game extensive permission to peer into their lives on Google.

Logging into a service can be a good cybersecurity decision if that third party has strong security and two-factor authentication, like Google does, because it means one less login to keep track of and fewer variables if you get hacked. Usually, though, an app like Pokémon Go would request limited permission to actually access that other account, because it’s mainly using the third party to identify and authenticate users. In the case of Google, Pokémon Go probably just needs to know who you are. Yet when some users (like me!) check the “Apps connected to your account“ page on their Google accounts, they’ll find that Pokémon Go “has full access to your Google account,” the highest level Google provides.

My personal list of authorized apps is very short. Google Chrome has “full access” status because, you know, it’s a Google product. Boomerang, an app that works with Gmail to schedule emails, “has access to Gmail, basic account info.” It makes sense that it needs Gmail access because I’m asking it to do tasks in ... Gmail. Dropbox only “has access to Google Contacts,” and iOS and OS X, two operating systems that have extensive interoperability with Google products, have “access to Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Contacts, basic account info.” Even Apple isn’t getting “full access.” But for some reason, Pokémon Go is. I reached out to Niantic, the company that makes the game, for comment and will update if I hear back.

Google says on its Accounts Help page:

When you grant full account access, the application can see and modify nearly all information in your Google Account (but it can’t change your password, delete your account, or pay with Google Wallet on your behalf). ...
This “Full account access” privilege should only be granted to applications you fully trust, and which are installed on your personal computer, phone, or tablet.

The company goes on to say that users should use the “revoke access” button to cut off any app they don’t fully trust. And that’s exactly what Reeve is doing. He wrote, “I don’t know anything about Niantic’s security policies. I don’t know how well they will guard this awesome new power they’ve granted themselves, and frankly I don’t trust them at all. I’ve revoked their access to my account, and deleted the app. I really wish I could play ...”

If you’re using Pokémon Go on Android you’ll be explicitly asked to accept these terms, but either way, if you check your Google permissions and find that Pokémon Go has free rein on your account, you should give some thought to whether you’re comfortable with this. Unfortunately, the Pokémon Go login choices are currently limited to using your Google account or a pokemon.com account. You can’t make a login that’s just for the app.

Assuming this isn’t part of an evil Niantic plot to steal our identities, the company will hopefully revise the permissions it’s seeking soon. We want to catch Pokémon in augmented reality, not have a game company all up in our actual reality.

Update, July 12, 8:25 a.m.: On Monday night, Niantic gave a statement to the Verge and other outlets that promises a change to the Google permission Pokémon Go currently demands. The company wrote:

We recently discovered that the Pokémon GO account creation process on iOS erroneously requests full access permission for the user’s Google account. However, Pokémon Go only accesses basic Google profile information (specifically, your User ID and email address) and no other Google account information is or has been accessed or collected. Once we became aware of this error, we began working on a client-side fix to request permission for only basic Google profile information, in line with the data that we actually access. Google has verified that no other information has been received or accessed by Pokémon Go or Niantic. Google will soon reduce Pokémon Go’s permission to only the basic profile data that Pokémon Go needs, and users do not need to take any actions themselves.

This will address the concern about permissions, which is great news for Pokémon Go fans who didn’t want to give the game up over a security risk. But it’s still troubling that Niantic didn’t know what it was asking Google—and users—for in the first place.

July 11 2016 3:40 PM

Is Pokémon Go Actually Good for Your Mental Health?

As all mass cultural phenomena inevitably do, Pokémon Go—the hit augmented reality mobile game—almost immediately spawned a host of concerned criticism in the wake of its July release. One police department warned that criminals were using it to rob unsuspecting players, and a widely circulated blog post argued that it amplifies racial disparities. Others worried that it was inviting reckless driving or causing real injuries. Not all have been so critical of the game, though. To the contrary, some have suggested that it might actually be good for its players’ mental health. Framing the game in these terms may, however, be deceptive—perhaps even destructive.

Generally speaking, the idea seems to be that by encouraging us to leave our homes and head out into the world, Pokémon Go can help combat depression and overcome social anxiety. A roundup of such claims from Twitter Moments suggests the idea is relatively widespread, with one typical user testifying that the game “might just be the best thing for improving my mental health and positive body image.” BuzzFeed’s Alicia Melville-Smith interviewed a handful of players about their affirmative emotional responses to the game, each of them offering deeply personal anecdotes about their relationship to it.

While it’s entirely reasonable to say that the game is beneficial for some players, it’s important not to overgeneralize from their experiences. Moreover, given that the game has been available for less than a week, much of this enthusiasm—like the more hysterical responses it counters—may be a bit premature. In an otherwise enthusiastic article for Attn:, Laura Donovan acknowledges that research is inconclusive on whether merely going for a walk improves our emotional well-being—throwing a bit of cold water on the central premise of much of this testimony. The Harvard-based psychiatrist John Torous goes further, writing on Twitter that to claim the game is a mental health solution “belittles the struggles of many.” Nevertheless, others have taken the premise more or less on faith, inspiring at least one publication to write that “we can apparently expect a surprise health bonus” from the game.

Whatever the effects of low-level exercise, some of the good feelings players point to probably derive from other features of the game, features that have little to do with the demand to stroll. Most of all, there’s the simple pleasure of advancing your character and building your virtual menagerie. Even casual players will quickly gain in-game levels and improve their captured Pokémon in the early going, experiences that can feel like real accomplishments. Such features aren’t unique to Pokémon Go itself, though: You can find them in a host of existing mobile, console, and computer games, including in some more-or-less explicit Pokémon knock-offs. You might also point to Ingress, Pokémon Go’s more elaborate augmented reality predecessor. For many, attaching such features to a beloved franchise likely intensifies their delights, but the initial pleasures the game generates probably aren’t all that different from those you’d discover when first diving into World of Warcraft or another advancement-based role playing game.

Significantly, it’s entirely possible that these games offer real benefits, even when they don’t encourage players to exercise. Game designer Jane McGonigal has argued as much in Future Tense, writing that “purposeful game play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills,” which can, in turn, help stave off depression. While some have criticized McGonigal’s embrace of gamification—including in Slate—there’s clearly something to her premise that games can help us engage with our lives, and that they only really go wrong when we use them to flee from ordinary concerns. In this sense, some of the qualities players are attributing to Pokémon Go may simply be the products of video gaming more generally, not features that are unique to the new title.

There’s a slightly troubling quality, then, to the widespread celebration of Pokémon Go’s supposedly restorative powers. By holding the game up over (and implicitly against) others of its kind, these accounts may be inadvertently blowing a familiar dog whistle, one that plays into myths about gamers as mentally ill shut-ins. But that’s not, of course, to say that there’s anything wrong with getting a little exercise while you play (so long as you stretch first).

July 11 2016 11:30 AM

New Mexico Supreme Court: Courts Can’t Use Skype to Get Around the Constitution

Guadalupe Ashford’s body was found behind a trashcan at the edge of a parking lot. She had been bludgeoned to death by a brick, and state forensic analysts collected DNA samples from her body and the murder weapon. This DNA matched that of Truett Thomas, whom the state tried and convicted for first-degree murder and kidnapping. One problem: The forensic analyst who matched the DNA samples had moved out of state, and she was constitutionally required to testify at Thomas’ trial. The analyst didn’t want to schlep back to New Mexico, so the court allowed her to testify via Skype. What a handy solution!

Except it is also a blatantly unconstitutional one, as the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled on appeal. The problem is the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment (and its exact analogue in the New Mexico state Sonstitution), which states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” (Laboratory technicians and forensic analysts are considered “witnesses” for Confrontation Clause purposes.) Courtroom confrontation of witnesses was an obsession for the framers of the Bill of Rights: The practice was well-established in English common law, but the British rulers of the pre-revolutionary colonies often jettisoned confrontation rights to punish unruly colonists. So once these colonists broke free from the crown and penned their own charter of liberties, the right to confrontation was restored as an integral component of the criminal justice system.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the Confrontation Clause strongly favors physical, in-person, face-to-face confrontation. However, the court relaxed this preference in 1990’s Maryland v. Craig, to let minors who allege sexual abuse to testify via a closed-circuit, one-way television procedure. This 5-4 decision came down at the height of America’s child abuse panic, when prosecutors sent thousands of innocent people to prison because children falsely accused them of molestation. Courts played a role in this travesty of justice by relaxing constitutional due process to spare children emotional trauma. Craig is perhaps the most egregious example of the special rules courts crafted for purported child victims. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in dissent, the faux-confrontation procedure “gives the defendant virtually everything the Confrontation Clause guarantees (everything, that is, except confrontation).”