The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 22 2014 12:33 PM

James Ellis Is Blowing Up on Facebook! Wait, Who Is This Dude?

We’re all vaguely aware that Facebook’s algorithms are working behind the scenes to select what we see in our news feeds. It’s not a perfect system, but basically, when photos of a friend you haven’t talked to in years start popping up everywhere (she got a new pet hedgehog!) it’s not completely random.

If you’ve been seeing videos lately shared by one James Ellis, though, that's a little weirder.

Ellis is a fitness model, actor, and generally very in shape person. According to his Facebook page, he's 5-foot-11, weighs 185 pounds, enjoys outdoor sports, and is a “follower of JESUS CHRIST.” He won the World Beauty Fitness & Fashion show in 2011 and really likes Greek yogurt. Cool, but who is he? Why is he showing up everywhere?

It’s unclear. Ellis has almost 1.4 million Facebook followers, and the videos he posts daily (“On this page you can expect to see a ton of posts each day in the form of text, photos, & video”) get hundreds or thousands of shares. More and more people seem to be noticing his videos popping up in their feeds, even though they've never heard of him and don't like his page. Every few months he uploads a video to his YouTube channel featuring himself, and they have views in the thousands, but nothing like the exposure he’s getting on Facebook.

The videos he plugs are generic Web-friendly clips with descriptions like “Testing the reflexes of seven kittens..,” “Can't stop laughing at this little dude’s reaction to his mom blowing her nose..,” or “I would do this.. Goats, just enjoying life..” They're not usually fitness videos and they almost always come with the disclaimer “**** VIDEO FOUND ONLINE. All credits to video owner.” So basically he’s using other people’s content to build his brand.

The posts almost all have those weird double periods, which might just be the way Ellis types. But it could also be that there’s some auto-post feature set up for his public wall. Maybe he’s getting paid to circulate these videos. He didn’t respond to my request for comment.

Facebook hasn’t commented on Ellis’ sudden prominence, either, but if it does, I’ll update here. Apparently Ellis just shot two episodes of Days of Our Lives, so you can see him there. Oh, and it's also his birthday today. In the words of one commenter, “Happy Birthday you Beast!” Maybe he’ll get to celebrate with some takedown notices for sharing other people’s protected videos.

A Facebook demigod.

Screencap from JamesEllisFit.

Video Advertisement

July 22 2014 10:08 AM

The MH17 Investigation Is Not Doomed

Rarely has a major commercial plane-crash investigation been as blatantly compromised as that of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. According to various reports, the plane’s wreckage has been tampered with. Bodies have been moved. And gun-wielding separatists have blocked investigators from the scene.

That’s all in stark contrast to what is supposed to happen when a commercial jetliner goes down.

First, according to aviation experts, the scene is secured so that only the relevant officials can enter. Second, every single piece of evidence is marked and photographed. Finally, says Ross Aimer of Aero Consulting, the wreckage is transported in an orderly fashion to a large hangar, where investigators painstakingly reconstruct the scene to examine in greater detail.​​

There’s a reason these things are important, explains James Hall of Hall & Associates, who chaired the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. “You never know what information may or may not be useful” in ascertaining the cause of a crash.

For instance, when TWA Flight 800 went down off of Long Island in 1996, investigators spent the better part of a year recovering nearly the whole plane from the ocean. Then they reconstructed it to prove that it had not been taken down by a rocket or missile. In that process, Hall says, “almost every piece of the aircraft was important to the final conclusion.” The final NTSB report, published four years after the crash, identified an explosion in a fuel tank as the likely cause.

With MH17, such a detailed reconstruction will be impossible. Yet that doesn’t mean the investigation is doomed if it’s handled properly from here on out, Hall and other experts told me. It turns out that taking a plane down with a surface-to-air missile tends to leave a lot of evidence—probably too much for even a determined band of tamperers to hide.

Assuming the flight was in fact shot down, as President Obama has stated, here are five different forms of evidence that could be used to tie the wreckage to a specific type of weapon:  

1. The “black box”: Ukrainian rebels on Tuesday turned over the plane's data recorders to Malaysian officials. Assuming they haven’t been damaged or hacked somehow—which would be very difficult to do, according to Aimer—the flight data recorder and cockpit voice reporter should provide useful evidence. That’s true even if the plane broke apart in midair, in which case the black box would likely have been separated from the main cabin and stopped recording. For one thing, the flight data recorder could help rule out any kind of technical difficulties prior to the explosion. For another, Hall says investigators may be able to identify the type of explosive device by its “sound signature.”

Malaysia Flight 17 crash scene
Pro-Russia militants initially blocked access to the scene.

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

2. Signs of shrapnel in the plane wreckage: Surface-to-air missiles like the “Buk” SA-11 typically don’t hit their targets directly, aviation expert Robert W. Mann told me. Instead, they track them by radar and then blow up when they’re in close proximity to the plane, sending shrapnel in multiple directions. That should leave holes, pockmarks, and shredding in the fuselage that bear the weapon’s imprint.

And, in fact, the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers reported Tuesday that photographs of the downed plane show just these sorts of markings. “Most of the smaller holes look to be caused by a high-velocity projectile, as opposed to simple shearing or tearing caused by the forceful separation of the panel from the airframe,” an analyst at IHS Jane’s told the Times.

3. Signs of shrapnel on the victims’ bodies: Shrapnel that penetrates the plane could end up hitting the passengers, potentially either lodging inside them or leaving entry and exit wounds.

4. Residue from the explosion itself: If a warhead exploded in close enough proximity to the plane, it should leave tiny bits of chemical residue that would help confirm the nature of the weapon.

5. Military satellite imagery: The Russian Defense Ministry has said that there was an American satellite flying over eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash, and it has called on the U.S. government to release the relevant imagery. The U.S. may be reluctant to do that. But it could well be the basis for the conclusions the Obama administration has already drawn as to the cause of the crash. And it has the advantage of not being able to be tainted by any tampering at the scene.

It’s a shame that the messy aftermath of the Flight 17 crash will prevent the sort of meticulous investigation that this sort of tragedy deserves. And the victims’ families are justifiably outraged at the mistreatment of the bodies.

The only good news is that, if a missile really did take the plane out of the sky, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone tampering with the scene to remove all the smoking guns. The best they could hope for, it seems, is a veneer of plausible deniability should the remaining evidence point in their direction.

 “You can put together a highly sufficient circumstantial case” even with a compromised scene, says Mann. “The problem is, you’re never going to convince the people who don’t want to be convinced.”

July 21 2014 6:32 PM

Facebook Has a Magical New Bookmark-Like Feature for Posts You Want to Save

Opening Facebook has gotten a little overwhelming. The company wants its users sharing every kind of content imaginable, and our cluttered, endless news feeds certainly reflect that. So how do you weed out the good from the mass of random? Facebook has a new feature to save you: save.

It could be genuinely useful for all of those links and recommendations your Facebook friends are spewing every day. Save will now be part of the dropdown menu for every Facebook post, and you add things to a private list to look at later. Facebook will also occasionally surface your saved posts in your news feed, so you don't forget that they're there. 

Your saved list, which is in the More tab on iOS and Android apps, and the left rail on Web-based Facebook, will be organized by category and let you share items with other users or move things to an archive list. It might seem like a minor feature addition, but if you think about how much content we all view on Facebook every day, it’s long overdue. The question is, will save become a niche feature, or will it be central to how people use Facebook? I’m hoping it ends up acting like Twitter’s favorite so I can use it to keep track of all the embarrassing statuses people post.

July 21 2014 4:32 PM

Judge Gives Police Total Access to Suspect’s Inbox

Last Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein issued a controversial ruling granting police a warrant to search the entirety of a suspect’s Gmail inbox for incriminating evidence. On its face, the judgment might not seem particularly startling. But if more courts adopt Gorenstein’s dangerous logic, we may soon see an unprecedented erosion in digital privacy.

Here’s the thing about virtual searches: They aren’t all that different from physical searches. When a magistrate issues a search warrant, she specifies what items can be searched for and what areas can be searched. There’s no real reason the same shouldn’t be true when police want to search a computer or an inbox. Magistrates could, in theory, provide law enforcement with certain keywords names to search or folders to scour. Doing so would protect an individual’s entire cache of documents, images, and data from being invaded—while allowing police to zero in on the evidence they hope to find.

But that isn’t what Gorenstein, a federal judge, did in this case, which stems from a money-laundering investigation. Instead, Gorenstein gave police unrestricted access to the suspect’s emails, specifying no specific parameters for their search. In doing so, Gorenstein furthered an alarming trend: Magistrate judges have begun treating computers as single physical entities—like a file cabinet—and given police carte blanche to search through the whole thing. The problem here is obvious. A file cabinet, no matter how big, has a limited number of files. But a hard drive might have thousands upon thousands of files, each of which could contain information of a trove of highly personal information. Inboxes do, too. Hard drives and inboxes, then, aren’t really like a file cabinet—they’re like a whole house filled with information tucked in every nook and cranny.

Most magistrates would be reluctant to grant a warrant that allowed police to search every single space in every room of a house. In fact, such a warrant would tread dangerously close to the “general warrants”—an unlimited license to search and seize—that the Framers banished with the Fourth Amendment. So why should a digital search be any different? In defending broad virtual warrants, judges usually harp on the fact that computer and inboxes have vast quantities of scattered, often hidden data. (Gorenstein noted that few criminals log their illicit activities in a folder titled “drug records.”) As a result, these judges argue, police must be able to search every digital alcove they can find. The invoice from your last heroin sale might be tucked in a folder titled “Grandma’s 80th Birthday Party.”

But this is deeply faulty logic. First, physical items can be concealed, too; that doesn’t necessarily give police authority to rifle through every single drawer in a house. Second, although computers hold more potentially incriminating material than a file cabinet might, they’re also easier to search. When a judge issues a warrant to search a hard drive or inbox, she might limit it to data accessed on certain dates or containing certain searchable key words. Or she might permit officers to examine folders but not their contents, and request another warrant to search a suspicious folder. (Courts have attempted these approaches, to moderate success.)

Ultimately, the Supreme Court will surely have to step in to draw the contours of our rights of digital privacy. And when the court does rule, don’t expect it to follow Gorenstein’s logic. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick recently pointed out, the justices really are trying to apply the Fourth Amendment reasonably and consistently to our more personal and complex gadgets. In the last two years, they’ve limited the scope of both GPS and cellphone searches. Reviving the much-reviled general warrant for the digital age, as Gorenstein hopes to do, probably won’t fly with this court.

July 21 2014 3:07 PM

Even iMessage Isn’t Safe From Spam

We all want the text message spam to stop. It’s enough with the strange phone numbers and flash sales. No one wants to buy or win a Gucci handbag from a text message. Do you hear that, spammers? This is not how people shop for luxury goods.

And yet! Instead of packing up the knockoff Prada bags and Oakley sunglasses, spammers are using a new approach and sending their links and exclamation marks over iMessage. Last week, the IT security firm Cloudmark released an analysis that shows a rise in spam being sent on Apple's messaging service.

The report shows that many people surveyed in big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and New York get their text spam from the same large-scale campaigns. And in New York, for example, almost of half of text message spam comes over iMessage. Apple's service is what’s called an over-the-top layer on normal SMS texting that allows iMessage to use mobile data or Wi-Fi for connection. As a result, the messages send for free, so spammers can avoid fees (especially hefty international texting fees). And they can send as many messages as they want. Great.

If you're getting these pesky messages, don't tap the links or reply. And though Apple doesn't have a fix in place for iMessage spam, you can report “unwanted messages” to help keep your inbox clean. Fancy people don't let fancy friends fall for un-fancy text scams.

July 21 2014 3:04 PM

Cutting-Edge Minivan Technology Lets Parent Yell at Kids Extra Loudly

The newest version of Toyota’s Sienna minivan is the company’s most creative and family-friendly yet. There is, says the press release, an optional Dual-View, Blu-Ray rear seat entertainment system to make the car “a kid-favorite destination.” There is a “pull-down conversation mirror” that allows parents to check on passengers in the back without contorting themselves awkwardly. Oh, and there is Driver Easy Speak, which uses a microphone to amplify the driver’s voice through the rear speakers, so that he or she can better scream at the kids. Call it a creative, frictionless yelling experience.

Driver Easy Yell, as this innovation should be called, is necessary because “today’s parents are embracing their life stage and those relatable family moments that make us laugh and feel connected,” said Toyota Division marketing vice president Jack Hollis. When, in the midst of a relatable family moment, you feel so connected to your children that you wish to scare their pants off, Driver Easy Yell lets you do just that. The company claims that its latest feature will make it easier for parents to communicate with rear passengers without raising their voices. This “communication” line is clearly a pretext, however, because Easy Yell only goes in one direction—the backseat will not be miked, the revolution will not be amplified. Plainly, Toyota wants to help you terrorize your misbehaving kids by booming rebukes at them in the implacable Voice of God. In the next version, the car will make flames appear to erupt out of your forehead.

What kind of parent would use Driver Easy Yell on their kids? All of them, at least according to an unscientific (but unanimous!) survey of moms and dads in the office. Some representative replies included: “I’d use it if it came standard, but I wouldn’t pay more for it. … I’m pretty good at yelling at my kids” (from a father of two), “I’d use it” (from a mother of two) and “only to occasionally terrify them” (from a dad of two).  

The pricing and availability of the 2015 Toyota Sienna have not yet been announced, but an auto industry analyst told AP she thinks Toyota is on the right track spicing up the perennially unfashionable minivan with intriguing features. Meanwhile, driver Easy Yell offers four distinct volume settings: Ann Coulter, Wizard of Oz, Agatha Trunchbull, and Asmodeus, Lord of Darkness.

July 21 2014 12:19 PM

Hasbro Wants You to Design and Sell 3-D-Printed Toys Based on Its Characters

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has a diverse and devoted following. Give this community a chance to design and sell 3-D-printed figurines, and the people will come. That’s why it was so smart of Hasbro and Shapeways to team up on SuperFanArt. It's a website that facilitates and encourages the creation of fan art, instead of ignoring it or lodging copyright complaints.

And it’s not going to stop at My Little Pony. If SuperFanArt is successful, Hasbro will add its other toy universes like Transformers to the mix. Artists will have to be approved and their designs will be curated on the SuperFanArt site to keep standards high, but at least Hasbro is one of the forces behind the project instead of the one trying to stop it. As Engadget points out, Hasbro is now allowing people to sell fan fiction based on the company’s GI Joe universe, so maybe there's going to be a new era of fan involvement. And Hasbro knows that with Comic-Con starting later this week, it's the perfect time to get all the bronies pumped up.

July 21 2014 11:32 AM

Iran’s Ruling Elite Embrace Facebook, While Ordinary Citizens Are Arrested Over It

A version of this piece appeared in Global Voices Advocacy.

On July 13, Iran’s official state news agency reported that eight people had been sentenced to a combined term of 127 years in prison for their activities on Facebook. The eight youths reportedly were charged with “acting against national security, spreading propaganda against the establishment, insulting the sacred, and insulting the heads of the Islamic Republic.” The Iranian judiciary has not revealed the identities of those sentenced, or the particulars of this offensive activity. Iranian activists both in and outside the country seem to know almost nothing more about the case.

July 18 2014 5:42 PM

Weather Nerds Finally Have Their Own Sunday Morning Talk Show, and It’s Glorious

Fascinated with atmospheric physics? Can’t get enough cumulonimbus? Now you’ve got a chance to hear experts vent about the intricacies of the atmosphere every week on national television.

To quote Mediabistro, “It’s Big Bang Theory meets the weather.”

WX Geeks (in meteorologist slang, “wx” means weather) gives a tip of the hat to the thriving weather-enthusiast subculture. Weather nerds, weather geeks, and weather weenies have long dominated Internet message boards. In recent years, they’ve come out of the woodwork in forums like the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang and on other high-profile sites (including, humbly, these venerable pages of Slate). Now, we have our own Sunday morning talk show.

Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang, an upcoming guest, succinctly sums up the initiative: “This is essentially the weather community’s version of Sunday morning talk shows like Meet the Press or Face the Nation.”

The show will be hosted by Marshall Shepherd, who is a former president of the American Meteorological Society and an active Twitter user. The first show’s topic is one I’ve written about recently: the ethics of storm chasing.

In preparation for this post, TWC sent me an advance screener of the first episode. My impression after watching it? This is the first show the Weather Channel has put forth in years that would actually make me want to tune in. (No offense to Freaks of Nature or Fat Guys in the Woods.)

Despite the fact that the set is plastered with equations, the show’s focus seems to be on creating an accessible forum for a science with broad public appeal. In a Tuesday conference call, TWC President David Clark said, “We don’t have high expectations for television ratings, this is really a labor of love for us.” On the show’s blog, Shepherd wrote: “Even organizations that may view themselves as competitors to The Weather Channel are welcome to participate in all aspects of the show.”

TWC execs had a rough start to 2014, with a showdown with DirecTV over carriage fees and content. As part of the effort to make peace with DirecTV, they recently promised to scale back reality shows during the afternoon primetime and increase focus on live weather. The launch of WX Geeks is further evidence they’re trying to win back die-hard weather nuts and acknowledge the increasing importance of atmospheric science in an era where weather extremes and global warming sometimes seem to create more questions than answers.

Overall, I’m thrilled with the show. Just one criticism: Since WX Geeks doesn’t air live, one thing it appears to lack is interactivity—unlike Weather Brains, a popular online weather show that Shepherd praised during a conference call, it can’t respond to real-time Twitter feedback. That may wind up giving WX Geeks an even more exclusive, top-down feel. The show's producers have reached out to experts and peers in the meteorological community for ideas of future topics and possible guests, but that's not the same thing as engaging its audience.

After watching the pilot, I spoke with Shepherd about his new role on TWC.

It seems you might have been initially reluctant to host WX Geeks. What’s the story?

You’re right. There was a general skepticism. Then it dawned on me: I’m sitting here talking to peers. I’m helping put the weather back in the Weather Channel, so to speak.

After talking to the show’s producers, I was quickly convinced that we were on the same page. It has to be a show in where we geek out. Since I announced my new role a few days ago, I’ve been hearing the same thing from colleagues and on Twitter: “For the first time in a long time, a Weather Channel show has me interested.”

I can’t really think of another talk show that purports to be a regular voice for science on national television. Is that how you see your role?

I’ll give you an example: In the first episode, we talk about this crazy idea that’s been circulating about building these huge walls across the plains to block the formation of tornadoes. A tornado wall. My guest for the first episode is Dr. Chuck Doswell, one of the most revered tornado researchers we’ve had. What a great opportunity to completely obliterate what we think is a senseless theory.

You’ve accomplished a lot in your career already. You’ve worked at NASA, you’ve been president of the American Meteorological Society. Now you’re hosting the first national TV talk show devoted to your science. How does this match up for you?

What I’m most excited about is to talk weather with some people I admire, sometimes disagree with. I’m not as enamored about having my face on national television. More thrilling for me is to be able to talk weather and shed light on topics of national importance. I’m happy that I can move the dialog forward on pressing issues that face the weather community.

We’ve been fighting for a spot on Face the Nation or Meet the Press. Now we have a time slot to ourselves, the next time climate change or a storm like Typhoon Haiyan makes news.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed.


WX Geeks will air Sundays at noon Eastern on the Weather Channel, starting July 20.

July 18 2014 1:07 PM

Internet Pirates May Have a Friend in the American Bar Association 

Pirating media is essentially a gamble. On the Wild West of the Internet, it’s shockingly easy to illegally download pretty much anything you want—and get away with it. If you do get caught, the worst you’ll usually get is a scary cease-and-desist letter. But each download also carries a minuscule chance of bringing you a financially crippling lawsuit from which you cannot wriggle out. $150,000 is a lot to pay for a recording of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Now the American Bar Association wants to change that. In a white paper released earlier this month, the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law has advised its 400,000 members to stop initiating individual lawsuits against torrenters and their ilk. These lawsuits, the ABA points out, are always expensive and often fruitless. They’re also a public relations catastrophe, pitting massive, wealthy studios against middle-class moms and 12-year-old girls.

The white paper, though, comes at an odd time: The Recording Industry Association of America largely halted individual suits in 2008 after accidentally suing a dead person, and the Motion Picture Association of America followed its lead soon after. With these behemoths tamed, who could be the target of the ABA’s lecture?

Although the paper doesn’t explicitly say, it’s probably directed in part toward porn studios, many of which have only escalated copyright infringement lawsuits in recent years. In 2010, the porn company West Coast Productions infamously sued 9,729 people for illegally downloading Teen Anal Nightmare 2. (The case was quickly tossed out.) Malibu Media, another “porn troll,” has become infamous for its intrusive lawsuits, sometimes demanding that defendants reveal their entire porn-watching history in a bald attempt to embarrass them into settling. One federal judge has compared these suits to an “extortion scheme,” and another accused Malibu’s lawyer of perpetuating “stereotyped caricatures of attorneys.”

But even if Malibu loses in court, its legal strategy is still profitable in the long run. Most of its targets will do anything to keep their case off a judge’s docket and out of the public’s eye. And if a few thousand bucks does the trick, many porn-watchers are willing to pay up. It’s likely this type of petty quasi-extortion by less-than-respectable companies that the ABA is hoping to curb.

The white paper, however, isn’t all good news for fans of free porn (and movies and music). While the ABA suggests easing off individual lawsuits, it also recommends a renewed push for a Stop Online Piracy Act-type bill to block illegal media at its source. Considering the potentially censorious SOPA was arguably more controversial than the anti-pirating witch-hunts of the mid-aughts, this full-throated endorsement might seem surprising. But really, it makes perfect sense. The ABA isn’t a true friend of pirates—it’s simply trying to create a more effective regime to stanch the flow of illegal media, and punishing its consumers hasn’t yielded results. Its attorneys understand that going after the minnows won’t yield real results. Forget the guy who torrented Teen Anal Nightmare 2. This time around, the ABA has set its sights directly on Congress.