The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 25 2014 5:47 PM

Don’t Ask Me Why, but Amazon Just Paid $970 Million for the Streaming Service Twitch

Amazon just confirmed what the Information reported Monday morning: The online retailer—and video producer, and a hundred other things—is buying video streaming service Twitch for $970 million.

The announcement comes as a surprise, not because no one expected Twitch to be bought, but because YouTube was widely expected to be the buyer. Three months ago the sale of Twitch to Google’s video service, for a cool billion, looked all wrapped up, and the pairing seemed natural. Twitch, founded only three years ago as Justin.tv, set out to be a general streaming service—a live version of YouTube. Instead, it quickly became a platform for gamers to broadcast their in-game feats; a “YouTube for live gaming,” in Business Insider’s words. And “let’s play,” a genre of videos in which wiseacres give (mostly older) games the Mystery Science Theater treatment, are already popular on YouTube. The point is, YouTube comes up a lot when describing Twitch, so the news that YouTube was acquiring Twitch was greeted with a yawn, a textbook example of an entrenched tech company buying out a potential competitor.

It's a mystery why the deal with YouTube fell through, considering it was reportedly willing to pay no less than Amazon. All we have at the moment is this statement from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear: “We chose Amazon because they believe in our community, they share our values and long-term vision, and they want to help us get there faster.”

Another mystery, frankly, is Twitch’s incredible success. To snobs like me who declare that they’d rather play sports than watch them, it’s hard to see the appeal of watching games rather than taking up a controller myself. It's one thing to look over your friend’s shoulder at 3 in the morning as she creeps through Resident Evil, and quite another to watch some rando get 20 headshots in a row in Call of Duty. Another problem is that many of today’s most popular games are first-person, so watching footage of them, without controlling the viewpoint yourself, can be a Do It Right-worthy recipe for a headache. I concede that speedruns, in which the Roger Bannisters of our electronic age complete entire games in record time, are entertaining. But unless someone is a virtuoso at gaming or humor, his Twitch channel isn't likely to be all that interesting.

But what do skeptics like me know? Twitch has 55 million unique visitors monthly and is the fourth-largest source of peak Internet traffic.

How, exactly, will Amazon capitalize on this? It’s hard to imagine Twitch being folded into Amazon Instant Video as elegantly as YouTube could have just swallowed Twitch. But Twitch has something any company would love to attract: hordes of advertiser-coveted young men. As Twitch chief Shear said, Amazon and Twitch “are both believers in the future of gaming,” and the medium shows no sign of shrinking, even—gulp—as a spectator sport.

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Aug. 25 2014 4:08 PM

Tesla Owners’ Full-Page Ad Gets Elon Musk’s Attention

Elon Musk is a busy man. Between running Tesla and SpaceX, chances are he doesn’t get to inbox zero very often.

So when a pair of Tesla Model S owners from New York wanted to get the CEO’s attention, they tried something different. They took out full-page ads in a pair of Palo Alto local newspapers, including my former employer, the Palo Alto Daily News.

While the medium was novel—everyone knows the easiest way to reach tech magnates is on Twitter—the approach was tried-and-true. Open letters have a history of catching Musk’s eye, especially if they’re heavy on the flattery. Just ask The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman how he got Musk to help fund a Nikola Tesla museum.

The ads were addressed to “Elon Musk, Automotive Visionary,” and detailed eight changes the owners would like to see to their beloved Model S sedans. Here’s how the ad appeared in another local paper, the Palo Alto Weekly:

Full-page ad in Palo Alto Weekly
Flattery will get you everywhere. Well, that and a full-page newspaper ad.

Screenshot of Palo Alto Weekly via Elon Musk / Twitter

Advertising in a Palo Alto paper might seem like a strange way to reach Musk, who lives in Bel Air. But it worked. (Tesla is headquartered in Palo Alto, so presumably it caught the eye of some employees.)

On Saturday, Musk tweeted his reply:

Which suggestions, one wonders, does Musk plan on implementing? A Tesla spokeswoman declined to comment. But several of them seem easy enough to accommodate, and safety improvements in particular are almost certain to be included in future Tesla models. Based on a few days’ worth of test-drives, I’d agree that the voice controls in particular could use some improvement

If anything, the relative triviality of the suggestions underscores just how few flaws owners have found in the Model S, which is among the most decorated cars of all time. Who needs “media ads” when you already have the media fawning all over you for free?

Anyway, it’s nice that Musk is open to constructive criticism. But if I could put in just one request on behalf of the vast majority of drivers who can’t afford a full-page ad, let alone a Model S, it would be this: Forget the cup-holders, and stay focused on building that long-awaited $35,000 electric sedan for the mass market. That, and not the position of the Model S’s cup-holders, will shape Tesla’s legacy—and the future of transportation.

Oh, and just in case you need a little extra motivation: As Quartz’s Steve LeVine explains, if you don’t build the electric car that wins over the masses, General Motors will.

Update, Aug. 25, 2014: It seems Musk has heard my request as well. Here, via Twitter, is his reply:

He's right, of course. For more background, here's a piece I wrote in May about exactly that: Why Tesla needs a gigafactory.

Previously in Slate:

Aug. 25 2014 1:30 PM

Sleep-Tracking Device Shows How the Napa Earthquake Woke People Up

The South Napa Earthquake—the strongest in Northern California in the last quarter-century—was quite a shake up. And for many, it was also quite the wake up, since it struck at 3:20 a.m. Pacific time.

But for how many? To answer that question, the data scientists at the wearables company Jawbone turned to its UP users. Jawbone’s website describes UP as “a revolutionary system that guides you every step of the way to a better, healthier you” by tracking diet, exercise—and sleep. Jawbone turned to its sleep-tracking UP users to find out how, exactly, the earthquake affected sleep.

They found that while hardly any users between 75 and 100 miles from the epicenter awoke, 55 percent of those in Oakland and San Francisco did. And in Napa, Sonoma, Vallejo, and Fairfield, 93 percent of users were shaken awake when the earthquake hit—and 45 percent of them were awake for the rest of the night. Sweet dreams are not made of this. 

FT-140825-Jawbone

Chart courtesy of Jawbone

Aug. 25 2014 10:04 AM

Study: People Don’t Want More Apps

Google and Apple's mobile platforms each boast about 1.2 million apps right now, and the race to develop hit apps never stops. But using data from the digital analytics firm comScore, Quartz points out a surprising trend: Most smartphone owners in the United States download zero apps per month.

Actually, maybe it's not so surprising. How often do you download a new app? For most of the non-tech journalists I know, zero in a typical month sounds about right. And the comScore data shows that 65.5 percent of smartphone users in the United States are doing—or not doing—the same thing.

In total, the people who download more than none represent about a third of smartphone users. (8.4 percent download one app per month; 2.4 percent download eight or more apps per month.) Clearly people use apps all the time, because comScore reports that users spend 42 percent of the total time they're on their smartphones in their single most-used app. So perhaps people are downloading the set of apps they want and then pretty much sticking with them long term, or they don't want to dig through the junk to find quality apps they might like.

The latest thing in apps should be fewer apps.

Aug. 23 2014 4:13 PM

Iceland Volcano Eruption May Be Imminent

Update, Aug. 25, 2014: Icelandic officials now believe there was no eruption over the weekend. From Iceland's Civil Protection: "Scientists' observations conclude that a sub-glacial eruption did not occur yesterday as was previously believed. The Icelandic Met Office has decided to move the aviation color-code from red to orange. Therefore, all restrictions on aviation have been cancelled and all scheduled services airports in Iceland are open." On Sunday, Iceland's Civil Protection also lowered the nationwide threat level from emergency (red) to alert (orange). The group also emphasized that, in the coming days, "an eruption can not be excluded."

Update, Aug. 23, 5:40 p.m.: It seems an eruption may not have begun after all. After an Icelandic Coast Guard surveillance flight midday Saturday failed to detect any meltwater coming from the glacier, the Iceland Met Office issued a statement on its webpage late Saturday afternoon: "Presently there are no signs of ongoing volcanic activity." Due to the potential for an eruption at any time, the emergency phase will remain in effect until at least midday Sunday, at which point Iceland Civil Protection will re-evaluate.

The original blog post is below.

Aug. 23, 2014: An Icelandic volcano that’s been smoldering all week is now starting to erupt, though initial indications show a relatively small event so far.

The National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police raised the Civil Protection level to Emergency Phase (the country’s highest level), and the Icelandic Met Office has classified the volcano, Bárðarbunga, as code red: “Eruption is imminent or in progress.”  A large section of Icelandic airspace is now also closed. There are no official ash advisories yet that would affect wider European air travel.  

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Over the last eight days, earthquake activity has increased markedly within the Bárðarbunga caldera, as well as within a subsurface dyke that seems to be progressing toward the edge of the glacial ice.

Image: Icelandic Met Office

So far, there hasn’t been an ash plume or otherwise visible signs of the eruption yet. However, that could quickly change.

In a status report on Saturday, the Icelandic Met Office said lava/ice interaction has now been detected beneath a relatively thin section of the Dyngjujökull glacier, consistent with a subglacial eruption. The IMO estimates the eruption is occurring beneath 100 to 400 meters of ice, and it could be “zero to 20 hours” before lava breaks through to the surface. (The statement was issued at 10 a.m. Eastern.) At that point, one volcanologist says, Bárðarbunga’s eruption could become “spectacular.”

Here are the most likely scenarios at this point (with help from volcanologist Dave McGarvie, a must-follow on Twitter): With the crust already fractured, it could be a matter of time before magma reaches the surface in large quantities, quickly melting glacial ice and creating a jökulhlaup, or glacial outburst flood. Melted ice could also quickly turn to steam and loft a huge plume of ash into the stratosphere:

On the other hand, if only a small amount of magma reaches the surface, there may never be a visible sign of this eruption on the surface:

A worst-case scenario, a major fissure eruption, could continue for months and permanently change Iceland’s geography:

The Icelandic Met Office estimates about 250 million cubic meters of magma have filled a subsurface dyke, similar to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010. (That was the eruption that majorly disrupted air travel.) It’s still very uncertain how much of that may come into contact with the ice or reach the surface, or how quickly the eruption will progress. The good news is that upper level winds aren’t currently very strong over Iceland, and, according to an afternoon run I performed of an ash trajectory model, ash from Bárðarbunga would affect only a small part of northern Europe.

On Saturday afternoon, I reached University of Iceland anthropologist Gísli Pálsson by phone in downtown Reykjavik to get a sense of how Icelanders were taking the news:

It's interesting. No one has actually observed the eruption so far, but all the complicated models from the geologists and the data from earlier events indicate that an eruption has actually happened.
Everyone is on alert, but there is no panic. There could be a major thing brewing, the scale of the boiling lava down there is massive. It's big scale.

A live webcam from Bárðarbunga is also available, should the ash cloud break through the ice later today.

For more on Bárðarbunga's history, read my Future Tense post from Monday.

Aug. 22 2014 4:50 PM

White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Doesn’t Know Much About Tech, Says That’s a Good Thing

Even when you’re not quite qualified for a job, you can usually bluff your way through the interview if you can positively present the skills you do have. But when the job is White House Cybersecurity Coordinator, you really shouldn’t be bluffing—and if you are, it shouldn’t work. But Michael Daniel seems to have slipped through.

In an interview with GovInfoSecurity on Thursday, Daniel explained why his degrees in public policy from Princeton and Harvard and his 17 years of experience in the White House Office of Management and Budget make him a great fit for his job. He does presumably know a lot about policy and federal budgets. But when he says, “At a very fundamental level, cybersecurity is not just about the technology,” what exactly is he talking about?

As Princeton computer scientist Ed Felten told Vox, which first spotted this interview, it's strange that Daniel doesn't think he needs deep technical knowledge to do his job, given that attorneys, surgeon generals, and economic advisors are supposed to have specialized training, extensive knowledge of the field, and the ability to analyze new research. When Daniel says, “You need to be more of a generalist than having a lot of expertise particularly in the technological side in order to actually succeed well in this area”—well, that just doesn't sound reasonable.

It’s worth noting that Daniel's predecessor, Howard Schmidt, wasn't a trained computer scientist, either. But he did serve as the special adviser for cyberspace security for the White House for two years after the 9/11 attacks, and then went to work at eBay from 2003 to 2009. Even so, perhaps the White House should try a little harder to seek out Cybersecurity Coordinator candidates with some technical proficiency. This seems to be a common mistake in government hiring: The U.K.’s “Year of Code” educational initiative was criticized when its director Lottie Dexter admitted that she didn't know how to program.

“Being too down in the weeds at the technical level," Daniel says, "could actually be a little bit of a distraction ... you can get enamored with the very detailed aspects of some of the technical solutions.” And it’s true that many of Daniel’s policy and political skills are valuable and important to the job. But cybersecurity techniques are complicated. Having no knowledge of programming or the math that underlies cryptography makes it hard to evaluate which techniques the federal government should be adopting and recommending.

“The real issue is to look at the broad, strategic picture and the impact that technology will have,” Daniel says. But it's hard to have foresight about the long-term effects of the technologies you’re selecting if you don't really know how those technologies work.

Aug. 22 2014 3:07 PM

Who Owns Your iTunes Library After Death?

The fate of your online life after death is a sensitive topic, and one both the law and technology companies have struggled with how to handle. Last week, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell took one step toward a possible solution, signing into law first-of-its-kind legislation that will grant Delawarean families the right to the digital assets of loved ones who are incapacitated or deceased, the way they would be given access to physical documents. But our Twitter, Facebook, or Gmail accounts are not our only online assets.

The Delaware law raises the complexities of how to deal with the accounts that house our e-book collections, music and video libraries, or even game purchases, and whether they can be transferred to friends and family after death. The bill broadly states that digital assets include not only emails and social media content, but also “data … audio, video, images, sounds … computer source codes, computer programs, software, software licenses.” However, the law says that these digital assets are transferrable to the deceased’s trustee only to the extent allowed by the original service’s end user license agreement, or EULA.

Aug. 22 2014 12:05 PM

The noPhone Doesn’t Do Anything, Is Not Actually a Phone

If you sleep with your smartphone under your pillow or find yourself reaching for it even when you know the battery is dead, you may have smartphone separation anxiety. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The second step might be getting a noPhone.

According to the gadget’s website, “The noPhone simulates the exact weight and dimensions of your most beloved gadget in order to alleviate any feelings of inadequacy generated by the absence of a real smartphone.” Like a stuffed animal or security blanket, it giving you something to hold when you feel anxious and disconnected.

And not only is the noPhone not a real phone, it's also not a real product (as far as I can tell). In a presumably fake testimonial section, Whitney R. notes, “With the noPhone, my eye contact skills have improved 73%.”

As the site explains, the noPhone has superior features to a normal smartphone, because it's totally wireless, battery-free, doesn't require software updates, and is shatterproof and waterproof. These are features that real smartphones need.

The best part is the FAQ section:

Q: Does it have a camera? 
A: No 
Q: Is it Bluetooth compatible? 
A: No 
Q: Does it make calls? 
A: No 
Q: Is it toilet bowl resistant? 
A: Yes

The noPhone site design and branding makes it seem like a typical tech product, which is why it's so effective at conveying its message: Put your phones down, people.

Aug. 21 2014 5:38 PM

A Dangerous Heat Wave Is Heading for Ferguson, Missouri

What could become the biggest heat wave of the year for much of the eastern part of the country is gaining strength today. Urban parts of the St. Louis metro area, including Ferguson, Missouri, are expected to bear the brunt of it.  

The heat is developing a day after impressive weather bombarded the St. Louis area. Here’s a quick look at what happened Wednesday night as a “ring of fire” round of storms rolled through:

It’s been a relatively mild summer this year for much of the Eastern and Central United States, including the St. Louis area, but that’s about to change. Thursday was the first day in the 90s there in more than two weeks, and the heat index is expected to reach well into the triple digits from Thursday through the end of the weekend.

The National Weather Service in St. Louis has issued an excessive heat warning, the highest tiered heat-related advisory:

...EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 7 PM CDT SUNDAY...

* TIMING...DANGEROUS LEVELS OF HEAT AND HUMIDITY WILL CONTINUE FOR THE REST OF THE WEEK AND INTO THE UPCOMING WEEKEND.

* HEAT INDEX VALUES...UP TO 107 DUE TO TEMPERATURES IN THE 90S AND DEWPOINTS IN THE LOWER 70S.

* IMPACTS...THE COMBINATION OF HOT TEMPERATURES AND HIGH HUMIDITY WILL LEAD TO AN INCREASED RISK OF HEAT-RELATED STRESS AND ILLNESS. THE VERY YOUNG...THE ELDERLY...THOSE WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING...AND THOSE PARTICIPATING IN STRENUOUS OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES WILL BE THE MOST SUSCEPTIBLE. ALSO...CAR INTERIORS WILL REACH LETHAL TEMPERATURES IN A MATTER OF MINUTES. BEAT THE HEAT...CHECK THE BACKSEAT! NEVER LEAVE CHILDREN OR PETS UNATTENDED IN A VEHICLE...NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE.

And it’s not just St. Louis: The full-scale heat wave will affect much of the Southeast and push as far north as Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, and New York City by Saturday.

New research this week by Climate Central shows that St. Louis has one of the worst urban heat islands in the country. In extreme cases, the city can be up to 17 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surrounding rural areas. On average, the urban heat island—which traps heat in the asphalt and buildings of urban cores that lack dense tree cover—gives the center of the St. Louis metro 19 additional days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit each year than the outskirts.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has been reporting all week from Ferguson, there hasn’t really been a public space for protests there. By default, members of the community have congregated in parking lots, gas stations, and the street itself.

Temperatures of this scale are deadly, especially for those without a good way to cope. I asked a representative of St. Louis County whether Ferguson offers cooling centers during extreme heat days. Their computer system was down, but a search of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services database and another database she directed me to from the United Way shows that not a single cooling center is located in Ferguson.

In 1995, Chicago suffered through a catastrophic heat wave that has drawn comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. During that week in Chicago, 739 people died of heat-related causes. Author Eric Klinenberg blames that shocking toll on a “blend of extreme weather, political mismanagement, and abandonment of vulnerable city residents.”

Mary Hayden, a public health expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is in the final stages of a project designed to analyze vulnerability to heat stress in Houston. Her biggest finding so far? “Heat risk is exacerbated by poverty.” While that result may not be particularly surprising, Hayden said, “now we have the numbers to prove it.”

Via phone, she described her Houston research: “If you're looking at just a central downtown area, it could be that those are just high-rise buildings where there are no people living. The centerpiece of our study is a 901-household survey on extreme heat vulnerability stratified by socioeconomic status. We wanted to find where residential areas coupled with urban heat islands, who lives there, and how they deal with the heat.”

Their work so far has revealed some shocking statistics. “The odds of not knowing the symptoms of heat stress are almost three times greater for those who make less than $30,000 a year,” she said. “In Houston, although the city reports that 99 percent of residents have air conditioning, not everyone can afford it. African-Americans are significantly more likely to have had trouble paying their electric bill, and 73 percent had no idea that there were special programs designed to help them.”

Her takeaway: “We’re not reaching that vulnerable population at all.”

So what should cities like Houston and St. Louis do to stem the expected increase in heat deaths in the coming decades? The answer, Hayden says, is to use this study to redouble efforts into community education. She proposes a partnership between television meteorologists and local public health departments to serve as a conduit of lifesaving information during heat waves.

Over the longer term, “community centers are absolutely the way to go.” In one building, Hayden says, a community center “provides a focal point. It can act as a cooling shelter, it's crime reduction, it's so many things.”

Aug. 21 2014 2:53 PM

A Virtual-Reality Version of Netflix Would Make Browsing Much Easier

Like a lot of tech companies, Netflix has events a few times a year where developers get the day off from their normal work to create fun new projects. And Netflix’s most recent Hack Day produced some cool results. In a blog post, Netflix writes, “we had over 150 people code from Thursday morning to Friday morning ... [They did] some incredible work in just 24 hours!” One project is a Chrome extension that puts Netflix in a small screen so you can watch while browsing other sites. Another is a design tweak to Netflix’s current interface that uses circular organization to display related or suggested movies around a central recommendation.

And another is Oculix (see video above), an immersive Netflix world for the Oculus Rift with gesture support. You can look all around, see movie titles and television shows floating in front of you, and select what you want to watch with your hand.

Though Netflix is clear that these projects may never become real products, some of them definitely should. Maybe the next step for Oculix is a virtual reality-video rental store where we can all browse around in 3-D space like we used to—no recommendation algorithms needed. That's what I want.

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