The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 24 2014 6:27 PM

National Weather Service Finally Entering a Committed Relationship With Twitter

For all the tech glitches at the National Weather Service over the past few years—you know, impossibly large flood warnings, tornado alerts that expire before they are even issued, rogue Android apps shutting down core forecast servers, that sort of thing—a quiet announcement yesterday may have made up for all of them.

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service announced that it’s entering a committed relationship with Twitter. The NWS statement helpfully explains what Twitter is:

Effective October 31, 2014, NWS use of Twitter as an environmental information service, will transition to operational status. Twitter is a commonly used social networking service that allows participants to share information with other users. Microblogging services like Twitter serve as an important source of real-time news updates. The short nature of updates allows users to post news items quickly, reaching their audience in seconds. 

In an email statement on behalf of the NWS, Mike Hudson, the acting chief of the Integrated Services Division in Kansas City, told Slate, “the designation of Twitter as operational means that NWS will maintain a presence on Twitter and use its platform to help disseminate information. Its use is integrated into standard operating procedures at each office. We are also working with Twitter to explore other ways to help get critical, life-saving information out to people when they need it, including the possibility of Twitter Alerts.”

Twitter Alerts, which launched this time last year, is a push notification service designed to quickly communicate information in an emergency. Since 2012, the National Weather Service has already been able to send push notifications to your smartphone through the Wireless Emergency Alerts service via FEMA. (Think: that annoying series of beeps that interrupts the radio, only for the 21st century. The first time I got one during an intense rainstorm earlier this year, my screen went red and buzzed uncontrollably.) Twitter Alerts could serve as a backup for the NWS in getting out life-saving information quickly, especially if people have switched off the WEA service on their phones.

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Sept. 24 2014 5:25 PM

The Threat to Leak Nude Photos of Emma Watson Was Actually a Tone-Deaf Internet Hoax

You’re probably familiar with the speech Emma Watson delivered at the United Nations on Saturday about gender equality. But did you hear that 4chan users threatened to leak nude photos of Watson on a site called EmmaYouAreNext.com? Well, if you’re a little bit behind on this one, don’t worry. It turns out that no one knows what’s going on here.

It now seems that 4chan, the site where a number of nude celebrity photos leaked a few weeks ago, may not actually be behind EmmaYouAreNext.com. When the clock that was supposedly counting down to the photo leak reached midnight Wednesday, the site started redirecting to something called rantic.com. The website features a splash that says #shutdown4chan and seems to be a campaign against the anonymous posting service.

Rantic claims to be a viral marketing firm. In an open letter addressed to Barack Obama, the group states:

We have been hired by celebrity publicists to bring this disgusting issue to attention. The recent 4chan celebrity nude leaks in the past 2 months have been an invasion of privacy and is also clear indication that the internet NEEDS to be censored. Every Facebook like, share & Twitter mention will count as a social signature -- and will be one step closer to shutting down www.4chan.org.

But—and this is where it gets really complicated—Rantic isn’t a real company. As Business Insider explains, the people behind the site are part of a spamming ring called SocialVEVO that quickly puts up pages to capture traffic from interesting stories and situations that have already gone viral. The Daily Dot ran a story about the group last winter that documents who is thought to be in it and what their strategies are.

And as New York points out, SocialVEVO created a similar fake countdown clock last year threatening to leak information about Family Guy. Perhaps summing up the situation most succinctly, Reddit user SoefianB notes that “Rantic Media” is an anagram for “Incite Drama.” Sooooo, yeah.

What’s unclear now is whether SocialVEVO members actually want to campaign against 4chan, perhaps to eliminate it as a competing viral content distributor, or whether SocialVEVO members are actually 4chan users themselves who are trying to make it seem like the Internet community won’t stand for 4chan’s misogynist photo leaks and attitudes.

Whatever the goal, Rantic’s site says that its founder and CEO is named Brad Cockingham, so you can’t take it too seriously.

Sept. 24 2014 3:35 PM

Apple Software Update Renders New iPhones Useless

On Wednesday morning, Apple pushed out a software update for its iPhones, encouraging users to upgrade to iOS 8.0.1. By Wednesday afternoon, the company had pulled it right back following a cascade of complaints from customers.

"We are actively investigating these reports and will provide information as quickly as we can," the company said in a statement. "In the meantime, we have pulled back the iOS 8.0.1 update."

It seems the new software led to a slew of serious bugs for many who downloaded it on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. According to 9to5Mac, users reported problems with both the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and cellular service—only two of the device’s most basic and important functions.

When I tried to replicate the problem on my 6 Plus at about 2 p.m., I found that the update was no longer available. This suggests Apple has realized the update was a steaming wreck and is now in damage-control mode.  

The update was meant to fix a laundry list of minor problems with iOS 8.0, which the company released to the public a week ago. But the cure in this case was worse than the disease.

It’s not at all uncommon for large-scale software updates to include bugs of one sort or another. Making every function work perfectly on every device in every situation is virtually impossible. That’s why tech experts often recommend that the average user wait for the second or third release of a major new software package before downloading it.

For a company as large as Apple to botch an update this blatantly, however, suggests an embarrassing breakdown in the company’s quality-control mechanisms. After all, this was the second iOS 8 release—the very one that experts would have recommended that you wait for in order to avoid the inevitable bugs in 8.0. Few will be surprised if this ends up costing someone at Apple his or her job.

Remember when President Obama tried to quell the uproar over Healthcare.gov’s technical problems by comparing it to the launch of new Apple software? It was a clever bit of misdirection at the time, comparing the government's fatally flawed system to the little imperfections in one of the tech industry's most admired products. The comparison is looking a little less flattering today.

For those unfortunate users who downloaded iOS 8.0.1 before it was pulled, CNET has a handy guide for restoring iOS 8.0.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 24 2014 2:30 PM

Netizen Report: EU Attempts to Bust Popular “Myths” About the Right to Be Forgotten

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Amira Al Hussaini, Daniel Alan Kennedy, Bojan Perkov, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Europe, where the communications office of the EU Court of Justice released a rambling “myth-busting” document in an attempt to refute criticism from free expression advocates and civil society groups over the controversial “Right to be Forgotten.” Among other things, the communique suggests that the ruling does not “contradict” freedom of expression, an assertion with which many human rights groups plainly disagree.

The ECJ ruling allows individuals to request that search engines remove certain links from results that appear when their names are queried. The ruling places the responsibility for deciding whose content gets removed on companies like Google and Microsoft, rather than with a relevant body within the judiciary. While still imperfect, digital rights groups around the world agree that such decisions are best left to the discretion of a judge, not a corporate platform whose bottom line could be harmed if they should decide the wrong way. Global Voices Advocacy is running a series of posts and commentary on the issue.

Thuggery: Crimean blogger pays hefty price for anti-Russian writings
Russian security forces raided the home of Ukrainian blogger Liza Bogutskaya, a vocal opponent of Russian military actions in Crimea, where she resides. Wearing masks and carrying machine guns, the officers interrogated Bogutskaya and confiscated computers, cellphones, and USB drives. Bogutskaya believes the search may have been triggered by local elections that took place in Crimea on Sept. 14 and her willingness to write about the plight of Crimean Tatars, whose homes and mosques have undergone raids in recent weeks.

Authorities in Iran arrested 11 individuals for allegedly having sent text messages criticizing Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Shortly after the arrests, Iran’s judiciary issued an order compelling the government to block popular messaging services Viber, WhatsApp, and TangoMe within a month’s time.

In Bahrain, human rights activist Maryam Al Khawaja awaits trial for allegedly attacking a police officer. The 26-year-old co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights was arrested at the end of August when she arrived in Bahrain to visit her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who has been in prison since 2011.

Both activists played key roles in organizing mass demonstrations that shook the island nation that year. As in Tunisia and Egypt, online activists and social media users played a key role in mobilizing protests and were thus a primary target for authorities seeking to quell the unrest.

Surveillance of online platforms of mobile messaging apps has become a hallmark of the Bahraini government’s repressive measures against pro-democracy activists like the Al Khawajas. Researchers at the NGO Bahrain Watch have uncovered the government’s use of malicious spyware to track activists on social media, a practice that has led to numerous arrests over the last two years. Several weeks before Al Khawaja’s detention, prominent Twitter activist @Takrooz was arrested upon arrival in the country and accused of using social media to “incite hatred against the regime.”

Maryam Al Khawaja is now free from prison and awaiting trial, which is expected to begin Oct. 1. In the meantime, the activist, who resides in Denmark, has been banned from travel.

Surveillance: Is Singapore FinSpying on citizens?
When Wikileaks released several copies of invoices and support tickets from surveillance software company FinFisher, it revealed that PCS Security, a company linked to the Singapore government, was among the firm’s clients. PCS, which was recently awarded a tender for the supply of IT security and audit services for a range of Singapore government ministries and organizations, bought 19 licenses for FinFisher products including FinSpy, a program that allows users to remotely control and access computers.

Internet Governance: Putin dreams of a kill switch
The Russian government announced plans to more strictly control the country’s Internet in an effort to “defend [them]selves from the US and Europe,” according to Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It seems somewhat unclear whether this would entail completely cutting Russia off from the global Internet. Peskov says that is “in no way possible,” but bloggers have argued that it will be a key item on an upcoming Security Council meeting. Regardless, this marks a further escalation of controls over the RuNet in recent years by the government, which recently imposed a series of stringent regulations including an Internet blacklist and requirements for real-name registration by bloggers.

Netizen Activism: Canada spies, too
Digital rights group OpenMedia.ca is leading a large, nonpartisan, coalition of local organizations calling for effective legal measures to safeguard Canadians from government spying. If you’re curious about the campaign but short on time, watch their snappy video on the issue.

Global Voices joins prominent journalists like Christiane Amanpour, Arianna Huffington, Xiao Qiang, Ahmed Rashid, and more than 60 media and press freedom organizations (including Slate) to support the Committee to Protect Journalists’ campaign for the Right to Report in the Digital Age. The campaign calls on the Obama administration to protect journalists’ rights in light of recent revelations of surveillance, intimidation and exploitation of the press.

New Research

Sept. 24 2014 1:51 PM

The Latest iPhone Scandal: “Bendghazi”

My first complaint after buying the new iPhone 6 Plus was that I couldn’t operate it with one hand. Others griped that it wouldn’t fit in their pockets.

This week, some buyers of Apple’s polarizing phablet have found a new cause for remorse: It bends.

That, at any rate, is the allegation of a few early iPhone adopters who took to MacRumors’ forums to post photographic evidence of their phones’ deformities. One said he put the phone in his front pocket, drove to a wedding, danced for a few hours, and drove home. When he removed the phone from said pocket, it looked like this.

Some entrepreneurial YouTubers were quick to verify the claims of bendability with video evidence. It turns out, yep: If you bend your iPhone 6 Plus, your iPhone 6 Plus will be bent.

The photos and videos quickly went viral, as the only thing the tech press loves more than a new iPhone is a new iPhone with a fatal flaw. Remember “antennagate,” when irate Apple customers found that the iPhone 4’s signal weakened when they held it a certain way? Some were quick to dub the iPhone 6 Plus kerfuffle “bendgate,” which is clearly erroneous—the proper name for this scandal is, of course, “bendghazi.”

As with antennagate, however, this is almost certainly more of a problem for Apple’s public image than it is for the average iPhone buyer.

As Apple apologists were quick to point out, it should not be entirely shocking that an ultra-thin slab of aluminum can be bent if enough pressure is applied. We are, after all, talking about the same material that Coke cans are made out of. Aluminum is prized for its lightness, durability, ductility, and malleability—the last of which translates roughly to “bendability.” Apple’s engineers work hard to make sure their phones don’t shatter when you drop them, as one hapless Australian kid did on live TV the other day. (The phone survived.) Indeed, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have performed extremely well in drop tests.

That said, it does appear that the 6 Plus is somewhat more bendable than the similarly sized Samsung Galaxy Note 3, whose case is plastic rather than metal. In my own experiments with a Galaxy Note 2, the Samsung phone creaked and flexed far more easily than the iPhone 6 Plus, but managed to spring back to its original form. Here’s the YouTube guy from earlier testing the 6 Plus against the Note 3:

All things considered, the fact that the 6 Plus can bend under certain conditions seems like a relatively minor tradeoff for its durability in other regards. I’ve only had mine for 5 days, so take this for what little it’s worth, but I’ve kept it in my pocket pretty much at all times—standing up, sitting down, lying on the couch—and it hasn’t given the slightest indication of being harmed in any way. I’m inclined to agree with those who say that if you’re sitting on your phone when it’s in your front pocket, you might want to work on your sitting technique.

Either that, or it’s time to invest in a pair of these snazzy Apple Pants

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 24 2014 1:05 PM

Microwaves Don’t Charge iPhones. You Know That, Right?

Apple’s new mobile operating system iOS 8 does a lot of neat things. But it does not cause physical changes to the devices it is installed on. Therefore, if someone tells you that installing iOS 8 will allow you to charge your iPhone in the microwave, you will know that that’s crazy talk, right? Right? Bueller?

As obvious as it may seem, the LAPD is clearly concerned that people will be duped by a microwave-charging hoax going around right now. The department tweeted (above) that the “Wave” feature advertised online is totally bogus.

Wave ads suggest that you microwave your iPhone for 60 seconds at 700W or 70 seconds at 800W (note that those numbers don’t even make sense), but cautions that you shouldn’t “charge”—aka microwave—the phone for more than 300 seconds. Safety first, people.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Fire Department explained to the Los Angeles Times, “No metal object should ever be placed in the microwave. Even a little tin foil can cause a fire, so that much metal from a phone could lead to some manner of explosion.” It’s true!

New iOS features are great, but common sense is even better.

Sept. 24 2014 12:11 PM

MIT Students Are Fighting a Subpoena for the Source Code to a Bitcoin Mining Project

People make lots of fun and crazy things at hackathons, and they usually don’t attract the attention of law enforcement. But after four MIT students created a bitcoin-mining tool, New Jersey authorities issued a subpoena demanding the source code and a list of websites that could have run it.

Nineteen-year-old Jeremy Rubin and three other MIT students created Tidbit in 2013 during the Node Knockout hackathon, and it won the competition’s innovation award. Rubin is the only person named on the subpoena because he registered Tidbit’s domain name, but presumably the other three people referred to are Oliver Song, Kevin King and Carolyn Zhang, who worked on Tidbit with him during the hackathon.

The New Jersey attorney general says that Rubin and the other students violated the state’s computer crime laws by Tidbit, which was an exploration of alternative revenue streams for websites. Instead of viewing ads, Tidbit would allow users to offer their computer’s processing power to a site for its bitcoin mining. The process of mining bitcoins usually requires absurdly powerful computers and a lot of electricity, but by distributing that load across visitors, a site might be able to actually raise bitcoin funds over time.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing the students in an effort to resist complying with the subpoena. As Wired points out, there are parallels between this situation and Aaron Swartz’s. After being arrested by MIT police, Swartz faced charges for computer fraud and abuse because he downloaded millions of journal articles from the database JSTOR; he later committed suicide.*

Currently no criminal charges have been brought against Rubin or the others, but the subpoena seems to be part of a trend to aggressively use state law in investigating Internet experimentation. EFF attorney Hanni Fakhoury told Wired, “It’s a very broad subpoena that hints at criminal liability and civil liability. … For a bunch of college kids who put something together for a hackathon—they didn’t make any money, the project never got off the ground and now is completely disbanded—there are some very serious implications.”

When the subpoena arrived a few weeks after the hackathon, Rubin and his teammates had simply finished the proof of concept from the hackathon. The tool wasn't even actually functional, though a few people did embed it and unsuccessfully try to use it.

On Monday the EFF argued in court that New Jersey doesn’t have jurisdiction over Rubin and his peers, who built the tool in Massachusetts. The state is arguing that it does because Tibit code showed up on websites that were hosted and run in New Jersey. EFF also suggested that the students receive immunity if they hand over the code, because otherwise they could be incriminating themselves under federal laws.

An EFF spokesperson said that the judge hopes to issue a decision in 30 days. “While the state certainly has a right to investigate consumer fraud, threatening out of state college students with subpoenas isn’t the way to do it,” Fakhoury said.

*Correction, Sept. 25, 2014: This post originally stated that Aaron Swartz faced charges for downloading and sharing millions of journal articles. He downloaded them but did not share them.

Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM

This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today

It’s been buried under news of Syria, but today saw the single most important meeting on climate change in five years, a gathering of most world leaders at the United Nations in New York.

Predictably, almost nothing was accomplished.

Notably absent was any new U.S. pledge of support for a fund designed to help poor countries adapt to climate change. Instead, Barack Obama pledged to announce new carbon-cutting targets for the United States “next year.” Mashable has a continuously updating map of climate-related pledges made on Tuesday.

One of the day’s biggest wins was a pledge of $6 million by China. The media let out a collective yawn.

But there should have been outrage.

Obama’s “commitment” comes a day after new data showed that U.S. emissions grew in 2013 for the first time in five years (thanks to a resurgent coal industry), helping push global emissions to a new record high. Survey results released Tuesday from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed an uptick in concern over climate change since 2012, but it still ranks the issue relatively low on Americans’ worry list, perhaps due in part to the continued misperception of climate change as a far-off threat.

Not only is the United States not doing our part, we’re still actively making things worse, no matter the rhetoric from the White House. During Obama’s presidency, fossil fuel subsidies have actually grown.

Reaction to the day-long U.N. Climate Summit was almost uniformly negative from environmentalists, perhaps best embodied by Bill McKibben, who over the weekend helped organize a massive climate march that drew more than 300,000 people to the streets of Manhattan. In a statement about Tuesday’s climate summit, McKibben said, “President Obama says America has ‘stepped up to the plate’—and dropped down a bunt single when we’re behind by 10 runs in the 9th inning. If the President really wants collective ambition, he’s got to show a little more can do spirit from the world’s leading economy.”

In fact, the most memorable speech of the day was by a poet from a tiny Pacific island:

The poem was written and performed by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old native of the Marshall Islands. After her recitation in front of 120 heads of state, her daughter and husband joined her on stage, to a standing ovation. An official U.N. Twitter account said many world leaders were moved to tears, evoking memories of a stirring speech from the Philippines representative Yeb Saño during the last major U.N. meeting on climate change, held just days after Typhoon Haiyan.

To say the Marshall Islands is among the countries most affected by climate change is a huge understatement.  Jetnil-Kijiner’s moving letter to her child is an example of solastalgia, the increasingly pervasive feeling of sadness and loss for a world that’s being irreversibly altered. The Marshall Islands are at the forefront of global warming, but the struggle of those most affected impacts us all.

Days like today are soul-crushing for those of us who follow climate news closely. But even though this problem often feels hopeless, stories like Jetnil-Kijiner’s and events like Sunday’s march show there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are working for change against what seems like a tidal wave of apathy.

Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM

Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.

Sometimes when I’m watching Food Network while hungry, I have the irrational urge to reach for the TV and grab whatever is being paraded in front of me. Of course I stop myself because nothing is actually there. But frogs don’t have regular cable access, so they don’t know the trick.

These frogs lick and body check iPhone footage of worms because they think they’re gonna get a meal out of it. The video, discovered by the Daily Dot and posted by Joe Myers, is mostly just funny, but it's also a good reminder that the screens we take for granted now actually have pretty amazing resolution, color rendering, and depth. Even frogs are clamoring for the new iPhone.

Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM

Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?

Everyone learned typing in school. If the mention of Mavis Beacon, Type to Learn, or Typing of the Dead makes you yearn for a simpler time, feel free to ride that wave of nostalgia for awhile, because your archaic typing fantasy is about to be shattered. Ready? Now you can learn how to type in virtual reality, no ghost hands required.

typing1
Those were the days.

Screencap from Video Game Research Lab

Lab Coat Studios created the VR Typing Trainer game for the Oculus Rift. Here’s how it works: Words come at you, and you look at the one you want to target. Then you type it accurately to shoot it down and get points. As the Verge points out, it’s a great way to keep yourself from looking down at the keys if you’re trying to learn to touch type. (Yes, there is a real keyboard—you aren’t typing in the air.)

You keep your hands in position over the keys the whole time and don’t have to move them off to control the game, so you can stay oriented pretty easily. And commenters seem to be enjoying the functionality, like typing “start” to start and “quit” to quit. Typing may seem like a strange application for VR, but someone has to feed our insatiable and unexplainable appetite for typing games.

In the meantime: Type Racer, anyone?

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