Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 20 2015 12:39 PM

Your Very Own Data Privacy Policy

Dear Corporation,

You have expressed an interest in collecting personal information about me. (This interest may have been expressed by implication, in case you were attempting to collect such data without notifying me first.) Since you have told me repeatedly that personalization is a great benefit,\ and that advertising, search results, news, and other services should be tailored to my individual needs and desires, I’ve decided that I should also have my own personalized, targeted privacy policy. Here it is.

While I am glad that (as you stated) my privacy is very important to you, it’s even more important to me. The intent of this policy is to inform you how you may collect, use, and dispose of personal information about me.

By collecting any such information about me, you are agreeing to the terms below. These terms may change from time to time, especially as I find out more about ways in which personal information about me is actually used and I think more about the implications of those uses.

Note: You will be asked to provide some information about yourself. Providing false information will constitute a violation of this agreement.

Scope: This policy covers only me. It does not apply to related entities that I do not own or control, such as my friends, my children, or my husband.

Age restriction and parental participation: Please specify if you are a startup; if so, note how long you’ve been in business. Please include the ages of the founders/innovators who came up with your product and your business model. Please also include the ages of any investors who have asserted, through their investment in your company, that they thought this product or service was a good idea.

Information about you. For each piece of personal information about me that you wish to collect, analyze, and store, you must first disclose the following: a) Do you need this particular piece of information in order for your product/service to work for me? If not, you are not authorized to collect it. If yes, please explain how this piece of information is necessary for your product to work for me. b) What types of analytics do you intend to do perform with this information? c) Will you share this piece of information with anyone outside your company? If so, list each entity with which you intend to share it, and for what purpose; you must update this disclosure every time you add a new third party with which you’d like to share. d) Will you make efforts to anonymize the personal information that you’re collecting? e) Are you aware of the research that shows that anonymization doesn’t really work because it’s easy to put together information from several categories and/or several databases and so figure out the identity of an “anonymous” source of data? f) How long will you retain this particular piece of information about me? g) If I ask you to delete it, will you, and if so, how quickly? Note: by “delete” I don’t mean “make it invisible to others”—I mean “get it out of your system entirely.”

Please be advised that, like these terms, the information I’ve provided to you may change, too: I may switch electronic devices; change my legal name; have more children; move to a different town; experiment with various political or religious affiliations; buy products that I may or may not like, just to try something new or to give to someone else; etc. These terms (as amended as needed) will apply to any new data that you may collect about me in the future: your continued use of personal information about me constitutes your acceptance of this.

And, of course, I reserve all rights not expressly granted to you.

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July 17 2015 3:34 PM

Tesla’s New “Ludicrous” Acceleration Mode Is, Yeah, Quite Fast

Tesla knows that "Light speed is too slow—we're going to have to go right to ludicrous speed." So that's exactly what the company just announced.

The top-tier Model S P85D, which currently has an “Insane” mode that lets it accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.1 seconds, is getting a “ludicrous” upgrade and will now be able to do zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds. TechCrunch reports that Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “It’s faster than falling. ... It’s like having your own private roller coaster.” (I guess now we know one of his childhood dreams.)

“Ludicrous” mode is a hardware enhancement, not just a software upgrade, and it's a $10,000 add-on for new vehicles. Upgrading an existing P85D will cost $5,000 for the part, not including installation.

During the Friday event, the company also announced a Model S 70 with a 70kWh single motor for $70,000 and debuted a 90kWh battery upgrade for the 85kWh Model S that costs $3,000 and extends driving range by 5 percent. Furthermore, Musk revealed that the company's Model X SUV will ship “in two months,” but details were scarce. He did note that the Model X won’t be able to achieve Ludicrous acceleration because it weighs in about 10 percent heavier than the Model S.

Though Tesla loves using software tweaks to draw more efficiency out of its batteries, the company is clearly not above hardware tweaks if it means the cars can hit absurd—OK, ludicrous—speeds.

July 17 2015 2:11 PM

World Leaders Refuse to Budge From Worst-Case Climate Scenario

For advocates of the atmosphere (which should be pretty much everyone who breathes), this December’s meeting of world leaders in Paris is a really big deal. For the first time, it’s expected that virtually every country on Earth will agree to plans to reduce global emissions. The excellent Responding to Climate Change blog has a detailed preview of the upcoming negotiations.

Over the last few months, countries have been submitting drafts of those plans—which likely will be nonbinding, thanks to the recalcitrant U.S. Congress. Now nations responsible for more than half of world emissions have submitted their proposals. Looking at those plans in detail gives a preview of what the likely outcome of the Paris talks will be—and it ain’t pretty.

The climate policies currently in place worldwide would lead to a projected 3.9 degrees Celsius temperature rise this century, according to Climate Action Tracker, a group of independent climate research organizations. The pledges announced so far for Paris would only shave about 0.8 degrees off that figure.

The worst laggards are Australia, Canada, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea. Together, these countries account for about 15 percent of global emissions—about the same as the United States, whose proposal wasn’t much better. A separate assessment by the Netherlands government shows a stark divide between current policies and pledges and the necessary pathway.

Japan’s plan, submitted to the United Nations on Friday, is especially weak. “With the policies it already has in place, Japan can almost reach its proposed [emissions] target without taking any further action,” said Climate Action Tracker’s assessment.

Given these plans, the organizers of the summit aren’t too optimistic about making change happen, nor are scientists. Yes, it’s still possible to reduce the effects climate change will have in the future. But after a quarter-century of delay, the scale of action necessary to make a difference is huge—and it isn’t being seriously discussed at the highest levels.

Climate change is a particularly tricky problem. The global economy is still dependent on fossil fuels, which makes for countless vested interests defending the status quo. Most of this was known way back in 1988, the year researcher James Hansen famously testified in front of Congress on behalf of the climate science community, but there’s no way he could have known just how difficult it would be to motivate meaningful change. Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and the world is still tracking along a worst-case scenario.

The world’s leading climate experts recently analyzed 116 official scenarios that would ensure a rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, just nine of them have realistic assumptions on bioenergy—converting vast tracts of the world’s cropland into (theoretically) carbon-neutral fuel—and all nine of those scenarios show emissions peaking below current levels. The planet has backed itself into a corner.

We’ve waited so long that many “effective” climate policy proposals—which would ensure a reasonable chance of keeping global temperatures with the internationally agreed-upon “safe” zone—would require time travel. That is to say, they make wild assumptions about the potential of biofuels and geoengineering or rely on unproven technologies like carbon capture or a stunning nuclear renaissance. Even a 50-50 shot at staying below this level would require a “war-like” mobilization, according to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, though you don’t often hear scientists admitting this.

There’s been significant controversy within the climate science community this year on whether these scenarios are misleading the public and giving “false hope” to vulnerable populations most at risk.

Now, I’m not saying that Paris will be a waste of time, but the disconnect between what’s on the table and what’s necessary is striking. We know what climate change strategy already works: burning less fossil fuel. How can we make that happen, if we can’t depend on bureaucrats? We’ve recently seen a shift in rhetoric about the dangers of continued fossil fuel use—whether through divestment or kayaktivism or good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. And that could be at least as effective as the conference room deals that will be hashed out in Paris among world leaders. The world needs an energy revolution to prevent the worst of climate change. At this point, it may take a political revolution to get the job done.

July 17 2015 12:54 PM

Google Wants to Show You Just How Dangerous the Internet Is

One of the hard things about browsing the Internet safely is that everything looks fine. If a website has glaring inconsistencies or is oddly clunky, you'll quickly navigate away, but for the most part it seems like smooth sailing. And that's exactly how cybercrooks want it. Google isn't satisfied with this situation, though, and you shouldn't be either, so the company is building tools into Chrome to flag suspicious software and let you know.

Chrome's Safe Browsing features attempt to detect shady websites as you're browsing and call your attention to them. The project expanded into software last August with download warnings, and now Google is making them much more prominent and expanding its definition of "unwanted software" to catch more of the malware and phishing scams that are always lurking on the Web. The program is particularly expanding its monitoring on advertising distribution networks and software. These services can be exploited to transmit hidden malware or may be corrupt themselves.

Google doesn't want you to think that this is about controlling your online behavior, though. Moheeb Abu Rajab and Stephan Somogyi from Google's safe browsing team wrote in a blog post:

We want to be really clear that Google Safe Browsing’s mandate remains unchanged: we’re exclusively focused on protecting users from malware, phishing, unwanted software, and similar harm. You won’t see Safe Browsing warnings for any other reasons.

It may feel a little bit like fearmongering to put up an angry red warning every time someone navigates to a sketchy site, but given the privacy and security risks online it seems necessary that trusted services like Google's browser assist users in protecting themselves. Some choose not to worry about their online safety, some would want to protect themselves but don't know how, and some have never learned about the dangers of the Web. As Seeta Peña Gangadharan wrote in a 2013 Slate piece, "at the digital literacy organizations I’ve observed, I found little evidence that program participants get the training they need to prepare them for the risks of sharing information online."

It's not Google's responsibility to single-handedly protect everyone, but surfacing threats so users can be aware of them and make informed decisions is a helpful contribution. As Abu Rajab and Somogyi note, "In many cases, Safe Browsing within your browser is your last line of defense."

July 17 2015 8:45 AM

Long-Dead PC Company Commodore Just Launched a Smartphone

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Commodore, the name that helped usher in the PC revolution, is back. With a phone.

For those of you too young to remember, Commodore was a hot company in the mid-1980s. It was a leader in personal computers, shipping thousands of Commodore 64 desktops daily. Guinness has named it the single biggest-selling computer ever—the company sold as many as 17 million of them—and the brand name is still widely remembered. Still, the company went bankrupt in 1994, and the brand saw several fuzzy changes of trademark ownership over the years.

Now it’s appearing on a smartphone created by a pair of Italian entrepreneurs. It’s called the PET—sharing its name with Commodore’s other iconic PC—and its custom Android build includes two emulators so owners can enjoy old C64 and Amiga games.

Rumors have swirled around the phone for months, driven in part by design renders published online. With its release imminent, I met with the guys behind it and tried out a prototype. Perhaps the biggest question: how a company that folded two decades ago can release a new product. That’s a long, strange tale.

Jack Tramiel founded Commodore International in 1954 in Toronto. After launching the PET in 1977 and following up with the VIC-20 and Commodore 64, he left. The company slowly withered and folded in 1994. A buyer snapped up its assets, including 47 patents related to the company’s Amiga line, but the Commodore trademark changed hands several times. In 1996, the German PC conglomerate that owned the rights to it filed for bankruptcy, and the Commodore name bounced around some more, going through two more bankruptcies. Two years ago, a federal court ruled that the trademark belonged to Commodore Holdings B.V., a Dutch company that has been silent ever since.

That’s where things stood until March, when Massimo Canigiani and Carlo Scattolini registered Commodore Business Machines Limited in the U.K. The Italian entrepreneurs claim to have acquired rights for the brand and trademark in the mobile industry in 38 countries, including the U.S.

This isn’t the first time Commodore has risen from the dead. Five years ago, an American company called Commodore USA released the C64x, an all-in-one PC sporting an Intel Atom processor, Nvidia Ios2 graphics, 4GB of RAM, up to 1TB of storage, and a Blu-ray reader. Nostalgia and retro gaming weren’t enough, however, and Commodore USA shut down in 2013.

The new Commodore PET is an Android phone of rather common design. It is well-built, with an aluminum frame and interchangeable polycarbonate covers. The shell displays a big C= logo, and a smaller one could replace the home button below the 5.5-inch IPS 1920-by-1080 pixel resolution display made of Gorilla Glass 3.

The phone will feature a 1.7 GHz Mediatek 64-bit octa-core processor with ARM Mali T760 GPU and a huge 3000 mAh battery. The main camera uses a 13-megapixel Sony sensor with a bright f/2.0 aperture. It can make images up to 4096-by-2304 pixels, and videos up to 1080p HD. The front camera is an 8-megapixel rig with an 80-degree wide angle lens. Both can be operated with the dedicated shutter button on the right side of the case. The PET has dual-SIM 4G connectivity.

Other custom functions I spotted include a nice implementation of Daydream (the Android feature that lets you choose what information appears on the display during charging) and system gestures that let you interact with the phone by shaking it, flipping it, or waving at it. And of course there will be a guest mode.

Although nostalgia is not the core of the product, there is of course room for retro gaming. The Commodore PET runs a custom version of Android 5.0 Lollipop and two preinstalled emulators. They weren’t finished on the prototype I used, but I’m told they’ll be customized versions of the VICE C64 emulator and the Uae4All2-SDL Amiga emulator. The team also is working with unnamed software houses to bring some of the 1980s’ best games onto the PET before shipping.

When it launches later this week across Europe, the Commodore PET should come in two different versions, a light one (costing around $300) with 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, and a regular one (costing around $365) with 32GB of internal memory and 3GB of RAM. Both will have a 32-gig microSD card included—though the dedicated slot will support cards up to 64GB, too. Users can choose a white, black, or classic biscuit-beige case, though I’m told green, blue, and other colors might be added.

Initially, the PET will be available in Italy, France, Germany, and Poland, with plans to add more countries in Europe and America in the near future. It’s an inarguably niche device, but at the very least proves that technological nostalgia is an incredible—and very cool—thing.

See also:

July 16 2015 1:33 PM

Obama to Expand Internet Access for the Poor, Because the Web Is a Necessity

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly doesn't think that Internet access is a necessity in Americans' daily lives. But President Obama is known to disagree, and Wednesday he announced the ConnectHome plan to bring affordable Internet to public housing in 28 cities.

At a school in Durant, Oklahoma, the capital of the Choctaw Nation, Obama said, “If we don’t get these young people the access to what they need to achieve their potential, then it’s our loss; it’s not just their loss,” the New York Times reports. Under ConnectHome, 200,000 children in 275,000 homes will benefit from either free Internet access or broadband that costs about $10 per month.

Obama made the announcement alongside the release of a broadband usage study from the White House Council of Economic Advisers that shows disparities in computer ownership versus actual Internet access. The report points out that having access at a school or library is different from having constant connectivity in the home, creating the so-called homework gap for some students.

The analysis shows that there have been gains in providing connectivity for disenfranchised populations in the United States, but "there is still a substantial distance to go, particularly in our poorest neighborhoods and most rural communities, to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the opportunities created by recent advances in computing and communications technology."

Companies like Best Buy will offer subsidized devices like tablets for people who qualify for the program, and Google is incorporating ConnectHome into its plans for Fiber. In a blog post, Fiber's head of community impact Erica Swanson wrote:

We realize ... that providing an Internet connection is just one piece of the puzzle. People can only take advantage of the many benefits of the web when they understand why it matters and know how to use it. That’s why we’ll also partner with ConnectHome ... to develop basic computer skills training and create computer labs to host these trainings in each of our Fiber markets.

A recent Pew study showed that education is a big factor in Americans' ability to utilize the full potential of the Internet, or engage with it at all. Combined with the FCC's decision to allow phone subsidies to apply to broadband as well, the Obama adiminstration's Internet access programs could actually have an impact.

July 16 2015 10:41 AM

These Headphones Let You Listen to Music Safely While You Ride Your Bike

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“Every single day, I see at least five or six people with headphones on while cycling,” says Gemma Roper. The designer and recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art finds the habit a troubling distraction but also an understandable tactic of using music to soften a harsh daily commute.

The problem is that cyclists also need to stay alert to certain sounds in order to be safe while weaving through traffic. Riding is already dicey in London, Roper says, because the local infrastructure accommodates bus and car traffic over cyclists. The city has seen eight cyclist fatalities so far this year; last year, there were 13. Roper decided that music pumping through earphones shouldn’t contribute to the risk. Her Safe + Sound headphone design uses bone conduction to play tunes through wearers’ cheekbones, instead of directly into their eardrums, so they can still detect ambient noise.

Bone-conduction headphones work by playing soundwave vibrations on top of bones, which then transmit the waves into to the cochlea, or inner ear, bypassing the delicate eardrum. It could work anywhere on the body but works best near the ear. The technique itself is old—Beethoven, who was deaf, crafted a crude conductive listening device by biting on a metal rod attached to his piano—and a few other headphone makers have rolled out models using the technology in recent years.

Roper’s Safe + Sound are made with cycling helmets in mind. Most of the bone-conduction headphones on the market wrap around the ear (like these, and these), with nodes that rest more or less where a helmet strap would sit. Asking cyclists to layer up headgear is an uncomfortable and unreasonable ask. At the same time, making any modifications to the helmet that might deter a rider from wearing one is out of the question. So Roper created something that could clip onto to a helmet’s straps. While testing out the idea, she also found that asking cyclists to tote around two pairs of headphones will slow down adoption, so her buds convert into a regular pair of headphones; the modular bone-conducting pieces fit magnetically into a pair of gold muffs.

London has yet to pass a ban on wearing headphones while riding a bike, and only five states in the U.S. forbid the practice. For now, Roper’s design, a working prototype, could be the transitional object cyclists need before giving up their headphones cold turkey.

See also:

July 15 2015 2:37 PM

We’re Going to See a Lot More Hoaxes Like the Bogus “Twitter Sale” Story. Prepare Yourself.

Most Internet hoaxes have little or no significant impact, but once in a while we see the potential for more serious trouble. That was the case Tuesday, when someone posted a fraudulent “news story” about a likely sale of Twitter, leading to a brief upward bump in the company's share price and a blizzard of online tut-tutting about the hoax.

Twitter's share price rose about 8 percent before dropping back to the level where it had been trading, so it's likely that some rapid-fire traders lost money during the day. And it's even more likely, though there's no proof yet, that whoever was behind the hoax made some money—at least until SEC investigators track him or her down, assuming they do.

I can't dredge up too much sympathy for anyone who lost money on this one. Even a slightly alert serious investor reading the story, posted to a site purporting to be part of the Bloomberg media empire, should have noticed that the name of the recently departed Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, was badly misspelled—among other tipoffs that the article was bogus. (The site has been taken down, but you can see a screenshot here.)

Screenshot of the hoax site.

My own Twitter feed had some chatter for a few minutes about the situation, but the people I follow seemed mostly to do a collective shrug. These things happen seemed to be the prevalent response.

They do, and they have been for awhile. Sometimes it's a fake press release. Sometimes it's a fake news story. (Assuming there's a difference, cough …)

You might recall the bogus news in 2008, posted to CNN's “iReport,” that Steve Jobs had a heart attack and died. He hadn't, at least not at that time. (He died in 2011.) And when several otherwise reputable news sites and bloggers passed it along—couching their reports by saying it hadn't been verified—Apple's share price took a hit, recovering almost immediately. It may have been a prank, not a fraud; either way, as far as I can tell, whoever created that hoax was never found or prosecuted. But undoubtedly some people lost money.

So when these kinds of hoaxes and/or bad reporting occur, we have to reapply basic principles of what's called media literacy. When it comes to breaking news, we have to a) be relentlessly skeptical of what we read, hear, watch, etc.; b) use judgment, by not being equally skeptical of everything; and c) wait for evidence. We have to employ what my friend Howard Rheingold, a writer and educator, calls “crap-detection” strategies. (These principles and strategies, and more, are part of my free online course on media/news literacy, which is running now. If you're interested you can still join us. Note: Arizona State University, where I teach, is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

Crap detection helped a lot in the Bloomberg hoax, due to the amateurish grammar and bad spelling. But there was another clue, too: The page, though dressed up to look legitimate, was hosted at the Internet domain “bloomberg.market” instead of the legitimate Bloomberg.com. Journalists quickly checked the domain records and discovered the site’s history was, at best, sketchy.

Unfortunately, thanks to a terrible new policy from the reckless and autocratic Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—the organization that handles the domain-name system—we're probably going to see a lot more of this kind of thing. ICANN drastically expanded the number of “top level domains” that can be used. Now, in addition to .com, .net., .org, .uk, .cn,  and the like, there's a host of new ones including .market and many more. The domain name system had lots of problems, but this “improvement” made things much, much worse—especially for brands that now worry they'll have to buy all kinds of new names just to protect themselves from sleazeballs like whoever pulled off the Bloomberg Twitter hoax. (And never mind the genuinely scandalous “dot-sucks” situation, where the exclusive registrar is charging outrageous fees to companies.) ICANN obviously doesn't want frauds of this kind to happen, but its action has plainly helped enable the bad actors.

Even if ICANN had been more responsible, fakery would still happen; it was going on before the domain-name expansion, after all. Which means we all have to pay more attention, all the time, and take nothing immediately at face value.

One of these days, someone is going to hack a major, trusted news organization's actual site and post sensational but bogus news that looks and sounds as though it may be legitimate. Let's hope it doesn't start a panic, financial or otherwise. Skepticism and judgment will be our best defenses. We all need to work on them.

July 15 2015 9:15 AM

Future Tense Event: Watch The Perfect Storm With NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan

Based on a book by Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm follows the crew of a fishing boat who braves devastating weather conditions in an effort to make it home. Nominated for two Academy Awards, it is a story of hubris and heroism on the high seas, one that provides a stirring reminder of the power of the ocean. 

Future Tense will be screening The Perfect Storm on Tuesday, July 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Washington, D.C.'s Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th Street NW. Our host for the evening will be Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, and former astronaut. Dr. Sullivan's research has encompassed biological, oceanographic, and climatological topics.

This is an installment of Future Tense’s “My Favorite Movie” series. If you would like to attend, RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share. You may RSVP for yourself and up to one guest, and please include your guest’s name in your response. Seating is limited, so email now to get in on this opportunity to see The Perfect Storm in theaters. 

July 14 2015 2:08 PM

Report: China Is Making a Huge Database of Americans, and No One Connected the Dots

It feels like China is always behind big hacks. It's not really true: North Korea hacked Sony, and Russia broke into the State Department's unclassified networks. But if you can't shake the idea that it's always China, you might actually be on to something that the U.S. government didn't realize until now.

In a report on Sunday, Bloomberg outlined evidence that Chinese state-sponsored hacks targeting the United States over the last few years have been part of an overarching plan to develop a database of Americans and collect information on key people. “China is building the Facebook of human intelligence capabilities,” Adam Meyers, the vice president of intelligence for cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told Bloomberg.

The Office of Personnel Management hacks, which were finally clarified last week and compromised personal data for at least 22 million Americans if not many more, are widely said to have been caused by China, though the White House has not confirmed this accusation. The hack of insurance company Anthem has also been connected to China.

Jordan Berry, an analyst at cybersecurity analysis firm FireEye told Bloomberg, “There was a clear and apparent shift” on China's part toward large-scale bulk collection of its international espionage data. A cyber and intelligence expert on China told the Washington Post something similar in June. He said that in the past year and a half, China has expanded its capacity “for bigger data storage, for bigger data theft.” The Post's headline was, “With a series of major hacks, China builds a database on Americans.”

Bloomberg paraphrased a source "familiar with the government assessment of what went wrong." He or she indicated that "U.S. intelligence agencies were collecting information on the theft of personal data but failed to understand the scope and potential damage from the aggressive Chinese operation."

Paul Kurtz, the CEO of TruSTAR Technology and a former White House cybersecurity advisor, told SCMagazine on Monday, “We will not fully understand the ripple effects [of the OPM hack] for a long period of time, if ever.”

Meanwhile China still denies conducting cyberespionage. Hong Lei, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Minister said in June, “We wish the United States would not be full of suspicions, catching wind and shadows, but rather have a larger measure of trust and cooperation.” It seems that the U.S. has had the opposite problem and was in fact too trusting and naive.