The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 15 2015 10:35 AM

Social Media Actually Isn’t Stressing Us Out, Says New Report

People often say, “I had a stressful day.” I know I hear it enough to conclude that everyone around me is swamped. It seems like a given that all of the glowing screens and Facebook notifications around us are contributing to that anxiety. But new findings from the Pew Research Center reveal just the opposite.

In a survey of 1,801 adults, Pew found that frequent engagement with digital services wasn’t directly correlated to increased stress. Women who used social media heavily even recorded lower stress. The survey relied on the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely used stress-measurement tool developed in the early 1980s.

“We began to work fully expecting that the conventional wisdom was right, that these technologies add to stress,” said Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science, and technology research at Pew. “So it was a real shock when [we] first looked at the data and ... there was no association between technology use, especially heavy technology use, and stress.”

The survey looked at technology users and nonusers, including light and heavy users, and attempted to establish some baseline information, like the fact that people who are married or live with a partner tend to report lower stress, or the fact that women report more stress than men. From there the researchers worked to home in on stress from technology in particular. They found that social media, mobile devices, and the Internet in general didn’t contribute to increased stress for men compared with men who did not use technology. And for women who used technology, there was even some slight stress reduction. 

For example, in the average-technology-use category for women (those who use Twitter several times a day, send and receive 25 emails per day, and share two photos on a mobile device per day), the study found 21 percent lower reported stress compared to women who don’t use technology. Sign me up.

It’s not all cat memes and “Gangnam Style,” though. The study did extensive analysis on the concept of the “cost of caring.” Social media allows people to keep closer tabs on most of the people they know, and just as this raises awareness of good things like promotions, marriages, vacations, and births, it also increases exposure to bad things like layoffs, hospitalizations, and crimes. These tragedies weigh heavily, and technology users are more aware of them than nonusers. Facebook is particularly good at spreading the “cost of caring.” Facebook users of both genders were aware of more bad things happening to loved ones (13 percent more aware for women, and 8 percent more aware for men).

“When we’re aware of bad things happening in the lives of our friends and family, that increases our stress,” said Keith Hampton, a researcher at Rutgers who was a leader on the Pew study. “And it just so happens that many technologies are really good at both making us aware of those types of events, and reminding us of those types of events in other people’s lives.”

In 1998, Michelle Weil and Larry Rosen, the authors of TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work @Home @Playsaid in a press conference, “Because technology lets us do so much, today we take on too much and end up feeling overwhelmed and never finished. We feel invaded by technology on all fronts, by the beeps of our pagers, cell phones, incoming faxes and those of others around us.”

We may have fewer pagers today, but this idea that technology makes constant demands resulting in higher stress has been pervasive, and presuasive, for decades now. Pew’s findings are a refreshing departure. “A lot of the commentary on this assumes that people who don’t use technology have zero stress in their lives,” Rainie said. “But in fact stress is a chronic condition of modern life. ... We’ve been trying to document the big impacts of this new media ecology on people’s lives. And there’s more to do.”

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Jan. 14 2015 6:42 PM

Google Is in Talks With Big Automakers to Build Self-Driving Cars

While the world’s major automakers were twiddling their cruise-control knobs, Google zoomed past them in developing the technology for the driverless cars of the (possible) future. Now, belatedly, major automakers are jumping on the self-driving bandwagon. The question is, will they hitch their hopes to Google’s technology, or try to develop their own? And will Google become a car manufacturer in its own right, or focus on providing software to Detroit, Germany, Japan, et al.?

It’s too early to say with certainty how this will shake out. But a new Reuters report provides some fuel for the hypothesis that Google would rather partner with Big Auto than compete with it.

We’d be remiss not to talk to … the biggest auto manufacturers,” Google self-driving car director Chris Urmson told Reuters on Wednesday. “They’ve got a lot to offer.” Speifically, Urmson named GM, Ford, Toyota, Daimler, and Volkswagen as companies it had met with. “For us to jump in and say we can do this better, that’s arrogant,” he added, according to Reuters.

On the other hand, Urmson also told Reuters that Google has not decided whether to build its own cars or focus on the software. Apparently, the fact that it would be “arrogant” for Google to go it alone doesn’t mean Google is ruling it out.

In terms of actual news, that leaves us pretty much where we were six months ago, when Reuters reported that Google had met with “several of the world’s largest car makers” as early as 2012. Back then, however, Reuters’ report focused on how the two sides were “talking a different language” and couldn’t find common ground. Either the two sides have moved closer since July, or Reuters just needed a slightly different angle this time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there has been a real shift in tone, however.

Mercedes-Benz F015 autonomous driving automobile after it was unveiled at a Mercedes-Benz press event for the 2015 International CES on January 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
At the Consumer Electronics Show, Mercedes unveiled its own vision of cars’ self-driving future.

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

As I wrote in July, auto manufacturing does not really fit with Google’s core strength as a company. Google doesn’t mind building its own gizmos in order to explore a new idea. That’s what its Google X lab is all about. But the company’s experiences with Motorola and Google Glass may have convinced it to leave the mass production of consumer hardware to others.

The automakers, meanwhile, find themselves in a rapidly escalating race to integrate high-tech features that will capture the public’s imagination. Several that initially seemed wary of self-driving technology acknowledged at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that it might in fact represent their industry’s future. Ford isn’t interested in building the first self-driving car, but it also doesn’t want to be the last company stuck in the manual-driving era if all its competitors are embracing automation.

For that reason, the first automaker to officially partner with Google may trigger a wave of envy and denial among its rivals. But behind the scenes they’ll be scrambling to follow suit.

Meanwhile, the harder news from Wednesday’s Reuters report is that Google is already partnering with some of the industry’s largest suppliers to build its self-driving prototypes, with the goal of bringing its technology to market by 2020. Urmson confirmed reports that its first prototype car was assembled by Roush in Detroit. The company is also using components from Continental AG, ZF, and LG Electronics, and its microprocessors are made by Nvidia.

I wrote last week about Nvidia’s dive into self-driving technology, and what it represents for the auto and tech industries. The takeaway is that Google has helped to trigger a revolution in the automobile industry—one that finds the world’s car companies and tech companies coming together as never before.

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 14 2015 5:49 PM

People With Disabilities Can Play Piano Thanks to Eye-Tracking in Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is often associated with immersive entertainment experiences like gaming and movies. But the Japanese VR headset manufacturer Fove is working on an entirely different vein of entertainment and expression. Collaborating with the University of Tsukuba, the company has developed a system that tracks eye movement in virtual reality to turn blinks into real-life piano playing.

As the Guardian notes, “Eye Play the Piano” is targeted at kids with disabilities, and Fove calls it the “universal piano.” It’s sort of like a player piano, but instead of controlling the piano with commands from perforated scrolls, the piano gets its inputs from the users’ blinks, and they can play whatever they want. “We ... believe that this technology can open up many new possibilities to all humans,” Yuka Kojima, Fove’s chief executive, wrote.

Fove is using the crowdfunding charity site JustGiving to try to raise additional funds so it can “donate the Eye Play the Piano universal piano system ... to 135 schools for the physically-disabled.” Fove demoed the setup during a holiday concert (see video above) at the University of Tsukuba’s Special Needs Education School for the Physically Challenged in December.

Jan. 14 2015 4:02 PM

Netizen Report: Post-Charlie Chilling Effects Take Shape Worldwide

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Hae-in Lim, Bojan Perkov, Kevin Rothrock and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. We begin this week’s report with a glance at worldwide responses to the attack on French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attack has sparked a critical debate over the importance of free expression—but even as millions of EU residents marched in solidarity with the magazine, several governments in the EU and beyond made moves to restrict free speech and increase their surveillance powers.

Interior ministers of 12 EU countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, called for an increase in Internet censorship including a greater role for Internet service providers in reporting and removing material inciting hatred and terror. French police are already taking advantage of new digital monitoring powers granted under a surveillance law passed a year ago, allowing them to collect real-time phone and Internet data without judicial oversight. Meanwhile in Russia, numerous users reported that images from Charlie Hebdo were no longer accessible via Kremlin-owned search engine Sputnik.

The incident has also triggered concerns about the use of end-to-end encryption online. On Monday U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron proposed new anti-terror legislation that would give Britain’s intelligence agencies the legal right to break into the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists. In a public statement on the issue, Cameron asked: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people that even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read?”

The new legislation would cover both the collection of communications metadata (i.e., information about when a call is made, who made it, and who was called) and communications content (i.e., the interception of calls and online communications). All interception would need legal approval by the home secretary or foreign secretary. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticized the proposed legislation, arguing that it would “do absolutely nothing to deal with the issue” and would harm the very fundamental rights that EU governments are supposedly trying to protect.

In a recent Future Tense piece on the response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Dan Gillmor asked: “Why do they hate our freedoms so much, anyway?” Gillmor was referring to government leaders—not terrorists. 

Kazakh Facebooker prosecuted for praising Putin
A Russian-speaking woman in Kazakhstan was charged with “inciting ethnic hatred” for several anti-Kazakh Facebook posts praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and the former USSR. She faces up to seven years in prison for her messages.  

Separately, a Russian woman is being investigated for posting pro-Ukrainian links on VKontakte and may be charged for “inciting hatred and violence.”

Public lashing begins for Saudi blogger
Saudi Arabia initiated the public flogging of blogger Raif Badawi this week, who last year was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for cybercrime and insulting Islam. In 2012, Badawi co-founded the Liberal Saudi Network website, which is now banned. As per his sentence, Badawi was flogged 50 times and will continue to receive 50 lashes each week. He will also have to pay a fine of 1 million riyals (about $260,000).

Chinese police are buying surveillance tools—and posting their receipts online
The Beijing Times published a surveillance software purchase order, reportedly made by a local police department, on Weibo. The newspaper found the purchase order on the website of the Wenzhou district police department, took a screen capture of the order, and posted it on social media with a brief explanation of its origins. The purchase order includes two items: software for injecting trojans onto mobile phones, and a trojan for spying on mobile phone conversations, text messages, and image messages on Android and for jail breaking an iPhone. Netizens thereupon took to the Web and found similar orders on the sites of two other local law enforcement departments. The posts are rare examples of hard evidence of law enforcement surveillance practices.

Industry groups criticize Australia’s Telecom Act
An Australian digital policy group criticized section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, which allows the Australian government to block websites without oversight, calling it a “matter of great concern.” The group, which represents Facebook, Google, and eBay, among others, made its statement in response to a parliamentary inquiry launched by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is advocating that government agencies obtain approval and make a public announcement whenever a request is submitted that a website be blocked.

Are EU data retention laws unconstitutional?
A report from legal advisors to the European Parliament suggests national data retention laws may be unconstitutional, following the EU Court of Justice’s decision to strike down the EU Data Retention Directive. While a number of countries have rolled back their national data retention laws, others, including the United Kingdom, have continued or expanded these laws. The legal advisors found that these national laws have to remain compatible with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which outlines rights to privacy and personal data protection.

New Research

Jan. 14 2015 3:58 PM

Why Brooklyn Is Not the Next Silicon Valley

Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, may be going public.

Bloomberg reports that the Brooklyn-based startup is planning an IPO that would raise some $300 million, possibly in the next few months, according to anonymous “people familiar with the matter.” I contacted Etsy for confirmation, and a spokesperson replied, “We have no comment at this time.”

An Etsy IPO would be a big deal, symbolically, for the New York City startup scene. As Bloomberg points out, it would be the city’s largest tech-related IPO since the dot-com bubble 15 years ago. Noting that several other New York startups may also go public soon, Bloomberg calls the rumored Etsy IPO a “turning point” that is “putting New York tech companies back on the map.” The company, it adds, “is about to show Silicon Valley that Brooklyn’s hipsters can also do initial public offerings.”

That is a true statement, as far as it goes. You can now feel free to call Brooklyn the “hipster Silicon Valley” if you like. Just keep in mind that its tech scene—and that of New York as a whole—remains a far cry from the actual Silicon Valley, not only in scope but in mentality.

Etsy Hudson office
Etsy's headquarters is in DUMBO, but it has a lovely second office upstate in Hudson, where artsy Brooklynites go to retire.

Image courtesy of Etsy

Etsy is emblematic of a cozy Brooklyn startup scene that also includes Makerbot, the 3-D printing company that sold to Stratasys for about half a billion in 2013. It’s part of what Business Insider’s Shane Ferro has called, only half-jokingly, “the quaint economy.” I’ve written before about the moderate economic impact of the borough’s “shaggy liberal-arts entrepreneurs.” I’ve also written at some length about the rise of the New York tech economy, which in many respects has surpassed that of Boston, Seattle, and other startup hubs.

It really is delightful that creative tinkerers like Makerbot founder Bre Pettis and Etsy co-founder Rob Kalin have found ways to turn their ideas into successful companies. (Kalin was replaced as Etsy CEO in 2011 by Chad Dickerson, who led the company to new heights.) But neither was cut out to be a businessperson, as far as I can tell. Certainly neither possesses the killer instinct of Silicon Valley founders like Mark Zuckerberg. I mean that as a compliment: Killer instincts are dangerous, and often self-serving. And to find one in a Brooklyn hipster would just be unnerving.

There’s another strain of New York tech startups, mostly based in Manhattan, whose priorities are somewhat different. These include financial-tech companies like OnDeck Capital, whose $200 million IPO last month valued the company at $1.3 billion and became the city’s largest-ever venture-backed tech exit. They also include advertising-tech, media-tech, fashion-tech, and online-shopping companies, such as AppNexus and Gilt Groupe, both of which have been the subject of long-running IPO whispers. The chart below, from the venture-capital database CB Insights, shows just how few have gone public so far.

NYC tech IPOs
This chart from CB Insights shows a spike in IPOs last year for New York-based tech startups, albeit from a very low baseline.

Illustration by Matt Wong / CB Insights

While Manhattan's ad-tech and fin-tech firms may be more business-minded, their goals tend to be limited as well, in various ways. Today's New York startups, by and large, are not out to conquer the world and overthrow Google. They’re out to address a niche audience, capitalize on a market inefficiency, or solve a specific problem, often one that is faced by companies rather than, say, teens.

Again, that’s to their credit. World domination should not be the goal of every startup. But in Silicon Valley, it sort of is, and that’s exactly what makes it unique. Startups stay in New York or Boston or Seattle to grow steadily and gradually realize their potential. They move to Silicon Valley to get huge or go bust.

That’s why, for all that has been written about New York’s tech scene, including the Brooklyn cluster of “maker” startups, it’s misleading to view it in the context of the “next Silicon Valley” cliché. It’s like comparing apples to industrial apple orchards.  

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 14 2015 12:49 PM

Using AI to Study Poker Is Really About Solving Some of the World’s Biggest Problems

It’s time for computers to get their heads in the game. On Thursday artificial intelligence researchers at the University of Alberta published evidence in Science that an algorithm they developed had solved a type of poker called heads-up limit Texas hold ’em. It’s the first time an imperfect-information game that’s actually played competitively by humans has been solved. (An imperfect-information game is one in which the players all know different things, like in poker, instead of all seeing the same things, like in chess.)

The researchers say that the algorithm has “weakly solved” the game—it can’t win every hand, but over a large number of hands it will either break even or come out ahead. In heads-up limit, players can only bet set amounts of money at particular times. This version of the game is less popular—and less complex from an experimental perspective—than heads-up no-limit, which allows players to bet as much of their money as they want. Heads-up games are always between only two players. Adding more players would make the scenario significantly more difficult to parse.

If you think you’re a pretty good poker player, you can try competing against the algorithm, known as Cepheus. Your confidence will be shattered pretty quickly. It’s awesome.

Solving the game isn’t just about creating robotic dogs that can all sit around a table and play perfect poker, though. “We are a computer poker research group, but we exist because we’re really interested in advancing artificial intelligence techniques," said group lead Michael Bowling.

Julian Togelius, a researcher at IT University of Copenhagen who works on artificial intelligence and computer games, supports the University of Alberta researchers’ approach. “Games have more and more come to be used as benchmarks for artificial intelligence research,” he said. “This is partly because the other benchmarks are slow and expensive, like robots, or unrealistic and a bit pointless, like simple mathematical functions.”

Bowling explains that poker is a particularly appealing development and testing ground for artificial intelligence algorithms because it presents complicated but somewhat controllable scenarios in which the computer can develop a strategy through trial and error. “There are many different forms of uncertainty that we as humans are able to deal with every day,” he said. “[But] computer programs often can’t cope with these types of uncertainties. Poker embodies all of that in a very pure way so we can test our techniques ... and really measure our progress.”

Togelius notes that games are valuable for AI research because they can be iterative for testing. This is related to the idea that algorithms can’t function if they face overwhelming uncertainty. “It’s easy to make many variations of a game, which is important in order to test AI properly: To be generally intelligent, you must be good at not only one task, but many tasks,” Togelius said.

The goal of the hold ’em research is to use poker puzzles as experimental stand-ins for real-world problems. Bowling says the findings in this new research are especially valuable because they give us a hint at the scale of problems AI can solve. Algorithms are already used to optimize solutions in numerous areas, like elevator control and security (for example, air marshal scheduling and coast guard patrolling). But the bigger a problem gets, the less certain people are that they can trust it to an algorithm. Solving a game as complex as heads-up limit Texas hold ’em could mean a breakthrough in our conception of how big is too big. “With our results we’ve been able to show that we can solve ... enormous problems on a much larger scale than has been done before,” Bowling said. For example, problems involving vast transportations systems—take a network of airport checkpoints—seem increasingly applicable to new AI methods.

Bowling has also brought some of his group’s AI findings to the University of Alberta hospitals where he, another computer scientist, and two diabetologists are working on creating diabetes management software that can make treatment recommendations—which is tricky because patients’ situations vary widely, and they aren’t always compliant. Bowling acknowledges that the connection between poker and diabetes isn’t obvious, but he says, “It turns out that one of the things a doctor does so well is come up with robust [recommendations] … And that’s what our poker programs have to do, they have to be robust to ‘what are the cards my opponent has, and how does my opponent play?’ ”

OK, so is it time to turn all of our decisions over to computers yet? Bowling says that that process will continue incrementally, the way it has for decades. And there are still significant limits on what AI can achieve. By and large, AI still can’t generalize across things it has learned to extrapolate theories about new uncertainties. “An excellent heads-up limit player can walk into heads-up no-limit and they don’t start from scratch,” Bowling says. “Whereas if we were to try to take our program, which plays heads-up limit at a near-perfect level, and play heads-up no-limit, it couldn’t.” But this is the type of problem that Bowling plans to work on with his group in future research. Hopefully he’s not bluffing about that.

Jan. 13 2015 4:13 PM

Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Is Coming to America

Snow isn’t as white as it once was, and it’s setting off a melting feedback loop.

Back in September, I interviewed Jason Box, a climate scientist whose work focuses on tracking the albedo, or reflectance, of the Greenland ice sheet. According to Box’s measurements (and his stunning photos), something weird is happening—the snow and ice there are increasingly black, and scientists aren’t exactly sure why.

And now, the first ever continental-scale survey of North American snowfall suggests that our snow is pretty dirty, too.

Snow fences form artificial drifts in Wyoming. The team endured nearly 10,000 miles of views like this.

Photo courtesy Steve Warren

In the winter of 2013, University of Washington scientist Sarah Doherty embarked on an epic 10,000-mile roadtrip from Seattle across the Rockies, through the Great Plains, northward to the Canadian sub-Arctic, and back. Her team’s results were published in a recent edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Changes in albedo are responsible for a significant fraction of global warming—about one-fourth as much as greenhouse gases, according to a recent study. If you’ve ever walked barefoot from light-colored concrete to black asphalt on a hot summer day, you’ll know what I mean. The increase in darkness due to dirt or wildfire soot or smokestack pollution literally changes the melt rate of the snow, causing it to disappear more quickly. Hence this alarming chart.

A recent study showed Northern Hemisphere snow cover is declining faster than climate models have predicted, at a rate that outpaces even the stunning decline of Arctic sea ice. Another line of research has linked fluctuation of snow cover in Siberia and the decline of Arctic sea ice with recent bouts of weird weather in the eastern United States. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

Dark patches on the snow are visible when you walk out onto a frozen Hudson Bay.
Dark patches on the snow are visible when you walk out onto a frozen Hudson Bay.

Photo courtesy Sarah Doherty

But, as it turns out, snow in more temperate regions can affect the Earth’s albedo even more profoundly than boreal snow. That’s because vast sections of central North America are plains, and once the snow is deep enough to cover the soil, it transforms into a nearly perfectly reflective blanket of white. Temperate snow is also nearer its melting point, and the little bit of extra black carbon can act as a tipping point, warming the atmosphere even further, and transporting that extra heat right back to the Arctic. In sensitive areas like the Pacific Northwest that depend upon snowmelt for water supply, an increase in black carbon could have profound impacts on society.

Doherty has worked in the Arctic for years, but she wondered, just how much is pollution making our snow darker, right here close to home? That thought motivated her to trek across the continent.

The researchers travelled nearly 10,000 miles investigating the impact of pollution of the brightness of snow across North America.

Photo mosaic courtesy University of Washington

“This stuff isn’t included in the climate models,” she told me Monday during a phone call. “They don’t get these very, very local scale processes right.”

To get a better picture of what’s going on, the researchers had to travel to the snow. They sampled hundreds of undisturbed snowbanks in person, ideally as far from the main roads as possible, so as to form a lower bound for the next generation of climate models.

In North Dakota, researchers were surprised at how much wind-blown dust was mixing with the snow and making it darker.

Photo courtesy Sarah Doherty

Out of necessity, her research team ate at convenience stores and performed their analyses in hotel bathrooms. “It was sometimes boring and often entertaining,” Doherty told me. “At one small town in Canada, we asked where the hotel was, and they pointed three doors down to the Rednex Bar. Our choice for dinner was frozen pizza or frozen chicken wings, and the hotel was four rooms in the back of the bar.” The team, comprised of herself, her retired male colleague, and three Chinese students, frequently rented an extra room to store their equipment, which Doherty guessed probably made them seem like the oddest meth manufacturers possible.

Every single site the team analyzed had snow that was darker than previous surveys showed for snow in Greenland. The dirtiest sample was taken near Bend, Oregon, which Doherty attributed mostly to wood stove smoke and vehicle exhaust. When they melted the snow in their makeshift hotel lab, the filter was visibly brown.

Collecting samples from a snow drift near Vernal, Utah.

Photo courtesy Cheng Dang

But the dirtiest snow on average was in the Plains states. Especially concerning to Doherty was the measurements she took in western North Dakota, in the heart of oil boom country. Black carbon concentrations were elevated (presumably from a mixture of oil field gas flaring, the plethora of diesel trucks, or from nearby coal-fired power plants), but the most shocking result was the sheer amount of regular old wind-blown dirt mixed in with the snow.

Agricultural practices could be contributing to the amount of dirt that finds its way into snowflakes. Here, a field in Montana.
Agricultural practices could be contributing to the amount of dirt that finds its way into snowflakes. Here, a field in Montana.

Photo courtesy Sarah Doherty

“You picture the oil wells with flaring gas coming out of them, but that probably doesn’t produce a whole lot of black carbon,” Doherty said. “But just the truck activity. There’s a whole lot of small oil wells, and every time they put one in, they clear away the dirt, and you end up with just masses of trucks driving down what used to be small dirt roads. We didn’t really think about that before we went there.”

The dirt signal was elevated at many of the windiest Great Plains sites her team visited, leading to snow 10 times darker than on the Greenland ice sheet. A previous survey Doherty’s research team conducted in northern China using similar techniques found black carbon concentrations more than 10 times greater than that.

“The climate models need to be adding in a process they don’t currently have, because that stuff in the atmosphere is having a big climate effect.”

Jan. 13 2015 12:16 PM

One by One, FAA Painstakingly Acknowledges Scenarios Where Drones Might Be Useful

The AVATAR Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is a compact, hand-launched drone. It has GPS navigation, two closed-circuit video cameras, and the option of adding night vision or high-res cameras for still photos. This great technological achievement debuted in 2003.

Compact drones like quadcopters have continued to improve, of course, but the basic technologies have been on the consumer market for more than a decade. Wary of moving too quickly and condoning dangerous situations, the Fderal Aviation Administration has been slowly approving pilot programs to see how drones can be implemented safely in different scenarios. So slowly.

For example, last year the agency approved an application to use drones outfitted with video cameras on some Hollywood movie and television sets. And last week the FAA said that drones could be used for monitoring crops in agriculture and photographing properties for real estate.  

The latest effort is an agreement between CNN and the FAA that drones can be used in the network’s newsgathering. CNN was already working with the Georgia Tech Research Institute on drone journalism techniques, and the two groups will now expand their work under the FAA approval.

Of course, drone journalism has been around for a while—long enough for the establishment of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists and for two journalism-school drone programs, one at the University of Missouri and the other at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, to be shut down by the FAA.

In a press release about the CNN-FAA agreement, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said, “We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned newsgathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”

CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante’s comment was a little more, well, concrete. “Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups.”

Safety is probably the most important aspect of drone use, just as the FAA is signaling, but where were these FAA pilot programs and test scenarios years ago? It's going to be a long slog to 2017.

Jan. 13 2015 11:35 AM

For Political Leaders, More Surveillance Is Always the Answer

Why do they hate our freedoms so much, anyway?

I'm not talking about the murderers who cut their destructive swath through Paris last week, or their beyond-radical acolytes and advocates who think speech should be a capital offense. No, this is about the people who say they believe in liberty but rarely pass on an opportunity to carve at its foundations.

They include the political leaders who gathered in Paris this past weekend to talk about security and claim solidarity with the journalists, police, and bystanders who lost their lives in the violence. Many of these leaders govern speech and journalism in their own nations with anything but a light touch—“press predators,” as Reporters Without Borders aptly called them—and who now insisted it was essential to increase surveillance over everything and everyone. As a brilliant cartoon at the Guido Fawkes blog, citing London School of Economics student Daniel Whickham's aggregation of these leaders' actual behavior, “quoted” them, “Nous sommes hypocrites.”

Jan. 12 2015 7:01 PM

Wearables Can’t Solve Your Life if You Don’t Want to Use Them

Wearables, like so many tech products, fall at a tricky price point: They cost just enough that if you buy one and don’t like it, you probably don’t want to shell out for another. So one bad experience could ruin your shot at maximally optimized sleep or a distance running career forever. That’s the problem that Lumoid, a site that lets you try expensive items like DSLR cameras and quadcopters before you buy them, is trying to solve.

The company’s new service, Wearables Box, lets you choose five popular wearables to try from a list of 25, and ships them to you. You have seven days to give them a shot and see what you think. The idea is that seeing them in person will let you evaluate subjective factors like how they feel when you’re wearing them and how they look. Now you don’t have to depend on specs and questionable customer reviews.

Whether or not you pick one of the five to purchase, you send all of the test units back. At that point Lumoid sends you a brand new unit of the one you chose. If you end up deciding you don’t want any of them, the company charges you $20—you have to keep a credit card on file to use the service.

“I’m a runner, for example,” Lumoid founder Aarthi Ramamurthy told Gigaom. “My use case is completely different from someone else who is trying to track sleep or someone who wants to count calories or lose weight.”

Given that fitness trackers and other wearables seem to be plagued by high abandonment rates, a service like this could be a hit. It already works for mattresses and glasses.