The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 14 2014 5:45 PM

An El Niño Double-Dip?

Global warming is about to get a boost.

As this year’s El Niño sets in, early signs are pointing toward the possibility of a rare occurrence: back-to-back El Niño years. If it happens, it would virtually guarantee a new global heat record in 2015 and could help usher in a decade or more of accelerated warming.

Think of El Niño as a burst of heat emanating from the tropical Pacific, setting off a cascade of worldwide impacts. This year’s El Niño is already poised to make 2014 the planet’s warmest year on record, according to a recent NOAA estimate.

Last month, global oceans were the warmest they’ve ever been measured, boosted by the cumulative heating linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Should current forecasts hold, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to confirm the official start of El Niño conditions for 2014-15 in the next month or two.

nino34Sea (11)
Early signs indicate a second El Niño may be forming for 2015-16.

Image: NOAA CFSv2

NOAA’s leading seasonal climate forecast model, the CFSv2, is starting to hint at a renewed uptick in the primary El Niño ocean temperature index during 2015 (shown above). Still, a double-dip El Niño is by no means set in stone. A lot can change in a year, and the CFSv2 model didn’t do particularly well on the current impending El Niño. (To be fair, neither did many others.)

Tony Barnston, the lead climate forecaster for Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, is equivocal. “It’s a possibility, but it doesn’t happen often, and to call for it would show an inappropriate level of confidence in my opinion. A few other models besides CFS are also hinting at this [possibility of back-to-back El Niños],” said Barnston.

Even if there’s not a second El Niño, a longer-term climate signal is beginning to point in the direction of more frequent bursts of warming over the next several years. Over the next few years, a natural climate oscillation known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is poised to kick into gear. Historical data has linked the “warm” phase of the PDO with a 15- to 30-year temporary surge in global temperatures. A new paper even shows this sort of natural variability could trump long-term human-caused climate warming in localized areas like the Pacific Northwest.

The PDO can be thought of as the atmospheric manifestation of a stretch of frequent El Niño events. If El Niño is the spark that ignites a months-long transfer of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere, the PDO is an indicator of how much fuel is in the gas tank.

The only problem is, it’s pretty much impossible to tell if one of these PDO surges are coming until we’re mired in it. There have been only two complete “cycles” of the PDO since the early 20th century—a warm phase from around 1920-1945, and another one from 1975-1998—both of which coincided with bursts of warming on the global scale. Still, the PDO’s slow-moving nature means researchers haven’t had many chances yet to test predictive theories.

Efforts to explicitly forecast the PDO are, understandably, still pretty messy. The current possible shift to a positive state wasn’t very well forecast at all, for example. Lisa Goddard, director of Columbia University’s IRI, agrees. “We usually can’t really say what phase of the PDO we are in until we have been there for 5-10 years,” she said in an email to Slate.

Recent data shows that transition may already be underway to a new warm phase. Since January of this year, the PDO has been on a tear, coinciding with the so-called “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” of high pressure that’s camped off the California coast. Meteorologists have linked this feature to California’s intensifying drought, which is already the worst in generations. Recent sightings of tropical fish off the coast of Alaska—like ocean sunfish and skipjack tuna—are further evidence of unusual ocean warming.

Natural oscillations like El Niño and the PDO are the noisy variations on the long-term trend of global warming. It’s like trying to track the path of your dog when you’re out for a walk—in the short run, global temperatures may seem chaotic, but the ultimate direction is clear. In this case, that direction is up.

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Oct. 14 2014 5:33 PM

Some Banks Collect Voiceprints During Service Calls to Identify You

When you call a company’s support line, you often hear that the call may be monitored or recorded. It’s so standard that we barely pay attention. Plus, usually it seems like a good thing. If and when the call devolves into unproductive arguing, it’s kind of nice to know that the company has evidence documenting how much their helpline sucks. But a new Associated Press report says that at least two U.S. banks do biometric “voiceprinting” on caller’s voices to protect against fraud and impersonators.

The AP says that JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo both keep voice data to uniquely identify at least some customers. And executives at voice analysis services, like Verint Vice President Mark Lazar, told the AP that the technique is extremely successful in reducing fraud and is growing in popularity. But there are a couple of problems : It’s already illegal to share biometric data in some states, like Illinois. Furthermore, the implications of banks controlling such a database are troubling to privacy advocates. Jay Stanley, an analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the AP,  “Reducing fraud is a good thing ...[but] we can’t anticipate what bright new uses this database will be put to in the future.”

Chase spokesperson Patricia Wexler said the company was “exploring many types of biometric authentication.” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Natalie M. Brown said that “sharing any information about our fraud prevention measures would jeopardize their effectiveness.” Both declined to directly comment on whether their institutions voiceprint.

Voiceprinting is already used for law enforcement and by governments in Mexico, Russia, the United States, and elsewhere. An AP survey of 10 voice analysis companies showed that more than 65 million people have been voiceprinted worldwide. And though voiceprinting is difficult because of all the fluctuations in the human voice and isn’t totally accurate yet, it seems to be a reasonable way of identifying people.

The FBI’s facial recognition database, which is supposed to have 52 million entries by 2015 and is being seeded with more than 4 million civilian photos, will be another testing ground for the privacy implications of huge biometric databases. But it’s not secret or privately held, so these bank caches might actually be scarier.

Oct. 14 2014 1:31 PM

New Lithium-Ion Batteries Could Charge an Electric Car in 15 Minutes

If you're sick of your smartphone or electric car running out of juice all the time and taking hours to charge, a discovery in Singapore could be good news. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University say that they’ve developed an advanced lithium-ion battery that recharges to 70 percent full in two minutes and lasts 20 years. Sign me up.

Current generation lithium-ion batteries can be cycled (charged and drained and charged again) about 500 times, but researchers say that the new batteries will be able to cycle 10,000 times. And with the faster charging, an electric car could be fully juiced in 15 minutes.

To achieve the faster charging speeds and better longevity, the researchers, lead by materials scientist Chen Xiaodong, tried a new material for the battery’s negative pole, or anode. Instead of graphite—the current standard—they used a titanium dioxide gel. And the researchers created a new way of converting the titanium dioxide particles into nanotubes to speed the chemical reactions that lead to charging.

Rachid Yazami, who was not part of the research but also works at Nanyang Technological University and co-invented the lithium-graphite anode 34 years ago, told Science Daily:

There is still room for improvement and one such key area is the power density—how much power can be stored in a certain amount of space—which directly relates to the fast charge ability. Ideally, the charge time for batteries in electric vehicles should be less than 15 minutes, which Prof Chen's nanostructured anode has proven to do."

Battery technology evolves slowly, so you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. Still, it’s heartening that the improvements the scientists are reporting in their new batteries come from carefully researched modifications of current lithium-ion batteries rather than completely novel designs. And since the special titanium dioxide gel is easy to make and costs less to manufacture than the old graphite anode, Chen thinks the improved batteries could be on the market in two years.

*Correction, Oct. 14, 2014: This post's photo caption originally described the dead batteries in the photo as lithium-ion. They are lithium batteries.

Oct. 14 2014 12:25 PM

If You Have Ever Used a Computer, You Should Celebrate Ada Lovelace Day

This article originally appeared in The Last Word on Nothing. Tagline: “Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing”—Victor Hugo.

I’m not, in general, huge on holidays. I often wish that those of us in the United States would observe the weeks between Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day with a nice long nationwide nap. But I feel differently about Ada Lovelace Day, founded by British digital-rights activist Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009. Now, every year in mid-October, the world has a chance to recognize Lady Ada, the woman often nominated as the first computer programmer.

This year, Ada Lovelace Day arrives with a fine new Lovelace biography, Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. The last major standalone biography of Lovelace was published in the late 1990s, and a lot has happened since then: a new set of letters between Lovelace and her collaborator Charles Babbage was discovered in 2000, and we’ve all clicked and poked and LOLed our way through another decade of the digital age. Ada’s Algorithm argues that Lovelace was one of the first—if not the first—to foresee just how deeply computing would affect our lives.

During Lovelace’s short life—she died of uterine cancer in 1852, at the age of 36—she was well-known in her native Britain, but not for her own accomplishments. She was the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who was at least as famous for his epically scandalous behavior as he was for his poetry. (Byron’s reputation overshadows his daughter’s even in death, and some biographies of Lovelace spend most of their oxygen on her father’s exploits, even though Lovelace never knew him. Byron does make it into the subtitle of Ada’s Algorithm, but author James Essinger hustles him offstage relatively quickly.)

Lovelace’s mother, determined that her daughter not follow Byron’s dissolute footsteps, kept the young Ada to a strict schedule of lessons and chores. Lovelace didn’t like the constraints, but she loved learning, and she was especially taken with the possibilities of math and science. Her early letters are filled with dreams of flying machines. “As soon as I have got flying to perfection, I have got a scheme about a steamengine,” a teenaged Lovelace wrote to her mother.

Her life’s work began in earnest when she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor whose design for an analytical engine is frequently described as the world’s first computer. When Lovelace and Babbage met at a London party in 1833, she was 17 and he was 43, but they soon formed an intellectual partnership that lasted for the rest of Lovelace’s life. Her novella-length description of Babbage’s engine and its potential suggests that she understood the machine even better than its inventor. “The Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere ‘calculating machines,’ ” she wrote:

A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.

Lovelace even predicted that the machine’s binary system would one day be used to program and play pieces of music.

Lovelace’s papers and letters reveal her as not only a gifted mathematician and analytical thinker, but also a talented communicator of science with a lovely knack for metaphor. It’s tempting to credit her Byronic blood for her skill with language, but I like to think of it as all her own—just more evidence of the depth of her insight.

A whole day in honor of Ada Lovelace might seem excessive. Why not a day for Alan Turing or Steve Jobs, both of whom had arguably much more influence on the technology we use today? Lovelace’s accomplishments are worth recognizing for their own sake, but I say we need her as a symbol, too: a symbol of all the women who have contributed to the progress of science and technology, and of all the women who might have contributed if given the chance. For generations, too many brilliant people—women and others—have been systematically excluded not only from the development of technology but also from decisions about its use. We’ve all lost something as a result.

Because Lovelace happened to be educated, wealthy, and famous, her intelligence was recognized by many, even in her own time. (Babbage was also unusually generous about sharing credit.) Countless other similarly gifted women have been ignored or forgotten. Countless more still suffer from sexist attitudes within their industries and, worse, terrifying harassment online and offMany of the events around Ada Lovelace Day are designed to correct the historical record and build support for present and future Adas.

So today, take a moment to honor Lady Ada—and all the far-seeing and furiously brilliant women in your own life, whatever their passions may be. Happy Lady Ada Day.

Oct. 14 2014 8:30 AM

The Republicans’ 404 Error Page Is a Hillary Clinton Joke

The Republicans have not lately been known as the party of Internet savvy, as even their own party operatives will admit. But give them credit, at least, for making the best of a bad situation when something goes wrong on the party’s official website, GOP.com.

As of at least mid-September, the image above is what appears when you type in the wrong Web address or follow a link to a page that isn’t working. You can find it for yourself by mistyping the URL for any GOP.com page—e.g., https://www.gop.com/leaders/rational/ instead of https://www.gop.com/leaders/national/.

Granted, the joke—a reference to a comment Clinton made in a June interview with Diane Sawyer—is not exactly comic genius. But it’s probably good for at least a chuckle from the party faithful, which is a step up from the frustration that 404 notices typically engender. And it’s certainly better than the “page not found” that appeared in 2010 when visitors to the re-launched GOP.com clicked on a link to its “Future GOP leaders” page.

The Republican National Committee’s website is hardly the first to attempt some humor on its 404 error page. I collected some of my favorites from around the Web earlier this year in honor of 404 Day (yes, of course that’s a real holiday) (OK, no, it isn’t).

The Democrats, however, have yet to discover the joy of posting cheap jokes and unflattering photos of their political opponents on their website’s error pages. Misspell http://www.democrats.org/voterexpansion as http://www.democrats.org/voteearlyandoften and this generic 404 message is all you’ll get for your trouble:*

Democrats.org 404 Page not found
The Democrats need to up their 404 game.

Screenshot / Democrats.org

Surely the Dems can do better than this. The problem is it’s not immediately clear which polarizing GOP figure the party ought to be going after these days. Still, we came up with a few visual aids to get the brainstorming started:

Don't cry, it's just a 404 page!

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Time for a water break: You've reached a 404 page.

Marco Rubio water break

Ouch. You've reached a 404 page.

Readers are encouraged to offer their own suggestions in the comments, which is a sentence we’re probably going to regret as soon as we see what you’ve come up with.

*Correction, Oct. 14, 2014: This post originally gave an example URL for the Democrats' website that led to a DNS lookup failure rather than a 404 "page not found" error.

Oct. 13 2014 7:03 PM

The Prime Minister of Finland Blames Apple for the Country’s Economic Woes

Finland’s economy has been struggling for the last few years, and on Friday, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s debt rating from AAA to AA+.* But in an interview with CNBC on Monday, Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb posited an explanation for the decline: Apple.

Stubb pointed out that two of Finland’s biggest industries, mobile innovation in Nokia and paper manufacturing/products, were hobbled by the success of Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad.

“We have two champions which went down,” he said. “A little bit paradoxically I guess one could say that the iPhone killed Nokia and the iPad killed the Finnish paper industry, but we’ll make a comeback.”

Phew, that’s rough. It doesn’t really seem like a paradox ... but whatever, the man is clearly upset. Microsoft bought Nokia in April, and CNBC reports that the Finnish Forest Research Institute said there was a “poor situation” for the paper production business in 2013. Perhaps the trauma of layoffs at Rovio, the Finnish company behind the mobile game Angry Birds, was too fresh for Stubb to talk about.

Stubb put a brave face on though and added some positive comments. “Forest is coming back in terms of bio energy and other things. And actually a new Nokia is emerged in terms of (Nokia) Networks,” he said. “Usually what happens is that when you have dire times you get a lot of innovation and I think from the public sector our job is to create the platform for it.”

Hopefully he can make it happen before Apple is in the market for a country-sized, curved-glass campus headquarters.

*Correction, Oct. 20, 2014: This post originally misspelled Standard & Poor's.

Oct. 13 2014 4:58 PM

French Twitter Users Will Be Able to Send Money in Tweets

Mobile and embedded payments are picking up steam, but the only way for companies to figure out what users want is to try ... lots of things! Twitter has already been experimenting with a “Buy” button that allows users to make purchases directly from tweets. Now Group BPCE, one of the largest French banks, is working with Twitter to allow money transfers by tweet in France.

BPCE is going to facilitate money transfers on Twitter no matter what bank French users have. Senders won't even need to know the bank information of the person they're sending money to.

BPCE is processing the transactions through its S-Money service, which already facilitates text message transfers. Reuters reports that S-Money uses data security standards established by the credit card industry (not terribly reassuring, I admit).

Twitter and BPCE will announce more details on Tuesday about how the process will actually work for French users. The partnership seems to show Twitter’s a desire to get involved with online payments without having to create the infrastructure or security framework in-house.

If you want to send money casually and in full public view (and you live in France), Twitter is about to be the place for it.

Oct. 13 2014 1:16 PM

Netscape Navigator, Everyone’s First Browser, Turns 20 Today

Netscape Navigator, the first real commercial Web browser, launched on Oct. 13, 1994. And though I’ve written before about the danger of overselling techniversaries, this one stands out to me. The invention of the browser changed the way people used the Internet forever, and though browsers have improved over the years, the original Netscape Navigator is still fundamentally recognizable. It was a good idea!

Created by Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen at Mosaic Communications Corp. (which they founded in April 1994), Netscape not only introduced people to the future of the Web, but prompted Microsoft to create competitor and browser bigwig Internet Explorer. For better and worse.

Development on Netscape ended in 2008, but its spirit—and some source code—lives on in Firefox. In honor of Netscape’s birthday, here's what people were saying about it in 1994.

From the original press release for the browser:

The initial version of Netscape available today on the net is a public beta version, enabling users to provide feedback on the software's features and functionality across a wide range of computing platforms. The company will also place the final version of the navigator, due out in November, on the Internet for free downloading. This version delivers security features such as encryption and server authentication. When paired with the Netsite Commerce Server due out in November, Netscape lets users take advantage of such commercial services as online publications, financial services and interactive shopping. ...
By making Netscape available free to individuals for personal use, the company builds on the tradition of software products for the Internet being offered free of charge.

A New York Times article from November explained:

Netscape Communications of Mountain View, Calif .... has been developing enhanced versions of a hugely successful program called Mosaic that lets people jump between computers around the world merely by clicking on on-screen icons.

And Jamie Zawinski, one of the original engineers who worked on Netscape, published diary entries from the weeks leading up to the launch of the public beta:

Friday, 7 October 1994, 6am.
We go live on the net in four days.
I no longer think we're doomed. I think we're going to rock all over. It's still pretty scary, though.

Oct. 13 2014 9:54 AM

NASA: Earth Just Experienced the Warmest Six-Month Stretch Ever Recorded

Our planet is on a hot streak.

Over the weekend, NASA announced that last month was the warmest September since global records have been kept. What’s more, the last six months were collectively the warmest middle half of the year in NASA’s records—dating back to 1880.

The record-breaking burst of warmth was kicked off by an exceptionally warm April—the first month in at least 800,000 years that atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, which keeps a separate record of global temperatures, this April ranked as the warmest April on record. Followed by the warmest May on record. Followed by warmest June on record. (July wasn’t quite as hot—just the fourth-warmest July on record.) But August—again, you guessed it—was the warmest August on record. The NCDC will release its numbers for September later this month.

output_V3asFS

As I wrote last November, a trend toward El Niño may be helping to spark a massive heat release from the tropical Pacific Ocean, boosting 2014 into front-runner position for the hottest year ever measured—a phenomenon that may stretch into 2015 as well.

Recent research shows the current warm stretch is probably the planet’s warmest in at least 4,000 years. That means global temperatures may have already passed a level that human civilization has never experienced. The sheer size and depth of the world’s oceans means that most of global warming’s extra heat has been stored there. For the last decade or so, atmospheric warming has been playing catch up.

If the last six months are any indication, the pace of atmospheric warming may finally be picking up.

Update, Oct. 14, 10:15 a.m.: On Tuesday​, Japan's Meteorological Agency confirmed that last month was indeed the warmest September ever measured. (JMA's global instrument records date back to 1891.) According to JMA, every September in the 21st century has been above the long term increasing trend, a sign of accelerating warming. 

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Japan's Meteorological Agency has also rankedlast month as the warmestSeptember on record.

Image: JMA

Oct. 10 2014 6:45 PM

This Snapchat Leak Should Warn You to Think Before You Snap

If you had never heard of the anonymous online forum called 4chan or thought about the threat of leaked photos before last month, you're probably caught up now. The celebrity nude photo leak dubbed the Fappening and a marketing stunt threatening to leak naked pictures of Emma Watson both emerged from 4chan. And earlier today, a social-media strategist named Kenny Withers started blogging about talk on 4chan of a Snapchat nude-photo leak. Is the Snappening upon us?

Business Insider reports that hackers have a 13GB cache of sensitive or explicit snaps culled from a third-party snap-saving service that they are planning to match with Snapchat usernames and release on October 12. Estimates put the number of photos at 100,000 to 200,000.

This isn't a breach of Snapchat's servers. It's a trove of photos from a service that a user would install in order to automatically save incoming snaps—without the sender realizing it. Snapchat said in a statement:

We can confirm that Snapchat's servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks. Snapchatters were victimized by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users' security. We vigilantly monitor the App Store and Google Play for illegal third-party apps and have succeeded in getting many of these removed.

Though the identity of the third-party service isn't known, services like Snapsaved and similarly named Snapsave could be the source. As the New York Times points out, Snapsaved seems particularly suspicious because whoever made it covered his tracks, its content has been taken down, its URL (Snapsaved.com) is set to expire next week, and it doesn't seem to have ever been available in the Google Play app store. The Times couldn't reach anyone at Snapsaved for comment. The creator of similarly named service Snapsave, Georgie Casey, did respond. “My app just saves Snaps to your Android phone, nothing is ever sent to my server,” he said.

So did the leak come from Snapsaved, Snapsave, or another service entirely? Was that service hacked or was it set up to maliciously store snaps for its own use in addition to the use of its users? Is there a leak at all? It's unclear. And even though Snapchat itself isn't part of a leak this time, the company has a pretty checkered past when it comes to protecting the security of its users.

Snapchat may seem like a reasonable way to send sensitive photos—they disappear within a few seconds!—but it's a social platform not a security service. It's meant to be maximally easy to use, and to promote sharing. That's the opposite of what true private communication is about. Secure encrypted communication services require a little bit of procedural work to use and make content sharing difficult outside of the sender and recipient.

Snapchat is like your desk phone. It's illegal for someone to bug it, but if they do, then they can record your calls. There's no second line of defense.

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