The Citizen's Guide to the Future

April 18 2014 5:57 PM

A Browser Extension That Replaces "Literally" With "Figuratively"

If you’re a cool-headed, fair-minded, forward-thinking descriptivist like my colleague David Haglund, it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.

If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the crap out of you every time.


We pedants are waging a losing battle, of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.

Fortunately, Yahoo Tech's Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.

It doesn’t work in every instance—tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:

Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)

But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally—I mean figuratively!

If you're signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension here. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto's Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like "will blow your mind" and "you won't believe."

Hat tip: Yahoo Tech

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April 18 2014 3:46 PM

Drones Get Sketchier When You Use Them to Spot Pot Farms So You Can Steal the Drugs

In the United States and around the world, governments have started using drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for law enforcement, but you could just as easily use them for ... the opposite of that. In Shropshire, England, one man claims he's been using drones to scope out pot farms to steal from. The local Halesowen News caught up with a 33-year-old anonymous thief who's proud of his tech savvy.

I bought my first drone for a few hundred quid and learnt how to fly it over wasteland and fitted a wifi camera to it so I could look into people's windows. However, I noticed police helicopters used thermal imaging cameras to find cannabis farms because of the heat the hydroponic lights give off so I bought a second hand heat-seeking camera online and hooked it up to my Ipad.

The man said that he and his "crew" either steal pot directly or essentially blackmail whoever is running the farm. He added that there's minimal violence involved because pot growing is popular enough that those behind it tend to be average people who aren't interested in or used to physical confrontation.

The criminal wants to protect his anonymity for obvious reasons, but since we don’t know his identity it’s difficult to verify his story or get a sense of how widespread this practice is right now. He makes it sound like it wasn’t that difficult to get the gadgets he needed and start farm hunting. But there are a lot of heat sources out there and, who knows, maybe it takes him and his “crew” hundreds of man-hours to sort through all the data points and find the real hydroponic lights.

Tom Watson, a local parliament member, who is also the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, told the Halesowen News, "This remarkable story shows the proliferation of drone technology which can be used for both good and bad." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Hat-tip: Ars Technica.

April 18 2014 11:30 AM

Blood Made From Stem Cells Could Be Coursing Through Your Veins in a Few Years

Blood could become much less scarce if a British research group succeeds in bringing a version made from stem cells to human trials, and eventually to market. A 5 million pound (about $8.4 million) research initiative funded by the Wellcome Trust has made significant progress after four years and is on track to start human in trials in late 2016.

The scientists are working with human embryonic stem cells as well as induced pluripotent stem cells (mature cells that are artificially induced to regress to their pre-defined stage) to create universal type-O blood. If all goes well with the group's clinical trials, the next step would be specific testing to see how subjects respond to donated vs. stem cell-made blood.


Marc Turner, the lead researcher and also the director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, told the Telegraph, “Although similar research has been conducted elsewhere, this is the first time anybody has manufactured blood to the appropriate quality and safety standards for transfusion into a human being.”

Joanne Mountford, a member of the research team from Glasgow University, told the Financial Times that the first trial will use blood made from embryonic stem cells, and then the group will move to testing blood made by induced pluripotent stem cells.

You probably shouldn't stop donating blood quite yet. But manufactured blood would be plentiful and would have an even lower rate of contamination than exists in the current blood distribution system. Maybe someday the fake blood in lousy horror movies will be a little more real—or maybe, True Blood style, vampires can finally come out of the closet.

April 17 2014 4:15 PM

Facebook's "Nearby Friends" Feature Will Help You Organize Impromptu High School Reunions

On Thursday, Facebook launched a new feature called "Nearby Friends." It's kind of self-explanatory, but before you get any specific details about it, Facebook just wants you to know that it's optional. Totally optional. Not at all a scary privacy invasion. Your body (existing in space-time), your choice.

It's a feature that shows you where your Facebook friends are (if they have the feature turned on) and tracks your phone to show them where you are. It also "occasionally" uses notifications to alert you when friends are close by. Nearby Friends pulls from your Facebook friends, so it doesn't require you to build a new contact list like similar services do. But that's also a downside: Most people's Facebook friends are largely compromised of acquaintances, not actual friends.

The feature is similar to products like Foursquare, Banjo, and Apple's "Find Friends," which all came out in the last five years and seem to have sort of peaked in popularity. Be that as it may, Facebook is forging ahead. The people who created Nearby friends are the team from the location service Glancee, which Facebook acquired about two years ago.

Location services have struggled to stay relevant, and Nearby Friends seems like it will have similar problems. Facebook says in a press release:

If you turn on Nearby Friends, you’ll occasionally be notified when friends are nearby, so you can get in touch with them and meet up. For example, when you’re headed to the movies, Nearby Friends will let you know if friends are nearby so you can see the movie together or meet up afterward.

Sure. You see how that's supposed to work. But how often do you go to the movies alone hoping you'll run into people you know? Or how often do you go to the movies with one or more selected friends, but secretly hope you'll be able to meet up with other as-yet undetermined people after so you don't have to actually spend time with your movie buddies?

This type of coincidental meetup can be fun, and as a friend of mine (a real friend whom I intentionally hang out with, often as the result of advanced plans) realized a few weeks ago. He texted me the following: "I ended up randomly chilling with Mark yesterday. It was fun. We both went to the Nets game and he saw me check in on Foursquare. So we went to a bar. Btw, Foursquare was actually useful for a thing!"

Location services tend to end up having these very niche uses, like checking whether any of your friends are at the same large sports game or concert as you. I find adding people on Find Friends in iOS to be kind of creepy in general, but my roommate and I do use it from time to time. Mainly we're checking to make sure the other one is safe, or to get a sense of when we'll each be home based on where we are. It's faster and less annoying than constantly sending "Are you still at work?" or "Are you at home right now?" messages.

Though the general lack of enthusiasm for other location-based social networks makes now seem like a kind of odd time to introduce Nearby Friends, it's not that surprising in terms of Facebook functionality. You can already turn on location-awareness on Facebook so the service can post where you are in things like statuses, and keep track of where you've been for the "Places: Visited" map (you can also add to that map manually). And Nearby Friends has the potential to give Facebook more data about you for better targeted advertising.

But if you turn the feature on (and Facebook would want you to keep in mind that it's totally optional) just remember that it's going to be another location-tracking feature that's sucking your battery life. You'll have to weigh conserving that juice against the potential that you may be playing frisbee in the same park as your childhood best friend's cousin who's jogging.

April 16 2014 5:37 PM

Wall Street Journal Tech Conference Will Feature 17 Men and No Women

Sometimes there are conferences that are specifically about "women in tech." They tend to present positive female role models, encourage discussion about challenges in the field, and work to expand the community of tech. They're not perfect, but people pretty much agree that they're productive. But did you know that there are also conferences for "men in tech"? Apparently there are! AndThe Wall Street Journal is hosting one in October.

WSJDLive is the first conference for The Journal's revamped tech group, and every speaker on the roster so far is male.* The conference is billed as "vibrant" and a place to see "both established and emerging" technologists all in one place.

The WSJDLive website points out that Silicon Valley isn't the only site of rapid and exciting technological advancement anymore: "New entrants from international tech hubs are rapidly driving change in everything from payments to messaging." Except without a diverse mix of panelists, the conference won't be able to foster a fully-formed discussion about changes in tech. People are already calling out WSJDLive:

Conferences don't need to have a "women in tech" focus to be about gender—WSJDLive has made itself about gender simply by excluding an entire gender. (It's also really white!) This isn't about putting women on these lists to fulfill a minimum quota and avoid criticism—it's about wanting to have women and other diverse voices at these events.

*Correction, April 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that WSJDLive is The Journal's first tech conference. It is the 12th year the conference is taking place, but it is the first year under new management and is therefore being referred to as the "inaugural" conference.

April 16 2014 4:49 PM

Hacking the University: A Future Tense Event

If 2012 was the year of the massive open online course, according to the New York Times, 2013 was something of a reality check. MOOCs were meant to give people all over the United States (and the world) access to the best lecturers and classes from some of the top universities. But their first iterations have been beset with problems—lack of student engagement, high dropout rates—leading critics to question their long-term value.

MOOCs highlight the usual trajectory of new technologies that are supposed to transform education: big promises, followed by the trough of disillusionment, and a return to the status quo. So, what's next for technology in higher education in 2014 and beyond? Should we just give MOOCs some room to grow? Does big data have the answers? And anyway, is college even the best option in the tech economy?


Join Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University—on Wednesday, April 30, at the New America offices in Washington, D.C., for Hacking the University: Will Tech Fix Higher Education? For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.


8:45 a.m.: Registration

9:00 a.m.: What's Wrong with the Old-School?

Kevin Carey
Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

9:15 a.m.: My First MOOC

Robert Wright
Author, Nonzero 
Senior Future Tense fellow, New America Foundation

9:30 a.m.: What Can We Expect From Tech in Higher Ed?

Adrian Sannier
Chief academic technology officer, Arizona State University Online

Robin Goldberg
Chief marketing officer, Minerva Project

Jeffrey Selingo
Author, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students
Contributing editor, Chronicle of Higher Education 
Professor of practice, Arizona State University

Robert Wright
Author, Nonzero 
Senior Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation

10:15 a.m.: Hack 1: Get Government Money out of Higher Ed

Bryan Caplan
Professor of economics, George Mason University
Author, the upcoming The Case Against Education

10:25 a.m.: Hack 2: Cracking the Credit Hour

Amy Laitinen
Deputy director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

10:35 a.m.: In the Tech Economy, Does a Degree Still Matter?

Bryan Caplan
Professor of economics, George Mason University
Author, the upcoming The Case Against Education

Michael Gibson
Vice president for grants, Thiel Foundation

Leng Lee
Head of operations, Codecademy

Katherine Mangu-Ward
Future Tense fellow, New America Foundation
Managing editor, Reason

11:20 a.m.: Hack 3: Radically Improve Math Preparedness for College

Adrian Sannier
Chief academic technology officer, Arizona State University Online

11:30 a.m.: Can Tech Fix the Inequalities of Higher Ed?

Hal Plotkin
Senior policy advisor, Office of the Under Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education

Naomi Davidson
Education partnerships, higher education, Khan Academy

Tammy Wincup
Chief operating officer, EverFi

Kevin Carey
Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

April 16 2014 4:06 PM

Netflix Is Actually Getting Faster on Comcast

When Netflix and Comcast signed an agreement to give Netflix direct access to Comcast's network, it raised questions about peering and net neutrality. It's definitely controversial, but is it working? Yeah. Yeah it is.

According to new data released by Netflix, customers with Comcast Internet have been seeing major speed improvements since the deal in February. Comcast moved up six places in Netflix's carrier speed rankings to No. 5. Other carriers in the top 10 lost a spot or stayed the same—Comcast was the only ISP that gained.


Joris Evers, a spokesperson for Netflix, wrote in a blog post, "This month’s rankings are a great illustration of how performance can improve when ISPs work to connect directly to Netflix. In the US, the average speed on the Comcast network for Netflix streams is up 65 percent from 1.51Mbps in January to 2.5Mbps in March."

Though it's good news for Netflix, the company's CEO Reed Hastings took to the blog last month to advocate for net neutrality. He described deals like the one Netflix made with Comcast as "arbitrary tax[es]" and explained how these fees can create inequality on the Web.

Some major ISPs, like Cablevision, already practice strong net neutrality and for their broadband subscribers, the quality of Netflix and other streaming services is outstanding. But on other big ISPs, due to a lack of sufficient interconnectivity, Netflix performance has been constrained ... Once Netflix agrees to pay the ISP interconnection fees, however, sufficient capacity is made available and high quality service for consumers is restored. If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.

Given the speed improvements from this deal, it doesn’t seem like Netflix will be going back on it any time soon, no matter how much Reed Hastings hates the situation on principle. So if Comcast is your ISP and Netflix is blissfully fast for you now, you might as well enjoy it even if a byproduct is the degradation of Internet equality. Who would say no to the end of buffering?

April 16 2014 3:45 PM

Drone U: FAA Tells Search-and-Rescue Group to Stop Using Drones

Every week on Future Tense, we highlight a talk from Drone U in which a leading thinker speaks about what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

This week, Drone U features a podcast from Brendan Schulman, a lawyer representing the nonprofit Texas EquuSearch regarding its use of drones for volunteer search-and-rescue efforts. (We’ve featured Schulman before for his defense of Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, a drone pilot who was fined $10,000 by the FAA.) Shulman elaborates on the humanitarian use of civilian drones here in the United States.


Texas EquuSearch has used civilian drones in its efforts since 2005. In fact, says Schulman, EquuSearch believes drones to be the “single most useful technology that the organization has ever used.” Given that there are 84,000 missing persons cases still active in law enforcement records, as Schulman explains, this seems like an invaluable resource. But the FAA has recently asked that EquuSearch “stop immediately” its use of drones, stating that it is an “illegal operation(s)”. (EquuSearch’s letter in reply to the FAA is available here.)

April 16 2014 3:17 PM

The World’s Biggest Jenga Game, Featuring Caterpillars and 600-Pound Blocks 

Jenga has always made me uneasy, so dramatic are the results of a failed move. I prefer to lose discreetly. For some reason, I feel much differently about this video stunt by Caterpillar, in which giant 600-pound Jenga blocks are carefully plucked by various models of the company’s Cat line. The video, which features the best use of Grieg since The Social Network, delightfully shows the familiar yellow machines grabbing the blocks and lopping them on the top of the stack, blowing out tense little clouds of dust with each fateful drop. Since the set features just 27 blocks, half the game’s regulation 54, nature quickly takes its course.

The video’s presumptive point is to show the durability of Caterpillar’s machines as part of its "Built For It" campaign. But the inadvertent result may be to make us much more demanding of our high-concept publicity stunts. Next I would like to request the Boston Dynamics robots play an oversized game of Connect Four. What do you think, Google?


April 16 2014 2:41 PM

Netizen Report: Zambian Government Nixes Internet-Friendly Constitution

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Hae-in Lim, Lisa Ferguson, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Richard Teverson, Lakshmi Sara, Bojan Perkov, Sonia Roubini, and Sarah Myers contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Zambia, where top officials recently rejected a draft constitution prepared by a coalition of government, academic and civil society representatives. Commissioned three years ago, the draft contained key protections for online publications and media workers. It comes as no surprise that the ruling Patriotic Front party has rejected the text—for nearly two years, top officials have spoken disparagingly of the country’s online media environment, charging that independent news outlets are spreading “falsehoods” and “gossip” and openly praising efforts to block sites including the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports. Earlier this month, top Information Ministry officials disclosed plans to develop legislation intended to tackle a perceived increase in “Internet abuse” and cybercrime that they say has resulted from a lack of control over online media.