The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 31 2014 6:28 PM

The NASA Simulator This Dad Built for His Kids Is Just the Best

Dads are awesome, but this is just over the top amazing. The video below shows how dad of two Jeff Highsmith built a mission control desk and spaceship for his two sons. There are LED lights, real switches and inputs that trigger sound effects and flashing, and even a bass shaker in the floor so you can feel the rocket taking off. Come on.

Make: magazine describes how the different sequences of lights and sound effects are coordinated by Arduino boards and a Raspberry Pi, and Highsmith wired the whole thing so it’s adjustable and expandable in case he wants to add other features later. There’s even an iPhone mount in the spaceship that plays real NASA footage and could be used to extend the ship’s features in the future.


Highsmith describes in the video how the sequences programmed into the desk and ship are meant to spark imaginative not competitive play, and he says he hopes the work he put into the setup will inspire his sons to be interested in building and programming one day. But it’s not just for them. Highsmith clearly had a great time putting it together, and he even built out part of the ship so he could get in it “for testing.” There is no one who wouldn’t want to play with this thing. I feel comfortable saying that definitively.

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July 31 2014 5:45 PM

Facebook's Globe Is No Longer Americentric

You know that little globe icon on the Facebook website that displays your pending notifications? Of course you do. It’s the first thing any self-respecting narcissist clicks on when they open Facebook. (That's pretty much all of us, by the way.)

Well, did you know that the globe looks different depending on where you are in the world? The default icon portrays the Americas:


Image courtesy of Facebook.


But as Tech in Asia recently pointed out, Facebook has quietly introduced a new icon for its desktop users in Europe, Africa, and Asia, which shows the globe from the other side. (Update: Facebook tells me the new globe was rolled out widely just on Wednesday, though it had been tested on some users prior to that.)* Log in from any of those continents, and you’ll see this icon instead:


Image courtesy of Facebook.

It’s a small change, but it highlights something a lot of Americans might not realize: They’re vastly outnumbered on Facebook. The company reports that just 18.3 percent of its 829 million daily active users hail from the United States or Canada. A far larger percentage come from Asia, even with the site still mostly blocked in China.  

As of April 2013, the United States still clung to a thin lead for the most Facebook users of any single country, but India was closing fast. Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico rounded out the top five.

More importantly for Facebook’s business and mission, Africa and Asia represent the company’s brightest prospects for future growth and are the focus of its push to bring more of the world online at low costs.

On Thursday Facebook launched an app that will allow users in developing countries to take advantage of some basic services like Google Search, AccuWeather, Wikipedia, and (of course) Facebook and Facebook Messenger without incurring any data charges. The app will be rolled out first to Airtel subscribers in Zambia, where it will also include free access to local jobs, health, library, and women’s rights apps.

This is why, when someone tells you that Facebook is dead because his 15-year-old sister thinks it’s uncool, you should take that anecdote for what it is—one data point from a country that represents an ever-smaller minority of the service’s massive global user base. Yes, American teens can be a bellwether for worldwide trends, but Facebook’s flock has grown too diverse for any one subset of sheep to lead. Like it or not, Facebook has crossed the line from fad to established multinational corporation, and it isn't going the way of MySpace anytime soon.

Hat tip: The Next Web

*Update, July 31, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify the timing of the new icon's rollout.

Previously in Slate:

July 31 2014 4:07 PM

USB Technology Has a Fundamental Security Vulnerability

Flash drives and USB peripherals—that is, basically every gadget—could be carrying malware without any evidence in their flash memory. According to new research that will be presented next week at the Black Hat security conference, it is possible to hide malware deep within USB technology at the firmware level. Oh, great.

Wired, which first reported on the findings, says that researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell from the security firm SR Labs can take over and control a PC with the BadUSB malware they developed to lurk in the base-level software that mediates between hardware and higher-level software like an operating system. They’re white hat hackers, trying to find and exploit security flaws as a proof of concept and a way of motivating the tech community to develop fixes.


Wiping a flash drive or scanning it with anti-virus software won’t detect the malware. Only reverse-engineering the firmware the way Nohl and Lell did can expose the foreign code lurking in it, and few consumers have the know-how to do that. Plus, even if you could do that, it might be hard to identify the malware code as malicious, because USB firmware varies and there isn’t a single standard to compare to.

So with BadUSB, or something like it, safely in place, the malware can do pretty much anything, like controlling a keyboard to type commands, leaving backdoors in software, or surveiling Internet use on a device. University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze also told Wired that he suspects the NSA has already developed attacks like this. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things [Nohl and Lell] discovered are what we heard about in the NSA catalogue,” he said referring to Cottonmouth, an NSA malware distribution program that uses USB drives.

There’s no patch for this problem, so the best way to defend yourself for now is to think about how you protect yourself from getting sick and apply the same approach to your computer. Don’t share your thumb drives, don’t plug them into a public or untrusted computer, and don’t plug a USB peripheral or thumb drive that isn’t yours into your computer. It’s difficult to do, because we all use USB technology for easy sharing, but hopefully it’ll just be a stopgap measure while researchers work on long-term fixes. For example, USB firmware could have a signature that indicates if the original code has been tampered with or changed. And companies working on anti-virus for peripherals—like Red Balloon Security, which Slate reported on earlier this year—should be able to detect the changes.

Or what about USB condoms?! For now, you’ll have to practice safe sharing.

July 31 2014 1:52 PM

Horrid California Drought Gets Worse

New data released on Thursday from the U.S. Drought Monitor show a massive expansion of the worst level of drought conditions—“exceptional”—into Northern California over the last week.

California’s worst drought in 500 years began in 2011, and watching its spread is stunning:

California drought

Exceptional drought now covers a majority of California, from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta, including the whole of the vast Central Valley, where America grows the bulk of dozens of agricultural commodities.

According to Brad Rippey, author of this week’s Drought Monitor report, the drought is creating lasting consequences. “California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year.” For perspective, 11.6 million acre-feet of water is equivalent to 3.8 trillion gallons—enough to provide eight glasses of drinking water per day for everyone on Earth for three years. That’s a lot of water.

The news comes after California announced statewide fines associated with water waste earlier this week, after earlier voluntary measures proved ineffective. From Time:

The new rules—the first statewide curbs on water use since the current drought began nearly three years ago—can lead to fines of up to $500 per day for using a hose to clean a sidewalk, running ornamental fountains that do not recirculate water and other wasteful behaviors.

Last week, a separate study by NASA and the University of California-Irvine found that more than 75 percent of Western water loss over the last 10 years came from excessive groundwater pumping. California is the only state that doesn’t restrict groundwater use, though state lawmakers are proposing legislation motivated by the worsening drought to change that. In my Thirsty West trip through the state earlier this year, it was clear that the continued expansion of politically powerful industrial agriculture is worsening the state’s water woes.

Should the drought get even worse over the coming months—which it may, now that a super strong El Niño is off the table—there isn’t any room left to upgrade it now that the official drought scales are maxed out. The painful phase of this drought has begun. It’s time for sacrifices.

Farmers: You’ve had your chance. It’s time to submit to restrictions on groundwater pumping, if only to ensure your future survival in the state. Cities: Prepare to pay more for food as a result. It’s a best-case tradeoff in a worst-case scenario.

The alternative is ugly: hordes of San Francisco hipsters invading stodgy Marin County, the last bastion of sub-exceptional drought.

July 31 2014 1:04 PM

Are Smart Glasses Really a Thing That’s Happening?

Did you know that there are Google Glass competitors? Other smart glasses that project a screen in your field of view? I didn't. I guess I was vaguely aware that if Google is doing something, other companies must be trying it, too, but I wasn’t focused on it. Which was dumb of me.

It’s been a year since I first tried out Glass and two years since Google started talking about the product. That’s a lot of time in tech development terms—enough time for ideas that were nascent in 2010 or 2011 to turn into prototypes and even pilot programs. So in the past couple of weeks I decided to catch up and tried two different versions of smart glasses, offerings from Atheer Labs and Epson.


These aren’t virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus. They don’t place you in what is essentially an immersive video. Instead they create a “screen” somewhere in your field of vision where you can get information or superimpose images onto what you’re seeing/encountering in the real world. Basically, the lenses use teeny projectors and optical technology to create a personal display. What you're seeing sort of looks like a hologram hovering in front of you. (Some smart glasses even display in 3-D.)

But what are they for, and do they work? Google Glass is primarily a consumer device that does similar things to a smartphone. You can write emails, read notifications, view Google Maps information, get directions, etc. There are professional uses, too: For instance, medical workers are trying out Glass for things like easily accessing patient information in a hospital setting.

Smart glasses seem like a logical next step in the evolution of smart devices because they can get infinitely small without sacrificing immersion. As Soulaiman Itani, the founder of Atheer Labs, notes, the devices we use now—like smartphones, tablets, and laptops—are redundant. What they’re each offering is a different degree of portability vs. screen size. They're also inherently contradictory because we want them to get smaller and lighter without sacrificing their ability to display content or our ability to control them. With smart glasses, the display can get bigger, better, and sharper while the physical technology contrinues to shrink.

Both Atheer and Epson are mainly marketing their smart glasses for professional settings. In fields like manufacturing and medicine, there’s a big need for all-in-one solutions, and attractiveness of the glasses and their software isn’t as important as it is in the consumer market. Furthermore, workers have to train extensively with any new tool anyway, so it doesn’t matter as much if it takes a little while to get comfortable using the glasses. Atheer has partners in construction that are doing things like aerospace design or civil engineering; Epson has automotive and appliance companies doing marketing and repair training with employees on the glasses. The idea is to replace tablets that require people to continuously look up and down, and also take advantage of the context-aware features in smart glasses that allow people to see and interact with 3-D renderings.

Trying out Epson's Moverio glasses.

Photo by Michael Leyva.

You control Glass using voice commands and gestures on the side of the device near your right temple. The headset from Atheer Labs uses voice, head motions, and most importantly a touchscreen transposed onto the air for commands. Basically a camera mounted on the glasses tracks your fingers and does depth calculations to figure out when you’re “tapping” something you're seeing in your glasses. And the Moverio headset from Epson has a few touch inputs on the glasses themselves but mainly uses a physical trackpad to control a cursor.

All three devices are at different stages of actual functionality. Glass accepts commands pretty well once you learn the system of swipes and taps, though Glass offers audio output for things like phone calls that can be hard to hear in places with a lot of ambient noise. The glasses from Atheer Labs are the most impressive in terms of presenting elegant solutions that put you in control and make you feel like you're in Minority Report. (In the top photo I’m swiping away at the air while playing Fruit Ninja on the glasses. Fun!) But the tech needs to develop more to feel stable and reliable.

With the Moverio glasses, the battery and trackpad are in a little brick that you keep in your pocket, and it’s wired to the glasses. It’s a less futuristic solution, but certainly makes sense in the short term since getting long life out of a tiny battery is still a problem. It’s also a more intermediate step between current mainstream tech like laptops and the glasses of the future. The trackpad-and-cursor approach feels familiar in a good way. The problem is, the Moverio’s trackpad didn’t seem quite as sensitive and responsive as I wanted it to be, so using it was a little distracting.

Right now the technology is still limited, but unlike smartwatches that have yet to convince me of their usefulness, I could easily see how smart glasses could seamlessly enhance lots of situations. Google Glass famously costs $1,500 and is now available to anyone, though the product is still in beta and hasn’t had its commercial release. Epson’s Moverio glasses are already on the market, and you can order them for $700. I wouldn’t buy any of these now, but if, like me, you hadn't really thought about whether smart glasses other than Glass were even in development, consider yourself put on notice: They’re definitely here and they’re getting awesome.

July 31 2014 12:59 PM

Former NSA Chief Keith Alexander Is Profiting on Cybersecurity. But Is It Legal?

In his review of This Town, Mark Leibovich’s account of the machinations of Washington, D.C., Frank Rich noted that in 2008, Obama said, “When I am president, I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that’s allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers.” Perhaps he should have extended the hard word to ex-apparatchiks going into security consulting?

When Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency and head of the U.S. Cyber Command, announced he was retiring in 2013 and almost immediately added that he was going into cybersecurity consulting, no one was particularly shocked. Exiting administration officials moving to the private sector and monetizing the connections and knowledge they gained during their government days is unsavory, perhaps, but far from unusual. Eyes did water at the amount Alexander was purported to be asking for his advice, though—$1 million per month.

July 31 2014 11:00 AM

How the NSA Hurts Our Economy, Cybersecurity, and Foreign Policy

This piece also appeared in New America’s Weekly Wonk.

More than a year after the Snowden revelations, we’re clearly still grappling with the effects of NSA surveillance.

As Congress prepares for the August recess, Sen. Patrick Leahy has just introduced a new version of the USA FREEDOM Act, which aims to curb the NSA’s bulk collection and surveillance powers. Calls for immediate, serious reforms are growing louder by the day as new evidence continues to emerge about how much NSA surveillance is costing us—in terms of both the economy and our cybersecurity.

July 31 2014 10:49 AM

The Connected Home May Become the Collected Home  

The era of the smart home is upon us: Sensor-based devices throughout your living quarters will learn your behaviors to increase convenience and optimize savings. What most people haven’t considered, however, is how the personal data reflecting our intimate actions at home will merge with existing advertising data to provide “an inside track” on our lives. Someday soon our Kinect may register our facial expression during food commercials and send the data directly to our smart fridge and health insurance carriers.  Or blood pressure data during sex will be analyzed to spur Cialis sales.  Soon concierge robots centralizing multiple duties will be able to speak to us directly, making the old saw, “If these walls could talk” into a reality.  And the data mining and profiling practices already in place guarantee that those walls will also be listening.

July 30 2014 5:55 PM

Pretty Much Everyone Agrees That Bogus Charges on Your Cellphone Bill Need to Stop

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission accused T-Mobile of cramming, or adding unauthorized charges to users’ cellphone bills. And now both the FTC and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are coming out against the practice and reporting on its problematic ubiquity.

Cramming works by burying deceptive third-party charges in a bill’s list of fees so consumers won’t even notice or will assume the line item is warranted. Cramming dates back to bills for landlines, and telecom companies later evolved to hide charges in extra-cost text messages, known as premium short message services. But even though the practice has mostly been stopped for wired telephones and texts, it lives on in a system called direct carrier billing.


In a report released on Monday, the FTC noted, “In six recent enforcement actions, the Commission has alleged that such practices have cost consumers many millions of dollars, and in just three of these actions, defendants have agreed to orders imposing judgments totaling more than $160 million.”

Meanwhile, in a report released on Wednesday, the Senate committee described cramming as a billion-dollar industry that garners revenues for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The committee said that these carriers can hold on to as much as 30 to 40 percent of the vendor charges on customer bills, and that the telecom industry has wrongly dismissed cramming as a minor problem when it actually costs consumers millions of dollars a year. The report explains, “vendors using websites and apps connect to carrier billing platforms. Direct carrier billing methods are relatively nascent, and it is not possible at this stage to predict the extent to which scammers will find ways to cram charges on wireless bills.”

The FTC and Senate committee both claim that they will prevent cramming from continuing. The commission concludes that it “will continue to monitor the issue of cramming on mobile phone accounts and evaluate whether other potential solutions—including legislative measures and additional regulatory changes–are necessary to ensure consumers are protected from unwanted and unauthorized charges.” And it outlines five industry best practices that would create a safer environment for consumers:

1. Mobile carriers should give consumers the option to block all third-party charges on their phone accounts.

2. Advertisements for products or services charged to a mobile bill must not be deceptive.

3. It is critical that consumers provide their express, informed consent to charges before they are billed to a mobile account, and that reliable records of such authorizations are maintained.

4. All charges for third-party services should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed to consumers in a non-deceptive manner.

5. Carriers should implement an effective dispute resolution process.

Based on how hard it’s been to shake the con so far, it seems unlikely that this wave of scrutiny will stamp it out for good, but in the meantime consumers can dispute charges they think are unwarranted, and hopefully with multiple agencies working on the issue, it will be easier for customers who think they’ve been wronged to seek protection.

July 30 2014 5:52 PM

Meet Johnny Dronehunter, Shotgun-Toting Defender of American Privacy

In the not-too-distant future, privacy will be a thing of the past, with drones roaming the skies and keeping tabs on the American public like the subjegated citizens of Panem. With a real-life Katniss nowhere to be found, who will be the only hope for us in this bleak, dystopian future? A tattooed vigilante named Johnny Dronehunter and his silenced shotgun, apparently.

That's the premise of a new—and particularly absurd—ad from Utah-based company SilencerCo for its new supressor line, the Salvo 12. In the hyperbolic promo (which you can watch above), our hero is seen chasing down a drone via car before he pulls over, grabs his large, silenced shotgun, and blasts the hovering symbol of tyranny right out of the sky. When five more drones close in, they meet a similar fate. Johnny Dronehunter does one thing exceedingly well (and quietly), and that's hunting drones. Sorry for the spoiler.


According to SilencerCo CEO Josh Waldron—who was interviewed via email for the Vice blog Motherboard—the company "created Johnny Dronehunter and intend to continue a series of videos in this vein with him as the main character to represent the Americans who feel they don't have an appropriate voice in this privacy debate." As well as to, presumably, increase the sales of what SilencerCo is calling "the first commercially viable shotgun silencer."

There are, of course, a numbers of flaws in this general premise—like, for instance, is a suppressed shotgun really the optimal weapon for hunting drones? Also, why would there be a cluster of drones in the middle of the desert? That seems to be an especially wasteful use of surveillance resources. Mostly, though, given that the use of government drones on American soil is an issue that demands to be taken seriously, fantasizing about blowing them to pieces doesn't seem to lend itself being an appropriate voice in what should be an important and thoughtful debate.

Plus, not for nothing, but shooting down a drone is, by all accounts, almost impossibly hard to do.

But hey, sick silencer, Johnny.