The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 22 2014 7:11 PM

Space Station 76 Is Bringing 1970s Futurism Back

Space Station 76 (trailer below) looks like tons of movies we’ve already seen. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars—you know the type. But it’s not a relic from another time. Space Station 76 is a current movie about what people in the past thought about the future, and what people today should think about what they thought. Phew.

The film, which stars Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, and Jerry O’Connell, is an R-rated comedy, but it looks like it also offers serious commentary about what future predictions say about the present they’re made in. In Space Station 76, people smoke, do yoga, and have alcoholic beverages brought to them by droids—it’s what life might have been like if the future that people imagined in the 1960s and ’70s actually came to fruition. Humans are still humans even if they live in space stations, and computers are still as fallible as the people who made them. (That’s a rule George Lucas respected—he has said that he wanted to make sure his alternate universe wasn’t sterile, or even clean.)


Since I write for a blog called Future Tense, I think about the future a lot. And no matter how much cool research I learn about or how many awesome gadgets I cover, I try to keep in mind that people who take themselves too seriously in the present are the ones who get made fun of by people the future. And that seems to be the overarching message of Space Station 76. New ideas and progress are great, but beware, smartwatches have been teetering on the line between awesome and ridiculous since the days of Dick Tracy, and even decades later it’s still not clear which way they’re going to go.

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July 22 2014 5:28 PM

Luigi’s Death Stare Joins the Canon of Classic Memes

Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8 for Wii U is a big hit. Released in May, it has won positive reviews and a big fan base. But the meme that has emerged from the game has nothing to do racing or Mario himself—it’s all about Luigi’s death stare. And Nintendo’s new ad for Mario Kart 8 (below) is definitely milking the craze.

In the promotional footage of Kart 8, when Luigi executes a good move, like bumping another driver or hitting them with a shell, he makes a weirdly evil, even maniacal face. I always thought there was something a little bit sinister about Luigi’s engine room in the original Mario Party, but this confirms it. Maybe he resents being portrayed as Mario’s dopey sidekick in game after game.


Gif by Lily Hay Newman.


Whatever the explanation, Luigi’s death stare supports a meme theory I’ve had for awhile now: It's always funny when someone (or an animal) looks back over his shoulder at you. Dramatic chipmunk couldn’t have reached such notoriety without that unintentional physical comedy. Even robots channel it a little bit. All that side eye really shows that Luigi and the chipmunk mean business.

July 22 2014 4:51 PM

The MH17 Disaster Demonstrates the Dangers of “Right to Be Forgotten”

Sometimes we don’t want to forget—and in fact are compelled to remember. Take, for example, the following statement posted to Russia’s VKontakte website (think of it as a Russian Facebook) on July 17: "In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured." So claimed Igor Girkin, a Ukranian separatist known as “Strelkov,” before reports of the apparent shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all passengers and crew. As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, after these reports emerged, the post was deleted, an unsurprising move by a militant who apparently just discovered that the military transport plane he thought he had downed was in fact a commercial airliner in which almost 300 innocent lives were violently destroyed.

So should Girkin have the legal right to delete his inaccurate statement once it became available on the Internet? It would be nearly impossible for Girkin to invoke such a right, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, it bears asking: Should we, as a society, want the right to choose to “forget” this piece of information supplied by Girkin? Those two questions, which focus on similar facts but are in fact very different questions, are at the heart of the relatively new and nebulous “right to be forgotten” as most recently articulated by a European Union court in May.


The “right to be forgotten” is really the “right to ask that information be misplaced.” That is because that at its core, the “right to be forgotten,” as articulated by the European Commission, is an individual’s right to request that a search engine remove “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” personal information from its search results. This right is balanced against “freedom of expression and of the media,” and is examined on a “case-by-case” basis. In other words, if used, information becomes less “forgotten” than purposely de-indexed and misplaced.

Enter the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine which scrapes the Internet and stores copies of webpages. Although it is not a complete record of the Internet, it fortunately did happen to copy Girkin’s (and other) pages, showing before-and-after versions of events. Thus, we have evidence that helps policymakers, diplomats, and the public understand who might be behind this horrific act. But a “right to be forgotten” more robust than what the EU has now could functionally destroy the Internet Archive, with significant consequences for policy and world affairs.

The “right to be forgotten” implicates real-life concerns about what and how much information is available to governments, corporations, policymakers, and the public. This right is at the heart of our ongoing online privacy debates: How much information do we have to share with others, and how can we control what others know about us?

But complete information, including that which one may prefer misplaced, is also about making good decisions. And while the Internet Archive does not present a complete or uniformly accurate picture of the Internet, it is nonetheless a useful tool that helps us get there. Deleting information from the searchable Internet, whether Girkin’s first-person radical boasting or third-person smear campaigns, even for good reasons, can also be viewed as a modern way of burying evidence. In an information-driven economy and society, that is a serious matter. Indeed, thorough evidence and information, or the lack thereof, can have impact far beyond the individual, as it is a necessary prerequisite to good decision-making.

Do we really need a “right to misplace the evidence?” In a world where decision-makers should strive for complete and accurate information, and often fail in their quest, we need to be careful about the rights that we grant ourselves. If we need such a right, should this right run differently depending upon the identity of the speaker, who wants the information and/or how it will be used? Reflecting a modern devotion to complete information, the answer to both questions must be “maybe, but we need more evidence.”

July 22 2014 1:55 PM

Japan Says That What the 2020 Olympics Needs Is Robot Athletes

It’s fun to follow the Olympics, but something is missing. It’s certainly not human narratives or drama. It’s not excitement. It’s robots. Where are the robots? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the same question, and since Japan is hosting the 2020 summer games in Tokyo, he’s in a position to do something about it.

Agence France-Presse reports that Abe is laying groundwork. He announced last week that Japan is putting together a task force to expand the country’s robotics industry as well as the market for robots. Japan’s Jiji Press agency reports that Abe said, “We want to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy.”


But most importantly, he said he wants to organize a Robot Olympics. “In 2020 I would like to gather all of the world's robots and aim to hold an Olympics where they compete in technical skills,” Abe said, according to the AFP. Between robot-assisted parathletes at Cybathlon and the Robot Olympics, this is going to be the decade of robot sports. Finally.

July 22 2014 12:33 PM

James Ellis Is Blowing Up on Facebook! Wait, Who Is This Dude?

We’re all vaguely aware that Facebook’s algorithms are working behind the scenes to select what we see in our news feeds. It’s not a perfect system, but basically, when photos of a friend you haven’t talked to in years start popping up everywhere (she got a new pet hedgehog!) it’s not completely random.

If you’ve been seeing videos lately shared by one James Ellis, though, that's a little weirder.


Ellis is a fitness model, actor, and generally very in shape person. According to his Facebook page, he's 5-foot-11, weighs 185 pounds, enjoys outdoor sports, and is a “follower of JESUS CHRIST.” He won the World Beauty Fitness & Fashion show in 2011 and really likes Greek yogurt. Cool, but who is he? Why is he showing up everywhere?

It’s unclear. Ellis has almost 1.4 million Facebook followers, and the videos he posts daily (“On this page you can expect to see a ton of posts each day in the form of text, photos, & video”) get hundreds or thousands of shares. More and more people seem to be noticing his videos popping up in their feeds, even though they've never heard of him and don't like his page. Every few months he uploads a video to his YouTube channel featuring himself, and they have views in the thousands, but nothing like the exposure he’s getting on Facebook.

The videos he plugs are generic Web-friendly clips with descriptions like “Testing the reflexes of seven kittens..,” “Can't stop laughing at this little dude’s reaction to his mom blowing her nose..,” or “I would do this.. Goats, just enjoying life..” They're not usually fitness videos and they almost always come with the disclaimer “**** VIDEO FOUND ONLINE. All credits to video owner.” So basically he’s using other people’s content to build his brand.

The posts almost all have those weird double periods, which might just be the way Ellis types. But it could also be that there’s some auto-post feature set up for his public wall. Maybe he’s getting paid to circulate these videos. He didn’t respond to my request for comment.

Facebook hasn’t commented on Ellis’ sudden prominence, either, but if it does, I’ll update here. Apparently Ellis just shot two episodes of Days of Our Lives, so you can see him there. Oh, and it's also his birthday today. In the words of one commenter, “Happy Birthday you Beast!” Maybe he’ll get to celebrate with some takedown notices for sharing other people’s protected videos.

A Facebook demigod.

Screencap from JamesEllisFit.

July 22 2014 10:08 AM

The MH17 Investigation Is Not Doomed

Rarely has a major commercial plane-crash investigation been as blatantly compromised as that of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. According to various reports, the plane’s wreckage has been tampered with. Bodies have been moved. And gun-wielding separatists have blocked investigators from the scene.

That’s all in stark contrast to what is supposed to happen when a commercial jetliner goes down.


First, according to aviation experts, the scene is secured so that only the relevant officials can enter. Second, every single piece of evidence is marked and photographed. Finally, says Ross Aimer of Aero Consulting, the wreckage is transported in an orderly fashion to a large hangar, where investigators painstakingly reconstruct the scene to examine in greater detail.​​

There’s a reason these things are important, explains James Hall of Hall & Associates, who chaired the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. “You never know what information may or may not be useful” in ascertaining the cause of a crash.

For instance, when TWA Flight 800 went down off of Long Island in 1996, investigators spent the better part of a year recovering nearly the whole plane from the ocean. Then they reconstructed it to prove that it had not been taken down by a rocket or missile. In that process, Hall says, “almost every piece of the aircraft was important to the final conclusion.” The final NTSB report, published four years after the crash, identified an explosion in a fuel tank as the likely cause.

With MH17, such a detailed reconstruction will be impossible. Yet that doesn’t mean the investigation is doomed if it’s handled properly from here on out, Hall and other experts told me. It turns out that taking a plane down with a surface-to-air missile tends to leave a lot of evidence—probably too much for even a determined band of tamperers to hide.

Assuming the flight was in fact shot down, as President Obama has stated, here are five different forms of evidence that could be used to tie the wreckage to a specific type of weapon:  

1. The “black box”: Ukrainian rebels on Tuesday turned over the plane's data recorders to Malaysian officials. Assuming they haven’t been damaged or hacked somehow—which would be very difficult to do, according to Aimer—the flight data recorder and cockpit voice reporter should provide useful evidence. That’s true even if the plane broke apart in midair, in which case the black box would likely have been separated from the main cabin and stopped recording. For one thing, the flight data recorder could help rule out any kind of technical difficulties prior to the explosion. For another, Hall says investigators may be able to identify the type of explosive device by its “sound signature.”

Malaysia Flight 17 crash scene
Pro-Russia militants initially blocked access to the scene.

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

2. Signs of shrapnel in the plane wreckage: Surface-to-air missiles like the “Buk” SA-11 typically don’t hit their targets directly, aviation expert Robert W. Mann told me. Instead, they track them by radar and then blow up when they’re in close proximity to the plane, sending shrapnel in multiple directions. That should leave holes, pockmarks, and shredding in the fuselage that bear the weapon’s imprint.

And, in fact, the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers reported Tuesday that photographs of the downed plane show just these sorts of markings. “Most of the smaller holes look to be caused by a high-velocity projectile, as opposed to simple shearing or tearing caused by the forceful separation of the panel from the airframe,” an analyst at IHS Jane’s told the Times.

3. Signs of shrapnel on the victims’ bodies: Shrapnel that penetrates the plane could end up hitting the passengers, potentially either lodging inside them or leaving entry and exit wounds.

4. Residue from the explosion itself: If a warhead exploded in close enough proximity to the plane, it should leave tiny bits of chemical residue that would help confirm the nature of the weapon.

5. Military satellite imagery: The Russian Defense Ministry has said that there was an American satellite flying over eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash, and it has called on the U.S. government to release the relevant imagery. The U.S. may be reluctant to do that. But it could well be the basis for the conclusions the Obama administration has already drawn as to the cause of the crash. And it has the advantage of not being able to be tainted by any tampering at the scene.

It’s a shame that the messy aftermath of the Flight 17 crash will prevent the sort of meticulous investigation that this sort of tragedy deserves. And the victims’ families are justifiably outraged at the mistreatment of the bodies.

The only good news is that, if a missile really did take the plane out of the sky, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone tampering with the scene to remove all the smoking guns. The best they could hope for, it seems, is a veneer of plausible deniability should the remaining evidence point in their direction.

 “You can put together a highly sufficient circumstantial case” even with a compromised scene, says Mann. “The problem is, you’re never going to convince the people who don’t want to be convinced.”

July 21 2014 6:32 PM

Facebook Has a Magical New Bookmark-Like Feature for Posts You Want to Save

Opening Facebook has gotten a little overwhelming. The company wants its users sharing every kind of content imaginable, and our cluttered, endless news feeds certainly reflect that. So how do you weed out the good from the mass of random? Facebook has a new feature to save you: save.

It could be genuinely useful for all of those links and recommendations your Facebook friends are spewing every day. Save will now be part of the dropdown menu for every Facebook post, and you add things to a private list to look at later. Facebook will also occasionally surface your saved posts in your news feed, so you don't forget that they're there. 


Your saved list, which is in the More tab on iOS and Android apps, and the left rail on Web-based Facebook, will be organized by category and let you share items with other users or move things to an archive list. It might seem like a minor feature addition, but if you think about how much content we all view on Facebook every day, it’s long overdue. The question is, will save become a niche feature, or will it be central to how people use Facebook? I’m hoping it ends up acting like Twitter’s favorite so I can use it to keep track of all the embarrassing statuses people post.

July 21 2014 4:32 PM

Judge Gives Police Total Access to Suspect’s Inbox

Last Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein issued a controversial ruling granting police a warrant to search the entirety of a suspect’s Gmail inbox for incriminating evidence. On its face, the judgment might not seem particularly startling. But if more courts adopt Gorenstein’s dangerous logic, we may soon see an unprecedented erosion in digital privacy.

Here’s the thing about virtual searches: They aren’t all that different from physical searches. When a magistrate issues a search warrant, she specifies what items can be searched for and what areas can be searched. There’s no real reason the same shouldn’t be true when police want to search a computer or an inbox. Magistrates could, in theory, provide law enforcement with certain keywords names to search or folders to scour. Doing so would protect an individual’s entire cache of documents, images, and data from being invaded—while allowing police to zero in on the evidence they hope to find.


But that isn’t what Gorenstein, a federal judge, did in this case, which stems from a money-laundering investigation. Instead, Gorenstein gave police unrestricted access to the suspect’s emails, specifying no specific parameters for their search. In doing so, Gorenstein furthered an alarming trend: Magistrate judges have begun treating computers as single physical entities—like a file cabinet—and given police carte blanche to search through the whole thing. The problem here is obvious. A file cabinet, no matter how big, has a limited number of files. But a hard drive might have thousands upon thousands of files, each of which could contain information of a trove of highly personal information. Inboxes do, too. Hard drives and inboxes, then, aren’t really like a file cabinet—they’re like a whole house filled with information tucked in every nook and cranny.

Most magistrates would be reluctant to grant a warrant that allowed police to search every single space in every room of a house. In fact, such a warrant would tread dangerously close to the “general warrants”—an unlimited license to search and seize—that the Framers banished with the Fourth Amendment. So why should a digital search be any different? In defending broad virtual warrants, judges usually harp on the fact that computer and inboxes have vast quantities of scattered, often hidden data. (Gorenstein noted that few criminals log their illicit activities in a folder titled “drug records.”) As a result, these judges argue, police must be able to search every digital alcove they can find. The invoice from your last heroin sale might be tucked in a folder titled “Grandma’s 80th Birthday Party.”

But this is deeply faulty logic. First, physical items can be concealed, too; that doesn’t necessarily give police authority to rifle through every single drawer in a house. Second, although computers hold more potentially incriminating material than a file cabinet might, they’re also easier to search. When a judge issues a warrant to search a hard drive or inbox, she might limit it to data accessed on certain dates or containing certain searchable key words. Or she might permit officers to examine folders but not their contents, and request another warrant to search a suspicious folder. (Courts have attempted these approaches, to moderate success.)

Ultimately, the Supreme Court will surely have to step in to draw the contours of our rights of digital privacy. And when the court does rule, don’t expect it to follow Gorenstein’s logic. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick recently pointed out, the justices really are trying to apply the Fourth Amendment reasonably and consistently to our more personal and complex gadgets. In the last two years, they’ve limited the scope of both GPS and cellphone searches. Reviving the much-reviled general warrant for the digital age, as Gorenstein hopes to do, probably won’t fly with this court.

July 21 2014 3:07 PM

Even iMessage Isn’t Safe From Spam

We all want the text message spam to stop. It’s enough with the strange phone numbers and flash sales. No one wants to buy or win a Gucci handbag from a text message. Do you hear that, spammers? This is not how people shop for luxury goods.

And yet! Instead of packing up the knockoff Prada bags and Oakley sunglasses, spammers are using a new approach and sending their links and exclamation marks over iMessage. Last week, the IT security firm Cloudmark released an analysis that shows a rise in spam being sent on Apple's messaging service.


The report shows that many people surveyed in big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and New York get their text spam from the same large-scale campaigns. And in New York, for example, almost of half of text message spam comes over iMessage. Apple's service is what’s called an over-the-top layer on normal SMS texting that allows iMessage to use mobile data or Wi-Fi for connection. As a result, the messages send for free, so spammers can avoid fees (especially hefty international texting fees). And they can send as many messages as they want. Great.

If you're getting these pesky messages, don't tap the links or reply. And though Apple doesn't have a fix in place for iMessage spam, you can report “unwanted messages” to help keep your inbox clean. Fancy people don't let fancy friends fall for un-fancy text scams.

July 21 2014 3:04 PM

Cutting-Edge Minivan Technology Lets Parent Yell at Kids Extra Loudly

The newest version of Toyota’s Sienna minivan is the company’s most creative and family-friendly yet. There is, says the press release, an optional Dual-View, Blu-Ray rear seat entertainment system to make the car “a kid-favorite destination.” There is a “pull-down conversation mirror” that allows parents to check on passengers in the back without contorting themselves awkwardly. Oh, and there is Driver Easy Speak, which uses a microphone to amplify the driver’s voice through the rear speakers, so that he or she can better scream at the kids. Call it a creative, frictionless yelling experience.

Driver Easy Yell, as this innovation should be called, is necessary because “today’s parents are embracing their life stage and those relatable family moments that make us laugh and feel connected,” said Toyota Division marketing vice president Jack Hollis. When, in the midst of a relatable family moment, you feel so connected to your children that you wish to scare their pants off, Driver Easy Yell lets you do just that. The company claims that its latest feature will make it easier for parents to communicate with rear passengers without raising their voices. This “communication” line is clearly a pretext, however, because Easy Yell only goes in one direction—the backseat will not be miked, the revolution will not be amplified. Plainly, Toyota wants to help you terrorize your misbehaving kids by booming rebukes at them in the implacable Voice of God. In the next version, the car will make flames appear to erupt out of your forehead.


What kind of parent would use Driver Easy Yell on their kids? All of them, at least according to an unscientific (but unanimous!) survey of moms and dads in the office. Some representative replies included: “I’d use it if it came standard, but I wouldn’t pay more for it. … I’m pretty good at yelling at my kids” (from a father of two), “I’d use it” (from a mother of two) and “only to occasionally terrify them” (from a dad of two).  

The pricing and availability of the 2015 Toyota Sienna have not yet been announced, but an auto industry analyst told AP she thinks Toyota is on the right track spicing up the perennially unfashionable minivan with intriguing features. Meanwhile, driver Easy Yell offers four distinct volume settings: Ann Coulter, Wizard of Oz, Agatha Trunchbull, and Asmodeus, Lord of Darkness.