The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 26 2014 4:16 PM

FAA Reports That Drones and Airplanes Keep Coming Close to Colliding

On Wednesday the Federal Aviation Administration released incident reports for roughly 25 in-air near-collisions between airplanes and small drones. The disclosure, which includes records dating back to June 1, was motivated by Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Washington Post and other news outlets.

As the FAA grapples publicly with the decision about how best to regulate drones, the revelation provides context for what the agency has been weighing internally. Pilots and air-traffic controllers are reporting an increasing number of concerning incidents related to small drones, including sightings near airports and no-fly zones, and close calls that almost lead to collisions. Previously the FAA had only publicly acknowledge one near-collision, which occured on March 22 when a US Airways plane almost hit a small drone at 2,300 feet over Florida.

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The Post reports that most of the incidents in its disclosure occurred near New York City and Washington, D.C., and writes, “The FAA data indicates that drones are posing a much greater hazard to air traffic than previously recognized.” And Greg Lynskey, a government relations manager for the Association of Air Medical Services, responded to the FAA release by saying, “I’m hoping this can get worked out before we have a catastrophic incident. ... It wouldn’t take much to bring down a helicopter. If a drone hits the tail rotor, that’d pretty much be it.”

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Nov. 26 2014 2:13 PM

Gun-Sensor Technology Could Make It Easier to Hold Cops Accountable for Shootings

Since the grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, Brown’s family has urged their supporters to work to put cameras on police officers. That could be a great step toward convicting officers who act abusively and adding transparency to cop-citizen interactions. However, the system is set up in a way where police officers have an advantage in cases brought against them, and body cams won’t fix everything.

But other technologies could further help level the playing field. Perhaps the most exciting is the Yardarm sensor, which is a chip that can be inserted into the handle of a gun to deliver data about when a firearm is outside of its holster, when it’s fired, what direction it is pointing, and where it is located. It connects to an officer's phone via Bluetooth, with an accompanying app, and encrypted data is sent to the company's servers and the police department. Reliable information about when, where, and how many times a gun was fired could make a big difference in a case like Darren Wilson's.

Nov. 26 2014 12:43 PM

Giving Thanks: That Time My Parents Watched My Tamagotchi During Every Day of Third Grade

There are lots of ways to kill a Tamagotchi. You can stop feeding it, stop cleaning it, or just generally stop caring about it. But there's something about that little pixelated blob of love that's hard to forget. Maybe because for many of us, Tamagotchi was the one true predecessor to a smartphone.

Pulling your Tamagotchi out of your pocket and interacting with it made you feel productive, engaged, and popular all at the same time. It was something to do if you were bored or needed to avoid eye contact. A bit like Game Boy but with an even lower barrier to entry, Tamagotchi was a whole world of amusement and reinforcement that could be with you all the time.

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In May 1997, when Bandai released Tamagotchi Generation One in the United States, AOL also unveiled Instant Messanger, and I turned 7. Each was a pivotal cultural moment in its own way, and the three taken together describe a lot about what it meant to grow up in the '90s. Real-time chat was moving socializing and friendship online, and kids used gadgets to bond with one another.  

Tamagotchi was an experiment in using emotions to attach people to devices. Your Tamagotchi needed you, it relied on you, it liked you! The toy was supposed to teach kids about responsibility but also capitalize on their sense of obligation to suck kids in and create a popular product. Which totally worked. Almost two decades later, there are Tamagotchi smartphone apps and even brand-new Tamagotchi generations. As Ashley Feinberg wrote in a Tamagotchi 2014 review on Gizmodo, this next wave is "The all new, revamped version of the very first thing you ever killed."

And everyone did let them die eventually. They weren't brutally murdered the way Furbies were (had to be), but Tamagotchis died digital deaths when kids got bored with or lost them. Except mine. Like every kid, I felt an instant bond with my blue and white Tamagotchi, given to me for Chanukah 1998. But there was a problem. This was before kids were bringing cellphones to school, so it was still easy and prudent for schools to categorically ban electronics. No Tamagotchis allowed in school.

And here's where digital love became real. My parents, who wouldn't buy our family a computer for another four years, asked me to teach them how to maintain the Tamagotchi so they could alternate days taking it to work while I was at school. Rather than let my pet die, they kept it with them throughout whatever it is grownups do during the day so it could be alive and waiting for me.

So, this year for Thanksgiving I'm grateful that my parents did that. It was far more memorable than any of the digital affection I felt from the Tamagotchi itself. And it made it easier to cope when one day my dad broke the news that he had placed my Tamagotchi on the roof of his car while he was looking for his keys, forgotten about it, and driven away. I think he felt bad about that for a long time, because at that point he was pretty invested.

Nov. 26 2014 9:19 AM

A Moment of Thanks for Earth’s Atmosphere

My family is traditional and requires everyone at the table on Thanksgiving to say what they’re thankful for. I always struggle with what to say. But if you’re an astronaut—besides getting back down to the ground safely—I imagine there’s a pretty common answer: the atmosphere.

On a day that’s supposed to be all about the big-picture ideals of peace and unity, I think we should look to the skies. No one understands gratitude better than an astronaut.

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Earth’s atmosphere is what makes life possible as we know it. When viewed from orbit, it’s impossibly thin—especially when compared to the vast nothingness of outer space.

So, the photo above caught my eye earlier this week when it was featured as NASA’s photo of the day. It’s a powerful reminder that something as mighty as a summer thunderstorm is itself just a blip in the thin envelope of molecules that protects us and makes all this possible. From NASA:

Astronauts often comment on the thinness of the Earth’s life-supporting envelope, and how it suggests the fragility of our planetary ecosystem. They also note that the number of atmospheric layers they can detect with their eyes is much greater than what their photographs show.

One of the earliest known implications of space travel noticed by returned astronauts is what author Frank White has called the “overview effect.” Again, from NASA:

“For the first time in my life, I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light: the atmosphere,” said Ulf Merbold, a German astronaut who flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983. “This was not the ‘ocean’ of air I had been told it was. … I was terrified by its fragile appearance.”

White has made the overview effect a life philosophy. He’s helped found the Overview Institute, an organization dedicated to immersive space-related art and media that will allow the rest of us Earth-bound landlubbers to experience the transcendent insights that, until now, has been possibly only by space travel.

While on the space station this July, German astronaut Alex Gerst noticed lights moving quickly down below. He snapped a photo—and soon realized he was watching rocket attacks over Gaza and Israel. He later wrote this on his European Space Agency blog:

Some things that on Earth we see in the news every day and thus almost tend to accept as a “given”, appear very different from our perspective. We do not see any borders from space. We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity.

If, just for a moment, we can understand how improbable our existence is and remember that we’re all dependent on one another, like it or not, then I believe anything is possible.

If you’re stuck in an airport this Thanksgiving, or if you find yourself needing a little inspiration during a break from the in-laws, take a moment to peruse this archive of full-disk images of Earth taken by astronauts or watch this 20-minute film on the overview effect featuring reflections from five astronauts.

Nov. 26 2014 7:48 AM

Your Thanksgiving Eve Snow Storm Liveblog

Nov. 25 2014 4:34 PM

People Say They Care About Cyber Security, but They Don’t Act Like It

Have you ever clicked a link to a fantastic-looking website, only to have that buzzkill browser message pop up, telling you the site might have malware? Be honest: How often do you listen, and how often do you scoff and continue anyway?

Ask people how careful they are about cyber security and malware, and they’ll probably say they’re pretty cautious. But their actual behavior doesn’t always correlate—in fact, a new study recently published in a special issue of the Journal of the Association for Information Systems found people can be surprisingly cavalier. Unless cyber security has been brought to the forefront of our minds, our behavior is often inconsistent with how much we say we care.

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Bonnie Anderson, Brock Kirwan and Anthony Vance, who are researchers at Brigham Young University, conducted their experiment with 62 participants. First, everyone took a pre-test and reported, among other things, how concerned they were about malware and cyber security. Weeks later, they performed the Iowa Gambling Task—an exercise frequently used to gauge decision-making and risk aversion. Kirwan measured the subjects’ brain responses to risk during the gambling task using EEG.

Finally, participants logged on to a website to classify images of Batman as either animations or photographs. They were told they were testing an algorithm’s accuracy in doing the same thing—but in reality, they were being tested. As they navigated from page to page, malware warnings intermittently popped up. If a participant ignored seven threats, a scary page popped up saying an Algerian hacker had broken in: “Say goodbye to your computer” appeared under a timer counting down from 10 seconds, complete with cackling skull and crossbones and an ominous Guy Fawkes mask.

To make sure the students had “skin in the game,” Vance said they were asked to use their own laptops. Unsurprisingly, the users who thought they were hacked were sufficiently freaked out. The study press release noted several participants alerted researchers that something bad had happened. Even participants who said they took cyber security seriously often cruised through malware warnings. Those who had the scare were more cautious afterwards—at which point their behavior matched their self-reported levels of concern.

Interestingly, subjects’ risk aversion, as calculated from the Iowa Gambling Task and EEG results, was a better predictor of their online cautiousness than their self-reported concern. Vance said EEG, which is recording of electrical activity along the scalp, is used routinely in research. But “EEG does not reliably measure emotions or intellectual activities,” said Selim Benbadis, a professor and director of the University of South Florida’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program. Benbadis, whose research and clinical interests include EEG, said the technology is “used routinely in neurology to help assess various neurologic diseases,” but says it can’t monitor brain responses to risk, or the Iowa Gambling Task.

But the EEG use seems peripheral to the study’s main finding: that regardless of how security-conscious subjects claimed they were, their behavior often disagreed.

It’s easy to forget about online security and other mundane hazards. With scare-giants like mass shootings and Ebola, who has the time or emotional bandwidth to worry about malware and other small nuisances? The problem, of course, is that your computer is far more likely to contract malware than you are to contract Ebola. And the good news is that most browsers are already programmed to prevent us from exposing our computers to catastrophe—all we have to do is actually listen.

Nov. 25 2014 4:15 PM

The BBC Is Working With a Transparency Group to Bring Uncensored News Into China

People are always looking for creative ways to get uncensored information in and out of China, and now transparency group GreatFire.org is working with the BBC to deliver the news organization’s Chinese-language reporting to people inside the country’s Great Firewall.

The Chinese government has been censoring BBC China content for years and also began blocking most of the English-language version last month during pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. But working with GreatFire.org should increase the availability of BBC content in China. The group uses a method it calls “collateral freedom” to serve content through a content delivery network (CDN) of mirror sites that the group claims is “unblockable.”

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The idea is to host the mirror sites through services that are so ubiquitous that it would be difficult, even for China, to justify blocking the entire domain. This technique has gained traction because China’s main mechanism for executing its censorship is using DNS spoofing to intentionally send users to the wrong IP addresses. GreatFire.org uses hosting options like Amazon Web Services to keep its mirror sites going.

In a blog post published Monday, GreatFire.org explained that its partnership with the BBC is specifically pegged to elections in Taiwan on Nov. 29. The goal is to present diverse information that’s written in Chinese for Chinese audiences. As GreatFire.org points out, a lot of English speakers in China already use VPNs and other workarounds to access foreign media, but if they don’t know how to do this or speak only Chinese, these backdoors don’t help much.

GreatFire.org’s mirroring apprach may not be a stable solution long-term. As Gigaom notes, the group reported censorship attempts on some of its mirror sites just last week. But for now it’s a clever workaround to try to get information into the country.

Nov. 25 2014 12:51 PM

Future Tense Happy Hour: The Many Faces of Anonymous

Anonymous, the anarchic digital collective known for everything from pranks to online vigilantism, is one of the Internet’s most notorious subcultures. Gabriella Coleman, a cultural anthropologist at McGill University and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, has spent years researching Anonymous—talking to the hackers themselves, and the law enforcement officers charged with finding them.

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11, Coleman will discuss her book with Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the ACLU, at a free happy hour event at the ASU Washington Center in Washington, D.C. Coleman and Soghoian will talk about what the darker corners of the Internet tell us about how we live online, and the future of digital activism.

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If you would like to attend, RSVP here.

Nov. 25 2014 12:11 PM

Totally Trippy Perfomance Art

Reprinted from

This article originally appeared in Wired.

Microfiche, crossword puzzles, and Morse Code don’t sound like the makings of a compelling live performance, but in the hands of Japanese maestro Ryoji Ikeda, these mundane materials become the core of a dynamic audio-visual spectacle called Superposition.

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The hour-long performance is something like a high-tech rave with a year’s worth of high school science class schizophrenically drawn upon as its raw material. Twenty small monitors sit on the front of a stage with one theater-sized screen stretching behind two performers. What plays out is a little bit like a frenetic, abstract version of the Eames film Powers of Ten. Imagery flips rapidly between star maps and models of subatomic particles. Words spelled out in a 1950s split-flap style and the occasional full-color image of the Earth from above only enhance the connection to the midcentury classic.

Ikeda is best known for his experimental musical compositions with cryptic titles like +/-. To make the visual component that complements Superposition’s chorus of electronic sounds, the Paris-based composer worked with a team of three programmers to fill the screens with monochromatic, generative visuals.

Though it’s driven by software, Superposition is meant to be a human experience. A pair of performers, Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould, are charged with interpreting the work. The duo acts like a variable in the software, tasked with merging the skill sets of DJs, Abstract Expressionist painters, and office drones.

Garin and Grould control Ikeda’s work through custom-made “instruments.” A Morse Code key is played in much the same way a concert pianist would play on a Steinway, except the result is an electronic staccato, with waveforms that criss-cross the screen like a game of pong. The noises sound random, but the performers are working off a prepared script, essentially sheet music, which dictates the messages sent to one another.

Superposition artfully combines human and machine capabilities. In one section, marbles are scattered on a platform, with their position interpreted into an image of a horizon presented in stroboscopic flashes. In his artist’s statement, Ikeda writes that Superposition was crafted to visualize the way we “understand the reality of nature on an atomic scale” and was “inspired by the mathematical notions of quantum mechanics.” You don’t need to worry about that though; just sit back and let the spectacle wash over you.

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Ryoji Ikeda

Superposition has been touring the world in a variety of formats for the past two years and is slated to appear at the Automne en Normandie festival in France on December 2nd 2014.

More from Wired:

Nov. 25 2014 12:11 PM

If You’re Protesting Today, or Any Day, You Should Know Your Cellphone Rights 

Regardless of what you’re protesting, if you head out to exercise your First Amendment rights, you will probably have a cellphone with you. You might be planning to take photos/videos with it or use it to contact people. But you might also have it just because you always have it. And if you have a cellphone with you at a protest, it’s good to know where you stand if law enforcement agents make demands related to the device.

The question of whether police could search a cellphone without a warrant during an arrest used to be somewhat ambiguous. But in June the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Riley v. California that police do need a warrant. This is good news for protesters, but in a heated moment law enforcement could still bend these rules.

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As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, “Increasingly, we keep our most sensitive communications and personal information on our cell phones,” and bringing one to a protest should be a carefully considered decision. EFF suggests bringing a temporary device to rallies if possible, so you still have access to all the tools you want without exposing your digital footprint.

If this isn’t an option, though, or you realize too late that you’ve brought your device without first making a plan, you can add a key code/password to your phone and set your phone’s home screen to lock very quickly when no one is using it. Don’t forget that a fingerprint lock alone may not be enough to secure your phone, because you could be compelled to use your finger to unlock it. Also, messaging with friends on a service that uses end-to-end encryption (like Wickr or now WhatsApp) can help keep the content of messages away from prying eyes.

While at the protest, you are allowed to photograph or take video so long as you are in a public space. On private property, rules may be slightly different, but in general law enforcement can’t view or delete media on your smartphone without your permission. Uploading media to a cloud service, live stream, or social network as you capture it is one measure you can take to make sure what you’re recording gets out there, and isn’t tampered with by law enforcement or anyone else.

If you are arrested, you have the right to remain silent and request your attorney. If police ask to view the contents of your phone without a warrant, you can decline, and you can refuse to provide your passcode. EFF notes, though, that, “just because the police cannot compel you to give up your password, that doesn’t mean that they can’t pressure you.” Having a temporary device and uploading everything as you capture it can make these situations a little less tense.

As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, Riley v. California addresses cellphones specifically, so it’s possible that other devices like standalone cameras could be held to a different standard. The ACLU says its interpretation is that “the constitution broadly prevents warrantless searches of your digital data,” though.

Protesting is a valuable expression of free speech in a democracy, but digital devices complicate it in a number of ways. Having a cellphone at a rally shouldn’t expose you to additional risk of privacy invasion, though. And if you give careful thought to protecting yourself, you can minimize this risk.

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