The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM

Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears

The children of one small town in northern Canada are on the front lines of climate change. In Arviat (map), a hamlet of 2,300 people in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, that means no outdoor trick-or-treating this year for the first time.

Instead of going door-to-door, kids in Arviat will instead spend their holiday inside the town’s community hall, which will feature a haunted house, face painting, and plenty of candy.

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Over the last several years, shore ice has diminished along the western edge of Hudson Bay, forcing the annual polar bear migration closer and closer to town. Bear prefer to be as far out on the ice as possible, to get closer to seals and fish. Less ice means there’s nowhere for the bears to go but straight through town, in many cases. Hudson Bay has warmed by about three degrees Celsius—more than three times the global rate—since the 1990s.

That means bear-human run-ins have become increasingly common. Arviat is now a town under siege by polar bears. According to an interview with Leo Ikakhik, Arviat’s polar bear monitor, no one has ever been injured by a polar bear there, although one attacked a sled dog last September. Still, a deadly encounter is a very real possibility: "[U]nfortunately, polar bear-human conflicts are very likely going to increase in many parts of the circumpolar Arctic as climate warming progresses," an expert told BBC Nature in 2011. During peak bear season—October—Ikakhik spots as many as seven or eight bears a day, which is worrisome. The World Wildlife Fund helped support the town's construction of electric fences around its perimeter and hired Ikakhik, actions that have brought down the rate of self-defense bear kills by freaked-out townspeople.

"Picture 1,200 kids going door to door in Arviat in the middle of polar bear season," Steve England, the town’s senior administrative officer told the CBC. "It's a pretty obvious conclusion of what tragedies could come out of that."

Towns are few and far between in far northern Canada, but the mayor of Churchill, Manitoba—which is about 150 miles south of Arviat and calls itself the “polar bear capital of the world”—has some advice to kids preparing for indoor trick-or-treating: Don’t dress up as a seal.

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Oct. 20 2014 1:51 PM

Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books? A Future Tense Event.

We've been saying that Amazon has revolutionized books ever since the company first enabled us to order a book late at night in our PJs ... and at a discount. But Amazon’s impact is increasingly being felt not only by readers, but by authors, publishers, and editors as well. Once merely an online book retailer, Amazon is arguably becoming the most influential arbiter of publishable content, and a threat to the traditional author-publisher-reader intermediation. There is no disputing that Amazon will play an outsize role in shaping the future of books, but only time will tell whether its endgame is a desirable destination for book culture.

On Wednesday, Oct. 29, Future Tense and New America NYC will host a group of diverse stakeholders—an author, publisher, bookstore owner, and technology journalist—for a conversation about the future of books. The event will be held at New America NYC, at 199 Lafayette St., Suite 3B, and will begin at 6:30 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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Participants

Hugh Howey
Author, the WOOL series

Manoush Zomorodi
Host and managing editor, New Tech City, WNYC

Lucas Wittmann
Executive editor and associate publisher, Regan Arts

Sarah McNally
Owner, McNally Jackson Books

Nick Thompson
Editor, NewYorker.com

Oct. 20 2014 12:54 PM

The Earth Just Had Its Warmest “Year” on Record

A few days ago, I told you that—according to NASA data—we just finished the warmest six-month streak on record. Welp, it just got worse.

According to data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month was the warmest September on record globally. What’s more—and here’s the kicker—the NOAA says the Earth has just completed its warmest 12-month period on record. From the NOAA:

The past 12 months—October 2013–September 2014—was the warmest 12-month period among all months since records began in 1880, at 0.69°C (1.24°F) above the 20th century average. This breaks the previous record of +0.68°C (+1.22°F) set for the periods September 1998–August 1998, August 2009–July 2010; and September 2013–August 2014.
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Though this record-setting “year” is likely to go unheralded compared with a calendar year record, it’s actually more impressive statistically. (Each calendar year contains a dozen 12-month-period starting points. Starting the year in January is completely arbitrary.) But, don’t fret, the NOAA says we’re still on pace to beat the calendar year record in 2014, too.

On Monday, the NOAA also announced that global oceans are again record-warm—the third time this year that ocean temperatures have soared to new heights. The most recent record was set just last month. Ocean warming has implications for the health of coral reefs, sea level rise, and weather patterns worldwide.

What’s most shocking about our planet’s current warm stretch is that the heat records are being broken without an El Niño—the periodic oscillation that warms the Pacific Ocean. But, one of those is on the way, too—and it might stick around for a while.

So far in 2014, record-setting hot spots have been scattered almost uniformly across the globe, from Alaska to California to Cuba to Scandinavia to Brazil to Australia. A couple of exceptions: The eastern United States has been one of the coldest spots on the planet, relatively speaking. So has coastal Antarctica, where record amounts of sea ice have been recorded—strangely, also possibly connected to global warming.

Oct. 20 2014 12:33 PM

Librarians Are Dedicated to User Privacy. The Tech They Have to Use Is Not.

Adobe has made it extremely easy for unwanted eyes to read over the shoulders of library patrons. Last week reports surfaced about how Adobe’s Digital Editions e-book software collects and transmits information about readers in plain text. That insecure transmission allows the government, corporations, or potential hackers to intercept information about patron reading habits, including book title, author, publisher, subject, description, and every page read.

But the Adobe scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. Libraries sign contracts with technology companies to bring services to patrons all the time, and those contracts are not always favorable to library patrons. Whether it's an agreement with an ISP to provide the library with Internet access, the publisher of a database of scholarly articles and primary source documents, or a children's educational game vendor, these contracts are both commonplace and a relatively new development.

But problems arise when those contracts allow vendors to collect large amounts of user information, especially where, as we saw last week, companies don’t always handle that information responsibly.

Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM

There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Re-Enactments

Lots of people have hobbies ... but drone racing is a particularly awesome one. Especially when it’s a contest that's reminiscent of a Star Wars: Episode I pod race. Come on.

The Airgonay drone club, based in the French Alps, organized a race in the forest for lightweight drones that bob, weave, and generally fly at up to 40 miles per hour. These are remote-controlled drones, not autonomous, so operators have on-board cameras to see where their devices are going and take snazzy in-race footage.

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The course is a 492-foot loop on public land in Argonay, France, and Gigaom notes that the racers had a permit for the event. Herve Pellarin, the president of the club, says in the video that he is hoping that putting information about the race online will help spread similar drone events.

Like in Star Wars: Episode I, the race is three laps. But there’s less Jar Jar Binks in this showdown, so that’s an improvement.

Oct. 17 2014 4:44 PM

Tech Time Warp: Get a Glimpse of the Lost Touchscreen Tablet of 1992

Reprinted from

**

This article first appeared in Wired.

This was a good week if you’re a gadget geek. First, Google unveiled a media streaming device and two new tablets, and then Apple graced the world with the iPad Mini 7.

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But the true gadget geek will tell you that none of this compares to The Star7, one of the great lost gadgets of tech history.

Designed by Sun Microsystems, the Star7 appeared in the early ’90s—a handheld touchscreen device that predated the iPhone by fifteen years. No, the thing never made it to market. But it was real. In the video below, you can see the Star7 in all its glory, demoed by James Gosling, the same guy who created the Java programming language. It offers everything from a gesture interface to wireless networking.

It just goes to show that many things that seem like new ideas are actually improvements of ideas that have existed for a long time. Heck, some of tools rolled in the Star7 had already been around for several years. HP had a touchscreen computer back in 1983, and Psion was selling a handheld computer as early as 1984.

Nonetheless, the Star7 was ahead of its time. The Apple Newton wouldn’t arrive for another year, and it only had a monochrome display.

Sun had created a special engineering team to prepare for the “next wave” of computing, and they decided to focus on the convergence between computers and home entertainment systems, such as the television. Soon, they launched something called the “Green Project” to create a system of devices that could communicate with each other wirelessly—sort of a precursor of today’s “Internet of Things” idea. The Star7—also called the *7—was to be the center of the system.

Although it’s often described as a PDA today, the Star7 was actually more of a tablet computer, one specifically designed to interact with your television set. You could browse a television guide, pick a show, and then drag its icon onto a picture of a VCR to play it. But it was more than just a high-tech remote control. You could also share content between Stay7 devices. Gosling shows off a tool called “white boards,” which not only let scrawl handwritten notes, but drag stuff to someone else’s device.

The prototype was finished in 1992, and Sun began shopping the idea around to cable television companies, but couldn’t find any takers. “It was interactive, and users could read and write information into the system,” Gosling was quoted as saying in a story originally posted on Sun’s site. “But the companies didn’t want to lose that much control.”

Although the Star7 was never produced, one major product came out of the Green Project: the Java programming language. Gosling and his team created the language, initially called Oak, that enabled them to write software that could run on a wide variety of different hardware architectures.

Today, Sun is dead, eaten whole by Oracle. But Java is bigger than ever. And the Star7 still rocks.

More from Wired:

Oct. 17 2014 1:59 PM

MasterCard Is Making a Credit Card With an Embedded Fingerprint Reader

Apple Pay and other mobile payment services are trying to change the credit card system we currently rely on. Instead of carrying hunks of plastic in our wallets, everything could be centralized and secured on our smartphones—perhaps using a fingerprint sensor as one layer of protection. It sounds like a cool future, but it’s going take a while to get there. In the meantime, MasterCard has a plan for an incremental step.

Working with fingerprint technology company Zwipe, MasterCard is rolling out a payment card with a fingerprint reader built in. The card doesn’t have a magnetic strip, though. It uses an EMV secure chip popular in European credit cards (and slowly gaining traction in the United States) to allow contactless payment by tapping the card against a terminal, or payment by inserting the card into a chip reader.

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Here’s the crucial component: For either payment method to work, you have to have your thumb covering the fingerprint sensor to verify your identity against the biometric data stored on the card. Instead of signing something or entering a pin, the card tells the terminal that you are the same person who holds the account and that the transaction can go through.

MasterCard and Zwipe did a pilot of the fingerprint card in Norway, and now they’re moving ahead with refining the card prototype used there and getting the system ready for release in 2015. In the prototypes the card had an onboard battery, but in the final version the card will be powered by wireless charging from the terminal to do the fingerprint read and data transmission.

Fingerprint sensors are becoming more ubiquitous on electronic devices, but having one on your credit card seems like an easy way to add extra security to what is clearly an insecure system.

Oct. 17 2014 1:06 PM

Another Polar Vortex-Filled Winter? Forecasters Say “Maybe?”

The National Weather Service, AccuWeather, and the Weather Channel all released their annual winter outlooks this week. They were all promptly torn to shreds by Gawker. Writing on the Vane, Gawker’s weather vertical, here’s the inimitable Dennis Mersereau:

NOAA released their long-range forecast this morning which calls for a warmer-than-average west and cooler- and wetter-than-average south, treating everyone else in the country to a wordier version of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
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He continues:

[M]ajor snowstorms are notoriously fickle—along the East Coast, especially, one town could receive a foot of snow while a town ten miles to the west gets nothing but a cold rain. The people who got the snow will remember it as a brutal winter, but the people who got the rain won't remember the storm at all. You can't predict that months in advance. Hell, it's hard to predict that days or hours in advance sometimes.

What was released this week was not a 90-day weather forecast. Instead, seasonal forecasts aim just to show a tilt in the odds. And at that meager task, these kinds of outlooks do show historical skill—at least the government and research organizations that make their verification data publicly available. (The Weather Channel and AccuWeather do not.) These folks are hardly the Farmer’s Almanac. There is some science at work here.

Here are the highlights:

  • The Weather Channel cites its own research linking above-average October snowpack in Siberia with a breakdown in the polar vortex later in the winter. Guess what? This year’s October snows in Siberia have been through the roof, running ahead of even last year’s near-record pace. Other forecasters have started to pick up on this correlation in recent years, too.
  • The National Weather Service points to a weak El Niño signal as evidence that West Coast drought will continue, perhaps even strengthening from northern California to the Pacific Northwest. On the East Coast, the weather service is noncommittal, though it hints at an increased likelihood of coastal storms along East Coast by  calling for above-average winter precipitation there.
  • AccuWeather, big and bold as usual, is calling for the polar vortex cold snaps to “slip down into the [Northeast] from time to time,” though not as persistently as last winter. Its outlook, which last year called for “record-breaking warmth,” for the Tennessee Valley (a prediction that wasn’t even close), is switching its tune this year: If you live down South, be prepared for lots of ice this winter.

Seasonal weather forecasting has advanced to the point where the skill is comparable to a 6-8 day weather forecast: better than random guessing, but not quite something you can bank on. The predictions are used extensively by people like water managers in California who need to know how much water to release in dwindling reservoirs, or the Department of Transportation in Minnesota, which needs to know if it should stock up on road salt. Seasonal forecasts can tell you if the odds are tilted for or against cold or drought.

Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, which has pioneered the relatively new science of long-range forecasts, has a database of its global forecast skill since 1999. (Disclaimer: I used to work there, but not in the seasonal forecasts section.) Historical accuracy of the leading suite of seasonal forecast models used by National Weather Service is also available online.

The forecasts work primarily by tracking the development of slow-moving patterns of ocean temperature and then linking them with historical shifts in global weather. It’s a bit like how Target predicts you’re having a baby when you buy a bunch of unscented lotion and cotton balls: The ocean-atmosphere correlations have predictive skill when coupled with proven theories of how heat and moisture make their way around the planet over a timescale of weeks-to-months.

Forecasts for the December through March season have been among the IRI’s best performing outlooks of the entire year. During El Niño years (like 2014 should be), that accuracy increases even further. In the United States, there’s a swath of especially high winter-season skill from California to the East Coast.

FT-141017-winter3
A skill map of seasonal temperature forecasts issued by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society for the December to February season.

Image: IRI

Looking under the hood at this winter’s forecast, five of the eight models the National Weather Service uses show a colder than average January to March along the East Coast.

FT-141017-winter2
Temperature forecasts for January to March.

Image: NOAA

Six of the eight models show a wetter than average winter in the East.

FT-141017-winter1
Precipitation forecasts for January to March.

Image: NOAA

And, as we all know, cold + water falling from the sky usually equals snow.

Oct. 17 2014 12:06 PM

"Safety Check" Is a Great Example of How Facebook Can Make Itself Useful

We’ve known for a long time that Facebook is no longer cool. In a recent survey of teenagers, fewer than half said they use Facebook.

So far that loss of cachet hasn’t seemed to affect the company’s overall growth. As I’ve argued many times over the years, Facebook’s long-term success doesn’t hinge on its trendiness among teens. It hinges on whether the social network can graduate from a procrastination tool to a utility.

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What can a post-cool Facebook do to make itself indispensible, besides serving as a more colorful, 21st-century version of the White Pages? A new feature called Safety Check is a promising sign that it’s working to figure that out.

When a major disaster hits, like an earthquake or a flood, Facebook’s Safety Check feature will push a notification to the smartphones of users in the affected area.  It will prompt them to click a button that says either “I’m safe” or “I’m not in the area.” That update will go on their Facebook news feeds, and will also be collected in a database that their friends and family can search in order to check on them.

Facebook says the idea grew out of a “disaster message board” project started by its engineers in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  Whenever such disasters happen, the company said in a press release, “we see people, relief organizations, and first responders turn to Facebook in the aftermath” to find out who’s affected and who’s OK.

This is a very smart way to capitalize on what may be Facebook’s greatest asset: the sheer size of its user base. Facebook’s near-ubiquity among Internet users in many regions of the world puts it in a unique position to compile a comprehensive database of status updates. It may not cover absolutely everyone, but it would make a great first stop for anyone hoping to confirm at a glance that their loved ones are alive and well.

Safety Check might irk Facebook holdouts and others who dislike feeling pressured to log into the social network in order to allay their friends’ worries. For what it’s worth, though, I can’t imagine it will be so widely used that your loved ones will panic if they don’t see your name on there in the event of a disaster. Rather, the people who find it convenient will use it, and those who don’t will find other ways to let people know they’re not dead.

A bigger potential hitch is that major disasters often knock out Internet and cell service. Still, it helps that Facebook’s Safety Check lets people mark their friends as safe.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I and many others were worried about one friend who we knew was living in a building that had been flooded. We assumed she was all right, but no one could confirm it because we couldn’t reach her. My wife and I ended up making a two-hour trek through the flood zone to track her down in person. Fortunately, she was fine, and we quickly put the word out on Facebook that she was in good health and spirits. Those who saw the update were grateful and relieved, but concerned queries continued to trickle in. Safety Check would have made it much easier to put all of her friends and family at ease.

Believe it or not, Facebook is also working on an answer to the Internet-connectivity problem. It's one of several companies, along with Google (see video below), that are developing drones and other flying objects that can beam down Wi-Fi from overhead.

Previously in Slate:

Oct. 17 2014 11:11 AM

The Pentagon’s Climate Change Plan Is Great. But Will It Be Easy to Ignore?

When the Pentagon released a new “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” on Monday, the backlash was quick and somewhat predictable. “Americans who might die at the hands of the Islamic State,” a Wall Street Journal editorial lamented, “won’t care that [Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel is mobilizing against melting glaciers.”

Aside from the snide hyperbole, the truth is, some of the critics have a point. The military should not be a utility tool, hauled out for every situation that needs fixing. That blunts the tool itself, not to mention that the military is not the best tool for every situation.

That’s exactly why this new report is so good: It does not, in fact, call for a cryospheric war. (You can see a report on the State of the Earth’s Cryosphere, or snow and ice, here.) Instead, it spells out a legitimate military role in dealing with global climate change.

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