A Government Computer Glitch Reminded 121-Year-Olds to Register for the Draft
There hasn’t been a draft in the U.S. since 1973, but registration is still mandatory for it. It doesn't matter if you’re 18 or 121, you gotta be on that list.
Actually it does matter if you’re 121, because you only need to register until you’re 25. Also, if you are 121, you are presumably not alive. But the Selective Service, which keeps draft records and sends registration forms, accidentally sent reminders to 14,215 men from Pennsylvania who were born between 1893 and 1897.
First of all, it’s pretty amazing that personal information from that time is even digitized. The problem arose when the state of Pennsylvania sent the 14,215 entries to the Selective Service last month in a “routine automated data transfer.” The Selective Service only uses two digits for birth year and the state of Pennsylvania has different formatting, so the 1893-to-1897 babies that the Selective Service notified were supposed to be 1993-to-1997 millennials.
The Selective Service started sending reminder letters to the old dudes on June 30, and would have sent them to more than 27,000 men in all if phone calls hadn't started pouring in about the mix-up. A statement on the agency website notes, “Selective Service regrets any inconvenience caused the families of these men and assures them that the error has been corrected and no action is required on their part.”
Elon Musk Is Donating $1 Million for a Nikola Tesla Museum
On Thursday, a celebration of Nikola Tesla's birthday was enlivened by an announcement: Elon Musk, CEO of the electric-car company that bears Tesla's name, will donate $1 milion to help build a museum honoring the late inventor.
The gift came after Matthew Inman, creator of the webcomic The Oatmeal, implored Musk to contribute to the grassroots effort to build a Nikola Tesla museum on the site of his former laboratory on Long Island. An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign called "Let's Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum" had already raised some $1.3 million to preserve the property, but Inman and his collaborators soon realized it wasn't nearly enough to build a whole museum.
"You owe us nothing, and you've done nothing but good things in the name of Nikola Tesla," he wrote in a May open letter to Musk. "But the fact remains: Tesla Motors, a company now worth billions, is using Nikola Tesla's name and they're using his technology, and all we want in return is a little bit of help."
Musk promptly responded to Inman on Twitter, saying, "I would be happy to help." He didn't say at the time how much he would contribute, though.
Inman had estimated the museum would cost $8 million. Musk apparently wasn't willing to bankroll the whole thing on his own, but his gift should certainly kickstart the fundraising effort. He also pledged to build a Tesla Supercharger station on the site.
Inman responded to Musk's pledge with gratitude on his blog Thursday. He wrote:
Elon Musk: from the deepest wells of my geeky little heart: thank you. This is amazing news.
Previously in Slate:
Success After Heartbreak: Q&A With Mission Director of Carbon Dioxide-Sensing Satellite
Later this year, humans will be able to watch the Earth breathe with unprecedented clarity.
Carbon dioxide is at the heart of the cycle that sustains life on our planet, and that heartbeat is becoming increasingly irregular. NASA’s new spacecraft will be its heart monitor. But it almost didn’t happen.
The first iteration of the mission, OCO, crashed into the Indian Ocean near Antarctica shortly after launch in 2009 when part of its protective nose cone failed to separate. The extra weight meant the satellite could never reach orbit.
The mission was deemed so essential that NASA tried again. Last week, NASA successfully launched OCO-2, a nearly exact copy of the original, which promises to revolutionize the study of carbon dioxide on Earth.
Here’s how the satellite will work, from Climate Central:
OCO-2 will be able to peer down through the atmosphere from its perch 438 miles above the planet. It will measure the amount of near-infrared radiation that bounces back from the surface to “see” how much carbon dioxide is in a vertical column of the Earth’s atmosphere at a higher resolution than a Japanese satellite currently in orbit, the only other satellite specifically devoted to measuring CO2.
For the astrophysicist leading the mission, it’s been a long road. Ralph Basilio was on the original team, too, which means he’s been devoted to OCO for more than a decade now. “After we lost OCO in 2009, a lot of it was, you know, shock. You worked on it for 5-6 years, and then all of a sudden, it’s gone.”
And what if last week’s launch had suffered the same fate?
“I’m not sure whether I’d have been able to handle that personally.”
A buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is the main culprit responsible for the steady rise in global temperatures, the increasingly acidic ocean, and a growing rash of extreme weather events. The problem is, scientists still don’t really know in detail which places on Earth generate the most carbon, whether naturally (via forest fires or peat bogs) or artificially (China—the world’s biggest CO2 emitter—has serious data discrepancies, for example), or where exactly it gets taken up.
There’s already carbon dioxide monitoring equipment—the most famous one is on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii—but precious little data is collected in the Amazon rainforest, or in the vast temperate forests of Canada and Russia, for example. OCO-2 promises to change all that by creating the very first high-resolution global map of the carbon cycle.
This week, I spoke with Basilio, the project manager for the OCO-2 mission.
Can you briefly describe your role?
I’m the spacecraft mission director. Last Wednesday, I gave the go for launch on behalf of the entire project team.
What’s the question you’re trying to answer with OCO-2?
We want to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide with precision, resolution, and coverage so we can have a better understanding of the carbon cycle and climate change. Where does human-produced carbon go after we release it? We want to study those sinks over time. Are they getting saturated? If so, will more CO2 stay in the air, increasing the threat of climate change? We see this mission as the cornerstone for Earth science in the coming years.
The previous version of the spacecraft was lost in 2009. What were you feeling when you watched the launch and found out it was successful?
I had to give the final go for launch on behalf of the project for the original OCO mission, too. It was probably the worst day I’ve ever had. For me, this was kind of like getting back in the saddle, so there was a little bit more added pressure.
When the clock was ticking down the minutes and seconds before the launch, I could definitely feel my heart beat. It was about an hour and a half after launch (after all the initial safety checks passed) before we could stand up and throw our arms in the air.
What’s the next step in your checklist before you can start conducting science?
We’ve completed all of our initial health checks. Now we need to take the observatory from its parking orbit to its operational orbit as part of a suite of other spacecraft that will help us make best use of our data. But we can do a lot of great science where we’re at today. By the end of the summer or early fall, we’ll start collecting data.
The OCO-2 promises to map carbon sources and sinks on a regional scale for the first time. What will that help climate scientists do?
I believe this mission holds a lot of promise for all of us. The data, the facts that we’re here to get we hope will allow people to make better informed decisions. We feel this is one small way to contribute to a better life for everyone living on the planet today and for future generations. We just want to collect data, and we’ll let the policymakers go from there.
Is there an added sense of urgency to the data you’re collecting? Due to the pressing nature of the climate change problem, as well as the five-year delay in the mission?
There was already a sense of urgency when we tried to launch five years ago. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased from 380 ppm to 400 ppm in just the last five years. Something’s happening, and it’s not just part of the natural process. Everything’s interconnected, and our actions are having an impact. We want to be good stewards of Mother Earth, so we can pass along a planet we’re proud of.
Has anything happened in the last five years that made you think: “Actually, it was great that the first one crashed”?
We have had the great benefit of being able to work with our Japanese colleagues who are operating their own greenhouse gas observing satellite. They approached us and said, “We’d be more than happy to share our data with you to improve your algorithm.” Our scientists have been able to help use that data to get an additional data product. They’ve turned one of our error sources into useful data. It’s kind of like getting lemonade out of lemons. That’s allowed us to provide a bigger bang for the buck that we wouldn’t have had if the 2009 launch had been successful.
I know by definition it’s impossible to predict surprises, but what kinds of things do you think might be waiting for you once the data start rolling in?
We know that excess carbon dioxide from human sources doesn’t all remain in the atmosphere. Is it being absorbed by the oceans? The northern boreal forests? The Amazon rain forest? It may not be in any of those areas. It may be somewhere else entirely. The truth is, right now we have very little information. We may have been looking in the wrong places all along.
Watch the successful launch of OCO-2, which took place in the early morning hours of July 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California:
No, This Google Glass App Cannot "Read Your Mind"
Anyone who has tried to operate Google Glass has probably thought to himself at some point: “Geez, could they make it any harder to operate this thing?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but that didn’t stop a London-based digital studio from providing us with a definitive answer. That answer, of course, is yes. Yes, they could make it harder to operate Glass—by hooking it up to a headset and an app that tries to infer your intentions from your brain waves.
The app is called MindRDR, and it relies on a Neurosky electroencephalography sensor to detect changes in the electrical signals emanating from your brain. Concentrate hard enough, and Glass will take a picture of whatever it is you’re looking at. Concentrate even harder, and it will post the photo to Twitter or Facebook.
That’s literally all it does.
That hasn’t stopped tech blogs from touting MindRDR with headlines like, “You can now control Google Glass with your mind,” and “Think Google Glass is creepy? Wait until it READS YOUR MIND.” As usual, though, the most fantastically over-the-top treatment comes from my favorite publication, the Mail Online: “Google Glass app gives users TELEKINETIC POWERS.”
As I’ve explained several times, and am now resigned to keep explaining until either I die or the technology fundamentally changes, EEG headsets cannot “read your mind” any more than a toddler can read Finnegans Wake.
At best, they can make crude inferences as to whether certain regions of your brain (mostly those near the surface) are more or less active than usual. At worst, such signals are overwhelmed by interference from ambient electrical noise, or even the headset-wearer’s muscle twitches. Neurosky’s software works hard to filter out that interference. But it can’t begin to differentiate between your intentions to take a photo and your intentions to, say, search Google for the nearest Thai restaurant. That’s why MindRDR only does one thing.
The Mail aside, most tech writers get that this is a pretty crude device. The mistake they make is in assuming that’s only because it’s “early days.” TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden calls MindRDR a “minimum viable product, a first step that can be developed further.”
I’ll admit I haven’t yet had the chance to try MindRDR, but I have tried the underlying technology. And I find it impossible to believe that concentrating really hard while wearing a second, $80 headset in addition to Google Glass represents a “viable” way to do anything. EEG headsets have their potential uses, but controlling complex, multi-functional electronic devices with any sort of precision is simply not among them.
Buttons are viable. Touchscreens are viable. Voice control is getting more viable all the time. Heck, even jerking your head upward like someone who just awoke from an inadvertent nap is more viable than this. Sorry, Glass wearers: If you want to take photos and post them to Facebook, you’re going to have to keep tapping, clicking, and swiping those frames for the foreseeable future.
My Week Without Interactive Digital Maps
This post arises from a Slate Plus "member takeover," in which Slate Plus members voted on what tech service Lily Hay Newman should give up for seven days. Join Slate Plus to vote in future Member Takeovers.
I would say that I have a mediocre sense of direction. I'm not the one who correctly pulls “Oh wait, it's this way!” out of nowhere, but I can be trusted to get myself and others from A to B if someone needs to take charge. When Slate Plus readers voted that I should give up Google Maps for a week, though, I was worried. I suspected that I used the service even more often than I realized. And I was right.
Over the last seven days I’ve frequently asked for directions, wandered around, and wasted a lot of time. And I’ve realized that I use digital mapping services a lot, especially Google Maps and especially on mobile. So giving them all up (including my subway map app) was definitely a challenge.
The big thing I realized from my Google Maps purge is that I use maps services for brainstorming, not just directions. I’ll look at the place I'm going even if I already know where it is, so that I can also preview the surrounding area. For example, one night I went to a restaurant near Herald Square, and as I walked past a GAP clothing store, I realized that I should have brought the jeans I needed to return. But I wasn’t thinking about GAP when I pictured the restaurant’s location in my head. Even sadder, it turns out there was also a gelato place nearby that I didn’t find out about until later.
Another thing I noticed is that people are almost always really nice about giving directions—unless they also see you using your smartphone. If I was texting outside a store and then went in to ask for directions, I could feel the unspoken question, “Why don't you just check on your phone, moron?” I tried working in explanations about my smartphone battery being dead, but that sometimes backfired when people graciously offered me their chargers. By the end of the week, I was stashing my phone out of sight and claiming that I had lost it. Who knew that giving up maps for a week would turn me into such a liar?
Also—and I’m not sure if this is because of our increased reliance on mapping services—most people seem to be pretty bad at giving directions. They wanted to be helpful, but they gave vague descriptions, called out poor landmarks, or just sent me to the wrong place entirely. For example, it’s not very specific to say that something is "across the street from Grand Central," because Grand Central is a pretty big place. Knowing that I was embarking on this experiment, I had printed out a bunch of NYC maps in anticipation of inevitable problems. But they weren't as helpful in cases where my plans changed at the last minute while I was already in transit.
I'll be honest with you: There was one time when I asked a friend to look something up in their Google Maps app for me. I’m not proud of violating the sacred mission of the Slate Plus Member Takeover in this way. But sometimes you're standing on a street corner, it's pouring rain, you're soaked, your printed map is soaked, and you just need to know where to go. I didn’t look at those sweet, precious directions, though. I made my friend describe the route to me. And without even realizing it she reprimanded me for cheating on my Member Takeover: “Why don't you just check it yourself?”
Mid-July Is Looking More Like Mid-September
Remember the polar vortex? Weather so cold that boiling water froze in midair?
Well buckle up, America. We’re getting another dose of polar air next week, and just in time for what is normally the hottest week of the year.
While next week’s mid-summer cold snap won’t send you rushing for the nearest space heater, its origins are similar to the cold snaps that defined the brutal winter just past.
The same basic large-scale weather pattern has been settled in over North America for months now, and it even has a name: the ridiculously resilient ridge. Coupled with the occasional cut-off low pressure center dawdling over the Great Lakes region (next week’s will camp out over Quebec), it’s been a recipe for extreme warmth on the West Coast and colder than average weather out East. On the west side of the Rockies, tropical Pacific air gets funneled northward from around Hawaii toward Alaska while California dries out and roasts; on the other side, cold air from the Yukon cascades southward toward the Midwest and East Coast.
But before I go any further: North America’s polar vortex-filled winter was almost certainly overhyped. I’ll probably get loads of hate mail from fellow meteorologists for even invoking it here—and in a strict sense, they’re right. The polar vortex isn’t a new phenomenon, nor was it behind every cold snap of the past six months. According to NOAA, while last winter was below average (by one degree Fahrenheit), winters are warming for virtually every corner of the continental United States (save one corner of southwest Louisiana).
This winter was an aberration, not the rule—a dip in the long-term trend of global warming. Further proof: the first five months of 2014 were collectively the fifth warmest such period globally since records began. This winter was a temporary cold blip in a small corner of the Earth. We just happen to live there.
As for the polar vortex itself, its resonance within the American zeitgeist is proof that sometimes it helps us cope to have something special to blame for all the crazy weather (even if it’s not always totally scientifically correct in popular usage). That’s OK. For the science purists, there’s a great explainer of the phenomenon by Weather Underground’s Jon Erdman and perhaps an even better one (with stunning visuals) by NASA’s Eric Fetzer. As crazy as it sounds, there’s even a line of scientific evidence that connects an increasing frequency of extreme weather events (like the cold snaps of earlier this year) to abnormal shifts in the jet stream caused by melting Arctic sea ice and global warming. It’s a hot topic of debate right now among climate scientists.
As for next week’s weather, polar air will again be spilling southward from the Arctic Ocean. That’ll be good enough to convert what’s typically Chicago’s hottest week of the year to an unseasonably pleasant early Autumn-style respite that will have folks begging for more. Chicago’s forecast high of 72 degrees Fahrenheit next Wednesday is historically much more likely to happen on September 16th than July 16th.
Cooler than normal weather is expected across much of the eastern two-thirds of the country as well, with mild temperatures from Boston to New York City to Washington, though not nearly as dramatic as in the Midwest. All in all, you really can’t ask for much better weather than what’s on offer next week.
Though at some point, enough is enough. A reverse trajectory model shows the air supplying next week’s mid-summer Chicago cold snap is currently (as of Thursday) sitting over Canada’s far North. Let’s hope the atmosphere gets all this out of its system before December. But for now? Long live the polar vortex.
Erasing Your Android With Factory Reset May Leave Some of Your Personal Data Behind
When you buy a new smartphone and go to sell or donate your old one, you know you need to get rid of your personal data first—banking information, credit card numbers, pictures you sent to your doctor of that weird rash. Who knows. If you have an Android handset, the usual way to wipe everything and make your old device factory-fresh is with a default reset. But a new study shows that those factory resets aren't actually clearing everything out.
Avast, which makes security software for Windows, Mac, and Android, recently bought 20 used Android handsets on eBay. Then company employees used digital analysis software that's readily available and fairly easy to use to see if there was anything left on the 20 devices from the original owners. It turns out there was. Avast researchers found more than 40,000 photos, 750 emails or text messages, and 250 contacts. The group was also able to deduce the identities of the previous owners of four of the phones.
What they found wasn't just cat pictures. Avast recovered 250 nude male selfies and an entire loan application that had been completely filled out. Jude McColgan, the president of mobile at AVAST, said in a statement, “The amount of personal data we retrieved from the phones was astounding... The take-away is that even deleted data on your used phone can be recovered unless you completely overwrite it.” McColgan further explained in an interview with CNET that Android's factory reset removes data "only at the application layer" and doesn't extend more deeply to rewrite a device's entire memory.
It's important to note that Avast makes its own reset software, which the company claims does a much better job of completely wiping Android devices. So part of the motivation for this study is presumably to promote Avast's alternative service. Still, the results are pretty startling. Whether they make you want to buy Avast's software or someone else's, this test at least raises awareness of how hard it is to scrub personal data before reselling or donating old devices.
This Year’s Indian Monsoon Could Be a Failure
In large parts of India, the rains simply haven’t arrived this year.
At the end of June—the first month of what’s normally a four-month rainy season—India's monsoon was running a whopping 43 percent below normal.
I’ve written previously that the Indian monsoon is the most important weather forecast in the world, and for good reason: Half the country’s 1.25 billion people are engaged in agriculture, and 70 percent of annual rains come between June and September. Irrigation is expanding, but most farmers still need the rains to have a successful harvest. There’s no larger group of people in the world more dependent on a single weather phenomenon.
Now, amid a persistent and sweltering heat wave, the country still waits for rain nearly halfway through what’s normally the monsoon’s second month. A staggering 32 of the last 39 days have been warmer than normal in Delhi, with not a drop of rain falling during that time.
The lackluster rains have motivated some people to call for immediate government action to stave off what could be a developing crisis. Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran a campaign in part based on stemming inflation and spurring economic growth, which a monsoon failure may thwart. From Bloomberg:
“It now behooves all policy makers, at the center and the state, to start planning for the worst,” Saugata Bhattacharya, a Mumbai-based economist at Axis Bank Ltd., said in an interview to Bloomberg TV India yesterday. “The budget should now start to be leveraged for providing relief in the worst-hit districts, both by way of subsidies and movement of stocks.”
According to the India Meteorological Department, as of July 9, the rains are now a month behind schedule in some parts of the country.
According to IMD statistics, all but two of India’s 36 administrative subdivisions have experienced below average rains so far this year, with one region—Gujarat—a whopping 92 percent below normal. Only 9 percent of India’s land area is currently classified as having “normal” rains.
In an update to its official seasonal forecast (PDF), the IMD now says the monsoon rains will be 93 percent of average this year, down from their initial 95 percent outlook. While those numbers may not look daunting at first glance, 93 percent of average would rank among the worst fifth of years since 1871. It also doesn't reflect regional distribution of rainfall, which is often patchy in years with low monsoon rainfall. The IMD update cites “very high” chances of El Niño as a reason for the increased pessimism. (Earlier this year, the head of the IMD surreally accused Western weather forecasters of “spreading rumors” about a coming El Niño in an attempt to rig the Indian stock market.) Skymet, the leading private forecasting company in India, is much less hopeful, saying the odds of a failed monsoon, defined as less than 90 percent of average, have now risen to 60 percent.
What are the chances that the monsoon rains could stage a resurgence and finish close to normal? Given what’s at stake, I decided to run the numbers.
A few weeks ago, I cited recent research showing that the combination of El Niño (which is already taking hold in the Pacific) and a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole—an El Niño like pattern of periodic warming in the Indian Ocean—often leads to a failed monsoon. With a month’s worth of data in the books, it’s looking more and more like that could be happening this year.
Using IMD’s “All India” historical rainfall dataset (which dates back to 1871), last month’s rainfall total was the fifth lowest on record. Of the 10 driest months of June in India’s recorded history, nine of them went on to have below average rains for the full four-month monsoon season. Together, the five years with the driest June went on to average 93 percent of normal, in line with IMD’s current forecast:
However, if you control for years with a building El Niño and a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole (both of which 2014 appears to have), the numbers look a lot worse:
Given this (admittedly simple) analysis, there’s reason to believe this year’s monsoon now poses an 80 percent chance of failing.
There’s a shred of hope: Thunderstorms have finally entered the forecast in Delhi. The bad news: they’re still a week away.
A Journal Is Retracting 60 Papers Because of Peer Review Fraud
It may not be entirely fair to liken a "peer review and citation ring" to the academic version of an extortion ring, but there's certainly fraud involved in both. Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to chronicling which academic papers have been withdrawn, is reporting that SAGE Publishing, a group that puts out numerous peer-reviewed journals, is retracting 60 papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control after an internal investigation uncovered extensive evidence of severe peer-review fraud.
Apparently researcher Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan, made multiple submission and reviewer accounts—possibly along with other researchers at his institution or elsewhere—so that he could influence the peer review system. When Chen or someone else from the ring submitted a paper, the group could manipulate who reviewed the research, and on at least one occasion Chen served as his own reviewer. The SAGE press release notes:
While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, [and] these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring.
When SAGE and its then-editor-in-chief confronted Chen, he didn't cooperate with the investigation, so in September 2013 SAGE notified National Pingtung University of Education. Chen resigned at the beginning of February.
Retraction Watch reports that in a follow-up statement, SAGE said that 130 fake accounts seem to have been involved in the ring. Still, the publisher feels that its intensive, multi-year investigation has uncovered the totality of the fraud.
Although attempts to mislead the academic community are extremely rare, there will occasionally be fraudulent and unethical individuals seeking to abuse the system. Both SAGE and Journal of Vibration and Control are committed to upholding the true spirit of peer review while continuing to introduce new measures to reinforce the review process.
Hopefully SAGE really has contained the problem. It may not quite be a breezy beach read, but the Journal of Vibration and Control doesn't need any more drama.
A Real Iron Man Suit for the U.S. Military Still Needs a Hollywood Touch
Who wouldn't want to build a real-life Iron Man? Companies like Ekso Bionics have been working on it for years. Now, many of them are coming together to consult for the U.S. military on Project TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) and develop the ultimate robotic exoskeleton for soldiers. On the front lines of the project are the true experts: the Oscar-nominated special effects team behind the onscreen suit in Iron Man.
For TALOS, Legacy Effects, which also made suits for RoboCop and X-Men: Days of Future Past, is working alongside other companies to try to make the military’s dream a reality. But the stakes are a little bit higher when you’re designing for a soldier instead of an actor or stuntman. As Lindsay MacGowan, a co-founder of Legacy Effects, told the Wall Street Journal, “When you’re doing something for a movie it is all make-believe, whereas for the military that’s really not going to be the case.”
According to the Journal, the deadline for a first wave of prototypes was approaching in May when U.S. Special Operations Command began using a warehouse near Tampa, Florida, to house plans, components, and suits that developers have created. Special Operations Command, which has put about $10 million into the project so far, reviewed the prototypes in late June. The goal is to accelerate TALOS so it can make progress more quickly than a normal military technology project that uses contractors.
As i09 points out, though, the project has a lot of skeptics. For example, Military News spoke to an official at a big defense firm who said, “To do it right, they need about a billion dollars ... Twenty million dollars a year in an R&D budget— you couldn’t even develop a pencil on that.”
Developers consulting for TALOS say that it’s all about aiming high while also mediating expectations. Brian Dowling, who is overseeing Revision Military’s work on the project, told the Journal, “Will you ever have an Iron Man? I don't know. But you'll have some greatly improved technology along the way.” On the other hand, maybe the military just needs to pull it together—all Tony Stark needed to build the original suit was physicist Ho Yinsen and the threat of his own impending death.