The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 31 2014 6:44 PM

Intel Owes You $15 If Your Computer 14 Years Ago Had a Pentium 4 Processor

After 15 years, Intel is finally paying out as part of a class action lawsuit that alleged the company made up performance benchmarks for its Pentium 4 processor. Which came out in November 2000.

You may be struggling to take yourself back to that particular moment in time. That’s fair. Watch this:

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If you bought a PC with a Pentium 4 processor for personal or family use between Nov. 20, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2001 you’re entitled to $15 from Intel. Unless you live in Illinois. Sorry, Illinois.

You don’t even need a receipt! Which is pretty reasonable given how long ago you would have bought this computer. The court trusts your sense of morality. That and $15 hopefully isn’t worth perjuring yourself for.

Intel specifically screwed up by fudging the Pentium 4 benchmarks to compete with the AMD Athlon Thunderbird processor, which came out in June 2000. If all of those $15 checks don’t sound very impressive to you, note that Intel also has to donate $4 millions to charities focused on education. Now we’re talkin’.

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Oct. 31 2014 5:26 PM

Law Enforcement Can Make You Unlock Devices With Your Fingerprint in Virginia

Severed fingers can't unlock smartphones, but that doesn't mean your personal data is safe behind a fingerprint scanner. A Virginia circuit court judge ruled this week that defendants facing criminal charges can be required to unlock their smartphones for law enforcement. The ruling doesn't apply to pass codes.

In the case, EMT David Baust was charged with strangling his girlfriend. He had video equipment in his bedroom, where the couple fought before the violent incident, and prosecutors wanted to check Baust's smartphone to see whether it contained footage of the confrontation.

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James Broccoletti, Baust's attorney, countered that compelling him to unlock his phone would violate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Judge Steven C. Frucci ruled that people can be required to share not just a print of their finger, but their actual fingertip in the course of an investigation, like a DNA swab or handwriting sample, to unlock a device. But he said that pass codes don't apply because they are abstract knowledge, which is legally protected.

Local news outlet the Virginian-Pilot reports that Macie Pridgen, a spokeswoman for the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, said prosecutors haven't decided yet whether or not to appeal. It is unclear whether Baust had fingerprint protection plus a passcode on his smartphone, or just one.

The case is reminiscent of a concept put forth by Justice John Paul Stevens in a 1988 dissent that has been referenced by the Court numerous times since. He wrote:

A defendant can be compelled to produce material evidence that is incriminating. Fingerprints, blood samples, voice exemplars, handwriting specimens, or other items of physical evidence may be extracted from a defendant against his will. But can he be compelled to use his mind to assist the prosecution in convicting him of a crime? I think not. He may in some cases be forced to surrender a key to a strongbox containing incriminating documents, but I do not believe he can be compelled to reveal the combination to his wall safe—by word or deed.

The concept that a person cannot be compelled to reveal “the contents of his own mind” has since made its way into other Supreme Court decisions, and it is generally established that police can force someone to open their safe with a key, but not with a memorized code. (Similarly, there is currently debate about whether suspects can be forced to decrypt files that may incriminate them.)

Welp, maybe fingerprint scanners won't help make smartphones more secure after all. Good try, everyone.

Oct. 31 2014 5:06 PM

Prototype “Ambulance Drone” Could Be a Lifesaver, Literally 

It’s been well-established (and then some) that drones are ruthlessly efficient at taking lives, but given everything else they’ve shown they can do, there’s no reason to believe that unmanned aerial vehicles can’t save lives, too. To that end, an engineering student at TU Delft in Delft, the Netherlands, named Alec Momont has designed what’s being dubbed an “ambulance drone.”

Developed to combat the high mortality rate of cardiac arrest victims—"around 800,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest in the European Union every year and only 8.0 percent survive," says Momont—the prototype drone comes equipped with a defibrillator and, assuming its destination is within a four-and-a-half-square mile radius, can arrive on the scene in less than a minute.

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Capable of traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour (hence the near-instantaneous arrival times), the ambulance drone also has on-board camera, which allows an operator to talk to the victim and provide instructions to whomever is on the ground—essentially serving as a remote paramedic. Given that brain and permant death tends to occur in the four- to six-minute range, Momont believes that the upshot of his lightning-quick response times and on-scene assistance could potentially be the increase of cardiac arrest survival rates to more than 80 percent.

Heart attacks victims are just one potential life-saving cause for Momont’s hexacopter, though. As the drone is capable of carrying up to almost nine pounds, other potential uses include getting insulin to diabetics and providing oxygen for people caught in a fire, per AFP.

Of course, Momont's prototype is still very much, well, a prototype. In addition to the standard technological tweaks needed, it has yet to be tested on a real person, and Dutch air traffic laws—while likely to be updated in 2015—do not allow for the use of UAVs. Still though, the potential practical applications of the project are undeniably exciting, and according to Momont, his drone could be saving lives within five years.

You can watch a video that shows all that the ambulance drone do—and how the project came to fruition—above. And, with any luck, the life-saving copter will be arriving in a city near you in the not-too-distant future.

Oct. 31 2014 11:53 AM

Unidentified Drones Keep Flying Over French Nuclear Plants

People are using drones for such fun, useful, and smart things that the devices have started to seem almost innocuous. But what's that nagging concern? Oh right, unwanted and inappropriate surveillance. France knows all about that now.

Between Oct. 5 and 20 people reported unidentified drones flying around seven of the country’s 58 state-owned nuclear power plants. In a press conference, French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve said that the drones were small, commercially available models.

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“There are measures that exist to neutralize these drones. I won’t dwell on exactly how they work because I don’t have to,” he said (as translated by BBC News). If he sounds kind of defensive about the situation, it's probably because the French government has no idea who is sending the scout drones out. At first it seemed like it might be activists from Greenpeace, who have used diverse approaches like paragliding to try to gain access to the plants in the past. The group denies that it’s behind the drones though.

But Yannick Rousselet, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace France, did say that, “It is apparent that you can enter the airspace around these French nuclear stations, get in, and get out, without anyone intervening. It’s a real breach of security.” Yeahhh.

French law prohibits aircraft from flying within one kilometer above the nuclear stations, but the government also claims that the drones buzzing around are too small to be a real threat. Be that as it may, Cazeneuve says that the government is doing a thorough investigation.

Oct. 31 2014 10:48 AM

Early Season Snowstorm Zeroes In on the Carolinas and New England

A Halloween winter storm is underway in the Midwest, and odds of measurable snow—while still low—are also creeping up for the Deep South and New England. Chicago’s first-ever White Halloween is already in the books.

America’s favorite weather buzzword is also back: One meteorologist has already dubbed the coming storm “Polar Vortex Charleston” to highlight the record-cold temperatures on the way to the South.

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Let’s get one thing squared away right off the bat: For most places, this snow will be more novelty than incapacitating. At most, we’re talking an inch or two outside of the mountains in the South. That said, this was a real thing that happened not that long ago:

As we saw earlier this year, the South has had a tendency to descend into anarchy when winter rolls around. (The above photo was taken after just six inches or so had fallen—nothing like that is expected this time around.) Rightfully so, the National Weather Service is approaching this storm with an abundance of caution. Here’s what NWS forecasters in South Carolina had to say about the ‘wickedly dynamic’ system:

This low is in the neighborhood of five [standard deviations] below normal. So we do not see this type of system very often. Thus, we will be onguard in regard to the unexpected.

For stats nerds, that works out to about a once-in-50-years type event.

The Raleigh, North Carolina, office of the National Weather Service has also mentioned a few possible rumbles of thunder and lightning strikes, given the incredibly anomalous energy the storm system will be packing. One North Carolina meteorologist has traced the origins of the system back to the remnants of Hurricane Ana, which made a close brush with Hawaii earlier this month.

Although the anticipated snow totals may not impress when compared with early February, they’re off-the-charts for early November. There has never been measurable snow this early in the “winter” in this part of the Deep South—by nearly two weeks. (The earliest one inch or greater snowstorm on record in Charlotte was on Nov. 11—Charlotte records go back to 1878.)

FT-141031-snow
This weekend’s reasonable worst-case snowfall map—there’s a 90 percent chance snowfall will be less than what’s shown here.

Image: NWS Weather Prediction Center

As the storm slides up the East Coast on Saturday and Sunday, it could draw additional energy from much warmer than normal coastal waters as it attempts to merge with the northern branch of the jet stream. In the process, tropical storm force winds will batter the North Carolina Outer Banks and coastal Massachusetts.

If you’re a snow lover in northern New England (especially Maine, where upwards of a foot is possible), this storm shouldn’t disappoint. Snow is off the table for New York City on Saturday night (though it may briefly be seen in the suburbs). It will be an especially chilly and blustery start to the city’s annual marathon on Sunday morning.

If you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to fall, don’t fret. The rest of the first half of November is looking warmer-than-average for most of the country. It’s way too early for snowmen, anyway.

Oct. 30 2014 6:47 PM

Google Has to Pay Up for Showing a Woman’s Cleavage on Street View

Google Street View trucks are known for capturing weird things, going to remote places, and generally causing drama. Oh, and privacy violations. This one falls into that last category: A Canadian judge has ordered Google to compensate a woman whose cleavage was captured by Street View cameras and put on the service for all to see. Maria Pia Grillo says she suffered emotional trauma as a result of the boob incident.

When she found her house on Street View in 2009 she saw herself sitting in front of her house and leaning forward. The angle of the photo reveals a lot of cleavage and about half a breast. Originally Grillo’s face was blurred, which is standard on Street View, but she felt that she was still identifiable because she was sitting in front of her own home. You can see the photo over at Canadian tabloid Journal de Montreal.

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In 2011 Grillo told Google that she wanted the rest of her body blurred out along with other identifying information in the scene like her house and license plate number. She also requested 45,000 Canadian dollars in compensation for emotional distress and damage, which apparently included ridicule from colleagues. Google blurred out a large portion of the image but didn’t want to pay her. The company said that it was within its rights to photograph her in public, and denied that boobgate (as it came to be called ... by me) was related to her emotional issues.

Grillo took the dispute to court and judge Alain Breault ruled at the beginning of October that Google has to pay Grillo 2,250 Canadian dollars plus 159 Canadian dollars in court costs and interest since June 8, 2011. The judge felt that Grillo's emotional issues weren't tied to boobgate, but believed that the front stoop of Grillo's house was still part of her home and that she was entitled to privacy there, even if she could be photographed.

As Gigaom points out, the judge also noted that privacy laws are a bit different in the United States and Canada, and said that he had taken a “European approach” in deciding the case.

Oct. 30 2014 5:47 PM

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

The unfortunate Fire Phone aside, the glut of opinion pieces and blog posts about Amazon of late have really been about one thing: books.

So, is Amazon really as bad for book culture as we fear, or could the company of “1-click” sales, Kindles, and two-day shipping in fact be leading us to a golden age? A Future Tense conversation that included voices from bookselling and publishing, authors and readers, moderated by Nicholas Thompson, the editor of the NewYorker.com, tackled this question in New York on Wednesday evening. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.)

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For some of the panelists, Amazon’s challenge to the publishing industry is nothing new. “Publishers have always hated their biggest accounts,” Hugh Howey, author of the best-selling Wool series, said. When his book first came out with Simon & Schuster, he remembered, it wasn’t carried by Barnes & Noble because of an ongoing disagreement with the retailer. “My sense is that Amazon might be crushing the former predator,” he added. Sarah McNally, owner of New York’s McNally Jackson Books, recounted that when she opened her store 10 years ago, Amazon was beginning to be a force, but independent bookstores were already on their knees because of aggressive competition from chain retailers.

There is nevertheless something different about Amazon, Lucas Wittmann, executive editor of Regan Arts and the former literary editor of the Daily Beast, argued. Amazon is pushing publishers not only on pricing, but also on the key thing that they do—create content. While Amazon’s marquee publishing ventures have mostly failed, it’s making serious advances with self-publishing and genre fiction like romance and crime. “Publishers are always deluded in many, many ways,” Wittmann said. “Whether it’s how many copies of a book they’ll sell or how to market it or how great it is.” But if Amazon is going to challenge them on the creation of content and on pricing, then perhaps their fears are not entirely misplaced.

Thompson hazarded that perhaps people wouldn’t hate Amazon quite so much if they thought Amazon really cared for or understood books. As Wittman said, “at the end of the day for Amazon, a book is a diaper, is toilet paper, cars, refrigerators.” The widget argument is particularly controversial when it comes to the low pricing Amazon demands. McNally told the audience how David Shanks, the former head of Penguin, said once that the most painful thing about the e-book pricing fight is that he just didn’t think romance novels should be the same price as a history book that the author researched for 10 years.

But then many of the publishers are also part of giant corporations with responsibilities to shareholders. “We don’t talk about how Harper Collins is owned by News Corp. How Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS,” Howey stated.

All the panelists agreed that the book industry needs to change, and perhaps has already begun to. As a publisher, Wittmann said that he now sees plenty of book proposals from agents who picked up titles that had first got popular on Goodreads and other group reading sites. This new era might also prompt publishers to get smaller and a bit more focused, he said, like independents that are able to be more creative. And bookstores like McNally Jackson have some advantage because they’re still far superior to Amazon when it comes to discoverability, mostly because Amazon’s algorithms still fail at search. “My philosophy since I opened the store is that book sales are never finite,” McNally said. “[The industry] will sell as many books as it inspires people to buy.”

So could the perfect publishing industry in fact be right now? After all, as Thompson noted, we have vibrant publishers, self-publishers, Amazon, and great bookstores. Howey agreed emphatically, concluding that “there’s never been a better time in history to be a reader or a writer.” But perhaps the golden age is always the one that came just before our own. As Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s New Tech City, asked: Wasn’t the true golden age of books the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club?

Listen to the event using the player below:

Oct. 30 2014 4:07 PM

Nintendo Is Expanding into “Non-Wearable” Health-Tracking Devices

Nintendo has been open in the past year about its desire to move into other types of technology besides video games. In January the company talked about diversifying by making “quality of life” products. No one heard anything else about that, though, until now. On Wednesday, Nintendo CEO and president Satoru Iwata spoke with investors about a device the company is working on that uses radio waves to track sleep. These days it's so common to hear about new fitness trackers or home sensors that the plan sounds, well, normal.

Nintendo is working with health tracking company Resmed, which already makes devices for monitoring sleep. Data will go into Nintendo's Quality of Life cloud, and users will be able to view and track it. Plus, Nintendo gaming products will interface with the Quality of Life platform. The company has also already gained experience with quantified self-devices through manufacturing the popular Wii Fit and failed Wii Vitality Sensor. Iwata said Quality of Life will launch in 2016.

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One interesting aspect of Quality of Life is that Nintendo seems to be defining the service against what the company doesn't like about other products on the market. Which seems like a great idea since there’s so much junk out there. A “non” slide in the presentation talks about everything that the product is not. Non-wearable, non-contact, non-operating, non-waiting, non-installation efforts. It seems like there might be a little bit of a translation issue from Japanese going on here, because Nintendo presumably wants its devices to be operational.

The “non” campaign is definitely present in the Japanese version of the presentation, though. Hopefully Nintendo knows that “non-wearables” already exist. They're called the smart home movement.

Oct. 30 2014 3:37 PM

Read R.L. Stine's Ghoulishly Fun Halloween Twitter Fiction

On Tuesday night, Goosebumps author R.L. Stine crooned his latest spooky ditty on Twitter. The Halloween tale, which comprised 15 tweets, is his third contribution to the Twitfic canon. (His first, from 2012, concerned a haunted kitchen, and his second related a farmer’s bedevilment by a ghost named Yost.)

In “What’s In My Sandwich” (Stine told me in an interview last year that he always begins with the title, and that his all-time favorite from his own oeuvre is Little Shop of Hamsters), a tribe of bristly, clawed creatures climbs out of the protagonist’s egg salad sub. The guy takes the half-eaten lunch home, planning to document the new life form and get rich. But his young son finds the sandwich, does what you do with sandwiches, and disaster ensues:

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This is vintage Stine, a compressed Theremin wail of youth-horror tropes. You’ve got the cliché of the useless parent (and here, Dad is worse than useless—he’s actively negligent and coldhearted); and the eerie recursiveness of tiny animals erupting out of the tiny animal that is the narrator’s young son. You’ve got the everyday yuckiness, the queasy plausibility, of unearthing something gross in your food. (As a rule, egg salad accrues disgustingness the more you contemplate it, so, good filling choice, Stine.) And there’s the twist: the situational irony of the final tweet, in which the narrator detects a silver lining in his child’s alien infestation—that where is my camera a uniquely Goosebumps-ian stab of terror, humor, and surprise.

Now, of course, is Stine season. The ghoul-whisperer for kiddies will appear at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York tonight, and this afternoon he takes the reins of the Scholastic social media accounts to talk to fans. Even during off-peak months, though, Stine has a warmly oddball partnership with his readers, wherein he freaks them out, and they send him inscrutable mail. On a Nerdette podcast episode from 2013, the king of gentle thrills gleefully described some of his correspondences, most of which, he said, look pretty similar. (Dear Mr. Stine, the teacher is making us write to an author, and I picked you. Where do you get your ideas?) When a note deviates from the pattern, he told the Nerdettes, it sticks in his memory. (He recalled one that read: Dear Mr. Stine, you are my second favorite writer. No signature.)

In order for your Twitfic to work, you need an audience: Luckily, Stine has 136,000 followers. (That is far more than Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and Bunnicula combined.) Read his latest here. Happy Halloween!

 

Oct. 30 2014 1:22 PM

Whiny Tweets About Being Sick Might Be Invaluable in Tracking the Flu

You know that person: live-tweeting their latest sneeze and bowl of chicken noodle soup from bed. No one likes being sick, but no one particularly likes getting a play-by-play of it, either. Except maybe your parents. And now, health researchers.

According to a new paper published in PLOS Currents this week, data from Twitter could play a crucial role in helping to predict and track flu outbreaks. The paper reports that scanning and analyzing tweets "significantly improves" flu forecasting and can reduce error seen with standard prediction models that use data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 17 to 30 percent. Twitter's data is also fast, while the CDC's can lag by a week or two, and then is often revised.

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This isn't the first time that researchers have consulted big data from social media for public health purposes. Probably the most famous example to date is Google Flu Trends, an analytics tool from Google's charity arm that aims to predict the location and severity of flu outbreaks. Since Google Flu Trends launched in 2008, its accuracy has been questioned. It significantly overestimated the instance of flu in 2012-2013 after understimating the initial wave of swine flu in 2009. One main criticism of Google's model has been that it conflates keyword searches for the flu and flu symptoms with people actually having the flu.

Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and author on the paper, says he and his colleagues have tried to be more careful in sorting through the data. He explains that they collect about 5 million tweets a day that contain health-related—not just flu-related—keywords. From those, they first separate out the tweets about the flu, and then filter out ones that seem specifically about having the flu. To do all this, the team uses language processing algorithms that look at all sorts of factors: the words in the tweet, the order of those words, and what role each takes in the sentence.

Dredze says the research doesn't indicate that Twitter is "definitively better" than Google Flu Trends, but that in conjunction with the CDC's data, it produces more accurate forecasts than the CDC's alone or models that use Google's information. He and his fellow researchers have made their data available to the CDC and are working with it to make the Twitter forecasts more accessible to everyone.

"The people who benefit most from this in the U.S. are the people at the state, city, and county levels," Dredze says. More accurate flu forecasts mean more accurate planning for things like hospital staffing and vaccine pushes. "There are a lot of different people who care about this," he adds.

So go ahead, tweet about your flu symptoms. You're officially doing something in the interest of public health.

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