The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 27 2015 3:41 PM

Don’t Drink and Drone

This is why you don't drink and drive, people. An employee at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told the Secret Service that he was responsible for the unidentified drone discovered on White House grounds early Monday morning. The man told investigators that he was drinking at an apartment near the White House before the 2-pound, 2-foot diameter quadcopter he was operating disappeared.

The New York Times reports that the man decided to go to bed, even though he thought the drone might have flown over the White House. He knew it was somewhere out in the wide world, but after a night of drinking, a body gets sleepy, you know?


The incident is relevant to an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of Secret Service security at the White House. It also provides commentary, though, on the increasingly widespread availability of small retail drones and the corresponding concerns that not enough has been done to regulate their use. Obama told CNN on Tuesday, “These technologies that we're developing have the capacity to empower individuals in ways that we couldn't even imagine 10-15 years ago.” But he added, “We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it.” The man makes a good point.

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Jan. 27 2015 2:53 PM

The iPad Is 5 Years Old Today. You Still Don’t Need One.

Five years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. At a time when the press and the public were wondering whether anyone really needed a third computing device, Jobs was remarkably clear-sighted about what it would take for the tablet to succeed. Here's what he said in that famous keynote:

All of us use laptops and smartphones now. And the question has arisen lately: “Is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone?” … In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks—better than the laptop, better than the smartphone.

Netbooks, Jobs said, “aren’t better at anything”—“they’re just cheap laptops.” The iPad, he insisted, would do several things better than either a laptop or a smartphone. Here are the specific tasks he cited:

  • Browsing the Web
  • Doing email
  • Enjoying and sharing photographs
  • Watching videos
  • Enjoying your music collection
  • Playing games
  • Reading e-books

Five years on, it might seem that Jobs was right. By most standards, the iPad has been a success, and the tablet has indeed emerged as a third category of computing device. And so today has brought some mea culpas from tech bloggers who had publicly doubted the iPad upon its unveiling. The most thoughtful of these may be Timothy B. Lee’s post on Vox: “Tech pundits like me hated the iPad—and that’s exactly why it worked.” Lee points out that the iPad was never aimed at “power users” who spent all day on computers and demanded powerful productivity features. Rather, it perfectly pitched to “ordinary users” more interested in casually consuming Internet content than creating it.

(For the record, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo was among the few who praised the iPad’s simplicity from the start. “I love the iPad,” he declared as soon as Jobs announced it. “Apple’s new tablet is the computer I’ve always wanted.”)

There’s another way of looking at this, however.

Yes, Jobs was right about what the iPad would need to do in order to succeed. He was right to leave out the productivity features and go big on the simple tactile pleasure of holding the Internet in your hands. But for all its popularity and appeal, the iPad never has quite cleared the bar he set for it, which was to be “far better” at some key tasks than a laptop or a smartphone.

Is an iPad “far better” than a smartphone for reading or doing email on the go? It may have been when it was released. But smartphones have come a long way. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and their Android equivalents are now convenient enough for most mobile computing tasks that there’s no need to carry around a tablet as well.

Is an iPad “far better” than a laptop for watching a movie or browsing the Web on your couch? Not if you have a MacBook Air, or a Chromebook for that matter. And it’s clunkier than either of those when it comes to things like email that require the use of a keypad.

To slightly twist Jobs’ jab at netbooks, iPads today aren’t “far better” than other categories of devices at anything—they’re mostly just bigger smartphones.

I’m not saying that the iPad was a failure, or that it doesn’t have its uses. I have an iPad Air 2 and my wife has an iPad Mini, and we both use them. I prop mine on the counter to watch SportsCenter while I do the dishes. She uses hers to check email and the weather and read the New York Times while she eats breakfast.

In general, tablets are nice for doing things while you’re also doing other things, which is why they’ve also found important niches in the workplace. They’re also great for entertaining kids who can’t be trusted with something as important as your phone or laptop. But two other companies have actually pushed tablets further in these directions than Apple has. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is better optimized for work. And Amazon’s Fire HD Kids’ Edition, with its low price, thick rubber case, and lifetime “no-questions-asked” return policy, is the smarter choice for a children's toy.  

And yet, five years on, the fundamental question that greeted the iPad on its arrival—do people really need a third type of computer?—has not melted away. If anything, the convergence between laptops and smartphones has made it more relevant than ever. That helps explain why iPad sales have plateaued, rather than continuing to ascend to the stratospheric levels of the iPhone. (As I pointed out last year, it’s also partly that iPads don’t need to be replaced as often.)

The iPad remains an impressive machine. But it also remains a luxury item rather than a necessity. Again, by most standards, it is a major success. Just not by the high standards that Jobs himself set for it five years ago.

Update, Jan. 27, 2015: More evidence that the iPad has reached a plateau: Apple reported on Tuesday that it sold 21.4 million tablets last quarter. That's about a 20 percent drop from the same quarter last year. And it came at the same time that Apple was reporting record iPhone sales of 74.5 million.

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 27 2015 11:00 AM

Watch GIF-iti Artist INSA Create the World’s Largest GIF

Yeah, your amateur photoshop creations are trés hilarious, but this is how you GIF. GIF-iti artist INSA, who has become famous for converting his street art to online-viewable GIFs, just raised the bar for his future projects to record heights—literally.

Over the course of six days in Rio de Janeiro, INSA and a team of 20 painted four massive (measuring 14,379 square meters) pieces, each done on top of the previous installment, and captured images of the different works of art from space via satellite. The result? Oh, no big deal, just the world’s largest GIF.


According to Mashable, the project came about when INSA was approached by Ballantine’s about pushing his work “to another level.” The Scotch-makers took a shine to his idea—“I said I want to paint something big enough to be seen from space and to animate it,” he said. “A week later they said ‘we’d like to help you do that’ ”—and the rest is history.

Watch the video above for an inside look at how the whole thing came together, and see below for the finished product. Pretty impressive.


Image via Ballantine's

Jan. 27 2015 9:58 AM

How Technology Is Changing the Family Tree: A Future Tense Event Recap

When A.J. Jacobs, the best-selling author and Esquire editor at large, started researching his family tree, he realized that he had begun to sense a connection with relations in even the most distant branches. For instance, he now felt irrationally warm toward Judge Judy, his seventh cousin three times removed—once an unpleasant TV personality, now part of the family.

America’s obsession with genealogy, given a jump-start by Silicon Valley startups and new online platforms, has the potential to rework how we feel about inheritance, race, and family itself. But like all America’s digital progress, it brings with it serious concerns about privacy and accuracy. At a Future Tense event in New York City last week, Jacobs, along with the author Maud Newton; Chris Whitten, the CEO of the collaborative family history site WikiTree; and genealogist Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly discussed their experiences exploring their family histories, and their concerns about where the technology could take us.

Jan. 26 2015 7:46 PM

Police Oppose Police-Tracking Function in GPS App Waze

The GPS app Waze crowdsources a lot of real-time data, and with 50 million users contributing information in 200 countries, the app can show a lot. There are traffic updates, accident reports, and toll warnings. Users can even contribute the location of police they happen to spot, so drivers behind them know to stay within the speed limit and generally drive safely. But law enforcement agents are not happy about it.

Though the feature has existed since around the time Waze launched in 2008, law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about it since two New York police offers were shot to death in December. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, does not seem to have used Waze to locate the two officers he killed (because he was not carrying his smartphone for a few hours prior to his attack), but he did use the Waze police-tracking function in December and even posted screencaps of it to his Instagram.


Waze is owned by Google, and as the Associated Press reports, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck sent the company a letter on Dec. 30 explaining that Waze could "endanger police officers and the community" by tracking law enforcement.

During the National Sheriffs Association winter conference in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, Bedford County, Virginia, Sheriff Mike Brown said, "The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action."

But civil liberties advocates say that as long as Waze users are reporting police sightings that occur in public, they are conveying information in a reasonable and protected way. Nuala O'Connor, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the AP, "I do not think it is legitimate to ask a person-to-person communication to cease simply because it reports on publicly visible law enforcement."

Given the extensive data and geolocation tracking techniques law enforcement is able to use on both a state and federal level (often without a warrant) to monitor United States citizens—and others—it seems contradictory that citizens shouldn't be able to share information about police officers who are in plain sight.

Jan. 26 2015 5:27 PM

The Simpsons Imagines How Elon Musk Could Save and Destroy the Future

You can probably guess who guest-starred in Sunday's Simpsons episode, "The Musk Who Fell to Earth." And not just because it's in the headline of this post. And the name of the episode. Whatever, you could have predicted it because Elon Musk is everywhere these days. He's a major face of innovation. But The Simpsons has a lot more to say about him.

The premise of the episode is that Musk is out of radical futuristic ideas and has come to Springfield in his SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft. "I've hit a dry patch," he tells Homer. "I'm blocked. In my personal drought, I'm traveling the country quietly by spaceship, looking for inspiration."


As has happened before, Homer's simplistic worldview and childlike wonder inspire Musk, and he quickly gets his world-changing mojo back. At one point, Homer proudly says, "Wow! Between your genius and my nothing, we make a great team!" Whenever Homer's rambling inspires a Musk idea, the opening of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor plays.

Musk gets to work partnering with C. Montgomery Burns (who, as you ought to know, owns the nuclear power plant that employs much of the town) to electrify everything, including self-driving cars—a nod to Tesla. The idea is that if everything runs on electricity, Burns will make a fortune selling power to the town. The problem is that the setup doesn't turn out to be commercially viable, and Burns loses money. He has to do massive layoffs at the power plant, and Springfield sinks into a serious economic depression. "But Musk was our savior!" Homer's buddy Carl yells. "Your so-called savior isn't interested in saving anything but the world," Burns replies.

And that's how the whole episode goes. Musk is lauded for his (real-world) intelligence and achievements, and for sparking extensive technological progress, but as always, The Simpsons is wary of grandiose promises about the future. In Springfield, people love their self-driving cars because they can drink alcohol while driving around town. Terrified hamsters demonstrate how fast you can go in a Hyperloop, and later, citizens made homeless by the power plant layoffs are forced to live in the half-constructed loop. Spaceships, like the one Musk comes and goes in, seem to have been perfected, though as Lisa points out, Musk sure burns a lot of rocket fuel for someone who promotes green electrification. "I don't care how much he likes me, I don't want to be friends with him anymore," Homer says. "None of his pie-in-the-sky ideas ever work out. Sky pies are lie pies."

The Verge argues that Musk gets "the usual celebrity treatment" and that "it's mostly just compliments dressed up as criticisms." But to me, the episode seems like more of a condemnation of obsessive futurism than a glorification of Musk. Sure, Musk comes out of it looking smart and self-assured, but that's his public persona anyway. As his character tells Mr. Burns, "We sacrifice now to take care of the future in a way totally determined by me." It doesn't sound so great.

Jan. 26 2015 3:31 PM

My Grandmother’s House Is the Birthplace of Apple Computers

As a kid, I always looked forward to going to my grandma’s house. It was a 25-minute drive across the South Bay from where my family lived in San Jose. I always knew we were within five minutes of my grandma’s house when we exited the 280 Freeway onto Foothill Expressway. As we turned onto my grandma’s street, we passed a strip mall with a Chevron Gas Station, a Trader Joe’s, and a Peet’s Coffee. When our car pulled into the driveway, my grandma would open the front door, smiling and waving at us from the porch. I always jumped out of the car and greeted her with one of my biggest hugs.  

My grandma’s house is where I met my newborn brother for the first time because I was staying with her while my parents were in the hospital. It’s the place I went to after preschool to wait for my parents to pick me up and eat spoonfuls of smooth Skippy peanut butter while curled up in a reclining chair. It’s the place I went when I was sick, snuggling in bed to watch Tom and Jerry. It’s the place where, to this day, my family still goes to celebrate birthdays and eat my grandma’s delicious cake.

Throughout my childhood, my parents always mentioned that Grandma’s house was a special place, and to me it was, but in a completely different way. So when I was 10 and my parents told me about the wider significance of my grandma’s house, I shrugged it off with a laugh. How could this quaint place have been Ground Zero for such a world-famous company that steered the course of today’s technology?

Jan. 26 2015 12:51 PM

Good News: Replicas of 16th-Century Sculptures Are Not Off-Limits for 3-D Printers

The functional possibilities of 3-D printing are well known. After all, we’re printing wrenches in space now. Yet the technology’s artistic potential may be equally significant. Almost every physical object, from a spoon to Degas’ famous dancer sculptures, can be scanned and uploaded onto the Internet as a file, ready for download by anyone with a desktop 3-D printer. But like the digitization of music and books before it, the migration of objects of art and design online brings with it the baggage of America’s frustrating intellectual property regime.

A cast of Michelangelo’s famous 16th-century sculpture of Moses sits on the campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Jerry Fisher, who lives in the area, decided to create a 3-D printable version of the artwork using photogrammetry—analyzing 2-D photos of an object and turning them into a digital 3-D model.

Only a few days after posting a downloadable file of Michelangelo’s Moses on the 3-D printing website Thingiverse in the fall of 2014, Fisher says he was contacted by a representative of Augustana College. They requested that he take it down, he told me, citing fuzzy copyright and ownership concerns.

Jan. 26 2015 11:32 AM

Small Drone Shows Up on White House Lawn

It's going to be months, or probably years, before the Federal Aviation Administration releases drone regulations, but there are some things we know right now. You can’t fly drones in/over national parks, and you shouldn’t fly them too close to hawks. It’s also probably illegal to fly a drone onto the White House grounds, which I bring up because someone did.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama said on Monday that a small drone was found within the walls of the White House compound. The drone didn’t seem to be a threat, but, as the New York Times reports, the Secret Service is investigating.


The president and first lady are currently in India, but daughters Sasha and Malia are in Washington, D.C.

The situation is surprising—or not surprising—given criticism of the Secret Service in recent months. One major lapse involved an intruder who jumped the White House fence and got all the way inside the building. Quadcopters and other small drones may not have been viewed as a threat in securing the airspace over the White House. That should probably be reconsidered now.

Jan. 25 2015 5:05 PM

This Week’s East Coast Blizzard Could Be the Biggest on Record

After a relatively snow-free winter so far, a major blizzard is set to bring parts of the Northeast to a standstill early this week.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in New York City is calling the potential for epic snowfall “historic,” while the Boston office says the incoming storm is a “textbook case for a major winter storm/blizzard.” Three-day snow totals could reach 24–36 inches in each city—good enough to rival the biggest Northeast snowstorms on record.

This week’s storm has the makings of a record-breaker in New York City. Since 1869, the biggest single storm on record was 26.9 inches in 2006.

Image: National Weather Service


That kind of forecast is jaw-dropping, even for the most jaded meteorological aficionado. Blizzard warnings have been posted from coastal New Jersey to Maine, including New York City and Boston. “Blizzard” is actually a technical meteorological term that requires near-zero visibilities and sustained winds or frequent gusts exceeding 35 mph for at least three consecutive hours. These criteria are typically met in the Northeast only once every few years. The Boston NWS office warns “travel may become impossible and life-threatening.” If the storm comes as forecast, it would be enough to temporarily cripple the region. In its latest update Sunday afternoon, the New York City NWS office said to expect gusts up to 50 mph in the city, with brief gusts up to hurricane force on Eastern Long Island. Wow.

The NWS warns that, in addition to the snow and wind, coastal storm surge could reach four feet in Western Long Island Sound and in Eastern Massachusetts—that’s on top of 10- to 15-foot waves, which would be big enough to damage coastal properties. If you live on the waterfront, it’s probably best to treat this storm more like a close brush with a tropical storm or hurricane. The NWS in Boston says, “[T]his is a storm that could produce one or more new inlets along exposed east and northeast facing barrier beaches.”

The latest snowfall maps show a 50-50 chance of New York City’s biggest snowstorm on record. Expect one to three feet of snow plus near whiteout conditions from Philadelphia to Maine.

Image: NWS

For snow lovers, this is the stuff of legend. For everyone else, it’s a time to take a deep breath and prepare to ride out a whopper. If you find yourself stuck at home this week, hyperbole aside, take solace in the fact that it’s very likely no one has experienced a storm quite like this for centuries. I mean, New York City could break its all-time snowfall record for a single storm by 10 inches.

What’s making this particular storm so potent? In sharp contrast to last week’s nor’easter, there’s no shortage of cold air this time around. A blocking high-pressure system to the north will slow the storm’s advance to a crawl—with the center spending up to 24 hours just off Long Island—right as it is peaking in strength. Combine that with a roaring, perfectly kinked jet stream, and you have all the ingredients for an explosive storm that will reach “bomb” criteria, funneling Arctic air southwards and converting it into a thick blanket of wind-whipped white. All the extra cold air may also boost snow totals, because “drier,” colder snow is up to 50 percent fluffier than “wet” snow that falls with temperatures nearer the freezing point. Very strong winds should create drifts the height of humans. The NWS in Boston expects “pockets of thundersnow” during the overnight hours late Monday.

All this means there’s very little chance of a bust. An experimental probabilistic snow forecast by the NWS shows a 67 percent chance of at least 18 inches in New York City. In Boston, the odds are 75 percent. I don’t know about you, but that’s seems good enough to invest in a snowblower.

Not that long ago, the thing to do on a week like this would be to camp out in front of the Weather Channel and live vicariously through Jim Cantore. But now the best place to watch a storm is on Twitter. Predictably, weather Twitter is already freaking out over this storm:

A reverse trajectory model shows a Siberian weekend in store for New York City.


The suddenly very active weather pattern may produce yet another snowstorm on Thursday night, with at least two major blasts of frigid Arctic air plunging Northeast temperatures to near zero Fahrenheit this weekend and next week. The air that’s set to comprise Saturday’s atmosphere over New York City is now somewhere over Eastern Siberia.