Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 26 2016 1:56 PM

Hillary Clinton Used File-Clearing Software BleachBit. Is That Proof of Wrongdoing?

In an appearance on Fox News to discuss the revelations from the latest Hillary Clinton email findings, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House’s Benghazi committee, revealed that Hillary deleted mails using BleachBit, a file-deleting software program.

Aug. 26 2016 12:04 PM

Update Your iPhone Right Now

Apple rushed to release a new security update Thursday after system vulnerabilities were reported to the company following an attempted cyberattack on a human rights lawyer in the United Arab Emirates.

Aug. 25 2016 4:46 PM

New Zealand and Australia, World Leaders in Pizza Delivery by Drone  

On Wednesday, a Domino’s franchise used a drone to deliver a pizza in Auckland, New Zealand.

Aug. 25 2016 4:46 PM

The Army Isn’t Getting Much Use Out of Its Expensive Training Games

The United States Army has a problem: Its soldiers aren’t playing enough video games.

That, at any rate, is one conclusion you might draw from a recent Government Accountability Office report that examines the Army’s numerous—and often quite expensive—virtual training devices. Discussing that report in Motherboard, Richard Beckhusen concludes “the Army simply has too many games.” In some cases, that’s because the Army hasn’t properly integrated those systems into its constantly changing training regimes. In others, it may be because these pricey platforms simply don’t meet real needs in the first place.

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As the GAO report defines it, “virtual training devices are those devices that involve a simulator, a simulation, or a computer-generated battlefield.” As such, a medical dummy probably wouldn’t count, but a VR simulation of field surgery might. In theory, these systems seek to re-create “conditions that are not possible to achieve in live training,” either because it would be expensive to do so (heavy weaponry munitions don’t come cheap) or because it’s hard to reproduce varied field conditions on demand. Fittingly, then, many of the systems that GAO examines simulate vehicle operations, while others help soldiers familiarize themselves with unit tactics and operational protocols.

The proliferation of training simulations in the military might seem to be of a piece with the general shift toward gamification in civilian settings—and the concomitant expectation that learning a new job or skill should be fun. While such ideas may simmer in the background here, few of the systems discussed in the GAO report seem like they’d be that enjoyable to play. For more than a decade, the military has used the game America’s Army for recruitment, attempting to give players a feel for the actual demands of service. Such militainment isn’t really on the table in the GAO report, however. Indeed, while words like “funding” and “function” crop up repeatedly throughout, mere “fun” is nowhere to be found.

It’s hard to say how much use the Army is actually getting out of its virtual training devices, partly because it didn’t keep strong records of actual engagement. Nevertheless, the GAO report’s inventory of Army-operated systems suggests that usage is limited at best: In 2015, trainees logged a mere 435 hours of time with the Army’s 18 units of one bulky-looking system designed to help develop “driving and operating skills in simulated weather, urban operations, and complex virtual terrain.” Given that the $12 million system cost $744,405 to maintain in that year alone (and that there were 33,332 hours of available simulator time), that seems like a relatively poor return on investment.

Other training devices performed better: A $216 million system that “replicates live weapons training events” plopped soldiers in front of its simulated screens for more than 300,000 hours lin 2015. Similarly, Virtual Battlespace II—which seeks to improve skills like “cultural awareness, language, [and] explosive device recognition”—appears to have performed reasonably well, racking up 18,673 user hours.

This moderate success, however, arguably squares with a point that Beckhusen extracts from the report: Many of the army’s “games” may be too realistic for their own good. “It’s unnecessary to strap soldiers into an immobile vehicle and make them scan a wrap-around screen if they can accomplish the same basic tasks with a mouse and keyboard,” Beckhusen argues. One commenter on Slashdot suggests that this is hardly a new problem, writing, “[B]ack in the early 90s we’d go to the M-1 simulator and run through that. Then go back to the barracks and play M1 Tank platoon on my Amiga 500. It was a running joke I had my own simulator in my room.”

The Army’s bulkier simulators presumably offer things that more commercial modern games—never mind Amiga titles!—can’t, but more conventionally gamelike programs may still offer advantages. As Beckhusen notes, for example, Virtual Battlespace “scales better” than many of the more sophisticated systems designed to train users on a particular vehicle or scenario. Significantly, they may also be more cost effective: The Army spent about $8 million on the flexibly designed Virtual Battlespace, but put almost 10 times that number into its Conduct of Fire Trainer for M2/M3 Bradley vehicles, which includes a sophisticated-looking cockpit full of real knobs, buttons, and sensors.

Obviously, neither dollars spent nor training hours accumulated translate directly into true usefulness with these systems. In fact, many of these amounts likely seem like rounding errors relative to the military’s massive annual budget. Nevertheless, the report still suggests that the Army needs to more fully integrate those games into its training schemes—evaluating both their potential efficacy before developing them and investigating their effectiveness once they’ve been deployed.

Aug. 25 2016 2:26 PM

This Lawsuit-Financing Startup Uses Algorithms to Find Cases That Could Earn Big Bucks

Interest in financing lawsuits as a business opportunity seems to be growing even as prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel draws flak for financially backing the lawsuit that shut down Gawker. As Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Cromwell Schubarth writes, Legalist, a startup founded by Harvard grads Eva Shang and Christian Haigh, plans to use algorithms to vet and finance commercial lawsuits that could deliver significant returns to investors:

 

Aug. 25 2016 1:16 PM

FCC Support for Hackable Wireless Routers Is a Win for All of Us

It’s increasingly dawning on people that they don’t really own a lot of the goods they buy, not in a world where software is infiltrating everything and can be modified at the whim of the seller. Amazon can remove books people have “purchased” for their Kindles. Apple decides what software you’re allowed to load on an iPhone. Coffee-machine companies try to prevent customers from using competitive refills. And our legislators and regulators rarely seem to notice, much less block, such control-freakery.

So it’s a breath of fresh air when the government steps in and tells a manufacturer it should allow, even encourage, customers to modify devices that most of us use in our homes and businesses: Wi-Fi routers that let us do our computing and communications without being tethered to a wire.

That just happened, in a case at the Federal Communications Commission, and it’s a very, very good thing. If ever we needed the ability to modify a device by changing the software it shipped with, it’s this one. Many if not most routers are grossly insecure. Installing third-party operating software (sometimes called firmware) is sometimes the only way to plug gaping security holes. Moreover, changing the firmware can radically improve a router’s overall capabilities, such as creating community networks in places Big Telecom is slow to serve, and ensuring local communications in disasters. One of the most important community networks in the world, Guifi.net, in Spain’s Catalonia region, wouldn’t exist without hackable routers.

Aug. 25 2016 12:44 PM

Cooperative Behavior Could Make Artificial Intelligence More Human

This article originally appeared in the Conversation.

Cooperation is one of the hallmarks of being human. We are extremely social compared to other species. On a regular basis, we all enter into helping others in small but important ways, whether it be letting someone out in traffic or giving a tip for good service.

We do this without any guarantee of payback. Donations are made at a small personal cost but with a bigger benefit to the recipient. This form of cooperation, or donation to others, is called indirect reciprocity and helps human society to thrive.

Group-based behaviour in humans originally evolved to overcome the threat of larger predators. This has led to us having a sophisticated brain with social abilities, which is disproportionately larger in size than those of other species. The social brain hypothesis captures this idea: it proposes that the large human brain is a consequence of humans evolving in complex social groups where cooperation is a distinctive component.

Aug. 25 2016 10:46 AM

The Next Phase of Wearable Tech: Tattoos

This video introduces DuoSkin, a new piece of wearable tech co-developed by MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research. It’s a fantastic idea: a paint-on temporary tattoo with circuitry that makes it an on-skin interface with three practical applications. It’s a trackpad, it’s a display, and it can hold data.

The tattoos use near-field communication to connect with other devices. This is the same protocol your phone uses for cashless payments at stores and gas stations. The tattoos are made from gold leaf, a benign-for-your-body material you may have even eaten as a decoration on a fancy chocolate.

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The tattoos work as displays capable of changing in response to body temperature or feelings—mood tattoos, essentially. They also hold data, so it’s easy to imagine something like DuoSkin replacing, for instance, boarding passes and movie tickets on your phone.

That said, this would all mean nothing if this particular type of wearable tech didn’t look like something someone would want to wear. With metallic gold and silver geometric patterns, though, they’re just flashy enough to potentially be on trend. They’d make quite the personal statement even before you switched them on.

Aug. 25 2016 9:15 AM

The Digital Epidemic of Random Midsentence Capitalization

A recent (excellent) piece on Sean Hannity’s integrity (LOL) that ran on Slate contained the following sentences: “Whether or not Hannity is a journalist, he should certainly be honest with viewers, which he has not been. But the mini-scandal seemed to be fueled by a wish for Hannity to comport himself according to the abstemious norms of Serious Journalism.”

There—do you see it? Grab your binoculars and don’t scare it away. It’s the Capitalization for Emphasis, resplendent in the wild. The writer used an arch technique to underscore the perceived seriousness of Serious Journalism. Nothing is More Serious than judicious uppercase letters, which strike a stately balance between the conversational flow of normal prose and SHOUTING FOR YOUR LIFE.

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Actually, though, the specific tone served by Emphatic Capitalization is largely bloggy and informal—more a send-up of others’ pretensions than a good-faith attempt to hallow your chosen noun. Women prove more likely to wear plaid jorts when they’re ovulating “because Science” (typed with a dismissive, feminist eye-roll). I have chosen to enjoy this bag of Doritos with my salad at lunch because, heh, the Chips Don’t Lie. To beleaguered copy editors chasing down each too-clever cap and trying to reason it into lowercase, the practice has blossomed into a bête noir. “I’m often like, I see what you’re trying to do there, and I don’t think you’ve earned it,” said one Slate copy editor (who immediately afterward went into a witness protection program, because the tongue-in-cheek spotlighting method is so widespread on the web). Another editor at an unnamed magazine falsely informs her writers that the publication’s stylebook expressly forbids ungrammatical caps—sticking it to Big Majuscule.

Where does the Emphatic Capitalization come from? Certainly, it wasn’t always ironic, just as many of the internet’s puckish fillips originated in solemn, graceful rhetorical techniques. (In some ways, the built-in colloquial register of places like Twitter automatically ironizes loftier moves, like hyperbole and aposiopesis.) King James’ Bible placed its holiest nouns—God, but also Day, Heart, Time, and Name—in uppercase. In 1611, “reverential capitalization” reflected the lack of standardization in English punctuation, which allowed individual writers to capitalize the terms they deemed most important.

This continued into the 18th century, when authors like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Jefferson often used capital letters to harken back to a heroic past. Perhaps they were drawing on the tradition of allegory, which grandly imagined “Liberty” as a woman waving a torch, or “Death” as a peaked figure shrouded in mist. At any rate, the Enlightenment and then the Victorian era, both ages of billowy abstractions and bright ideals, saw a fair amount of highfalutin typography. Consider Emily Dickinson (“Futile—the winds—to a Heart in port –”) or even, a little later, A. A. Milne. (“He was a Bear of Very Little Brain.”)

Point is, emphatic caps used to be all over the place. Some people cite the German language convention of capitalizing nouns as another contributing factor. In our contemporary moment, maybe we’ve just read enough whimsical teenaged dialogue by the YA author John Green to develop compassion for the neglected “words in the middle” of the sentence.

Or here’s a theory: It’s all Twitter’s fault. Twitter does not allow users to type in boldface or italics. Accordingly, we have to sleuth out other ways to pack our posts with emphasis.  We SHOUT or we turn to Inappropriate Title Casing or we do that stupid clapping thing. And then, those compensatory norms trickle into our non-Twitter communications, and our sentences grow into Spiky Forests of Surprise Capitalization.

This compromise evokes the long-deplored tactic of presenting book and movie titles in all caps. Because typewriters couldn’t deliver italics and underlining entailed going back over the words, press monkeys under time pressure often just distinguished works of art from the rest of the sentence via uppercase letters. Now those capitals are status quo normal in emails, Twitter posts, and certain publications. At least the random emphatic majuscules on blogs are uncommon enough to make a rhetorical impression, though perhaps one not quite worthy of Serious Journalism.

Aug. 24 2016 4:16 PM

Reports: Hackers Publish Nude Photos and Personal Info on Leslie Jones’ Website

The abuse that Leslie Jones has faced online in recent months is horrific. After dealing with a period of near-constant racist and sexist harassment on Twitter last month, the Ghostbusters actor and SNL star briefly left the site, calling the messages “evil.” On Wednesday, according to reports, that evil was back.

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