‘Star Wars’ Surprise: Jedi Are Celibate!

‘Star Wars’ Surprise: Jedi Are Celibate!

Despite seven (going on eight) movies and myriad books, comics, and animated series, there are still a lot of unknown mysteries when it comes to the Jedi of the Star Wars universe. The Force-sensitive folks are so fascinatingly unknowable that people are constantly asking the internet for explanations for their many secrets.

We here at WIRED spend a lot of time Googling for answers, but when we have access to an actual Jedi, we’re always going to go straight to the source for our answers. So when the opportunity presented itself to ask Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker) some Jedi questions, we consulted the internet and brought the best to his attention. What did he say? Well, for one, Jedi are celibate. “I think so,” he said. “Otherwise I’d have a girlfriend by now.”

Was he kidding? Perhaps. The rules around what Jedi are allowed to do in this regard have always been murky. Anakin and Padmé’s relationship got them in trouble, but that was more because the future Darth Vader got attached to Queen Amidala of Naboo, not that they got down. Yet because Jedi are supposed to be focused on bringing balance to the Force, it’s easy to imagine that sex would be a distraction and that Hamill is being sincere when he says they shouldn’t be knocking boots.

But the whoopee talk is just the beginning. We also asked Star Wars: The Last Jedi cast mates Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Bodega (Finn), and Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) some other questions about the franchise and found out a lot about whether or not Jedi wear underwear and why Rey is able to beat Kylo Ren. “She’s super strong and he’s so weak,” Ridley says. “Why is that so hard for people to get?” Find out all you’ll need to know for your next Star Wars trivia night in the video above.

More Star Wars

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/star-wars-last-jedi-google-autocomplete-interview/

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Why This CEO Decided to Livestream His Company’s Work

Why This CEO Decided to Livestream His Company’s Work

Thinking In Public

I’ve been CEOing Wolfram Research for more than 30 years now. But what does that actually entail? What do I end up doing on a typical day? I certainly work hard. But I think I’m not particularly typical of CEOs of tech companies our size. Because for me, a large part of my time is spent on the front lines of figuring out how our products should be designed and architected, and what they should do.

Thirty years ago I mostly did this by myself. But nowadays I’m almost always working with groups of people from our 800 or so employees. I like to do things very interactively. And in fact, for the past 15 years or so I’ve spent much of my time doing what I often call “thinking in public:” solving problems and making decisions live in meetings with other people.

I’m often asked how this works, and what actually goes on in our meetings. And recently I realized: What better way to show (and perhaps educate) people than just to livestream lots of our actual meetings? So over the past couple of months, I’ve livestreamed nearly 40 hours of my internal meetings—in effect taking everyone behind the scenes in what I do and how our products are created. (Yes, the live streams are also archived.)

Seeing Decisions Be Made

In the world at large, people often complain that “nothing happens in meetings.” Well, that’s not true of my meetings. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in every single product-design meeting I do, significant things are figured out, and at least some significant decisions are made. So far this year, for example, we’ve added over 250 completely new functions to the Wolfram Language. Each one of those went through a meeting of mine. And quite often the design, the name, or even the very idea of the function was figured out live in the meeting.

There’s always a certain intellectual intensity to our meetings. We’ll have an hour or whatever, and we’ll have to work through what are often complex issues, that require a deep understanding of some area or another—and in the end come up with ideas and decisions that will often have very long-term consequences.

I’ve worked very hard over the past 30 plus years to maintain the unity and coherence of the Wolfram Language. But every day I’m doing meetings where we decide about new things to be added to the language—and it’s always a big challenge and a big responsibility to maintain the standards we’ve set, and to make sure that the decisions we make today will serve us well in the years to come.

It could be about our symbolic framework for neural nets. Or about integrating with databases. Or how to represent complex engineering systems. Or new primitives for functional programming. Or new forms of geo visualization. Or quantum computing. Or programmatic interactions with mail servers. Or the symbolic representation of molecules. Or a zillion other topics that the Wolfram Language covers now, or will cover in the future.

What are the important functions in a particular area? How do they relate to other functions? Do they have the correct names? How can we deal with seemingly incompatible design constraints? Are people going to understand these functions? Oh, and are related graphics or icons as good and clear and elegant as they can be?

By now I basically have four decades of experience in figuring things like this out—and many of the people I work with are also very experienced. Usually a meeting will start with some proposal that’s been developed for how something should work. And sometimes it’ll just be a question of understanding what’s proposed, thinking it through, and then confirming it. But often—in order to maintain the standards we’ve set—there are real problems that still have to be solved. And a meeting will go back and forth, grappling with some issue or another.

Ideas will come up, often to be shot down. Sometimes it’ll feel like we’re completely stuck. But everyone in the meeting knows this isn’t an exercise; we’ve got to come up with an actual answer. Sometimes I’ll be trying to make analogies—to find somewhere else where we’ve solved a similar problem before. Or I’ll be insisting we go back to first principles—to kind of the center of the problem—to understand everything from the beginning. People will bring up lots of detailed academic or technical knowledge—and I’ll usually be trying to extract the essence of what it should be telling us.

It’d certainly be a lot easier if our standards were lower. But we don’t want a committee compromise result. We want actual, correct answers that will stand the test of time. And these often require actual new ideas. But in the end it’s typically tremendously satisfying. We put in lots of work and thinking—and eventually we get a solution, and it’s a really good solution, that’s a real intellectual achievement.

Usually all of this goes on in private, inside our company. But with the livestream, anyone can see it happening—and can see the moment when some function is named, or some problem is solved.

What Are the Meetings Like?

What will actually be going on if you tune into a live stream? It’s pretty diverse. You might see some new Wolfram Language function being tried out (often based on code that’s only days or even hours old). You might see a discussion about software engineering, or trends in machine learning, or the philosophy of science, or how to handle some issue of popular culture, or what it’s going to take to fix some conceptual bug. You might see some new area get started, you might some specific piece of Wolfram Language documentation get finished, or you might see a piece of final visual design get done.

There’s quite a range of people in our meetings, with a whole diversity of accents and backgrounds and specialties. And it’s pretty common for us to need to call in some extra person with specific expertise we hadn’t thought was needed. (I find it a little charming that our company culture is such that nobody ever seems surprised to be called into a meeting and asked about a detail of some unusual topic they had no idea was relevant to us before.)

We’re a very geographically distributed company (I’ve been a remote CEO since 1991). So basically all our meetings are through webconferencing. (We use audio and screensharing, but we never find video helpful, except perhaps for looking at a mobile device or a book or a drawing on a piece of paper.)

Most often we’re looking at my screen, but sometimes it’ll be someone else’s screen. (The most common reason to look at someone else’s screen is to see something that’s only working on their machine so far.) Most often I’ll be working in a Wolfram Notebook. Usually there’ll be an initial agenda in a notebook, together with executable Wolfram Language code. We’ll start from that, but then I’ll be modifying the notebook, or creating a new one. Often I’ll be trying out design ideas. Sometimes people will be sending code fragments for me to run, or I’ll be writing them myself. Sometimes I’ll be live-editing our main documentation. Sometimes we’ll be watching graphic design being done in real time.

As much as possible, the goal in our meetings is to finish things. To consult in real time with all the people who have input we need, and to get all the ideas and issues about something resolved. Yes, sometimes, afterwards, someone (sometimes me) will realize that something we thought we figured out isn’t correct, or won’t work. But the good news is that that’s pretty rare, probably because the way we run our meetings, things get well aired in real time.

People in our meetings tend to be very direct. If they don’t agree with something, they’ll say so. I’m very keen that everyone in a meeting actually understands anything that’s relevant to them—so we get the benefit of their thinking and judgement about it. (That probably leads to an over-representation from me of phrases like “does that make sense?” or “do you get what I’m saying?”)

It really helps, of course, that we have very talented people, who are quick at understanding things. And by now everyone knows that even if the main topic of a meeting is one thing, it’s quite likely that we’ll have to dip into something completely different in order to make progress. It requires a certain intellectual agility to keep up with this—but if nothing else, I think that’s on its own a great thing to practice and cultivate.

For me it’s very invigorating to work on so many different topics—often wildly different even between successive hours in a day. It’s hard work, but it’s also fun. And, yes, there is often humor, particularly in the specifics of the examples we’ll end up discussing (lots of elephants and turtles, and strange usage scenarios).

The meetings vary in size from two or three people to perhaps 20 people. Sometimes people will be added and dropped through the course of the meeting, as the details of what we’re discussing change. Particularly in larger meetings—that tend to be about projects that cut across multiple groups—we’ll typically have one or more project managers (we call them “PMs”) present. The PMs are responsible for the overall flow of the project—and particularly for coordinating between different groups that need to contribute.

If you listen to the livestream, you’ll hear a certain amount of jargon. Some of it is pretty typical in the software industry (UX = user experience, SQA = software quality assurance). Some of it is more specific to our company—like acronyms for departments (DQA = Document Quality Assurance, WPE = Web Product Engineering) or names of internal things (XKernel = prototype Wolfram Language build, pods = elements of Wolfram|Alpha output, pinkboxing = indicating undisplayable output, knitting = crosslinking elements of documentation). And occasionally, of course, there’s a new piece of jargon, or a new name for something, invented right in the meeting.

Usually our meetings are pretty fast paced. An idea will come up—and immediately people are responding to it. And as soon as something’s been decided, people will start building on the decision, and figuring out more. It’s remarkably productive, and I think it’s a pretty interesting process to watch. Even though without the experience base that the people in the meeting have, there may be some points at which it seems as if ideas are flying around too fast to keep track of what’s going on.

The Process of Livestreaming

The idea of livestreaming our internal meetings is new. But over the years I’ve done a fair amount of livestreaming for other purposes.

Back in 2009, when we launched Wolfram|Alpha, we actually livestreamed the process of making the site live. (I figured that if things went wrong, we might as well just show everyone what actually went wrong, rather than just putting up a “site unavailable” message.)

I’ve livestreamed demos and explorations of new software we’ve released. I’ve livestreamed work I happen to be doing in writing code or producing “computational essays.” (My son Christopher is arguably a faster Wolfram Language programmer than me, and he’s livestreamed some livecoding he’s done too.) I’ve also livestreamed live experiments, particularly from our Wolfram Summer School and Wolfram Summer Camp.

But until recently, all my livestreaming had basically been solo: it hadn’t involved having other people in the livestream. But I’ve always thought our internal design review meetings are pretty interesting, so I thought “why not let other people listen in on them too?” I have to admit I was a little nervous about this at first. After all, these meetings are pretty central to what our company does, and we can’t afford to have them be dragged down by anything.

And so I’ve insisted that a meeting has to be just the same whether it’s livestreamed or not. My only immediate concession to livestreaming is that I give a few sentences of introduction to explain roughly what the meeting is going to be about. And the good news has been that as soon as a meeting gets going, the people in it (including myself) seem to rapidly forget that it’s being livestreamed—and just concentrate on the (typically quite intense) things that are going on in the meeting.

But something interesting that happens when we’re livestreaming a meeting is that there’s real-time text chat with viewers. Often it’s questions and general discussion. But sometimes it’s interesting comments or suggestions about what we’re doing or saying. It’s like having instant advisors, or an instant focus group, giving us real-time input or feedback about our decisions.

As a practical matter, the primary people in the meeting are too focused on the meeting itself to be handling text chat. So we have separate people doing that—surfacing a small number of the most relevant comments and suggestions. And this has worked great—and in fact in most meetings at least one or two good ideas come from our viewers, that we’re instantly able to incorporate into our thinking.

One can think of livestreaming as something a bit like reality TV—except that it’s live and real time. We’re planning to have some systematic “broadcast times” for recorded material. But the live component has the constraint that it has to happen when the meetings are actually happening. I tend to have a very full and complex schedule, in all the various things I do. And exactly when a particular design review meeting can happen will often depend on when a particular piece of code or design work is ready.

It will also depend on the availability of the various other people in the meetings—who have their own constraints, and often live in a wide range of time zones. I’ve tried other approaches, but the most common thing now is that design review meetings are scheduled soon before they actually happen, and typically not more than a day or two in advance. And even though I personally work at night as well as during the day, most design reviews tend to get scheduled during US (East Coast) working hours, because that’s when it’s easiest to arrange for all the people who have to be in the meeting—as well as people who might be called in if their expertise is needed.

From the point of view of livestreaming, it would be nice to have a more predictable schedule of relevant meetings, but the meetings are being set up to achieve maximum productivity in their own right—and livestreaming is just an add-on.

We’re trying to use Twitter to give some advance notice of livestreaming. But in the end the best indication of when a livestream is starting is just the notification that comes from the Twitch livestreaming platform we’re using. (Yes, Twitch is mainly used for e-sports right now, but we [and they] hope it can be used for other things too—and with their e-sports focus, their technology for screensharing has become very good. Curiously, I’ve been aware of Twitch for a long time. I met its founders at the very first Y Combinator Demo Day in 2005, and we used its precursor, justin.tv, to livestream the Wolfram|Alpha launch.)

Styles of Work

Not all the work I do is suitable for livestreaming. In addition to “thinking in public” in meetings, I also spend time “thinking in private,” doing things like just writing. (I actually spent more than 10 years almost exclusively “thinking in private” when I worked on my book A New Kind of Science.)

If I look at my calendar for a given week, I’ll see a mixture of things. Every day there are typically at least one or two design reviews of the kind I’ve been livestreaming. There are also a fair number of project reviews, where I’m trying to help move all kinds of projects along. And there are some strategy and management discussions too, along with the very occasional external meeting.

Our company is weighted very heavily towards R&D—and trying to build the best possible products. And that’s certainly reflected in the way I spend my time—and in my emphasis on intellectual rather than commercial value. Some people might think that after all these years I couldn’t possibly still be involved in the level of detail that’s in evidence in the design reviews we’ve been livestreaming.

But here’s the thing: I’m trying hard to design the Wolfram Language in the very best possible way for the long term. And after 40 years of doing software design, I’m pretty experienced at it. So I’m both fairly fast at doing it, and fairly good at not making mistakes. By now, of course, there are many other excellent software designers at our company. But I’m still the person who has the most experience with Wolfram Language design—as well as the most global view of the system (which is part of why in design review meetings, I end up spending some fraction of my time just connecting different related design efforts).

And, yes, I get involved in details. What exactly should the name of that option be? What color should that icon be? What should this function do in a particular corner case? And, yes, every one of these things could be solved in some way without me. But in a fairly short time, I can help make sure that what we have is really something that we can build on—and be proud of—in the years to come. And I consider it a good and worthy way for me to spend my time.

And it’s fun to be able to open up this process for people, by livestreaming the meetings we have. I’m hoping it’ll be useful for people to understand a bit about what goes into creating the Wolfram Language (and yes, software design often tends to be a bit unsung, and mainly noticed only if it’s got wrong—so it’s nice to be able to show what’s actually involved).

In a sense, doing the design of the Wolfram Language is a very concentrated and high-end example of computational thinking. And I hope that by experiencing it in watching our meetings, people will be learn more about how they can do computational thinking themselves.

The meetings that we’re livestreaming now are about features of the Wolfram Language etc. that we currently have under development. But with our aggressive schedule of releasing software, it shouldn’t be long before the things we’re talking about are actually released in working products. And when that happens, there’ll be something quite unique about it. Because for the first time ever, people will not only be able to see what got done, but they’ll also be able to go back to a recorded livestream and see how it came to be figured out.

It’s an interesting and unique record of a powerful form of intellectual activity. But for me it’s already nice just to be able to share some of the fascinating conversations I end up being part of every day. And to feel like the time I’m spending as a very hands-on CEO not only advances the Wolfram Language and the other things we’re building, but can also directly help educate—and perhaps entertain—a few more people out in the world.

Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language; the author of A New Kind of Science; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Over the course of nearly four decades, he has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking—and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions and innovations in science, technology and business. This article was originally published on Stephen Wolfram’s blog.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/what-do-i-do-all-day-livestreamed-technology-ceoing/

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The best web browser 2017

The best web browser 2017

Most of us tend to choose a web browser and stick with it for years. It can be hard to break away from your comfort zone – especially when you’ve become used to its quirks – but trying a different browser can greatly improve your experience on the web.

Whether it’s enhanced security, improved speed, or greater flexibility through customizable options and plugins, the right browser can have a huge effect on your online life. Here we’ve put the biggest browsers through their paces (plus one that you might not be familiar with) to identify the one that does the best job of ticking all those boxes, but if you have a particular concern then read on to see if there’s an alternative that might be better suited to your needs.


Mozilla Firefox

After several years dropping behind the competition in terms of speed, Firefox is back in the game with a fully updated code base

1. Mozilla Firefox

Firefox is back after a total overhaul, and has retaken its crown

Light on system resources
Strong privacy tools

Firefox has just received its biggest update in 13 years, and it’s so impressive, it’s propelled the browser to the top of our list. 

Firefox has always been known for its flexibility and support for extensions, but in recent years it had started to lag behind the competition in terms of speed. Firefox Quantum, released in late 2017 represented a total overhaul of the browser’s code base, with speeds now comparable with Google Chrome. That’s not just on top-end computers, either – the new Firefox makes frugal use of RAM, even with masses of tabs open.

Firefox also scores serious points when it comes to privacy. Mozilla is a non-profit organisation, which means it doesn’t have the same impetus to sell your data as some other browser developers.

Quantum also introduced a new system for extensions that prevents rogue developers making malicious changes to the browser’s internal code. 

It’s not always the absolute fastest – for some pages Chrome still has the edge, as Mozilla’s own video demonstrates – but the new Firefox has come out swinging and is our pick for the best web browser of 2017.


Google Chrome

Chrome is a superb browser – fast and adaptable – if you aren’t bothered by letting Google handle all your online activity

2. Google Chrome

If your system has the resources, Chrome is 2017’s best browser

Fast performance
Infinitely expandable

With Chrome, Google has built an extendable, efficient browser that deserves its place at the top of the browser rankings. According to w3schools’ browser trend analysis its user base is only rising, even as Microsoft Edge’s install numbers are presumably growing. Why? Well, it’s cross-platform, incredibly stable, brilliantly presented to take up the minimum of screen space, and just about the nicest browser there is to use.

Its wide range of easily obtained and installed extensions mean you can really make it your own, and there’s support for parental controls and a huge range of tweaks and settings to ensure maximum efficiency.

But there are downsides, and potentially big ones. It’s among the heaviest browsers in terms of resource use, so it’s not brilliant on machines with limited RAM, and its performance doesn’t quite match up to others in benchmarking terms. And with Google’s tentacles running through it, you might be uncomfortable with the ways in which your browsing data may be used.



Opera is a superb browser with a clean interface and built-in ad-blocker, plus a Turbo mode that makes slow connections more useable

3. Opera

An underrated browser that’s a great choice for slow connections

Excellent Turbo mode
Integrated ad-blocker
Fewer plugins than rivals

It’s sad that Opera makes up only around 1% of the browser market, because it really is a quality browser. It launches fast, the UI is brilliantly clean, and it does everything its rivals can do with a couple of extras thrown in for good measure.

The key reason we’d at least recommend having Opera installed alongside your main browser is its Opera Turbo feature. This compresses your web traffic, routing it through Opera’s servers, which makes a huge difference to browsing speed if you’re stuck on rural dial-up or your broadband connection is having a moment.

It reduces the amount of data transferred too, handy if you’re using a mobile connection, and this re-routing also dodges any content restrictions your ISP might place on your browsing, which can be mighty handy. Opera automatically ducks out of the way if you’re using secure sites like banks so your traffic is free and clear of any potential privacy violation.

There’s also an integrated ad-blocker – which can be switched off if you’re morally inclined in that direction – and a battery-saving mode which promises to keep your laptop going for longer.


Microsoft Edge

Edge works on all your Windows 10 devices, with sandboxing for security and a special reading mode to isolate the important content on pages

4. Microsoft Edge

Microsoft’s new browser offers full integration with Windows 10

Built-in reading mode
Not backwards compatible

The default ‘browsing experience’ on Windows 10, and unavailable for older operating systems, Edge is an odd one. Quite why Microsoft needs to be running a pair of browser products in tandem rather than making Edge backwards compatible is beyond us. The company’s reason, it seems, is that Edge represents the more user-friendly end of Redmond’s offering while Internet Explorer scales a little better for enterprise.

Integration with Windows 10’s core gimmicks seems to be Edge’s main strong point. It happily runs as a modern-skinned app on Windows 10’s tablet mode, and works with Cortana. It’s also highly streamlined for the current web age, doing away with insecure protocols like ActiveX and forcing you into Internet Explorer if you want to use them. We’re more used to browsers failing to render newer pages than we are to being told off for visiting older corners of the web.

Curmudgeonly grumbles aside, actually using Edge is a perfectly pleasant experience. It’s super-quick, hammers through benchmarks, its integrated reading mode makes complex sites more palatable, and by sandboxing it away from the rest of the operating system Microsoft has ensured that Edge won’t suffer the security breaches of its older brother.


Microsoft Internet Explorer

Microsoft Internet Explorer is a fast and powerful browser, and makes modest use of your system resources, though it lacks the flexibility of Firefox and Chrome

6. Microsoft Internet Explorer

Fast and efficient, but less expandable than Firefox and Chrome

Make frugal use of resources
Clean design
Poor plugin support

Microsoft Internet Explorer has seen some ups and downs in its long tenure, from dominating the browser charts to languishing behind its main two competitors. This is partly an issue of choice – particularly the browser choice that Microsoft was forced to give customers after a court ruling – and partially because older versions fell behind the rendering and compatibility curve.

There are no such issues with Internet Explorer 11. It’s clean, powerful, highly compatible, and it demands less of your RAM and CPU than equivalent pages would on Chrome or Firefox. Plus it one-ups both of them on WebKit’s Sunspider benchmark.

That’s not to say this browser is perfect. Google’s V8 benchmark sees it struggling, and IE isn’t quite as able to handle add-ons and extensions as many of its competitors. So while there’s no reason to avoid IE like there might once have been, if you’re looking for a more customised browsing experience you’re out of luck.



Vivaldi is a relatively new browser that’s bound to see more development soon. Its interface is fully customizable, though it doesn’t officially support extensions yet

5. Vivaldi

Build your own browser with unique docking and tab-stacking

Incredibly customizable
Creative interface features
Not the fastest

Here’s something a bit different. We all spend probably far too much time sitting in front of our web browsers, and up-and-comer Vivaldi wants to make that as pleasant and personal an experience as possible.

The whole style and structure of its interface is entirely up to you. There’s a built-in note-taking system, you can dock websites as side panels while using the main window to do your main browsing, and we love its innovative tab stacking tech, which allows you to group up tabs and move them around to avoid the crowding that so often plagues other browsers.

Vivaldi is built on Chromium, which means you can expand it even further with extensions from the Chrome Web Store. Just pick your preferred plugin and click ‘Add to Chrome’. Some extensions might behave slightly differently in Vivaldi, but most work perfectly.

Vivaldi is a refreshing and creative take on web browsing, and one to watch in the next couple of years as more features are added.


Tor Browser is a heavily modified version of Firefox that re-routed web traffic via random nodes worldwide

7. Tor Browser

More than just a browser – a whole suite of online security tools

Keeps browsing private
Blocks tracking cookies
Performance is slow

Tor Browser is, perhaps unjustly, most regularly associated with the seedy underworld of the dark web. While it’s true that you can use this web browser to access otherwise unlisted sites, Tor’s privacy aspects – where your traffic is routed through random nodes the world over, making it very hard to track – are its real asset.

Tor Browser is really a package of tools; Tor itself, a heavily modified version of the Firefox Extended Support release, and a number of other privacy packages that combine to make it the most secure browsing experience you’re likely to find. Nothing is tracked, nothing is stored, and you can forget about bookmarks and cookies.

You’ll need to alter your browsing habits to ensure that you don’t perform actions online that reveal your identity – Tor Browser is just a tool, after all – but for a secondary browser useful for those private moments it’s a great choice. Run it from a USB stick and nobody need even know you have it at all.

Source: http://www.techradar.com/news/software/applications/best-browser-which-should-you-be-using-932466

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Climate Change Could Take the Air Out of Wind Farms

Climate Change Could Take the Air Out of Wind Farms

Big offshore wind farms power Europe’s drive for a carbon-free society, while rows of spinning turbines across America’s heartland churn enough energy to power 25 million US homes. But a new study predicts that a changing climate will weaken winds that blow across much of the Northern hemisphere, possibly leading to big drops in clean wind energy.

That’s because the temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator, which drives atmospheric energy in the form of winds and storm systems, is shrinking as the Arctic warms. A warmer Arctic means less of a temperature difference and therefore weaker winds across the central United States, the United Kingdom, the northern Middle East, and parts of Asia. It’s just one of many weather-related effects that scientists forecast are likely to occur as concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide continue to rise in the Earth’s atmosphere—from stronger hurricanes to weaker polar vortexes.

“Our results don’t show the wind power goes to zero, it’s a reduction of 10 percent over broad regions,” says Kristopher Karnauskas, a climate scientist at Colorado University Boulder and lead author of the new study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience. “But it’s not trivial.”

Wind derives its energy from instability between regions of the globe—in the Northern hemisphere, from instability between the equator and North Pole. “That’s why we have a constant parade of weather systems,” says Karnauskas. “They are there because of this contrast in energy between the equator and the pole. Because the Arctic is warming so much faster than the rest of the world, you can imagine how it changes the gradient.”

Down under, things are likely to be different. Under some climate change prediction models, the Southern Hemisphere will see stronger winds because the difference in southern land and sea temperatures will increase. Changing wind patterns in the Southern hemisphere might have other effects as well, including pushing masses of warm water off the Antarctica coastline and melting glaciers from below at a faster rate.

Karnauskas and colleagues used several climate scenarios from the latest IPCC report and combined them with a formula that the wind industry uses to derive how much electricity a turbine can produce. The study used 10 climate models, each one using a different level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by 2050 and 2100. Together, those data indicate changing weather patterns will cause an 8 to 10 percent drop in wind across much of the Northern hemisphere by 2050, with a 14 to 18 percent drop by the end of the century. “Most of the human population and wind farms are in the Northern hemisphere,” says Karnauskas.

And a small drop in available wind can translate into a bigger drop in the amount of wind energy produced by turbines. “The total energy from wind farms would drop significantly,” says Geoff Spedding, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study. That’s because power output is windspeed to the third power—so Spedding calculates that a 10 percent drop in wind power would result in a nearly 30 percent drop in wind-derived energy.

That doesn’t mean the potential for wind power will disappear. Karnauskas says that a changing climate would merely “shift the potential for wind power from the north to the south.” The study calculates potential wind power hotspots in places like East Australia, West Africa, and the Brazilian coast, for example. The big losers will likely be the Central US and Scandinavia, places where wind power has surged in recent years. That kind of shift may mean new players in the global wind game, especially if there’s an economical and efficient way to store this energy.

Spedding notes that the operators of wind farms are used to dealing with variability in wind speed and direction—they will likely find ways to compensate for a future with less available wind. That idea is shared by a co-author on the paper who studies the turbulent airborne “wake” produced behind the spinning blades of 300-foot tall wind turbines, which reduces the energy available for turbines downwind. Julie Lundquist, atmospheric scientist at CU, says that researchers are considering ways to get the next generation of turbines higher off the ground where winds travel faster. They could put turbines on kites for example, or change the position of individual turbines in order to reduce the wake that flows behind.

“Existing wind farms won’t stop working,” Lundquist says. “But we should be on the alert to look for indications of change.” The US currently gets about 5 percent of its power from wind turbines, although five states in the Midwest generate more than 20 percent of their electricity from this renewable source of energy. Hopes for East Coast offshore wind farm were dashed recently when Cape Wind pulled the plug on an operation between Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard after strong local opposition. But developers and state officials in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina are hoping that projects in those waters will soon be replacing coal-fired energy with wind power. Of course, if those winds peter out, future wind farms could be left stranded—or at least in search of new technologies to keep green power flowing.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/climate-change-could-take-the-air-out-of-wind-farms/

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Am I The Worst For Looking at People’s Texts on the Subway?

Am I The Worst For Looking at People’s Texts on the Subway?

Q: I Catch Myself Peeking at Other People’s Texts on the Subway. Am I the Worst?

A: Imagine being eaten by a cave bear. Or a saber-toothed cat. Imagine, with that first gash of claw or incisor, instantaneously transitioning from being a person to being food. Imagine what it feels like, the first, dangling bits of you being rent apart, ground up and ingested, while the rest of you watches.

Very unpleasant stuff. And yet for much of human history we lived acutely under such a threat. Just think how hard it must have been to relax! If prehistoric humans were anything like modern animals, one way they fended off predators was by vigilantly monitoring the creatures around them for signs of danger, in case they saw the terror coming a split-second sooner.

There were subtler benefits to watching other people too—particularly when they didn’t expect us to be watching. Keeping tabs on private behavior helped enforce social norms; food hoarding or sexual transgressions could be exposed and censured. In short, spying helped us thrive, and so we became exceptionally good at it, innovating like crazy. (Apparently, the Mehinaku tribe in Central Brazil can tell who had sex with whom by identifying the footprints that accompany butt-cheek imprints in the sand.) We became, as one psychologist has put it, a species of “informavores”—a surreptitiously symbiotic race of hyper-­obtrusives, sucking up information about one another. Our business has always been getting up in each other’s business.

This was all upended 10,000 to 15,000 years ago when human beings started living behind walls. But the impulse to know what was happening on the other side of those walls remained. So we stood outside, under the “eavesdrop,” where rain spilled off the roof, and collected what information we could. We just couldn’t help ourselves. As John Locke, a linguist at Lehman College at City University of New York, writes, “If we are to find out the answer to humankind’s most important questions—who we are—it is necessary to know what others are like.”

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I learned all this from Locke’s book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History. Years ago, Locke was editing a draft of the book on a flight to London and a woman nosed over her headrest to ask what it was about; she’d been snooping. Locke met her gaze and explained that his book “concerned the intense desire of members of our species to know what is going on in the personal lives of others.”

At first I imagined him delivering that line as a sick burn—subtext: Mind your own business, lady. But Locke told me he wasn’t particularly put out. The woman didn’t seem all that guilt-ridden, either; after all, she volunteered that she’d been spying on him.

Certainly, some violations of privacy are more aggressive, heartless, and immoral than others. (Reading a text over someone’s shoulder on the subway is different from hacking into their email.) The immorality of eavesdropping also depends on the intimacy of the information you end up gleaning, which of course you have no way of knowing until after you glean it. An excruciating paradox!

And yet, I took the point of Locke’s airplane story to be, as he explained it, that eavesdropping is pretty bilateral—there’s an understanding that “you eavesdrop on me now, I eavesdrop on you later, and neither of us can claim to be innocent.” We grasp that eavesdropping is mostly harmless, because we know everyone is doing it. As the other John Locke is often paraphrased, “We are like chameleons. We take our hue and the color of our moral character from those who are around us.”

So are you the worst? I can only answer by saying you are human like the rest of us. We are all informational predators. We are also all informational prey. I’d only ask that you bear that in mind and be careful not to abuse any power or privilege that the illicit knowledge affords you. Keep your eyes open—fine. But keep your claws retracted.

This article appears in the December issue. Subscribe now.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/ethics-of-reading-other-peoples-texts/

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When Your Activity Tracker Becomes a Personal Medical Device

When Your Activity Tracker Becomes a Personal Medical Device

Fitbit spent its first decade selling activity trackers. With its latest moves, the company is starting to look less like a gear maker selling pricey accessories to fitness buffs and more like a medical-device company, catering to hospitals, patients, and health insurers. The company’s business-to-business arm, called Health Solutions, is now addressing four health conditions—sleep disorders including sleep apnea, diabetes, cardiovascular health and mental health—for employers, health insurers, healthcare providers, and researchers.

Fitbit has deals with insurers like UnitedHealthcare, which pays its clients up to $1,500 a year for hitting step-count goals. United has done years of research to calculate its return on these payouts, says Fitbit CEO James Park. “The business models are finally catching up to the data we have been collecting.” The next stage is to add in heart rate data, he says.

Fitbit’s newest product, the Ionic smartwatch, uses a blood-oxygen sensor to screen for sleep apnea and detect a type of heart arrhythmia. The company has completed clinical trials on the use cases and is awaiting US Food and Drug Administration approval. If it receives approval, Fitbits could replace expensive chest patch scanning to perform initial screenings for atrial fibrillation on some patients, Park says. The company’s data has been popular with cancer researchers.

There are plenty of reasons behind the company’s transition: For one, Fitbit will always battle high abandonment rates. (“Fitbit? More like Quitbit,” The Atlantic once quipped.) Fitbit’s sales of fitness trackers, and in turn, its stock price, have reflected that fatigue; revenue fell 22% last quarter and its stock is trading at a 77% discount to its opening price in 2014. But most important, the company needs to differentiate its offerings from the Apple Watch, which debuted in 2015 and has studies that address some of the same areas Fitbit is chasing. Fitbit beat Apple in the third quarter in terms of devices shipped, taking 13.7% of the market, according to IDC. Apple, which took 10.3% of the market, experienced a dramatic increase in sales, while Fitbit continues its decline.

Fitbit believes its position as a neutral player that works with any phone makes it desirable to insurance companies and hospitals. Apple Watches only work with iPhones; if an employer, hospital or insurer wants its clients to use them, it won’t be able to reach people who have Android phones.

Fitbit’s push into medicine is not without risks. Park agrees that over time the company’s products will become a form of medical device, but he’s reluctant to call them that outright. The company’s brand is valuable because of its association with fitness and self-improvement, and consumer psychology is a critical component in making sure something like a step tracker is successful, he says.

“There is a dramatic difference in consumer acceptance and engagement when you say, ‘Hey, here is a medical device from Medtronic, go wear it,’ versus, ‘Here’s a Fitbit, wear this instead,’ ” Park says. “One is aspirational, the other implies that you’re sick. Consumers just go in with a different mentality based on how it’s portrayed and that is actually really, really important.”

That’s why Fitbit is participating in a new FDA precertification program aimed at digital health products, announced in September. “The FDA recognizes that there is this potentially new class of devices that’s not a consumer device and not a traditional medical device, but somewhere in between, and that there needs to be a new regulatory pathway,” Park says. Fitbit’s rival, Apple, is also a participant.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/when-your-activity-tracker-becomes-a-personal-medical-device/

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The US Flirts With Geoengineering to Stymie Climate Change

The US Flirts With Geoengineering to Stymie Climate Change

The thing about humans is, for all our faults, we’re actually pretty good at fixing things we know we’ve screwed up. Lead in gasoline? Bad idea—let’s ban lead in gasoline. Running out of oil to make gasoline? Let’s switch to electric vehicles.

Runaway climate change because humanity has taken too long to ditch fossil fuels? That’s … a bit trickier. Because even if the world meets the emissions goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, it may be too late to fix what we’ve done.

So a growing chorus of scientists have been mumbling about geoengineering. Doing things like spraying sulfur in the stratosphere or whitening clouds to bounce light back into space to help cool things down. And last week, Congressman Jerry McNerney joined them, introducing a bill that would ask the National Academies of Science to explore technologies to geoengineer Earth. In two reports, they’d explore research avenues and oversight of that research—that is, if the bill gets past McNerney’s colleagues and then the only world leader to shun the Paris Climate Agreement.

To be clear, McNerney would love nothing more than for the US to cut emissions. But the climate situation has become so dire that he thinks geoengineering is now something the US is obligated to explore. Not, like, initiating a full-scale manipulation of the stratosphere next week, but at least looking into the idea. “It’s very important that we understand what our tools are,” he says. “What options do we have? How much risk is there?”

The options are few and the risks murky. Take, for instance, sulfur seeding. The idea is to inject sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere, where it turns into sulfur aerosol that reflects light back into space. Problem is, just last month researchers released a study showing that if you injected the stuff into the Northern Hemisphere, you might reduce hurricanes in the Atlantic—and kick off a drought in north-central Africa in the process.

At the moment, no scientist is flying around in the stratosphere dumping out sulfur dioxide. They’re working with models and, conveniently enough, studying historical precedent—because the same sort of cooling happens when a massive volcano erupts. In 1912, for instance, an Alaskan volcano popped 30 cubic kilometers of ash and debris into the atmosphere. The next year was the only year on record without a hurricane, which is in keeping with the new models.

Another geoengineering option is called marine cloud brightening, which entails … the brightening of marine clouds. To do this, theoretically you’d spray a fine mist of water particles in clouds. Because when clouds are dark and stormy-looking, the particles within them, known as cloud condensation nuclei, are larger. “If the droplets are smaller, there’s more sunlight bouncing off all the surface area and the cloud is lighter and fluffier,” says Kelly Wanser, principal director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington.

The problem is that when you’re reflecting light away from Earth, you’re drawing heat out of the system. And when you do that you’re potentially reducing evaporation, which of course produces rain. “In general,” Wanser says, “and this kind of shows in the models, these geoengineering techniques are likely to produce a little less precipitation, and that effect is likely to be uneven and may be really hard to predict.”

Which brings us to the question of regionality. One country might decide it wants to tinker with its atmosphere, but that could muck things up for its neighbors, both near and far. And as you might imagine, there’s no treaty on the books that says you can’t geoengineer your neighbors into oblivion. “The current framework for ensuring accountability under international law is pretty thin on what it substantively requires,” says Anna-Maria Hubert, principal investigator at the Geoengineering Research Governance Project. “And whether it could even be enforced is a separate question.” (A reminder that McNerney’s bill would task the National Academies of Science with exploring the critical matter of oversight.)

Complicating matters is that in the eyes of the international community, big US initiatives on anything remotely related to climate change look … weird. “From an outside view, it’s difficult to see how the US taking leadership on solar geoengineering will not be met with expressions of distrust and even some hostility from the international climate community,” Hubert says. Consider that this geoengineering bill would put the Secretary of Energy in charge of interfacing with the National Academies of Science. That would be Rick Perry, who’s said humans aren’t the primary driver of climate change.

Complicating matters still further is that geoengineering would be a mighty tempting excuse to just emit whatever we want now. “That’s one of my fears,” McNerney says, “is that people will say, ‘Hey we’ve got this great science and technology, we can just continue to emit.’ But man, that is the absolute wrong answer.”

All complications considered, these are still very, very early days in geoengineering. McNerney wants insight at this point, not immediate solutions. This is science, after all. It’ll move slowly and methodically, and almost certainly not lead to humans making matters worse for themselves. Almost certainly.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/the-us-flirts-with-geoengineering/

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How Email Open Tracking Quietly Took Over the Web

How Email Open Tracking Quietly Took Over the Web

“I just came across this email,” began the message, a long overdue reply. But I knew the sender was lying. He’d opened my email nearly six months ago. On a Mac. In Palo Alto. At night.

I knew this because I was running the email tracking service Streak, which notified me as soon as my message had been opened. It told me where, when, and on what kind of device it was read. With Streak enabled, I felt like an inside trader whenever I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that gave me maybe a little too much information. And I certainly wasn’t alone.

There are some 269 billion emails sent and received daily. That’s roughly 35 emails for every person on the planet, every day. Over 40 percent of those emails are tracked, according to a study published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company that also builds anti-tracking tools.

The tech is pretty simple. Tracking clients embed a line of code in the body of an email—usually in a 1×1 pixel image, so tiny it’s invisible, but also in elements like hyperlinks and custom fonts. When a recipient opens the email, the tracking client recognizes that pixel has been downloaded, as well as where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers have used the technique for years, to collect data about their open rates; major tech companies like Facebook and Twitter followed suit in their ongoing quest to profile and predict our behavior online.

But lately, a surprising—and growing—number of tracked emails are being sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We have been in touch with users that were tracked by their spouses, business partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west out there.”

According to OMC’s data, a full 19 percent of all “conversational” email is now tracked. That’s one in five of the emails you get from your friends. And you probably never noticed.

“Surprisingly, while there is a vast literature on web tracking, email tracking has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper published by three Princeton computer scientists. All of this means that billions of emails are sent every day to millions of people who have never consented in any way to be tracked, but are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, at least, are in serious danger as a result.

As recently as the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an early tracking service called ReadNotify made waves when a lawsuit revealed that HP had used the product to trace the origins of a scandalous email that had leaked to the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) of the tactic came as something of a shock, even though newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to gather data.

Seroussi says that Gmail was the ice breaker here—he points back to the days when sponsored links first started showing up in our inboxes, based on tracked data. At the time it seemed invasive, even unsettling. “Now,” he says, “it’s common knowledge and everyone’s fine with it.” Gmail’s foray was the signal flare; when advertisers and salespeople realized they too could send targeted ads based on tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.

“I do not know of a single established sales team in [the online sales industry] that does not use some form of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro and the principal consultant at Growth Plays. “I think it will be a matter of time before either everyone uses them,” Scherck says, “or major email providers block them entirely.”

That’s partly to do with spam. “Competent spammers will track any activity on your email because they tend to buy entire lists of addresses and will actively try to rule out spam traps or unused emails,” says Andrei Afloarei, a spam researcher with Bitdefender. “If you click on any link in one of their messages they will know your address is being used and might actually cause them to send more spam your way.”

But marketing and online sales—even spammers—are no longer responsible for the bulk of the tracking. “Now, it’s the major tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon has been using them a lot, Facebook has been using them. Facebook is the number one tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends you an email notifying you about new activity on your account, “it opens an app in background, and now Facebook knows where you are, the device you’re using, the last picture you’ve taken—they get everything.”

Both Amazon and Facebook “deeplink all of the clickable links within the email to trigger actions on their app running on your device,” Seroussi says. “Depending on permissions set by the user, Facebook will have access to almost everything from Camera Roll, location, and many other logs that are hidden. But even if a user has disabled location permission on his device, email tracking will bypass this restriction and still provide Facebook with the user’s location.”

I stumbled upon the world of email tracking last year, while working on a book about the iPhone and the notoriously secretive company that produces it. I’d reached out to Apple to request some interviews, and the PR team had initially seemed polite and receptive. We exchanged a few emails. Then they went radio silent. Months went by, and my unanswered emails piled up. I started to wonder if anyone was reading them at all.

That’s when, inspired by another journalist who’d been stonewalled by Apple, I installed the email tracker Streak. It was free, and took about 30 seconds. Then, I sent another email to my press contact. A notification popped up on my screen: My email had been opened almost immediately, inside Cupertino, on an iPhone. Then it was opened again, on an iMac, and again, and again. My messages were not only being read, but widely disseminated. It was maddening, watching the grey little notification box—“Someone just viewed ‘Regarding book interviews’—pop up over and over and over, without a reply.

So I decided to go straight to the top. If Apple’s PR team was reading my emails, maybe Tim Cook would, too.

I wrote Cook a lengthy email detailing the reasons he should join me for an interview. When I didn’t hear back, I drafted a brief follow-up, enabled Streak, hit send. Hours later, I got the notification: My email had been read. Yet one glaring detail looked off. According to Streak, the email had been read on a Windows Desktop computer.

Maybe it was a fluke. But after a few weeks, I sent another follow up, and the email was read again. On a Windows machine.

That seemed crazy, so I emailed Streak to ask about the accuracy of its service, disclosing that I was a journalist. In the confusing email exchange with Andrew from Support that followed, I was told that Streak is “very accurate,” as it can let you know what time zone or state your lead is in—but only if you’re a salesperson. Andrew stressed that “if you’re a reporter and wanted to track someone’s whereabouts, [it’s] not at all accurate.” It quickly became clear that Andrew had the unenviable task of threading a razor thin needle: maintaining that Streak both supplied very precise data but was also a friendly and non-intrusive product. After all, Streak users want the most accurate information possible, but the public might chafe if it knew just how accurate that data was—and considered what it could be used for besides honing sales pitches. This is the paradox that threatens to pop the email tracking bubble as it grows into ubiquity. No wonder Andrew got Orwellian: “Accuracy is entirely subjective,” he insisted, at one point.

Andrew did, however, unequivocally say that if Streak listed the kind of device used—as opposed to listing unknown—then that info was also “very accurate.” Even if pertained to the CEO of Apple.

If Tim Cook is a closet Windows user (who knows! Maybe his Compaq days never fully rubbed off) or even if he outsources his email correspondence to a firm that does, then it’s a fine example of the sort of private data email tracking can dredge up even on our most powerful public figures.

“Look, everybody opens emails, even if they don’t respond to them,” Seroussi says. “If you can learn where a celebrity is—or anyone—just by emailing them, it’s a security threat.” It could be used as a tool for stalkers, harassers, even thieves who might be sending you spam emails just to see if you’re home.

“During the 2016 election, we sent a tracked email out to the US senators, and the people running for the presidency,” Seroussi says. “We wanted to know, were they doing anything about tracking? Obviously, the answer was no. We typically got the location of their devices, the IP addresses; you could pinpoint almost exactly where they were, which hotels they were staying at.”

This is what worries Bitdefender’s Afloarei about malicious spammers who use trackers, too. “As for the dangers of being tracked in spam, one must keep in mind the kind of people that do the tracking, and the fact that they can find out your IP address and therefore your location or workplace,” he says. Just by watching you open your email, Afloarei says spammers can learn your schedule (“based on the time you check your email”), your itinerary (based on how you check mail at home, on the bus, or so on), and personal preferences (based on where they harvested the email; say, a sports forum, or a music fansite).

Because so many people can be looked up on social media based on email addresses, or their jobs and locations, Afloarei says it’s “pretty easy” to correlate all the data and track someone down in person. “Granted, most spammers are only interested in getting your credit card or simply getting you infected and part of their botnet, but the truly devious ones can deduct so much information besides all that.”

There’s one more reason to be wary: Email tracking is evolving. Research from October looked at emails from newsletter and mailing list services from the 14,000 most popular websites on the web, and found that 85 percent contained trackers—and 30 percent leak your email addresses to outside corporations, without your consent.

So, if you sign up for a newsletter, even from a trusted source, there’s a one in three chance that the email that newsletter service sends you will be loaded with a tracking image hosted on an outside server, that contains your email address in its code and can then share your email address with a “large network of third parties.” Your email address, in other words, is apt to be shared with tracking companies, marketing firms, and data brokers like Axiom, if you as much as open an email with a tracker, or click on a link inside.

“You can have tens of parties receive your email address,” says Steven Englehart, one of the computer scientists behind the study. “Your email hash is really your identity, right? If you go to a store, make a purchase or sign up for something—everything we do today is associated with your email.” Data brokers have long stockpiled information on consumers through web tracking: browsing habits, personal bios, and location data. But adding an email address into the mix, Englehart says, is even more reason for alarm.

“This kind of tracking creates a big dataset. If a dataset leaks with email hashes, then it’d be trivial for anyone to go see that person’s data, and people would have no idea that data even existed,” he says. “You can compare it to the Experian data leak, which exposed people’s social security numbers, and could cause fraud. In my mind, this leak would be even worse. Because it’s not just financial fraud, but intimate details of people’s lives.”

Given the risks, perhaps what’s most striking about the rise of ubiquitous email tracking is how relatively quietly it’s happened—even in a moment marked by increased awareness of security issues.

“It’s shifted. It’s more and more used in conversational threads. In business emails. This is what scares us the most,” Seroussi says. “One out of six people that emails you is sending a tracker, and it’s real life”—not marketing, not spammers. “It could be your friend, your wife, your boss, this number is really mind boggling—you give up a lot of privacy just opening emails.”

After the Great Tim Cook Email Tracking Incident, I left Streak on. I’d found, grudgingly, that it was useful; it was sometimes more efficient to know when sources had read my email and when I might need to nudge them again. But because I was using the same Gmail account for personal and professional use, I ended up tracking friends and family, too. That’s when I saw how starkly tracking violates the lightly-coded social norms of email etiquette. I watched close friends read an email and not respond for days. I saw right through every white lie about email (about not receiving it, or it getting stuck in the spam folder). Sure, it’s occasionally nice; you can get a rough sense of how many people read the latest update to the weekend plans on a thread, and you can feel confident that your brother isn’t blowing you off, he’s just really bad at reading email. But it mostly serves to add yet another unnecessary layer of expectation onto our already notification-addled lives, another social metric to fret over, and another box to click on feverishly whenever it arrives. Not to mention a tinge of surreptitious digital voyeurism.

Clearly, this is a situation that the tracking outfits want to avoid. They’ve kept mostly to the shadows, harvesting useful sales data and email open rate info without causing too many ripples; the last thing they want is for their products to be deemed invasive or spyware. This, however, puts them in a deeply awkward position: In order to stand out amongst a burgeoning field of email tracking services, they need to tout their accuracy and ease of use—while somehow giving the public the impression the data they’re soaking up isn’t a threat.

As the number of easy-to-use, free tracking products proliferates—some email clients are beginning to simply ship with tracking features, as Airmail did in 2016—we’re going to have to contend with a digital social landscape where there’s an insurgent mix of trackers and trackees. And, increasingly—anti-trackers.

If you don’t want people to know your precise whereabouts whenever you glance at a specially priced offer for a cruise featuring your favorite 90s alt rock bands; if you’d rather Facebook not harvest your device data every time a former high school classmate inveighs against Trump in a comment on one of your vacation pics; if you’re the CEO of one of the top technology companies in the world and you’d rather not be associated with using a rival’s product—you have options.

A host of anti-tracking services have sprung up to combat the rising tide of inbox tracers—from Ugly Mail, to PixelBlock, to Senders. Ugly Mail notifies you when an email is carrying a tracking pixel, and PixelBlock prevents it from opening. Senders makes use of a similar product formerly known as Trackbuster, as part of service that displays info (Twitter, LinkedIn account, etc) about the sender of the email you’re reading. Using these services, I spotted more than a few acquaintances and even some contacts I consider friends using tracking in their correspondence.

But even those methods aren’t foolproof. Tracking methods are always evolving and improving, and finding ways around the current crop of track-blockers. “It’s a fight we’re having over the last couple of years,” Seroussi says. “They can’t counter all the methods that we know—so they get around the block by setting up new infrastructures. It’s a chase, they’re doing a job.”

To prevent third-parties from leaking your email, meanwhile, Princeton’s Englehart says “the only surefire solution right now is to block images by default.” That is, turn on image-blocking in your email client, so you can’t receive any images at all.

OMC has found dozens of novel methods that newfangled trackers are using to get your email open info. “We found 70 different ways where they use tracking,” Seroussi says, “Sometimes it’s a color, sometimes it’s a font, sometimes it’s a pixel, and sometimes it’s a link.” It’s an arms race, and one side has an immense advantage.

When Seroussi debuted Trackbuster in 2014, he was expecting a few hundred downloads. Within hours, he’d had 12,000. People who knew about email tracking—often trackers themselves, ironically—were eager for a way to quash it. Still, other trackers are furious with what the track-blockers are doing. “We receive death threats,” he says, more agitated than angered. It’s the wild west, after all. “They’ve been trying to destroy us for two years.”

Scherck, the marketing consultant, thinks that Google could up and kill email tracking altogether. “I do think public opinion could turn on email tracking, especially if Gmail started alerting users to tracking by default inside of Gmail with pop ups, or some native version of Ugly Email,” he says. “Just look at how consumers have turned on Facebook for their advertising. People absolutely hated that Uber was buying data on who was using Lyft from Unroll.me.” It would only take a strong enough nudge. “Most consumers don’t understand just how much information they are giving up,” he says.

If Google and the other big tech firms won’t budge, though, Seroussi believes the problem is serious enough to warrant government intervention. “If the big companies don’t want to do something about it, there should be a law defining certain kinds of tracking,” he says. And if nothing is done at all, Seroussi thinks it’s only a matter of time before email tracking is used for malign purposes, potentially in a very public way. “I always wonder when a big story is going to come out and say that people broke into a house because they used email trackers to know the victims were out of town,” he says. “It’s probably already happened.”

As for me, I was tired of all the tracking. After a couple months of ambiguous insights, I didn’t want to know who was opening my emails and not replying anymore. I didn’t want to wait, strung-out-like, for a notification to ring in a response from a crucial source. I didn’t want to feel like I was breaking the rules of whatever slipshod digital social compact we’ve got; my semi-spying days were done. I deleted Streak, and left Senders running—and kept a screenshot of Tim Cook’s Windows on my desktop as a souvenir.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/how-email-open-tracking-quietly-took-over-the-web/

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Progressive Democrats Fight For Access to the Party’s Voter Data

Progressive Democrats Fight For Access to the Party’s Voter Data

In the early days of Anthony Clark’s campaign for Congress, the special education teacher and military veteran spent most of his free time knocking on doors in Illinois’ 7th Congressional district. Unlike most Democratic candidates who canvass in the age of data-driven everything, Clark didn’t know whether the people in those houses leaned Clinton or Sanders in 2016, or even if they were Democrats or Republicans. He had no idea, in fact, whether they’d ever cast a vote in their entire lives.

That information and more—down to who put up lawn signs for which candidate in the primary—lives in VoteBuilder, a database managed by the Democratic National Committee. VoteBuilder has become the central nervous system of every Democratic campaign, housing years of information on just about every contact the party has ever made with every voter. Developed through a partnership between the DNC and a company called NGP VAN, the tool gives campaigns the inside track on potential donors, volunteers, or voters out of a pool of thousands or, in the case of a presidential election, millions of people.

But thanks to an intricate system of state-by-state rules governing who gets access to that data—a system critics say is tailor-made to protect incumbents—some Democratic primary challengers, like Clark, are being denied access to this critical pool of information by their own party.

The rules and bylaws dictating access are hardly new, and several state Democratic parties allow full access to VoteBuilder for all candidates. But the 2016 election created a groundswell of energy among first-time progressive candidates, looking to challenge sitting members of Congress not only in red districts, but in blue ones they believe need shaking up. For many Democrats mounting a primary challenge, the process of merely gaining access to the party’s voter data is emblematic of the entrenched system they’re running against.

“The machine protects incumbents,” says Clark, who is running against representative Danny Davis, who has held his seat for 20 years. “What’s one more way you can stack the deck against me? Deny me access to valuable information and data.”

In Illinois, the state party prevents any candidate running against an incumbent from gaining access to VoteBuilder. “We talk about growing the Democratic party, so how do you grow the Democratic party if you go after incumbents?” says Steve Brown, a spokesperson for the Illinois Democrats. “The Democratic party is creating and maintaining and enhancing a tool. Why would you want to give it to outsiders who may or may not actually be Democrats?”

Clark is running as a so-called Justice Democrat, a group that spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, and is challenging incumbents across the country with a progressive platform that mirrors Sanders’ own. Still, the 35-year-old has been a registered Democrat since he was 18 years old. He decided to run at the urging of members of his local community, and hopes to fight back against what he views as political complacency. “They’re trying to maintain power,” Clark says of current members of Congress. “They’re focused on a career, rather than on the people.”

Rather than allow access to VoteBuilder, the state party instead directed Clark to a tool called SmartVAN, another NGP VAN product that lacks proprietary DNC voter data. While better than flying blind, as he had going door to door at the campaign’s outset, SmartVAN still lacks data that could provide an edge. “Is it as effective? No,” Clark says. “But we’re going to make do with what we have.”

At least Illinois’s rules are cut and dry. In Washington’s 9th district, Sarah Smith, a Justice Democrat running a primary campaign against incumbent Democrat Adam Smith, was told that access to VoteBuilder required the endorsement of 50 percent of state legislators, plus one, as well as the backing of the state party chair. But state legislators often wait until close to the actual primary to make an endorsement, Smith says, meaning her campaign would have to spend the majority of the race waiting around for endorsements before gaining access to the data. And even then, the likelihood of sitting party officials endorsing a challenger over an incumbent is low.

Smith says she asked to see where that bylaw is written down, but was refused. The Washington state party didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

As a last resort, Sarah Smith’s campaign spokesman asked the party for a letter stating they were being denied access to VoteBuilder; at least then, they could get access to SmartVAN. In response, the Smith campaign says they received a Kafka-esque email claiming that even though campaigns can’t access VoteBuilder without the endorsements, “in our eyes, a campaign that doesn’t have endorsements hasn’t been denied.”

“I didn’t expect them to welcome me with open arms,” Smith says. “But I expected a lot more from the state than this back and forth.”

Now, Smith’s campaign is using a tool called Political Data, which costs $10,000, substantially more than VoteBuilder or SmartVAN. They’re also using targeted social media ads to reach key voters. But, for Smith, the fact that alternatives exist doesn’t make up for the party withholding information from newcomers. She’s currently petitioning the state to change its rules. “I have a platform to be able to fight against what they’re doing right now to make it better for people who come after me,” she says.

In New York state, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Justice Democrat, had no problem accessing VoteBuilder. But rather than the wealth of information about where voters stand on issues and who they’ve supported in the past, her campaign found only a stripped down voter file. “It was all gone,” Ocasio-Cortez says. They’d paid $6,000 for little more than names, phone numbers, and addresses.

That’s despite a provision in the campaign’s contract with the New York Democrats, which guaranteed Ocasio-Cortez access “to all Proprietary ID Data collected or developed by other Licensees in prior election cycles.”

When Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesperson asked about that provision, the VoteBuilder coordinator at the New York Democratic party said that it only applies to data Ocasio-Cortez may have collected herself in a previous election cycle, if, for instance, she had run for a different office in the past.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

One member of the New York Democrats notes that the contract Ocasio-Cortez signed is outdated, and should have been updated to limit access. In theory, this policy makes sense. Its goal is to protect voters’ privacy and ensure their information isn’t being shared with campaigns they may or may not support. And Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent, Joe Crowley, has worked in government—both the New York state assembly and House of Representatives—since before his 28-year-old challenger was born, amassing loads of valuable information about his constituents along the way.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t asking for access to Crowley’s data, of course. She’s contractually prohibited from doing so. But, she says, the promise of VoteBuilder is to give any candidate a window into the institutional knowledge collected by past campaigns—a window that’s been closed off.

One representative of the New York Democrats sees the situation differently. “The whole point of the voter file is to create a system of going out and communicating with voters and collecting that data so you can use it for your campaign,” the representative says. “If you’re looking for the easy way around it, you’re not going to have a successful campaign anyway.”

To be sure, access to more data is far from a guarantee these first time candidates would win. Even NGP VAN’s CEO Stu Trevelyan acknowledges as much. “Technology and data is important, but only for campaigns that are within striking distance,” he says. “Good tech and data is not going to help a candidate that’s outside of the range of winning.”

Still, for Ocasio-Cortez, Smith, Clark, and other candidates, the way various state parties have reacted to their campaigns only reinforces their desire to confront what they perceive to be protectionist policies designed to keep longstanding officials in office. That, they fear, may not serve Democrats well, as they work to ride an anti-establishment wave on both the left and the right. The DNC, for its part, agrees that state parties should welcome newcomers.

“State parties work with their local candidates and govern the use their state voter data,” says Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the DNC. “The DNC is always looking for ways to expand access to data so that we can help all candidates up and down the ballot. That’s the only way we’ll win.”

Unless things change, the same inter-party politics that weakened the Democratic party in 2016 could rise to the surface again in 2018. In some states, it’s already started to.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/justice-democrats-denied-access-party-voter-data/

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