No, Apple Isn’t Cutting Pebble Off From iOS

Pebble owners, breathe easy. Apple’s not banishing your smartwatch from your iPhone.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, though. This week, just ahead of the Apple Watch’s launch, the App Store rejected updates to a handful of iOS apps that support the Pebble. That led many to worry that Cupertino was trying to quash its competitor as its own smartwatch hit the market. But WIRED has learned Apple’s review team simply made a mistake, and the company plans to continue supporting Pebble as it always has. For now, at least.

There are 401 iOS apps that work with Pebble smartwatches, and many of them have been updated recently. RunKeeper, for example, pushed a big update Monday. But PocketMariner’s SeaNav, a nautical navigation iPad app that’s been in the App Store for years, saw its latest update rejected. Apple’s explanation, according to a post in the Pebble forums by PocketMariner CEO Steve Bennett, was, “We noticed that your app or its metadata contains irrelevant platform information in the app.” It went on: “Specifically, your app and app description declare support for the Pebble Smartwatch.” The great irony is the SeaNav update was to add support for the Apple Watch.

An Apple spokesman confirmed to WIRED that this was a mistake and the company has not changed its policy toward Pebble. The SeaNav update, and others rejected under similar circumstances, will be accepted, and the company does not plan to reject apps that support Pebble.

Still, under its own review guidelines, Apple was within its authority to reject apps like SeaNav. Its developer guidelines specifically prohibit mentioning support for “any other mobile platform.” But Apple has long accepted Pebble, presumably because it has not seen it as a competing mobile platform. Pebble’s products, CEO Eric Migicovsky says, always have been certified as Made For iPhone—including the new Time and Time Steel. Even now, dozens of apps in the App Store mention Pebble; there are even a handful of third-party apps for managing and connecting to your watch.

But with the Apple Watch launching, it appears someone within the company was overly vigilant in the app review process. And this does raise a broader question: What happens if Apple does decide to cut Pebble off? The App Store is fully within its control, and it is free to change its mind about who is and is not competitive. This is about more than Pebble. There’s been apparent progress on making Android Wear compatible with iOS, something Apple could quash at any moment. Fitbit has an API, which others can use to make compatible apps. Could it be deemed a competitor? What about Jawbone? Or Nest, which competes with HomeKit? The Watch is among Apple’s widest-ranging products ever, with such vast possibilities that it’s competition could include virtually anything.

At the moment, it looks like a crisis averted, at least for a few developers and one smartwatch platform. But it’s a reminder that Apple, even a more open Apple, remains a tightly controlled ecosystem. That has inspired an incredible wealth of apps, services, and cool stuff beyond anything anyone could have imagined, but no one should ever forget who’s in control.

Comcast Can Blame Us All for Sinking Its Time Warner Deal

Skip to story Comcast CEO Brian Roberts speaks at a news conference in Washington D.C., June 11 2013. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts speaks at a news conference in Washington D.C., June 11 2013. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Comcast officially abandoned its plans to acquire Time Warner Cable earlier today. But the nation’s largest cable provider didn’t simply decide it wasn’t interested in the $45.2 billion dollar deal any longer. Signals from the Department Justice and the Federal Communications Commission made clear that the merger wouldn’t be approved, and Comcast decided to cut its losses.

Some claim the move is a victory for the Obama Administration, which has long promised to crack down on antitrust violations and mega-mergers. But in 2011, the FCC and the DOJ approved the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, another coming together of two massive media companies that raised serious questions about conflicts of interest.

Does that mean federal regulators have toughened up since then? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for certain: the rest of us have. The world is paying attention to internet policy in a way that it never has before. And with that attention comes pressure that will force the government’s hand on everything from network neutrality to antitrust as the internet becomes increasingly central to the lives of everyone.

A Different Perspective

One of the most obvious changes to the political landscape since the Comcast-NBC deal is the appointment of former telco lobbyist Tom Wheeler as FCC chairman in 2013. The previous chairman, Meredith Attwell Baker, left the agency in 2011 to take a job with Comcast about two months after her approval of the NBC merger.

Wheeler has brought a very different perspective to the FCC, says Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a think tank that has generally been skeptical of government regulation.

“I think the current FCC has a way of looking at things that is more suspicious of the internet service providers than I think is warranted,” he says, pointing to the rise of wireless internet services and high-speed fiber networks as potential competitors to established cable and DSL providers. He also says the growing power and wealth of content providers such as Facebook, Google and Netflix could have served as checks on the power of a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

May thinks that suspicion of ISPs has played out in other recent decisions as well. For example, the agency recently redefined broadband as 25 megabits per second, up from just four megabits per second. “By doing that they magically, or ipso facto, increased the ‘broadband’ marketshare of Comcast and Time Warner Cable substantially,” he says.

Only Itself to Blame

But the appointment of Wheeler as FCC chairman can’t be the full explanation for the government’s shifting stance on mega-mergers. After all, the DOJ also approved the NBC deal. John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that promotes network neutrality and broadband access, points out that most of the staff of the two agencies has actually stayed the same over the past few years. “The FCC and DOJ staff don’t turn over as quickly as you might think,” he says.

Bergmayer says the way Comcast handled itself following the NBC deal doomed its effort to get another major acquisition approved. The FCC and the DOJ imposed a number of conditions on Comcast in effort to prevent the NBC Universal merger from harming consumers. But, he says, Comcast didn’t always follow the rules.

For example, in 2012 the FCC fined Comcast for not honoring its agreement to provide stand-alone broadband after the merger. In 2013, the agency issued another fine, saying Comcast violated “neighborhooding” agreements by failing to group together competing channels — for example, Bloomberg and MSNBC — on television dials.

Bergmayer also says that although Comcast agreed to honor the principles of network neutrality as part of the deal, the company has imposed bandwidth caps that its own services were able to bypass in what amounted to less-than-neutral discrimination against other content providers.

Even when Comcast did follow the rules of the agreement, Bergmayer says, those rules didn’t always have the results that regulators expected. “Being litigious, always looking for loop holes, and the conditions not really having the pro-competitve effect intended all reduced the appetite among policy makers to negotiate with Comcast this time around,” Bergmayer says.

The Price of Freedom

But in a way, seeking to give credit or cast blame is beside the point. The one overwhelming difference between today and 2011 is the dramatically heightened interest in the policies and companies that impact our access to the internet. Net neutrality went from esoteric geek issue to John Oliver rallying cry. And while everyone was watching, Comcast couldn’t seem to avoid acting like a mustache-twirling villain over and over again.

There was Comcast’s perpetual low rankings in customer satisfaction. There were the news reports of company reps changing customer names to “asshole brown” and “superbitch”. Then there were the apparently ghostwritten letters of support for the Time Warner merger.

At the same time, the public has become more sophisticated about internet policy debates in general.
Bergmayer credits that interest to this year’s campaign to protect network neutrality by reclassifying broadband providers as public utilities. The surge in public engagement might go back even further to the widespread campaigns against the SOPA and PIPA bills that would have required broadband providers to block access to content deemed to infringe copyrights. Regardless of what has spurred this heightened attention, the public is paying closer attention to how the government regulates the internet, and that scrutiny is clearly influencing decision-making.

And that need for public vigilance hardly comes to an end now that the Comcast-Time Warner deal is off. Charter Communications is already eying Time Warner Cable for itself, and thanks to Comcast, it now has a playbook for what not to do. Google, meanwhile, could emerge as a major player in both content and broadband access thanks to Google Fiber. As we all become more dependent on the internet, the companies that provide access to it become more powerful. The best way to keep that power in check is to keep paying attention.

Surprise: Frank Miller Is Returning to the Dark Knight Saga

Dk-master-ft DC Entertainment

Okay, didn’t see that one coming. Thirty years after his seminal miniseries/graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns—and nearly 15 years after his much less seminal sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again—Frank Miller is coming back to Gotham. DC Entertainment has announced that Miller will be writing “the epic conclusion of the celebrated…saga.” An eight-issue miniseries beginning in late fall, The Dark Knight III: Master Race will be a joint writing venture between Miller and Brian Azzarello (who has also worked on Joker and other DC books). No artists have been announced, though a teaser image that DC released seems to point to the fact that Superman is going to be involved.

Overall, this is great news—we think. The original Dark Knight was a watershed moment in both Batman’s development and the validation of sequential art as a literary platform, and Miller is responsible for some truly incredible work, from Ronin to Sin City. Given Miller’s recent ideological (d)evolution, though, we do wish they’d gone with a different title. Coming from the guy who wrote Holy Terror, this is just a wee bit problematic.

Gadget Lab Podcast: We’ve Got Some Serious Questions About Google and Yoga

Turns out, the Internet isn’t going straight down the tubes. We got some good news this week: the corporate merger between Time Warner Cable and Comcast was abandoned, and Google’s new Project Fi mobile experiment may end up delivering a strong blow against the wireless carriers’ empire. Consumers are winning! The hosts discuss the implications. Also, Michael and David wonder why Facebook wants you to make more voice calls, and why Dropbox wants to own the online note-taking space. Oh, and David desperately wants to know what he has to do to win at yoga. (It’s all in the breathing, David.)

Listen to this week’s episode and subscribe via RSS. Also, here’s a link to our iTunes page.

Send the hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds (David Pierce is @piercedavid and Michael Calore is @snackfight) or to the main hotline at @GadgetLab.

PS: This is Episode 237!

2015: The Year We Saved the Internet

535006939 Getty Images

It’s Friday, so let’s look at the Historic Internet Moments ledger for 2015. Net neutrality survived a direct assault. Comcast’s monopolistic pursuit of Time Warner Cable has been abandoned. We’ve gracefully sidestepped not one but two potential online dystopias, and it’s not even May.

What’s been accomplished already in 2015 is all the more remarkable considering that neither of these results was a given, or even considered remotely likely just a short time ago. “About a year ago I was ready to call it quits,” says Tim Wu, policy advocate, Columbia Law School professor, and the man who coined the term “net neutrality” in the first place. “Between the NSA, net neutrality falling apart, the merger and the assumption it was going to happen… But the situation has reversed itself.” That reversal couldn’t have come at a better time.

Let’s start with Comcast’s retreat, since it’s still got that new-victory smell. Had its merger with Time Warner Cable gone through, we would have been faced with not just one more cable monopoly—and all the lack of choice and stunted innovation that comes with it—we would have consolidated so much of this country’s broadband that everyone from infrastructure companies like Level 3 to content providers like Netflix would have felt the pinch. Remember, too, that Comcast both controls how millions of Americans access the internet and owns NBC Universal, which means the deal would have put the fate of any online video platform in the hands of a company incentivized to crush it.

That the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal should be stopped was never really in doubt, but until recently there wasn’t much in the FCC’s history to indicate that it was going to do anything about it. The agency is headed, after all, by Tom Wheeler, whose resumé includes stints as president of both the Cellular Telecom and Internet (CTIA) Association and the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA). In other words, the fate of the merger was largely in the hands of a man who built his career lobbying on behalf of the companies he is now charged with regulating. That’s not someone you would expect to crash a Big Cable wedding, calling it an “unacceptable risk to competition and innovation.”

And yet he did.

What we averted was an alternate universe in which Comcast and Time Warner trapped 35 million people in a hellscape of poor customer service and even worse pricing models.

Those same ties are what made the FCC’s February net neutrality ruling so surprising. The assumption had for some time been that corporate interests would prevail; the issues were too complicated, the required regulations to drastic. Instead, writing in WIRED, the FCC announced it would change the way that internet service providers are classified entirely, to ensure that online traffic is treated equally no matter where it comes from.

It’s going to be difficult to appreciate the full weight of these outcomes, in the same way it’s difficult to appreciate how you didn’t fall into a manhole yesterday; from the consumer’s vantage point, they both preserve the status quo. The internet will act and feel and cost pretty much the same.

What we averted, though, was an alternate universe in which Comcast and Time Warner trapped 35 million people in a hellscape of poor customer service and even worse pricing models, one where certain sites and services were delivered more slowly than others (or weren’t delivered at all) unless you or they tithed to the ISPs. We didn’t make the internet that much better this year, but we saved it from becoming demonstrably, intractably worse.

How We Won

Perhaps even more promising than the fact of these wins is how they were achieved. Wu credits the Obama administration’s decision to stand by its 2008 campaign promises, along with a regulatory body more interested in competition than entrenched interests. In other words, the FCC finally found its spine. The net neutrality fight, meanwhile, was aided greatly by 2.5 million online comments, submitted to the agency over a five-month period. Many of those were likely inspired by an explanatory video from comedian John Oliver that has piled up 9 million views on YouTube. It’s “a public that’s willing to act when it gets pissed off,” says Wu, “in ways that are not simply posting angry messages on forums but getting a little better involved.” It’s a tidy bit of symmetry; the internet needed protection, and found it within itself.

Hopefully there’s more where that came from. There’s still plenty of time left in 2015 for things to go wrong, and plenty of threats to worry about. The looming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between 12 countries—including the U.S.—features overly restrictive copyright law that’s been roundly denounced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. Likewise, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) continues to wend its way through our legislative corridors, and could well make it even easier for the government to glean your online data and habits from the internet companies you rely on daily. These would each, in their own way, make the the internet a less open, less private, less enjoyable place.

The good news is, neither TPP nor CISA has passed yet. No, you probably shouldn’t bet against either (CISA’s twin in the House of Representatives passed earlier this week). Then again, that’s what most people would have said about the net neutrality ruling a year ago, or Comcast-TWC last fall.

So let’s look at these not as threats but opportunities. You don’t have to look far to find petitions against TPP and CISA, or for contact information for your local representatives. We’ve saved the internet twice already in 2015; there’s no reason we can’t do it again.

TV This Week: Fallon and Russell Crowe Duet About Oil Balls

So at first, we weren’t sure about this week’s TV. We had some clips gathered up, but beyond Anna Kendrick and and John Krasinski throwing down for a lip sync battle, we weren’t feeling especially wowed. But then the middle of the week came, which meant Amy Schumer being the best and some surprisingly satisfying late-night appearances, particularly on The Tonight Show. We started with a trickle, but ended with a flood—and fortunately for you, all the dirty work of sifting through the mire has been done. And even though we couldn’t fit it in the official top cuts, do treat yourself to Gina Rodriguez being ultra charming on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She won a Golden Globe for playing the title role in Jane the Virgin, and is apparently just a gem.

Inside Amy Schumer—Last F**kable Day (Above)

We gave you the GIF and Graf, and now we’re giving you the whole sketch. For bonus material in which Amy lambasts the hyper-aggressive and terrifyingly rapey culture surrounding football, check out “Football Town Nights” here. Be warned, this is the uncensored version with pretty NSFW language.

Lip Sync Battle—‪Anna Kendrick’s ‘Booty’ vs. John Krasinski’s ‘Proud Mary’‬

‬‬‬Careful. Watching this might make you so attracted to Anna Kendrick and John Krasinksi—and especially Anna Kendrick—that you might want to wait till you get home from work. Just trying to look out for you.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—2015 ‘Mercun Awards

‬‬For extra ‘Mercun fun, watch Stewart take the temperature of the Republican presidential hopefuls when it comes to gay marriage here.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—Jimmy Fallon and Russell Crowe Sing ‘Balls in Your Mouth’

‬‬‬‬So at this point, Russell Crowe doesn’t exactly have a reputation for whimsy, but he’s pretty damn game here for some “Balls in Your Mouth.” Maybe him and Jimmy should start an all-star band called 31 Odd Foot of Grunts. Well played, Crowe.

The Late Show With David Letterman—Tracy Chapman: ‘Stand by Me’

‬What happens when you take a highly sentimental song and ask one of the most earnest artists in music to cover it? Tears. That’s what happens. Enjoy the simple beauty of Tracy Chapman and Ben E. King.

Jimmy Kimmel Live!—John Stamos Announces Full House Is Coming Back

The new Full House will focus on D.J. Tanner, who is now a widow and a veterinarian struggling to raise her two kids alone while expecting a third. So she does what anyone who grew up in such a FULL HOUSE would do: recruit her sister, Stephanie (a returning Jodie Sweetin) and BFF, Kimmy Gibbler (once again, Andrea Barber) to move into her San Francisco house and be one big modern family. Stamos is clearly on board, which hopefully means Aunt Becky (the similarly well-aged Lori Laughlin) is coming back, too, because wasn’t she great? But who knows about Bob Saget and the Olsen twins! According a Fox News story (so, basically according to nothing), America’s most impressive twins didn’t even know about it. Way harsh, Netflix. So, there’s already (fake) drama brewing, and they haven’t even started filming yet. But the bigger question here is: Where were you when Firefly needed your help, NETFLIX?!

The Late Show with David Letterman—Amy Schumer’s Mom’s Bad Advice

If Broad City had to wrap up for the season, at least we have Amy Schumer to cushion the blow, and hopefully we can look forward to a late-night Schumer press tour a la Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer during this season of Inside. If you still need MOAR AMY, watch her taunt Letterman with her vagina here.

Conan—Rosario Dawson Wants to Mug New Yorkers

You heard it straight from the source, everyone. When that petty crime wave kicks up around New York City this spring, don’t say you weren’t warned. Rosario on the loose!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—Jeff Garlin

‬‬‬This whole “Jon Stewart is going off the air and running a victory lap” thing is going to be super fun, you guys. And now we want to go to a BBQ with Stewart and his old pal Jeff. Then we’ll keep the good times rolling by hitting up the supermarket with Jeff, Jon, and Billy Crystal after they get super high. #Goals

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—Say Anything With Blake Lively

‬‬‬Blake Lively. How do you stay so charming, Blake Lively? Taking a break from motherhood and the real-world fairytale that is HQ—which she shares with husband/World’s Most Handsome Amiable Star, Ryan Reynolds—Blake stopped by The Tonight Show to raz Jimmy Fallon and tape his face together during one of his signature silly games. She also had a completely legitimate reaction while talking to her Age of Adeline co-star Harrison Ford after she binge-watched the Indiana Jones movies one night before seeing him on set. She talks about it here. Come on. Don’t act like you would be any cooler around Han Solo aka Dr. Jones aka Jack Ryan aka Rick Deckard. Because you wouldn’t.

Split Screen: Last Man on Earth Is a Nature Show About Jerks

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Split Screen: Last Man on Earth Is a Nature Show About Jerks

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Want the Latest Science News? Here’s Who to Follow

If you want to follow the latest science news, may we suggest following people who make their living following and writing the latest science news? (Guess we didn’t need a Ph.D. to figure that one out.) Shift your IQ a little further right on the bell curve with a daily dose of the following science journalists.

Follow @edyong209
Whether he’s taking selfies with a flayed komodo dragon or making really bad science puns, Ed Yong needs to be in your stream. Or, if you’re trying to limit your Twitter screen time, just sign up for his newsletter, The Ed’s Up (see? The puns, they slay) or follow his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science over at National Geographic.

Follow @KateGalbraith
Water, energy, drought, fracking, water, solar, nuclear, water. We here in the desiccated California-based Wired offices are very interested in what Kate Galbraith has to tweet about. And if you care about the climate and the environment (you do, don’t you?) you should take an interest too, even if you live somewhere lush and green.

Follow @Erika_Check
Her on-the-ground reporting on Ebola from Sierra Leone was absolutely amazing; now she’s a great follow if you’re into genetic medicine / epigenetics / synbio research.

Follow @HelenBranswell
Her Twitter feed might make you want to wash your hands (and you, you with the cough, go stand in the corner over there) but if you’re into infectious diseases—MERS, HthisNthat, polio—you need to follow Branswell.

Follow @CarlZimmer
If you’re into the microbiome, Zimmer’s your guy, of course, but his curation of the world of science, from evolution to declining sea ice to CRISPR will get your brain ready for the day, whether or not you tend to revel in the idea that you’re constantly teaming with squillions of organisms.

DoD’s New ‘Transparent’ Policy on Cybersecurity Is Still Opaque

Skip to story Defense Secretary Ash Carter gives a speech to Stanford University students on April 23, 2015, in Stanford, Calif., entitled Rewiring the Pentagon: Charting a New Path on Innovation and Cybersecurity. Defense Secretary Ash Carter gives a speech to Stanford University students on April 23, 2015, in Stanford, Calif., entitled Rewiring the Pentagon: Charting a New Path on Innovation and Cybersecurity. Ben Margot/AP

When the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter laid out the Pentagon’s new cybersecurity strategy this week, few were expecting it to break news. And, indeed, his talk at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on Thursday offered no surprises. But the secretary did set up an expectation during his speech on which he ultimately failed to deliver.

Carter talked about the need for the government to be more transparent about its cyber capabilities, in particular, its shadowy capabilities. “DoD must do its part to shed more light on cyber capabilities that have previously been developed in the shadows,” he said.

This sounded a lot like a prelude to discussing the government’s offensive operations. Was Carter going to finally admit the U.S. role in Stuxnet, the sophisticated digital weapon that the U.S. reportedly developed with Israel to sabotage centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program? Was he going to talk about the government’s purchase and use of zero-day exploits to attack adversaries or the fact that it was using zero-days long before it had a policy about how or if they should be used? Or maybe he’d address the controversy over Flame—an espionage tool, reportedly created by the U.S. and Israel, that used a digital certificate from Microsoft to trick targeted computers into thinking it was legitimate software from the software giant, thereby undermining customer trust in Microsoft’s security update system?

The answer, it turns out, was none of the above. Instead of discussing this and other offensive operations, Carter’s reference to shadowy capabilities turned out to refer to the government’s shadowy defensive capabilities. In particular, the tactics a “crack team of incident responders” used to trace the recent breach of a DoD unclassified network to Russia.

“[T]oday,” Carter said right after mentioning the government’s shadowy capabilities, “I want to share an example we just declassified that will help illustrate the cyber threat we face and what we do about it…. Earlier this year, the sensors that guard DoD’s unclassified networks detected Russian hackers accessing one of our networks. They’d discovered an old vulnerability in one of our legacy networks that hadn’t been patched.”

The revelation, about the breach of an old, unpatched system on an unclassified network, was no revelation at all, however. What’s more, Carter’s disclosure of the breach provided no information about “shadowy capabilities” or how the government concluded that Russia was behind the attack, thereby undermining his assertion that the Pentagom aimed to be more transparent.

Carter did mention the government’s cyber offensive operations—though only vaguely. “[O]ur third mission is to provide offensive cyber options that, if directed by the President, can augment our other defense systems,” he said. He also warned that “adversaries should know that our preference for deterrence and our defensive posture don’t diminish our willingness to use cyber options if necessary. And when we do take action—defensive or otherwise, conventionally or in cyberspace—we operate under rules of engagement that comply with domestic and international law.”

Though this at least touches on the topic, it still lacks the details transparency requires. Admittedly, there was a little more detail about the government’s offensive operations in the official cybersecurity strategy the Pentagon released in conjunction with Carter’s speech. This document, which lays out the government’s cyber strategy for the next five years, officially describes the circumstances under which the government might launch an offensive cyber operation.

“There may be times when the President or the Secretary of Defense may determine that it would be appropriate for the U.S. military to conduct cyber operations to disrupt an adversary’s military-related networks or infrastructure so that the U.S. military can protect U.S. interests in an area of operations,” the document reads. “For example, the United States military might use cyber operations to terminate an ongoing conflict on U.S. terms, or to disrupt an adversary’s military systems to prevent the use of force against U.S. interests. United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) may also be directed to conduct cyber operations, in coordination with other U.S. government agencies as appropriate, to deter or defeat strategic threats in other domains.”

It also discusses when attacks on U.S. commercial systems might merit a government response. “As a matter of principle, the United States will seek to exhaust all network defense and law enforcement options to mitigate any potential cyberrisk to the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests before conducting a cyberspace operation,” the document asserts.

The new doctrine also touches on—though in broad strokes only—the parameters of such operations.

“To ensure that the Internet remains open, secure, and prosperous, the United States will always conduct cyber operations under a doctrine of restraint, as required to protect human lives and to prevent the destruction of property,” it states. “Any decision to conduct cyber operations outside of DoD networks is made with the utmost care and deliberation and under strict policy and operational oversight, and in accordance with the law of armed conflict. As it makes its investments and builds cyber capabilities to defend U.S. national interests, the Defense Department will always be attentive to the potential impact of defense policies on state and non-state actors’ behavior.”

While these statements represent a rare acknowledgement that the government has and will continue to engage in cyberwarfare and cyber offensive operations, it falls short of being transparent. All of the most controversial aspects of the government’s cyberwarfare activities have been left unaddressed. What’s more, the public learned more about the government’s policy on offensive cyber operations from a presidential directive leaked by Edward Snowden than from this official release. Presidential Directive 20, published by the Guardian in 2013, lays out the government’s policy on what it calls “Offensive Cyber Effects Operations,” and describes scenarios for attack that aren’t necessarily responsive to an imminent threat but are merely done to advance U.S. interests.

According to that document, the government “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging.”

It further notes that the government will “identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power.”

And the Snowden document touches on the possibility of conducting cyber actions inside the US. These would generally occur only with the prior approval of the president, except in cases of emergency.

In short, the government’s new strategy on cybersecurity and its new policy of transparency with regard to its shadowy capabilities is still very opaque.

5 Essential Pieces of Gear for Street Photographers


Meet the Duo Behind the Killer Horror/Sci-Fi Mashup Spring

Skip to story Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the BFI London Film Festival in 2014. Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the BFI London Film Festival in 2014. Tim P. Whitby/Getty

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead don’t care about the rules of filmmaking.

Well, they care a little bit—at least enough to know full well which conventions they want to break. But in the seven years since they became the double threat known as Benson & Moorhead, they’ve put out two genre-mashing feature films, contributed to the horror anthology V/H/S: Viral, wrote a script about Aleister Crowley (whom Moorhead calls “a rock star ceremonial magician”), and just pitched a show to HBO. So, apparently, all that rule-breaking is working out for them.

Their latest brainchild is Spring, a movie that’s been dropped in the horror bucket, but resists singular categorization. There are suspenseful elements, yes, but it’s also a quirky love story with a dry sense of humor. Oh, yeah, there’s also the science fiction creature-feature aspect. It’s been burning up the VOD ranks lately, and for good reason: It’s excellent.

But there’s a lot of talent and good projects floating in and around Hollywood. Throw a rock in any Century City bar and you’ll hit someone carrying a screenplay in their satchel. So in a town awash in good ideas (or at least a lot of ideas), what special alchemy sets these polymaths of “sophisticated pulp” above their lo-fi indie contemporaries? WIRED talked with the duo about their distinctive horror-sci-fi-character-driven-drama calling card and teased out a few methods of their madness, which include—but are not limited to—Gore Verbinski, Shia LeBeouf, British hip-hop, and Children of Men. Here’s everything you need to know about Benson & Moorhead.

They’re Very DIY

Obviously, Benson and Moorhead didn’t just roll out of a cabbage patch together. A few years back Benson was an intern at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company, RSA, doing menial work and gearing up for med school. Moorhead was there, too, but it wasn’t until his last day on the job that they met. “We immediately clicked over having a decade each of do-it-yourself filmmaking experience, and started to work together more and more on spec ad commercials and short films,” says Benson, who soon realized he had stashed enough cash from “crap jobs” to make a movie with his new creative partner. That project would become Resolution, a feature film about a man who sets out to save his sardonic tweaker best friend from the perils of drug addiction. Sorry, med school, but Benson and Moorhead had stories to tell.

They Do a Lot of Jobs

As usual, Moorhead and Benson wore many hats during the production of Spring. They split directing duties while Benson wrote the script—with collaboration from his partner, of course—and Moorhead handled cinematography. “Aaron is an incredible, incredible cinematographer. I refuse to work with any other cinematographer,” Benson says. They handle editing and VFX themselves, too, and get help on the audio from their associate and resident “sound genius” Yahel Dooley. (Sound design is a big deal for Benson and Moorhead, who cite the sound of No Country For Old Men as an influence on their style.) And both men agree they feel empowered to take on a bigger workload because they know the other is there to share the responsibilities.

“It’s actually very symbiotic,” Moorhead says. “We’ve talked with some co-directors before where the battle is part of their trial-by-fire and everything. We don’t really have battles. We kind of have the exact same tastes on everything. So whatever the scene is, we’re always trying to get to the same thing, because we both kind of inherently understand it even if we have different ways of expressing it.” From Benson’s perspective, the reason for their effective chemistry is pretty simple: “We elevate each other.”

They Love ‘Long-Ass Takes’

Moorhead and Benson try to work “some ambitious, long-ass take” into every movie they make. They’re just huge fans of them. The long shot from Children of Men is a particular favorite.

Their Vision Boards Are a Rich Tapestry

Although it’s impossible not absorb filmic influences through your pores as a lifelong cinephile, both men try to avoid direct homages in their work. “If we’re talking and we’re like ‘It’s so cool what happened in that movie!’ [then] it’s kind of like an unspoken rule that we can’t do it,” says Benson, the primary screenwriter. But as a guy in the 21st century who writes movies, he obviously acknowledges the place Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater hold in his heart. “The dialogue I write probably is at least guided by that sensibility of making it sound conversational yet trying to also remaining as interesting as possible,” he says.

But instead of trying to write the next Jules Winnfield or O’Bannion, Benson tries to pull from less conventional sources for inspiration. “Often when I write characters I’ll refer to characters of underground rap music,” he explains. “The dialogue of the British backpackers in Spring? That dialogue was written in the voice of Mike Skinner from that indie rap group The Streets from the early 2000s. Little stuff like that.” Moorhead has his own pop culture muses. “If you look around, even something like what Shia LeBeouf is doing right now, that’s inspiring to me in general,” he says. “A lot of people see it as complete insanity, but I think it’s a work of brilliance.”

They Want You to Hear Their Voice

The LeBeouf shoutout might seem incongruous, but respect for distinct voices and singular personalities is a prevailing thread through the two filmmakers. Linklater, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and even Michael Bay get hat tips for the relentless individualism that bleeds through their work. “That, I think, is what’s always refreshing, when I see a movie that could have only been done by one person,” says Moorhead. “Or reading stuff like Stephen King, which couldn’t be more pulpy mainstream kind of stuff, but you have to respect a guy who just owns an entire brand of himself.” Benson is quick to agree, “I’m the exact same way. Take for example Guy Ritchie and Richard Linklater. Those are two filmmakers who you see their movies, you see them coming out in their films—wildly different films—and it would be so sad if those filmmakers didn’t exist, no matter what you think of them.”

This uncompromising commitment to their unique voice probably is what’s gotten them this far, considering indie mavericks are totally having a moment right now. Over the past year, Moorhead and Benson have traveled the festival circuit with similarly rogue agents like directors David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), both of whom have garnered attention and massive praise for telling common stories about how people connect with each other through unconventional narratives. “There’s a myth that movies have to be one of about 10 pre-constructed myths,” says Benson. “It Follows is a completely new movie that doesn’t get bogged down in its own myth. It is something totally different. We definitely love and respect that.”

They Respect Practical Effects

Despite the fact it’s a love story, Spring is a monster movie at its core, and the rendering of its central creature/character, Louise (Nadia Hilker), is among its highlights. Moorhead shot her beautifully, using light, shadow, and depth of field to simultaneously reveal and obscure her. It’s a maddening dance because you just want to know, but it’s also essential to keeping Spring’s mystery intact. How much of Louise you see fluctuates through the movie, but considering her, um, otherworldly appearance, Benson and Moorhead were careful to balance in-camera and digital effects to create the most believably unbelievable entity possible. “People don’t hate visual effects. They hate bad visual effects,” says Benson. “But most visual effects, when they’re done really right, are unnoticeable, and you’re just left with questions of ‘Was that CG or not?’ and that’s a great place to be in.”

The team had members of Mastersfx on-set to execute modeling elements, then used the CGI paintbrush to add finishing touches. When describing the movie’s “centerpiece effect,” which we certainly won’t spoil, Benson says, “we used practical effects to get us 80 to 90 percent of the way there, then we kind of looked at it and went ‘How do we push this into the completely impossible?’ We wanted to take it just a little bit further, and that’s where we allowed visual effects to come in.”

They Just Want to Make Good Movies

Benson and Moorhead’s combination of lo-fi stylings and big budget predilections make a lot of sense when you think about it. They produce suspenseful movies about the power of interpersonal relationships laced with sci-fi elements and surprising humor—of course they like Pirates of the Caribbean as much as they like Children of Men—because when they are sitting down to hash out a new script, the only thing that matters is telling a good story. “What’s interesting is the ‘business rules’ about genre films, of exactly how they conform and how they can be sold,” says Moorhead. “Especially with things right now like It Follows and The Babadook and Spring as well. We’re finding that those rules aren’t rules and at all. It seems like the horror audience just wants good movies.” And Benson, once again, picks up right where his associate leaves off. “Audiences are more concerned with it being a good movie than they are with it conforming to their expectations and sometimes they even like you for it,” he says. “But it’s interesting, because it seems like we were sold a bit of a lie—not just me, people in general—about what the audience wants. What they want is good cinema, and that’s it.”

9 Clever Ways to Rethink the Selfie

If you ask Alex Georgacopoulos to explain the meaning of photography 3.0, he’ll laugh and say it’s mostly a joke. It’s really not. How we take photographs has changed so radically in recent years that dubbing this generation 3.0 almost seems modest.

Smartphones have democratized photography, and the pictures we make are more disposable than ever. With the tap of a button, we rid our phones of images that simply aren’t worth the storage space. “We take so many pictures every day, we forget them as soon as we take them,” Georgacopoulos says.

With that in mind,  Georgacopoulos, the director of the celebrated Swiss design school Ecal, asked students to rethink what it means to take a portrait in the age of photography 3.0. PhotoBooth, appearing at the Milan Furniture Fair, is a retaliation against thoughtless snapshots. Students from the photography and product design programs at Ecal created interactive installations that reimagine how portraits can be taken and displayed.

The projects are wildly varied. Take something like the Selfie Project, blueprints for build various contraptions, using basic materials like wood, rope and bolts, to take selfies. It includes instructions for The Shotgun, a wood device that functions like a selfie stick; the Rotator, which uses a crank to guide your smartphone while taking a group panorama shot; the Vortex, which uses a drill to spin your phone to create a spiraling video; and the Zoom, which catapults your smartphone forward while capturing video of your startled subjects.

There are more digitally focused projects like Selfeed, which grabs Instagram photos hashtagged with “selfie” and prints them on an endless roll of paper. The catch: The ink disappears in minutes, leaving a pile of blank paper on the floor.

Then there’s something like Unshape, in which visitors’ photos are taken and distorted using a motion-capturing scanner. As the camera moves from top to bottom on a vertical screen, a person’s image is captured and displayed, almost as though the portrait is being digitally printed in real time. Any movement made is translated into a glitchy, twisted image.

Interestingly, most of the projects require visitors to use their smartphone to interact with the installation or document the outcome. In that way, PhotoBooth isn’t redefining what the camera can be in the digital age, but instead showing how unexpected interactions with new tools can shake up what’s typically expected of digital photography.

For his part, Georgacopoulos says the goal of the exhibition is pretty simple: “We really just want people to leave with a smile,” he says. “And with some weird images to show their friends.”

I Dare You To Change This Numerical Calculation


Numerical calculations aren’t the scientific method of the future. No, they are the methods of the present and past. Humans have been using numerical models for quite some time now. What is a numerical model? Here is my definition:

Numerical Model: The process of modeling a complex (or not so complex) physical situation by breaking the problem into tiny and simpler problems. Typically, there will be numerous tiny problems to solve such that it’s practical to have a computer perform the calculations.  You could also call this a numerical calculation.

That’s about as generic as I can get. But now it’s your turn. I know people get a little intimidated when looking at computer code, but you can’t break anything with this program. Below is a numerical model of a mass on a spring. The code is in the format of GlowScript (very much like VPython) but it is embedded using Trinket. The cool thing is that you don’t have to do anything except modify the code and see what happens. You can change the code and then just press “play”to see what happens. Pretty awesome.  If you want to edit the code again, just click the little “pencil” icon to go into edit mode.  If you click the yellow-green key icon, you can open this trinket on  This will let you see the code on the left and the runtime on the right at the same time.

I’m not going to go over all the details of the model. If you want to learn about modeling a mass on a spring, this previous post goes over all the details – also I have a bunch of other tutorials to get you started with GlowScript.

Now for some suggestions. Look through the code above. Try playing with the following ideas:

  • What happens if you increase the mass? The mass is in line 14. It’s currently set to 0.1 (100 grams). Try putting a value of 0.2. Does the mass oscillate faster or slower? What do you think it should do? What about the amplitude of oscillation?
  • Will a stiff spring change things? Try changing the spring constant from 15 to 30 and also try 8. The spring constant is defined in line 4.
  • There is a gravitational force on the ball. What happens if there is no gravity? What happens if the spring is on a planet with a very high gravitational field? The gravitational field is set in line 20.
  • In my model, the ball starts from rest. The velocity is part of the momentum as declared in line 15. Will the mass oscillate faster if the initial velocity is moving down? What if it’s moving up?
  • Ok, now for something cool. Are you ready for this? Go to line 11. This is where the ball is first created along with the initial position of the ball. Look at the part that says “pos=vec(-.1,-L0+.1,0)”. This says that the ball starts at x=-.1, y=-L0_.1, and z=0 which makes it right underneath the point where the spring is attached. What if you start it on the side a little bit? Try changing it to vec(-.2, -L0+.1, 0) – now run it. What happens? Is it awesome? Try another starting position.

Changing code is coding. If you did any of the above suggestions (or anything else), then you are now a programmer. See. That wasn’t so bad, was it? It might even have been fun.

Comcast Drops Bid for Time Warner Cable (Developing)

Comcast is dropping its plan to acquire Time Warner Cable following intense scrutiny and widespread opposition to the $45.2 billion deal, Comcast confirmed in a statement today.

“Today, we move on. Of course, we would have liked to bring our great products to new cities,
but we structured this deal so that if the government didn’t agree, we could walk away,” the statement reads.

Had the deal gone through, the combined company would have controlled 30 percent of market for pay TV and more than 50 percent of the broadband internet market.

The decision represents an abrupt about-face for Comcast, which posted an aggressive response to critics of the proposed merger earlier this week. But the deal may have already been all-but-dead on Wednesday when Federal Communications Commission staff reportedly recommended that the merger be subjected to a hearing with an administrative law judge.

Such a hearing would almost certainly have resulted in the merger being axed. AT&T backed out of plans to acquire T-Mobile in 2011 after a similar FCC recommendation.

Meetings between the two companies and the Department of Justice reportedly went poorly. And the bad news kept piling up. Six U.S. senators published an open letter opposing the deal earlier this week.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable first announced their intentions to merge in February 2014. Critics of the plan argued that the deal would concentrate too much power in Comcast’s hands. Although Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete in the same broadband markets, the merger could have affected agreements with content delivery networks, content providers such as Netflix, and television networks such as Discovery Communications, which publicly criticized the proposal.

Comcast responded by allegedly ghostwriting letters of support to the FCC on behalf of political leaders at all levels of government. But it seems the letters did little to help the company’s case.

The end of this merger opens the door for Charter Communications to resume its own talks to merge with Time Warner, a plan that was disrupted by Comcast’s own proposal. Last year the chairman of Liberty Media, Charter’s largest stakeholder, told investors that Charter would try to resume its acquisition attempt if Comcast’s bid fell through.

VR Meets Nanotech to Make `80s Cyberpunk Dreams Come True

Nanotechnology and virtual reality were two of the most overhyped technologies of the 1980s and `90s. But neither really lived up to our expectations. Thanks to new headsets like the Oculus Rift, however, virtual reality is finally becoming an actual reality. And now a startup is trying to use VR to make the nanotech fantasies of `80s cyberpunks come true.

The difference with the VR is it puts you inside the failure. You see something that's not just a collection of rainbow colors---it tells you a little bit more on what is really going on. Joe Walker, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies

Nanotronics Imaging, an Ohio-based company backed by PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, makes atomic-scale microscopes that both researchers and industrial manufacturers can use in the production of nanoscale materials. Today at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards the company announced a new endeavor: the ability to view the microscopes’ output using virtual reality headsets like the Rift.

The new product, nVisible, will enable Nanotronics users to do virtual walk-throughs of nano-structures, which the company says will enable them to better visualize and understand the materials they’re working with. But most importantly, it could help manufacturers create more reliable processes for building nanoscale products—which has historically been a huge hurdle in working with such incredibly small materials.

Another look at the same micro-topography of a rubber sample as above, also at 20x magnification. Nanotronics Imaging

Inside the Failure

Nanotronics co-founder and CEO Matthew Putman says the idea of using virtual reality to visualize nanoscale materials was first proposed by the company’s creative director, Mari Kussman. Putman admits that at first he thought virtual reality visualizations would just be a novelty. “Until I saw it myself I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says.

It turns out VR is helpful because although some nano-scale materials are essentially flat — such as semiconductors — many others aren’t. And in those cases, even 3-D images on a traditional flat screen can be cumbersome, says Joe Walker, global director of advanced materials development at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies.

Walker and his team are in charge of developing new materials that help keep everything from industrial valves to automobile crankshafts from leaking. When test parts leak, his team must determine whether that’s because the material has cracked or if there’s a leak between the material and the surface. Walker plans to use Nanotronics microscopes to automate part of the company’s testing process, and he believes the nVisible visualizations will help his team troubleshoot production problems more quickly.

“The difference with the VR is it puts you inside the failure,” he says. “You see something that’s not just a collection of rainbow colors—it tells you a little bit more on what is really going on.”

Way Up Close

Putman co-founded Nanotronics with his father, John Putman, in 2010. Before that he was an executive at an industrial systems software company called Tech Pro, a company founded by his father, and a professor of materials science at Columbia University. He knew nanoscale engineering was useful in a whole range of fields, including the creation of small medical devices, better photovoltaics, and flexible electronics. But the promise of nanotechnology simply wasn’t being fulfilled.

“I would go to the biology department, the chemistry department, and every one had the same problem,” he says. “You couldn’t put these things into industry because there was no type of process control that could be used for that.”

He came up with the idea to combine cutting-edge machine vision technology—such as the deep learning algorithms that are helping Facebook and Google recognize images with remarkable accuracy—with nanoscale microscopy. The result is a line of nano-microscopes that can be used to not only see very tiny objects, but to automate industrial testing processes that rely on such up-close visibility.

Putman hopes these new microscopes could help scientists will spawn a whole new generation of nanotechnology startups. “I have this idea that the next Facebook could be a materials science innovation,” he says.

Review: Asus ZenBook UX305



Thin and light, solid and sexy, and quiet as a mouse. Twice the RAM and storage of competing models from Apple and Dell, but for less money. Gorgeous screen, comfy keyboard, all-day battery.


My kingdom for backlit keys. Lacks the sex appeal of Dell's only-slightly-pricier XPS 13. Oddball screen-hinge design can cause some slippage while you type. Weak built-in speakers are an affront to ears everywhere.

How We Rate

1/10A complete failure in every way

2/10Barely functional; don’t buy it

3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution

4/10Downsides outweigh upsides

5/10Recommended with reservations

6/10A solid product with some issues

7/10Very good, but not quite great

8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch

9/10Nearly flawless, buy it now

10/10Metaphysical product perfection

From the moment Intel coined the term Ultrabook with a capital “U,” the Windows-powered MacBook Air wannabe category has been synonymous with one word: pricey. Good luck finding an Ultrabook for less than $1,000. And if you can, expect some serious corner-cutting: smallish screen, paltry storage, anemic processor and, wait a sec, you call this thin and light? So when Asus trotted out the ZenBook UX305, all sleek and shiny and Air-apparent at a mere $700, I figured, sure, pretty on the outside, but mostly Ford Pinto under the hood.

I was wrong. While you can’t judge a laptop on specs alone, you also can’t ignore certain specs. At this price point, I fully expected 4GB of RAM—enough to get by, but hardly a power user’s quota. Except, hang on, the ZenBook has 8GB. Likewise, while most other budget Ultrabooks serve you maybe 64GB of storage (I’m looking your way, entry-level Surface Pro 3), the ZenBook comes with 256GB of local solid-state goodness. Screw you, cloud!

Then there’s the screen, which hits the 13.3-inch sweet spot for modern mobile computing. But instead of running at a what-did-you-expect-for-$700 resolution of 1,366 x 768, it runs at 1920 x 1080, and looks damn nice doing it. (I always believed that kind of pixel count was overkill at this screen size, but I realize now that was cheapskate justification talking. I’m forthwith forever spoiled by higher resolutions.) Plus, no glare: Asus wisely went with a matte finish. Stop it, Asus, you’re blowing my mind!

I'm pretty sure I've found my next laptop.

Battery life? A solid 9-10 hours. Ports? Three USB, all of them 3.0, one of them designed to rapid-charge your phone—even when the ZenBook is powered down. Audio? Oh, just a little subsystem from freakin’ Bang & Olufsen. OK, yeah, the barely-there built-in speakers suck (not uncommon for crêpe-tall laptops), but plug in some headphones and it’s all good.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the processor. It’s gotta be the big “but,” right? Eh, more of a medium but. Intel’s Core M-5Y10 brain runs at an alarmingly low 800MHz, but clock speed ain’t everything (and the side benefit, a fanless chassis, allows for blissfully silent operation). The system cruised through every real-world test I threw at it. In one of them, I opened a dozen Chrome tabs, loaded Windows apps like OneNote and Zinio, then started streaming some Netflix. Not so much as a single stutter. Indeed, for garden-variety computing, the ZenBook offers sufficient horsepower. If you’re planning to edit video or roam the streets of GTA V, well, duh: no.

Asus-inline4 Asus

On the usability side, the 2.6-pound UX305 is mostly solid. The keyboard feels spacious and responsive, and the oversize touchpad delivers smooth glides and many gesture options. The system boots and shut downs in seconds.

Alas, a few design oddities mar an otherwise glorious experience. First, the power button is the same size as the Delete key, and right next to the Delete key—and right above the Backspace key. Until you train your pinky to steer clear, hitting it by accident is a foregone conclusion. Somewhere, engineer is laughing hysterically—or maniacally.

Weirder still, the ZenBook’s hinge is designed so that when you lift the lid, the bottom edge of the screen panel actually raises the rear of the system by about two millimeters. If there’s a value to this, it escapes me, but the consequence is that the laptop’s two rear rubber feet don’t touch your desk, meaning the system slides around a little too easily.

Finally, and this will sound strange, I can’t quite put my finger on the color of the system. The lid has a cool, silverish concentric-circle pattern Asus describes as Obsidian Stone, but the bezels surrounding the keyboard and screen are… what? Not black, because the keyboard keys are black. It’s sort of brownish, even sort of little purplish, and I can’t say I care for it.

I can certainly live with it, though. From a price perspective alone, the ZenBook UX305 easily trounces the 13.3-inch likes of Apple’s MacBook Air, which starts at $999 for 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD; and Dell’s XPS 13, which starts at $799 with the same key specs. They have faster processors, yes, and some nicer design flourishes. But for any laptop shopper even remotely trying to stick to a budget, it’s hard to argue with the ZenBook’s bang/buck ratio.

Let me sum up with a quick anecdote: I’ve been looking to replace a similar two-year-old Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook, one that cost considerably more than the UX305. It has half the RAM, half the storage, lower screen resolution, and a battery that was never good for more than about four hours. (Lately it’s been crapping out at three.)

The UX305 represents an upgrade in every way except one: no backlit keys. That’s a feature I’ve found useful, and I’ll be a little sad without it. But not sad enough to part with several hundred more dollars.

I’m pretty sure I’ve found my next laptop.

Write the Perfect Email to Anyone With This Creepy Site

When my editor Joe told me to write this story, I knew with algorithmic certainty how to respond: “Done. Absolutely. It’s taken care of.”

I got this advice from Crystal, a site that promises to help you understand how best to talk to any particular person. All you have to do is pick the subject. Crystal will then slurp up public data from around the web, run it through “proprietary personality detection technology,” and spit out a detailed report on that person’s preferred style of communicating. It’s one part oppo research, one part algorithmic astrology. It’s definitely creepy, perhaps useful, and almost certainly a look at how we’ll communicate in the future.

In the case of my editor, Crystal’s dossier was surprisingly accurate: “Joe is an achiever: fast-paced, ambitious, and persuasive, so get to the bottom line and don’t feel insulted by a direct or blunt comment.” When speaking to him, it told me to use words like “done,” “absolutely,” and “it’s taken care of.” In email, it recommended limiting my message to three sentences and stating my purpose clearly in the first line. After all, Crystal informed me, “it does not come naturally to Joe to be accommodating and forgiving with his time.”

Sorry boss—Crystal said it, not me.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.47.40 PM Crystal

Like anything that cultivates an association with magic, Crystal is slightly less impressive once you know how it works. If someone were looking you up, the site would start by examining things you’ve written publicly—social media profiles being a primary source—and analyzing factors like writing style and sentence structure. Then it processes what others have written about you. Using those data points, the site identifies you as one of 64 communicative types, which the company has adapted from well-known personality frameworks. Crystal doesn’t really know you, in other words, it just knows what you’re like.

According to co-founder Drew D’Agostino, that’s usually enough. “The beauty of these frameworks is that, if you know one bit of data about a person and you’re accurate about it, you can make really good assumptions about how they’re likely to communicate,” he says. Building the model required considerable experimentation, but given a certain volume of writing, “we figured out a few algorithms that really nailed it,” D’Agostino says.

It wasn’t immediately obvious what to do with the technology, but D’Agostino and company eventually arrived at an answer: email. Beyond letting you look up reports on individuals, paying customers get access to a Chrome extension that puts Crystal’s oracular advice right in your inbox. While emailing D’Agostino to arrange an interview, I noticed a new ochre button in my Gmail compose window. It bore an exhortation: “Be brief.” I was startled, then followed its instruction.
bebrief2 Crystal

There’s a lot of anxiety involved in sending email, D’Agostino says. It can be hard to know what sort of greeting to use, or whether to include a joke. Crystal tries to remove some of that ambiguity. Clicking the “Be brief” button pulled up more detailed suggestions, providing specific phrases to use and avoid in that particular scenario. Crystal even goes so far as to offer a fully-written email template, algorithmically derived for the recipient.

That of course is the dream implicit in all this: A button that sends the perfect email every time. Indeed, a number of artists have explored the contours of this queasy future in recent months. A browser extension by Joanne McNeil fills emails with exclamation points and smileys, automating the “emotional labor” required in today’s cheerful correspondence. Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald took these ideas a step further with Pplkpr, an app that uses biometric signals sort the real life acquaintances that invigorate you from those that aren’t worth your time.

Pplkpr is satire—it’s funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts—but it seems like an artifact from a plausible, perhaps even likely future. Marshall McLuhan once said artists are always the first to figure out how technology will change culture, and there are signs we’re headed in Pplkpr’s direction. Increasingly, we meet partners on dating sites, paired by algorithms. Our phones become ever more adept at parsing conversations and suggesting programmed replies.

D’Agostino says he built Crystal because he wanted to technologically enhance his emotional intelligence. And such a tool definitely could be helpful, say for knowing the person you’re sending a job application to hates wordy emails. But surely there’s a point at which algorithmically informed communication curls back around, mobius-strip style, and we end up even more remote and unknowable to each other than we were when we started.

Crowdfunded Science Is Here. But Is It Legit Science?

Skip to story The images are a representation of the interconnectivity of the brain on placebo and psilocybin. When subjects were give psilocybin there were increased connections in the brain. We anticipate LSD will behave in a similar way to psilocybin. The images represent the interconnectivity of the brain on placebo and psilocybin. Researchers expect similar results in their LSD-imaging studies. The Beckley Foundation/Walacea

A crowdfunding campaign for a brain imaging study closed Monday after raising almost $80,000 toward a unique goal: the first functional magnetic resonance images of the brain on LSD. The Beckley Foundation, a UK-based charitable trust that promotes research and awareness of psychoactive drugs, will use the money to scan volunteers who’ve dropped acid. Such are the sacrifices people will make for science.

Now, it’s little surprise scientists studying the effects of illicit drugs must sometimes find unconventional benefactors—or that thousands of people would invest in seeing the brains of volunteers tripping balls. But in recent years, crowdfunding has grown increasingly popular among researchers in nearly every field. Successful campaigns have explored drought tolerance in Spanish and Indian oak species, attempted to explain jokes with math, and worked to discover exoplanets in the far reaches of space. The first crowdfunded experiments popped up on traditional platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo; now sites like Petridish, Experiment, and Walacea cater specifically to scientific fundraising.

In the US, most scientific funding comes from the government, distributed in grants awarded by an assortment of federal science, health, and defense agencies. So it’s a bit disconcerting that some scientists find it necessary to fund their research the same way dudebros raise money for a potato salad. Does that migration suggest the current grant system is broken? If it is, how can we ensure that funding goes to legitimate science working toward meaningful discoveries?

On its own, the fact that scientists are seeking new sources of funding isn’t so weird. In the view of David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT, crowdfunding is simply the latest “pendulum swing” in how scientists and research institutions fund their work. Once upon a time, research at MIT and other universities was funded primarily by student tuition and private philanthropists. In 1919, however, with philanthropic investment drying up, MIT launched an ambitious plan that allowed local companies to sponsor specific labs and projects.

Critics complained the university had allowed corporate interests to dig their claws into scientific endeavors and befoul intellectual autonomy. (Sound familiar?) But once WWII began, the US government became a force for funding, giving huge wartime grants to research groups nationwide. Federal patronage continued expanding in the decades after the war.

Seventy years later, that trend has reversed: As the federal budget shrinks, government investment in scientific research has reached new lows. The conventional models for federal grants, explains University of Iowa immunologist Gail Bishop, “were designed to work such that 25 to 30 percent of studies were funded. Now it’s around 10 percent.”

That’s part of the reason scientists like Bishop, who successfully funded a study of new nanoparticles to fight cancer cells on Experiment, have embraced crowdfunding. The grant-awarding process can feel arbitrary, says Bishop, and “the selection of those studies skews towards projects that take fewer risks.” In addition, most grants require scientists to provide proof-of-concept studies for their research, which makes it extremely difficult for more experimental projects to get off the ground. “It used to be that the grant money was there to do the experiment,” says Bishop. “Now the cynical joke is that you need to do the experiment first in order to be awarded a grant.”

Crowdfunding allows small-scale research to bypass the time and trouble required to draft and defend a grant proposal, and find money to cover the startup costs of a project. While most biomedical grants leave nine long months between submission and decision, Bishop was pleasantly surprised to see her campaign progress in real time toward its meager $1,500 goal.

But like all shortcuts, crowdfunding has its downsides. Government-funded institutions might be bogged down by tight regulations, but those rules can act as crucial checks on studies that might stand on shaky evidence or harm participants. (The Beckley Foundation’s LSD study is being run at Imperial College, so the researchers must follow institutional guidelines that are meant to protect participants.) Government grants also typically require a transparent accounting of how money is used, while money raised through crowdfunding doesn’t have those stipulations attached. There’s always the possibility—however rare—that a scientist or researcher may use funds in irresponsible or unethical ways.

This is one of the subjects being prepared to enter the MEG scanner. One of the subjects being prepared to enter the MEG scanner. The Buckley Foundation/Walacea

The “crowd” part of crowdfunding also presents a significant problem. When scientists have to shill their ideas on social media like every other entrepreneur, there’s nothing to stop sexy, sensational campaigns from overshadowing more important or legitimate studies. “You want to go viral, but that’s not so easy to do,” says Aaron Seitz, a psychologist at UC Riverside who used a crowdfunded campaign to pay for his study on auditory dysfunction in veterans of war. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been given to Immunity Project, a company seeking to develop a vaccine for HIV, but whose scientific credentials are debatable at best. That’s money that could have instead gone toward campaigns to study autism, or measure toxic chemicals in local bodies of water.

That’s the advantage of agency-funded research: At least in theory, there’s a body of intelligent, scientifically-informed individuals making the call about what research needs to get done. You can bet that the majority of funders of the Beckley LSD study didn’t do it because they believe in the scientific preeminence of the researchers behind it: They did it because they like the idea of sticking high people in an fMRI (and who wouldn’t?).

But that doesn’t mean that the science getting crowdfunded is crap. The researchers for the LSD study, for example, have been investigating the effects of psychedelics for years now, and their results have been published in several prestigious journals. The majority of people looking for funding on these platforms are credentialed scientists whose work will ultimately be subjected to peer review. As long as those checks and balances are still in place, any junk science that makes its way onto a crowdfunding platform still won’t get published. And the amount of money awarded to poorly-designed studies will remain quite low. Common funding goals rank in the single-digit thousands—only a fraction of the size of a typical federal grant.

“Crowdfunding won’t replace conventional means of funding,” says Kaiser. What it will do is offer a chance for smaller studies to take off when they would be denied the opportunity otherwise. Kaiser thinks small projects, especially theoretical research that perhaps doesn’t require as much in equipment and staff costs, will take advantage of crowdfunding more and more. That, and probably a few more high fMRI studies than you’d otherwise see the NIH fund.

An Ode to the Lost World of the Film Projection Booth

Working the projection booth at Avon Cinema was like a second film school for Taylor Umphenour. The single-screen theater on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island—a favorite among Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students—provided a sublime mix of unlimited free movies and a century’s worth of cinematic innovation.

The nine-year education would prove invaluable to the aspiring filmmaker. But as much as Umphenour cherished the analog world of carbon rods, lenses, and aperture plates, by 2011 it was clear film was dying—or at least fading into a specialty medium. Despite the protests of high-profile directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, studios were shipping fewer and fewer 35mm prints, and hundreds of art-house theaters like Avon Cinema were folding. Owners faced two choices: adapt (which usually meant buying a $75,000 digital projector) or die.

The Avon adapted, going digital in 2013. But for two years the owner allowed Umphenour to photograph and film what has become a relic in most US movie theaters: the 35mm projection booth. “I saw that there was an opportunity to take people into this vanishing world,” he says, “a world that was also deliberately kept in the shadows, unseen for almost a century that it existed.”

The Avon Cinema projection booth Taylor Umphenour worked in on and off for 9 years. The two projectors still sit in the booth today, surrounded by the exhaust systems, sound racks, wiring, and computer consoles needed to run the new digital projector. The Avon Cinema projection booth Taylor Umphenour where worked on and off for 9 years. While no longer in use, the two projectors still sit in the booth today, surrounded by the exhaust systems, sound racks, wiring, and computer consoles needed to run the new digital projector. Taylor Umphenour

The result is The Cue Dot, a photographic time warp back to a place that existed for the better part of a century, but few of us ever saw. Taking its name from the small dot that flashes on screen for 1/6th of a second to signal an imminent reel changeover, the project began simply as a way to get people interested in what quickly was becoming a lost medium and artform. In addition to capturing and cataloging the archaic machines and instruments many theaters were throwing out, Umphenour wanted to also impart the magical feeling of being inside the projection booth.

To that end, he’s spent two years peppering his Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram feeds with samples from his trove of more than 500 images. He recently started selling archival prints as well.

There are shots of the copper-coated carbon rods that fuel the projectors, close-ups of input sprockets and lens cabinets, and of course the stars of the series: Two 75-year-old projectors that Umphenour ran about 20,000 reels of film through.

“For a piece of equipment to run daily, several times a day, for three quarters of a century, [it] speaks to the craftsmanship and incredible attention to detail invested by the designers of these machines,” Umphenour says. “To me, the film projectors are like a wondrous magic trick: thread them with a celluloid ribbon, strike the carbon arc, open the douser, and the stuff of dreams pours out.”