A little bit less Azeem Azhar this time, and a little bit more Patrick Tanguay. Mostly, this is a function of me actually jotting down some notes and quotes from each article as I read them. Doing this made the entire process of compiling this edition of Five Futures a lot easier, and also made it feel feasible to include some podcast and video links, which I haven’t previously done.

Fewer links but more context. Five futures, if you will.


🍼 The Problem With All the Plastic That’s Leaching Into Your Food

I strongly suspect that in a thousand years people are going to look back on how we use plastic with the same sense of bemused horror with which we consider the Roman’s wide-spread use of lead.

Reviews of the literature on the human health effects of chemicals in plastics have demonstrated links between exposures to BPA, phthalates, and other plastics additives and reduced fertility, reduced male sexual function and sperm quality, blunted immune function, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. In fetuses, BPA exposure was correlated with an increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, and childhood obesity.

There are also potential cognitive effects. “Particularly strong are the associations between early BPA exposure and altered behavior and disrupted neurodevelopment in children, as well as increased probability of childhood wheeze and asthma,” the author of one of the reviews wrote. Indeed, children are at particular risk of health effects from these chemicals, AAP said: “Hormones act on all parts of the body, and even small disruptions at key moments in development can have permanent and lifelong consequences.”

A 2015 systematic review of children’s neurodevelopment and phthalate exposure concluded that prenatal exposure to phthalates was associated with “cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children, including lower IQ, and problems with attention, hyperactivity, and poorer social communication.”

🐝 Popular Weed Killer May Be Responsible for Global Bee Deaths

As if we needed another reason to be concerned about the widespread use of Roundup, it turns out that the popular herbicide may be contributing to bee colony collapse.

A popular ingredient in weed killers may be wiping out honey bees by attacking their gut, scientists claim.

The chemical glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a potent herbicide sold by Monsanto, and other similar products. A new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that it destroys bees’ specialized gut bacteria, exposing them to infection by deadly bacteria.

Glyphosate is the world’s best-selling herbicide, despite its links to cancer in humans. It works by targeting an enzyme in plants and some microorganisms known as EPSPS, or 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase. According to the study, bee gut bacteria also contains this enzyme, which helps to ward off infections and regulate overall health.

When the scientists exposed bees to the Roundup ingredient, the bees’ healthy bacteria decreased, disrupting their microbiome – a mini-ecosystem of gut microbes responsible for all manner of tasks, such as blocking pathogenic invaders and processing food.

🗽 Climate Deniers Are More Likely to Hate Democracy

In the West acceptance of climate change is closely tied to the liberal/conservative political divide. But in the world at large that turns out to be an aberration.

Previous studies have tended to focus on public opinion in the US and other Western democracies. That research shows that in English-speaking Western countries, views about climate change are heavily skewed by party political ideology. For the most part, conservatives tend to reject environmentalism, while liberals tend to see climate change as a serious concern.

While it’s often assumed that this pattern can be extrapolated to the rest of the world, the new study finds that outside the Western bubble, political ideology has little to do with concern about the climate.

Rather, the overwhelming connection is support for democratic values, described by the study as “the most important predictor of climate change concern everywhere except the English-speaking Western democracies.”

🏭 Trump Administration Sees a 7-Degree Rise in Global Temperatures by 2100

Internally, the Trump administration seems to have accepted worst-case global warming projections, and is in fact using them as an argument for not cutting US CO2 emissions.

Last month, deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees by the end of this century.

A rise of seven degrees Fahrenheit, or about four degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels would be catastrophic, according to scientists. Many coral reefs would dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Parts of Manhattan and Miami would be underwater without costly coastal defenses. Extreme heat waves would routinely smother large parts of the globe.

But the administration did not offer this dire forecast, premised on the idea that the world will fail to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.

The Washington Post goes on to make the case that “[t]he statement is the latest evidence of deep contradictions in the Trump administration’s approach to climate change,” but I suspect that reports like this and the EPA’s recent analysis that its own CO2 rule changes will kill people are actually part of a darker pattern.

Here’s the thing: Baring black swan technological break-throughs, there are four broad scenarios for addressing climate change (the scenarios for addressing other environmental crises are similar):

  1. Moderate emission cuts and a concerted effort to increase efficiency without any significant global economic adjustment. This is basically the “consensus” political choice. It’s also obviously not what’s happening, nor does it seem to be compatible with our current best understanding of climate dynamics. Attempting to more-or-less preserved the existing social/political/economic order would have been in the cards if we began seriously pursuing decarbonization in the 1970s or 1980s, instead of… The 2020s? Never?

  2. Major emission cuts coupled with significant adjustments in the global economy. This is what many climate and environmental activists argue for, though I don’t think the more moderate among them really grasp the magnitude of the social and economic changes required. Cutting emissions fast enough in an already warming world means globally reconfiguring how we generate power, how we handle the construction of cities and transportation networks, and how we approach farming and the management of natural resources. Again, had we started serious pursuing this approach in the 1990s or 2000s it’s likely the existing order could have been largely preserved. But now the only way forward is for the western nations to begin taking the challenge seriously internally while at the same time transferring significant technology and wealth to developing countries to enable them to “leapfrog” current developmental patterns. Consequently, actually cutting emissions fast enough to avoid worst-case scenarios will likely also significantly narrow the global wealth gap.

  3. Do nothing significant. What we actually seem to be doing. Unlike many, I don’t think that this is an existential choice, but I do think that while wealthy nations and individuals will use the resources at their disposal to adapt, everyone else will… Not be so lucky. And because global environmental crises compound with time, the cycle of delay followed by diversion of resources by the wealthy for their own adaptation needs will result in an ever worsening situation for ever greater numbers of people. This is William Gibson’s “jackpot” by way of Lazarus. A lot of people will die, but it will take a long time, and along the way those that make it will be able to preserve a certain level of plausible moral deniability.

  4. Global genocide. The environmental crises we face are basically all due to saturated “waste sinks”, and since we don’t know how to increase the capacity of these sinks, the only other solution is to reduce our waste stream significantly. We can do this using social and technological levers (scenarios (1) and (2)), or we can do it by reducing the number of humans (scenarios (3) and (4)). The more quickly we reduce the waste flows, the better off the survivors will be. The dark counterpart of scenario (2), where we reduce the number of survivors slowly, is thus “solving” ecological crises by purposefully killing billions of people. Fortunately, even the most monstrous among us don’t seem to have a commitment to this course of action, but I worry that it will become progressively easier for scenario (3) to slide into this scenario as global environmental stressors worsen.

I think what we’re seeing in the Trump administration is an all-but-explicit commitment by US elites to scenario (3) and the preservation (if not enhancement) of the current elite’s relative power… Even if that ultimately means a far more diminished world, in just about every sense, for us all.


💀 Why Facebook is Losing the War on Hate Speech in Myanmar

Facebook’s panglossian incompetence in managing its community has made it all but complicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

For many people in this emerging economy, Facebook is the internet: It’s so dominant, it’s the only site they use online. Yet, the company ignored repeated warnings as far back as 2013 that it faced trouble.

Researchers and human rights activists say they cautioned Facebook for years that its platform was being used in Myanmar to promote racism and hatred of Muslims, in particular the Rohingya.

“They were warned so many times,” said David Madden, a tech entrepreneur who worked in Myanmar. He said he told Facebook officials in 2015 that its platform was being exploited to foment hatred in a talk he gave at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. About a dozen Facebook people attended the meeting in person, including Mia Garlick, now the company’s director of Asia Pacific policy, he said. Others joined via video. “It couldn’t have been presented to them more clearly, and they didn’t take the necessary steps,” Madden said.

👤 Facebook Is Giving Advertisers Access to Your Shadow Contact Information

If you keep tabs on the world of surveillance capitalism, then it will come as no surprise that Facebook holds a lot of data on you that it gathers from other sources, and you can’t see or delete. Facebook has periodically dodged and denied the existence of these “shadow profiles”, but has now been caught in the act by a team of clever researchers.

They found that when a user gives Facebook a phone number for two-factor authentication or in order to receive alerts about new log-ins to a user’s account, that phone number became targetable by an advertiser within a couple of weeks. So users who want their accounts to be more secure are forced to make a privacy trade-off and allow advertisers to more easily find them on the social network. When asked about this, a Facebook spokesperson said that “we use the information people provide to offer a more personalized experience, including showing more relevant ads.” She said users bothered by this can set up two-factor authentication without using their phone numbers; Facebook stopped making a phone number mandatory for two-factor authentication four months ago.

The researchers also found that if User A, whom we’ll call Anna, shares her contacts with Facebook, including a previously unknown phone number for User B, whom we’ll call Ben, advertisers will be able to target Ben with an ad using that phone number, which I call “shadow contact information,” about a month later. Ben can’t access his shadow contact information, because that would violate Anna’s privacy, according to Facebook, so he can’t see it or delete it, and he can’t keep advertisers from using it either.

I’m not a privacy hawk, but harvesting information folks’ provide to enhance their security for advertising purposes is deeply alarming. People beginning to forgo security features out of concern that they will be used to invade their privacy is the worst of all possible outcomes. It’s also likely to be exactly what happens because of practices like this.

👥 The Facebook Security Meltdown Exposes Way More Sites Than Facebook

Facebook also dumped on Friday that attackers had gained access to approximately 50 million user accounts using a chain of bugs that eventually allowed them to “log in” as affected users. An additional 40 million accounts could also be impacted. While this is only 2% - 4% of Facebook’s user base, the attackers were basically able to gain complete access to affected accounts, potentially including any applications and websites that those users logged in to with Facebook.

Beyond the impact on Facebook accounts themselves, the company confirmed that breach impacted Facebook’s implementation of Single Sign-On, the practice that lets you use one account to log into others. The idea is to use a trusted service – like Facebook Google, Twitter, and so on – to log into sites and services across the web, rather than create a unique profile for each one. That saves time, and ensures you’re logging in through an entity you trust. In this case, it also appears to have potentially made Facebook’s breach an internet-wide calamity, at least for those impacted.

“The access token enables someone to use the account as if they were the account holder themselves. This does mean they could access other third-party apps using Facebook login,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product, said in a call with reporters Friday. “Developers who used Facebook login will be able to detect those access tokens have been reset.”

It’s unclear how long those third-party sites will accept the stolen access tokens, or how difficult it would be for an attacker to use an access token to get into a third-party site.

💣 Facebook is Weaponizing Security to Erode Privacy

A long, and good, analysis of the way Facebook uses and abuses security concerns to justify its data collection.

In recent years multiple major data misuse scandals have undoubtedly raised consumer awareness about privacy, and put greater emphasis on the value of robustly securing personal data. Scandals that even seem to have begun to impact how some Facebook users Facebook. So the risks for its business are clear.

Part of its strategic response, then, looks like an attempt to collapse the distinction between security and privacy – by using security concerns to shield privacy hostile practices from critical scrutiny, specifically by chain-linking its data-harvesting activities to some vaguely invoked “security purposes”, whether that’s security for all Facebook users against malicious non-users trying to hack them; or, wider still, for every engaged citizen who wants democracy to be protected from fake accounts spreading malicious propaganda.

So the game Facebook is here playing is to use security as a very broad-brush to try to defang legislation that could radically shrink its access to people’s data.

That all said, there are legitimate reasons why Facebook might want to build “trust profiles” of its users: If you know how someone normally acts, then you can use that information to better flag unusual behavior that may represent an attempted account compromise. A simple example of this would be using location data to help determine suspicious logins. The idea is that if someone always logs in from Boise, Idaho, but then suddenly logs in from Cape Town, South Africa, then then you might rightly regard the South African login with some suspicion. Now, there’s many reasons why that location change might be legitimate – for example, maybe the user turned on (or off) a VPN – so you don’t necessarily want to deny these sorts of unusual logins. But you might want to force the user to re-authenticate, or shoot them an alert email, or something similar.

However, it’s hard to imagine how keeping profiles of people who are not yet using your service serves this goal. Facebook maintains that they need to build “shadow profiles” of non-users to prevent scraping, but this is such an obvious pretext that it’s impossible to take seriously (most scraping tools are automated and are unlikely to use the same browser connection as day-to-day usage).

Facebook is setting up privacy and security as opposing values, when really they’re more independent-but-interrelated properties for which context matters. There’s generally not a one-to-one privacy/security trade-off, but rather questions of implementation, control, and whose interests are privileged. Facebook is attempting to gloss-over this conversation, and we should consequently view their claims with some skepticism.

💪 A Life Insurance Company Wants to Track Your Fitness Data

At some point Fitbits and other personal health devices were going to become too tempting of a data source for insurance companies to ignore. It looks like that time is now.

John Hancock, a US life insurance company, announced on Wednesday [September 19th] that all policies will now give incentives for people to send the company fitness tracker and other wellness data.

The company “will stop underwriting traditional life insurance and instead sell only interactive policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones,” according to Reuters.

What could possibly go wrong?


🔮 Democrats Should Worry About All Their Close Special Election Losses

The expected “blue wave” of Democrat-supporting voters in the 2018 US mid-term elections may not be enough to push many candidates over the top.

But there is a dark side to those promising omens: Democrats have also fallen short in several special elections that were teed up as the kind of race they would need to win to take back the House majority. In the Georgia Sixth to replace Tom Price and the Ohio 12th to replace Pat Tiberi in particular, Democrats outperformed the district’s partisan lean and its Republican voting history but still couldn’t find quite enough votes to win.

For every Pennsylvania 18th, the site of Conor Lamb’s stunning win in a district Donald Trump had won by 18 points, there is an Arizona Eighth. Democrat Hiral Tipirneni came within 3 points of beating Republican Debbie Lesko in a district Trump won by 23.

So Democrats came much closer than you’d think to winning a coveted House seat. But they still lost. They’ve actually lost a lot over the past two years, including in the Ohio 12th special election last month. Of course, Republicans haven’t really been impressive either, as they scrape by in what were supposed to be solid GOP districts.

But to state the overly obvious, you have to actually win in close elections to take at least 218 seats and control of the House. While these special elections are often held up as proof that a blue wave is building, they remind us exactly how big that wave has to be. Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts across the country expressly for this purpose: surviving a year of strong Democratic enthusiasm.

2018 is going to be the test of the GOP’s strategy of gerrymandered districts and voter suppression.

📺 The Rise of YouTube’s Reactionary Right

Ezra Klein’s discussion of the emergence of the “reactionary right” online seems more-or-less spot-on to me.

If you spend much time listening to the reactionary right, you find that line cuts across social justice issues. You can hold a lot of different opinions on the economy, on Trump, on same-sex marriage, on atheism, and still be part of this community. It’s much more accepting of differing views on health care, the role of the state, and taxation than the modern Republican Party. But you can’t be in sympathy with the SJWs.

On the left, the reverse is increasingly true. The unbridgeable divides today, the ones that seem to define which side you’re really on, revolve around issues of race, gender, identity, and equality. While I see a lot of angry arguments about deficits within the Democratic coalition, I don’t know of any congressional Democrats who are against same-sex marriage, vocally skeptical of Black Lives Matter, and in favor of tight restrictions on immigration – even though those were common positions among elected Democrats in the aughts.

Trump is also a manifestation of this shift. In 2012, the Republican Party wanted to compromise on culture and immigration to win on economics; Trump dominated the primary by insisting on the opposite formulation. He cares little about entitlement spending but deeply about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Back in April, I interviewed Lilliana Mason, a political scientist who specializes in identity formation. “Our party divisions have always been moving,” she said. “Sometimes we fight over economics, sometimes we fight over culture, but the line is always moving.” And right now, she continued, “there could be a real new partisan cleavage we are trying to organize around.” Perhaps, she suggested, the next political cleavage “is a social justice cleavage.”

I think she’s right, and one place you see it is on YouTube, where tomorrow’s politics are emerging today.

💉 Russian Trolls “Spreading Discord” Over Vaccine Safety Online

It turns out that Russian trolls have been working to weaponize unfounded concerns over vaccine safety as part of their broader effort create a tribal, chaotic information space.

Scientists at George Washington University, in Washington DC, made the discovery while trying to improve social media communications for public health workers, researchers said. Instead, they found trolls and bots skewing online debate and upending consensus about vaccine safety.

The study discovered several accounts, now known to belong to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the US election, as well as marketing and malware bots, tweeting about vaccines.

Russian trolls played both sides, the researchers said, tweeting pro- and anti-vaccine content in a politically charged context.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, which was also involved in the study, said.

This isn’t a long term strategy to contain political rivals. This is recklessness on a global scale.

Patrick Deneen Says Liberalism Has Failed

[Podcast] An interesting argument that classical liberalism has not worked out as well for society as we commonly believe. Deneen is obviously arguing from a socially conservative perspective, but if you can get past that I think that there’s some merit to his arguments. Though Deneen’s focus on individual happiness/fulfillment/purpose seems a very… classically liberal… justification for his critique of classical liberalism.

💡 Why Our Minds Weren’t Built for Truth, and How We Can Change That

[Video] This talk by Julia Galef is a great discussion about how we reason and what we can do to make ourselves more open to better evidence. In particular, I think that Galef’s focus on creating better incentive structures, rather than the common refrain that what we need is more “education”, is really important.


🚀 Doctor Who Official Trailer

[Video] I’m optimistic about the new season of Doctor Who.

🏫 Many Ways to Be a Girl, But One Way to Be a Boy

These days, young women perceive a wide range of behaviors and futures open to them; for young men, the options seem much narrower. These different self-conceptions collide in exactly the way you would expect.

Girls have been told they can be anything they want to be, and it shows. They are seizing opportunities closed to previous generations – in science, math, sports and leadership.

But they’re also getting another message: What they look like matters more than any of that.

Boys seem to have been largely left out of the conversation about gender equality. Even as girls’ options have opened up, boys’ lives are still constricted by traditional gender norms: being strong, athletic and stoic.

The survey results, and the stories in the article, align well with my own observations.

👩 A Feminist Makes the Case Against Feminism

I think Jessa Crispin’s torturing the definition of “patriarchy” a bit here, but I agree with the thrust of her argument.

This idea emerged that if we just put a lot more women in positions of power, somehow that would defeat the patriarchy, not understanding that the patriarchy has nothing to do with men. If women in power behave like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. That’s just patriarchy with women in it. And patriarchy is one of those really dissatisfying words because everybody uses it and there’s not a general understanding, a shared understanding of what the word means other than anything that is keeping you down.

[…]

My working definition of patriarchy is a society that’s structured by hierarchy. So unless that is reformed, unless we reform society so there are no hierarchies, because the hierarchy used to be white, property-owning men at the top of the hierarchy and everybody else in varying positions underneath that, and now it’s just money and power. So women can easily attain a high position on the hierarchy, but that’s not the end of patriarchy.

Unless we get rid of the hierarchy and stop structuring our society around it, the patriarchy is not defeated.


📱 Lasts Longer

Apple’s September iPhone release event included a hidden bombshell: Moving forward, the company will be pushing to keep their products in circulation longer, in direct opposition to the upgrade treadmill that hardware companies (like Apple!) have relied on to remain profitable.

To emphasize the second point [Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives] said Apple now strives to design and build durable products that last as long as possible. That means long-lasting hardware coupled with long-lasting software. She pointed out that iOS 12 runs even on iPhone 5S, now five years old. Because iPhones last longer, you can keep using them or pass them on to someone who will continue to use them after you upgrade.

She said that “keeping iPhones in use” is the best thing for the planet.

Ars Technica’s tests of iOS 12 suggest that Apple is already working to fulfill this promise.

💻 Mmm… Pi-hole…

Troy Hunt describes how he uses a Raspberry Pi to block ads on his home network.

Whoa! That’s an 80% reduction in network requests and an 82% reduction in the number of bytes transferred. I’d talk about the reduction in load time too except it’s really hard to measure because as you can see from the waterfall diagrams, with no Pi-hole it just keeps going and going and, well, it all gets a bit silly.

How to Build a Low-tech Website

If you ever wanted to read about the intersection of modern website design and energy de-intensification, this is the article for you.

Our new web design addresses both these issues. Thanks to a low-tech web design, we managed to decrease the average page size of the blog by a factor of five compared to the old design – all while making the website visually more attractive (and mobile-friendly). Secondly, our new website runs 100% on solar power, not just in words, but in reality: it has its own energy storage and will go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather.

The Internet is not an autonomous being. Its growing energy use is the consequence of actual decisions made by software developers, web designers, marketing departments, publishers and internet users. With a lightweight, off-the-grid solar-powered website, we want to show that other decisions can be made.

I find it annoying that the discussion about renewable energy generation and storage early on forgets that just because fossil fuels are integral to manufacturing now does not mean that they will always be so, but this is a quibble on my part. The overall design considerations Low←Tech Magazine highlights here are important, and it’s worth noting that they make the website not only vastly more energy efficient, but also more accessible to folks with disabilities, and usable on poor internet connections. Even if internet-driven energy usage isn’t something you care about, these are worthwhile goals in and of themselves.

Now I want to redesign Delphi Foresight Strategy’s website

🔋 Stacking Concrete Blocks Is a Surprisingly Efficient Way to Store Energy

When I tell people that the future will be weirder than they think, this is the kind of thing I mean.

The science underlying Energy Vault’s technology is simple. When you lift something against gravity, you store energy in it. When you later let it fall, you can retrieve that energy. Because concrete is a lot denser than water, lifting a block of concrete requires – and can, therefore, store – a lot more energy than an equal-sized tank of water.

Bill Gross, a long-time US entrepreneur, and Andrea Pedretti, a serial Swiss inventor, developed the Energy Vault system that applies this science. Here’s how it works: A 120-meter (nearly 400-foot) tall, six-armed crane stands in the middle. In the discharged state, concrete cylinders weighing 35 metric tons each are neatly stacked around the crane far below the crane arms. When there is excess solar or wind power, a computer algorithm directs one or more crane arms to locate a concrete block, with the help of a camera attached to the crane arm’s trolley.

[…]

The system is “fully charged” when the crane has created a tower of concrete blocks around it. The total energy that can be stored in the tower is 20 megawatt-hours (MWh), enough to power 2,000 Swiss homes for a whole day.

When the grid is running low, the motors spring back into action – except now, instead of consuming electricity, the motor is driven in reverse by the gravitational energy, and thus generates electricity.

The article is bearish on the technology’s prospects for significant deployment, but I have a sneaking suspicion that clever re-imaginings of “primitive” technologies are going to be more important over the next few hundred years than anyone now thinks.

🎶 Star Wars in Ancient Greece

[Video] The theme from Star Wars, arranged for instruments that existed in ancient Greece.