The Team Behind the New Firefly Comic Wants to Explore a Past the Show Never Could [Published articles]

Despite the fact that Firefly barely lasted a season on television over a decade and a half ago, there seemingly ain’t no power in the ‘verse that can stop it. From Serenity, to books, to yes, other comics, there’s been many attempts to continue where the show left off. Boom’s new comic wants to do that too, but it…

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7 new Spectre, Meltdown attacks uncovered by security researchers [Published articles]

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and Living in Myth [Published articles]

Growing up, I was obsessed with Greek mythology. I was that annoying kid “um actually”-ing Hercules in the theater, frustrated that a Disney movie didn’t make its star the bastard son of Zeus who murdered his wife and children in a rage. “He’s called Heracles.” I’ve long been fascinated with these legends and the…

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WannaCry is Still Dominating Ransomware [Published articles]

An anonymous reader writes: WannaCry, once the greatest cybersecurity calamity in history, now doesn't work. A website critical to its function is now controlled by civic-minded security researchers, and the fixed deadline to pay the ransom has long passed. Yet WannaCry still accounts for 28% of ransomware attacks -- the most of any ransomware family. According to a new study by Kaspersky Lab, the defanged North Korea linked ransomware is still spreading uncontrollably. The spreading mechanism that passed WannaCry from victim to victim that was so virulent in the 2017 attack is still active, even if the ransomware itself isn't. The firm discovered that since the WannaCry outbreak in May 2017 has affected 74,621 users across the globe.

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The Universe Is Not a Simulation, but We Can Now Simulate It [Published articles]

Computer simulations have become so accurate that cosmologists can now use them to study dark matter, supermassive black holes, and other mysteries of the real evolving cosmos.

Fixing bufferbloat on your home network with OpenBSD 6.2 or newer [Published articles]

The Art Institute of Chicago Has Put 50k High-Res Images Online [Published articles]

CloudFlare releases Android app for its 1.1.1.1 DNS | Android Police [Published articles]

'Wallace and Gromit' Producer Aardman Animations Gives Ownership to Employees [Published articles]

One word. [Published articles]

Classic Sci-Fi Star Systems Keep Getting Ruined by Science [Published articles]

Having recently discussed some possible SF solutions to the vexing problems posed by red dwarf stars, it makes a certain amount of sense to consider the various star systems that have served as popular settings for some classic science fiction—even if science has more or less put the kibosh on any real hope of finding a habitable planet in the bunch.

In olden days, back before we had anything like the wealth of information about exoplanets we have now1, SF authors playing it safe often decided to exclude the systems of pesky low-mass stars (M class) and short lived high-mass stars (O, B, and A) as potential abodes of life. A list of promising nearby stars might have looked a bit like this2

 

Star System Distance from Sol
(light-years)
Class Notes
Sol 0 G2V
Alpha Centauri A & B 4.3 G2V & K1V We do not speak of C
Epsilon Eridani 10.5 K2V
Procyon A & B 11.4 F5V – IV & DA
61 Cygni A & B 11.4 K5V & K7V
Epsilon Indi 11.8 K5V
Tau Ceti 11.9 G8V

After Tau Ceti, there’s something of a dearth of K to F class stars until one reaches 40 Eridani at about 16 light-years, about which more later. And because it is a named star with which readers might be familiar, sometimes stories were set in the unpromising Sirius system; more about it later, as well.

There are a lot of SF novels, particularly ones of a certain vintage, that feature that particular set of stars. If one is of that vintage (as I am), Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Indi, Epsilon Eridani, Procyon, and Tau Ceti are old friends, familiar faces about whom one might comment favourably when it turns out, for example, that they are orbited by a pair of brown dwarfs or feature an unusually well-stocked Oort cloud. “What splendid asteroid belts Epsilon Eridani has,” one might observe loudly, in the confident tone of a person who never has any trouble finding a seat by themselves on the bus.

In fiction, Procyon is home to L. Sprague de Camp’s Osiris, Larry Niven’s We Made It, and Gordon R. Dickson’s Mara and Kultis, to name just a few planets. Regrettably, Procyon A should never ever have been tagged as “possesses potentially habitable worlds.” Two reasons: solar orbits and Procyon B’s DA classification.

Procyon is a binary star system. The larger star, Procyon A, is a main-sequence white star; its companion, Procyon B, is a faint white dwarf star. The two stars orbit around each other, at a distance that varies between 9 and 21 Astronomical Units (AU).

Procyon A is brighter than the Sun, and its habitable zone may lie at distance between 2 and 4 AU. That is two to four times as far from Procyon A as the Earth is from our Sun.

Procyon B is hilariously dim, but it has a very respectable mass, roughly 60% that of our Sun. If Procyon A were to have a planet, it would be strongly affected by B’s gravitational influence. Perhaps that would put a hypothetical terrestrial world into an eccentric (albeit plot-friendly) orbit…or perhaps it would send a planet careening outside the system entirely.

But of course a hypothetical planet would not be human- or plot-friendly. B is a white dwarf. It may seem like a harmless wee thing3, but its very existence suggests that the whole system has had a tumultuous history. White dwarfs start off as regular medium-mass stars, use up their accessible fusion fuel, expand into red giants, shed a surprisingly large fraction of their mass (B may be less massive than A now but the fact that B and not A is a white dwarf tells us that it used to be far more massive than it is now), and then settle down into a long senility as a slowly-cooling white dwarf.

Buy it Now

None of this would have been good for a terrestrial world. Pre-red giant B would have had an even stronger, less predictable effect on our hypothetical world’s orbit. Even if the world had by some chance survived in a Goldilocks orbit, B would have scorched it.

This makes me sad. Procyon is, as I said, an old friend.

[I’ve thought of a dodge to salvage the notion of a potentially habitable world in the Procyon System. Take a cue from Phobetor and imagine a planet orbiting the white dwarf, rather than orbiting the main(ish) sequence star. We now know that there are worlds orbiting post-stellar remnants. This imaginary world would have to be very close to Procyon B if it is to be warm enough for life, which would mean a fast orbit. It would have a year about 40 hours long. It would be very, very tide-locked and you’d have to terraform it. Not  promising. Still, on the plus side, the planet will be far too tightly
bound to B for A’s mass to perturb it much. Better than nothing—and much better than the clinkers that may orbit A.]

A more reasonable approach might be to abandon Procyon as a bad bet all round and look for a similar system whose history is not quite as apocalyptic.

It’s not Sirius. Everything that is true of Procyon A and B is true for Sirius A and B as well, in spades. Say goodbye to Niven’s Jinx: if Sirius B didn’t flick it into deep space like a bleb of snot, it would have cinderized and evaporated the entire planet.

But…40 Eridani is also comparatively nearby. It is a triple star system, with a K, an M and a DA star. Unlike Procyon, however, B (the white dwarf) and C (the red dwarf) orbit each other 400+ AU from the interesting K class star. Where the presence of nearby Procyon B spells complete annihilation for any world around Procyon A, 40 Eridani B might only have caused a nightmarish apocalypse of sorts. The red giant might have pushed any existing world around A from ice age into a Carnian Pluvial Event, but it would not have gone full Joan of Arc on the planet. The shedding of the red giant’s outer layers might have stripped some of the hypothetical world’s atmosphere…but perhaps not all of it? The planet might have been turned from a volatile rich world into a desert, but life might have survived—it’s the kind of planetary backstory Andre Norton might have used.

 


1: We had Peter Van de Kamp’s claims about planets orbiting Barnard’s Star, Lalande 21185, 61 Cygni, and others but those failed to pan out.

2: With slightly different values for distance and type, but I don’t have any of my outdated texts handy. Also, ha ha, none of the sources I had back then ever mentioned the ages of the various systems, which (as it turns out) matter. Earth, after all, was an uninhabitable armpit for most of its existence, its atmosphere unbreathable by us. The ink is barely dry on Epsilon Indi and Epsilon Eridani. Don’t think Cretaceous Earth: think early Hadean.

3: Unless you know what a Type 1a supernova is.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

Bash QDB - 962113 [Published articles]

<@realitygaps> english - the php of spoken languages

Disney's Captain Marvel accidentally puts out an ad with a phone sex hotline number [Published articles]

When Disney's Captain Marvel put out a PSA encouraging their fans to vote, they also, unwittingly, encouraged people to call a sex hotline.

In their get-out the-vote ad, Captain Marvel lead Brie Larson is standing in a phone booth surrounded by Rock the Vote posters. "CAPTAIN MARVOTE IS A BAD PUN BUT NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE VOTE TOMORROW," she says in a tweet.

CAPTAIN MARVOTE IS A BAD PUN BUT NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE VOTE TOMORROW pic.twitter.com/ZhXk5Qzkt5

— Brie Larson (@brielarson) November 5, 2018

But along with her encouraging words is a phone number displayed on the booth's telephone, a number which was obviously photoshopped by the folks on the Captain Marvel promotional team. Obvious because the number – 1-800-654-2192 – was an ABC number ("It used to appear in shows like The Suite Life of Zac and Cody, and if you called it, you got an automated message from the network," according to Daily Dot). And ABC is a subsidiary of Disney, who distributes Captain Marvel.

Of course some Marvel fans were intrigued by the number and gave it a call, but rather than connecting to a superhero, they were greeted by a recording that says: “Welcome to America’s hottest talk line. Guys, hot ladies are waiting to talk to you—press 1 now. Ladies, to talk to interesting and exciting guys, free, press 2 to connect free now...."

Either ABC is looking for new ways to turn a profit, or they dumped the number but forgot to delete it from their phone book. Read the rest

Gen Con interview: Mercedes Lackey [Published articles]

 

One of the featured guests at Gen Con this year was Mercedes Lackey, returning for the second Gen Con in a row after she and her husband Larry Dixon were with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment last year. Unfortunately, Larry Dixon was not able to make it this year after all, due to recovering from a shoulder injury. Mercedes Lackey attended her panels on Thursday; however, Friday morning she had to be hospitalized due to an allergic reaction to paint fumes in her recently renovated hotel room. She had to stay overnight at the hospital, but recovered enough to come back to the convention on Sunday, where I caught up with her for a very brief interview.

Me: This is Chris Meadows here with Mercedes Lackey, who I am very happy to see is all right after she gave us all a scare this weekend.

Mercedes Lackey: It’s alive!

Me: This is the second year in a row you’ve been here with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. That’s kind of unusual.

M.L.: That’s because my husband Larry Dixon is doing screenwriting for them.

Me: So it’s is continuing for the foreseeable future?

M.L.: Oh yes, he’s definitely on The Gamers screenwriting room. Gamers has been rebooted with the old characters coming back; you can get episode zero called “The Gamers: The Shadow Menace.” You can find it on the Zombie Orpheus website and you can find it on Amazon [Prime Streaming Video].

Me: When I spoke to you last year, you said that your Hunter trilogy was not going to go anywhere because Disney wasn’t interested in continuing it further?

M.L.: This is true. Disney only wanted the trilogy. So, unfortunately, unless I can get them to agree to let me publish independently, that’s probably going be it. Unless suddenly it decides to take flight and become an enomous hit again.

Me: You never know.

M.L.: You never know.

Me: But what else do you have planned for these days.

M.L.: Well, the last book of The Secret World Chronicle is out, Avalanche, and it wraps up all of the plot loose ends and a huge number of reveals. So, that’s out in August. And then in October is The Bartered Brides, which is the next Elemental Masters book. That’s another one with Sherlock Holmes and Nan and Sarah, except Sherlock doesn’t appear in this book because it takes place shortly after the infamous at the Reichenbach Falls. And I’m currently working on another book for Disney, which is called Godmother’s Apprentice—at least it’s called that right now—which is more of a standard fantasy. It’s kind of a Disney Princess for young adults rather than little girls, and I’m outlining the next of the Mags [Valdemar] books. This one is [about] his daughter Abby, who is an artificer.

Me: You already did one thing with godmothers back in your Five Hundred Kingdoms books.

M.L.: Right, this is a little different, this is more classic fairy godmothers.

Me: So, apart from the thing with the hotel, how has the con been for you this year?

M.L.: It’s been lots of fun. I’ve had a great time.

Me: It’s kind of like saying, “Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln…”

M.L.: Exactly!

Me: But do you think you will be back for the next year?

M.L.: I don’t know. We haven’t planned that far ahead.

Me: We’d certainly like to see you.

M.L.: I do know the next convention we’re doing is in the middle of September, it’s Salt Lake Comic Convention. We haven’t been anywhere near there, ever, so it will be a whole new group of fans.

Me: Well, that’s gonna be pretty neat. Have you any further plans for any self published items?

M.L.: No, at this point I have so many contracts to write out that I literally don’t have any time to write anything to self-publish.

Me: I guess it’s better to have too much work than not enough.

M.L.: Oh yeah, we constantly need need to do the mortgage payments still.

Me: Is there anything else you’d like to say before I close it down?

M.L.: Yes, I really really appreciate all the incredible outpouring of concern when I went down. You really know how wonderful the fan community is when there are seven hundred messages on Larry’s Twitter all asking about it.

Me: Well, I think I can speak for all of us fans when I say that I’m really glad that you’re doing well. And I hope we will see you back again here next year.

M.L.: I hope so, too


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Listen to Dischord Records' entire catalog for free [Published articles]

Dischord is to punk and indie rock what Def Jam and Death Row Records are to rap.

Dischord Records was formed in 1980 by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat fame.

Nothing is more punk than figuring shit out for yourself and then owning it like a fucking champ. Dischord was and is all up in DIY's face: all of the label's albums were produced in-house and distributed without the help--let's be honest and call it interference--by any major labels. The label's roster of artists is a who's who of who was in constant rotation on my used-to-death Panasonic portable cassette player, back in the day: Fugazi, Govenment Issue, Jawbox, S.O.A, Minor Threat and Shudder to Think.

I don't think it would be too over the top to say that Dischord was responsible for forming many of the political and ethical beliefs that I hold to be true to this day.

And now, the label's whole damn back catalog is free to stream on Bandcamp.

If you're looking to take a trip down hardcore punk memory lane, this is your chance. If you missed out on Dischord's seminal recordings the first go 'round and want to see what all of the fuss is about, this is also your chance. Listen, enjoy and, if want to keep a good thing going, throw some money at buying any of the tracks or albums that you wind up falling in love with.

Image by Malco23 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Candidate/election-runner Brian Kemp's hacking accusation is a new, absurd low [Published articles]

Brian Kemp is the Secretary of State for Georgia, where is he also running for governor, meaning that he is overseeing his own election -- and in that capacity, he has purged thousands of Black voters from the rolls (the total purge runs to the millions) and distinguished himself as one of the last holdouts for replacing his state's worst-of-breed insecure voting machines with ones that produce a paper audit trail that can be consulted if they are suspected of malfunction.

Kemp, who is running against Stacey Abrams (a Black woman with an "unapologetic progressive" platform) has a long history of voting machine shenanigans (one set of machines was wiped right after Georgia voters filed a lawsuit involving them) and his campaign has been a mix of (semi)coded racism and performative tough-guy stunts.

His latest eleventh-hour salvo has reached a new low for absurdist tragicomedy: Kemp has accused the Democratic Party of hacking into the state's voter registration system in order to steal its records (these records are sold to anyone who asks, by the State of Georgia, for $250!).

Besides the "the Demmycrats hacked us to save $250" weirdness, there's plenty more surrealism in Kemp's accusation: Kemp has accused the Democrats of two separate, mutually exclusive offenses: hacking into the voter registration system to steal its data, and hacking into it to expose its vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities, mind, which have been lavishly documented and demonstrated by independent security researchers).

Kemp is a serial offender when it comes to false accusations of hacking voting systems: in 2016, he accused the Department of Homeland Security of hacking Georgia's vote (in reality, someone at the DHS had visited Kemp's Secretary of State website.

While anything is possible, Kemp's claims seem unlikely on their face, especially when you parse what little information his team has provided. “We opened an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia after receiving information from our legal team about failed efforts to breach the online voter registration system and My Voter Page,” his office said in a statement. “We are working with our private sector vendors and investigators to review data logs.”

A legal team seems like a surprising source for the discovery of a hacking attempt, and the fact that security teams then began reviewing the logs makes whether any suspicious activity was actually seen an open question. Kemp’s office did not provide any information about the alleged attack, or when it purportedly occurred.

“While we cannot comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation, I can confirm that the Democratic Party of Georgia is under investigation for possible cyber crimes," Georgia secretary of state press secretary Candice Broce wrote in a statement. Not sharing details of an investigation is a common practice, but that supposed restraint apparently did not apply to the direct, vocal accusation of Kemp's Democratic opposition.

Citing No Evidence, Brian Kemp Accuses Georgia Democrats of Hacking [Lily Hay Newman/Wired]

SpaceX's Starman Roadster has ventured past Mars [Published articles]

Starman and its Tesla Roadster are officially a long, long way from home. SpaceX has confirmed that Falcon Heavy's test payload has passed Mars' orbit, putting it at one of its greatest distances away from the Sun (it should reach its far point on N...

What Does It Take to Keep a Classic Mainframe Alive? [Published articles]

Snowden Files Declaration in NSA Spying Case Confirming Authenticity of Draft Inspector General Report Discussing Unprecedented Surveillance of Americans, Which He Helped Expose [Published articles]

EFF filed papers with the court in its long-running Jewel v. NSA  mass spying case today that included a surprising witness: Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden’s short declaration confirms that a document relied upon in the case, a draft NSA Inspector General Report from 2009 discussing the mass surveillance program known as Stellar Wind, is actually the same document that he came upon during the course of his employment at NSA contractor. Mr. Snowden confirms that he remembers the document because it helped convince him that the NSA had been engaged in illegal surveillance. 

Mr. Snowden’s declaration was presented to the court because the NSA has tried to use a legal technicality to convince the court to disregard the document. The NSA has refused to authenticate the document itself. This is important because documents gathered as evidence in court cases generally must be authenticated by whoever created them or has personal knowledge of their creation in order for a court to allow them to be used. The NSA is claiming that national security prevents it from saying to the court what everyone in the world now knows: that in 2009 the Inspector General of the NSA drafted a report discussing the Stellar Wind program. The document has been public now for many years, has never been claimed to be fraudulent, and was the subject of global headlines at the time it was first revealed. Instead of acknowledging these obvious facts, the NSA has asserted that the plaintiffs may not rely upon it unless it is confirmed to be authentic by someone with personal knowledge that it is.

 Enter Mr. Snowden. The key part of his five paragraph declaration states:

During the course of my employment by Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, I worked at NSA facilities.  I had access to NSA files and I became familiar with various NSA documents.  One of the NSA documents I became familiar with is entitled ST-09-0002 Working Draft, Office of The Inspector General, National Security Agency, dated March 24, 2009.  I read its contents carefully during my employment.  I have a specific and strong recollection of this document because it indicated to me that the government had been  conducting illegal surveillance.


The government took a similar unfounded position with regard to another document – an Audit Report by the NSA in response to a secret FISA Court Order – that it produced to the New York Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of the New York Times David McCraw, provided a simple declaration to authenticate that document.

“Everyone knows that the government engages in these surveillance techniques, since they now freely admit it. The NSA’s refusals to formally ‘authenticate’ these long-public documents is just another step in its practice of falling back on weak technicalities to prevent the public courts from ruling on whether our Constitution allows this kind of mass surveillance of hundreds of millions of nonsuspect people,”  said Cindy Cohn, EFF’s Executive Director. 

Mr. Snowden and Mr. McCraw’s Declarations are part of EFF’s final submission to the court to establish that its clients have “standing” to challenge the mass spying because it is more likely than not that their communications were swept up in the NSA’s mass surveillance mechanisms. These include telephone records collection, Internet metadata collection, and the upstream surveillance conducted, in part, at the AT&T Folsom Street Facility in San Francisco.  Mr. Snowden’s declaration joins those of three additional technical experts and another whistleblower whose declarations were filed in September. The court has not set a hearing date for the matter.

 

Related Cases: 

Scientists find evidence of a black hole at our galaxy’s center [Published articles]

Researchers have long suspected that a supermassive black hole lies in the center of our galaxy, and now they have strong evidence to support that suspicion. Using the Very Large Telescope -- an array of four individual telescopes stationed in the At...

Senator Introduces Bill That Would Send CEOs To Jail For Violating Consumer Privacy [Published articles]

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has introduced the Consumer Data Protection Act that "would dramatically beef up Federal Trade Commission authority and funding to crack down on privacy violations, let consumers opt out of having their sensitive personal data collected and sold, and impose harsh new penalties on a massive data monetization industry that has for years claims that self-regulation is all that's necessary to protect consumer privacy," reports Motherboard. From the report: Wyden's bill proposes that companies whose revenue exceeds $1 billion per year -- or warehouse data on more than 50 million consumers or consumer devices -- submit "annual data protection reports" to the government detailing all steps taken to protect the security and privacy of consumers' personal information. The proposed legislation would also levy penalties up to 20 years in prison and $5 million in fines for executives who knowingly mislead the FTC in these reports. The FTC's authority over such matters is currently limited -- one of the reasons telecom giants have been eager to move oversight of their industry from the Federal Communications Commission to the FTC. "Today's economy is a giant vacuum for your personal information -- everything you read, everywhere you go, everything you buy and everyone you talk to is sucked up in a corporation's database," Wyden said in a statement. "But individual Americans know far too little about how their data is collected, how it's used and how it's shared." "It's time for some sunshine on this shadowy network of information sharing," Wyden said. "My bill creates radical transparency for consumers, gives them new tools to control their information and backs it up with tough rules with real teeth to punish companies that abuse Americans' most private information."

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Moral Kombat: How Narnia and Harry Potter Wrestle with Death and Rewrite Christianity [Published articles]

Hagrid carries Harry's body

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been on Broadway for about six months and collected six Tonys after a successful run in London. I was lucky enough to see the play a few months ago, and while I liked it enormously, I can’t stop thinking about how odd it is. With Cursed Child, Rowling foregoes the possibility of a simple fun adventure and instead adds a coda to the series-long meditation on death, and continues her ongoing tickle fight conversation with the moral fantasy of C.S. Lewis.

Has there ever been a blockbuster/franchise/pop-culture-phenomenon more death-obsessed than Harry Potter? The Narnia books at least give us pages full of whimsy and adventure before cranking the stakes up. Death looms over The Hunger Games, obviously, but the books are also about political strife and governmental overthrow and class warfare. Star Wars tends to sanitize its deaths, with lightsabers cauterizing wounds and Jedi masters literally disappearing so there isn’t any gore to confront. And when you look at The Lord of the Rings? Sure, death is pretty much Mordor’s Big Mood—but Tolkien’s books are as much about hope and battle and honor and gardening and the powerful love between an elf and a dwarf as they are about mortality.

The Harry Potter books are about death in a way that the others are not, and about the different ways of responding to its inevitability: a villain whose entire life revolves around finding immortality no matter the cost; a hero haunted by witnessing his parents’ deaths; a wizard supremacist cult literally called the Death Eaters; the endless speculation that began just before Book 4 came out about WHO WOULD DIE; the dawning realization that at least one beloved character was going to die in each book from #4 onwards; horses that were only visible to people who have lost loved ones; gallows humor throughout; and three magical MacGuffins called The Deathly Hallows.

Rowling begins her story mere minutes after James and Lily’s murders with a focus on Harry’s scar—his death, really, waiting in his head—and ends it with a resurrected hero who goes out of his way to destroy magical access to immortality. And hovering around all of this is the question of what comes after death—whether the ghosts of Lily and James are truly conscious ghosts or just a sort of echo, and what it will mean for Harry to fulfill his destiny and die.

Which makes it all the more interesting that the HP series is resolutely, gloriously secular. The magic the wizards and witches use is hard work, and requires training and homework. There are few miracles, aside from the occasional assist from the Sorting Hat or Fawkes; the students and their teachers have to rely on themselves to defeat evil. Prophecies are potential futures to be dealt with, not Capital-A apocalypses. Where many fantasy series either encode Christianity into their DNA (The Lord of the Rings, Narnia) or create religions for their characters to follow (The Stormlight Archive, Star Wars) the characters of the Potterverse celebrate Christmas and Halloween as cultural holidays with trees for one, pumpkins for the other, and chocolate for both. There is never any sense that the kids practice the Christianity of Christmas or the Celtic Paganism of Samhain. There’s no mention of High Holy Days or Ramadan fasts. There are no non-denominational chapels in Hogwarts. The one wedding we attend is at the Burrow, and someone described only as a “small, tufty-haired wizard” presides over the lone funeral.

But in the midst of this secularism, Rowling uses Christian imagery, returning to them over and over again and infusing them with new meanings each time. She riffs on them in ways that startled me when I read the series the first time, and I was astonished when she returned to them and remixed them again for Cursed Child. When I watched the play I found myself thinking again and again about the stark contrast between Rowling and C.S. Lewis.

Though The Last Battle wasn’t published until 1956, Lewis finished the Chronicles of Narnia before he met, married, and lost Joy Davidman. He explored the liminal time of mourning in A Grief Observed, publishing the book in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk—he didn’t want people who read his apologetics or his children’s fantasies stumbling across such a raw, painful work. (It was only after his own death in 1963 that the book was republished under his name.) While I don’t feel that I’m qualified to psychoanalyze Lewis, I do think it’s worth noting that The Last Battle, with its hardline theological attitude toward Susan, and its conception of Tash as simply evil, was written before Lewis’ spirituality was reshaped by grief, whereas Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series largely in direct response to nursing her mother through a long final illness. She was still reeling from that loss (as well as the ending of her first marriage and the birth of her first daughter) when she began writing a series about the consequences of trauma, and the ongoing pain of mourning. So why am I dragging Lewis into this?

He and Rowling each wrote hugely popular—and completely different—rewrites of Christianity.

Rowling has spoken about her uneasiness with the way Lewis encodes a theological agenda into his books. Because Lewis’ books, much like Tolkien’s, don’t just toss in a Nativity or a general idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good—they entwine hardcore theology and theodicy into the entire series, and create action that hinges on that theology.

Hang on, does everyone know what theodicy is? It’s basically “the problem of evil” or the study of why an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God would allow evil in the world It created. The term was coined by Gottfried Leibniz (one of the two men who invented calculus!) in 1710, in a book helpfully titled Théodicée, but the idea has been around much, much longer. There are many different schools of theodicy and anti-theodicy (some which sprung up as direct responses to the horror of the Holocaust, for instance) and C.S. Lewis dug into it with several books, specifically Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed. Mere Christianity, for instance, tackles free will by comparing God to a mother who tells her child to clean its room. Sure, this might fail—the child might ignore its mom, leave the room messy and never learn the value of cleanliness—but by offering the child the choice to clean its room or not, the mother is allowing the kid to grow up, determine its own living space, take pride in its cleanliness, and generally become a better, more responsible adult. C.S. Lewis applies the same logic to God, saying: “It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right” and even though humans can do evil things, and create great suffering, having free will is better than the alternative because “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

This idea is baked into every page of the Narnia books.

Narnia is essentially a series explaining free will, the problem of pain, and faith to children through exciting stories and cute animals. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe starts off fun and whimsical: Lucy finds the cupboard! Beautiful snowy woods! Lamppost! Tumnus! But soon it’s revealed that the kids have stumbled onto a cosmic battle. Edmund shows us the dark side of free will (and the need to remain morally vigilant in the face of Turkish Delight) by using his freedom to betray his siblings and Aslan, while the White Witch shows us the evil of ultimate selfishness, and Aslan presents another side of free will. The mighty lion, who has seemed comforting and omnipotent to the abandoned children, hands himself over to the Witch so he can be a willing sacrifice in exchange for the traitorous Edmund. Though he could easily escape, he chooses to be tortured, to allows them to manhandle him and shave his mane. He allows himself to be humiliated.

Susan and Lucy, having followed Aslan, are asked to act as silent, helpless witnesses. Finally, once Aslan is really most sincerely dead, the White Witch and her followers gloat over his corpse, and leave it to rot. Lucy and Susan stand watch over Aslan’s ruined body, and their loyalty is rewarded when they are the first witnesses to his resurrection. This is all, note for note, the arc of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, with Edmund playing the Judas role and the girls standing in for the various Marys and Magdalenes. And as in the Christian story, the important part is the willingness of the sacrifice. Lucy and Susan are seeing someone with enormous power relinquish that power for a larger purpose, but they don’t know that a long-game scenario is playing out, they just know that they love their friend and they’re going to stay with him until he gets a proper burial.

Aslan dead

Then their faith in Aslan is confirmed when he comes back even stronger than before. Death doesn’t win—and Aslan reveals that there is a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” (a magic the White Witch knows nothing about) which will resurrect an innocent being who has given his life for a traitor. This is only the barest allegorical gloss slapped over Christian theology, with Aslan acting as a stand-in for Christ, and the human race being a big bunch of Edmunds, betraying each other and ignoring moral law in favor of all the Turkish Delight life has to offer.

Aslan is presented as a deity figure who is actually worshipped, not just loved—he appears as a lamb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and is revealed to have created Narnia itself in The Magician’s Nephew. He also appears as a supernatural bogeyman to the followers of Tash—Aslan’s power simply translates into its evil counterpoint for them. When the series culminates in The Last Battle, it’s revealed that faith in Narnia/Aslan has allowed all the “Friends of Narnia” to return (and that Susan’s lack of such faith left her on Earth), and that all “good” followers of Tash get to come along to a Heaven that is sort of a deluxe Narnia: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

In this way Lewis creates a stand-in messiah, twines the quasi-Jesus story around the core of his fantasy series, and riffs respectfully on Christian theology. He takes the somewhat liberal (and controversial, in some theological circles) Inclusivist stance that good works can get people into paradise apart from their conscious faith in his specific savior figure. He also obliquely returns to the idea of pain as a force for growth with the character of Susan.

How could Aslan allow Susan to survive the train crash that kills her entire family? Well, if you want to a theodical interpretation, grief will teach her more about the importance of faith in her life, until she’s ready to come back to Aslan, believe in Narnia, and rejoin her family. Unnecessarily harsh for a series of children’s books, you say? Lewis was trying to put forth a very specific theological idea, which was that having free will meant you had the ability to fuck up as Edmund and Susan both do. As a true Friend of Narnia, you need to keep faith with Aslan, and be obedient to him. Lewis’ moral lesson is to trust your elders and your God, and his books are essentially softening his young readers’ hearts for lives spent believing in Christianity.

Sometime early in the writing of her Harry Potter books, Rowling also decided to weave Christian symbolism into the story, but arrived at a very different moral conclusion than Lewis.

Rowling effectively collapses the Nativity and the Crucifixion into one scene: Harry as an infant is helpless in his crib when Voldemort comes to visit. (An inversion of the Three Kings? Or maybe a nod to Maleficent.) James tries to stop him and is easily cast aside (the human father, like Joseph, being a background character compared to the Chosen One’s mother), and it’s Lily who steps up and sacrifices her life for Harry’s. She replaces her son’s death with her own, and invokes a type of love that is a deeper magic than Voldemort can understand. This mirrors the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” that brings Aslan back to life, to the chagrin of the White Witch.

This is the moment that makes Harry Potter who he is. Not just in the sense that he’s a celebrity orphan, but that he is now on a path created by a sacrifice that will lead to a second sacrifice. It began with a green flash that meant his death, and it ends in facing that death all over again. Rowling seeds this throughout the series: the Mirror of Erised shows him his family, whole and happy. The Dementors force him back into a memory of his last moments with his parents—and in a fantastic twist, he realizes that he almost welcomes the Dementor’s Kiss because it triggers those memories. When Harry faces Voldemort for the first time in Goblet of Fire, the shades of his parents emerge from the wand and protect him.

In almost every book Rowling finds a way to check back in with that origin scene, reworking it from different angles, refracting it through different lenses. Harry’s parents’ deaths are interrogated repeatedly, much as the Nativity is relived through the Peanuts gang, and generations of Sunday School Christmas pageants, and the Crucifixion is reinterpreted through Passion Plays, productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, and the occasional Martin Scorsese film. Just as every Midnight Mass homily revisits the Nativity, so all the major Harry Potter characters find ways to retell stories about The Boy Who Lived. Just as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, and Nikos Kazantzakis each retell Jesus’ crucifixion through the point of view of Judas, so Rowling shows us Harry’s memories of that day, Sirius’ memories of being the Potters’ Secret Keeper, Hagrid’s first moments with Baby Harry, Aunt Petunia’s insistence that her sister died in a car crash. This eternal return begins to feel like an obsession by Prisoner of Azkaban, but Rowling was just getting started.

With Goblet of Fire, Rowling backs off (slightly, temporarily) on reliving That Day, and instead kicks the series into high gear with a remorseless killing spree. Harry watches Cedric die, then Sirius, then Dumbledore, then Dobby, then Snape. Bill Weasley is maimed and George loses an ear in Death Eater attacks. The Ministry falls, and the wizarding world collapses into Magical Fascism. Harry even gets his own Judas figure in Peter Pettigrew, who betrays the Son as he betrayed the Parents. Throughout all of this, with the terrifying wizard of our collective nightmares gaining more and more power, at no point does anyone offer any sort of religious structure, theology, belief system, theodicy, nothing. Or, well, almost nothing.

story of the Deathly Hallows

We get the stories of the Deathly Hallows themselves, in which Rowling teases real magical artifacts in the Tales of Beedle the Bard—which most mature wizards think of as bedtime stories for their children. (This in itself is an interesting twist: the stories Ron dismisses as juvenile fables turn out to not only be true, but vitally important to Voldemort’s defeat.)

Finally, Rowling makes a point of intersecting her Wizarding story with the Muggle world by placing James and Lily’s house in Godric’s Hollow, across the street from a church. She shows us the gravestones of the Dumbledore family and the Potters, which read “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” respectively. The first is a memorial to Dumbledore’s mother and sister, an acknowledgement of his love for them despite all of his ambition and a life spent at Hogwarts. It’s also a quote from the New Testament: Matthew 2:21. The Potters’ shared stone is a nod to the Deathly Hallows (and a slightly on-the-nose reference to the theme of the entire series) but it’s also 1 Corinthians 15:26. Given that up to this point the series has been resolutely secular, I still remember having to reread that passage a few times. Rowling gave us an unchurched world, without even a perfunctory Church of England Midnight Mass, but suddenly Corinthians is relevant? Albus Dumbledore likes the Gospel According to St. Matthew enough to put it on his family grave? (I mean, unless he’s a Pasolini fan, but there’s no textual evidence for that.)

James Potter Lily Potter grave

Of course the next notable thing to me is that Harry and Hermione seemingly have no idea what these quotes are. Neither of them have been raised with Christianity, or even a passing knowledge of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, so this whooshes right over their heads. It’s a fascinating choice to create the alternate wizarding world, make it secular, and then, in the last book, imply that at least some people from that world also value one of the religions of the Muggle world. Especially while also making the explicit point that the two quotes are meaningless to the two main characters. Who chose the inscription for the Potters? Was it Dumbledore? The Dursleys? Some rando vicar?

But all of those questions fade into the background as Rowling uses the end of the book to dive into her second great religious remix—in this case, riffing on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s version of the Crucifixion. 

Just as Lewis did, Rowling rewrites Jesus’ dilemma at the Garden of Gethsemane. Harry hears Voldemort’s offer—he’ll end the assault on Hogwarts if Harry surrenders—and then he watches Snape’s memories in a Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office. He finally sees Dumbledore’s full plan, and realizes that his mentor had been planning his sacrifice from the beginning. Snape even accuses Dumbledore of fattening him for slaughter like a pig. Harry has to reckon with the fact that, at 17 years old, his life is over. Everything since his first birthday has been borrowed time.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Dumbledore Pensieve

This digs into an interesting debate about free will. On the one hand, Harry’s fate was sealed when Voldemort cursed him as a baby and locked him into life as the Chosen One. But on the other, Harry has to make the free, unforced choice to walk to his execution. He has to allow Voldemort to torture him, humiliate him, make him beg—no matter what, Harry, like Aslan, has to remain passive for the sacrifice to work. But this is Harry, who runs toward trouble, who jumps into action and looks for danger later, who doesn’t ask permission, who doesn’t consult teachers, who risks his life for his friends every year like it’s nothing. Harry doesn’t do passive. And we, as readers, have been trained to expect last-minute acts of derring-do (or last-minute Hermione-ideas that save the day) so it comes as a bit of a shock when Harry accepts this, works through his anger at Dumbledore, and chooses to die a second time.

Part of the point of Gethsemane is that Jesus explicitly asks to opt out of the sacrifice he’s being asked to make—theologically, this is emphasizing the human side of his nature, and giving the mortals reading/hearing the story a moment to relate to. To make it even worse, he explicitly asks his disciples—his friends—to stay up with him so he doesn’t have to spend his last night alone. They immediately pass out, which serves a ton of narrative purposes: it leaves Jesus even more bereft, demonstrates the weakness of human flesh, foreshadows the betrayals of both Judas and Peter, and serves as a symbolic warning against sleeping through a shot at redemption. (The other fascinating thing here is that you, the reader/hearer, are now essentially put in the place of either a disciple who managed to stay awake, or, if you want to be a bit more pretentious about it, God. After all, you’re the one hearing the request, right? And rest assured Rowling tweaks this element in a fascinating way that I’ll look at in a few paragraphs.)

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Gethsemane is sort folded into the Crucifixion, as Aslan doesn’t have any visible moment of doubt, he simply asks Lucy and Susan to stay quiet and watch his execution. (I’ll risk the assumption that Lewis wasn’t comfortable making his Jesus Lion look weak, even for a larger theological purpose.)

Rowling’s rewrite confronts this scene much more boldly. First, unlike Jesus—but like Aslan—Harry never asks to get out of his sacrifice. He wants to, desperately, but he never quite succumbs to the temptation to ask for help. Part of that could just be that Rowling has created a universe that doesn’t seem to have any sort of deity or ultimate boss to appeal to—Dumbledore is the last authority, and he’s already made it clear that he needs Harry to die. Second, unlike Aslan (and, probably, Jesus) Harry has no guarantee that he’ll be coming back—quite the opposite. He assumes he’s going to die as a Horcrux, that he’ll be completely destroyed. He accepts his own death because it makes narrative sense, basically. By dying, he can fulfill Dumbledore’s plan. Unlike Jesus, Harry at least gets to look through his history in the Pensieve, learn Dumbledore’s entire long game, and see that his loved ones will go on to live their lives free of Voldemort’s evil at last. He can choose to be angry at Dumbledore, or he can rationalize that the Headmaster hid the plan in order to allow Harry seven happy-ish years at Hogwarts—it was the only gift he could offer to make up for Harry’s miserable life with the Dursleys, and the sacrifice that lay ahead.

Harry doesn’t ask any of his friends to stay and keep him company. He explicitly avoids speaking to them because he knows that will destroy his resolve and instead visits them under the invisibility cloak so he can have a last moment of seeing them. He drops the cloak long enough to warn Neville that Nagini must be killed if Voldemort is going to be defeated, knowing that he won’t be there to see the defeat. Then he walks into the forest.

Rowling is nicer than both God and C.S. Lewis, however, because Harry isn’t completely abandoned: once again, the shades of his parents accompany him, as they did during his first real fight with Voldemort. This time they’re joined by Sirius and Lupin. The ghosts assure him that death doesn’t hurt, and that they’re proud of him. I would argue that this is the emotional climax of the series, where Harry gets all the love and validation he’s craved while coming full circle to face Voldemort. This is also a perfect narrative move on Rowling’s part, as it shows Harry in a liminal space between life and death—he makes himself a ghost with the invisibility cloak, then he is guarded by ghosts as he goes to his sacrifice in the forest. He’s being eased into death, which creates a very particular tone to the chapter. For a reader, these pages feel like taking a moment to breathe after the anger and shock of learning Harry’s destiny.

And then Harry faces Voldemort.

Harry reenacts his ancestor Ignotus Peverell’s meeting with Death when he throws the cloak off—but obviously Voldemort, who has spent his unnatural life enacting the follies of the other two brothers, does not meet Harry like an old friend. The calm atmosphere is destroyed, the ghosts are gone, and he is mocked as the Death Eaters hurl abuse at him. Worst of all, Harry sees Hagrid, the man who rescued him from the Dursleys and introduced him to a new life, abused mercilessly. He is powerless to help.

Hagrid tied up

Harry is finally killed—Rowling has Voldemort finish him off with a simple Avada Kedavra, avoiding the protracted torture of Jesus or Aslan.

Of course, it’s possible to see Harry’s torture woven into his life—through Snape’s punishments, through Umbridge’s punishments, through all the painful Horcrux searches—underlining the idea that pain is simply part of life to be dealt with, not a teaching tool or a punishment from On High.

After Harry decides to come back from (ahem) King’s Cross, all the pain of being alive comes back, too; and he has to try to stay calm and play dead as the Death Eaters throw his body around like a toy—again, as with Aslan, the most important element here is humiliation, and Rowling uses this term several times. The only way to break the spirit of Dumbledore’s Army is to show them their leader broken. This was why crucifixion particularly was used on people who broke societal laws or tried to lead uprisings—not just Jesus, obviously, but Spartacus and his followers, Peter, and plenty of other would-be messiahs and revolutionaries—and why similarly horrific tortures were visited on people like civil rights workers in the 1960s, and protesters around the world today.

Simply beheading someone, or hanging them, or standing them before a firing squad isn’t going to break a movement, and martyrs only strengthen movements. You have to show the martyr’s followers that there is no hope. This is what the Romans were doing when they left people hanging on crosses for days in the sun, what kings were doing when they left heads on pikes. This is what the White Witch is doing by leaving Aslan’s body out to decay on the stone tablet. This is what Voldemort is doing when he casts Crucio on Harry’s body and flings it around like a broken doll. Voldemort orders one of the Death Eaters to replace the glasses on Harry’s face so he’ll be recognizable, which, in a single offhand sentence gives us some idea of how battered his body is. Harry can’t just be dead—he has to be desecrated. In a grotesque mirroring of the night Hagrid took Harry from the Nativity/Golgotha of Godric’s Hollow, he is forced to carry what he believes is Harry’s corpse back to Hogwarts.

Rowling has commented that she wanted the man who brought Harry into the Wizarding World to be the one who carries his body back to his true home, Hogwarts. She’s also continuing her Crucifixion imagery by riffing on the Pietá, and of course underscoring the evil of the Death Eaters, that they would make Hagrid do this. She dwells on this section, making it incredibly hard to read, I think to grind it into her young readers’ minds that this is the risk you’re taking when you resist evil. She did, after all, spend her youth working for Amnesty International—she has an intimate knowledge of the sorts of horrors tyrants visit upon dissenters. She’s showing her readers exactly what can happen when you rebel against someone who doesn’t see you as truly human. She stays in this moment far longer than I would expect from what is, essentially, a children’s book, before reassuring her readers that there’s still hope.

Harry had told Neville that someone needed to dispatch Nagini to make Voldemort vulnerable, but Neville himself still has no reason to believe they will win when he draws Gryffindor’s sword. He has every reason to believe that he is dooming himself by attacking—especially seeing what’s been done to Harry. All of them fight together, while Harry, invisible under his cloak, acts as a sort of protective angel during the last battle of Hogwarts. He defeats Voldemort with all of his friends around him, using a disarming spell to the last, and still imploring his nemesis to repent. And this is the last great subtle point Rowling makes with her main series: rather than waiting for a savior or tying everything to one guy, the Wizarding world unites into a collective to fight the Death Eaters, even in the face of impossible odds. Rather than seeking simple vengeance, her hero fights to protect his loved ones, all the while trying to turn his enemies to a better life.

Which is why his side wins.

Hang on, let’s have a brief note about REMORSE, shall we?

Kings Cross afterlife Harry Potter

It’s in King’s Cross that we get the sense of what Rowling means by “remorse.” At first it seems like just a casual phrase. Of course Sirius is filled with remorse over his pact with Pettigrew. Of course Snape is filled with remorse when he learns that it was his intel that led to Lily’s death. But as the references accumulate it becomes clear that “remorse” is a moral, expiatory force in the Potterverse. Albus’ remorse over his mother’s and sister’s deaths is actively repairing the damage that he did to his soul when he dabbled in dark arts with Grindelwald. Snape is repairing the damage done by his Death Eater days, and the fact that he takes the hit by killing Dumbledore so Draco won’t have to probably does more good than harm:

“That boy’s soul is not yet so damaged,” said Dumbledore. “I would not have it ripped apart on my account.”

“And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?”

“You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” said Dumbledore.

So when Harry gets to King’s Cross and hashes things out with Dumbledore, the tiny mewling creature he sees is what’s left of Tom Riddle’s murderous, furious, Horcrux-bitten soul. Dumbledore explicitly says he can’t do anything for him. But of course this is Harry we’re talking about. So naturally Rowling, unlike Lewis, makes a point of having her Jesus figure reason with the devil. After he sees what becomes of the man’s soul in King’s Cross, Harry faces Voldemort a final time and speaks to him as a person, calling him Tom, and imploring him to think about consequences:

It’s your one last chance, it’s all you’ve got left… I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise… Be a man… try… Try for some remorse.

And then Harry doesn’t die in battle, and he doesn’t kill Voldemort. The Dark Lord’s own curse rebounds on him, and Rowling again departs from Lewis. Where the Pevensies live in Narnia as kings and queens, and then turn out to be teens in the regular world before the train wreck in The Last Battle, Rowling allows Harry to grow up—or maybe the truer thing to say is that she forces him to grow up. He doesn’t get to die a hero. In the Deathly Hallows epilogue, we see that his life is still largely defined by That Night—his life, and the health of the wizarding world, is characterized not by joy or contentment but by a lack of pain: “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”

And now fast forward nine years to the 2016 premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and give yourself a moment to think of what the play could have been:

  • The trio needs to reunite to rescue Hagrid!
  • The trolls are having an uprising!
  • Harry’s kid becomes an exchange student at Beauxbatons!
  • There’s a new Death Eater/a Voldemort follower/a Grindelwald follower/a monster of some sort!
  • Something something centaurs!
  • AAARRRGGHHHH!

Do you see what I mean?

It could have been anything. Any plot, any adventure. But instead Rowling and her author, Jack Thorne, choose to revisit her great obsession: death in general, and the moment of Harry’s parents’ deaths in particular—until the play becomes a four-and-a-half-hour-long memento mori. As we hop across timelines, we learn that almost every character we’ve loved has died. Draco Malfoy’s wife dies. Muggles are tortured off-stage. An alternate-universe Snape succumbs to a Dementor’s Kiss. Most interesting, Rowling and Thorne also refract Cedric Diggory’s death in exactly the way Rowling did Harry’s parents’: Now it is Amos Diggory’s grief for his son, and his son’s life and death, that become a crux point for the main plot as Harry and Draco’s sons team up to try to save Cedric’s life, and then have to deal with the consequences of their actions when they screw up their timelines. By the end of the play we seem to be learning a darkly beautiful lesson: Cedric’s death was necessary. Even though Voldemort refers to him as “the spare,” the play shows us that his death was just as vital a sacrifice as Lily’s or Dumbledore’s.

The play is awash in death.

And there’s no relief once we finally come back to the “correct” universe—once Albus and Scorpius are kidnapped, we learn that it’s only a matter of time before Delphini fulfills her own prophecy, and snuffs out an entire timeline.

But this is all child’s play compared to adult Harry’s arc. We watch as The Thirtysomething-Who-Lived reckons yet again with the tragedy that has defined his life. Throughout the play he’s plagued by nightmares of Voldemort. This is an obvious narrative choice, as it leads into the dramatic reveal that his scar is hurting again, but many of the nightmares and flashbacks are not necessary to the story.

Twice, in apparent memories, we go back to Harry’s childhood as a boy under the stairs. In one, a nested-Voldemort-nightmare scares him so badly he wets the bed, which leads to Aunt Petunia screaming at him in disgust while also insisting that the flash of light he’s remembering was the car crash that killed his parents. This deepens our view of Petunia as an abuser—it’s one thing to try to hide magic from a child, especially in light of what a magical life did to your sister, but it’s quite another to gaslight that child about his parents deaths while humiliating him for wetting the bed. (She even makes him wash the sheets. It’s horrific.)

This is followed by an even worse memory: Petunia decides to be just kind enough to take Harry to visit his parents’ grave in Godric’s Hollow. For a second you might feel a bit of warmth toward her, since Vernon certainly wouldn’t approve of this outing. But of course she spends the entire visit sniping about the bohemian town and insisting that the Potters didn’t have any friends despite the piles of flowers on their tombstone. Even something that looks like decency is revealed to be an excuse to alienate Harry, lie to him about his parents, and crush his spirit.

Again, this is a play for kids. It didn’t have to show us the wizarding world’s savior drenched in his own piss. It didn’t have to show us Petunia lying to Harry in order to keep him submissive. It goes to extremely dark places to show us just how abused Harry was, and just how much trauma he still lives with, as a man pushing 40, with a wonderful partner, wonderful children, a better job than he could have dreamed of as a child. Harry’s a broken mess. The greatest dramatic moment in the play is not, I would argue, the battle with Delphi, it’s a much quieter moment in Harry and Ginny’s home. We learn that each year, on that anniversary, he sits with his baby blanket and meditates on his parents, and the life he might have had. When Albus and Scorpius go missing in time, he still tries to honor his tradition, but has reached a breaking point.

Ginny comes in and finds him weeping into the blanket. “How many people have to die for The Boy Who Lived?” he asks her.

It’s a horrifying, dark twist on the opening chapter of the Harry Potter series. It’s a moment that expects people who grew up with Harry to grapple with his entire history, all the people he’s survived, and the pain of being the Chosen One. It expects the younger ones to watch someone who’s maybe more of a parent figure completely break down. This scene highlights Harry’s vulnerability, his fear and guilt that his own life is not worth the ones that were lost. This is an astonishing, raw scene, and Rowling and Thorne allow it to go on for a while. Just like Harry’s protracted walk into the forest, here we sit with him and Ginny for long minutes while he sobs. His breakdown leads directly into the parents’ discovery of Albus and Scorpius’ message written on the baby blanket. Harry’s emotional damage is revealed to be utterly necessary to the play’s plot.

While the play’s narrative climaxes with the Delphi fight, and the moment when Harry chooses, once again, not to kill, the emotional climax is once again his parents’ death. Obviously, inevitably, the big confrontation with Voldemort’s daughter has to come at Godric’s Hollow, on October 31, 1981. After all the years of nightmares and flashbacks, Harry must physically witness the death/rebirth moment with his own adult eyes. The eyes of a father and a son.

I read the play before I got to see it, and I assumed that it would be staged so we, the audience, were behind Harry and his family, kept at a discreet distance, allowing him the privacy of his grief. To complete Rowling’s religious riff, she’d be enacting a medieval-style Mass: Harry as priest observing a holy moment, while the rest of us congregants watched from over his shoulder. Instead, it’s staged like a Passion Play.

For those of you who have never attended—generally, the audience of a Passion Play is cast as the crowd outside of Pontius Pilate’s palace. When Pilate comes out to ask which prisoner should be released, it’s often on the audience to chant “Barabbas”—thus dooming Jesus, and underscoring the idea that human sin is truly responsible for his death—which is a damn sight better than the ancient tradition of blaming the nearest Jewish person. This tactic was employed in NBC’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, for instance, where the audience cheered like crazy for Alice Cooper’s fabulous Herod and Ben Daniels’ somehow-even-fabulouser Pilate, only to realize they’ve been cheering for the torture and death of John Legend once he’s dragged out and beaten to a pulp.

In Cursed Child, Harry, Ginny, Draco, Albus, and Scorpius are all staring out into the audience as the lights flicker and we hear the screams of Lily and James, the cackle of Voldemort. They’re staring at us, as we allow it to happen. We are implicated in these deaths. And once again Harry has to live through the worst moments of his life—the difference being that this time he isn’t alone, as he explicitly states in the battle with Delphi. His disciples have never fallen asleep. They help him defeat her, underlining Rowling’s usual theme of friends and found families being stronger than individual posturing. They’re also there to stop him from killing Delphi. Evil is complex. There are reasons for it. Every single person on this earth who has ever had the label “evil” attached to them has been brought to that state by pain. Maybe a few months, maybe a lifetime’s worth, but something hurt them, and they turned that hurt on the rest of the world. Just as in Deathly Hallows when Harry asked Voldemort to “try for some remorse,” so he also speaks to Delphi as a person, orphan to orphan:

You can’t remake your life. You’ll always be an orphan. That never leaves you.

Harry Potter isn’t a symbol of good—he’s a living, breathing human who was saved by love, and he’s doing everything he can to save the rest of the orphans who were ruined by the pain of previous generations. Even though Delphini tried to undo all of his work and sacrifice his children to her plan, he’s still going to reach out to her.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. But there’s hope in the play that Harry and Draco might form some sort of non-hatred-based relationship. There’s certainty that his son will be supported by Draco’s son, just as he was supported by Ron, Hermione, Luna, Neville.

And most crucially, his partner and child hold him up while he has to once again relive the deaths of his parents, the moment that cursed him to a life of trauma and survivor’s guilt.

Rowling revisits the scenes again, collapses the Nativity and Crucifixion into one moment, structures it like a Passion Play, and sets the whole thing in a Muggle’s Christian church. But again, she veers away from Lewis’ authoritarian themes: Harry is no Aslan. He doesn’t lecture, he doesn’t deliver messages from on high. He’s a fucked up, emotionally damaged adult dealing with PTSD, avoiding adult responsibility because he craves adrenaline, alienating his son, compartmentalizing memories and nightmares that would turn most peoples’ hair white. He’s not a savior anymore, he’s part of a family, and he only succeeds by allowing them to hold him up.

After all that, the play ends in a graveyard. Underlining Cedric’s importance, Cursed Child reveals Harry’s other ritual: whenever he can get away from work, he travels to a graveyard on the Hogwarts grounds to visit Cedric’s grave. After all the anger and pain between Harry and Albus, after the fight with Delphi, after witnessing his parent’s deaths again, The Boy Who Lived has a father-son bonding session in a graveyard. And Albus, for the first time in his life, allows himself to bend a little bit toward his famous father:

Albus: Dad? Why are we here?

Harry: This is where I often come.

Albus: But this is a graveyard…

Harry: And here is Cedric’s grave.

Albus: Dad?

Harry: The boy who was killed—Craig Bowker—how well did you know him?

Albus: Not well enough.

Harry: I didn’t know Cedric well enough either. He could have played Quidditch for England. Or been a brilliant Auror. He could have been anything. And Amos is right—he was stolen. So I come here. Just to say sorry. When I can.

Albus: That’s a—good thing to do.

So we learn that Harry’s life isn’t just shot through with PTSD, or a constant longing for his parents—it is, in fact, haunted by death. He doesn’t give himself just one day a year to remember all the people he’s lost—he heads back to alma mater whenever he can to apologize to A Boy He Couldn’t Save.

Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory

Again, we could have gotten a centaur war or something. The Great Wizarding Bake Off films its new season at Honeydukes! Albus and Scorpius fall in love, but they can’t admit it ’cause their dads hate each other? …OK, that one kind of does happen. But instead of going on a more obvious, fun, “Let’s return to Hogwarts!” path, Rowling and Thorne used their story to deal honestly with the legacy of the books, and to keep building the moral framework established with Sorcerer’s Stone.

Rowling’s moral universe doesn’t depend on unwavering faith, nor on the idea that your elders are right. What Dumbledore does to Harry is not OK—and Dumbledore himself isn’t a holy Aslan figure, either. He’s a grief-stricken old man who’s haunted by the death of his sister, and terrified by his own youthful willingness to follow Grindelwald to the brink of evil. He sends a helpless child into the waiting arms of Voldemort without ever giving that boy a real choice. And Rowling makes sure to present us with Harry’s rage at this. She takes us through Harry’s own Gethsemane scenes so we can see the life he’s choosing to walk away from. She shows us all of Dumbledore’s doubt and fear when the two meet in King’s Cross during Harry’s “death.”

And then, 19 years later, we revisit Harry and find that her Boy Who Lived, and died, and lived again fucks up, and it nearly costs him his son. The wizard messiah isn’t a Christ stand-in—he was a frightened boy who did his best, and who grew into a traumatized man. He who needs to reckon with his nightmares and the abuse he suffered, so he can be honest with himself and his kids. Harry’s grief hasn’t made him stronger. It isn’t a thing he needs to endure, so he can join all of his dead friends in Wizard Narnia. His grief he will always carry with him, and he needs to find a way to talk about it, to explore it with his family and friends, so they can all be stronger together.

Leah Schnelbach is so excited she got to explain theodicy! And if you’re still willing to talk to her after that sentence, you can discuss Wizard Death with her over on Twitter!

SNES.party lets you play Super Nintendo with your friends [Published articles]

Hot on the heels of the wonderful NES.party comes Haukur Rosinkranz’s SNES.party, a site that lets you play Super Nintendo with all your buds.

Rosinkranz is Icelandic but lives in Berlin now. He made NES.party a year ago while experimenting with WebRTC and WebSockets and he updated his software to support the SNES.

“The reason I made it was simply because I discovered how advanced the RTC implementation in Chrome had become and wanted to do something with it,” he said. “When I discovered that it’s possible to take a video element and stream it over the network I just knew I had to do something cool with this and I came up with the idea of streaming emulators.”

He said it took him six months to build the app and a month to add NES support.

“It’s hard to say how long it took because I basically created my own framework for web applications that need realtime communication between one or more participants,” he said. He is a freelance programmer.

It’s a clever hack that could add a little fun to your otherwise dismal day. Feel like a little Link to the Past? Pop over here and let’s play!

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected [Published articles]

What the newly revised copyright law lets (and doesn’t let) you do with your gadgets [Published articles]

You think you own your phone, but you don’t. Copyright law prohibits you from modifying its software in certain ways, opening you up to a voided warranty, cancelled service or even a lawsuit — but that’s slowly changing as the government acknowledges the need (and arguably right) to repair our own devices. A favorable decision from the Copyright Office gives you considerably more freedom with your gadgets, but it’s far from an ideal solution.

As a brief bit of background, the law that prevents you from, say, installing third-party software on your car or sideloading apps onto your Amazon Echo is Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It’s meant to make it illegal to circumvent digital copyright protections on software and media, but it’s been used for much more than that.

Companies started stashing all kinds of things behind digital locks and therefore controlling the only means that consumers had to repair or modify them. Digital rights advocates such as Kyle Wiens at iFixit have been pushing back against this practice for years — and recently have made some headway.

States aim to legalize the “Right to Repair” your gear

Every three years a board of Copyright Office wonks convenes and codifies exemptions to Section 1201: devices or situations that the board is convinced justifiably shouldn’t be covered by the law. What if, for instance, hospitals couldn’t reboot or patch critical medical hardware because the company was unresponsive? Exemptions are added based on merit, but aren’t permanent and must be renewed (and likely re-argued) regularly.

2015’s exemptions were nice, but 2018’s are choice. Here are some things you can do now that you couldn’t last week:

  • Unlock new phones. Believe it or not this was not allowed. Used phones, sure. But new-in-box phones could still sport software locking it to, say, Verizon (our parent company’s parent company, which likely is not happy with this decision) even though its hardware would let it work on AT&T. Now you should be able to unlock at will.
  • Jailbreak Amazon Echoes, Google Homes and Apple HomePods. This class of “voice assistant devices” wasn’t really a thing in 2015, but sure is now. Doubtless there are plenty of people who would love to poke around inside an old Echo and load it up with open-source software — and now they can do so in compliance with the law.
  • Repair smart home components and devices. Ever wonder what happens to a smart home device when its maker goes out of business or you stop paying for their subscription service? It turns into a smart paperweight. But now you should be able to get root access and fix or reactivate devices (like smart bulbs or security cameras) that have been abandoned or bricked.
  • Access and modify land vehicle software. Previously cars (and infamously, tractors) were protected by a thick moat of DRM that prevented users and even repair shops from getting at their digital guts. Not a good thing when cars are basically rolling computers. The law now exempts reading and modifying this software for the purposes of repair — you just can’t tweak it in any way that impairs its roadworthiness.
  • Hire someone to do those repairs for you. Many of these exemptions are restricted to the owner of the device or vehicle, reasonably enough. But not everyone is clued in on this stuff, so it’s important to make sure it’s also legal for consumers to delegate that right to a third party.

These new freedoms will hopefully result in a more flourishing used-device market and allow phones, cars and smart home devices to live longer and happier lives. But don’t forget that these exemptions must be refreshed in three years. Fortunately that gives advocates an opportunity to expand the list as well, as they did here.

That’s good, because there are still plenty of things to add; for instance game consoles, which didn’t make the list. Perhaps the board thought the risk of piracy was too high. Boats and planes are still protected the way cars once were, which is perhaps understandable.

Strangely, the tools you would require to do most of these things — bootloaders, jailbreaking kits and so on — are still illegal to distribute. It’s weird, but not the first time for this sort of paradox — marijuana, for instance, is still in many places legal to own and use but illegal to sell or grow.

This all goes to show that there is much room for improvement, and not just in a series of temporary exemptions. The law itself must be modified permanently to ensure that we actually own the things we own. That’s going to take a lot of time and work, but from this and previous victories it’s clear that the stars are aligning.

How "philanthropy" is a way for rich people to preserve the inequality that benefits them [Published articles]

Since its publication in August, Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World has been tearing through the world, changing the way we think about inequality, philanthropy and elites; Giridharadas is an Aspen Institute Fellow who's long traveled in elite circles, but who concluded that the philanthropy of the super-rich isn't just an inadequate substitute for a fairer world -- it's actually part of the system that perpetuates the gross unfairness of mass inequality.

I've just started reading Giridharadas's book, and I'm enjoying it immensely. But even if you don't get around to reading it, I strongly recommend watching his one-hour talk and discussion at Google, where he opens by saying that Google's founding principles are exactly the kind of thing he's criticizing in his book and that's why he's going to keep the lecture part as brief as possible and focus on discussion with the attendees.

(via Four Short Links)

Feds Say Hacking DRM To Fix Your Electronics Is Legal [Published articles]

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: The Librarian of Congress and U.S. Copyright Office just proposed new rules that will give consumers and independent repair experts wide latitude to legally hack embedded software on their devices in order to repair or maintain them. This exemption to copyright law will apply to smartphones, tractors, cars, smart home appliances, and many other devices. The move is a landmark win for the "right to repair" movement; essentially, the federal government has ruled that consumers and repair professionals have the right to legally hack the firmware of "lawfully acquired" devices for the "maintenance" and "repair" of that device. Previously, it was legal to hack tractor firmware for the purposes of repair; it is now legal to hack many consumer electronics. Specifically, it allows breaking digital rights management (DRM) and embedded software locks for "the maintenance of a device or system in order to make it work in accordance with its original specifications" or for "the repair of a device or system to a state of working in accordance with its original specifications." New copyright rules are released once every three years by the U.S. Copyright Office and are officially put into place by the Librarian of Congress. These are considered "exemptions" to section 1201 of U.S. copyright law, and makes DRM circumvention legal in certain specific cases. The new repair exemption is broad, applies to a wide variety of devices (an exemption in 2015 applied only to tractors and farm equipment, for example), and makes clear that the federal government believes you should be legally allowed to fix the things you own.

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I made a DIY WiFi Smartwatch with ESP8266! [Published articles]

CBS All Access places two-season order for animated series ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ [Published articles]

CBS’ streaming plans have become even more Trek-centric with the announcement of a two-season order for a half-hour animated series called “Star Trek: Lower Decks.”

Many Star Trek fans will probably recognize “Lower Decks” as the title of a popular “Next Generation” episode about four junior officers on the Enterprise, and it sounds like the new series will take that approach even further — CBS says it will “focus on the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships.”

The network says the series was developed by “Rick and Morty” writer and executive producer Mike McMahan. As you can probably tell from tongue-in-cheek plot description, “Lower Decks” is meant be a comedy. At the same time, McMahan insisted that it will be “undeniably ‘Trek.'”

Apparently he’s a serious fan himself, having started a “Next Generation”-related Twitter account about a fictitious eighth season, then turning that account into a book.

“Mike won our hearts with his first sentence: ‘I want to do a show about the people who put the yellow cartridge in the food replicator so a banana can come out the other end,’” said executive producer Alex Kurtzman in a statement. “His cat’s name is Riker. His son’s name is Sagan. The man is committed.”

Kurtzman, who co-wrote two of the recent “Star Trek” big-screen blockbusters and co-created “Star Trek: Discovery,” has been spearheading efforts to launch several Star Trek spinoffs on the CBS All Access streaming service, including the return of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. (To be clear, All Access has some non-Trek shows too, including “The Good Fight” and the upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot from Jordan Peele.)

In addition to being the first original animated series on CBS All Access, “Lower Decks” is the first production from the new CBS Eye Animation Productions. And while the announcement doesn’t include a release date for the animated series, “Star Trek: Discovery” returns for its second season on January 17.

Corporate Speech Police Are Not the Answer to Online Hate [Published articles]

A coalition of civil rights and public interest groups issued recommendations today on policies they believe Internet intermediaries should adopt to try to address hate online. While there’s much of value in these recommendations, EFF does not and cannot support the full document. Because we deeply respect these organizations, the work they do, and the work we often do together; and because we think the discussion over how to support online expression—including ensuring that some voices aren’t drowned out by harassment or threats—is an important one, we want to explain our position.

We agree that online speech is not always pretty—sometimes it’s extremely ugly and causes real world harm. The effects of this kind of speech are often disproportionately felt by communities for whom the Internet has also provided invaluable tools to organize, educate, and connect. Systemic discrimination does not disappear and can even be amplified online. Given the paucity and inadequacy of tools for users themselves to push back, it’s no surprise that many would look to Internet intermediaries to do more.

We also see many good ideas in this document, beginning with a right of appeal. There seems to be near universal agreement that intermediaries that choose to take down “unlawful” or “illegitimate” content will inevitably make mistakes. We know that both human content moderators and machine learning algorithms are prone to error, and that even low error rates can affect large swaths of users. As such, companies must, at a minimum, make sure there’s a process for appeal that is both rapid and fair, and not only for “hateful” speech, but for all speech.

Another great idea: far more transparency. It’s very difficult for users and policymakers to comment on what intermediaries are doing if we don’t know the lay of the land.  The model policy offers a pretty granular set of requirements that would provide a reasonable start. But we believe that transparency of this kind should apply to all types of speech.

Another good feature of the model policy are provisions for evaluation and training so we can figure out the actual effects of various content moderation approaches.

So there’s a lot to like about these proposals; indeed, they reflect some of the principles EFF and others have supported for years.

But there’s much to worry about too.

Companies Shouldn’t Be The Speech Police

Our key concern with the model policy is this: It seeks to deputize a nearly unlimited range of intermediaries—from social media platforms to payment processors to domain name registrars to chat services—to police a huge range of speech. According to these recommendations, if a company helps in any way to make online speech happen, it should monitor that speech and shut it down if it crosses a line.

This is a profoundly dangerous idea, for several reasons.

First, enlisting such a broad array of services to start actively monitoring and intervening in any speech for which they provide infrastructure represents a dramatic departure from the expectations of most users. For example, users will have to worry about satisfying not only their host’s terms and conditions but also those of every service in the chain from speaker to audience—even though the actual speaker may not even be aware of all of those services or where they draw the line between hateful and non-hateful speech. Given the potential consequences of violations, many users will simply avoid sharing controversial opinions altogether.

Second, we’ve learned from the copyright wars that many services will be hard-pressed to come up with responses that are tailored solely to objectionable content. In 2010, for example, Microsoft sent a DMCA takedown notice to Network Solutions, Cryptome’s DNS and hosting provider, complaining about Cryptome’s (lawful) posting of a global law enforcement guide.  Network Solutions asked Cryptome to remove the guide.  When Cryptome refused, Network Solutions pulled the plug on the entire Cryptome websitefull of clearly legal content—because Network Solutions was not technically capable of targeting and removing the single document.  The site was not restored until wide outcry in the blogosphere forced Microsoft to retract its takedown request. When the Chamber of Commerce sought to silence a parody website created by activist group The Yes Men, it sent a DMCA takedown notice to the Yes Men’s hosting service’s upstream ISP, Hurricane Electric.  When the hosting service May First/People Link resisted Hurricane Electric’s demands to remove the parody site, Hurricane Electric shut down MayFirst/PeopleLink’s connection entirely, temporarily taking offline hundreds of "innocent bystander" websites as collateral damage

Third, we also know that many of these service providers have only the most tangential relationship to their users; faced with a complaint, takedown will be much easier and cheaper than a nuanced analysis of a given user’s speech. As the document itself acknowledges and as the past unfortunately demonstrates, intermediaries of all stripes are not well-positioned to make good decisions about what constitutes “hateful” expression. While the document acknowledges that determining hateful activities can be complicated “in a small number of cases,” the number likely won’t be small at all.

Finally, and most broadly, this document calls on companies to abandon any commitment they might have to the free and open Internet, and instead embrace a thoroughly locked-down, highly monitored web, from which a speaker can be effectively ejected at any time, without any path to address concerns prior to takedown.

To be clear, the free and open Internet has never been fully free or open—hence the impetus for this document. But, at root, the Internet still represents and embodies an extraordinary idea: that anyone with a computing device can connect with the world, anonymously or not, to tell their story, organize, educate and learn. Moderated forums can be valuable to many people, but there must also be a place on the Internet for unmoderated communications, where content is controlled neither by the government nor a large corporation.

What Are “Hateful Activities”?

The document defines “hateful activities” as those which incite or engage in “violence, intimidation, harassment, threats or defamation targeting an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.”

We may agree that speech that does any of these things is deeply offensive. But the past proves that companies are ill-equipped to make informed decisions about what falls into these categories. Take, for example, Facebook’s decision, in the midst of the #MeToo movement’s rise, that the statement “men are trash” constitutes hateful speech. Or Twitter’s decision to use harassment provisions to shut down the verified account of a prominent Egyptian anti-torture activist. Or the content moderation decisions that have prevented women of color from sharing the harassment they receive with their friends and followers. Or the decision by Twitter to mark tweets containing the word “queer” as offensive, regardless of context. These and many other decisions show that blunt policies designed to combat “hateful” speech can have unintended consequences. Furthermore, when divorced from a legal context, terms like “harassment” and “defamation” are open to a multitude of interpretations.

If You Build It, Governments Will Come

The policy document also proposes that Internet companies “combine technology solutions and human actors” in their efforts to combat hateful activities. The document rightly points out that flagging can be co-opted for abuse, and offers helpful ideas for improvement, such as more clarity around flagging policies and decisions, regular audits to improve flagging practices, and employing content moderators with relevant social, political, and cultural knowledge of the areas in which they operate.

However, the drafters are engaging in wishful thinking when they seek to disclaim or discourage governmental uses of flagging tools. We know that state and state-sponsored actors have weaponized flagging tools to silence dissent. Furthermore, once processes and tools to silence “hateful activities” are expanded, companies can expect a flood of demands to apply them to other speech. In the U.S., the First Amendment and the safe harbor of CDA 230 largely prevent such requirements. But recent legislation has started to chip away at Section 230, and we expect to see more efforts along those lines. As a result, today’s “best practices” may be tomorrow’s requirements.

Our perspective on these issues is based on decades of painful history, particularly with social media platforms. Every major social media platform sets forth rules for its users, and violations of these rules can prompt content takedowns or account suspensions. And the rules—whether they relate to “hateful activities” or other types of expression—are often enforced against innocent actors. Moreover, because the platforms have to date refused our calls for transparency, we can’t even quantify how often they fail at enforcing their existing policies.

We’ve seen prohibitions on hate speech employed to silence individuals engaging in anti-racist speech; rules against harassment used to suspend the account of an LGBTQ activist calling out their harasser; and a ban on nudity used to censor women who share childbirth images in private groups. We’ve seen false copyright and trademark allegations used to take down all kinds of lawful content, including time-sensitive political speech. Regulations on violent content have disappeared documentation of police brutality, the Syrian war, and the human rights abuses suffered by the Rohingya. A blanket ban on nudity has repeatedly been used to take down a famous Vietnam war photo.

These recommendations and model policies are trying to articulate better content moderation practices, and we appreciate that goal. But we are also deeply skeptical that even the social media platforms can get this right, much less the broad range of other services that fall within the rubric proposed here.  We have no reason to trust that they will, and every reason to expect that their efforts to do so will cause far too much collateral damage.

Given these concerns, we have serious reservations about the approach the coalition is taking in this document. But there are important ideas in it as well, notably the opportunity for users to appeal content moderation decisions, and expanded transparency from corporate platforms, and we look forward to working together to push them forward.

How IBM’s ThinkPad Became a Design Icon (2017) [Published articles]

Listen to 5 Voice Actresses Talk About the Challenge of Playing Princess Leia [Published articles]

We rightly think of Leia Organa as being Carrie Fisher, through and through. But in the animated world, it’s not so simple, and lots of actresses have had to live in the shadow of the late actress and put their own take on the character.

Read more...

NASA Has Explored Manned Missions To Venus [Published articles]

NASA recently developed a program for manned missions to explore Venus -- even though the planet's surface is 860 degrees, which NASA explains is "hot enough to melt lead." Long-time Slashdot reader Zorro shares this week's article from Newsweek: As surprising as it may seem, the upper atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like location in the solar system. Between altitudes of 30 miles and 40 miles, the pressure and temperature can be compared to regions of the Earth's lower atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure in the Venusian atmosphere at 34 miles is about half that of the pressure at sea level on Earth. In fact you would be fine without a pressure suit, as this is roughly equivalent to the air pressure you would encounter at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nor would you need to insulate yourself as the temperature here ranges between 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere above this altitude is also dense enough to protect astronauts from ionising radiation from space. The closer proximity of the sun provides an even greater abundance of available solar radiation than on Earth, which can be used to generate power (approximately 1.4 times greater).... [C]onceivably you could go for a walk on a platform outside the airship, carrying only your air supply and wearing a chemical hazard suit. Venus is 8 million miles closer to Earth than Mars (though it's 100 times further away than the moon). But the atmosphere around Venus contains traces of sulphuric acid (responsible for its dense clouds), so the vessel would need to be corrosion-resistant material like teflon. (One NASA paper explored the possibility of airbone microbes living in Venus's atmosphere.) There's a slick video from NASA's Langley Research Center titled "A way to explore Venus" showcasing HAVOC -- "High Altitude Venus Operational Concept." "A recent internal NASA study...led to the development of an evolutionary program for the exploration of Venus," explains the project's page at NASA.gov, "with focus on the mission architecture and vehicle concept for a 30 day crewed mission into Venus's atmosphere." NASA describes the project as "no longer active," though adding that manned missions to the atmosphere of Venus are possible "with advances in technology and further refinement of the concept."

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After killing disaster-recovery rules, Ajit Pai can't understand why carriers aren't helping hurricane-hit Florida [Published articles]

Ajit Pai is a member of the Ayn Rand/James Buchanan cult that says that any government regulation is an unfair attack on the "freedom" of business, which is why his ascendancy to the Chairmanship of the FCC under Donald Trump was attended by an orgy of deregulation -- most of us know about his senseless slaughter of Net Neutrality, but that was just for starters.

Among the rules Ajit Pai killed was one that required telcos rebuilding after natural disasters to quickly replace ruined telcoms infrastructure with equivalent systems. The rule dates back to Hurricane Sandy's devastation of Fire Island, when Verizon tried to weasel out of rebuilding service, saying that cheaper cellular towers could replace all that downed copper.

Pai said that this rule got in the way of carriers laying down fiber (in reality, the biggest impediment to fiber rollout is the ban on competition from municipal fiber networks, a competitive pressure that often spurs carriers into action). He killed it.

Ajit Pai has publicly slammed the carriers for dragging their heels in rebuilding Florida's telcoms infrastructure, but thanks to the dastardly shortsightedness of his archenemy Ajit Pai, he is unable to force them to pull their socks up and get to work.

Similarly, Florida Governor Rick Scott -- a fellow deregulation neofeudalist -- signed a bill in 2011 (the 'Regulatory Reform Act of 2011') which ended Florida's oversight of residential phone service, including a mandate to connect everyone in the state. Scott killed recordkeeping of citizen complaints about poor phone service, so there is no data about how badly his rule screwed over the people of Florida.

Rick Scott is also publicly flaming the carriers for doing too little, too slow after Hurricane Michael, but he, like Ajit Pai, has been foiled by the cunning work of his archnemesis Florida Governor Rick Scott, who has tied his hands when it comes to forcing the carriers to get to work.

"The deregulation was so thorough that the Florida PSC is not even allowed to take consumer complaints about residential phone service, which conveniently prevents the collection of any data that might show deregulation has costs in terms of consumer welfare," Feld also wrote in a second, more-detailed blog post yesterday.

Gov. Scott has been doing the rounds with media to keep pressure on Verizon—and to make sure that Floridians know he's fighting for them. Similarly, Pai announced that he will visit the Florida Panhandle on Friday "to assess the damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael and get an update on recovery efforts" and said he will "continu[e] to work to help residents and communities bounce back from this tragic storm."

"What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own role in creating this sorry state of affairs," Feld wrote. "Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would choose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness."

An FCC spokesperson criticized Feld and Public Knowledge, saying they made "cheap and false political attacks while people in the Florida Panhandle are suffering," according to Politico. "Indeed, it is disgraceful that they would seek to co-opt this disaster to advocate for ideologically motivated regulations that have nothing to do with what is going on in the Florida Panhandle.”

Hurricane Michael A Wake Up Call On Why Total Dereg of Telecom A Very Bad Idea. [Harold Feld/Wetmachine]

Ajit Pai killed rules that could have helped Florida recover from hurricane [Jon Brodkin/Ars Technica]

US Customs is seizing refurbished Apple batteries and calling them "counterfeits" [Published articles]

Louis Rossman is one of the highest-profile independent Apple repair technicians, famous in part for fixing devices that Apple has declared to have reached their end-of-life, diverting these devices from landfill and keeping them in the hands of the people who paid good money for them.

Rossman has to engage in lots of creative tactics to source parts for his repairs, including buying refurbished parts that have been removed from real Apple products; but Customs and Border Protection now seems to take the position that anything imported with an Apple logo on it must be counterfeit. They just seized 20 laptop batteries that Rossman had paid $1,068 for.

Rossmann explained that there’s no authorized method for him to purchase the laptop batteries his customers need to keep their devices working. If they were to take the faulty devices to a Genius Bar, the Genius Bar would turn them away.

“If I become an Apple authorized service provider and I wish to obtain parts to a machine they consider vintage, Apple will say no,” he said. “If I talk to somebody in China...they get taken by a company that’s using the power of the government to seize my stuff. Apple is working with the government to shut down those who mislead customers, aka trying to fix machines that they won’t fix because they consider them vintage after four or five years. Just around the time that your battery starts to die.”

He’s right: Apple does not sell replacement parts to customers or to independent repair shops, and its “Authorized Service Provider Program” has strict limitations about the types of repairs that shops can perform. Meanwhile, Apple has strongly fought “right to repair” legislation that would make it easier for people to buy replacement parts.

DHS Seized Aftermarket Apple Laptop Batteries From Independent Repair Expert Louis Rossman [Matthew Gault and Jason Koebler/Motherboard]

(via /.)

Someone Used a Deep Learning AI to Perfectly Insert Harrison Ford Into Solo: A Star Wars Story [Published articles]

Casting anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role of Han Solo just feels like sacrilege, but since Ford is now 76 years old, playing a younger version of himself would be all but impossible. Or at least impossible if you rely on the standard Hollywood de-aging tricks like makeup and CG. Artificial intelligence, it…

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TIL - The "Thagomizer", the spiked tail on a stegosaurid dinosaur, didn't have an official name till the cartoonist Gary Larson did a comic about it, named it, and the scientific community just accepted it and started using it too. [Published articles]

Minimal base Docker images compared [Published articles]

Some of you may remember a blog I did about container scanning. The result was that we're considering a move away from Alpine to use a distribution that's both small and has access to a CVE database so that vulnerability scanning is more accurate.

I've spent some time and compared some variations of Redhat, Debian and Ubuntu.

Ubuntu now provides a 30mb compressed image for their latest tag. Similarly Debian produces a stable-slim tag that's around 22mb.

The blog is here for anybody interested. Also a bit of a diversion in the middle related to Redhat that might be worth discussing.

https://kubedex.com/base-images/

Interested to know if anyone else is planning a move away from Alpine and if so what are you switching to.

submitted by /u/stevenacreman to r/docker
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Dave brought my 10yo nephew up on stage last night in Kansas City and he killed it! [Published articles]

Are Universal Basic Incomes 'A Tool For Our Further Enslavement'? [Published articles]

Douglas Rushkoff, long-time open source advocate (and currently a professor of Digital Economics at the City University of New York, Queens College), is calling Universal Basic Incomes "no gift to the masses, but a tool for our further enslavement." Uber's business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating. When it's looked at the way a software developer would, it's clear that UBI is really little more than a patch to a program that's fundamentally flawed. The real purpose of digital capitalism is to extract value from the economy and deliver it to those at the top. If consumers find a way to retain some of that value for themselves, the thinking goes, you're doing something wrong or "leaving money on the table." Walmart perfected the softer version of this model in the 20th century. Move into a town, undercut the local merchants by selling items below cost, and put everyone else out of business. Then, as sole retailer and sole employer, set the prices and wages you want. So what if your workers have to go on welfare and food stamps. Now, digital companies are accomplishing the same thing, only faster and more completely.... Soon, consumers simply can't consume enough to keep the revenues flowing in. Even the prospect of stockpiling everyone's data, like Facebook or Google do, begins to lose its allure if none of the people behind the data have any money to spend. To the rescue comes UBI. The policy was once thought of as a way of taking extreme poverty off the table. In this new incarnation, however, it merely serves as a way to keep the wealthiest people (and their loyal vassals, the software developers) entrenched at the very top of the economic operating system. Because of course, the cash doled out to citizens by the government will inevitably flow to them.... Under the guise of compassion, UBI really just turns us from stakeholders or even citizens to mere consumers. Once the ability to create or exchange value is stripped from us, all we can do with every consumptive act is deliver more power to people who can finally, without any exaggeration, be called our corporate overlords... if Silicon Valley's UBI fans really wanted to repair the economic operating system, they should be looking not to universal basic income but universal basic assets, first proposed by Institute for the Future's Marina Gorbis... As appealing as it may sound, UBI is nothing more than a way for corporations to increase their power over us, all under the pretense of putting us on the payroll. It's the candy that a creep offers a kid to get into the car or the raise a sleazy employer gives a staff member who they've sexually harassed. It's hush money. Rushkoff's conclusion? "Whether its proponents are cynical or simply naive, UBI is not the patch we need."

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FCC resorts to the usual malarkey defending itself against Mozilla lawsuit [Published articles]

Mozilla and other digital advocacy companies filed a lawsuit in August alleging the FCC had unlawfully overturned 2015’s net neutrality rules, by among other things “fundamentally mischaracteriz[ing] how internet access works.” The FCC has filed its official response, and as you might expect it has doubled down on those fundamental mischaracterizations.

The Mozilla suit, which you can read here or embedded at the bottom of this post, was sort of a cluster bomb of allegations striking at the FCC order on technical, legal, and procedural grounds. They aren’t new, revelatory arguments — they’re what net neutrality advocates have been saying for years.

There are at least a dozen separate allegations, but most fall under two general categories.

  1. That the FCC wrongly classifies broadband as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” There’s a long story behind this that I documented in the Commission Impossible series. The logic on which this determination is based has been refuted by practically every technical authority and really is just plain wrong. This pulls the rug out from numerous justifications for undoing the previous rules and instating new ones.
  2. That by failing to consider consumer complaints or perform adequate studies on the state of the industry, federal protections, and effects of the rules, the FCC’s order is “arbitrary and capricious” and thus cannot be considered to have been lawfully enacted.

The FCC’s responses to these allegations are likewise unsurprising. The bulk of big rulemaking documents like Restoring Internet Freedom isn’t composed of the actual rules but in the justification of those rules. So the FCC took preventative measures in its proposal identifying potential objections (like Mozilla’s) and dismissing them by various means.

These are the arguments against net neutrality and why they’re wrong

That their counter-arguments on the broadband classification are nothing new is in itself a little surprising, though. These very same arguments were rejected by a panel of judges in the DC circuit back in 2015. In fact, recently-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh distinguished himself on that very decision by being wrong on every count and receiving an embarrassing intellectual drubbing by his better-informed peer, Judge Srinivasan.

As for the arbitrary and capricious allegation, the FCC merely reiterates that all its decisions were reasonable as justified at the time. Mozilla’s arguments are not given serious consideration; for example, when Mozilla pointed out that thousands of pages of comments had been essentially assumed by the FCC to be irrelevant without reviewing them, the FCC responds that it “reasonably decided not to include largely unverified consumer complaints in the record.”

These statements aren’t the end of the line; there will be more legal wrangling, amicus briefs, public statements, amended filings, and so on before this case is decided. But if you want a good summary of the hard legal arguments against the FCC and a vexing dismissal thereof, these two documents will serve for weekend reading.

The Mozilla suit:

Mozilla v FCC Filing by TechCrunch on Scribd

The FCC’s counter-arguments:

Mozilla v FCC Counterfiling by TechCrunch on Scribd

U.S. Robocall Data [Published articles]

Larry Wall's Very Own Home Page [Published articles]

What quote made you think a different way? [Published articles]

There are Many Problems With Mobile Privacy but the Presidential Alert Isn’t One of Them [Published articles]

On Wednesday, most cell phones in the US received a jarring alert at the same time. This was a test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, also commonly known as the Presidential Alert. This is an unblockable nationwide alert system which is operated by Federal Emergency Management Agency (*not* the President, as the name might suggest) to warn people of a catastrophic event such as a nuclear strike or nationwide terrorist attack. The test appears to have been mostly successful, and having a nationwide emergency alert system certainly doesn’t seem like a bad idea; but Wednesday’s test has also generated concern. One of the most shared tweets came from antivirus founder John McAfee.

Tweet by McAfee claiming that the Presidential Alert is tracking americans through a non-existent E911 chip

While there are legitimate concerns about the misuse of the WEA system and myriad privacy concerns with cellular phones and infrastructure (including the Enhanced 911, or E911, system) the tweet by McAfee gets it wrong.

How the WEA System Works

The Wireless Emergency Alert system is the same system used to send AMBER Alerts, Severe Weather Notifications, and Presidential Alerts to mobile devices. It works by sending an emergency message to every phone provider in the US, which  then push the messages to every cell tower in the affected area. (In the case of a Presidential Alert, the entire country.) The cell towers then broadcast the message to every connected phone. This is a one-way broadcast that will go to every cell phone in the designated area, though in practice not every cell phone will receive the message.

McAfee’s tweet gets two key things wrong about this system: There is no such thing as an E911 chip, and the system does not give “them” the information he claims.  In fact, the Presidential Alert does not have any way to send data about your phone back to the mobile carrier, though your phone is sending data to mobile carriers all the time for other reasons.

Privacy Issues with Enhanced 911

This isn’t to say that there aren’t serious privacy issues with the E911 system. The E911 system was developed by the FCC in the early 2000’s after concerns that the increased use of cellular telephones would make it harder for emergency responders to locate a person in crisis. With a landline, first responders could simply go to the billing location for the phone, but a mobile caller could be miles from their home, even in another state. The E911 standard requires that a mobile device be able to send its location, with a high degree of accuracy, to emergency responders in response to a 911 call. While this is a good idea in the event of an actual crisis, law enforcement agencies have taken advantage of this technology to locate and track people in real time. EFF has argued that this was not the intended use of this system and that such use requires a warrant.

What’s more, the mobile phone system itself has a huge number of privacy issues: from mobile malware which can control your camera and read encrypted data, to Cell-Site Simulators which can pinpoint a phone’s exact location, to the “Upstream” surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden, to privacy issues in the SS7 system that connects mobile phone networks to each other. There are myriad privacy issues with mobile devices that we should be deeply concerned about, but the Wireless Emergency Alert system is not one of them.

A tweet from Snowden about the "Upstream" surveillance program

There are legitimate concerns about the misuse of the wireless emergency alert system as well. There could be a false alarm issued through the system, sparking unnecessary panic, as happened in Hawaii earlier this year.For many, the idea that a president could use the WEA to push an unblockable message to their phones is deeply disturbing and sparked concerns that the system could be used to spread unblockable propaganda.  Unlike other emergency alerts, the presidential alert can’t be turned off in phone software, by law. Fortunately for us, activating the WEA system is more complicated than say, sending a tweet. To send out a Presidential Alert the president would have to, at the very least, convince someone in charge of the WEA system at FEMA to send such a message, and FEMA staffers may be reluctant to send out a non-emergency message, which could decrease the effectiveness of future emergency alerts. 

As with any new system that is theoretically a good idea, we must remain vigilant that it is not misused. There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about cellular privacy. It’s important that we keep an eye on the real threats and not get distracted by wild conspiracy theories.

Related Cases: 

Cafe in Providence, Rhode Island Serves Free Coffee To Students Who Provide Personal Data; Participants May Receive Info From Cafe's Corporate Sponsors [Published articles]

An anonymous reader shares an NPR report: Shiru Cafe looks like a regular coffee shop. Inside, machines whir, baristas dispense caffeine and customers hammer away on laptops. But all of the customers are students, and there's a reason for that. At Shiru Cafe, no college ID means no caffeine. "We definitely have some people that walk in off the street that are a little confused and a little taken aback when we can't sell them any coffee," said Sarah Ferris, assistant manager at the Shiru Cafe branch in Providence, R.I., located near Brown University. Ferris will turn away customers if they're not college students or faculty members. The cafe allows professors to pay, but students have something else the shop wants: their personal information. To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown's lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. By doing so, the students also open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas. According to Shiru's website: "We have specially trained staff members who give students additional information about our sponsors while they enjoy their coffee." The source article additionally explores privacy aspects of the business. The cafe, which is owned by Japanese company Enrission, says it shares general, aggregate data such as student majors and expected graduation years.

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High-Quality Jurassic Park Stills Are the Ideal Decoration for the Serious Dinosaur Lover [Published articles]

A single frame from a film can often be a work of art. They should be displayed as such.

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Scientists Accidentally Blow Up Their Lab With Strongest Indoor Magnetic Field Ever [Published articles]

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Tokyo accidentally created the strongest controllable magnetic field in history and blew the doors of their lab in the process. As detailed in a paper recently published in the Review of Scientific Instruments, the researchers produced the magnetic field to test the material properties of a new generator system. They were expecting to reach peak magnetic field intensities of around 700 Teslas, but the machine instead produced a peak of 1,200 Teslas. (For the sake of comparison, a refrigerator magnet has about 0.01 Tesla) In both the Japanese and Russian experiments, the magnetic fields were generated using a technique called electromagnetic flux-compression. This technique causes a brief spike in the strength of the magnetic field by rapidly "squeezing" it to a smaller size. [...] Instead of using TNT to generate their magnetic field, the Japanese researchers dumped a massive amount of energy -- 3.2 megajoules -- into the generator to cause a weak magnetic field produced by a small coil to rapidly compress at a speed of about 20,000 miles per hour. This involves feeding 4 million amps of current through the generator, which is several thousand times more than a lightning bolt. When this coil is compressed as small as it will go, it bounces back. This produces a powerful shockwave that destroyed the coil and much of the generator. To protect themselves from the shockwave, the Japanese researchers built an iron cage for the generator. However they only built it to withstand about 700 Teslas, so the shockwave from the 1,200 Teslas ended up blowing out the door to the enclosure. While this is the strongest magnetic filed ever generated in a controlled, indoor environment, the strongest magnetic field produced in history belongs to some Russian researchers who created a 2,800 Tesla magnetic field in 2001.

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Benjamin Mako Hill: Shannon’s Ghost [Published articles]

I’m spending the 2018-2019 academic year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford.

Claude Shannon on a bicycle.

Every CASBS study is labeled with a list of  “ghosts” who previously occupied the study. This year, I’m spending the year in Study 50 where I’m haunted by an incredible cast that includes many people whose scholarship has influenced and inspired me.

The top part of the list of ghosts in Study #50 at CASBS.

Foremost among this group is Study 50’s third occupant: Claude Shannon

At 21 years old, Shannon’s masters thesis (sometimes cited as the most important masters thesis in history) proved that electrical circuits could encode any relationship expressible in Boolean logic and opened the door to digital computing. Incredibly, this is almost never cited as Shannon’s most important contribution. That came in 1948 when he published a paper titled A Mathematical Theory of Communication which effectively created the field of information theory. Less than a decade after its publication, Aleksandr Khinchin (the mathematician behind my favorite mathematical constant) described the paper saying:

Rarely does it happen in mathematics that a new discipline achieves the character of a mature and developed scientific theory in the first investigation devoted to it…So it was with information theory after the work of Shannon.

As someone whose own research is seeking to advance computation and mathematical study of communication, I find it incredibly propitious to be sharing a study with Shannon.

Although I teach in a communication department, I know Shannon from my background in computing. I’ve always found it curious that, despite the fact Shannon’s 1948 paper is almost certainly the most important single thing ever published with the word “communication” in its title, Shannon is rarely taught in communication curricula is sometimes completely unknown to communication scholars.

In this regard, I’ve thought a lot about this passage in Robert’s Craig’s  influential article “Communication Theory as a Field” which argued:

In establishing itself under the banner of communication, the discipline staked an academic claim to the entire field of communication theory and research—a very big claim indeed, since communication had already been widely studied and theorized. Peters writes that communication research became “an intellectual Taiwan-claiming to be all of China when, in fact, it was isolated on a small island” (p. 545). Perhaps the most egregious case involved Shannon’s mathematical theory of information (Shannon & Weaver, 1948), which communication scholars touted as evidence of their field’s potential scientific status even though they had nothing whatever to do with creating it, often poorly understood it, and seldom found any real use for it in their research.

In preparation for moving into Study 50, I read a new biography of Shannon by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman and was excited to find that Craig—although accurately describing many communication scholars’ lack of familiarity—almost certainly understated the importance of Shannon to communication scholarship.

For example, the book form of Shannon’s 1948 article was published by University Illinois on the urging of and editorial supervision of Wilbur Schramm (one of the founders of modern mass communication scholarship) who was a major proponent of Shannon’s work. Everett Rogers (another giant in communication) devotes a chapter of his “History of Communication Studies”² to Shannon and to tracing his impact in communication. Both Schramm and Rogers built on Shannon in parts of their own work. Shannon has had an enormous impact, it turns out, in several subareas of communication research (e.g., attempts to model communication processes).

Although I find these connections exciting. My own research—like most of the rest of communication—is far from the substance of technical communication processes at the center of Shannon’s own work. In this sense, it can be a challenge to explain to my colleagues in communication—and to my fellow CASBS fellows—why I’m so excited to be sharing a space with Shannon this year.

Upon reflection, I think it boils down to two reasons:

  1. Shannon’s work is both mathematically beautiful and incredibly useful. His seminal 1948 article points to concrete ways that his theory can be useful in communication engineering including in compression, error correcting codes, and cryptography. Shannon’s focus on research that pushes forward the most basic type of basic research while remaining dedicated to developing solutions to real problems is a rare trait that I want to feature in my own scholarship.
  2. Shannon was incredibly playful. Shannon played games, juggled constantly, and was always seeking to teach others to do so. He tinkered, rode unicycles, built a flame-throwing trumpet, and so on. With Marvin Minsky, he invented the “ultimate machine”—a machine that’s only function is to turn itself off—which he kept on his desk.
    A version of the Shannon’s “ultimate machine” that is sitting on my desk at CASBS.

I have no misapprehension that I will accomplish anything like Shannon’s greatest intellectual achievements during my year at CASBS. I do hope to be inspired by Shannon’s creativity, focus on impact, and playfulness. In my own little ways, I hope to build something at CASBS that will advance mathematical and computational theory in communication in ways that Shannon might have appreciated.


  1. Incredibly, the year that Shannon was in Study 50, his neighbor in Study 51 was Milton Friedman. Two thoughts: (i) Can you imagine?! (ii) I definitely chose the right study!
  2. Rogers book was written, I found out, during his own stint at CASBS. Alas, it was not written in Study 50.

Happy 10th anniversary, Android [Published articles]

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

HTC is gone

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Perhaps the greatest timelapse ever taken. 4 years of an exploding star. [Published articles]

submitted by /u/crgnxn to r/nasa
[comments]

Here you see the first prototype for the Roomba [Published articles]

Flying through the clouds [Published articles]

A Japanese spacecraft just threw two small rovers at an asteroid [Published articles]

A Japanese spacecraft just threw two small rovers at an asteroid submitted by /u/axoox to r/space
[link] [comments]

Scientists Find 'Super-Earth' In Star System From 'Star Trek' [Published articles]

In a wonderful example of truth validating fiction, the star system imagined as the location of Vulcan, Spock's home world in Star Trek, has a planet orbiting it in real life. From a report: A team of scientists spotted the exoplanet, which is about twice the size of Earth, as part of the Dharma Planet Survey (DPS), led by University of Florida astronomer Jian Ge. It orbits HD 26965, more popularly known as 40 Eridani, a triple star system 16 light years away from the Sun. Made up of a Sun-scale orange dwarf (Eridani A), a white dwarf (Eridani B), and a red dwarf (Eridani C), this system was selected to be "Vulcan's Sun" after Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry consulted with astronomers Sallie Baliunas, Robert Donahue, and George Nassiopoulos about the best location for the fictional planet. "An intelligent civilization could have evolved over the aeons on a planet circling 40 Eridani," Roddenberry and the astronomers suggested in a 1991 letter to the editor published in Sky & Telescope. The three stars "would gleam brilliantly in the Vulcan sky," they added. The real-life exoplanet, known as HD 26965b, is especially tantalizing because it orbits just within the habitable zone of its star, meaning that it is theoretically possible that liquid water -- the key ingredient for life as we know it -- could exist on its surface.

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Evernote just slashed 54 jobs, or 15 percent of its workforce [Published articles]

Research Proving People Don't RTFM, Resent 'Over-Featured' Products, Wins Ig Nobel Prize [Published articles]

An anonymous reader writes: Thursday the humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research held their 28th annual ceremony recognizing the real (but unusual) scientific research papers "that make people laugh, then think." And winning this year's coveted Literature prize was a paper titled "Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products," which concluded that most people really, truly don't read the manual, "and most do not use all the features of the products that they own and use regularly..." "Over-featuring and being forced to consult manuals also appears to cause negative emotional experiences." Another team measured "the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile," which won them the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. Other topics of research included self-colonoscopies, removing kidney stones with roller coasters, and (theoretical) cannibalism. "Acceptance speeches are limited to 60 seconds," reports Ars Technica, "strictly enforced by an eight-year-old girl nicknamed 'Miss Sweetie-Poo,' who will interrupt those who exceed the time limit by repeating, 'Please stop. I'm bored.' Until they stop." You can watch the whole wacky ceremony on YouTube. The awards are presented by actual Nobel Prize laureates -- and at least one past winner of an Ig Nobel Prize later went on to win an actual Nobel Prize.

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Snapshot from the heroic era of mobile computing [Published articles]

MJ Carlson calls this photo from a 1980s computer science textbook "the most glorious stock photo of all time." She is correct.

A Solar Filament Erupts [Published articles]

For Decades, Some of the Atomic Matter in the Universe Had Not Been Located. Recent Papers Reveal Where It Has Been Hiding [Published articles]

In a series of three recent papers, astronomers have identified the final chunks of all the ordinary matter in the universe. From a report: And despite the fact that it took so long to identify it all, researchers spotted it right where they had expected it to be all along: in extensive tendrils of hot gas that span the otherwise empty chasms between galaxies, more properly known as the warm-hot intergalactic medium, or WHIM. Early indications that there might be extensive spans of effectively invisible gas between galaxies came from computer simulations done in 1998. "We wanted to see what was happening to all the gas in the universe," said Jeremiah Ostriker, a cosmologist at Princeton University who constructed one of those simulations along with his colleague Renyue Cen. The two ran simulations of gas movements in the universe acted on by gravity, light, supernova explosions and all the forces that move matter in space. "We concluded that the gas will accumulate in filaments that should be detectable," he said. Except they weren't -- not yet. "It was clear from the early days of cosmological simulations that many of the baryons would be in a hot, diffuse form -- not in galaxies," said Ian McCarthy, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University. Astronomers expected these hot baryons to conform to a cosmic superstructure, one made of invisible dark matter, that spanned the immense voids between galaxies. The gravitational force of the dark matter would pull gas toward it and heat the gas up to millions of degrees. Unfortunately, hot, diffuse gas is extremely difficult to find. To spot the hidden filaments, two independent teams of researchers searched for precise distortions in the CMB, the afterglow of the Big Bang. As that light from the early universe streams across the cosmos, it can be affected by the regions that it's passing through. In particular, the electrons in hot, ionized gas (such as the WHIM) should interact with photons from the CMB in a way that imparts some additional energy to those photons. The CMB's spectrum should get distorted. Unfortunately the best maps of the CMB (provided by the Planck satellite) showed no such distortions. Either the gas wasn't there, or the effect was too subtle to show up. But the two teams of researchers were determined to make them visible. From increasingly detailed computer simulations of the universe, they knew that gas should stretch between massive galaxies like cobwebs across a windowsill. Planck wasn't able to see the gas between any single pair of galaxies. So the researchers figured out a way to multiply the faint signal by a million.

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Linus Torvalds apologizes for his behavior, takes time off [Published articles]

New Surveillance Court Orders Show That Even Judges Have Difficulty Understanding and Limiting Government Spying [Published articles]

In the United States, a secret federal surveillance court approves some of the government’s most enormous, opaque spying programs. It is near-impossible for the public to learn details about these programs, but, as it turns out, even the court has trouble, too. 

According to new opinions obtained by EFF last month, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) struggled to get full accounts of the government’s misuse of its spying powers for years. After learning about the misuse, the court also struggled to rein it in.

In a trio of opinions, a judge on the FISC raised questions about unauthorized surveillance and potential misuse of a request he had previously granted. In those cases, the secrecy inherent in the proceedings and the government’s obfuscation of its activities made it difficult for the court to grasp the scope of the problems and to prevent them from happening again.

The opinions were part of a larger, heavily redacted set—31 in total—released to EFF in late August as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit we filed in 2016 seeking all significant FISC opinions. The government has released 73 FISC opinions to EFF in response to the suit, though it is continuing to completely withhold another six. We are fighting the government’s secrecy in court and hope to get the last opinions disclosed soon. You can read the newly released opinions here. To read the previous opinions released in the case, click here, here, and here.

Although many of the newly released opinions appear to be decisions approving surveillance and searches of particular individuals, several raise questions about how well equipped FISC judges are to protect individuals’ statutory and constitutional rights when the government is less than candid with the court, underscoring EFF’s concerns with the FISC’s ability to safeguard individual privacy and free expression.

Court Frustrated by Government’s “Chronic Tendency” to Not Disclose the Full Scope of Its Surveillance

An opinion written by then-FISC Judge Thomas F. Hogan shows that even the judges approving foreign intelligence surveillance on specific targets have difficulty understanding whether the NSA is complying with its orders, much less the Constitution.

The opinion, the date of which is redacted, orders the deletion of materials the NSA collected without court authorization. The opinion recounts how after the court learned that the NSA had exceeded an earlier issued surveillance order—resulting in surveillance it was not authorized to conduct—the government argued that it had not actually engaged in unauthorized surveillance. Instead, the government argued that it had only violated “minimization procedures,” which are restrictions on the use of the material, not the collection of it.

Judge Hogan, who served on the FISC from 2009-16 and was its chief judge from 2014-16, expressed frustration both with the government’s argument and with its lack of candor, as the court believed officials had previously acknowledged that the surveillance was unauthorized. The opinion then describes how the surveillance failed to comply with several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in collecting the intelligence. Although the redactions make it difficult to know exactly which FISA provisions the government did not comply with, the statue requires the government to identify a specific target for surveillance and has to show some proof that the facilities being surveilled were used by a foreign power or the agent of one.

As a result, the court ruled that the surveillance was unauthorized. It went on to note that the government’s failure to meet FISA’s requirements also inhibited the court’s ability to do its job, writing that “the Court was deprived of an adequate understanding of the facts known to the NSA and, even if the government were correct that acquisition [redacted] was authorized, a clear and express record of that authorization is lacking.”

The opinion goes on to note that the government’s conduct provided additional reasons to rule that the surveillance was unauthorized. It wrote:

Moreover, the government’s failures in this case are not isolated ones. The government has exhibited a chronic tendency to mis-describe the actual scope of NSA acquisitions in its submissions to this Court. These inaccuracies have previously contributed to unauthorized electronic surveillance and other forms of statutory and constitutional deficiency.

FISC Judge Frustrated by Government’s Years-Long Failure to Disclose the Scope of Its Surveillance

In another order, Judge Hogan required the government to answer a series of questions after it appeared that the NSA’s surveillance activities went beyond what the court authorized. The order shows that, though the FISC approved years-long surveillance, government officials knowingly collected information about individuals that the court never approved.

The court expressed concern that the “government has not yet provided a full account of non-compliance in this case.” Although the particular concerns the court had with the government are redacted, the court appeared frustrated by the fact that it had been kept in the dark for so long:

It is troubling that, for many years, NSA failed to disclose the actual scope of its surveillance, with the result that it lacked authorization for some of the surveillance that it conducted. It is at least troubling that, once the NSA and the Department of Justice had finally recognized that unauthorized surveillance was being conducted, they failed to take prompt measures to discontinue the surveillance, or even to obtain prospective authorization for the already-ongoing collection.

As a result, the court ordered the government to respond to several questions: How and why was the surveillance allowed to continue after officials realized it was likely unauthorized? What steps were being taken to prevent something like it from happening again? What steps were officials taking to identify the information the government obtained through the unauthorized surveillance?

The court wrote that it would examine the government’s responses “and determine whether a hearing is required to complete the record on these issues.”

Court Concerned By FBI’s Use of Ambiguity in Order to Conduct Unauthorized Surveillance

In another order with its date redacted, Judge Hogan describes a case in which the FBI used some ambiguous language in an earlier order to conduct surveillance that the court did not authorize.

Although the specifics of the incident are unclear, it appears as though the FISC had previously authorized surveillance of a particular target and identified certain communications providers—such as those that provide email, phone, or messaging services—in the order that would be surveilled. The FBI later informed the court that it had engaged in “roving electronic surveillance” and targeted other communications providers. The court was concerned that the roving surveillance “may have exceeded the scope of the authorization reflected” in the earlier order.

Typically, FISA requires that the government identify the “facilities or places” used by a target that it will surveil. However, the law contains a provision that allows the government to engage in “roving electronic surveillance,” which is when the court allows the government to direct surveillance at unspecified communications providers or others that may help follow a target who switches services.

To get an order granting it authority to engage in roving electronic surveillance, the government has to show with specific facts that the surveillance target’s actions may thwart its ability to identify the service or facility the target uses to communicate. For example, the target may frequently change phone numbers or email accounts, making it difficult for the government to identify a specific communications provider.

The problem in this particular case, according to the court, was that the FBI didn’t seek authority to engage in roving electronic surveillance. “The Court does not doubt that it could have authorized” roving electronic surveillance, it wrote. “But the government made no similar request in the above-captioned docket.” Moreover, the government never provided facts that established the target may thwart their ability to identify the service provider.

Although the court was concerned with the government’s unauthorized surveillance, it acknowledged that perhaps its order was not clear and that it “sees no indication of bad faith on the part of the agents or attorneys involved.”

Other FISC decisions authorize various surveillance and searches

 The other opinions released to EFF detail a variety of other orders and opinions issued by the court authorizing various forms of surveillance. Because many are heavily redacted, it is difficult to know precisely what the concern. For example:

  • One opinion explains the FISC’s reasoning for authorizing an order to install a pen register/trap and trace device—which allows for the collection of communications’ metadata—and allow the government to acquire business records. The court cites the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Smith v. Maryland to rule that the surveillance at issue does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

  • Another opinion concerns an issue that other, previously disclosed FISC opinions have also wrestled with: the government’s aggressive interpretation of FISA and similar laws that authorize phone call metadata collection that can sometimes also capture the content of communications. The government asked to be able to record the contents of the communications it captured, though it said it would not use those contents in its investigations unless there was an emergency. The court ordered the government to submit a report explaining how it was ensuring that it did not make use of any contents of communications it had recorded.

  • Several other opinions, including this one, authorize electronic surveillance of specific targets along with approving physical searches of property.

  • In another case the court authorized a search warrant to obtain “foreign intelligence information.” The warrant authorized the government to enter the property without consent of the owner or resident, though it also ordered that the search “shall be conducted with the minimum physical intrusion necessary to obtain the information being sought.”

Obtaining these FISC opinions is extraordinarily important, both for government transparency and for understanding how the nation’s intelligence agencies have gone beyond what even the secret surveillance court has authorized.

Having successfully pried the majority of these opinions away from the government’s multi-layered regime of secrecy, we are all the more hopeful to receive the rest.

You can review the full set of documents here.

Related Cases: 

In a Few Days, Credit Freezes Will Be Fee-Free [Published articles]

Later this month, all of the three major consumer credit bureaus will be required to offer free credit freezes to all Americans and their dependents. Maybe you’ve been holding off freezing your credit file because your home state currently charges a fee for placing or thawing a credit freeze, or because you believe it’s just not worth the hassle. If that accurately describes your views on the matter, this post may well change your mind.

A credit freeze — also known as a “security freeze” — restricts access to your credit file, making it far more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.

Currently, many states allow the big three bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to charge a fee for placing or lifting a security freeze. But thanks to a federal law enacted earlier this year, after Sept. 21, 2018 it will be free to freeze and unfreeze your credit file and those of your children or dependents throughout the United States.

KrebsOnSecurity has for many years urged readers to freeze their files with the big three bureaus, as well as with a distant fourth — Innovis — and the NCTUE, an Equifax-operated credit checking clearinghouse relied upon by most of the major mobile phone providers.

There are dozens of private companies that specialize in providing consumer credit reports and scores to specific industries, including real estate brokers, landlords, insurers, debt buyers, employers, banks, casinos and retail stores. A handy PDF produced earlier this year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) lists all of the known entities that maintain, sell or share credit data on U.S. citizens.

The CFPB’s document includes links to Web sites for 46 different consumer credit reporting entities, along with information about your legal rights to obtain data in your reports and dispute suspected inaccuracies with the companies as needed. My guess is the vast majority of Americans have never heard of most of these companies.

Via numerous front-end Web sites, each of these mini credit bureaus serve thousands or tens of thousands of people who work in the above mentioned industries and who have the ability to pull credit and other personal data on Americans. In many cases, online access to look up data through these companies is secured by nothing more than a username and password that can be stolen or phished by cybercrooks and abused to pull privileged information on consumers.

In other cases, it’s trivial for anyone to sign up for these services. For example, how do companies that provide background screening and credit report data to landlords decide who can sign up as a landlord? Answer: Anyone can be a landlord (or pretend to be one).

SCORE ONE FOR FREEZES

The truly scary part? Access to some of these credit lookup services is supposed to be secured behind a login page, but often isn’t. Consider the service pictured below, which for $44 will let anyone look up the credit score of any American who hasn’t already frozen their credit files with the big three. Worse yet, you don’t even need to have accurate information on a target — such as their Social Security number or current address.

KrebsOnSecurity was made aware of this particular portal by Alex Holden, CEO of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based cybersecurity firm Hold Security LLC [full disclosure: This author is listed as an adviser to Hold Security, however this is and always has been a volunteer role for which I have not been compensated].

Holden’s wife Lisa is a mortgage broker, and as such she has access to a more full-featured version of the above-pictured consumer data lookup service (among others) for the purposes of helping clients determine a range of mortgage rates available. Mrs. Holden said the version of this service that she has access to will return accurate, current and complete credit file information on consumers even if one enters a made-up SSN and old address on an individual who hasn’t yet frozen their credit files with the big three.

“I’ve noticed in the past when I do a hard pull on someone’s credit report and the buyer gave me the wrong SSN or transposed some digits, not only will these services give me their credit report and full account history, it also tells you what their correct SSN is,” Mrs. Holden said.

With Mr. Holden’s permission, I gave the site pictured above an old street address for him plus a made-up SSN, and provided my credit card number to pay for the report. The document generated by that request said TransUnion and Experian were unable to look up his credit score with the information provided. However, Equifax not only provided his current credit score, it helpfully corrected the false data I entered for Holden, providing the last four digits of his real SSN and current address.

“We assume our credit report is keyed off of our SSN or something unique about ourselves,” Mrs. Holden said. “But it’s really keyed off your White Pages information, meaning anyone can get your credit report if they are in the know.”

I was pleased to find that I was unable to pull my own credit score through this exposed online service, although the site still charged me $44. The report produced simply said the consumer in question had requested that access to this information be restricted. But the real reason was simply that I’ve had my credit file frozen for years now.

Many media outlets are publishing stories this week about the one-year anniversary of the breach at Equifax that exposed the personal and financial data on more than 147 million people. But it’s important for everyone to remember that as bad as the Equifax breach was (and it was a total dumpster fire all around), most of the consumer data exposed in the breach has been for sale in the cybercrime underground for many years on a majority of Americans — including access to consumer credit reports. If anything, the Equifax breach may have simply helped ID thieves refresh some of those criminal data stores.

It costs $35 worth of bitcoin through this cybercrime service to pull someone’s credit file from the three major credit bureaus. There are many services just like this one, which almost certainly abuse hacked accounts from various industries that have “legitimate” access to consumer credit reports.

THE FEE-FREE FREEZE

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, when the new law takes effect on September 21, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion must each set up a webpage for requesting fraud alerts and credit freezes.

The law also provides additional ID theft protections to minors. Currently, some state laws allow you to freeze a child’s credit file, while others do not. Starting Sept. 21, no matter where you live you’ll be able to get a free credit freeze for kids under 16 years old.

Identity thieves can and often do target minors, but this type of fraud usually isn’t discovered until the affected individual tries to apply for credit for the first time, at which point it can be a long and expensive road to undo the mess. As such, I would highly recommend that readers who have children or dependents take full advantage of this offering once it’s available for free nationwide.

In addition, the law requires the big three bureaus to offer free electronic credit monitoring services to all active duty military personnel. It also changes the rules for “fraud alerts,” which currently are free but only last for 90 days. With a fraud alert on your credit file, lenders or service providers should not grant credit in your name without first contacting you to obtain your approval — by phone or whatever other method you specify when you apply for the fraud alert.

Under the new law, fraud alerts last for one year, but consumers can renew them each year. Bear in mind, however, that while lenders and service providers are supposed to seek and obtain your approval if you have a fraud alert on your file, they’re not legally required to do this.

A key unanswered question about these changes is whether the new dedicated credit bureau freeze sites will work any more reliably than the current freeze sites operated by the big three bureaus. The Web and social media are littered with consumer complaints — particularly over the past year — about the various freeze sites freezing up and returning endless error messages, or simply discouraging consumers from filing a freeze thanks to insecure Web site components.

It will be interesting to see whether these new freeze sites will try to steer consumers away from freezes and toward other in-house offerings, such as paid credit reports, credit monitoring, or “credit lock” services. All three big bureaus tout their credit lock services as an easier and faster alternative to freezes.

According to a recent post by CreditKarma.com, consumers can use these services to quickly lock or unlock access to credit inquiries, although some bureaus can take up to 48 hours. In contrast, they can take up to five business days to act on a freeze request, although in my experience the automated freeze process via the bureaus’ freeze sites has been more or less instantaneous (assuming the request actually goes through).

TransUnion and Equifax both offer free credit lock services, while Experian’s is free for 30 days and $19.99 for each additional month. However, TransUnion says those who take advantage of their free lock service agree to receive targeted marketing offers. What’s more, TransUnion also pushes consumers who sign up for its free lock service to subscribe to its “premium” lock services for a monthly fee with a perpetual auto-renewal.

Unsurprisingly, the bureaus’ use of the term credit lock has confused many consumers; this was almost certainly by design. But here’s one basic fact consumers should keep in mind about these lock services: Unlike freezes, locks are not governed by any law, meaning that the credit bureaus can change the terms of these arrangements when and if it suits them to do so.

If you’d like to go ahead with freezing your credit files now, this Q&A post from the Equifax breach explains the basics, and includes some other useful tips for staying ahead of identity thieves. Otherwise, check back here later this month for more details on the new free freeze sites.

How The Shining's Camera Creates Constant Unease [Published articles]

The Shining is a brilliant film, and it’s a scary film, and those two things are for the same reason.

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