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Tired of Remembering Passwords? Try Swallowing Them Instead.

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Chances are you're bad at passwords. Most of us are. A recent statistic offered up by Jonathan LeBlanc, the global head of developer advocacy at PayPal, suggests that nearly 10 percent of people have a password consisting of 123456, 12345678, or, simply, "password."

LeBlanc has some bold thoughts on improving this state of affairs. As he told the Wall Street Journal last week, "embeddable, injectable, and ingestible devices" are the next step companies will use to identify consumers for "mobile payments and other sensitive online interactions."

From the Journal:

While there are more advanced methods to increase login security, like location verification, identifying people by their habits like the way they type in their passwords, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers, these can lead to false negative results, where valid users can't log in to their online services, and false positives, where invalid users can log in.

Mr. Leblanc pointed to more accurate methods of identity verification, like thin silicon chips which can be embedded into the skin. The wireless chips can contain ECG sensors that monitor the heart’s unique electrical activity, and communicate the data via wireless antennae to "wearable computer tattoos."

Ingestible capsules that can detect glucose levels and other unique internal features can use a person's body as a way to identify them and beam that data out.

To be fair, LeBlanc told the paper that these specific technologies aren't necessarily things that PayPal is planning, but he's been raising the possibility in a presentation he's been giving, and has said the online dealbroker is "definitely looking at the identity field" as a means of allowing users a more secure way to identify themselves.

You don't have to be a "mark of the beast" person or a conspiracy theorist to have concerns. Indeed, what could possibly go wrong with a little implanted device that reads your vein patterns or your heart's unique activity or blood glucose levels just so you can seamlessly buy that cup of Starbucks? Wouldn't an insurance company love to use that information to decide that you had one too many donuts—so it won't be covering that bypass surgery after all?

As the Wall Street Journal cautiously notes, "Mr. Leblanc admits that there's still a ways to go before cultural norms catch up with ingestible and injectable ID devices."

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Feminist Yelp, a Date-Rape Game, and Other Killer Apps From a Global Women's Hackathon

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:00 AM EDT
The winning team with male volunteers in Porto Alegre, Brazil

What if there was a platform that was kind of like Yelp, but with a feminist twist—where you could rate businesses (specifically bars, clubs, and restaurants) according to how their staff and patrons treat women? That's the idea behind a mobile app dreamed up by a group of young female coders in Brazil. The women, ages 18 through 22, came up with it in February during an international hackathon organized by the Global Fund for Women. Tentatively named Não Me Calo (I Will Not Shut Up), it was chosen this week as the hackthon's winning idea. Through the Global Fund's partnerships with the tech industry, the team will get funds and mentoring to make their app a reality over the next six months or so.

Dozens of female coders, some as young as 11, spent 24 hours on ideas to build safer physical and virtual spaces.

Não Me Calo is a simple concept: Users will identify businesses where they've encountered physical and verbal abuse or harassment from employees or patrons. The app's ranking system will call out the worst offenders and encourage app users to spend their money elsewhere. With any luck, the business owners will then take steps to alleviate the problem. "It provides a way to leverage existing technology, sort of like Foursquare and Yelp, platforms that allow you to check into public spaces in major cities, with an additional piece of information that probably isn't being collected right now," said Michaela Leslie-Rule, the Global Fund producer who coordinated the hackathon. "Our hope is that this would be available to women and girls globally."

The event, which included girls as young as 11, brought together dozens of coders in New York City; Oakland, California; Porto Alegre, Brazil; Tapei, Taiwan; and Trivandrum, India. They spent 24 hours designing and building tools to create safe physical and virtual spaces for women and girls. Here are some of the other ideas that came out of the event:

Perv Radar: Coders in Tapei designed a map-and-alerts website that would track sexual harassment incidents by location. Their Pervert Map would show exactly where run-ins have occurred, with an anonymous comment feature that would allow users to log details about the incidents, as well as markers to identify safe zones like police stations. For a walkthrough, check out this video.

Red Alert: In Oakland, coders proposed an Android app to prevent kidnappings. It would come with a discrete GPS sensor you could attach to the underside of a bracelet or a bag zipper. In threatening situations, a woman could touch the sensor for five seconds to activate "red mode," notifying preset emergency contacts and the authorities. The app would pinpoint her coordinates on a tracking map, with a history page to show her previous locations, as well as provide a list of hospitals and police stations in the area.

In India, sex ed is rare, and talking openly about sex is taboo, for girls and women especially.

Anti-Gamergate: In New York City, one team came up with a video game that puts players in the shoes of a woman in a date-rape situation on a college campus to confront tricky questions around sexual consent. (Check out this similar idea by game designer Nina Freeman.) Another team in the Big Apple created a 3-D animated game that requires players to help an avatar find its way through a maze of obstacles in the quest for reproductive health care. In India, coders proposed an online game about self-defense.

Talk It Out: Sex ed is in a sorry state in much of the United States, as this Mississippi teacher knows. But in India, it's not even part of the curriculum in most schools, and talking openly about sex is pretty much taboo. Coders in Trivandrum created a website with a chat function that lets girls ask counselors about sexually transmitted infections, harassment, and sex. Back in Oakland, a team proposed an online chat room app to facilitate conversations about bullying and other forms of abuse. Another team in Brazil thought up a social network that would link women who want to learn a specific skill with other women who can teach it to them, with the goal of broadening job opportunities.

17 Everyday Items That Use a Whole Lot of Water

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 6:45 AM EDT

If you live in the West, particularly in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent mandatory reduction in household water use, you may have started taking shorter showers. Perhaps a spiky array of cacti now dwells where your lawn used to be. Maybe you've even stopped drinking almond milk.

But even those of us who don't live in California are thinking more about how much water our lifestyles require—after all, much of the country is now in drought, and climate models project that dry spells will become more and more common all over the world in the years to come. A few years back, we crunched the numbers on the water footprints of a few common items:

 

Icon credits (via Noun Project): Microchip—Rabee Balakrishnan; Apple—Ava Rowell; Beer—Fabian Sanabria; Wine—Philippe Berthelon Bravo; Can—Blaise Sewell; Coffee—Okan Benn; OJ—Blaise Sewell; Diaper—Isabel Foo; Chicken—Ana Maria Lora Macias; Cheese—Elliott Snyder; Hamburger—Pei Wen (Winnie) Kwang; T-shirt—Sergi Delgado; Paper—Evan Udelsman; Beef—Jon Testa; Jeans—Pranav Mote;

Here's What You Need to Know About the Trade Deal Dividing the Left

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 6:30 AM EDT

Senior lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation last week that would let the Obama Administration keep negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pact that could be the most far-reaching free trade agreement in American history.

Now in its fifth year of negotiations, the TPP is intended to bolster free trade among 12 participating countries and set the tone for future trade deals. Getting it done before campaign politics interfere hinges on the passage of the new legislation, a Trade Promotion Authority bill (a.k.a. "fast track") that limits congressional participation to a up/down vote on the final deal, rather than opening it up for amendments. The TPA is needed to ensure negotiating partners that their hard-fought agreements won't be altered at the whims of one politician or another. But some members of Congress, along with various interest groups, insist that the pact needs additional congressional oversight and public approval.

Like most trade deals, the TPP is being negotiated by the administration behind closed doors, and details are scant. But here's what we do know so far:

Tales From City of Hope #1: The Buzzcut Has Landed

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

Well, I'm here at City of Hope. On Tuesday at 7 am the final round of chemotherapy begins.

I'm staying in a little studio apartment in Parsons Village, which is on the grounds of the City of Hope campus. The picture on the right provides a glimpse of it. Also, as you can see, it provides a glimpse of the new me. As of yesterday I still had quite a bit of hair left, but it was falling out and I was shedding around the house like a Persian cat from hell. So I figured it was time to just shave it off. It's all coming out eventually anyway.

So what do I remind you of? Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me? One of the drones from Apple's 1984 commercial? Y'all can decide in comments.

I visited my sister and my mother yesterday, and I'm happy to report that Hilbert and Hopper are in fine fettle. I set up my sister with Skype on her iPad, so now she can call at night and show me the little furballs in real time. Technology FTW.

And don't forget our Spring fundraiser! I'm still hoping you guys contribute generously to the cause. Remember what they say: Every dollar you give helps one of my hairs grow back.

Donate by credit card here.

Donate by PayPal here.

We Didn't Learn Anything From Deepwater Horizon—And We're Going to Pay For It

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 3:13 PM EDT
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:

A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...

Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...

Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.

Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.

Meanwhile, our expansion into deeper and riskier drilling is happening even though there are still an average of two offshore drilling accidents every day.

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Politician Tasked With Oil Industry Oversight Gets a Paycheck From Big Oil

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

The BP oil spill turned five years old on Monday, and as my colleague Tim McDonnell reported, we're still paying the price: There's as much as 26 million gallons of crude oil still on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But the story of the Deepwater Horizon wasn't just about environmental devastation—it was also a story about regulation.

In Louisiana, where many politicians rely on oil and gas companies to fill their campaign coffers (and keep their constituents employed), environmental consequences often take a back seat to business concerns. But sometimes, things go even further. Take the case of Republican state Sen. Robert Adley—the vice-chair of the committee on environmental quality and the chair of the transportation committee (which oversees levees)—who played a leading role in trying to stop a local levee board from suing oil companies for damages related to coastal erosion. As Tyler Bridges reported for the Louisiana investigative news site The Lens, Adley doesn't just go to bat for oil companies—he works for them as a paid consultant. He even launched his own oil company while serving as a state representative, and he didn't cut ties to the company until nine years into his stint in the senate:

"He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years," said Don Briggs, the industry association's president. "I've never seen him carry one that he didn't truly believe was the right thing to do."

Adley's numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

...

Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are "un-American" and "outrageous."

"It's what I know," Adley said. "Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?"

For the time being, at least, voters in northwest Louisiana have decided that the answer is no.

"Jurassic World" Is Apparently Not About Humans and Dinosaurs Teaming Up To Solve Crimes

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

I was pretty sure the dinosaurs and the people were going to get along really well and maybe go around the country solving crimes together.

I was apparently incorrect.

If the scientists are making these dinosaurs from scratch why don't they just like take out their teeth or make them allergic to human flesh or something? I'm no big city scientist, but I feel like the whole "they keep eating us!" thing could be bred out of them.

Who Subsidizes Restaurant Workers' Pitiful Wages? You Do

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 8:45 AM EDT

For Americans who like to eat out occasionally, the full-service restaurant industry is full of relatively affordable options—think Olive Garden, Applebees, or Chili's. But these spots aren't exactly a bargain once a hefty hidden cost is factored in: The amount of taxpayer assistance that goes to workers earning little pay.

Food service workers have more than twice the poverty rate of the overall workforce, and thus more often seek out public benefits. A new report published last week by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a restaurant workers' advocacy and assistance group, calculated the tab and found that from 2009 to 2013, regular Americans subsidized the industry's low wages with nearly $9.5 billion in tax money each year. That number includes spending from roughly 10 different assistance programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, and low-income housing programs like Section 8.

Here's the breakdown per program:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The amounts were calculated by combining Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on the programs' cost and enrollments with the number of Americans working in full-service restaurants.

ROC also found that employees at the five largest full-service restaurant companies alone cost taxpayers about $1.4 billion per year. According to the report, these five companies employ more than half a million of the sector's more than 4 million workers.

Here's another striking statistic: If you add up these five companies' profits, CEO pay, distributed dividends, and stock buy-backs, the total comes to a bit more than $1.48 billion—almost exactly what taxpayers spend on these five companies' workers, $1.42 billion.

ROC's report notes another key point: Polling shows that most Americans want a tax system that requires Corporate America to pull its weight. If customers start realizing that their meal costs a lot more than the check says, they just might lose their appetite.

There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California.

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A cotton field in Georgia.

California is by far the dominant US produce-growing state—source of (large PDF) 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 86 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, etc.

But all three of its main veggie growing regions—the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and the Salinas Valley—face serious short- and long-term water challenges. As I recently argued in a New York Times debate, it's time to "de-Californify" the nation's supply of fruits and vegetable supply, to make it more diversified, resilient, and ready for a changing climate.

Here are maps of US fruit and vegetable production:

USDA

 

USDA

Now check out this map depicting average annual precipitation. The data are old—1961 to 1990—and weather patterns have changed since then as the climate has warmed over the decades. But the overall trends depicted still hold sway: The West tends to be arid, the East tends to get plenty of rain and snow, and the Midwest lands, well, somewhere in the middle. So the map remains a good proxy for understanding where water tends to fall and where it doesn't, though the precipitation levels depicted for California look downright Londonesque compared to the state's current parched condition.

 

 

Not only is California gripped in its worst drought in at least 1,200 years, but climate models and the fossil record suggest that its 21st-century precipitation levels could be significantly lower than the 20th-century norm, when California emerged as a fruit-and-vegetable behemoth.

So here's an idea that could take pressure off California. In my Times piece, I looked to the Corn Belt states of the Midwest as a prime candidate for a veggie revival: Just about a quarter million acres (a veritable rounding error in that region's base of farmland) from corn and soy to veggies could have a huge impact on regional supply, a 2010 Iowa State University study found.

Now my gaze is heading south and east, to acres now occupied by cotton—a crop burdened by a brutal past in the South (slavery, sharecropping) and a troubled present (a plague of herbicide-tolerant weeds):

 

Let's leave aside all of the cotton growing on the arid side of the map. (The drought is already squeezing out production of the fluffy fiber in California; as for the Texas panhandle, cotton production there relies heavily on water from the fast-depleting Ogallala Aquifer—not a great long-term strategy.)

Small-scale fruit and vegetable farms are "already gearing up down there," said one expert.

What I'm eyeing are those cotton acres on the water-rich right side of the map—the Mississippi Delta states Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana, along with the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia to the east. According to the USDA, mid-Southern and Southeastern states planted more than 4 million acres of cotton in 2014. This is what's left of the old—and let's face it, infamous—Cotton Belt that stocked the globe's textile factories during the 19th-century boom that delivered the Industrial Revolution (a story told in Sven Beckert's fantastic 2014 book Empire of Cotton).

Decades of low prices have already put a squeeze on Southern cotton acres, and the fiber has recently slumped anew in global trading. Why not transition at least some acres into crops with a robust domestic market? I bounced my idea of a Cotton Belt fruit-and-vegetable renaissance off a few experts to see if it was nuts. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it "noncrazy." He pointed out that, as in most other parts of the United States, small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers are "already gearing up down there," and added that the region "seems ripe for entrepreneurial companies to come in, buy land, grow farmers, introduce a whole new vegetable supply chain on a bigger scale, especially with California's woes."

I'm not talking about a fantasy in which everyone eats from within 20 miles (although such locavore networks, which have thrived nationwide over the last two decades, certainly add diversification and resilience to the overall food system). I'm simply pushing a more regionalized, widely distributed scheme for filling our salad and fruit bowls, one less dependent on California and its overtaxed water resources.

Scott Marlow, executive director of North Carolina-based RAFI USA, a farmer advocacy organization, also said the idea make sense—with caveats. One is credit. Marlow says that most farmers who still plant cotton are large enough that they rely on loans to start the growing season—and bankers understand and are used to cotton, but may find vegetables too exotic and risky. For such farmers, "if the banker won't lend for it, [they] are not doing it," he said. Reforms in the latest farm bill made it easier for "specialty crop" (i.e., fruit and vegetable) farmers to get good crop insurance, and that, in turn, made it easier to get loans, he said. But those changes take time to sink in.

He added that the South's high levels of precipitation can actually be a liability compared to California's aridity, because "rain spreads diseases through splash erosion, ruins product, screws up harvest, reduces product quality." California farmers, who meet their watering needs through controlled irrigation, don't have those problems.

But rain troubles can be addressed through low-tech means like high tunnels, which are already being adapted by Southern produce farmers to extend the growing season, but also to protect sensitive crops from rain, Marlow said. Black plastic mulch, another widely adapted practice, also helps keep crops healthy in rainy periods, he added. The South's farmers have demonstrated the ability to innovate, he said, but "there have to be markets, there has to be risk management, and there has to be access to credit."

Converting swaths of Dixie country to vegetables won't be a fast or easy process. But if California's water troubles drag on, as it appears they will, broccoli may yet emerge as the heir apparent to doddering King Cotton.