Archives for June 2018

Google Wants Employees to Work Instead of Arguing Politics

In the past few months,  2,600 Google employees have signed a petition asking the company to do more about harassment–and to make HR investigations transparent, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

It’s one of the many changes going on at Google when it comes to employee communications. Google has encouraged dialogue unrelated to the workplace for years, and now it’s not working out so well. 

Last year, Google fired James Damore for expressing his views about how choice and biology may be the true driver for the lack of women in tech, saying that his views perpetuated gender stereotypes and violated the code of conduct. 

But, not everyone at Google agreed with the decision. And, it seems, that there is very little at Google that everyone agrees on. Because the company encouraged message boards and the like to discuss non-work issues, they are dealing with trolls and hurt feelings and it’s a big mess. 

It was a nice idea–let’s make the workplace your whole world, where you can bring your “whole self.” But, as I’ve written before, that doesn’t work out so well in practice. Google is finding it necessary to create clear policies about what constitutes harassment, including rules against doxxing–releasing personal information–as retaliation.

While this is a good idea–employees shouldn’t be attempting to punish each other for political and other views that someone finds offensive–the fact that Google reached this level indicates an overall culture problem. 

Google has long been praised for innovative practices and former Head of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, received praise in many circles. But, perhaps some of that praise was too early–when you have a culture that has employees trolling and doxxing each other, perhaps there is an HR problem. 

The solution is to focus on work and tell people to find their social life elsewhere. But that requires people to leave the office. Bock claimed that the reason for all the on-campus perks was to increase conversations and innovation, it also kept people on campus. It’s difficult to build relationships with people outside of work when you’re never gone. As a result, you need your co-workers to meet all your needs, including your need to discuss politics. Which, as anyone could guess, can be a disaster.

Google needs to get back to work, shut down the non-work related boards, and make sure people gain outside social lives. You know, like a traditional business. Turns out those stodgy old fogies were on to something.  

Space Photos of the Week: Scientists Are Seeing Red Over Jupiter’s Spot

Jupiter’s red spot is going to be one of the first points of study for the James Webb Space Telescope. This ambitious and complicated instrument is rather late to launch as well as over budget (as reported in WIRED). But when it does go, up it’s going to look right in the heart of this gigantic storm. Scientists are hoping to learn why the red spot is actually red; they believe the gas giant’s atmosphere contains molecular parts called chromophores that color its clouds. Whether astronomers find them will determine whether they crack the mystery of Jupiter’s iconic spot.

Feeling dizzy? The Juno spacecraft speeds over Jupiter at tens of thousands of miles per hour, but still manages to capture ridiculously detailed close-ups—like this photo of swirling, dancing storms. The white clouds are believed to be higher up in the atmosphere, whereas the darker regions live lower, closer on the planet.

Enceladus, Saturn’s watery and icy moon, has long intrigued scientists looking for evidence of life beyond Earth. And now it’s the subject of some big news: A paper out this week in the journal Nature says the Cassini spacecraft has detected complex organic molecules in plumes erupting from the surface. While far from a definitive discovery of life on Enceladus, this marks a milestone for research into the moon’s habitable potential.

Can you spot the asteroids in this photo? Don’t see any? Look a bit closer: Those streaks of white stretching across this gorgeous photo of the galaxy cluster Abell 370 are all asteroids. Turns out they aren’t even close to Abell 370; those asteroids are closer to Earth, pulling off an epic photobomb as the Hubble Space Telescope snaps shots. Rock on!

The Hubble Space Telescope often produces colorful composite images that look like glorious paintings, and this stunning pic of the Abell S0740 galaxy cluster is a perfect example. Abell S0740 lives more than 450 million light years away from Earth—or maybe we should say lived? The light in this photo is so old that even our extinct dinosaurs did not exist when it set out into the universe.

Oh hi, brand-new Martian crater! NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals evidence of a recent impact on our solar system neighbor sometime in the past six years. (By Mars crater standards, that’s new. Some of the planet’s pockmarks are millions of years old.) The surface of Mars tends to be reddish from iron oxide in the dirt—that’s right, rust. Yet the dust in the crater’s “blast zone” looks bluish in comparison, which indicates something new and … impactful has taken place.

Mission Bicycle's Light-Up Fork Will Never Leave You in the Dark

It’s happened to me, it’s happened to you. You walk out of a concert, a restaurant, or the office at an hour well past sunset, go to unlock your bike, and you realize you don’t have your lights. Maybe you forgot to charge them and they’re as dead as beans. Maybe you forgot to bring them entirely because it’s the summer and they daylight hours are long. Maybe they were stolen off your frame—in which case you’re lucky they didn’t take the whole bike.

A San Francisco company called Mission Bicycle has rolled out a new bike design that will never leave an owner in the dark. The frameset has LEDs build right into the fork. Tapping a button sets the front end of the bike alight.

Beth Holzer for Wired

The design is simple and tidy. On the inside of the fork’s arms, there are two LED strips situated vertically. Each strip holds 50 diodes, for 100 lights in total. You press a button on the top cap of the headset to turn the lighting system on and off; pressing and holding the button dims the lights, which helps the battery last longer. There are also five red LEDs built into the seatpost. All of the wiring runs through the frame—from the headset, down the fork, and back to the seatpost.

The whole system uses a rechargeable battery that lives inside the headset. To access it, you unscrew the top cap, and the battery pops up far enough for you to grab it. You can charge it wherever it’s convenient using a USB cable.

Integrated lighting systems aren’t unique in the cycling world. You can find a number of commuter bikes with headlights built into the frames and tail lights built into the seat posts. But what makes Mission Bicycle’s design notable is the ease with which the lights blend into the design. Walk past the bike on the street, and you won’t notice the LEDs or the on/off switch unless you’re really looking for them. It stays fully hidden and makes for a clean, minimal look. More importantly, it means you always have your lights with you—as long as you remember to charge the battery.

Beth Holzer for Wired

Mission Bicycle leant me a bike to ride for a couple of weeks. The company sells fully customized city bikes starting at $1,100, and it offers a bunch of different options for drivetrains, components, and frame colors. The integrated lighting system is available as an option on every build. My loaner was a singlespeed; a simple, easy roller.

When you fire up the LED systems, it illuminates a big circle of pavement around the front wheel, about four feet in diameter. The effect is eye-catching in a way that a forward-facing headlight isn’t, and since the LEDs are visible from the side too, it easily makes you the most noticeable vehicle in the bike lane. The light itself is a cool blue, which at first seems a bit harsh, but only helps you stand out more alongside the yellowish glow of the overhead sodium bulbs that illuminate the roadways. The battery lasted the whole time I had the bike, and if your commute involves less than an hour of night riding each day, I imagine you’d have to charge it once every three or four weeks.

Two caveats. One, the lighting system makes you visible to others on the road, but doesn’t direct light far enough in front of you to fully illuminate the road ahead. The company’s reasoning is that, in a city, the streets are generally well lit enough that being seen is a higher priority for your safety than seeing where you’re going. Sure, but if you don’t live in a city with well-lit streets, you’ll need a headlamp. Second, the crown that you unscrew to get at the battery isn’t fully secure. So if a thief is knowledgeable enough to look for the little rubber on/off switch, they can steal your battery (or the top cap) pretty easily. The folks at the shop tell me they are working on a solution to this. For now, maybe just slip the battery into your pocket when you leave your bike locked up outside the bar. No biggie.

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Why Tech Employees Are Rebelling Against Their Bosses

Silicon Valley has a long and secretive history of building hardware and software for the military and law enforcement. In contrast, a recent wave of employee protests against some of those government contracts has been short, fast, and surprisingly public—tearing through corporate campuses, mailing lists, and message boards inside some of the world’s most powerful companies.

The revolt is part of a growing political awakening among some tech employees about the uses of the products they build. What began as concern inside Google about a Pentagon contract to tap the company’s artificial-intelligence smarts was catalyzed by outrage over Trump administration immigration policies. Now, it seems to be spreading quickly.

Within a few days in late June, employees from Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce publicized petitions urging their CEOs to cancel or rethink lucrative contracts with US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police departments.

Airing a company’s dirty laundry is new. Historically, tech workers have rarely peeked out from under the industry’s cone of silence—a cultural norm often invoked as a sign of trust in leadership but enforced by a layer of nondisclosure agreements and investigations into leaks.

At Google in particular, managers have encouraged internal debate—and employees have bought into the system. But earlier this year, internal efforts broke down over Google’s role in Project Maven, which applies AI to interpret camera footage from drones. Employees adopted other tactics when they felt executives were downplaying the size and scope of the Pentagon contract. Thousands, including senior engineers, signed a petition asking CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel the contract. Some workers claimed to quit over the relationship. A group of engineers refused to build a security tool necessary for Maven. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the petition said, warning Pichai that the company’s involvement in Maven would “irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.” Earlier this month, Google said it would not renew the Pentagon contract when it expires next year. A few days later, Pichai released a code of ethics to govern Google’s use of AI, which said Google would not develop the technology for use in weapons, but will continue “our work with governments and the military in many other areas.”

The changes emboldened workers at other companies. A petition that started with seven Microsoft employees has gained 457 signers asking the company to drop its contract with ICE. “We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm,” the petition says. Two days later, Amazon workers publicized a letter that seeks to halt sales of the company’s facial-recognition services to law enforcement; that has 400 signers. More than 650 Salesforce workers want the company to rethink its relationship with the Customs agency, because “our core value of Equality is at stake.” Each of the companies employs tens of thousands of workers across the globe, so it’s hard to measure the level of internal support for their efforts.

But the protests also drew support from influential academics and researchers, who drafted their own petitions around government contracts at Google and Microsoft, which became a touchstone for anxious employees.

The fledgling movement marks an evolution in the consciousness of tech employees; last year, employees at several companies asked their CEOs to drop out of President Trump’s advisory council and oppose a ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim countries. But asking a company to forgo the revenue of a government contract is a different kind of tradeoff. “One is about the politics, the other is about the core business, what is this company in the business of doing or not in the business of doing,” says Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer at Google known for her advocacy work.

Such stands against a company’s financial interests are unusual inside private firms, but not unheard of, says Forrest Briscoe, a professor at Penn State’s business school, who has studied internal and external corporate activists. He cites efforts beginning in the late 1980s by environmental scientists employed by Dupont and General Motors to alter those companies’ positions on climate change.

Silicon Valley’s recruiting pitch has long been: Work with us to change the world. Employees are encouraged to make their work life synonymous with their social identity, and many internalize those utopian ideals. “People who signed up to be tech heroes don’t want to be implicated in human rights abuses,” says a senior Google employee involved in the protest against Project Maven.

Tech workers may feel freer to challenge their employers in part because they have marketable skills at a time of great demand, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. “Why don’t you find this among the people wiring the circuit boards together in China? Because there they are much more vulnerable,” he says.

Lichtenstein compares the tech workers to recent activism by teachers in several states seeking better funding for schools. “The teacher strikes of the last few months were about re-funding public education in austerity states, a political as well as financial shift,” he says. “That has very large consequences for public policy as well as corporate policy.” One Google employee says tech workers benefited from the momentum of the teacher strikes.

But why now? Employees say their companies have grown so big that workers weren’t aware of the extent of their employers’ government contracts.

The shift caught companies accustomed to controlling the narrative flat-footed. They scrambled to downplay blog posts from sales teams just months earlier crowing about contracts with government agencies that are now in the spotlight for harsh treatment of immigrants or invading people’s privacy.

But Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube, says the changes have been building. “From the outside, it looks like there’s been an 180-degree change from last month to this month,” she says. In reality, she says, the 2016 election and internal disputes over diversity at Google have awakened employees to “the connections between the technology we’re building, issues in the workplace, and what impact that has had on our communities and on our world.”

One reason for the unrest is that the projects involved have very real consequences, says Erica Joy Baker, a former Google engineer and well-known activist within the industry who’s now an engineering manager at Patreon. “Now we’re talking about life and death decisions for a lot of folks,” Baker says. “I’m pretty sure that no one who took a job at Google thought, ‘I’m going to work for a defense contractor.’ Lockheed Martin is down the road, they could have gone to work there.”

The disputed projects span a range, from building facial-recognition technology that could be deployed on unsuspecting people in public to providing computer services that a few years ago would have been run on a machine inside the Pentagon.

Moreover, in each case, there may be ethical considerations on the other side. Matt Zeiler, CEO of Clarifai, an artificial-intelligence company also working on Project Maven, said in a recent blog post that deploying the technology could save lives. Microsoft policy managers told employees in an internal online discussion that the company was in contact with immigration advocacy groups, who said canceling Microsoft’s contract could harm kids and families.

Still, some workers see a common thread through projects with the Pentagon, the immigration services, and the more tenuous connection between the software company Palantir, which works with ICE and uses Amazon’s AWS service. “This is not a hair we can split and say ‘actually we didn’t built the jails, we just allowed them to more quickly itemize the invoices for the jails,’” says the senior Google employee involved in the effort to shut down Maven. “This is an ethical question and it’s a question lot of people are asking.”

For now, the movement’s message is not a finely drawn policy position on what kind of government work is acceptable but rather a plea for transparency and a seat at the table, so that employees have a say in where such technology is used.

Some tech workers involved in the protests invoke IBM’s work for Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II. Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust, says the current wave of dissidents is atypical for the tech industry. “You wouldn’t have even asked me this question a year ago. Now we have to ask, is it a political revolt, or is a revolt of consciousness about the capabilities of the technologies being implemented?” In a statement, an IBM spokesperson said, “As with other foreign-owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, IBM’s German operations came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II.”

Employees are aware this will be a long slog and have been skeptical of the lawyered-up, press-friendly but vague responses. In Google’s new AI principles, Pichai said the company will not pursue “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights,” according to the blog post. “Who says that?” another Google employee involved in the Maven protest asked WIRED. “Either you support human rights or you don’t.”


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How the Startup Mentality Failed Kids in San Francisco

On the windy afternoon of March 17, 2017, I opened my mailbox and saw a white envelope from the San Francisco Unified School District. The envelope contained a letter assigning my younger daughter to a middle school. This letter was a big deal; San Francisco’s public schools range from excellent to among the worst in the state, and kids are assigned to them through a lottery. The last time we put her name into the lottery, for kindergarten, she was assigned to one of the lowest-performing schools in California. Then we got a break: A private school offered a big discount on tuition. But now our discount was gone, so we entered her in the public-­school lottery again.

Ripping open that envelope, I found that she had been assigned to Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School. I knew who Willie Brown was—Speaker of the California State Assembly for 15 years and two-term mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004. The school, however, was new to me. So I grabbed a laptop, poked around on Google, and pieced together an astonishing story.

Willie Brown Middle School was the most expensive new public school in San Francisco history. It cost $54 million to build and equip, and opened less than two years earlier. It was located less than a mile from my house, in the city’s Bayview district, where a lot of the city’s public housing sits and 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. This new school was to be focused on science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM, for short. There were laboratories for robotics and digital media, Apple TVs for every classroom, and Google Chromebooks for students. A “cafetorium” offered sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, flatscreen menu displays, and free breakfast and lunch. An on-campus wellness center was to provide free dentistry, optometry, and medical care to all students. Publicity materials promised that “every student will begin the sixth grade enrolled in a STEM lab that will teach him or her coding, robotics, graphic/website design, and foundations of mechanical engineering.” The district had created a rigorous new curriculum around what it called “design thinking” and a “one-to-one tech model,” with 80-minute class periods that would allow for immersion in complex subjects.

The money for Brown came from a voter-approved bond, as well as local philanthropists. District fund-raising materials proudly announced that, through their foundation, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams and his wife, Sara, had given a total of $400,000 for “STEM-focus” and “health and wellness.” (The foundation says that figure is incorrect.) Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who has given nearly $35 million to Bay Area public schools in the past five years alone, contributed $100,000 through his charities. The Summit Public Schools network, an organization that runs charter schools in California and Washington state and has a board of directors filled with current and former tech heavy hitters (including Meg Whitman), made a $500,000 in-kind donation of its personalized learning platform. That online tool, built to help students learn at their own pace and track their progress, was created in partnership with Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s funding organization.

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As the school’s first principal, the district hired a charismatic man named Demetrius Hobson who was educated at Morehouse and Harvard and had been a principal in Chicago’s public schools. Students from four of the Bayview’s elementary schools, where more than 75 percent of kids are socio­economically disadvantaged, were given preference to enter Willie Brown Middle. To ensure that the place would also be diverse, the district lured families from other parts of town with a “golden ticket” that would make it easier for graduates from Brown to attend their first choice of public high school.

The message worked. Parents from all over the city—as well as parents from the Bayview who would otherwise have sent their kids to school elsewhere—put their kids’ names in for spots at the new school. Shawn Whalen, who was then the chief of staff at San Francisco State University, and Xander Shapiro, the chief marketing officer for a startup, had children in public elementary schools that fed into well-regarded middle schools. But, liking what they heard, both listed Brown as a top choice in the lottery. Kandace ­Landake—a Bayview resident and Uber driver who wanted her children to have a better education than she’d received, and whose children were in good public schools outside the neighborhood—likewise took a chance on Brown. One third-­generation Bayview resident, whom I’ll call Lisa Green, works at a large biotech company and had been sending her daughter to private school. But she too was so enticed that she marked Brown as her first choice in the lottery, and her daughter got in.

On opening day in August of 2015, around two dozen staff members greeted the very first class. That’s when the story took an alarming turn. Newspapers reported chaos on campus. Landake was later quoted in the San Francisco Examiner: “The first day of school there were, like, multiple incidents of physical violence.” After just a month, Principal Hobson quit, and an interim took charge. In mid-October, less than two months into the first school year, a third principal came on board. According to a local newspaper, in these first few months, six other faculty members resigned. (The district disputes this figure.) In a school survey, only 16 percent of the Brown staff described the campus as safe. Parents began to pull their kids out.

By August of 2016, as Brown’s second year started, only 70 students were enrolled for 100 sixth-grade seats; few wanted to send their kids there. The school was in an enrollment death spiral.

It was hard to imagine sending our daughter to a place in such chaos. But I was also unsettled that so many people spent so much money and goodwill to do the right thing for middle schoolers, with such disastrous results. I wanted to know what had happened.

Robotics teacher James Robertson and a student.

Preston Gannaway

Willie L. Brown Jr., the man himself, now occupies a penthouse office with a spectacular view of the west span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which happens to be named after him. As mayor, he famously gilded San Francisco City Hall’s dome with $400,000 worth of real gold. Brown’s best-known political achievements were in real estate development. He helped spur the rise of live-work lofts during the original dotcom boom and helped to turn San Francisco’s tawdry South of Market neighborhood into a booming tech startup district. After leaving office, Brown became a lobbyist; his clients included some of the biggest developers involved in transforming San Francisco into a corporate tech hub.

Small and compact at age 84, with a genial face, Brown greeted me in his office wearing an elegant purple suit. He explained that Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School was the second iteration of a school formerly called Willie L. Brown Jr. College Preparatory Academy—“part of a group of schools called the Dream Schools,” he said, “that were going to try to afford equal educational opportunity on almost a boutique, as-needed basis.”

To make sense of this remark, it helps to understand that San Francisco has been trying, and mostly failing, for half a century to give African American and Latino students an education comparable to that provided to white and Asian students in the city. Those efforts started in the 1970s after the success of lawsuits accusing the city of maintaining racially isolated schools in the Bayview. Attempted remedies over the years included busing and racial quotas for school assignment, but both approaches foundered, partly due to opposition from families, often white and Asian, who argued they didn’t want to send their kids across town to school. In 1978, California voters passed the state’s most infamous law: Proposition 13 severely restricted raising property taxes, and required a two-thirds majority to pass many tax measures. This gutted California’s education funding so severely that the state’s public schools, which had been ranked best in the nation in the 1950s, fell to among the worst in a few decades. (They now hover around 35th.) California currently spends less per student on public education than many low-tax states. Belying its progressive image, San Francisco spends roughly half the amount per public school student than New York City, where the cost of living is comparable.

By the early 2000s, the district’s next campaign for change was aimed at improving its most underperforming schools, aided in part by a $135,000 pledge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The district designated some of these new schools as Dream Schools. This plan involved requiring existing teachers to reapply for their jobs, sprucing up their buildings, offering foreign-language and art classes, and requiring kids to wear uniforms. The Dream School that was eventually renamed Willie Brown College Preparatory Academy—Brown 1.0, if you will, in the Bayview—opened in 2004 (the same year Facebook was founded and Google and Salesforce held their IPOs). Six years later, Brown 1.0 had only 160 kids enrolled for 500 slots, and its standardized test scores were among the worst in the state.

“We tried to make it work,” Brown insisted as we sat in his office. “We put kids in uniform, we did everything.” He shook his head as if astonished by the outcome. “I used my connections. I had Spike Lee teach out there! Every friend I had in the celebrity world I took to that godforsaken place for an hour. I shattered my resources in that effort. It was clear it wasn’t going to work.” It was eventually decided, Brown told me, that the school would only succeed if it had a new building.

This, it turns out, was actually kind of easy to obtain. San Francisco has plenty of money for school construction, because asking San Francisco voters for permission to borrow money to build better schools is an easy win: Voters approved four such initiatives from 2003 to 2016, raising a cumulative $2 billion. Money to raise teacher salaries, by contrast, can require lengthy union negotiations and raising taxes. (As I write this, residents are voting on a proposition that would tax property owners to raise teacher pay.) The money for the new Willie Brown Middle School was a mere line item in a 2011 bond issue that raised $531 million.

When those funds came through for Brown 2.0, the school district was facing an existential crisis. Over the previous four decades, enrollment in SF public schools had fallen by nearly 40 percent, from 83,000 to 53,000, even as the city’s population grew by almost 100,000. Part of that loss was due to the skyrocketing cost of local living, which drove middle-class families to the suburbs and left San Francisco with the lowest number of children per capita of any of the nation’s 100 largest cities. As San Francisco’s population became more affluent, parents started to send their kids to private schools in droves. Around 30 percent of the city’s school-age children now attend private school—one of the highest rates in the nation. More shocking, in a city that is 54 percent white, just 13 percent of school-district kids are white. Starting in about 2010 and driven by this new, wealthy tech workforce, the city likewise became a laboratory for tech-driven innovation in private education. Nine new secular private schools, many of them with a science and math focus, opened in San Francisco between 2010 and 2015.

This all made what looked to me like the basic premise of Brown 2.0 eminently sensible: Emulate the new tech-driven private schools, court their funders, and help kids in one of the poorest parts of town. Perhaps the district could even start to reverse a decades-long decline in enrollment.

Willie Brown’s fourth principal, Charleston Brown.

Preston Gannaway

The sheer number of mishaps at Brown, right from the start, defies easy explanation. According to the district, Principal Hobson, who declined to comment for this story, tried to quit as early as June of 2015, two months before the school opened. The superintendent talked him into staying but, a district official told me, his heart seems not to have been in it.

The summer before the kids showed up for class should have been a time when Hobson and the staff trained and planned, and built a functioning community that knew how to care for 11- and 12-year-old kids and all their messy humanity. Instead, according to one former teacher, the primary teacher training was a two-week boot camp offered by Summit Public Schools meant to help teachers with the personalized learning platform. Teachers who attended that boot camp told me that as opening day inched closer, they worried that Hobson had yet to announce even basic policies on tardiness, attendance, and misbehavior. When they asked him how to handle such matters, according to one teacher who preferred not to be identified, “Hobson’s response was always like, ‘Positive, productive, and professional.’ We were like, ‘OK, those are three words. We need procedures.’ ” When families showed up for an orientation on campus, according to the teacher, Hobson structured the event around “far-off stuff like the 3-D printer.” That orientation got cut short when the fire marshal declared Brown unsafe because of active construction.

After the school opened, Lisa Green took time off work to volunteer there. “When I stepped into that door, it was utter chaos,” she told me. According to parents and staff who were there, textbooks were still in boxes, student laptops had not arrived, there was no fabrication equipment in the makerspace or robotics equipment ready to use. According to records provided by the district, parts of the campus were unfinished. Teachers say workers were still jackhammering and pouring hot asphalt as students went from class to class. The kids came from elementary schools where they had only one or two teachers, so Brown’s college-like course schedule, with different classes on different days, turned out to be overwhelming. When Hobson quit, district bureaucrats sent out letters explaining that he had left for personal reasons and was being replaced by an interim principal.

Shawn Whalen, the former San Francisco State chief of staff, says that pretty early on, “kids were throwing things at teachers. Teachers couldn’t leave their rooms and had nobody to call, or if they did nobody was coming. My daughter’s English teacher walked up in front of the students and said ‘I can’t do this’ and quit. There was no consistent instructional activity going on.”

Teachers also became disgusted by the gulf between what was happening on the inside and the pretty picture still being sold to outsiders. “I used to have to watch when the wife of a Twitter exec would come surrounded by a gaggle of district people,” said another former teacher at the school. “We had a lovely building, but it was like someone bought you a Ferrari and you popped the hood and there was no engine.”

Early in the school year, another disaster struck—this time, according to district documents, over Summit’s desire to gather students’ personally identifiable information. The district refused to compel parents to sign waivers giving up privacy rights. Contract negotiations stalled. When the two sides failed to reach a resolution, the district terminated the school’s use of the platform. (Summit says it has since changed this aspect of its model.) This left teachers with 80-minute class periods and without the curriculum tools they were using to teach. “Teachers started walking away from their positions because this is not what they signed up for,” said Bill Kappenhagen, who took over as Brown’s third principal. “It was just a total disaster.”

The adults had failed to lead, and things fell apart. “The children came in and were very excited,” says another former teacher. “They were very positive until they realized the school was a sham. Once they realized that, you could just see the damage it did, and their mind frame shifting, and that’s when the bad behavior started.”

Hoping to establish order, Kappenhagen, a warm and focused man with long experience in public school leadership, simplified the class schedule and made class periods shorter. “I got pushback from parents who truly signed their kid up for the STEM school,” he said. “I told them, ‘We’re going to do middle school well, then the rest will come.’ ”

Xander Shapiro’s son felt so overwhelmed by the chaos that he stopped going to class. “There was an exodus of people who could advocate for themselves,” Shapiro said. “Eventually I realized it was actually hurting my son to be at school, so I pulled him out and said, ‘I’m homeschooling.’ ”

Green made a similar choice after a boy began throwing things at her daughter in English class and she says no one did anything about it. “I don’t think any kid was learning in that school,” she says. “I felt like my daughter lost an entire semester.” Her daughter was back in private school before winter break.

A bust of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, in the school foyer.

Preston Gannaway

The first year of any school is full of glitches and missteps, but what happened at Willie Brown seemed extreme. To learn more, I submitted a public records request to the district, seeking any and all documentation from the school’s planning phase and its first year. Among other things, I got notes from meetings conducted years earlier, as the district gathered ideas for Brown 2.0. It all sounded terrific: solar panels, sustainable materials, flatscreen televisions in the counseling room, gardens to “support future careers like organic urban farming.” Absent, though, was any effort to overcome some of the primary weaknesses in San Francisco public education: teacher and principal retention issues, and salaries dead last among the state’s 10 largest districts.

Eric Hanushek, a Stanford professor of economics who studies education, points out that among all the countless reforms tried over the years—smaller schools, smaller class sizes, beautiful new buildings—the one that correlates most reliably with good student outcomes is the presence of good teachers and principals who stick around. When Willie Brown opened, some teachers were making around $43,000 a year, which works out to about the same per month as the city’s average rent of about $3,400 for a one-­bedroom apartment. After a decade of service, a teacher can now earn about $77,000 a year, and that’s under a union contract. (By comparison, a midcareer teacher who moves 40 miles south, to the Mountain View Los Altos District, can make around $120,000 a year.)

The tech-driven population boom over the past 15 years has meant clogged freeways with such intractable traffic that moving to a more affordable town can burden a teacher with an hours-long commute. According to a 2016 San Francisco Chronicle investigation of 10 California school districts, “San Francisco Unified had the highest resignation rate.” That year, the article found, “368 teachers announced they would leave the district come summertime, the largest sum in more than a decade and nearly double the amount from five years ago.” Heading into the 2016–17 school year, the school district had 664 vacancies.

Proposition 13 takes a measure of blame for low teacher salaries, but San Francisco also allocates a curiously small percentage of its education budget to teacher salaries and other instructional expenses—43 percent, compared with 61 percent statewide, according to the Education Data Partnership. Gentle Blythe, chief communications officer for the SFUSD, points out that San Francisco is both a city and a county, and it is therefore burdened with administrative functions typically performed by county education departments. Blythe also says that well-­intentioned reforms such as smaller class sizes and smaller schools spread the budget among more teachers and maintenance workers. It is also true, however, that the district’s central-office salaries are among the state’s highest, as they should be given the cost of living in San Francisco. The superintendent makes $310,000 a year; the chief communications officer, about $154,000, according to the database Transparent California.

District records show that at least 10 full-time staff members of Brown’s original faculty earned less than $55,000 a year. The Transparent California database also shows that Principal Hobson earned $129,000, a $4,000 increase from his Chicago salary. That sounds generous until you consider that Chicago’s median home price is one-fourth that of San Francisco’s.

On Monday, May 15, at the blocklike concrete headquarters of the San Francisco Unified School District near City Hall and the opera house, I took a drab old elevator up to the third floor. Walking down a short hallway, I entered a tidy, small office and shook hands with Blythe and three other administrators: Joya Balk, a director of special projects who supervised planning for Brown; Tony Payne, the interim assistant superintendent for principals, who served as interim principal after Hobson quit; and Enikia Ford Morthel, the assistant superintendent for the Bayview. They all told me that the Brown disaster narrative was unfair and overblown.

Payne dismissed the notion that Brown saw unusual levels of violence. “No kids were seriously hurt,” he said. “So, you know, a kid throwing a pen in a classroom, that’s middle school.” He pointed to the fact that violence in predominantly African American schools is depicted differently than in predominantly white schools. “I saw worse behaviors at Presidio,” he said, referring to a middle school in a more affluent part of town where he was principal for three years. “A fight happens at Presidio, and the narrative is ‘Oh, how do we help that student? What’s going on with that student?’ A fight happens at Willie Brown: ‘Oh, that’s because it’s a terrible school.’ ”

Payne struck a similar note on the teachers leaving Brown. “Looking back,” he said, “you could easily say, you know, of course we’re going to lose teachers the first year. Right? This is hard work.”

In Payne’s view, Brown was a “super-good-faith effort to build a state-of-the-art school that is still ongoing. The startup metaphor is a really good one,” he said, “where you have to iterate. You can’t expect everything to run perfectly on the first day. And I think, you know, that process of storming and norming and developing a community is going to be challenging under the best of circumstances.”

To be sure, Brown was the most ambitious new-school launch ever undertaken by the district, and is still populated by children and teachers who deserve encouragement and every chance to succeed. The allure of the startup metaphor is likewise understandable—except tech startups are launched by entrepreneurs backed by investors who understand the risks they are taking, while Brown was started by government employees with little personal stake in the outcome.

Those government employees, says Hanushek, the Stanford economist, “are not idiots, and they’re not against kids. It’s just that when push comes to shove, the interest of the kids isn’t ahead of the interests of the institutions.”

Hanushek suggests another reason for bureaucrats’ temptation to believe that their innovations will make a difference: Unable to solve deep systemic problems like improving teacher salaries, those tasked with improving specific schools do what they can and hope for the best.

Something similar might be said about the philanthropic efforts of local CEOs. Salesforce’s Benioff recently gave $250,000 to support the June effort to levy a parcel tax to raise teacher salaries. His charities also give an impressive $100,000 each year to every middle school principal in San Francisco—for them to use as they wish—as part of what he calls a Principals Innovation Fund. Partly thanks to Benioff’s fund, all of San Francisco’s middle schoolers now have access to computer science courses.

But a lot of philanthropic efforts have focused on gifts that generate good press while mostly avoiding the diseased elephant lumbering around the room: Critically low school funding combined with the Bay Area’s tech-money boom have made living in San Francisco untenable for teachers.

Even some uses of Benioff’s Innovation Fund can feel less on point in the face of high teacher turnover—like a teachers’ lounge that looks like a cool coffee shop or student work tables that fit together like puzzle pieces to “look like Google and Facebook and Salesforce,” as one school principal told a reporter.

The Sara and Evan Williams Foundation paid design company Ideo and the school district to collaborate on a sweeping redesign of the school lunch experience, including, according to a foundation spokesperson, “a minor investment in technology to support the rollout of vending machines and mobile carts.” The foundation also donated to a district-­wide initiative that targeted students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The spokesperson told me via email that the foundation did consider “all aspects of the public school system, including low teacher salaries. We’ve chosen to focus on the connection between hungry kids and learning because it reaches the most vulnerable students. When addressing a system, there are many points for intervention and no one funder can take on the entire entity.” (She also clarified that the organization’s contribution to Willie Brown was dramatically lower than the district claimed—$48,000, not $400,000.) None of the foundations that donated money to Brown would discuss what went wrong at the school. Neither Salesforce nor the Williams Foundation made anyone available for an interview.

A staffer walks the halls with a student in September.

Preston Gannaway

In the end, we sent our younger daughter back to private school—because Landake and Green told me not to send her to Brown and our efforts to place her in a different public school failed. Our private school discount was gone, and the cost was painful, but I was grateful to have the option. Still, I hated the way it felt. Our older daughter is getting a great education at a public high school, all public schools need community support, and I could not convince myself that I’d made the right decision. It is entirely possible that our daughter could have thrived at Brown.

Last August, as the school year began, I set up another meeting to take a look at the school. I drove there one morning and found the principal—the school’s fourth in two years—greeting kids outside. His name was Charleston Brown, and he seemed terrific. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, a Division 1 football player at Alcorn State in Mississippi, he was charming with a gentle humility. Kids got out of their parents’ cars and shook Brown’s hand as they walked onto campus. He led me on a tour, accompanied by Blythe and Ford Morthel.

“The headache of being a new school, even three years in,” Brown said, “is that you have to build the traditions, build the culture.” He had implemented college T-shirt Thursdays and school T-shirt Fridays. He walked me down hallways newly decorated—by Principal Brown himself—with college pennants. We stopped to observe a sunny science classroom where students sat quietly at desks and paid attention while the teacher handed out a worksheet with the questions “What does it mean to be ‘On task’?” and “Why is it important to be ‘On task’?” Next, Brown took me to see a robotics elective in another sunny room, where a dynamic teacher named James Robertson zigzagged among tables while bright-eyed kids diligently built little machines.

It all felt promising. Test scores from Brown’s second year, the most recent available, did find the student body losing ground: The portion of Brown students testing at or above grade level in English fell about five points, to 21 percent; in math, about three points to near 10 percent. It is too early to expect Brown’s scores to rise, but those numbers doubtless played a role in depressing enrollment—with only 111 kids in the incoming sixth grade, and 382 overall, Brown is currently about half full.

On the upside, the number of families ranking Brown as a first choice has begun to rise, and I’ve heard that many families are encouraged by the nascent community forming there. In fact, Robertson, who has been teaching at the school from the start, told me a hopeful story: “I have kids who stay after school for hours, and I knew parents would have no idea what their kids were doing if they didn’t see it. So we had a robotics night, and they gave presentations, and they programmed in C++ and set up all the sensors. The kids know 12 different mechanical systems of movement. They gave a formal presentation. I just watched parents crying.” He added, “Ultimately, building a beautiful building is great, but community is the heart and reality of a school. And that takes time to build.”

Principal Brown also struck me as a good leader. But I worried. The district’s salary for a principal with his experience starts near $100,000. It looks like the district’s strategy for turning around Brown 2.0 included paying Principal Number Four about $29,000 less per year than Principal Number One.

Brown lives in Fairfield—an hour’s drive to work without traffic. The salaries for principals in that town start around $114,000 a year. If the Fairfield–Suisun Unified School District offered him a job, he could hardly be blamed for taking it.


Daniel Duane is the author of six books; he’s at work on the next, about California.

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Boeing’s Proposed Hypersonic, Mach 5 Plane Is Really, Really Fast

Aviation enthusiasts yearning for ultra-fast, ultra-sleek intercontinental transportation—rather than 18-hour flights on stuffed-to-the gills widebody behemoths—might finally get their wish. At least, if the airplane concept Boeing unveiled this week becomes reality.

The company revealed renderings of its proposed hypersonic, passenger-carrying airliner Tuesday at the annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in Atlanta. Both visually and technologically, the airplane, which could be used for both military and commercial purposes, has much in common with an unmanned hypersonic surveillance and reconnaissance concept the company revealed in January.

Both share the general delta-wing configuration with dual rear fins, a streamlined fuselage, and a sharp nose. The craft would travel at up to Mach 5, enabling it to cross the Atlantic Ocean in just two hours and the Pacific in three. (A merely supersonic aircraft flying between Mach 1 and Mach 2 would take an hour or two longer.)

The plane is fast, but it could have been even faster. “We settled on Mach 5 version,” says Kevin Bowcutt, Boeing’s senior technical fellow and chief scientist of hypersonics, noting that exceeding Mach 5, or about 3,800 mph, requires far more advanced engines and materials. Plus, it’s not worth it. “This aircraft would allow you to fly across the ocean and back in one day, which is all most people would want. So why go past those boundaries and complicate it? The world’s just not big enough to go much faster than Mach 5.”

A Mach 5 aircraft can also be built more affordably than plane that goes Mach 6, 7, or 8 because it would use readily available titanium for its structure instead of materials like composite ceramics to manage the heat produced at higher speeds. Boeing’s current proposal would also use a relatively simple pairing of a jet engine and a ramjet, called a turboramjet, instead of less proven scramjet engines required for faster aircraft.

For this plane, the two engines would share the same air inlets, and the jet engines would operate up to Mach 2 or 3 before the inlets seal off the jet engine and divert air into the ramjets, which can handle faster airflow. The famed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft used such a system in the 1960s, as have multiple missiles and experimental aircraft. Boeing is collaborating with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems on the engine technology.

Though Boeing hasn’t decided the final dimensions, the airplane (which doesn’t have a name yet) would be larger than a business jet but smaller than a 737, Bowcutt says, so presumably seating between, say, 20 and 100 passengers. It would cruise at 95,000 feet, which is 30,000 feet higher than the supersonic Concorde flew, and a full 60,000 feet higher than the average airliner. That altitude maximizes the efficiency of the engines and keeps turbulence to a minimum, since the air density is so much lower that far up in the air.

The G-force feeling upon takeoff would last a full 12 minutes as the plane accelerated to cruising speed (on a conventional craft the feeling lasts just a few seconds) but the cruising-altitude experience should be serene, with stunning views featuring the earth’s curvature at the horizon and the blackness of space above. “Other than that you would also weigh a bit less,” Bowcutt says. “At that altitude you’ll be a few pounds lighter than on the ground.”

Boeing says a production aircraft with these capabilities—including autonomous piloting, as that technology continues to evolve—could be ready in 20 to 30 years, though a prototype could be ready in as soon as 5 or 10. A lot will have to go right for the effort to succeed, and such an aircraft would need to arrive with substantial proof of reasonable cost, safety, and efficiency in order for airlines and the military to want to actually fly it.

This concept does, however, have advantages over other long range, high speed transportation visions, most notably the proposed next generation of supersonic jets. Those airplanes actually only go a bit faster than commercial aircraft—even though they break the sound barrier in the process. (The speed of sound at 35,000 feet is 660 mph; the average jetliner cruises at 575 mph at the same altitude; the fastest currently proposed supersonic jet would travel at Mach 2.2 at 50,000 feet, or 1,450 mph, and the rest hover around Mach 1 or 1.2.) They also tend to be smaller, which means they may not be able to carry much fuel and thus may have shorter ranges than airlines might like.

Hypersonic jets could also stack up favorably against vehicles in the other end of the spectrum: suborbital rockets. Both SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson have indicated that they want to adapt their rockets for global flights, reaching from New York to Sydney, for instance, in just an hour.

Though rocket-powered spaceships are certainly exciting, Bowcutt thinks that air-breathing vehicles—meaning, those that ingest oxygen from the atmosphere for combustion rather than carrying it along with them in liquid form—have much greater potential. Rockets will never be as reliable as airplanes, for one thing, and they are scary and uncomfortable. “The overall safety risk is much higher in a rocket while the passenger comfort level is much lower.”

Indeed, rocket re-entries into the atmosphere are notoriously brutal experiences, given that the vehicles have to use steep descent angles and blunt shaping, as opposed to the sleek pointy-nose look of a hypersonic jet, to generate enough drag to slow down enough for landing. But a hypersonic aircraft will be so smooth and fast during all phases of flight that it could effectively glide unpowered for the final 500 miles of each trip. It might take a bit longer—and you won’t be able to float around the cabin while in space—but you also won’t be throwing up on the way back down.


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New Zealand's Z Energy flags possible data breach in online card system

(Reuters) – New Zealand-based fuel supplier Z Energy Ltd on Wednesday said it has been presented with evidence that customer data from its Z Card Online database was accessed by a third party in November 2017.

The database held customer data such as names, addresses, registration numbers, vehicle types and credit limits with the company, Z Energy said in a statement. The data accessed did not include bank details, pin numbers or information that would put customer finances directly at risk, it said.

Z Energy did not specify the extent to which its customer data had been compromised.

The company said it had notified affected customers and advised the Privacy Commissioner of the breach. It said the system in question had been closed since December 2017.

The Z Card allows customers to manage fuel accounts online, and is used primarily by companies with vehicle fleets.

Z Energy said it had been made aware of a potential vulnerability in the system in November, but had not found evidence of any data breaches at that time.

Z Energy operates in both New Zealand and Australia. New laws in Australia requiring companies to report data breaches took effect in late-February this year.

Reporting by Ambar Warrick in Bengaluru

How ARM Is Using Artificial Intelligence To Supercharge Its Patents

Enough paperwork already: Masayoshi Son of SoftBank and Stuart Chambers of ARM Holdings didn’t have to trawl through thousands of documents to clarify each others intellectual property, thanks to a clever AI tool. (Photo credit should read NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP/Getty Images)

Something strange happened when Softbank bought the powerful chip designer ARM for $32 billion in July 2016.

When it came to doing the due diligence on ARM’s patents, the usually long-and-labourious process that can last for weeks on end, sped through in just a couple of days.  The reason was software powered by artificial intelligence that could read documents at light speed, compared to humans. 

Both Softbank and the law firm Slaughter & May, which represented ARM during the deal, used the same AI-based tool to trawl through both ARM’s and Softbank’s patent portfolios.

The searches, which would have taken weeks and cost thousands of dollars with human lawyers, took just a few seconds, says Nigel Swycher, whose startup Aistemos built the patent-trawling tool. London-based Aistemos says it has just raised £3 million (about $4 million) from investors including Beringea Capital. 

Increasingly, companies like ARM and aerospace firm BAE Systems are using such software not just to skimp on patent-lawyer fees, or to keep a watchful eye on the competition, but to also look for a broader range of acquisition targets and even scout for licensing opportunities. 

Recently, a digital-money firm used Aistemos to find out who owned a patent in the area of ATM cash transfers. When the firm consulted Swycher’s team, it was surprised to find it was the one company holding such patents. “Lots of people own patents they don’t know about,” says Swycher. 

Swycher, 56, argues that AI-powered software which can read and analyze thousands of pages of technical information in seconds can dispel much of the confusion around what types of patents exist.

Over time, that could also crack open a trillion-dollar global marketplace that’s been manned primarily by patent lawyers till now, making it accessible to insurers, engineers and marketing experts. 

A recent report commissioned by his startup suggests corporate executives believe licensing opportunities would increase by 6%, if information about patent ownership was more readily available. 

Image via Aistemos

An example of a Cipher report on autonomous vehicle technology.

Swycher lauched his Cipher tool in 2016 after 25 years as a partner at Slaughter & May, a leading law firm for patent litigation, where he helped companies do their patent-due diligence before making acquisitions. He recalls “a lifetime of scars” from chugging coffee in meeting rooms till 3am, while trawling through thousands of sheets of paper. 

Manually going through the documents in so-called data rooms (or rooms filled to the brim with patent documentation) was costly and sometimes in vain. Swycher recalls working on a billion-dollar deal, and executives asking his team on Day 60 of deal talks if the company being acquired actually owned the technology that was core to its business. 

To answer that question, a team of five people spent two weeks reading through patent documentation and writing reports, at a cost of around $65,000. When it finally got to Day 90 of deal talks, they had devastating results: there were four other patent holders of the same core technology, and one had an exclusive license in China.

The deal was effectively scuppered, but not after tens of thousands of dollars had been spent on advisory fees.

The process was typical, and practically Dickensian, Swycher says. “My customers were people doing M&A, licensing, managing risk, and I got increasingly frustrated that the information we needed to do deals wasn’t there.”

Since launching Cipher in 2014, Swycher’s Aistemos has sold subscriptions costing between $50,000 and $100,000-a-year to around 50 corporate customers, including ABB, Ocado and BAE Systems. The tool, which is browser-based like FactSet, only answers one question, says Swycher, which is “Who is doing what?”

The human equivalent of a single search on Cipher costs $10,000 and takes two weeks. “Our average user does 250 searches a year,” he says, suggesting the service becomes cost effective after about half-a-dozen uses.    

“Intellectual property is having something of a revival,” had adds. “Despite being an asset class that existed for 300 years, it has only recently become important for so many companies… Everyday somebody’s filing for a new one, and they need to see what’s already taken.” 

WPA3 Wi-Fi Security Will Save You From Yourself

There are more Wi-Fi devices in active use around the world—roughly 9 billion—than there are human beings. That ubiquity makes protecting Wi-Fi from hackers one of the most important tasks in cybersecurity. Which is why the arrival of next-generation wireless security protocol WPA3 deserves your attention: Not only is it going to keep Wi-Fi connections safer, but also it will help save you from your own security shortcomings.

It’ll take time before you can enjoy the full benefits of WPA3; the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group that oversees the standard, is releasing full details today but doesn’t expect broad implementation until late 2019 at the earliest. In the course that WPA3 charts for Wi-Fi, though, security experts see critical, long-overdue improvements to a technology you use more than almost any other.

“If you ask virtually any security person, they’ll say don’t use Wi-Fi, or if you do, immediately throw a VPN connection on top of it,” says Bob Rudis, chief data officer at security firm Rapid 7. “Now, Wi-Fi becomes something where we can say hey, if the place you’re going to uses WPA3 and your device uses WPA3, you can pretty much use Wi-Fi in that location.”

Password Protections

Start with how WPA3 will protect you at home. Specifically, it’ll mitigate the damage that might stem from your lazy passwords.

A fundamental weakness of WPA2, the current wireless security protocol that dates back to 2004, is that it lets hackers deploy a so-called offline dictionary attack to guess your password. An attacker can take as many shots as they want at guessing your credentials without being on the same network, cycling through the entire dictionary—and beyond—in relatively short order.

“Let’s say that I’m trying to communicate with somebody, and you want to be able to eavesdrop on what we’re saying. In an offline attack, you can either passively stand there and capture an exchange, or maybe interact with me once. And then you can leave, you can go somewhere else, you can spin up a bunch of cloud computing services and you can try a brute-force dictionary attack without ever interacting with me again, until you figure out my password,” says Kevin Robinson, a Wi-Fi Alliance executive.

This kind of attack does have limitations. “If you pick a password that’s 16 characters or 30 characters in length, there’s just no way, we’re just not going to crack it,” says Joshua Wright, a senior technical analyst with information security company Counter Hack. Chances are, though, you didn’t pick that kind of password. “The problem is really consumers who don’t know better, where their home password is their first initial and the name of their favorite car.”

If that sounds familiar, please change your password immediately. In the meantime, WPA3 will protect against dictionary attacks by implementing a new key exchange protocol. WPA2 used an imperfect four-way handshake between clients and access points to enable encrypted connections; it’s what was behind the notorious KRACK vulnerability that impacted basically ever connected device. WPA3 will ditch that in favor of the more secure—and widely vetted—Simultaneous Authentication of Equals handshake.

There are plenty of technical differences, but the upshot for you is twofold. First, those dictionary attacks? They’re essentially done. “In this new scenario, every single time that you want to take a guess at the password, to try to get into the conversation, you have to interact with me,” says Robinson. “You get one guess each time.” Which means that even if you use your pet’s name as your Wi-Fi password, hackers will be much less likely to take the time to crack it.

The other benefit comes in the event that your password gets compromised nonetheless. With this new handshake, WPA3 supports forward secrecy, meaning that any traffic that came across your transom before an outsider gained access will remain encrypted. With WPA2, they can decrypt old traffic as well.

Safer Connections

When WPA2 came along in 2004, the Internet of Things had not yet become anything close to the all-consuming security horror that is its present-day hallmark. No wonder, then, that WPA2 offered no streamlined way to safely onboard these devices to an existing Wi-Fi network. And in fact, the predominant method by which that process happens today—Wi-Fi Protected Setup—has had known vulnerabilities since 2011. WPA3 provides a fix.

Wi-Fi Easy Connect, as the Wi-Fi Alliance calls it, makes it easier to get wireless devices that have no (or limited) screen or input mechanism onto your network. When enabled, you’ll simply use your smartphone to scan a QR code on your router, then scan a QR code on your printer or speaker or other IoT device, and you’re set—they’re securely connected. With the QR code method, you’re using public key-based encryption to onboard devices that currently largely lack a simple, secure method to do so.

“Right now it’s really hard to deploy IoT things fairly securely. The reality is they have no screen, they have no display,” says Rudis. Wi-Fi Easy Connect obviates that issue. “With WPA3, it’s automatically connecting to a secure, closed network. And it’s going to have the ability to lock in those credentials so that it’s a lot easier to get a lot more IoT devices rolled out in a secure manner.”

Here again, Wi-Fi Easy Connect’s neatest trick is in its ease of use. It’s not just safe; it’s impossible to screw up.

That trend plays out also with Wi-Fi Enhanced Open, which the Wi-Fi Alliance detailed a few weeks before. You’ve probably heard that you should avoid doing any sensitive browsing or data entry on public Wi-Fi networks. That’s because with WPA2, anyone on the same public network as you can observe your activity, and target you with intrusions like man-in-the-middle attacks or traffic sniffing. On WPA3? Not so much. When you log onto a coffee shop’s WPA3 Wi-Fi with a WPA3 device, your connection will automatically be encrypted without the need for additional credentials. It does so using an established standard called Opportunistic Wireless Encryption.

“By default, WPA3 is going to be fully encrypted from the minute that you begin to do anything with regards to getting on the wireless network,” according to Rudis. “That’s fundamentally huge.”

As with the password protections, WPA3’s expanded encryption for public networks also keeps Wi-Fi users safe from a vulnerability they may not realize exists in the first place. In fact, if anything it might make Wi-Fi users feel too secure.

“The heart is in the right place, but it doesn’t stop the attack,” says Wright. “It’s a partial solution. My concern is that consumers think they have this automatic encryption mechanism because of WPA3, but it’s not guaranteed. An attacker can impersonate the access point, and then turn that feature off.”

Switching On

Even with the added technical details, talking about WPA3 feels almost still premature. While major manufacturers like Qualcomm already have committed to its implementation as early as this summer, to take full advantage of WPA3’s many upgrades, the entire ecosystem needs to embrace it.

That’ll happen in time, just as it did with WPA2. And the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Robinson says that backward interoperability with WPA2 will ensure that some added security benefits will be available as soon as the devices themselves are. “Even at the very beginning, when a user has a mix of device capabilities, if they get a network with WPA3 in it, they can immediately turn on a transitional mode. Any of their WPA3-capable devices will get the benefits of WPA3, and the legacy WPA2 devices can continue to connect,” Robinson says.

Lurking inside that assurance, though, is the reality that WPA3 will come at a literal cost. “The gotcha is that everyone’s got to buy a new everything,” says Rudis. “But at least it’s setting the framework for a much more secure setup than what we’ve got now.”

Just as importantly, that framework mostly relies on solutions that security researchers already have had a chance to poke and prod for holes. That hasn’t always been the case.

“Five years ago the Wi-Fi Alliance was creating its own protocols in secrecy, not disclosing the details, and then it turns out some of them have problems,” says Wright. “Now, they’re more adopting known and tested and vetted protocols that we have a lot more confidence in, and they’re not trying to hide the details of the system.”

Which makes sense. When you’re securing one of the most widely used technologies on Earth, you don’t want to leave anything to chance.


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'Westworld' Recap, Season 2 Episode 10: What *Is* Real?

“What is real?” Dolores asks Arnold, in a flashback, at the beginning of Westworld‘s second season. He responds: “That which is real is irreplaceable.”

Season 2 of the HBO series has played with the nature of reality as if it were a feather dangled before our paws. Is this person real? What about this world—where do the simulations, parks, and memories end, giving way to something more fundamental? In the show, one mysterious place holds the answers to some of the more pressing questions of reality (and replaceability): The Forge. Teased throughout the season with a variety of names, including The Valley Beyond, The Door, and in Dolores’ words, “a weapon,” it is the magnet drawing Westworld‘s various characters and plot lines together at last.

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The Forge, viewers know now, is yet another underground Delos facility, but its computers hold essential information for hosts and humans alike. First, it is the repository of all the guest data, Delos Inc.’s most precious intellectual property. That data is not just stashed away as inert ones and zeroes. Rather, The Forge’s servers contain a simulation world in which Delos Inc. was able to finally crack its immortality project, reducing every guest to about 10,000 lines of code that capture each person completely. Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), corporate shill that she is, wants to rescue that data for Delos’ financial gain. For Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the information offers a competitive edge. By browsing the code of millions of people, she can more quickly understand the essence of humans and then outwit them.

Delos must have gotten a sweet deal on supercomputers when it built this facility, because there’s no other good reason for Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) to have included in it yet another computationally intensive feature: a gateway to one more simulation world, this one a final happy hunting ground for the hosts. To reach this surrogate heaven, the hosts must transmit their minds to Forge computers and leave their physical bodies behind.

The season finale begins with the show’s main characters converging on that enigmatic underground building. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) makes his first appearance where he left off in the preceding episode, in the middle of a field, where he is fishing around in the flesh of his forearm in search of metal. In his obsessive state, he fails to notice as Dolores rides up on horseback. With Teddy (James Marsden) gone she needs some muscle for her journey to The Forge, so she decides to enlist the most diabolical guy she knows.

One of this season’s enduring mysteries has been what motivates the Man in Black. Episode after episode, he has seemed bent on his own destruction, yet he has evaded his own death time and again. Now his mission comes into focus at last. In this world he has built, self-destruction is not so simple. His quest is to end himself completely—no backups, no copies, no endless entrapment in Delos’ servers. He needs to enter The Forge to delete his own data. He wants to die for real.

Upon arriving at the door to The Forge, the Man in Black and Dolores encounter Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Having gotten what he needed out of Dolores—a guide—the Man in Black tries to kill her, but she is impervious to his bullets, and he ends up blowing off his own hand instead. That leaves Dolores and Bernard to enter the facility together.

She leads Bernard to a control room with two brain scanners. Stepping into the scanners, they enter a simulation world—yet another incarnation of Westworld and its many people. As they wander through it, they come across simulated facets of the outside world, including Jim Delos’ palatial home. There, reclining on a lounger, they find that “the system” has adopted the form of Logan Delos (Ben Barnes).

Within the simulation, Logan leads them on a tour of Delos facilities, where the immortality experiment has been running at hyper speed. Subjects are kept in glass-walled rooms, and inside one of them, the Man in Black sits on a stool, under observation.

While the real-world immortality lab chugged through hundreds of trials, the simulation lab raced through millions. As Logan conducted trial after trial, trying to understand why humans make the decisions they do, he discovered a much simpler truth: human lives always seemed to follow the same paths. Free will is an illusion, because humans never stray far from their programming. The Man in Black was right to question whether he was in control of his actions—but the reason has nothing to do with whether his body has a USB port.

Logan leads Dolores and Bernard to a beautiful library, where shelves are filled with books. Each tome contains a single person’s code, written in the format a player piano could read. Dolores scans the shelves, grabbing books at random. In Loganworld, they have succeeded in fully decoding humans.

Bernard and Dolores’ arrival has triggered Logan to open The Door: a portal to the hosts’ valhalla. Outside, in the physical park, the Ghost Nation is leading a long procession of hosts when they see a rift in the fabric of reality appear before them. Through that crack in their world, they glimpse a sun-dappled pasture.

At first with hesitation, then with increasing confidence, the hosts start leaping through The Door. Their Westworld bodies topple off a cliff while their new selves gather in a simulated field, their faces full of joy.

But this is Westworld, where no good thing can last. Charlotte Hale catches up to the Ghost Nation’s host parade, and sends Clem (Angela Sarafyan), who has been infected with toxic code, riding on horseback through its ranks. Using the host mesh network, Clem poisons their minds as she approaches them, pitting them against each other before they can reach The Door. In the ensuing bloodbath, Maeve dies. (But we’ll probably see her again—her body gets salvaged by her two lab tech stooges, Felix and Sylvester.)

Meanwhile, inside Loganworld, Dolores declares she’s read enough books to get humanity’s gist, and exits the brain scanner. Out in Westworld, The Door slams shut. Back in the facility’s control room, Dolores tells Bernard she’s not interested in being put out to digital pasture—she wants the real world and nothing less. She repeats back to Bernard the words Arnold had said to her many years earlier: That which is real is irreplaceable.

She then sets out to destroy The Forge, by erasing the guests’ data and triggering a flood. The destruction of The Forge would mean the obliteration of host heaven. Bernard, increasingly alarmed, kills Dolores with a shot to the head. He cancels the data deletion, but stopping the flood is beyond his means because Dolores had punched that particular computer. If a broken touchscreen is annoying now, just wait for the day when it means the end of your species.

Bernard returns to the Mesa Hub, where he sees Charlotte murder Elsie (Shannon Woodward). His horror compounding, he has a change of heart. Maybe the hosts deserve to live on in the real world, after all. But without Dolores, what chance do they have?

In the recesses of his mind, Bernard discovers a welcome bit of news: at some earlier point in time, he’d built another superhost! Who better to model it after than Delos’ most powerful figure, Charlotte. In this perverse twist, Charlotte’s most useful asset is her body, a figure that is trusted among humans. How amazing would it be to take Charlotte’s body and insert Dolores’ brain orb into it. What an unstoppable phenom!

Robo-Dolores-Charlotte kills off real Charlotte. Bernard leads her and other corporate nobodies to The Forge, where she can finally transmit the guest data out of the park. Dolores-Charlotte isn’t happy that Bernard killed her, but she sees the upsides of her new situation, because escaping from the park will be a whole lot easier in the body of the boss. This time she decides the hosts should be allowed to keep their idyllic simulation. She adds Teddy to it and fires up the transmitter. She beams the host data to somewhere far away, beyond humans’ reach. Perhaps the hosts are now out in space. (Here’s hoping Robert Ford thought to launch a receiver for all that data.)

Then Dolores-Charlotte skips off in a rescue boat with a purse full of brain orbs. Out in the real world, she moves into Arnold’s old house (and no one’s suspicious?), which has been outfitted with handy host-printing machinery. She builds herself a new body. She builds herself a new Bernard. There they are: Charlotte-Dolores, Dolores-Dolores, and Bernard, ready to infiltrate human civilization and, perhaps, destroy it. Season 3 has plenty of material to work with.

Seemingly forgotten as the credits roll is the Man in Black, who during the episode eventually rouses himself and staggers into The Forge. The rest of his story gets relegated to a spooky epilogue, which shows him in that facility at some much later moment. Still one-handed and looking haggard, he wanders into the area near the control room, which is now covered in sand. A woman emerges from the shadows: Emily. (Or robo-Emily. Or who even knows.) She (Katja Herbers) leads him to robo-Jim Delos’ experimental apartment. (Or a copy of it. Or a simulation of it. Or some other more-or-less “real” version of it.) The Man in Black seems disoriented. He doesn’t know how long he’s been there. She sits him down and goes through an interview, testing him for fidelity.

The Man in Black had realized too late that the immortality project was a mistake. Eternal existence is a curse, stripping life of its meaning and turning people into monsters. His daughter, tormented by her mother’s death and intent on making her father suffer, had entered the park with the goal of thwarting the Man in Black’s attempt to die.

Season 2 ends with her seemingly immersed in endless vengeance. The Man in Black appears to be in an inescapable hell, running through a loop of trying and failing to kill himself. Is that what’s actually happening? Who knows! Because if there’s one thing Westworld won’t give us, it’s a clear answer on what is “real.”

When, in the season’s premiere episode, Arnold tells Dolores “That which is real is irreplaceable,” she at first responds with silence. He quizzes her, asking her why she seems dissatisfied with his answer. “Because it’s not completely honest,” she says. This season ends not with the people we knew of as Dolores, Bernard, and the Man in Black, but with their replacements. Next season, how they interact with the world outside—and how it responds to them—will be an essential proving ground for that elusive, bedeviling thing: reality.


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