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It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel
January 27, 2019 12:30 pm|Comments (0)

In 1961, a college student named David Myers traveled from Washington, DC, to the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Florida to take part in a new experiment. “I had a very limited understanding of what I was getting myself into,” Myers told me recently over email. “So I was extremely curious and mildly excited that first day.”

Myers was one of 11 men specifically recruited by Dr. Ashton Graybiel to help test the feasibility of human spaceflight, at a time when nobody knew whether the human body could withstand a trip beyond our atmosphere. For nearly a decade, the US Navy put 11 eleven men through countless tests. Four of the men spent 12 straight days inside a 20-foot room that rotated constantly. In another experiment, they were sent out to notoriously rough seas off the coast of Nova Scotia. On the boat, the men played cards while the researchers were so overcome with seasickness that they had to cancel the test and go home. Others were sent up in the so-called “Vomit Comet,” an aircraft designed to simulate zero gravity. That’s the test Myers is still most fond of. “This free floating was a fascinating experience,” he says. “No other tests came close as my favorites.” But Myers and the other men would never go to space. In fact, they would never be allowed. They were recruited for these tests for the exact reason they would never pass the NASA astronaut qualification exams: All 11 men were deaf.

Rose Eveleth is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the creator and host of Flash Forward, a podcast about possible (and not so possible) futures.

Now known as the Gallaudet Eleven, Myers and his colleagues were recruited from Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), a school for d/Deaf students. (“Big D” Deaf refers to Deaf culture and community, while “small d” deaf refers to people who don’t identify with that community.) Ten out of the 11 men had become deaf because of spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid in the spinal cord. The infection ultimately damaged each man’s inner ear, including their vestibular system, which also happens to be the system that is mainly responsible for motion sickness. This made the men perfect test subjects for a space program that was trying to understand what might happen to people in places where the inner ear can’t sense up and down. “Through their endurance and dedication, the work of the Gallaudet Eleven made substantial contributions to the understanding of motion sickness and adaptation to spaceflight,” wrote Hannah Hotovy of the NASA History Division. Harry Larson, another one of the Gallaudet Eleven, put it this way: “We were different in a way they needed.”

It’s no secret that it’s incredibly difficult to become an astronaut. NASA’s selection process is notoriously rigorous—strict enough that it was the most plausible kind of place to set the movie Gattaca, where only the perfectly genetically engineered get to board rockets bound for space. Writer Tom Wolfe documented the space program’s strenuous astronaut training program in his book The Right Stuff.

The assumption has long been that this training is a necessity—traveling to space is a mentally and physically grueling endeavor. We need the strongest, smartest, most adaptable among us to go. But strength comes in many forms, as do smarts. And if you want to find people who are the very best at adapting to worlds not suited for them, you’ll have the best luck looking at people with disabilities, who navigate such a world every single day. Which has led disability advocates to raise the question: What actually is the right stuff?

“Crip bodies were built for space travel. Crip minds already push the outer limits,” Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, tweeted last year. “We already master usage of breathing apparatuses and can handle challenging situations.” Wong went on to coedit an issue of the literary magazine Deaf Poets Society called “Crips in Space” with writer and performer Sam de Leve.

Take, for example, people who use ostomy bags. Right now, pooping in space is actually an important technical challenge. During takeoff, landing, and spacewalks, astronauts wear diapers. While in the space station, they use a toilet that requires a fair amount of precision and training to use. Astronauts have told all kinds of stories about rogue poop, or situations in which the toilet has backed up or generally gone awry. In 2008, NASA spent $ 19 million on a Russian toilet for the International Space Station. None of this would be an issue for an astronaut with an ostomy bag. “I could plug into the wall and just empty the container that’s been collecting,” says Mallory K. Nelson, a disability design specialist who uses an ileostomy bag—a pouch that connects to her intestine and collects waste. “I’ve moved the output location of poop, which creates a lot more flexibility in the kind of systems I can have. I could attach it to a space suit.”

Or consider movement in space. You’ve certainly seen videos of astronauts zipping around the space station using their arms and legs to push off surfaces and direct their motion. This is a type of movement that people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids are already familiar with. In fact, the various devices and ways of moving the body in space are likely more familiar to people with disabilities than to able-bodied people. “We move our bodies in so many different ways, and the disabled community has an exuberant amount of options,” says Nelson, who is an amputee and who has used crutches, a wheelchair, a scooter, and a prosthetic to get around. Nelson even coined a term for this recently: transmobility, the idea that there are lots of ways to get around besides putting one foot in front of the other.

Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. “I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,” Nelson says.

Or take blind astronauts. In a piece for Scientific American, Sheri Wells-Jensen lays out the case for designing spaceships for blind space travelers:

“After all, in a serious accident, the first thing to go might be the lights! This generally means that the first thing a sighted astronaut must do for security is ensure visual access to the environment. He hunts for a flashlight, and if emergency lighting comes on, his eyes take a moment to adjust. Meanwhile, the blind astronaut is already heading toward the source of the problem. In the fire aboard the Russian Mir space station, in 1997, the crew struggled as smoke obscured their view. The blind astronaut, while still affected by the lack of good air, would not be bothered by either dim lighting or occluding smoke. She would accurately direct the fire extinguisher at the source of heat and noise.”

In the Mir fire that Wells-Jensen mentions, one of the problems that arose was the sighted astronauts’ inability to locate the fire extinguisher through the smoke. Had the ship been laid out with a blind participant in mind, there would have been a nonvisual signal already built in to such a critical piece of equipment.

Or consider d/Deaf astronauts once again. The Gallaudet Eleven were tapped for their immunity to motion sickness—John Glenn even reportedly said he was envious of their ability to withstand the tests without getting sick—but there are other reasons why bringing a d/Deaf astronaut along could be useful. “Studies have shown that using sign languages confers cognitive advantages in one’s visual working memory, enhancing how we see, remember, and manipulate objects in our mind,” says Joseph Murray, a professor at Gallaudet University and the scholar behind the term Deaf Gain, the idea that deafness should not be considered a loss of something but, rather, a gain of a whole host of other things. “The challenge Deaf Gain offers for NASA and all workplaces is to rethink their automatic assumptions about deaf people’s capabilities,” Murray says. “If there is a mission need for people with advanced spatial processing skills who do not get motion sick, then there are quite a few deaf people ready and willing to serve.”

And it’s not just on a trip to space that people with disabilities might have an advantage. Take a situation in which astronauts are going somewhere to settle: Able bodies might no longer behave the way we expect. “Humans have an environmental niche on Earth, like all other creatures do, and we exploit it in different ways,” says Ashley Shew, a professor at Virginia Tech. Mars, or even a space station, is nothing like that niche. “The conditions in which our bodies have grown up are so drastically different that our existence in space will be much more like being a disabled person on Earth than like being an abled person on Earth.” Who better to send than those who are used to navigating environments not built for them—those who experience that every day on Earth? “Disabled people will fare better in space because disabled people have learned to negotiate hostile situations in ways that able bodied people are completely unaware of,” Shew says. Wong agrees. “The way we communicate, function, and exist with our diverse bodyminds sets us up as ideal space explorers and ambassadors of Earth, ready to make first contact with sentient beings,” she told me.

Whether this will actually happen is hard to say. NASA didn’t respond to my request for comment on their astronaut selection policy (like all government agencies, NASA personnel are currently not working due to the government shutdown). Nor did Mars One or SpaceX. Online, Mars One has a whole page of qualifications for candidates for their proposed Mars mission, stating, “In general, normal medical and physiological health standards will be used” and disqualifying anybody without “normal range of motion and functionality in all joints,” anybody with less than 20/20 vision, and anybody who is deemed not “healthy.” NASA’s FAQ section says that “for maximum crew safety, each crewmember must be free of medical conditions that would either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, space flight, as determined by NASA physicians.”

Changing these requirements won’t be easy. Spacecraft are designed with certain assumptions about what kinds of bodies will be sitting in the seats and operating the controls. The opportunity to change those parameters is small and must be seized while ships are being designed, not down the road. Plus, many people with disabilities who might want to go to space can’t get access to the pipeline that delivers so many astronauts: “Astronauts come via the military and that’s a closed door for disabled individuals,” Myers says. “Those kinds of obstacles need to be removed for those individuals who are otherwise qualified.” And NASA itself has had no reason to rethink their stance, because no one has really pushed them to. Yet, that is.

But all that could change. In 2017, Johanna Lucht became the first Deaf engineer to work at NASA. Eddie Ndopu, a South African activist and humanitarian, has said he wants to be the first disabled person in space. He plans to book a flight on a commercial trip into space and deliver an address to the UN while he’s up there. (MTV is slated to film the entire thing.) Julia Velasquez, a Deaf woman from California, has gone through many of the steps traditionally taken by astronauts—she’s interned at NASA, recently received her pilot’s license, and even lived in a simulated Mars colony in Hawaii.

When I asked Myers if he ever wished he could have been an astronaut, he said, “Yes, absolutely. At one point I told Dr. Graybiel, ‘If you ever develop an experiment involving a flight into space, I want to be first in line.’” Myers likely won’t wind up in space in his lifetime. But he might live to see a disabled person make the journey, opening up space to a whole new set of uniquely qualified astronauts.


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Did Russia Affect the 2016 Election? It’s Now Undeniable
February 17, 2018 6:00 am|Comments (0)

For some time, there has been a conflation of issues—the hacking and leaking of illegally obtained information versus propaganda and disinformation; cyber-security issues and the hacking of elections systems versus information operations and information warfare; paid advertising versus coercive messaging or psychological operations—when discussing “Russian meddling” in the 2016 US elections. The refrain has become: “There is no evidence that Russian efforts changed any votes.”

But the bombshell 37-page indictment issued Friday by Robert Mueller against Russia’s Internet Research Agency and its leadership and affiliates provides considerable detail on the Russian information warfare targeting the American public during the elections. And this information makes it increasingly difficult to say that the Kremlin’s effort to impact the American mind did not succeed.

The indictment pulls the curtain back on four big questions that have swirled around the Russian influence operation, which, it turns out, began in 2014: What was the scope of the Russian effort? What kind of content did it rely on? Who or what was it targeting, and what did it aim to achieve? And finally, what impact did it have?

Most of the discussion of this to date has focused on ideas of political advertising and the reach of a handful of ads—and this discussion has been completely missed the point.

So let’s take these questions one at a time.

1. What was the scope of the Russian effort?

The Mueller indictment permanently demolishes the idea that the scale of the Russian campaign was not significant enough to have any impact on the American public. We are no longer talking about approximately $ 100,000 (paid in rubles, no less) of advertising grudgingly disclosed by Facebook, but tens of millions of dollars spent over several years to build a broad, sophisticated system that can influence American opinion.

The Russian efforts described in the indictment focused on establishing deep, authenticated, long-term identities for individuals and groups within specific communities. This was underlaid by the establishment of servers and VPNs based in the US to mask the location of the individuals involved. US-based email accounts linked to fake or stolen US identity documents (driver licenses, social security numbers, and more) were used to back the online identities. These identities were also used to launder payments through PayPal and cryptocurrency accounts. All of this deception was designed to make it appear that these activities were being carried out by Americans.

Additionally, the indictment mentions that the IRA had a department whose job was gaming algorithms. This is important because information warfare—the term used in the indictment itself—is not about “fake news” and “bots.” It is about creating an information environment and a narrative—specific storytelling vehicles used to achieve goals of subversion and activation, amplified and promoted through a variety of means.

2. What kind of content did it rely on?

As the indictment lays out in thorough detail, the content pumped out by the Russians was not paid or promoted ads; it was so-called native content—including video, visual, memetic, and text elements designed to push narrative themes, conspiracies, and character attacks. All of it was designed to look like it was coming from authentic American voices and interest groups. And the IRA wasn’t just guessing about what worked. They used data-driven targeting and analysis to assess how the content was received, and they used that information to refine their messages and make them more effective.

3. Who or what was the operation targeting, and what did it aim to achieve?

The indictment mentions that the Russian accounts were meant to embed with and emulate “radical” groups. The content was not designed to persuade people to change their views, but to harden those views. Confirmation bias is powerful and commonly employed in these kinds of psychological operations (a related Soviet concept is “reflexive control”—applying pressure in ways to elicit a specific, known response). The intention of these campaigns was to activate—or suppress—target groups. Not to change their views, but to change their behavior.

4. What impact did it have?

We’re only at the beginning of having an answer to this question because we’ve only just begun to ask some of the right questions. But Mueller’s indictment shows that Russian accounts and agents accomplished more than just stoking divisions and tensions with sloppy propaganda memes. The messaging was more sophisticated, and some Americans took action. For example, the indictment recounts a number of instances where events and demonstrations were organized by Russians posing as Americans on social media. These accounts aimed to get people to do specific things. And it turns out—some people did.

Changing or activating behavior in this way is difficult; it’s easier to create awareness of a narrative. Consistent exposure over a period of time has a complex impact on a person’s cognitive environment. If groups were activated, then certainly the narrative being pushed by the IRA penetrated people’s minds. And sure enough, The themes identified in the indictment were topics frequently raised during the election, and they were frequently echoed and promoted across social media and by conservative outlets. A key goal of these campaigns was “mainstreaming” an idea—moving it from the fringe to the mainstream and thus making it appear to be a more widely held than it actually is.

This points to another impact that can be extracted from the indictment: It is now much more difficult to separate what is “Russian” or “American” information architecture in the US information environment. This will make it far harder to assess where stories and narratives are coming from, whether they are real or propaganda, whether they represent the views of our neighbors or not.

This corrosive effect is real and significant. Which part of the fear of “sharia law in America” came from Russian accounts versus readers of InfoWars? How much did the Russian campaigns targeting black voters impact the low turnout, versus the character attacks run against Clinton by the Trump campaign itself? For now, all we can know is that there is shared narrative, and shared responsibility. But if, as the indictment says, Russian information warriors were instructed to support “Sanders and Trump,” and those two campaigns appeared to have the most aggressive and effective online outreach, what piece of that is us, and what is them?

Persuasion and influence via social media cannot be estimated in linear terms; it requires looking at network effects. It is about the impact of a complex media environment with many layers, inputs, voices, amplifiers, and personalities. All of these elements change over time and interact with each other.

So anyone trying to tell you there was little impact on political views from the tools the Russians used doesn’t know. Because none of us knows. No one has looked. Social media companies don’t want us to know, and they obfuscate and drag their feet rather than disclosing information. The analytical tools to quantify the impact don’t readily exist. But we know what we see, and what we heard—and the narratives pushed by the Russian information operation made it to all of our ears and eyes.

The groups and narratives identified in the indictment were integral parts of the frenzied election circus that built momentum, shaped perceptions, and activated a core base of support for now-President Trump—just as they helped disgust and dismay other groups, making them less likely to vote (or to vote for marginal candidates in protest).

In the indictment, Trump campaign officials are referred to as “unwitting” participants in Russian information warfare. This gives the White House an out—and a chance to finally act against what the Kremlin did. But the evidence presented in the indictment makes it increasingly hard to say Russian efforts to influence the American mind were a failure.


Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) is an expert on information warfare and the narrative architect at New Media Frontier. She advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15.

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Skype Has Disappeared From App Stores in China. It’s Not Clear Which Law It Broke
November 21, 2017 12:02 pm|Comments (0)

Microsoft’s Skype may still be functioning in China, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a way to download it in that country.

According to a New York Times report on Tuesday, Skype has been unavailable on Apple’s Chinese App Store and on various Android app repositories for almost a month now.

Apple (aapl) told the publication that it had been “notified by the Ministry of Public Security that a number of voice over internet protocol apps do not comply with local law,” so it had removed those apps in its Chinese store.

Android app stores run by local web giants such as Huawei and Xiaomi also don’t carry Skype anymore—Google (googl) doesn’t run its Play Store in the country because of local laws, so Android users have to turn to third-party services such as these for their app downloads.

Microsoft (msft) told the Times that Skype’s removal from Apple’s App Store was only temporary, and it was “working to reinstate the app as soon as possible.”

It’s not clear which law Skype is breaking. It doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption, though it might be that the Chinese authorities don’t like its encryption of messages in transit between people’s computing devices and Skype’s servers. It’s also possible that Skype is falling foul of a recently introduced Chinese rule that demands the use of verified real names on online platforms.

China has recently been particularly restrictive of online speech, due to the high-stakes Communist Party meeting that took place last month. However, Skype’s disappearance from the app stores seems to have taken place after that event.

Apple took flak from digital rights activists earlier this year when it removed from its Chinese App Store apps that could be used to bypass state censorship in the country.

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Chelsea Manning Is Using Social Media Like It’s the Good Ol’ Days
June 7, 2017 10:25 am|Comments (0)

After seven years in a military prison, Manning was free on May 17th. And over the last few days, her social media posts have been reminding us of the good old internet, before logging on meant bracing yourself for news of the next disaster.

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Hell Yeah It’s OK to Confront the Butt-Dialers in Your Life
April 14, 2017 10:35 pm|Comments (0)

Hell Yeah It’s OK to Confront the Butt-Dialers in Your Life

It’s time to stand up for your smartphone. The post Hell Yeah It’s OK to Confront the Butt-Dialers in Your Life appeared first on WIRED.
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Toby Kebbell Only Wants to Return as Doctor Doom If It’s In a Marvel Studios Movie
April 12, 2017 4:25 am|Comments (0)

Last week, we heard Hugh Jackman lament that he’d probably keep playing Wolverine if he could show up in an Avengers movie. Well, turns out he’s not the only actor who’s been in a Marvel Comics movie that wants in on the success of Marvel Studios—Fantastic Four’s own villain has joined the line.

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IT leaders say it’s hard to keep the cloud safe
February 16, 2017 2:05 pm|Comments (0)

IT managers are finding it difficult to keep their applications and data safe in the cloud, and many are slowing cloud adoption because of it.

That was one of the findings of an Intel cloud security report that surveyed 2,000 IT professionals in different countries and industries last fall.

The issue isn’t with the cloud itself, since trust outnumbers distrust for public clouds by more than two to one, according to Intel’s survey.

IT professionals told Intel that shadow IT and a shortage of cybersecurity skills are causing the most problems.

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New Two-Lensed Camera Shows What It’s Like to Ride on the Back of Whale
November 10, 2016 10:07 am|Comments (0)

Researchers from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station have developed a two-lensed camera that sticks to the backs of filter-feeding whales with suction cups. The new device has been used to capture unprecedented footage of whales in action, and it’s offering new insights into the feeding and swimming behaviors of these aquatic beasts.

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Sony Appears To Tell ‘No Man’s Sky’ Developer Sean Murray That It’s All His Fault
September 17, 2016 8:55 am|Comments (0)

Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida appears to place all of the blame for the PR disaster that followed the release of ‘No Man’s Sky’ on Hello Games’ developer Sean Murray.


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Affinity Photo was Apple’s 2015 App of the Year — and it’s headed to Windows
June 24, 2016 11:50 pm|Comments (0)


Affinity Photo is easily the closest thing to Photoshop that’s not made by Adobe. Until recently, it was also only available to Apple users. But, that all changed with a short teaser and a quick press release. Serif Ltd., announced that it was bringing the much-loved photo editing application to an entirely new operating system — Windows. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to use Affinity Photo, let me sing its praises for you: it’s lightweight, feature-packed, and offers nearly everything Adobe’s Photoshop does (and a few things it doesn’t) for all of $ 50. It’s also the proud recipient of an Apple…

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