Five of California’s 10 largest fires in modern history are all burning at once. Together, this year’s wildfires have already destroyed 4,200 buildings, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and scorched more than 3.2 million acres across the state.
That’s larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, and nearly half the area of Massachusetts. The latest blazes follow a string of particularly deadly and devastating fire seasons in California, and scientists say climate change will ensure even worse ones to come.
To anyone who lives here, or anyone who’s watching, the situation is maddening and seems utterly unsustainable. So what’s the solution?
There’s an overwhelming to-do list. But one of the clearest conclusions, as experts have been saying for years, is that California must begin to work with fires, not just fight them. That means reversing a century of US fire suppression policies and relying far more on deliberate, prescribed burns to clear out the vegetation that builds up into giant piles of fuel.
Such practices “don’t prevent wildfires,” says Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced focused on fire and land management. “But it breaks up the landscape, so that when wildfires do occur, they’re much less severe, they’re much smaller, and when they occur around communities, they’re much easier to control.”
Awaiting a spark
The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres across Idaho, Montana, and surrounding areas, killed nearly 90 people, destroyed several towns, and famously ushered in an era of zero tolerance for fires in the US. It and severe fires that followed prompted the US Forest Service to officially implement the “10 a.m. policy” in 1935, with a goal of containing any fire by that time the morning after it was spotted.
Decades of rushing to stamp out flames that naturally clear out small trees and undergrowth have had disastrous unintended consequences. This approach means that when fires do occur, there’s often far more fuel to burn, and it acts as a ladder, allowing the flames to climb into the crowns and take down otherwise resistant mature trees.
Meanwhile, temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns are becoming more extreme. Unusually wet winters promote the growth of trees and other plants, followed by dry, hot summers that draw the moisture out of them.
This creates a tinderbox when the gusty winds arrive in the fall: a vast buildup of dry fuel just awaiting a spark, whether from a lawnmower, downed power line, or lightning strike.
A century-long backlog of work
The problem now is the staggering scale of the work to clean this up.
As much as 20 million acres of federal, state, or private land across California needs “fuel reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire,” according to earlier assessments by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other state agencies. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 million acres of forests and trees, and six times the area that has burned so far this year.
This “treatment” can include prescribed burns set under controlled conditions—ideally, spaced out geographically and across the year to prevent overwhelming communities with smoke. It can also mean using saws and machines to cut and thin the forests. Another option is “managed wildfire,” which means monitoring fires but allowing them to burn when they don’t directly endanger people or property.
More than a century of deferred work, however, means it’s hard to get into places that need thinning. It’s also risky to do prescribed burns or allow natural fires to rage, since the fuels are so built up in many places, Westerling says.
A 2018 report by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, recommended cleaning out 1.1 million acres a year. That would still take two decades, and require a lot of workers and money. Prescribed burns on forest and park lands can cost more than $200 per acre, while thinning can easily top $1,000, depending on the terrain. So the total costs could range from hundreds of millions of dollars to well above a billion per year.
And without thinning and burning, the wildfires are only going to get worse.
If the goal is to burn up excess fuel, why not just let the wildfires rage? The problem is that runaway fires in overgrown forests don’t achieve the same results as controlled burns. These intense blazes can level vast stretches of the forest rather than simply clearing out the undergrowth and leaving the big trees standing, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. Instead of restoring the health of the forests, large, uncontrolled fires often transform them into shrub land, where vegetation grows quickly and severe fires can rapidly return.
Funding and accountability
The state isn’t doing anything close to the necessary amount of work today. Thinning and prescribed burns both generally cover around tens of thousands of acres per year, a tiny fraction of what the Little Hoover Commission recommended. In 2018, the state passed a law dedicating $1 billion over five years to wildfire prevention. Late last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a package of fire bills that included another $1 billion for preparedness and emergency response. That’s still not at the levels needed.
The good news is that California reached an agreement in August with the US Forest Service to boost these efforts, with a goal of treating a million acres per year for the next two decades. The work would be evenly split between the parties, even though the federal government owns 57% of California’s forests while state and local agencies only own 3%. (The remaining 40% is held by “families, Native American tribes, or companies.”)
The bad news is it’s a “memorandum of understanding,” not a binding law—and there’s no firm additional funding commitment.
The problem is that “these agencies have been saying things like this for the better part of five decades,” says Michael Wara, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and member of California’s Wildfire Commission. “The funding is key. As is a clear line of accountability if they don’t actually follow through.”
Prescribed burning faces other hurdles, including public concerns over smoke, safety, and wildlife; drawn-out environmental review processes; and conflicts with timber interests. The logging industry owns 14% of California’s forest land and makes money by removing the mature trees, not the kindling.
Setting far more fires will require sweeping regulatory reforms to streamline the approvals process. It will also likely necessitate the creation or appointment of a state agency singularly dedicated to fuel treatment, Wara says. Right now, burning and thinning efforts are managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which, he believes, will always prioritize the job that the public and politicians judge it on: containing the death and destruction from active fires.
“Fire season is always coming, and they’re always responsible for it,” Wara says. “I think we need a new agency whose sole mission is fire risk reduction.”
The fire next time
Kolden, of UC Merced, stresses that California will also need to prepare for the fires that will inevitably break out no matter what the state does.
“We need to look at the places that are most at risk for not just fires, but disastrous fires that destroy whole communities, and do the mitigation work that will save lives and reduce property destruction,” she says.
Among other things, that will require adopting stricter building codes for the materials used to build structures; trimming back trees; widening the space around structures; and retrofitting existing homes and buildings with fire-resistant features. Communities will also need better fire detection and notification systems, redundant evacuation routes, and more effective emergency response practices.
In the longer term, of course, we need to slow down climate change. That won’t lessen the current level of risk, but it could at least limit how much worse things get.
The number of days with extreme fire risk conditions across California could increase by more than 50% toward the end of the century under a scenario in which global emissions peak around 2050 and decline thereafter, according to one recent study. In the worst-case emissions scenario, that number could almost double in some regions, exceeding 15 days each fall.
As devastating as the fires have become, we’re still just at the early edge of climate change, says Diego Saez-Gil, chief executive of Pachama, a startup using AI and satellite data to help restore and protect forests.
“I do hope that the orange skies in San Francisco, and the fires and the floods and the hurricanes, are really wake-up calls,” he says. “Instead of denying or neglecting it, or whatever attitude we had in the past, it’s time we all get together and start working on this very seriously.”
He now knows the dangers firsthand. Five days after those lightning storms set California on fire, the flames reached his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains and burned it to ashes.
say, "I am sorry you have cancer". Thats what I heard and appreciated the most.
Welcome to October. The leaves are showing their vibrant fall colors. Pumpkin spice everything can be found everywhere, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month is underway.
Learning that a friend, family member, or coworker has breast (or any other) cancer is hard. Figuring out what to say next is harder. As a two-time cancer survivor, I know that there are plenty of things not to say to a cancer patient because I’ve heard most of them.
No cancer is a “good” cancer. This is a backhanded way of asking about the patient’s prognosis. Rather than asking for such information, let the individual know that you’re there to listen and let her share what she’s comfortable sharing.
Cancer isn’t as hard as it used to be.
When I was fourteen years old in 1981 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer was really hard, especially when I threw up day after day from radiation treatment and couldn’t go to high school. Thirty-five years later when I was forty-nine—a wife, mom of three, and professional—with breast cancer, cancer still was really hard, especially after I lost my hair, had agonizing bone pain, and diarrhea during months of chemotherapy. While advances in cancer treatment have improved over the years, any treatment stinks. It’s okay to say, “This really sucks.” Because it does and thanks for noticing.
Are you getting the boob job with the tummy tuck?
A lumpectomy or a single or bilateral mastectomy is not a “boob job.” It’s the amputation of some or all of the breast tissue, possibly including nipples, and often resulting in the complete loss of sensation in the chest. Reconstruction, if chosen, may be done with implants or with some form of flap reconstruction where the surgeon may use tissue from other body parts to reconstruct the breasts. These are painful surgeries with fairly long recoveries and leave individuals profoundly changed in their self-identities and in their sex lives. So, not a tummy tuck.
Does it run in your family? Maybe you should have worked out more.
No one asks for a cancer diagnosis. It’s not anyone’s fault if they get one. Please leave the “should have” lectures at home and avoid attributing an individual’s cancer diagnosis to something they may or may not have done, such as the food they ate, their exercise habits, or family history.
My mother, sister, friend, grandma . . . had cancer. She died.
Individuals’ cancer experiences and outcomes are different, and these stories may not always be helpful or comforting, particularly if death is involved. Put yourself in the patient’s shoes, would you want someone to say that to you?
Have you heard about [this new treatment, supplement, anti-cancer diet]?
When I was in treatment, I received much unsolicited advice. I had a great team of medical professionals whom I trusted, and I didn’t want to hear about the latest Internet “cures,” ginger chews for nausea, or turmeric tea’s anti-inflammatory properties. Respect the patient – and her choices.
I Know How You Feel.
No, you don’t. But, you can ask her how she’s feeling.
You’re so brave, strong, an inspiration . . .
While not unkind, these expressions discount how individuals with cancer may feel, which, more often than not, may be sad, angry, terrified, and anxious.
You look great.
Cancer may come with hair loss, weight loss or gain, changes in skin tone, etc. Trust me, the patient knows she doesn’t look great and is probably upset about it. Instead, simply tell the individual how great it is to see her.
If you’re not sure what to say, then say so. Don’t ghost your friend, family member, or coworker due to your fear or unease. It’s about her, not you.
So what can you do?
Remember that the person with whom you’re speaking is the same person she always has been. Listen or offer words of encouragement and support. Ask what you can do to help them in practical, concrete ways, such as making meals, taking them to appointments, or picking up children from school. Finally, talk to them about something, anything, other than cancer.
If you would like to learn more, read about my journey in my new book
WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Trump celebrated his historic Middle East peace deal today by cooking up his world-famous bacon-wrapped pork ribs on the White House lawn, inviting the participants from the Muslim and Jewish nations to partake in his "good old-fashioned home cooking."
they should all kill themselves in a jonesboro-esque event. That would change the world IMHO. Get things started...
Numbers demonstrating on the streets have been smaller but the actions much more targeted
A few minutes before Boris Johnson’s convoy swept past on his way to prime minister’s questions this week, around a dozen people stepped off the pavement and into the middle of the busy junction outside parliament.
As they hurriedly sat down and tried to glue their hands to the road, they were surrounded by scores of police officers. Within seconds they were lifted – or dragged – back to the pavement. The protest was over almost before it had begun and minutes later the prime minister’s motorcade sped past unhindered.
The news: Apple and Google have announced they’re expanding their coronavirus exposure warning system so health agencies can take part without needing to create a customized app. It’s a significant upgrade to the system, which uses Bluetooth to work out if people have spent extended periods of time near each other and then notifies the close contacts of someone who tests positive for coronavirus. The original system launched in May and has since been adopted by six states in the US and at least 15 countries. Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, DC, will be the first to sign up to use the revamped system, Apple and Google said in a conference call.
How it works: In states or regions that have enabled the “Exposure Notifications Express” tool, a prompt will flash up on phones with the latest version of Apple or Android’s operating system, informing the user that it’s available. Apple users just need to tap the screen to enable it. Android users will still have to download an app—however, the app is automatically generated for public health authorities by Google. All the agency has to do is provide Apple and Google with some basic information and set up servers to host Bluetooth keys and exposure verification.
Why it matters: It’s a promising development at a time when excitement around contact tracing apps has distinctly cooled. Anything that makes it easier for agencies to set up these apps should help boost adoption in the population at large, which is crucial if they are going to help break the chain of infections. However, it’s still not a panacea. These apps will only ever be part of the overall fight against covid-19, which still heavily relies on manual contact tracing, social distancing, and mass testing.
A short but remarkable study by the chief librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford charts 3,000 years of literary vandalism
A third of the way into his rich and meticulous 3,000 year history of knowledge and all the ways it may be preserved (or not), Richard Ovenden casually mentions that he and his wife once had to clear the house of a family member – a job that involved deciding which letters and diaries should be saved, and which, ultimately, destroyed. As he notes, such decisions are taken everywhere, every day, with few consequences. But occasionally, the fate of such documents can have profound consequences for culture, particularly if the deceased person had a public life. Think of Byron’s publisher, John Murray, tearing up and then burning the manuscript of his memoirs at his house in Albemarle Street; of Philip Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth, feeding his diaries, sheet by sheet, into a Hull University shredder.
At this point, I had to stop reading Ovenden’s book for a moment, to picture the author going through the dressing-table drawers of, say, his elderly aunt. I imagine this would be an oddly impressive sight, for by day he is Bodley’s librarian (the most senior position at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford). If there’s anyone you might want to read your love letters after your death, it’s probably him; as Burning the Books reveals on every page, not only is he careful, diligent and wise, he also knows what to leave out, and what to keep in – and it’s this quality, above all, that makes his book so remarkable. Its sweep is quite astonishing and yet, amazingly, his narrative runs to just 320 pages.
A team of scientists have been developing a proposal that would send a semi-autonomous submarine to explore the seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
Titan is the only body in our solar system that has large bodies of liquid on its surface.
It's also a top candidate in the search for alien life.
What lies in the alien seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon?
To find out, a team of researchers has spent years developing a plan that would send a submarine to explore the moon's extremely inhospitable lakes and seas, potentially as soon as the 2030s. NASA hasn't approved the mission, but the agency has granted the researchers two rounds of funding through the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
If approved, the mission would be a massive undertaking, requiring the transport of a semi-autonomous, nuclear-powered submarine that's 20 feet long and 3,300 pounds on a seven-year journey to Saturn.
In a NASA blog post, Steven Oleson of NASA's Glenn Research Center wrote:
"The mission concept we propose to study will investigate a full spectrum of oceanographic phenomena: chemical composition of the liquid, surface and subsurface currents, mixing and layering in the 'water' column, tides, wind and waves, bathymetry, and bottom features and composition."
Later in the post, Oleson added that the mission could help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth, and potentially on Titan. In a presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations working group earlier this month, Oelson said:
"We feel that the Titan submarine is kind of a first step before you go do a [sub mission on] Europa or Enceladus."
Why study Titan?
Titan has long been a top candidate for space research and the search for alien life within our solar system. But scientists didn't know much about the Mercury-sized moon until 2004, when NASA's Cassini spacecraft began conducting flybys of Titan, and later landed the Huygens probe on the moon's surface.
That mission revealed that Titan is actually more like Earth than our Moon: Titan has an atmosphere with organic molecules and complex chemistry. It has rain and storms, which help to shape the dunes on its surface. And it has maria (seas) and lacus (lakes), some larger than the Great Lakes of North America. Besides Earth, no other body in our solar system has liquid on its surface like Titan does.
Still, it might be more accurate to think of Titan as a "deranged Earth," as Caitlin Griffith, a professor in the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, put it to Forbes. After all, Titan's orangeish atmosphere is incredibly smoggy, made mostly of nitrogen and a bit of methane. Its surface is incredibly cold, at about -290 degrees Fahrenheit. And its frigid seas are made of ethane or methane, not water.
But the strange composition of Titan's seas might not be a bad thing: It should be relatively easy for a submarine to travel through Titan's seas, and the salty liquid wouldn't interfere with radio signals. (Depending on the mission design, those signals would be beamed directly to Earth, or to a relay orbiter outside of Titan.)
The submarine would likely explore two of Titan's largest northern seas, Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare, which cover thousands of square miles and reach depths of 115 feet and 560 feet, respectively.
It's unclear what the submarine might find. Organisms as we know them on Earth would have a tough time surviving in Titan's seas, but scientists do generally agree that it's possible the moon may harbor microbial life.
If the mission is approved, the submarine would likely need to reach Titan during the moon's spring or summer, when there's visible light. Given that each of Titan's seasons last about seven years, that means the submarine would need to launch in the 2030s, if it's going to happen in the mid-term future.
In 2026, NASA plans to launch a rotorcraft to Titan as part of a separate mission.
"With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we're now ready for Dragonfly's amazing flight."
Every time Athens pushes a refugee boat away, it’s the result of an entire continent acting in its perceived self-interest
A vital part of international refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement: the idea that states should not push people seeking asylum back to unsafe countries. In a country like the UK, which does not sit next to a war zone, advocates of “tougher” policies to deter asylum seekers will claim that the principle does not apply, since people who reach Britain’s shores will have passed through several peaceful countries before they get there.
But if every country looks only to its own interests, and behaves as if asylum seekers are someone else’s problem, then you very quickly end up with a system that traps people in situations where their lives are at risk. That is the system bequeathed by Europe’s panicked response to the 2015 refugee crisis, and in recent months, partly under cover of the emergency conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, it has got worse.
hes an idiot, but probably not guilty. And I hate to say it, he will make rioters back down a bit.
Lin Wood, the famed attorney who successfully represented Covington Catholic's Nick Sandmann in multiple lawsuits against the media, graciously and heroically offered to help Kyle Rittenhouse for free on Thursday morning after GoFundMe suspended his ...
Four years after predicting an expensive, ineffective and racist policy, The Last Week Tonight host checks in on Trump’s signature promise of the border wall
In the run-up to the 2016 election, John Oliver explained the destructive risks of then-candidate Trump’s “build the wall” sloganeering in a Last Week Tonight segment: it was “transparently racist” as a mantra and both expensive and pointless as a policy. Four years later, Oliver returned to the subject on Sunday, because “while we predicted the whole thing would be a shamble, the extent to which that’s been true even we didn’t see coming.”
As a candidate, Trump intended for the wall to define his presidency, “and that has very much happened,” said Oliver, “but in none of the ways that he intended.” And with a referendum on the Trump presidency less than three months away, Oliver explained, it’s worth checking up on “the wall” — what has been built in the three and a half years since Trump took office, what damage has been done, and who’s doing the building.
simple. Ask "did a human write this"? Then they are legally bound to disclose or not.
At the start of the week, Liam Porr had only heard of GPT-3. By the end, the college student had used the AI model to produce an entirely fake blog under a fake name.
It was meant as a fun experiment. But then one of his posts reached the number-one spot on Hacker News. Few people noticed that his blog was completely AI-generated. Some even hit “Subscribe.”
While many have speculated about how GPT-3, the most powerful language-generating AI tool to date, could affect content production, this is one of the only known cases to illustrate the potential. What stood out most about the experience, says Porr, who studies computer science at the University of California, Berkeley: “It was super easy, actually, which was the scary part.”
GPT-3 is OpenAI’s latest and largest language AI model, which the San Francisco–based research lab began drip-feeding out in mid-July. In February of last year, OpenAI made headlines with GPT-2, an earlier version of the algorithm, which it announced it would withhold for fear it would be abused. The decision immediately sparked a backlash, as researchers accused the lab of pulling a stunt. By November, the lab had reversed position and released the model, saying it had detected “no strong evidence of misuse so far.”
The lab took a different approach with GPT-3; it neither withheld it nor granted public access. Instead, it gave the algorithm to select researchers who applied for a private beta, with the goal of gathering their feedback and commercializing the technology by the end of the year.
Porr submitted an application. He filled out a form with a simple questionnaire about his intended use. But he also didn’t wait around. After reaching out to several members of the Berkeley AI community, he quickly found a PhD student who already had access. Once the graduate student agreed to collaborate, Porr wrote a small script for him to run. It gave GPT-3 the headline and introduction for a blog post and had it spit out several completed versions. Porr’s first post (the one that charted on Hacker News), and every post after, was copy-and-pasted from one of the outputs with little to no editing.
“From the time that I thought of the idea and got in contact with the PhD student to me actually creating the blog and the first blog going viral—it took maybe a couple of hours,” he says.
The trick to generating content without the need for much editing was understanding GPT-3’s strengths and weaknesses. “It’s quite good at making pretty language, and it’s not very good at being logical and rational,” says Porr. So he picked a popular blog category that doesn’t require rigorous logic: productivity and self-help.
From there, he wrote his headlines following a simple formula: he’d scroll around on Medium and Hacker News to see what was performing in those categories and put together something relatively similar. “Feeling unproductive? Maybe you should stop overthinking,” he wrote for one. “Boldness and creativity trumps intelligence,” he wrote for another. On a few occasions, the headlines didn’t work out. But as long as he stayed on the right topics, the process was easy.
Porr says he wanted to prove that GPT-3 could be passed off as a human writer. Indeed, despite the algorithm’s somewhat weird writing pattern and occasional errors, only three or four of the dozens of people who commented on his top post on Hacker News raised suspicions that it might have been generated by an algorithm. All those comments were immediately downvoted by other community members.
For experts, this has long been the worry raised by such language-generating algorithms. Ever since OpenAI first announced GPT-2, people have speculated that it was vulnerable to abuse. In its own blog post, the lab focused on the AI tool’s potential to be weaponized as a mass producer of misinformation. Others have wondered whether it could be used to churn out spam posts full of relevant keywords to game Google.
Porr says his experiment also shows a more mundane but still troubling alternative: people could use the tool to generate a lot of clickbait content. “It’s possible that there’s gonna just be a flood of mediocre blog content because now the barrier to entry is so easy,” he says. “I think the value of online content is going to be reduced a lot.”
Porr plans to do more experiments with GPT-3. But he’s still waiting to get access from OpenAI. “It’s possible that they’re upset that I did this,” he says. “I mean, it’s a little silly.”
Update: Additional details have been added to the text and photo captions to explain how Liam Porr created his blog and got it to the top of Hacker News.
Snowden disclosed highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013. He revealed the news covertly to the Guardian after he fled to Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow to avoid extradition back to America. He currently lives in Russia.
i wish technology review website allowed comments. They used to... Chickens!
If contact tracing apps are following Gartner’s famous hype cycle, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion they are now firmly in the “trough of disillusionment.” Initial excitement that they could be a crucial part of the arsenal against covid-19 has given way to fears it could all come to nothing, despite large investments of money and time. Country after country has seen low take-up, and in the case of Norway and the UK, apps were even abandoned.
The US, meanwhile, is very late to the party. Singapore launched its app, TraceTogether, back in March, and Switzerland became the first country to release an app using Google and Apple’s exposure notification system in May.
It took until last week—that is, three months later—for Virginia to become the first US state to launch an app using the Apple-Google system. A nationwide app in the United States seems out of the question given the lack of a coordinated federal response, but at least three more states are planning to launch similar services.
Being a late adopter could have one crucial advantage, though: the opportunity to learn from others’ failures—and their successes.
We talked to the developers behind apps in Ireland and Germany to find out what they had discovered along the way. These two apps rank highly in MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker, a project to monitor the development and rollout of contract tracing apps worldwide.
Ireland’s app has one of the world’s best adoption rates—37% of the population downloaded the app in its first week. Germany’s system, meanwhile, has been downloaded by more than 20% of citizens, and has been lauded as such a success that it’s been advising other governments on how to build their own.
There are caveats. Many decentralized apps don’t collect information on the number of alerts they are sending out as a measure to protect privacy, and that includes both Ireland and Germany’s systems. That makes success hard to define in some cases.
But still, not everyone has seen a rollout as chaotic as the US or UK. So what advice do these countries have for others?
1. Remember every case matters
Firstly, let’s dispel a myth. Digital contact tracing apps do not need to be adopted by the majority of the population to be effective: they can work with lower adoption rates, even if they’re not quite so effective. So we need to stop thinking it’s all or nothing.
Colm Harte is technical director of NearForm, the company that created Ireland’s app, which was downloaded by 37% of the population in its first week. He says that “if you break even a few transmission chains as a result of the app, for me that’s a success.” Preventing just one infection could potentially save a life.
2. Manage expectations
People’s hopes for contact tracing apps were extremely high early on in the pandemic. But apps were never going to end covid-19 on their own. Peter Lorenz, one of the project leads working on Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, says it’s important to put contact tracing apps in their place.
“The clear stance from the German government was that we’d use every tool available to fight this, including traditional methods like testing, distancing, masks, and manual contact tracing, but we’d combine it with technology,” he says.
Likewise, Ireland’s app fits hand-in-glove with its manual tracing program, which is equally if not more important to keeping coronavirus at bay. “If you test positive, the manual contact tracing team will ask you if you use the app, and if so, they ask if you’ll share keys so they can warn any close contacts through the app,” Harte explains.
This approach makes sense. While the manual tracing program is able to track down people who are acquainted with each other—say friends at a dinner party—the app is able to find people who are total strangers, for example people who have shared the same train carriage for an extended period of time.
3. Work in the open (or you won’t gain public trust)
Both Ireland and Germany have made the source code for their apps open for anyone to inspect. “We did that right from the start, so community feedback could go into the code before it went live,” says Thomas Klingbeil, who is responsible for the architecture of the Corona-Warn-App.
Privacy and security concerns loom large for teams building these systems. Germans are particularly savvy about data protection, and developers there were conscious of the example of Norway, which had to suspend use of its app after criticism from its data privacy watchdog. Germany switched from building its own centralized app to one based on the Apple-Google API almost immediately, which proved to be a wise decision. Ireland did the same. And they both designed their apps with privacy in mind from the start, following a principle of “collect as little data as possible.” All of the information gathered by the apps stays on people’s phones rather than being sent to central servers. It is encrypted and automatically deleted after 14 days.
Both teams took a collaborative and cooperative approach, working across multiple agencies and companies, all focusing on a single goal that everyone could work toward. This—plus a healthy dose of goodwill from the public—seems to have made a significant difference to the success of their projects.
Crucially, the team engaged with critics rather than just dismissing them. You need to invest just as much time into transparency and community outreach as developing the technology, says Lorenz. “If people don’t trust it, it’s worthless. You have got to get people to buy into it,” he says.
4. Set the right parameters
Building a contact tracing app is hard. Although Apple and Google took away some of the burden of development, it’s still up to the authority in charge of the app to set the rules and parameters. How long do you have to spend with someone to be deemed likely to have caught coronavirus? Germany settled on 10 minutes. And how close do you need to be? Some countries say one meter, others say two. But these are tough questions given the basic science of transmission isn’t even settled yet. If you make the rules too loose, you end up letting people who might have been exposed to covid-19 slip through the net. On the other hand, if you’re too strict, the app sends off loads of unnecessary notifications, running the risk of irritating people to the point when they uninstall the app.
That’s why Germany’s public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, is running tests to simulate scenarios like cocktail parties or bus journeys. They are trying to fine tune the app’s parameters to the point where they measure exposure as accurately as possible, in order to avoid either of the problems outlined above.
5. Give it time
It’s too early to judge how effective contact tracing apps will be, given the first decentralized app launched just three months ago. And since the rollout coincided with lockdowns and other suppression methods, it has made some efforts look like failures because they aren’t sending many notifications.
But Ireland and Germany’s teams are quietly confident that as time goes on, the apps will prove more effective as part of an overall approach to battling the disease.
“We didn’t have this the first time around. This will make a big difference when the second wave comes,” says Lorenz.
i wish trump would force websites to validate with visa card to protect kids.
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate and the elaborate plays she would write and perform with her siblings. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. Over the next several years, she moved across the country sporadically and spontaneously—she began bouncing from Florida, where Danny lives, to Baltimore to see her grandmother, to Virginia, to Washington, DC, sometimes living in her car. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
For the next five or six years, Jenny led a remarkable and productive life. She worked for the National Association of Mental Illness, was on the board for the National Organisation for Women, volunteered regularly, tutored college kids, and wrote a book. Her friend Lauren describes her as “a beautiful, smart, funny person who deserved a much easier life than the one she had.”
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. Looking in his sister’s purse after her death, Danny discovered that she had purchased a ticket to Chicago but never boarded the plane. In the years prior to her death, Jenny’s mental health had deteriorated and her delusions had returned—she had begun threatening Danny and his young son, leading him to take out a restraining order against his sister. The judge who granted the order told Jenny she had to get a psychological evaluation within a year. She was dead within two months.
After her death, Jenny’s family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker, who runs his own small technology business—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer.
Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.
The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.
Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers. (Editor’s note: we have decided not to link to any of the gangstalking-related posts or forums mentioned in this article.)
As he combed through Jenny’s computer, Danny found his sister subscribed under a series of aliases to what he describes as hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. His discovery sparked memories from the months before Jenny’s death, when she had first mentioned the term “gangstalking.” He had registered it as nonsense at the time. Her illness sometimes manifested as elaborate fictions where Jenny was the victim of some shadowy conspiracy—though she had once attempted to join the Church of Scientology, she also believed the organization was monitoring her and using technology of some sort to torture her in her apartment. She thought her family were gangstalkers and she was going to be forced to become a “breeder.”
“It blew my mind to see there was a giant group of people basically reinforcing this,” Danny says of finding the online groups. “Something like that was probably the worst thing she could have seen. If this was 20 or 30 years ago, there wasn’t the internet. If you went up to somebody and said ‘People are gangstalking me,’ they would think you were crazy. But if you’re on the internet, alone in your apartment, you can get a reply of ‘Oh yeah, me too’.”
Let’s be clear: The internet didn’t kill Jenny—suicide has many, often mysterious causes, and those suffering from psychosis are at particular risk. But Danny believes it played a role. According to Danny, Jenny sometimes struggled with her medication. She built up tolerance to her antipsychotics, he says, and her mental health would often deteriorate when she switched medication.
There is plenty of evidence that the online forums Jenny frequented and digital circles she ran in can be damaging. In a Reddit post from two years ago, a user explains how he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and initially attempted to resist the diagnosis due to his belief in gangstalking. He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.” Across the subreddit, many posters encourage a distrust of medical professionals and discourage the use of antipsychotics—“They will make your situation infinitely more worse,” reads a post from the beginning of the year. Some claim that gangstalkers are trying to drive their victims mad in order to delegitimize them.
He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.”
Harry is a 23-year-old from Texas who began experiencing delusions when he started college (his name has been changed to retain his anonymity). After witnessing a rape at a fraternity, he began losing sleep; his situation was exacerbated by a breakup and school-related stress. Harry came to believe he was being stalked, filmed, and whispered about—on multiple occasions, he screamed at strangers to stop following him. Eventually, he was institutionalized for a month and diagnosed as bipolar.
Online spaces didn’t exacerbate Harry’s delusions—he only found a gangstalking subreddit after he had been treated. Still, the forum made him angry. “If anyone had acted like they believed me or gone along with my delusions, that probably would’ve added another month to breaking out of it,” he says now. “It’s hard enough to break out of it when nobody believes you … but if you have a community of people that are willing to agree with you that the entire world’s against you, it’s bad, bad trouble.”
Harry decided to post on the subreddit to show people “a way out” of their way of thinking. Commenters labelled his diagnosis “irrelevant” and a correlation between mental illness and a belief in gangstalking was immediately dismissed.
While working as a psychiatrist in a New York City hospital just over 15 years ago, Joel Gold encountered five separate people who believed they were the star of their own reality TV program that was broadcast around the world. Everybody else, Gold’s patients believed, were actors employed in the farce. If these beliefs sound familiar, that’s because they borrow heavily from the plot of 1998’s The Truman Show, a dark comedy about a man watched by the world since birth. Gold christened their beliefs “the Truman Show delusion.”
In 2014, Gold—now a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine—co-authored a book with his brother, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. In it they argue that delusions are shaped by society, and that the world around us influences the form psychosis takes. “As technology has evolved, people with delusions have absorbed the technology of the day,” Gold says. He argues that it’s natural that people feel they’re under surveillance—thanks to social media and the rise of CCTV cameras, we often are. “So it’s a double hit, if you will,” he says. “There’s an underlying delusion that many people might have come to anyway, and then there are the seeds of reality that people use to build their delusion upon.”
Many who share stories of gangstalking online write of televisions that talk back, hacked computers, microwave weapons, and “voice to skull” technology that allows a harasser to transmit messages directly into the mind of the harassed. Gold says many of his patients with the Truman Show delusion only came to believe they were a TV star after they had watched the movie, with many of them explicitly referencing the film as a moment of enlightenment. It’s possible that some people stumble upon gangstalking sites and these sites influence the form their delusions take.
Gold notes it is obviously “not necessary to be on these chat rooms” in order to develop gangstalking delusions, but from a treatment perspective, he says gangstalking sites “complicate matters.” “If I was seeing someone who believed they were being gangstalked and I gingerly explained why I thought they were suffering from mental illness, they could very simply and confidently point to these chat sites and say, ‘Are we all crazy?’ It becomes much more challenging.”
Then again, he says, these sites could have benefits for some people who believe in gangstalking—it could be soothing for an individual to learn they are not alone. There’s evidence that this happens, or at least that some people are trying to connect in a positive way through these forums. Many posters who do not believe in gangstalking come to offer help to those who believe they’re being stalked, including by sometimes challenging those beliefs. In the Reddit post where the user described antipsychotics stopping his delusions, there were also supportive comments alongside the negative ones. “Congrats! You are speaking very clearly now with such a positive view,” read the most-upvoted comment, in which a user asked questions about medication.
Harry, the young man who tried to offer a voice of dissent on a gangstalking subreddit, says that despite receiving negative comments, a handful of people messaged him privately for help. “A lot of time the people that were posting there had no one to help them, no one to talk to,” Harry says. “Even though there are resources out there, they need help to figure out what those resources are. I thought I could use my experience as a way to help.”
For many experiencing mental illness, the internet can be a lifeline—a resource that allows people to talk freely in a world that still heavily stigmatizes their suffering. Therapy remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many in the US—the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years, while 60% of US counties do not have a practicing psychiatrist. “I would just really like to talk—about anything,” wrote one user on a gangstalking subreddit in May, asking users to chat with him about Netflix, the weather, and birds. A couple of users offered to strike up friendship, and it seems the original poster achieved his desire to find, “people who understand you, believe you, just know what it’s like.” In a Facebook group for people who believe themselves to be victims of gangstalking, which has nearly 8,000 members, users discourage suicide, pray for one another, and encourage each other to “stay strong.”
Others argue that any benefits that may come from such sites are outweighed by the real-world harm that could result from stoking belief in gangstalking. Robert Bartholomew is a sociologist and author of A Colorful History of Popular Delusions (in this context, “delusions” refers to social delusions—false beliefs and panics shared by a society, such as the Salem Witch Trials, or the Red Scare—not psychotic delusions).
A few years ago, he joined the mailing list of a man who believed he was a targeted individual. The man’s newsletter went out to over 800 people, and he became increasingly erratic over time. In May 2019, he sent an email using threatening language before claiming he could “could easily break Alexis’ record.” Aaron Alexis was a 34-year-old US Navy contractor who shot and killed twelve people in the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. He left behind a note on his computer in which he claimed he was being controlled by low frequency electromagnetic waves. When Bartholomew received the newsletter from the man who threatened to imitate Alexis, he (and others) contacted the man’s local police department—he is now in prison.
In a separate instance in 2014, a lawyer in New Mexico filmed a video about his experiences being gangstalked by the government before shooting and injuring three people.
Some on gangstalking forums encourage one another to act on their delusions. In one Reddit post, a user shares tips on how to “fuck with” stalkers (who they call “perps”): cut them off in traffic, bump into them, provoke them to anger. In another, someone threatens to shoot at drones. Bartholomew believes online gangstalking spaces are a “public health issue” but also says, “the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back.”
There is another genie that has emerged from its bottle over the last decade, one that touches almost everyone who uses the internet: the dangerous impact of online misinformation. According to a March survey by Pew Research Center, 48% of American adults reported seeing made-up news about the Covid-19 virus. In light of the pandemic, social networks have increased their efforts to tackle false news, with Twitter now labelling misinformation and Facebook directing its users to the World Health Organisation’s website.
How can someone distinguish delusions from conspiracies fed by misinformation? In the UK, dozens of phone masts were burned or vandalized in April after misinformation spread on social media that 5G damages people’s health, with some blaming the technology for the coronavirus. Celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and boxer Amir Khan have spread the conspiracy, while broadband engineers have been attacked and threatened. In a Facebook group for people who believe they are the targets of gangstalking, an April post read, “Burn all 5g towers down,” to which commenters added, “NO! Burn those who created them!” and “Destroy them or they will destroy us.”
There is a murky overlap between these two worlds, but Bartholomew argues—as the 2015 research paper demonstrated—that most gangstalking beliefs are based on clinically delusional tendencies. “Your run of the mill conspiracy theory believer is not psychotic,” he says. Not everyone who frequents gangstalking forums is clinically paranoid or experiencing persecutory delusions, of course, just as everyone who visits 5G conspiracy forums cannot be declared free of psychosis. Yet both phenomena highlight how the internet can legitimize and spread fringe beliefs.
While Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others have taken steps to combat many sources of misinformation and dangerous content online—Reddit banned the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald in late June for violating several of the site’s policies—activity and discussion around gangstalking continues to fly beneath the radar. If you Google “5G coronavirus,” for example, the first result is a promoted link from WHO “busting myths,” and the first page of results is full of words like “conspiracy theory” and “false.” Searches for “gangstalking” also include news articles questioning the veracity of the phenomenon—but at the time of writing, a worrisome Facebook post from 2013 is still among the top ten results. The 3,000-word screed claims that gangstalking is real, arguing, “If we don’t want to be overpowered, we need to take appropriate measure as soon as possible.”
Danny is legally not allowed access to Jenny’s medical records and therefore doesn’t know if she stopped taking her medication, or a medication change prompted her death. But he believes gangstalking forums played at least some part in his sister’s decline. “From the amount she was reading and subscribed to, it was taking up a really large space in her life,” he says. He estimates that she logged on to at least one gangstalking forum every day.
Danny reported the gangstalking groups he found on Jenny’s computer to Facebook and Reddit, but he never received any response. He remains “pissed off” by the fact these spaces are permitted, and firmly believes they are dangerous. The subreddit’s own sidebar rules say giving specific medical advice is banned. Reddit itself bans subreddits that explicitly encourage or incite violence, but gangstalking subs do not violate any of its current policies. A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We always want people to feel welcome and safe on our platforms which is why we have a set of community standards which set out the limits for acceptable behaviour and content. We will take action against any content which violates our policies, and encourage people to use our reporting tools for any posts they are concerned about.”
Jenny was six years older than her little brother Danny, which means she often babysat him when she was a teen. With fondness, he recalls that she invented a “Sunny Day School” to occupy her younger siblings in the summer holidays—there were lesson plans, costumes, badges, classes, even an anthem. When Danny became a teenager himself and life got tougher, Jenny would drive him to the bookstore or to a movie or to Taco Bell—“literally just driving, the longer the better.” Sometimes, the siblings simply sat in a parking lot and spoke for hours at a time. “She had all of that big sister wisdom,” Danny says. “That’s what I use the most from her now.”
When asked what he thinks about the fact that people like his sister can still participate in gangstalking forums today, he doesn’t mince words. “I think about my sister in her more lucid moments, when she was medicated, when she volunteered to help people who were mentally ill—if she saw what I saw, she would be on the internet every day trying to shut it down .”