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The race to make a lab-grown steak

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612925/the-race-to-grow-a-more-planet-friendly-burger/

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In 2013, the world’s first burger from a lab was cooked in butter and eaten at a glitzy press conference. The burger cost £215,000 ($330,000 at the time) to make, and despite all the media razzmatazz, the tasters were polite but not overly impressed. “Close to meat, but not that juicy,” said one food critic.

Still, that one burger, paid for by Google cofounder Sergey Brin, was the earliest use of a technique called cellular agriculture to make edible meat products from scratch—no dead animals required. Cellular agriculture, whose products are known as cultured or lab-grown meat, builds up muscle tissue from a handful of cells taken from an animal. These cells are then nurtured on a scaffold in a bioreactor and fed with a special nutrient broth.

A little over five years later, startups around the world are racing to produce lab-grown meat that tastes as good as the traditional kind and costs about as much.

They’re already playing catch-up: “plant-based” meat, made of a mix of non-animal products that mimic the taste and texture of real meat, is already on the market. The biggest name in this area: Impossible Foods, whose faux meat sells in more than 5,000 restaurants and fast food chains in the US and Asia and should be in supermarkets later this year. Impossible’s research team of more than 100 scientists and engineers uses techniques such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify the volatile molecules released when meat is cooked.

The key to their particular formula is the oxygen-carrying molecule heme, which contains iron that gives meat its color and metallic tang. Instead of using meat, Impossible uses genetically modified yeast to make a version of heme that is found in the roots of certain plants.

Impossible has a few competitors, particularly Beyond Meat, which uses pea protein (among other ingredients) to replicate ground beef. Its product is sold in supermarket chains like Tesco in the UK and Whole Foods in the US, alongside real meat and chicken. Both Impossible and Beyond released new, improved versions of their burgers in mid-January.

In contrast, none of the lab-grown-meat startups has yet announced a launch date for its first commercial product. But when that happens—some claim as early as the end of this year—the lab-grown approach could turn the traditional meat industry on its head.

“I suspect that cultured meat proteins can do things that plant-based proteins can’t in terms of flavor, nutrition, and performance,” says Isha Datar, who leads New Harvest, an organization that helps fund research in cellular agriculture. Datar, a cell biologist and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab, believes cultured meats will more closely resemble real meat, nutritionally and functionally, than the plant-based kinds do. The idea is that a die-hard carnivore (like me) might not feel so put off at the thought of giving up the real thing.

A global risk

Dingding Hu

You might ask, why would anyone want to? The answer is that our meat consumption habits are, in a very literal sense, not sustainable.

Livestock raised for food already contribute about 15% of the world’s global greenhouse-gas emissions. (You may have heard that if cows were a country, it would be the world’s third biggest emitter.) A quarter of the planet’s ice-free land is used to graze them, and a third of all cropland is used to grow food for them. A growing population will make things worse. It’s estimated that with the population expected to rise to 10 billion, humans will eat 70% more meat by 2050. Greenhouse gases from food production will rise by as much as 92%.

In January a commission of 37 scientists reported in The Lancet that meat’s damaging effects not only on the environment but also on our health make it “a global risk to people and the planet.” In October 2018 a study in Nature found that we will need to change our diets significantly if we’re not to irreparably wreck our planet’s natural resources.

“Without changes toward more plant-based diets,” says Marco Springmann, a researcher in environmental sustainability at the University of Oxford and the lead author of the Nature paper, “there is little chance to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.”

The good news is that a growing number of people now seem to be rethinking what they eat. A recent report from Nielsen found that sales of plant-based foods intended to replace animal products were up 20% in 2018 compared with a year earlier. Veganism, which eschews not just meat but products that come from greenhouse-gas-emitting dairy livestock too, is now considered relatively mainstream.

That doesn’t necessarily equate to more vegans. A recent Gallup poll found that the number of people in the US who say they are vegan has barely changed since 2012 and stands at around just 3%. Regardless, Americans are eating less meat, even if they’re not cutting it out altogether.

And now for the lawsuits

Memphis Meats CEO Ulma Valeti (center) and chief science officer Nicholas Genovese (right) watch a chef prepare one of their creations.

Memphis meats

Investors are betting big that this momentum will continue. Startups such as MosaMeat (cofounded by Mark Post, the scientist behind the £215,000 burger), Memphis Meats, Supermeat, Just, and Finless Foods have all swept up healthy sums of venture capital. The race now is to be first to market with a palatable product at an acceptable cost.

Memphis Meats’ VP of product and regulation, Eric Schulze, sees his product as complementing the real-meat industry. “In our rich cultural tapestry as a species, we are providing a new innovation to weave into our growing list of sustainable food traditions,” he says. “We see ourselves as an ‘and,’ not ‘or,’ solution to helping feed a growing world.”

The traditional meat industry doesn’t see it that way. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the US dismissively dubs these new approaches “fake meat.” In August 2018, Missouri enacted a law that bans labeling any such alternative products as meat. Only food that has been “derived from harvested production of livestock or poultry” can have the word “meat” on the label in any form. Breaking that law could lead to a fine or even a year’s jail time.

The alternative-meat industry is fighting back. The Good Food Institute, which campaigns for regulations that favor plant-based and lab-grown meats, has joined forces with Tofurky (the makers of a tofu-based meat replacement since the 1980s), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to get the law overturned. Jessica Almy, the institute’s policy director, says the law as it stands is “nonsensical” and an “affront” to the principle of free speech. “The thinking behind the law is to make plant-based meat less appealing and to disadvantage cultured meat when it comes on the market,” she says.

Almy says she’s confident their case will be successful and is expecting a temporary injunction to be granted soon. But the Missouri battle is just the start of a struggle that could last years. In February 2018, the US Cattlemen’s Association launched a petition that calls on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enact a similar federal law.

Traditional meat-industry groups have also been very vocal on how cultured meat and plant-based meats are to be regulated. Last summer a group of the biggest agricultural organizations in the US (nicknamed “The Barnyard”) wrote to President Trump asking for reassurance that the USDA will oversee cultured meat to ensure “a level playing field.” (The USDA has tougher, more stringent safety inspections than the Food and Drug Administration.)

In November 2018, the USDA and the FDA finally released a joint statement to announce that the two regulators would share the responsibilities for overseeing lab-grown meats.

The bovine serum problem

Some cultured-meat startups say this confusion over regulations is the only thing holding them back. One firm, Just, says it plans to launch a ground “chicken” product this year and has trumpeted a partnership with a Japanese livestock firm to produce a “Wagyu beef” product made from cells in the lab. Its CEO is Josh Tetrick, who’d previously founded the controversial startup Hampton Creek, Just’s forebear. (The FDA had at one time banned the firm from calling its signature product mayonnaise, as it did not contain any eggs.) Speak to Tetrick, a bullish, confident young man, and you get a sense of the drive and excitement behind the alternative-meat market. “The only [limit] to launching,” he says, “is regulatory.”

DINGDING HU

That’s optimistic, to say the least. The lab-meat movement still faces big technical hurdles. One is that making the product requires something called fetal bovine serum. FBS is harvested from fetuses taken from pregnant cows during slaughter. That’s an obvious problem for a purportedly cruelty-free product. FBS also happens to be eye-wateringly expensive. It is used in the biopharmaceutical industry and in basic cellular research, but only in tiny amounts. Cultured meat, however, requires vast quantities. All the lab-meat startups will have to use less of it—or eliminate it completely—to make their products cheap enough. Last year Finless Foods (which aims to make a fish-free version of bluefin tuna) reported that it had halved the amount of FBS it needs to grow its cells. And Schulze says the Memphis Meats team is working on ways of cutting it out entirely.

But there are other issues, says Datar, of New Harvest. She says we still don’t understand the fundamental processes well enough. While we have quite a deep understanding of animals used in medical research, such as lab mice, our knowledge of agricultural animals at a cellular level is rather thin. “I’m seeing a lot of excitement and VCs investing but not seeing a lot in scientific, material advancements,” she says. It’s going to be tricky to scale up the technology if we’re still learning how these complex biological systems react and grow.

Lab-grown meat has another—more tangible—problem. Growing muscle cells from scratch creates pure meat tissue, but the result lacks a vital component of any burger or steak: fat. Fat is what gives meat its flavor and moisture, and its texture is hard to replicate. Plant-based meats are already getting around the problem—to some extent—by using shear cell technology that forces the plant protein mixture into layers to produce a fibrous meat-like texture. But if you want to create a meat-free “steak” from scratch, some more work needs to be done. Cultured meat will need a way to grow fat cells and somehow mesh them with the muscle cells for the end result to be palatable. That has proved tricky so far, which is the main reason that first burger was so mouth-puckeringly dry.

The scientists at the Netherlands-based ­cultured-meat startup Meatable might have found a way. The team has piggybacked on medical stem-cell research to find a way of isolating pluripotent stem cells in cows by taking them from the blood in umbilical cords of newborn calves. Pluripotent cells, formed early in an embryo’s development, have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body. This means they can also be coaxed into forming fat, muscle, or even liver cells in lab-grown meat.

Meatable’s work might mean that the cells can be tweaked to produce a steak-like product whose fat and muscle content depends on what the customer prefers: a rib-eye steak’s characteristic marbling, for example. “We can add more fat, or make it leaner—we can do anything we want to. We have new control over how we feed the cells,” says Meatable CTO Daan Luining, who is also a research director at the nonprofit Cellular Agriculture Society. “Pluripotent cells are like the hardware. The software you’re running turns it into the cell you want. It’s already in the cell—you just need to trigger it.”

But the researchers’ work is also interesting because they have found a way to get around the FBS problem: the pluripotent cells don’t require the serum to grow. Luining is clearly proud of this. “To circumvent that using a different cell type was a very elegant solution,” he says.

He concedes that Meatable is still years away from launching a commercial product, but he’s confident about its eventual prospects. “I think there will be lines outside the store that are longer than for the next iPhone,” he says.

If you make it, will they eat it?

As it stands, lab-grown meat is not quite as virtuous as you might think. While its greenhouse emissions are below those associated with the biggest villain, beef, it is more polluting than chicken or the plant-based alternatives, because of the energy currently required to produce it. A World Economic Forum white paper on the impact of alternative meats found that lab-grown meat as it is made now would produce only about 7% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than beef. Other replacements, such as tofu or plants, produced reductions of up to 25%. “We will have to see if companies will really be able to offer low-emissions products at reasonable costs,” says Oxford’s Marco Springmann, one of the paper’s coauthors.

It is also unclear how much better for you lab-grown meat would be than the real thing. One reason meat has been linked to a heightened cancer risk is that it contains heme, which could also be present in cultured meats.

And will people even want to eat it? Datar thinks so. The little research there has been on the subject backs that up. A 2017 study published in the journal PLoS One found that most consumers in the US would be willing to try lab-grown meat, and around a third were probably or definitely willing to eat it regularly.

Expecting the whole world to go vegan is unrealistic. But a report in Nature in October 2018 suggested that if everyone moved to the flexitarian lifestyle (eating mostly vegetarian but with a little poultry and fish and no more than one portion of red meat a week), we could halve the greenhouse-gas emissions from food production and also reduce other harmful effects of the meat industry, such as the overuse of fertilizers and the waste of fresh water and land. (It could also reduce premature mortality by about 20%, according to a study in The Lancet in October, thanks to fewer deaths from ailments such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer.)

impossible foods

Some of the biggest players in the traditional meat industry recognize this and are subtly rebranding themselves as “protein producers” rather than meat companies. Like Big Tobacco firms buying vape startups, the meat giants are also buying stakes in this new industry. In 2016, Tyson Foods, the world’s second biggest meat processor, launched a venture capital fund to support alternative-meat producers; it’s also an investor in Beyond Meat. In 2017, the third biggest, Cargill, invested in cultured-meat startup Memphis Meats, and Tyson followed suit in 2018. Many other big food producers are doing the same; in December 2018, for example, Unilever bought a Dutch firm called the Vegetarian Butcher that makes a variety of non-meat products, including plant-based meat substitutes.

“A meat company doesn’t do what they do because they want to degrade the environment and don’t like animals,” says Tetrick, the Just CEO. “They do it because they think it’s the most efficient way. But if you give them a different way to grow the company that’s more efficient, they’ll do it.”

At least some in the meat industry agree. In a profile last year for Bloomberg, Tom Hayes, then the CEO of Tyson, made it clear where he saw the company’s eventual future. “If we can grow the meat without the animal,” he said, “why wouldn’t we?”

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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked…

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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked but still airworthy. It was a symbol of American ingenuity, held aloft by four engines, bristling with a dozen machine guns.

Imagine being a pilot of that mighty plane. You know your primary enemy—the Germans and Japanese in your gunsights. But you have another enemy that you can’t see, and it strikes at the most baffling times. Say you’re easing in for another routine landing. You reach down to deploy your landing gear. Suddenly, you hear the scream of metal tearing into the tarmac. You’re rag-dolling around the cockpit while your plane skitters across the runway. A thought flickers across your mind about the gunners below and the other crew: “Whatever has happened to them now, it’s my fault.” When your plane finally lurches to a halt, you wonder to yourself: “How on earth did my plane just crash when everything was going fine? What have I done?”

For all the triumph of America’s new planes and tanks during World War II, a silent reaper stalked the battlefield: accidental deaths and mysterious crashes that no amount of training ever seemed to fix. And it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Air Force finally resolved to figure out what had happened.

To do that, the Air Force called upon a young psychologist at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Paul Fitts was a handsome man with a soft Tennessee drawl, analytically minded but with a shiny wave of Brylcreemed hair, Elvis-like, which projected a certain suave nonconformity. Decades later, he’d become known as one of the Air Force’s great minds, the person tasked with hardest, weirdest problems—such as figuring out why people saw UFOs.

For now though, he was still trying to make his name with a newly minted PhD in experimental psychology. Having an advanced degree in psychology was still a novelty; with that novelty came a certain authority. Fitts was supposed to know how people think. But his true talent is to realize that he doesn’t.

Adapted from User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Buy on Amazon.

Courtesy of MCD

When the thousands of reports about plane crashes landed on Fitts’s desk, he could have easily looked at them and concluded that they were all the pilot’s fault—that these fools should have never been flying at all. That conclusion would have been in keeping with the times. The original incident reports themselves would typically say “pilot error,” and for decades no more explanation was needed. This was, in fact, the cutting edge of psychology at the time. Because so many new draftees were flooding into the armed forces, psychologists had begun to devise aptitude tests that would find the perfect job for every soldier. If a plane crashed, the prevailing assumption was: That person should not have been flying the plane. Or perhaps they should have simply been better trained. It was their fault.

But as Fitts pored over the Air Force’s crash data, he realized that if “accident prone” pilots really were the cause, there would be randomness in what went wrong in the cockpit. These kinds of people would get hung on anything they operated. It was in their nature to take risks, to let their minds wander while landing a plane. But Fitts didn’t see noise; he saw a pattern. And when he went to talk to the people involved about what actually happened, they told of how confused and terrified they’d been, how little they understood in the seconds when death seemed certain.

The examples slid back and forth on a scale of tragedy to tragicomic: pilots who slammed their planes into the ground after misreading a dial; pilots who fell from the sky never knowing which direction was up; the pilots of B-17s who came in for smooth landings and yet somehow never deployed their landing gear. And others still, who got trapped in a maze of absurdity, like the one who, having jumped into a brand-new plane during a bombing raid by the Japanese, found the instruments completely rearranged. Sweaty with stress, unable to think of anything else to do, he simply ran the plane up and down the runway until the attack ended.

Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes. Faced with the prospect of soldiers losing their lives to poorly designed machinery, they invented a new paradigm for viewing human behavior. That paradigm lies behind the user-friendly world that we live in every day. They realized that it was absurd to train people to operate a machine and assume they would act perfectly under perfect conditions.

Instead, designing better machines meant figuring how people acted without thinking, in the fog of everyday life, which might never be perfect. You couldn’t assume humans to be perfectly rational sponges for training. You had to take them as they were: distracted, confused, irrational under duress. Only by imagining them at their most limited could you design machines that wouldn’t fail them.

This new paradigm took root slowly at first. But by 1984—four decades after Chapanis and Fitts conducted their first studies—Apple was touting a computer for the rest of us in one of its first print ads for the Macintosh: “On a particularly bright day in Cupertino, California, some particularly bright engineers had a particularly bright idea: Since computers are so smart, wouldn’t it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers? So it was that those very engineers worked long days and nights and a few legal holidays, teaching silicon chips all about people. How they make mistakes and change their minds. How they refer to file folders and save old phone numbers. How they labor for their livelihoods, and doodle in their spare time.” (Emphasis mine.) And that easy-to-digest language molded the smartphones and seamless technology we live with today.

Along the long and winding path to a user-friendly world, Fitts and Chapanis laid the most important brick. They realized that as much as humans might learn, they would always be prone to err—and they inevitably brought presuppositions about how things should work to everything they used. This wasn’t something you could teach of existence. In some sense, our limitations and preconceptions are what it means to be human—and only by understanding those presumptions could you design a better world.

Today, this paradigm shift has produced trillions in economic value. We now presume that apps that reorder the entire economy should require no instruction manual at all; some of the most advanced computers ever made now come with only cursory instructions that say little more than “turn it on.” This is one of the great achievements of the last century of technological progress, with a place right alongside GPS, Arpanet, and the personal computer itself.

It’s also an achievement that remains unappreciated because we assume this is the way things should be. But with the assumption that even new technologies need absolutely no explaining comes a dark side: When new gadgets make assumptions about how we behave, they force unseen choices upon us. They don’t merely defer to our desires. They shape them.


User friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts; it relies on our patterns. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior. And today, our behavior is being shaped and molded in ways both magical and mystifying, precisely because it happens so seamlessly.

I got a taste of this seductive, user-friendly magic recently, when I went to Miami to tour a full-scale replica of Carnival Cruise’s so-called Ocean Medallion experience. I began my tour in a fake living room, with two of the best-looking project staffers pretending to be husband and wife, showing me how the whole thing was supposed to go.

Using the app, you could reserve all your activities way before you boarded the ship. And once on board, all you needed was to carry was a disk the size of a quarter; using that, any one of the 4,000 touchscreens on the ship could beam you personalized information, such which way you needed to go for your next reservation. The experience recalled not just scenes from Her and Minority Report, but computer-science manifestos from the late 1980s that imagined a suite of gadgets that would adapt to who you are, morphing to your needs in the moment.

Behind the curtains, in the makeshift workspace, a giant whiteboard wall was covered with a sprawling map of all the inputs that flow into some 100 different algorithms that crunch every bit of a passenger’s preference behavior to create something called the “Personal Genome.” If Jessica from Dayton wanted sunscreen and a mai tai, she could order them on her phone, and a steward would deliver them in person, anywhere across the sprawling ship.

The server would greet Jessica by name, and maybe ask if she was excited about her kitesurfing lesson. Over dinner, if Jessica wanted to plan an excursion with friends, she could pull up her phone and get recommendations based on the overlapping tastes of the people she was sitting with. If only some people like fitness and others love history, then maybe they’ll all like a walking tour of the market at the next port.

Jessica’s Personal Genome would be recalculated three times a second by 100 different algorithms using millions of data points that encompassed nearly anything she did on the ship: How long she lingered on a recommendation for a sightseeing tour; the options that she didn’t linger on at all; how long she’d actually spent in various parts of the ship; and what’s nearby at that very moment or happening soon. If, while in her room, she had watched one of Carnival’s slickly produced travel shows and seen something about a market tour at one her ports of call, she’d later get a recommendation for that exact same tour when the time was right. “Social engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,” one of the executives giving me the tour said.

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It was like having a right-click for the real world. Standing on the mocked-up sundeck, knowing that whatever I wanted would find me, and that whatever I might want would find its way either onto the app or the screens that lit up around the cruise ship as I walked around, it wasn’t hard to see how many other businesses might try to do the same thing. In the era following World War II, the idea that designers could make the world easier to understand was a breakthrough.

But today, “I understand what I should do” has become “I don’t need to think at all.” For businesses, intuitiveness has now become mandatory, because there are fortunes to be made by making things just a tad more frictionless. “One way to view this is creating this kind of frictionless experience is an option. Another way to look at it is that there’s no choice,” said John Padgett, the Carnival executive who had shepherded the Ocean Medallion to life. “For millennials, value is important. But hassle is more important, because the era they’ve grow up in. It’s table stakes. You have to be hassle-free to get them to participate.”

By that logic, the real world was getting to be disappointing when compared with the frictionless ease of this increasingly virtual world. Taken as a whole, Carnival’s vision for seamless customer service that can anticipate your every whim was like an Uber for everything, powered by Netflix recommendations for meatspace. And these are in fact the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, perfectly tailored, with no edges between one place and the next. Padgett described this as a “market of one,” in which everything you saw would be only the thing you want.

The Market of One suggests to me a break point in the very idea of user friendliness. When Chapanis and Fitts were laying the seeds of the user-friendly world, they had to find the principles that underlie how we expect the world to behave. They had to preach the idea that products built on our assumptions about how things should work would eventually make even the most complex things easy to understand.

Steve Jobs’ dream of a “bicycle for the mind”—a universal tool that might expand the reach of anyone—has arrived. High technology has made our lives easier; made us better at our jobs, and created jobs that never existed before; it has made the people we care about closer to us. But friction also has value: It’s friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want. Friction is the path to introspection. Infinite ease quickly becomes the path of least resistance; it saps our free will, making us submit to someone else’s guess about who we are. We can’t let that pass. We have to become cannier, more critical consumers of the user-friendly world. Otherwise, we risk blundering into more crashes that we’ll only understand after the worst has already happened.


Excerpted from USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 19th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. All rights reserved.

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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!Today’s NewsMeet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truckTesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest…

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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.

Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.

Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!

Today’s News

Meet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truck

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest baby, an all-electric pickup called the Tesla Cybertruck. He demonstrated that it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a scratch, and he also accidentally demonstrated that it can’t take a ball to the window. But behind the showmanship and Elon’s audible disbelief at the onstage mishap is a truck with a 500-mile range and the torque that comes from an electric motor. It represents an important new market expansion for Tesla. Now it just has to actually put the darn thing into production.

1.2 billion records found exposed online in a single server

Hackers have long used stolen personal data to break into accounts and wreak havoc. And a dark web researcher found one data trove sitting exposed on an unsecured server. The 1.2 billion records don’t include passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, but they do contain cell phone numbers, social media profiles, and email addresses—a great start for someone trying to steal your identity.

Fast Fact: 2025

That’s the year NASA expects to launch the first dedicated mission to Europa, where water vapor was recently discovered. The mission to Jupiter’s moon will involve peering beneath Europa’s icy shell for evidence of life.

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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of…

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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of Hinsdale even passed an ordinance that would make it easier for officers to ticket minors caught with the devices. To no avail. And the detectors? Students simply ripped them off the walls.

Ecigarettes, which are easy to conceal and, until recently, came in a dazzling array of sweet, fruity, and dessert flavors, are hugely popular among teenagers. A recent study found that 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers frequently vape. So schools across the country are spending thousands of dollars to outfit their campuses with vaping detectors, only to find that the devices can’t stand up to wily teens and that policing student behavior isn’t the same as permanently changing it.

Like smoke detectors, vape detectors are relatively unintrusive. They don’t even record video or audio—they just register the chemical signature of vaping aerosol, then send an email or text alert to school officials.

Some schools say they’re a useful deterrent. A district in Sparta, New Jersey, started off with two detectors and is planning to install more. Freeman School District in Washington installed detectors a few weeks ago. “They’ve been very effective, and we’re glad we have them,” says superintendent Randy Russell, who noted that the detectors already helped catch one young vaper in the act.

But at Hinsdale, even before the teens subjected them to blunt force trauma, the devices hadn’t lived up to expectations. “By the time we get there the kids are gone,” says Kimm Dever, an administrator at Hinsdale Central. Dever says the devices also went off randomly, and administrators couldn’t tell which kids were vaping and which just happened to be in the bathroom when the devices alerted.

Revere Schools in Bath, Ohio, reported similar problems. Revere spent around $15,000 to install 16 detectors in its middle and high schools at the beginning of the school year. Parents were thrilled, but administrators rarely made it to the bathroom in time to catch the vapers mid-puff. “It was like chasing ghosts,” says Jennifer Reece, a spokesperson for the school district. In theory, school officials could consult footage from hallway cameras to triangulate which students were in the bathroom when the detectors went off. “That also takes up time, and we don’t always have that type of time” Reece says.

Revere bought detectors with grant money from the state Attorney General’s Office. Now, Reece often gets questions from other school districts about the devices. “If they don’t have grant money I don’t know if it’s worth [the cost],” she says.

If vaping has become the cool thing to do among students, then buying vape detectors is the big trend for school districts. Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, which makes the Flysense detector that Revere installed, says the company is fielding about 700 orders a month. “We have more schools coming to us than we know what to do with,” he says. IPVideo, which makes a number of cameras and other gadgets for schools, sells a Halo detector that also claims to distinguish between THC and nicotine vapor. The detectors can integrate with school camera systems so it’s easier for administrators to figure out which students are in the bathroom, and both companies’ detectors cost roughly $1,000 a piece. Flysense charges an additional annual fee.

The sensors are chemical detectors that go off when the levels of certain chemicals in the room change. Most schools say they do sense the vapor and that they’ve caught students because of them. But kids are clever. Some exhale into their backpacks or sleeves, where the aerosol dissipates before wafting up to the detector. Other kids resort to AP physics–level subterfuge. They exhale into the toilet and flush, creating a vacuum that sucks the aerosol into the pipes. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” says Peterson. “There’s no sensing that could ever change the laws of physics.”

The problem is that detectors alone can’t change students’ behavior. It’s important for schools to analyze their goals, says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford who studies teen vaping. Vape detectors might help catch offending kids so they can be punished, she says, but “if the goal is to prevent and stop, vape detectors are not the way to go.”

Peterson agrees and is already getting in on the education angle, offering a #NoVaping package that includes brochures, posters, and suggestions for class presentations.

Between 2017 and 2019, the California Department of Justice distributed more than $12 million to California school districts trying to deter vaping through a number of measures including installing detectors, hiring school resource officers, and running educational programs.

One of those districts was Las Virgenes Unified, which serves around 11,500 students northwest of Los Angeles. In October 2018, Las Virgenes spent half of its grant, some $50,000, to install Flysense detectors at its two high schools and three middle schools. “The technology is good. They work,” says superintendent Dan Stepenosky. But he combines the detectors with other measures. When students are caught vaping, they’re sent to a 90-minute meeting with their parents and an addiction counselor. The school dispatched administrators to nearby gas stations, grocery stores, and convenience stores to remind people not to sell ecigarettes to kids under 21. The school even partners with law enforcement to run sting operations on businesses in the community that sell ecigarettes to minors. So far they’ve conducted over 250 operations complete with undercover officers and marked bills.

But the most important element hasn’t been the sting operations, the crackdowns on local retailers, or the detectors. “The most impactful has been the education piece,” says Stepenosky. The district holds seminars for parents and teachers, and it hired extra deans to focus on student wellness and included information about ecigarettes in school curricula.

These strategies are comprehensive, and they demand a lot of resources. One school in South Dakota raised money from the local community to buy its sensors. Other school districts are suing Juul, blaming the company’s marketing for creating a new generation of nicotine-addicted kids. Those districts hope to get payouts that will alleviate the huge financial burden of running addiction counseling and education programs. Stepenosky received over a million dollars from the California Department of Justice, and he’s already applying for more funding for next year.


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