Imagine you have infinite money. Just an unstoppable amount of dollars—the ability to buy anything and destabilize everything. Do you use it to end world hunger? Do you take actually meaningful steps to mitigate the climate crisis? Ha ha, no. You go to space! Or at least you do if you’re Jeff Bezos. Or Virgin CEO Richard Branson.
On Tuesday, Bezos’ Blue Origin will launch a crew including the former Amazon CEO, his slightly less high-profile brother, a trailblazing octogenarian pilot, and a young Dutch physics student up to the outer edges of the planet. (WIRED’s own Steven Levy will be reporting live from the launch site, so keep an eye out for his dispatches.)
If you want to watch, here are the details:
- The launch will stream on Blue Origin’s website. Here’s the link.
- The broadcast starts at 7:30 am Eastern time on July 20. The actual launch is aiming for 9:00 am ET, but expect delays. (As with all liftoffs, that timing depends on weather, the whims of random animals, or any number of technical snafus. Launching a rocket is dangerous, and things can go awry.)
The flight itself should take about 11 minutes. And while there are risks involved any time you mix humans and space flight, experts expect things to go smoothly.
This event is historic enough. There have only been a handful of crewed commercial space launches, and this is Blue Origin’s first. (If you’re keeping score, Virgin has completed one other crewed flight. Musk’s SpaceX has been flinging people into space for a while now, though none have been civilians yet.) Thanks to a last-minute booking change, the launch also now has the distinction of carrying both the youngest and the oldest person to ever go to space. It’s particularly neat for the 82-year-old passenger and ex-pilot Wally Funk, who had previously been denied her lifelong dream of traveling to space.
This launch is a big deal for Bezos too, obviously. The billionaires had locked themselves in a dude-bro cold war, each eager to make history as the very first head of a space tourism brand to hurl himself into the thermosphere. Branson claimed victory last week, with a bombastic mission in his Virgin Galactic shuttle. Bezos will try for second place, though Blue Origin has been keen to point out that the boundary of what constitutes space is a little contentious. The Bezos gang’s parabolic voyage will carry them past the Kármán line—or 62 miles up, the US Department of Defense’s round number that marks the boundary of space (the Federal Aviation Administration uses a more lenient 50 miles, which is where Branson flew last week)—and keep them up there just long enough to tickle the abyss. It’ll probably be plenty of time to ensure that the price tag of future trips appeals to those with the dough.
Of course, these high-altitude ambitions have come under fire from critics, who point out stuff like how all the money the space billionaires avoid paying in taxes could be used to fund public resources like NASA. (You know, the agency that has been sending humans to space for 60 years.) Or that Bezos has spent the last couple of decades overseeing a company that has had a serious impact on the planet’s environment and a contentious history with worker’s rights advocates. The endeavor loses some of its egalitarian “giant leap for mankind” luster when it’s centered around a guy whose employees have had to pee in bottles while on the clock.
More Great WIRED Stories
Regulators in Germany are poised to block one of the world’s biggest porn sites, according to a report from our colleagues at WIRED UK. The country imposed age verification checks for adult sites recently, which some have yet to implement. The blocking would have to be carried out by ISPs and mobile data providers, who may attempt to fight the orders in court if it comes to that.
A more aggressive form of internet censorship has played out this week in Cuba, as authorities disrupted access to major social media and messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp in the face of ongoing civil unrest. Like Iran, China, and other oppressive regimes, Cuba has centralized control over the internet, which means it can block specific sites or wholesale access as it pleases. It’s an increasingly common technique, enabled by the ongoing balkanization of the internet.
As businesses around the world grappled with an ongoing ransomware catastrophe, we took a look at how hackers have increasingly turned to IT management software to pull off large-scale attacks. Zero-days remain popular as well, including for Russia’s Cozy Bear, which used one to target iPhones in a recently discovered campaign. And good old fashioned catfishing remains in style as well, particularly for Iran, which Facebook (once again) caught trying to trick targets in high-value industries with fake accounts. The good news is that Biden has a cybersecurity all-star team in place. The trickier part is figuring out how they can all work together.
Good-guy hackers had a productive week as well, demonstrating how they could fool a third-party webcam into letting them bypass Windows Hello’s facial recognition. Microsoft has addressed the issue. And WhatsApp has addressed a long-running frustration for its users, finally enabling multi-device use without having to route everything through your phone.
Don’t forget to set aside a little time this weekend to make sure your web searches are private and secure.
And there’s more. Each week we round up all the security news WIRED didn’t cover in depth. Click on the headlines to read the full stories, and stay safe out there.
There’s no simple solution to the global ransomware scourge. But the Biden administration has at least taken some proactive steps, including a new reward that offers up to $10 million in exchange for info about criminal hackers targeting US infrastructure. The Justice Department will set up a system for reporting tips on the dark web, and indicated that it was open to paying out informants with cryptocurrency.
Last week, REvil managed to lock up over 1,000 businesses in a ransomware campaign of historic propoprtions. This week, the group’s operations went offline. There are a few possibilities here. The Justice Department may have seized REvil’s servers, or Russia may have finally done a little enforcement. (OK, probably not that.) The most likely scenario, though, may be that REvil simply packed it up in the face of unwelcome scrutiny. Don’t expect them to be gone forever, though; these groups often just rebrand and reemerge once the pressure has died down. In the meantime, though, victims are left without a way to pay the ransom and get their systems back.
We talked about the balkanization of the internet earlier, and China’s Great Firewall is the most prominent example. Researchers this week shed new light on just how extensive the company’s blocking is. Not only does it deny access to around 311,000 domains out of 534 million tested, around 41,000 of those appear to have been blocked by accident. Around 1,800 of the censored sites are among the top 100,000 most-visited sites on the web.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab this week released a report, in conjunction with a Microsoft investigation, indicating that spyware from a company known as Candiru has been used to target at least 100 activists, journalists, dissidents, and politicians across 10 countries. It’s a troubling confirmation that surveillance software from shadowy companies is increasingly used by authoritarian regimes to quash dissent.
More Great WIRED Stories
Years ago, while stationed in Moscow as the bureau chief for a major news magazine, I was approached by a representative of a multinational company and presented with a tantalizing offer. He said he had highly sensitive materials exposing possible criminal activity by a Russian competitor. The documents were mine with one condition: advance notice so he could be out of the country when any story was published.
I had every reason to think the materials came from a private intelligence operative hired by the company—there were many such operatives in Moscow—but I didn’t ask my source for his source. Instead I embarked on a somewhat harrowing investigation of my own, and on corroborating the materials, I was able to publish a splashy story.
This episode came back to me while reading Barry Meier’s new book, Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies. A former New York Times investigative reporter, Meier casts a harsh light on both “private spies” and journalists who make frequent use of nuggets unearthed by these operatives. In the book’s afterword, he revives an idea for “a kind of ‘spy registry’ in which operatives for hire would have to disclose the names of their clients and assignments,” just as Congress now requires of lobbyists hired to influence legislators.
Is this truly a problem in need of a solution? Or would a spy registry create worse problems?
It’s tempting to conclude that there is really nothing new here and that private spies may even supply a public service. In the original, late-19th-century Gilded Age, the Pinkerton Detective Agency devoted itself to the art of subterfuge. In 1890, a Pinkerton man went undercover on behalf of his client, the governor of North Dakota, and confirmed from rigorous barroom investigation that a fair amount of “boodle,” bribe money, was being dispensed by advocates of a state lottery opposed by the governor. The governor revealed the dirty dealings to the public, and the lottery scheme failed—all perhaps to the civic good.
Today’s circumstances are far different. Inexpensive, off-the-shelf technologies for surveillance, hacking, and spoofing make the spy game easier to play than ever before. What hired sleuth doesn’t now travel with one of those metallic-fabric bags that blocks cellphone GPS signals, like the GoDark Faraday model that sells online for $49.97? It’s an insignificant item on the expense report.
Digital-age tools of the trade, coupled with promiscuous media outlets happy to take receipt of purloined emails, say, that news organizations could not legally acquire on their own, made for a “perfect petri dish,” Meier writes in Spooked, “where the influence of the private spies would fester and breed, uncontrolled and unchecked.” Based on an estimate by the consulting firm ERG Partners, he guesses that revenues for the private investigative industry, at $2.5 billion in 2018, have doubled from 10 years before.
Meier stakes his indictment on two ethically fraught episodes, one concerning Black Cube. Founded in 2010, the global corporate intelligence firm touts its use of a “select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units” to deliver its product of “Creative Intelligence: Tailor-made solutions based on high-quality intelligence, cutting-edge technology, unique expertise and out-of-the box thinking,” as its website informs us.
“Out of the box” indeed. In 2016, in hopes of keeping the press from publishing sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the law firm of superlawyer David Boies hired Black Cube to work on Weinstein’s behalf. The contract, Meier notes, specifically mentioned the intelligence firm’s use of “avatar operators”: experts in social media who specialized in creating fake Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, and the like for field operatives. One such operative, a female Israeli military veteran given the cover of a women’s rights advocate employed at a London investment firm, befriended a Weinstein accuser, the actress Rose McGowan. The agent’s covert aim was to persuade McGowan to share an as-yet-unpublished memoir that dealt with Weinstein. All of this later came to light in Ronan Farrow’s 2017 expose of Black Cube. Asked whether Black Cube’s tactics involving fake identities constituted misrepresentation, Boies retreated to unconvincing legalese: “I think it may depend on how significant the misrepresentation is to the person receiving it.”
Meier’s other linchpin example involves the Washington, DC, firm Fusion GPS, which advertises “premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services to corporations, law firms, and investors worldwide.” The firm is led by a pair of ex-Wall Street Journal reporters, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, and not surprisingly makes enterprising use of its close personal ties to the journalism fraternity.
Robert Sheckley, author of classic stories such as “Is That What People Do?” and “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?,” was one of the top sci-fi authors of the 1950s. Humor writer Tom Gerencer corresponded with Sheckley regularly for nearly a decade.
“He was so open to talking to me, this nobody who just liked him, and answering my questions about writing, and about his work,” Gerencer says in Episode 475 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “He was just an amazing man, an amazing talent, but also just an amazingly kind, gracious person.”
Sheckley’s brand of mordant cynicism helped pave the way for writers such as Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and J.G. Ballard, and his novels Dimension of Miracles and The Prize of Peril prefigured genre classics such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Running Man.
“A lot of his ideas are so prescient,” Gerencer says. “He was just extrapolating, basically looking at problems and saying, ‘Well, if that keeps going in that direction, in another 50 years it’s going to be like this.’ And you look at it and say, ‘Yep, we’ve gone closer to that now. It’s worse that way now.’ So I think they’re such classics in that sense.”
Sheckley is often remembered as a writer whose talents declined over the years, but Gerencer thinks the reality is more complicated, and that Sheckley never really lost his knack for funny sci-fi. “I don’t think it was that he couldn’t do that kind of stuff later, I just think it was that he didn’t want to,” Gerencer says. “He found that kind of frivolous, and he wanted to write about things that mattered to a 70-plus-year-old man, which aren’t the same things that matter to a 20-something or a 30-something-year-old man, and those things, unfortunately, aren’t the things that a science fiction readership is going to care about as much.”
Sheckley’s work has enjoyed a minor renaissance in recent years. Many of his best stories are collected in the 2012 book Store of the Worlds, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, and an audiobook version of Dimension of Miracles was released in 2013, read by John Hodgman. Gerencer says that Sheckley was a consistently inventive writer, and that anything he wrote is worth reading.
“I read somewhere that he’s written over 400 stories, and I feel like I’ve read maybe 150 of them, and loved them,” Gerencer says. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s 250 more out there?’ I would love to discover the rest of them.”
Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer in Episode 475 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Tom Gerencer on discovering Robert Sheckley:
“In the course of becoming a fan of Douglas Adams, I read some interview snippets with him; I think it was in Neil Gaiman’s book Don’t Panic, which has some interviews with Douglas Adams in it. But in there, he asks Douglas Adams about Robert Sheckley—this controversy about ‘people say you’ve copied Robert Sheckley,’ and Douglas Adams is like, ‘Well, I had never read his stuff, but when I did I was like, “Wow, it’s really similar to my stuff.”‘ And so I was like, ‘Oh, really similar to Douglas Adams? Let’s check it out.’ I used to go into old bookstores all the time, and just look in the science fiction section, and I found a Robert Sheckley collection of short stories and loved it, and have always been on the lookout for more ever since.”
Tom Gerencer on corresponding with Robert Sheckley:
“In 1998 I was like, ‘I’m going to see if this guy is still around. Because I know his stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s, but I want to see if he’s still around.’ So I Googled ‘Robert Sheckley email address,’ and an email address popped up—an aol.com address—so I emailed him. … I struck up a conversation with him that lasted for years, and I asked him, ‘Hey, could we ever collaborate on a short story?’ And he said, yes, he’d be happy to. And it grew and grew and grew. We went back and forth with notes, and it became a novel, and at some point it became kind of overwhelming for both of us. I don’t know if I was a good enough writer, and also I think he had a crisis of faith about himself, where he thought, ‘I don’t know if I can make this work.’ We just sort of fell away from it, and tragically, I think it was in 2005, he died. It was very sad.”
Tom Gerencer on Robert Sheckley’s reputation:
“In other countries—in Russia, in Italy, all throughout Europe, in China, all over the world, outside of the US—he was undergoing this renaissance of his work, which I think is now starting to happen here, maybe. I’m starting to feel like it is, and more power to him—if anybody deserves it, it’s him. He’s just brilliant. But back then he was telling me, ‘I’m traveling to Venice. It’s a vacation, but I’m going to be talking about my stories. I’m being interviewed by this person over in Italy, I’m traveling to Russia on a book tour.’ … And he was loving it, you know, I think he was eating it up. He was just like, ‘This is so nice. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it’s fun.’ That was happening for him, and I was really happy that it was happening.”
Tom Gerencer on writers and alcohol:
“I don’t know where that stereotype came about, but it’s so unfortunate, because it’s so not true that you have to experience pain before you can write. Don’t worry, life will give you plenty of pain, you don’t need to go out and seek it through a bottle. But I thought that when I was a kid. I remember buying bottles of Scotch and being like, ‘I’m a writer. I’ve got to have a bottle of Scotch in my apartment.’ And then thank god I stopped, and got away from it. And now that I’m older and I know some successful authors, they don’t do that. … It’s the ones who are disciplined, and who understand that that stereotype is just a stereotype, who I think really end up making it.”
More Great WIRED Stories
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.
One of the oddities of the CDC’s recommendation, beyond the calculations it’s based on, is its lack of consideration of alternate vaccination approaches for adolescents beyond the same exact dosage and schedule as adults. The CDC’s analysis “assumes that single doses of mRNA vaccines have 0 percent effectiveness at preventing Covid-19 associated hospitalization,” wrote Wes Pegden, a mathematician at Carnegie Mellon University.
While many media reports of a study published by the UK’s public health agency in mid-June highlighted its finding that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine were 96 percent protective against hospitalization from the Delta variant, many failed to mention that it also found that one dose was 94 percent protective. Considering the benefit of just one dose, and that the majority of risk of myocarditis comes with the second dose, critics have suggested a variety of different plans that would mitigate the risks to adolescents. Pegden, along with multiple coauthors, including an epidemiologist, two cardiologists, and a pediatrician, also wrote a separate essay critiquing the CDC’s “all or nothing” approach, listing several alternatives. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at UCSF, has suggested a variety of options as well. These include adolescents, or specifically young males, getting just one dose; administering the second dose later in time, since spreading out the doses may reduce the likelihood of a serious reaction; recommending only high-risk young people get vaccinated; and for any adolescents who have immunity from prior infection, either just one dose or no vaccine at all, at least for the foreseeable future, since prior infection confers strong immunity.
Despite the UK study, less than two weeks after it was published, Walensky said “data from the UK show that one shot is really not working as well to stave off, especially, the Delta variant, and you really do need that second shot.” Two shots do offer more protection than one, and it’s not clear yet whether the protection from one dose may wane faster or not be sufficiently protective at some later date. But the CDC’s singular focus on every individual in American getting two doses, including those at a markedly higher risk after the second dose, such as young males, seems unnecessarily and perhaps harmfully myopic.
Further to this point, a slide in the committee meeting recommended that even if someone gets myocarditis following the first dose of the mRNA vaccine, if their heart recovers they should still consider getting a second dose. While some policy professionals were pleased with this advice, numerous cardiologists and other medical professionals condemned it. Venk Murthy, a cardiologist at the University of Michigan, commented: “In essentially no circumstances should a patient with myocarditis soon after first mRNA vax dose get a second dose, even if the heart recovers. The CDC got this wrong.” Physicians at three different major university hospitals in New York and California, who were not authorized to speak publicly, each told me this advice was “insane.”
The medical establishment has also fallen in line behind the CDC to back its questionable messaging. In a remarkable show of uniformity, a joint statement, cosigned by the heads of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, and 11 other national medical organizations, was released in reaction to the advisory committee meeting. It reads, in part:
Today, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met to discuss the latest data on reports of mild cases of inflammation of the heart muscle and surrounding tissue called myocarditis and pericarditis following Covid-19 vaccination among younger people.