Escaping Online in 2011

The sputtering economy in 2011 left us feeling fed up and disengaged, but at least we could escape online. So how exactly did we enjoy ourselves? In the last of a series of summing up 2011, this blog reveals how more and more, we find pleasure online.

On any given day, 58% go online for no other reason than to have fun or pass the time (Pew Research Center), and 37% turn to the Internet to help diagnose their illnesses (Marist Poll).

65% visit social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, but 7% have gotten in trouble at school or work, and 7% think they’ve lost a potential job, because of a comment or picture they shared online (Harris Interactive). Nonetheless, 27% of men and 23% of women say they have been photographed nude, and 16% have used their cellphones for “sexting”—sending naked photos or erotic messages to a partner.

The fun and games aren’t limited to partners, however: 31% of men and 26% of women admit to contacting an ex via Facebook or email. In a world where everyone is connected, trust doesn’t come easily: 41% of men and 47% of women have suspected their partners of cheating (Playboy/Harris Interactive).

- As seen in The Week
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The 4 Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2011

From neutrinos to new planets, a look at some of the most important scientific discoveries in 2011.

1. Upending the laws of physics
Researchers at the CERN laboratory in Geneva announced in September that they'd clocked subatomic particles called neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. That finding directly contradicts Albert Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity, which holds that nothing can outrun light. If neutrinos can, they could arrive at a destination before they even left, opening the prospect of time travel. Or could it be that neutrinos move through an undiscovered fifth dimension, separate from the three dimensions of space and one of time that we know about? Those ideas are so shocking that even the CERN team "wanted to find a mistake" in their data, says team leader Antonio Ereditato. But they didn't. And so far, further testing has failed to dismiss the finding, says theoretical physicist Matthew Strassler, as "a doorway into something fundamental and deep we don't know about nature."

2. Reasons to listen to your gut
Bacteria in our intestines may play a major role in the health of our minds and bodies. German researchers have discovered that just as each human being has a specific blood type, each of us also has one of three separate families of bacteria residing in our guts. A person's "enterotype" likely establishes itself in infancy and appears to affect everything from how well food is digested to how drugs are absorbed. The discovery of the three distinct gut ecosystems "was a surprise, and it's good news," says researcher Peer Bork. The finding could help physicians diagnose and treat serious digestive disorders, and also help explain why the effects of medicines and nutrients vary widely from person to person. Further studies have shown that ingesting a bacteria species found in certain yogurts and cheeses calms stressed-out mice — pointing to the prospect of treating psychiatric disorders with microbes instead of drugs.

3. Closing in on alien life
A galaxy-wide search for Earth-like planets has returned a startling number of candidates. Using NASA's Kepler space telescope, astronomers this year announced they'd spotted 2,326 new worlds and counting. Ten of those planets are close in size to our own and orbit their suns in the "habitable zone," where temperatures could be balmy enough to support liquid water — and potentially life. The best contender yet, Kepler-22b, looks to be a hospitable 72 degrees and circles a star very similar to our sun. The data pouring in from the spacecraft, launched in March 2009, are "game-changing," says Kepler principal investigator William Borucki. "It's just a tremendous amount of new knowledge." Already, other researchers are scanning the most promising Kepler finds for signs of alien life.

4. A new weapon against aging
The fountain of youth might one day flow within our own cells. Scientists working with mice have discovered that if they remove a special kind of cell that promotes aging, a host of age-related conditions disappear: The genetically modified rodents didn't develop cataracts, their skin didn't wrinkle, and they maintained high levels of energy throughout their lives. The so-called senescent cells have lost the ability to divide, and as they build up in aging tissue, they release toxins that destroy robust neighboring cells. Scientists devised a way of killing off those senescent cells, and the procedure "suggests therapies that might work in real patients," says Norman E. Sharpless, an expert on aging. If purging the cells works in people as it does in mice, the treatment could ward off a host of age-related diseases, from cancer to dementia, and keep us vigorous longer.

- As seen in The Week
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Websites Go Dark Today Over Piracy Bills

Need to look something up (other than an Internet term)? You won't find it on Wikipedia--for today anyway.

The popular online encyclopedia plans to black out its English-language pages for 24 hours starting today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. Popular sites Reddit, Boing Boing and others are also set to go dark today, January 18, 2012.

The two bills which are making the rounds through Congress, would grant the government the power to shut down website with content that infringes on copyright laws. Opponents content that the bills would cut too deeply into freedom of speech.

The point is the bills are so over-broad and so badly written that it's going to impact all kinds of things that, you know, don't have anything to do with stopping piracy," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the BBC.

Twitter, however, won't be joint the protest. CEO Dick Costolo tweeted his view Monday that "closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish."

- As seen in The Wall St. Journal

The 3 Worst Tech Predictions of 2011

When it comes to digital prognostications, some guesses actually stick — but not in these cases. What would we do without the rumor mill? Whether it's a proclamation from a business analyst with "insider" know-how or a whisper strung along by anonymous sources, for every correct tech prediction at least a dozen misguided ones are left out in the cold. Here, a look back at the year's most flat-out wrong guesses — just in case you've forgotten:

1. The "ultra sexy" iPhone 5
Remember how the latest iPhone was supposed to be an "ultra sexy" redesign with a "radical new case design"? In the pre-Siri era back in April, the website formerly known as This Is My Next published a sneak-peek mock-up illustrating a much thinner iPhone, featuring a larger screen and a rounded teardrop-shape profile, "based on information from a variety of sources," as editor in chief Joshua Topolsky put it. Meanwhile, Bloomberg and other sources were hinting heavily that a separate "cheaper iPhone" would debut alongside the iPhone 5. Instead, the spunky Siri-equipped iPhone 4S — an attention-getting upgrade, but not a new incarnation — arrived alone.

2. Amazon will never make a tablet
When rumors of a sub-$300 Amazon tablet began swirling back in August, several writers scoffed at the idea of an iPad challenger. Just "another round of tech headlines so clearly penned by Apple-hating geeks, who will do and say and write anything in the hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy," declared Timmy Falcon at Beatweek Magazine. How, asked the Los Angeles Times, could an unconfirmed tablet "prompt such an optimistic, multimillion-sales forecast?" Fast-forward to November, when Amazon released its Kindle Fire touchscreen tablet, priced at $200, and shipped an estimated 5 million units in less than a month.

3. Facebook's Netflix impersonation
Back in September, Mark Zuckerberg took the stage to announce some "massive" changes to his 800-million strong social network, the biggest of which was a new type of profile dubbed Timeline. In the days leading up to Zuckerberg's announcement, several bloggers predicted he would also unveil Facebook's version of a comprehensive "movie rental service" a la Netflix — yet "another effort to make Facebook's website 'stickier.'" Despite the hype, the feature hasn't seen the light of day. At least not yet.

- As seen in The Week
Brought to you by NetLingo: Improve Your Internet IQ

Is Apple losing its 'cool factor'?

One critic says the mighty Apple will lose its "cool factor" in 2012, as sexy new Android smartphones steal the spotlight.

A new year never fails to bring a flood of predictions from eager crystal-ball gazers. Tech analysts are no exception. Investor's Business Daily's Brian Deagon forecasts that 2012 will be the year that "Apple will lose its cool factor," as new gadgets like the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones prove to be more exciting than the iPhone. Will Apple really fall from the pedestal of trendiness that it's long occupied?

Yes. Apple is on the way out: Sure, Apple "redefined markets and defined cool" with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad," says Deagon. But now what? "The iPhone is boxy, flat and feeling stale," and "the Samsung Galaxy smartphone seems cooler." As smartphone and tablets become cheaper and more widely adopted, Apple will be overshadowed by the many Android options. Plus, Apple is pinning its hopes on getting into the TV market, but that will be "a tough nut to crack," especially given that Samsung is already dominant in that industry.

Not quite: Sure, iPhones might not be as eye-popping as some Android phones, but "Apple is not going to lose its cool… for a long time," says Dan Rowinski at ReadWriteWeb. The company has "legions of developers" coming up with cool apps for its gadgets, and that's a big advantage. It also has the best marketing around. While it's true that the iPad and iPhone are both due for some big updates, it's "pretty safe to say that Apple will continue being just as cool in 2012 as it has been in previous years."

In fact, Apple has a promising year ahead: Apple won't be on top forever, but it's doubtful that 2012 will be a bad year for the company, says Zach Epstein at BGR. Apple is set to launch a totally redesigned iPhone and "a Siri-fueled HDTV" in the new year — no small feats. Given that the same analyst that predicted Apple would lose its cool also forecast that "Twitter will totter" (huh?) and "BlackBerry will go the way of Palm" (duh), his opinions shouldn't be taken too seriously. What do you think?

- As seen in The Week
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