Rainbows and Unicorns: A Linguistic History

It all seems to date back to a 19th-century French book. It's not all rainbows and butterflies, you know. Or rainbows and unicorns. Or butterflies and unicorns. But when it comes to referring to impossibly perfect conditions where everyone's happy and nothing goes wrong, we're living in a golden age of RBUs.

A Google News search for just the past week brings up almost 500 hits for rainbows and unicorns or rainbows and butterflies. On this Google Ngram Viewer graph below, you can see that both expressions, as well as butterflies and rainbows, are on the rise, with rainbows and unicorns in particular shooting steadily up since 2003.

Rainbows and butterflies came together first. The earliest attestation I've found is from an 1864 book by Jenny d' Hericourt (translated from French) titled A Woman's Philosophy of Woman, where on pages 191 and 192 we read:

...if [women] were free and happy they would be less eager for illusions and cajoleries and it would no longer be necessary in writing to them to place rainbows and butterflies' wings under contribution…

It's butterfly wings instead of entire butterflies, but the sentiment seems the same. The phrase also occurs in William S. Lord's 1897 poem Jingle and Jangle, which lists some things that the pleasant sound of a jingling bell brings to mind:

Sunshine and sugar and honey and bees
Rainbows and butterflies wings,
Bird songs and brook songs and wide spreading trees,
Of joy little Jingle bell sings.

Butterflies and rainbows also appears in the late 19th century, in an 1896 editorial that scornfully refers to the idea of moving the U.S. to a dual gold-and-silver standard as "chasing free silver butterflies and rainbows."

Pairings of rainbows with butterflies (not just butterflies' wings) continue to appear on into the 20th century, often as the objects of chasing, before the steady rise in the graph that began in the 1970s. Since then, "rainbows and butterflies" has been the title of a 1983 song by Billy Swan, the title of two books of poetry, and part of the lyrics of Maroon 5's 2005 song "She Will Be Loved."

In the 1980s, unicorns made their entry, at around the same time that Hasbro began marketing its My Little Pony line of toys, which included both a Rainbow Ponies and a Unicorn Ponies collection. However, I can't claim that this event was the you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment for rainbows and unicorns; it may be that an increasing popularity of unicorns was responsible for both phenomena. A 2010 post on the Zandl Marketing Group's blog puts the increasing popularity of rainbows and unicorns in the context of the mainstreaming of gay cultural symbols. In any case, in the mid-80s we begin to see examples like this one from 1984:

The only calendars left in the stores just before the holidays are those with unicorns and rainbows on them.

Although unicorns arrived late to the party, they've hit it off so well with rainbows that for some, it's not enough just to have the two words conjoined by and. In the past few years, unicorns that fart rainbows seem to have become their own meme. For an even tighter linkage, there's Lady Rainicorn, a half-rainbow, half-unicorn character in Cartoon Network's Adventure Time series.

These days, unicorns sometimes get together with butterflies to the exclusion of rainbows. There aren't enough examples to have been captured in the Google Ngram corpus, but Google Books has a 1996 example of butterflies and unicorns in Skywriting, by Margarita Engle:

I would take the alligators out of its rivers and the scorpions out of its soil, replacing them with butterflies and unicorns.

In the other order, "Unicorns and Butterflies" is the name of not one but two blogs, each begun sometime in the last two years.

Some people prefer not to choose between unicorns and butterflies with their rainbows. The "Rainbows and Butterflies and Unicorns" Facebook page doesn't. And in the 2008 movie Horton Hears a Who, a child character takes that earlier scatological unicorn-rainbow connection, reverses its direction, and brings in the butterflies, telling of an imaginary world where "there are unicorns who eat rainbows and poop butterflies!"

Other words to appear in RBU contexts include smiles, sunshine, balloons, bunnies, kittens, and lollipops. In a 1981 monologue, Steve Martin declares that he believes in "rainbows and puppy dogs and fairy tales." Three-syllable nouns, it seems, tend to be favored for rainbow collocations; specifically, three-syllable nouns consisting of an unstressed syllable sandwiched between two stressed syllables: BUTTerflies, Unicorns, LOLlipops, PUPpydogs, FAIRy tales. This kind of three-syllable string is known in poetry circles as a cretic.

So if you'd like to enrich the language with some new rainbow-cretic collocations, I offer my suggestion: Rainbows and boogeymen and heart attacks.

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How 3-D Printers Might Help Us Build a Base on the Moon

Mankind's quest to live among the stars gets a little more realistic with the advent of 3-D printing.

If humanity's longtime dream of a moon colony is ever going to be achieved, its architects will have to deal with the fundamental logistical problem of having to haul boatloads of building materials into outer space — an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that, quite simply, isn't feasible considering the financial troubles NASA is currently facing.

So... what then? The answer, say skyward-looking engineers, is to harvest available materials from the moon itself. The European Space Agency recently revealed plans to use a 3-D printer to build the complex shapes and pieces of equipment that would make up an inhabitable space base.

3-D printing, lest you forget, is a technique that allows users to "print" three-dimensional objects layer-by-layer. Usually, the printers employ plastic in place of ink, but a diverse range of materials like metal, clay, and yes, even chocolate can be used to print toys, furniture, or whatever else can be sketched out with AutoCAD, software for computer-assisted design and drafting. More recently, 3-D printers have been the subject of intense scrutiny, with several media outlets reporting that people can theoretically build operational handguns and rifles at home if they download the correct plans.

Now, a team of researchers from the architecture firm Foster + Partners is exploring the possibility of using portable 3-D printers to convert lunar material into a moon base. Working with a UK-based company called Monolite, researchers were able to chemically mold sand-like material together with a special kind of binding salt that forms into a sturdy, stone-hard solid. "Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 m per hour," Monolite founder Enrico Dini tells Discovery News, "while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 m per hour, completing an entire building in a week." (Take a look at the base and the machine here.)

This, however, isn't the first time 3-D printing has been tapped to possibly build a moon base. Last year, NASA challenged researchers at Washington State University to develop a technique to build smooth, cylindrical shapes for a future space habitat.


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3-D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution

Three-dimensional printers make manufacturing possible at home. Could they spell the end of mass production?

What is 3-D printing?
It’s a revolutionary manufacturing process in which the design for physical objects, from toys to jewelry to machine parts, can be digitally transmitted to a device that makes them out of plastic, metal, or ceramic materials. Once the stuff of science fiction, 3-D printers have rapidly evolved in recent years, becoming smaller, faster, and cheaper. A basic, microwave-size 3-D printer costs less than $1,000, making almost anyone a potential manufacturer. Tonight Show host Jay Leno uses a $30,000 device to print hard-to-find parts for his collection of classic cars. “It’s a bit like when I was a kid and I watched The Jetsons and they’d walk up to a machine and press a button and get a steak dinner,” Leno said. “But instead of a steak dinner, you’re getting an old car part.”

How do 3-D printers work?
Just as a traditional ink-jet printer sprays ink onto a page line by line, modern 3-D devices deposit material onto a surface layer by layer, slowly building up a shape. The process begins with a designer using computer software to create a virtual 3-D model of an object, such as a toy car. Another program slices that model into thin horizontal sections and instructs the printer to lay down an exact replica of each slice. Some printers use a computer-controlled heated nozzle that moves back and forth across a print platform, setting down a layer of melted material. Others use a laser or electron beam to fuse powdered plastic or metal into the required shape. After each layer is completed, the printing platform is lowered by a fraction of a millimeter and the next layer is added, until the object is completed.

What’s the advantage of this technology?
It makes it easier and cheaper for ordinary people to get into the business of making things. Inventors can print a model of their latest creation in a few hours, then tweak it and print again, instead of waiting weeks for a prototype to emerge from a factory. Injection molding, which requires toolmakers to build metal casts into which heated plastic is poured, is only cost-efficient for large-scale production. With 3-D printing, the cost per unit stays the same whether you manufacture one part or one million. “I can cost-effectively make a cellphone cover that is unique to every customer,” said Ryan Wicker, an engineer at the University of Texas at El Paso. “I could build 100 different ones just as cost-effectively as building them all the same.”

What are people printing now?
MyRobotNation.com lets customers design their own toy robot, which is manufactured on a 3-D printer, and the online retailer Shapeways.com sells everything from printed jewelry to desk toys. But the technology isn’t being used just to build novelties. Danish firm Widex prints hearing aids perfectly tailored to the wearer’s ear canal, and San Francisco’s Bespoke Innovations is experimenting with printing custom-fitted prosthetic limbs. Aerospace firms like Boeing and EADS are starting to print complex aircraft parts in single pieces rather than multiple sections. By doing away with bolts and screws that previously held components together, 3-D printing has reduced the weight of certain parts by up to 30 percent, saving fuel costs, said Boeing design engineer Michael Hayes. Eventually, Boeing thinks it might be able to print an entire aircraft wing. “That’s where the industry is trying to go,” said Hayes.

What more could 3-D printing do?
A possible next step is for virtually every home to have its own printer. “Once that happens, it will change everything,” said Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, which makes imaging software used by designers, architects, and engineers. “See something on Amazon you like? Instead of placing an order and waiting 24 hours for your FedEx package, just hit print and get it in minutes.” Most experts, though, think the Jetsons era remains far off. The desktop 3-D printers available on the market now can only extrude plastic, limiting the objects they can produce. And even if you owned an advanced machine capable of creating whatever you wanted, you’d need a large stockpile of different materials. If your microwave breaks and you want to print a replacement part, “what are the chances that your 3-D printer is going to have the right material?” said industry analyst Terry Wohlers.

How might people use 3-D printers in the future?
Instead of fiddling around at home, we’re likely to turn to manufacturing hubs with specialist 3-D printing machines, “rather like when people go to specialist shops to get higher quality photos printed,” said Richard Hague, an expert on 3-D printing at Loughborough University in the U.K. Once introduced on an industrial scale, 3-D printing could have a profound economic impact. Companies would no longer need to keep huge warehouses filled with goods, as products could be printed locally on demand. And 3-D printing could compel American manufacturers to repatriate production now done abroad. “There is nothing to be gained by going overseas,” said Bespoke Innovations co-founder Scott Summit, “except for higher shipping charges.”

Download, print, aim, fire
Forget background checks and waiting periods. If you have a 3-D printer, you might soon be able to build a gun in your own home. That’s the goal of a group called Defense Distributed, which wants to create downloadable blueprints anyone could use to print a fully functioning firearm. They’re not there yet, but late last year the project’s leader, University of Texas law student Cody Wilson, announced that the group had successfully fired six shots from a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle built with several printed plastic parts. The gun then fell apart. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) is urging Congress to renew the Undetectable Firearms Act—which bans the production of guns that don’t show up on metal detectors—before it expires at the end of 2013. “When the [act] was last renewed in 2003, a gun made by a 3-D printer was like a Star Trek episode,” he said. “But now we know it’s real.”

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How to Travel the World... While Working!

Vanessa Van Edwards' 6-step roadmap to taking the "workation" of your dreams is an inspiration! Check it out...

"I take a sip of chilled Sauvignon Blanc while gazing at the sprawling vineyards below my balcony. With the sun on my face, my husband and I dig into some fresh fruit from the local farmers' market — crisp pears, figs and goat cheese.

A warm breeze flutters the gauzy fabric of my sundress as we open our laptops to start the workday. It's 1:00 PM in Santa Cruz, Chile, 9:00 AM on the West Coast in the U.S. — and day 17 of our "workation."

Six years ago, my husband (then boyfriend) and I set out to find a way to develop our careers while traveling the world — and without breaking the bank.

People told us we were crazy.

During some of our low points — power outages in China, freak storms in Belgium and lost luggage in South America — we thought that they might be right. But the highlights, such as working from a cruise ship that was sailing through Chilean fjords, have made what we have dubbed our "workations" worth the effort.

To date, we've taken our virtual office to 24 locations, turning the process of traveling while working into a science. Whether you're an independent entrepreneur like me or you hold down a regular nine-to-five (the way my husband does as a marketing manager for an education company), you, too, can see the high-rises of Shanghai, the peaks of Patagonia or the beaches in Singapore — all while achieving your career goals.

The Career Benefits of Workations

Before you decide that taking a workation would be the equivalent of committing job suicide, consider these facts:

* Research has found that multi-cultural experiences and exotic surroundings generate more inspired and creative work.

* Workations decrease stress, which increases productivity, and leads to fewer sick days. Studies show that people with high levels of stress spend nearly 50 percent more on health expenses.

* A study in the Harvard Business Review found that when employees take just one day off per week, they report greater job satisfaction, more open communication with team members and better work-life balance, compared to regular employees.

As long as you do it right, a workation could very well improve your performance. Here are six of my personal tips to help get you on the road to work-travel bliss.

1. Take stock of your job
It's true that workations best lend themselves to certain professions, especially ones that require a lot of computer work. So surgeons or chefs probably won't be able to pull off a workation regularly, if at all.

But if you do have a job that can be done mostly by computer or phone, you should try to fit workations — even just one every year or two — into your life. As for work tasks that need to be done in person, most can be accomplished virtually on a temporary basis, such as face-to-face meetings via Skype or conference calls conducted using speakerphone.

For example, my husband is on work video chat from nine to five, so his team can send questions any time — and ask to see the view from wherever in the world we're working.

2. Prepare before talking to your boss
First, try to schedule a workation for times that work best with your office schedule, such as a slow month. Or look at tacking a workation onto a work conference or some other event that requires travel, so you can spend a few extra days workationing before or after the work trip.

Once you pinpoint a good time, draft a plan to make your workation go as smoothly as possible. It should account for any necessary meetings, time zone differences and your ability to stay in touch. If needed, plan to also work during the hours that you normally spend commuting. And try to propose the idea of a workation to your manager right after you've delivered on an important goal — no boss will grant a workation to an employee who isn't performing well.

3. Choose a vacation-worthy destination
Now for the fun part. If you aren't tied to a specific location due to a work event, then pick a destination that excites you.

Our home base is Portland, Oregon, and my husband and I structure our workations based on locations with the best weather. During the winter we'll travel to the Southern Hemisphere where it's summer, such as South America, Australia and New Zealand. And we spend summers in the United States, Europe or Asia.

Our general schedule is to spend four to six weeks at home, regrouping and conducting in-person work, and then head on a two- to four-week workation. This allows us to conduct necessary face-to-face business, and get out of town.

4. Organize communication methods
Technology is essential for seamless workations, so make sure that your destination has speedy Internet access. And coordinate with your office on which technologies you will need to use to keep in touch, like attending meetings via video (Google offers free video chat) and conducting conference calls on Skype.

If you're in a different time zone, designate working hours each day — and set boundaries with colleagues by letting them know when you will be online.

5. Travel affordably
Workations don't need to break the bank. Consider swapping your apartment with a fellow traveler to save on hotel costs, or check out Airbnb.com and VRBO.com, which feature furnished, short-term apartments and homes for rent.

You can also rent out your own home to cover housing costs and earn extra travel money. (Some cities have made short-term renting illegal, so just be sure to research whether regulations in your cities make this a viable option for you.)

My husband and I pay about $1,200 in monthly housing expenses. However, thanks to the short-term-rental market rates in our Portland neighborhood, we can charge up to $3,200 per month or $108 a night — which covers our rent and gives us an extra $2,000 to spend on flights and other travel costs.

6. Balance work with vacation
Be sure to spend evenings and time on the weekends away from the computer, so you actually get refreshed by your new surroundings. If you are in a different time zone, designate certain working hours each day — and set boundaries with colleagues by letting them know when you will be online.

Although workations can help you feel rejuvenated, it's also important to take full work-free vacations, which are essential for our minds and bodies to rest."

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Is J the sexiest letter?

It certainly seems to be featured in an inordinate number of sex-specific words! According to Bruce Price, less than 1 percent of English words start with J, a minor letter with an odd shape and few other distinctions. Except when it comes to sex. Then J is jumping, one might even say jolly and juicy.

Leadbelly sang about Jumping Judy:

Well, jumping Little Judy, she was a mighty fine girl.
Judy brought jumping to this whole round world


Dylan Thomas liked to get juiced and tell the prettiest girl at the party, "I want to jump your bones."

J has some weird sexual je-ne-sais-quoi mojo, some humor (jests, jibes, jokes, jocularity), some sweetness (jams and jellies, Jujubes and Jujifruit), and some heat (joules).

Mick Jagger just sounds randy. And mint julep just sounds debauched, as The Clovers revealed in the 1952 hit "One Mint Julep":

I didn't know what I was doin'
I had to marry all day screwing....
One mint julep was the cause of it all.


Jugs jiggle; and a johnson is a big one. A hooker's customer is a John. Jack basically means male. The female of some species is called a jenny (e.g., jenny wren). And sexy young girls are jailbait.

The First Lady of the jungle was "You, Jane." Mary doesn't work, does it? While we're in the jungle, a famous lesbian novel was called "Rubyfruit Jungle."

Yes, that's what it means, as does jelly roll. An old blues song pulsed:

Jelly roll, jelly roll, sittin' on a fence
If you doan get some you ain't got no sense
Just wild bout my jelly
My sweet jelly roll.


Sexy women often have J-names: Jezebel, Jasmine, Jewel, Joy, Josephine. If you listen to Fats Domino sing about Josephine, you know she's hot:

Hello Josephine, how do you do?
Do you remember me baby?
Like I remember you
You used to laugh at me and holler, woo woo woo


Just about the only color name with J is Jade, a green stone, a girl's name, and a word with hot subtext. Urban Dictionary says, "Jade is someone who overreacts about a sexually orientated situation. For example, 'Oh my god, my nipples are erected!' 'You're such a Jade!'" Too much of that makes you jaded.

Jockey is all about riding, sometimes riding people. Jubilees are occasions for jubilation. Jamborees are good parties, people jitterbugging, sexy music on the jukebox. Juke originally meant "bawdy" or "wicked."

Hand jive, doesn't that sound dirty? When Johnny Otis (A.K.A. Willie and the Hand Jive) sang about "doing that crazy hand jive," this was serious titillation. Censors believed the song glorified masturbation, at least. That was all they could dare mention in 1958:

Mama, mama, look at Sister Flo
Doing that hand jive with Uncle Joe
When I gave little sister a dime
I said "Do that hand jive one more time"


Jazz was sexual slang before it was music. "Jas" was a Creole brothel where jezebels worked. Music for the clients became known as "Jas music", sometimes "Jass music." When the word "Jass" was printed on posters, the letter "J" was sometimes crossed out for a joke. Promoters knew "ass music" was offensive, so the spelling moved from "Jass" to "Jazz", hence "Jazz music."

A lot of porno words start with J; and words that aren't always porno words move in that direction very quickly: junk, jack, jerk, jag, jam, jimmie, and joint. Sex can hardly be discussed without the word job. "Jack off" spawned "jill off."

A printed J doesn't look sexy. But script a cursive capital J. It's rubenesque and voluptuous. Maybe that's J's secret.

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How You Can Connect Any Two Pages on the Internet in 19 clicks or less

A Hungarian physicist finds that the web's organizing principles aren't all that different from "six degrees of Kevin Bacon."

The outer limits of the worldwide web can feel like an infinite fraying of loose ends and time-sucking wormholes. But the web's estimated 14 billion individual pages and 1 trillion documents are actually connected more efficiently than anyone might reasonably imagine.

Researchers, publishing their findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, have discovered that you can navigate from any single page on the web to any other page in a mere 19 clicks or less. The principle is similar to the game "six degrees of Kevin Bacon," except with obscure, fringe-y GeoCities pages instead of, say, Cameron Diaz.

The 19-click threshold was discovered by Hungarian physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, who used computer simulations to get a better grasp of the web's vast, unmapped architecture.

Here's where things get particularly fascinating: Even though the web is growing at an unprecedented rate — some estimates suggest as many as 3.7 million new domains are registered every month — Barabasi claims the magic number 19 will hold true until the last ethernet cable on Earth crumbles into dust.

How can this be? According to Smithsonian Mag, Barabasi argues that the web, while it may seem random, is actually arranged "in an interconnected hierarchy of organizational themes, including region, country, and subject area." In that sense, it doesn't matter how much bigger the web gets, since it will always be organized in a similar way.

How does this organization work? Look at this website's navigation bar up above, for example. Or scroll to the bottom of Wikipedia to see data organized by different languages. The basic organizing principles employed by search engines, aggregators, and other big, connecting nodes like Reddit help to make the web a less messy place overall. In fact, these large internet hubs are what make getting from Point A to Point B possible in the first place — like the LAXs and JFKs of the digital globe.

So go ahead. Give it a shot. We can't guarantee you'll be able to pull off 19 clicks at first blush. But, in the spirit of interconnectedness, we do recommend that you try starting your journey from here :-)


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The 5 Best Reactions to the TIME cover story on Millennials

Millennials like listicles, right? Millennials stopped sexting and posting selfies just long enough this week to notice something curious on the Internet: A story in TIME titled, "The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents. Why they'll save us all."

It was written by Joel Stein, a member of Gen X, which invented flannel and Wynona Ryder. The cover features a girl taking a selfie on her iPhone. It's a skill every millennial learns now instead of how to write in cursive. (We made a listicle about it, the millennial's preferred way of consuming information.)

Stein balances negative traits associated with millennials (narcissistic, lazy, stunted) with positive ones (resourceful, optimistic, adaptable) for what Salon's Daniel D'Addario calls an "admirably executed" story. TIME's cover alone, however, was enough to raise the ire of millennials, who took to the internet to do what they do best — talk about themselves:

1. The Awl
The Awl — an online publication popular with millennials — summed up TIME's business savvy in a tweet that linked to some photos, a new-fangled method of driving something they call "traffic" to "content."

2. TIME Millennials
Once millennials are done tweeting, they check Tumblr, just in case someone posted a picture of Ryan Gosling. That's where TIME Millennials was born. It showcases one of the Me Me Me Generation's greatest talents: Creating memes, this time out of a controversial magazine cover:


3. Marc Tracy, New Republic
Marc Tracy, a self-proclaimed millennial, wonders if members of his generation are "stunted" — i.e., not leaving their parents' house, getting married, or having kids — because older generations left them with a shattered economy:

Right now, older generations are in the process of slowly bequeathing millennials a society more "in debt" than ever before: "in debt" in the sense of living on borrowed time, with only future, merely hypothetical promises as collateral — "in debt" ecologically, financially, politically, culturally. At this moment, TIME has decided to focus on the millennials, and to tar them as "entitled" for not feeling totally okay about all of this. [New Republic]
4. Elspeth Reeve, The Atlantic Wire
Reeve takes us on a nostalgic tour of alarmist magazine covers past, from a 1976 New York article by Tom Wolfe titled "The Me Generation," to another TIME special saying this about Generation X:

They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder… They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial… They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. [TIME]

The problem with these stories, says Reeve, is that everyone, in every generation, is kind of lost and navel-gazing in their 20s.

"Basically, it's not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it's that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older," Reeve writes. "It's like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are 'Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.'"

5. Ezra Klein, The Washington Post
Ezra Klein, the media world's very own millennial wunderkind, put his objections to the article in easy-to-digest chart form:



That looks awfully like the priorities past generations had. To many in the media, however, the 1 percent of millennials who think becoming famous is "one of the most important things in their lives" are the only ones that exist.

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Life in the Age of Internet Addiction

The vast majority of the American population is mildly addicted to technology.

Anyone who spends their day staring at screens can speak to the modern-day epidemic of eye fatigue. But what is our digital obsession doing to our brains?

Researchers have noted a rise in something called Digital Attention Disorder — the addiction to social networks and computers in general.

How does it work? More than 50 years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner was experimenting on rats and pigeons, and noticed that the unpredictability of reward was a major motivator for animals. If a reward arrives either predictably or too infrequently, the animal eventually loses interest. But when there was anticipation of a reward that comes with just enough frequency, the animals' brains would consistently release dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that (basically) regulates pleasure.

What does this have to do with the Internet? Some researchers believe that intermittent reinforcement — in the form of texts, tweets, and various other social media — may be working on our brains the same way rewards did on Skinner's rats.

"Internet addiction is the same as any other addiction — excessive release of dopamine," says Hilarie Cash, executive director of the reStart program for Internet addiction and recovery, a Seattle-area rehab program that helps wean people off the Internet. "Addiction is addiction. Whether it's gambling, cocaine, alcohol, or Facebook."

"The vast majority of the American population is mildly addicted to technology, and our clinic treats only very serious cases," she told me in a phone interview. "Most of the people that come are young adult males around the ages of 18 to 30 who spend a lot of time on the Internet. Their health is poor, their social relationships have turned to crap, they have no social confidence or real-world friends. They don't date. They don't work."

Cash continued:

Internet and video game addiction starts young. Most young men are given computer or video games when they are five or six years old and therefore their childhood development is profoundly wired for these activities. It's quite different to drug addicts and alcoholics who are usually exposed to drugs or alcohol closer to the age of 15. Internet addicts usually have 15 to 20 years of addiction on them due to starting younger.

The problem isn't just young men, either. "Women are getting addicted, too," Cash told me. "Although women usually become addicted later in life and, more often than not, directly to social media, while men are more adept to becoming addicted to multiplayer games. Women seem to juggle addiction and life better than men."

So how does Cash's program work? According to the website: "Our professionally trained clinicians understand technology related process addictions, and the impact problematic use has on life. We work with individuals, couples and families to promote a better understanding of problematic technology use; assist users in discovering the underlying issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, ADHD, learning differences, stress, family relationship issues, and addictions) that may be co-occurring with excessive use patterns; and work together to design an individualized plan to promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle."

Now, at "just under $20,000" for a minimum 45-day Internet rehab (60- and 90- day options are available), the reStart program may not be for everyone. Indeed, you could always just... turn off your phone and computer.

Still, the new wave of young Internet addicts that Cash describes might be heralding something sinister for future generations: We've all seen the ease at which a toddler can operate an iPhone or iPad. These days, maybe kids are just born addicted to the Internet.

Read the DSM's 8 criteria of Internet addiction here.


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Google's Government-Snooping Data Dump: By the Numbers

The search giant is getting swamped by warrantless requests for users' information.

"It may be easier than you think for government entities to demand the private data you've stored on Google's servers," says Andy Greenberg at Forbes. In its latest biannual Transparency Report, Google has announced yet another rise in the number of government and law enforcement requests for data on users — anything from web surfing habits to identifying who owns an email account to the content of emails — and for the first time broke down the U.S. requests by how the authorities asked for the information. In the vast majority of cases, officials didn't bother with a search warrant — the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows authorities to just issue subpoenas for data that's at least six months old.

The king of search complies with about 90 percent of U.S. government snooping requests, "but Google's willingness to reveal this data in the first place should be seen as a credit to the company's respect for privacy," says Greenberg, and one not shared by its peers — Microsoft and Facebook — or wireless carriers. The government authorities asking to peer into your electronic life don't inspire much confidence, either, says Matt Sledge at The Huffington Post. At a tech panel devoted to investigating how the government obtained the emails exposing former Gen. David Petraeus' career-ending extramarital affair, Google legal director Richard Salgado dropped this "depressing and revealing factoid about how law enforcement is actually using its subpoena and warrant powers to get information" about you: "I can't tell you how many requests we get for Facebook."

Here's a numerical look at how often U.S. and foreign governments try to tap into the e-lives of Google users, and how often they succeed.

21,389 = Government requests for data worldwide from July to December 2012

33,634 = User accounts targeted in those searches

66 = Percent of those requests that resulted in Google handing over at least some data

20,938 = Government requests for data from January to June 2012

70 = Percentage rise in number of requests for data since 2009

8,438 = Requests from U.S. government authorities and investigators from July to December 2012

68 = Percent of those requests that came through subpoenas instead of court-issued warrants

88 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

22 = Percent of requests that were through search warrants, usually approved by judges under the ECPA

88 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

10 = Percent of requests from "court orders issued under ECPA by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize"

90 = Percent of those requests Google complied with

2,431 = Data requests from India

66 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

1,693 = Data requests from France

44 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

1,458 = Data requests from the UK

70 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

97 = Data requests from Russia

1 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with

149 = Data requests from Turkey

0 = Percentage of those requests Google complied with


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10 Acronyms with Unintended Double Meanings

The Wisconsin Tourism Federation realized in 2009 that geek-speak had made its acronym WTF pretty laughable.

In 2010, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it would be rearranging some of its subway signs because they resembled a slightly naughty bit of internet slang. The signage for the F, M, and L lines read "FML," which savvy web users know as self-deprecating shorthand for "F*** My Life." The double meaning of its signs caught the transit authority off guard, but they worked quickly to switch around the letters. New York's subways are hardly the first victims of acronym problems, though.
According to Ethan Trex in Mental Floss, here are 10 other organizations, places, and businesses that have realized a bit too late that their initials meant a little more than they had intended.

1. WTF
In 2009, the Wisconsin Tourism Federation's biggest problem wasn't finding a way to attract more people to the metropolitan Kenosha area; it was the realization that its initials mirrored the slang abbreviation for "What the F---?" The WTF from America's Dairyland has been around since 1979, so it likely predates the vulgar WTF. In the end, though, you can't fight an internet meme. The organization changed its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.

The WTF's only consolation must be that it's not alone. In 2008, the North Carolina DMV allowed drivers whose license plates contained "WTF" to swap out their tags free of charge. The DMV also had to change its website; the sample plate pictured on the site was "WTF-5505."

2. DOA
In a move that must have been unsettling for thousands of Iowa's seniors, the state changed the name of its Department of Elder Affairs to the Department on Aging, or DOA, in 2009. Something's telling us that the change hasn't helped Iowa's elderly sleep any easier. The organization now goes by IDA, for Iowa Department on Aging.

3. AIDS
When Joan Woehrmann started her ambulance company in Whittier, Calif., in 1955, she hit on a pretty brilliant acronym: AIDS. The letters stood for "attitude, integrity, dependability, and service," which are all great qualities for an ambulance line. The name was also easy to remember in times of crisis.

She didn't foresee the name eventually signifying one of the greatest medical catastrophes of the century, though. By 1985, The Los Angeles Times reported that Woehrmann's drivers were being taunted and that the public mistakenly started to think that the line only transported AIDS patients.

Finally, she had enough and changed the line's name to "AME," even giving up the ambulances' customized line of "AIDS 1" and "AIDS 2" license plates.

4. SUX
While FAA identifiers for airports aren't technically acronyms, the three-letter codes can give rise to their own headaches. Just ask the Sioux City Gateway Airport, which the FAA saddled with the unfortunate designator "SUX." Airport authorities petitioned for a new code, and the FAA — "this is not a joke" — offered them "GAY" as a nod to the "Gateway" part of the airport's name.

Sioux City decided that switching to GAY probably wouldn't save them much sophomoric taunting, so officials decided to make the best of the SUX situation. Now the airport markets playful t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Fly SUX."

SUX might not even be the worst airport code. According to a 2008 Los Angeles Times story, Fresno's is FAT, and Perm, Russia's is PEE. The big winner has to be Fukuoka, Japan, though. We'll let you guess how that one gets abbreviated.

5. SLUT
In 2007, Seattle opened a new streetcar line connecting the South Lake Union neighborhood to the city's downtown. While the project was officially called the South Lake Union Streetcar, local residents began ribbing it as the South Lake Union Trolley, or SLUT. Although the city and the line's developers did what they could to dispel the notion that the line had a bawdy name, residents still refer to it as the SLUT; in 2007 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer even reported that a coffeehouse was selling t-shirts that read, "Ride the SLUT." Cringe.

6. CCRAP
In 2000, delegates of Canada's United Alternative convention needed a name for their newly formed political party. They came up with Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party, which in addition to taking roughly six minutes to pronounce was abbreviated CCRAP. Organizers quickly realized the blunder and changed the party's name to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.

7. WPPSS
In 1998, the Washington Public Power Supply System chose to change its name to Energy Northwest to discourage people from pronouncing its unfortunate acronym as "Whoops!" The old name left the utility open to quite a bit of taunting in 1983, when the WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion worth of bonds. Whoops indeed.

8. POOF
In 1990, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida decided it had heard just about enough kidding about its acronym, POOF, which resembled an old offensive term for a homosexual man. The musicians changed their name to the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

9. THE C-WORD
In 2002, Microsoft had to do a little rearranging on the fly. It quickly and quietly changed its ribald "Critical Update Notification Tool" to the more family friendly "Critical Updated Notification Utility."

10. NIC
What's wrong with NIC? In English, nothing. In Arabic, a whole heck of a lot. When the Coalition Provisional Authority began planning new Iraqi armed forces in 2003, they originally called them the New Iraqi Corps. They hit a big snag, though. As ABC News reported, in Arabic "nic" is "a colorful synonym for fornication." The coalition quickly changed the name to the New Iraqi Army.
Go to the NetLingo List of Internet Acronyms & Text Message Jargon!

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Do your texts make you sound old?

Younger generations are far more adept at textspeak, a rich and subtle form of communication, according to Arika Okrent in The Week.

When people talk about textspeak — the acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons used in electronic communication — their arguments (complaints, really) are usually framed around the idea of a generational decline. Kids text too much. Kids are forgetting how to spell and use proper grammar. College students are turning in term papers littered with textspeak!

It's the latest iteration of the same old story: Youngsters are ruining the language, and we are all doomed. But of course, just as in every previous iteration of the story, the language will be fine, and we are not doomed. Well, the youngsters aren't anyway.

English professor Anne Curzan, who in 20 years of teaching has never seen an essay using textspeak, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how textspeak in the classroom can be a great teaching tool. She describes an exercise she does with her students to help them discover the implicit rules of their electronically mediated communication or "EMC" (not a textspeak abbreviation but an academic one). Rules? critics might say. Isn't EMC just a random, disorderly corruption of English? Apparently not:

One student noted that his dad texts like a junior-high-school airhead. His dad, it appears, doesn't yet have control of the stylistic choices that constitute 'sophisticated texting.' For several semesters now, I have asked students to compile with me a list of EMC etiquette rules, and I am struck by how detailed, creative, and consistent the rules are. Anyone who says that text language is chaotic isn't paying enough attention to the system of rules that users have developed to move real-time conversation into written form.

If students notice when the rules are being broken, then there must be rules. Older people, who don't get as much exposure to the conventions, get the conventions wrong. Do you use too many acronyms and abbreviations? Do you miss the subtle distinction between "ok." "ok!" and "ok…"? Do you still use LOL to represent laughter when it often means "just kidding"? ("hahaha" is a better choice for laughter.) Then you might be showing your age.

That's okay. It just means that if you don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules, you need to spend some time being exposed to them. The same goes for people who don't want to be judged for not knowing the rules of formal written English. Curzan, as an English professor, has the job of being that expert for the youngsters she teaches, and she has found an ingenious way to use what they know to help them learn what they might not yet know. Once they go through the exercise of discovering the rules of the systems they are most comfortable with, they can see "that the conventions of formal academic writing are just another set of rules for writing well in a specific register — maybe not as 'fun' as EMC but not in any way an alien exercise.

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Should you worry about the IRS reading your email?

A new ACLU report claims the IRS has been accessing emails without a warrant. According to Keith Wagstaff, you might want to reconsider that email to your accountant with the subject line "Hey, thanks for helping me commit tax fraud!" According to the ACLU, the IRS could be reading your emails — even if they don't have a warrant.

The ACLU studied documents released by the Freedom of Information Act and found that, despite the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures, it has been IRS policy "to read people's email without getting a warrant."

Doing so wasn't always illegal because of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which says that email that has been stored on a provider's server for more than 180 days can be accessed without a warrant. But that should have changed in 2010 when, after hearing United States v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that "the government must obtain a probable cause warrant before compelling email providers to turn over messages."

The vital question is whether the IRS continued reading private emails without a warrant after that case was decided. The ACLU's report says that the IRS still tells its employees "that no warrant is required for emails that are stored by an ISP for more than 180 days."

So, is it time to start conducting all of your business via carrier pigeon?

Not if you use certain email services. Ryan Gallagher at Slate writes that "not all providers will play along if the IRS is still attempting to obtain emails without a warrant," noting that earlier this year "Google said that it is effectively ignoring the 180-days ECPA loophole by always requiring a search warrant from authorities seeking to obtain user content stored using its Gmail, Google Drive, or other services." Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook all told The Hill they adopted similar policies after 2010.

Still, that leaves a lot of people unprotected. CNET's Declan McCullagh points out that the ECPA "was adopted in the era of telephone modems, BBSs, and UUCP links, long before gigabytes of e-mail stored in the cloud was ever envisioned." That's why corporate America wants Washington to change the policy:

A phalanx of companies, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Twitter, as well as liberal, conservative, and libertarian advocacy groups, have asked Congress to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to make it clear that law enforcement needs warrants to access private communications and the locations of mobile devices. [CNET]

Until the law is changed, you will just have to, in the words of ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, "hope you never end up on the wrong end of an IRS criminal tax investigation." Good luck with that.

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Calligraphy in the Age of Texting

China is in the midst of a “handwriting crisis” according to Sheng Hui of Yanzhao Evening News.

We already know that many adults have begun to forget how to draw basic Chinese characters since, in this computer age, they type far more often than they write by hand. But an expose has revealed that our children aren’t even learning the characters in the first place. In one high school class, for example, fully one third of students couldn’t write “sauce,” and half couldn’t even draw the characters for something as basic as “acupuncture.”

Part of the reason is simply our technological society: Students communicate with each other and their parents via text message and email. But our schools are to blame as well. Calligraphy classes have been widely dropped in favor of math and science. And in urban areas, teachers hardly ever write on blackboards anymore; “they just click the mouse to display their lesson plans” on a screen.
Students simply aren’t exposed to the sight of an adult hand drawing the character strokes. China will have to set standards for handwriting education, including competitions and mandatory testing, at both primary and secondary levels. If we don’t, we will soon have to “apply for world cultural heritage status” for Chinese characters.


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In love with a bot

When robots look like people or pets, says Robert Ito, it’s hard not to develop feelings for them.

"The robot is smiling at me, his red rubbery lips curved in a cheery grin. I’m seated in front of a panel with 10 numbered buttons, and the robot, a 3-foot-tall, legless automaton with an impish face, is telling me which buttons to push and which hand to push them with: “Touch seven with your right hand; touch three with your left.”

The idea is to go as fast as I can. When I make a mistake, he corrects me; when I speed up, he tells me how much better I’m doing. Despite the simplicity of our interactions, I’m starting to like the little guy. Maybe it’s his round silvery eyes and moon-shaped face; maybe it’s his soothing voice—not quite human, yet warm all the same. Even though I know he’s just a jumble of wires and circuitry, I want to do better on these tests, to please him.

The robot’s name is Bandit. We’re together in a tiny room at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif., where Bandit regularly puts stroke victims through their paces. They’re very fond of him, says University of Southern California researcher Eric Wade, who has worked with Bandit and his predecessors for five years. The stroke victims chitchat with Bandit, chide him, smile when he congratulates them. “People will try to hug the robots,” says Wade. “We go out to nursing homes, and people ask, ‘When’s the robot coming back?’”

Bandit is one of a growing number of social robots designed to help humans in both hospitals and homes. There are robots that comfort lonely shut-ins, assist patients suffering from dementia, and help autistic kids learn how to interact with their human peers. They’re popular, and engineered to be so. If we didn’t like them, we wouldn’t want them listening to our problems or pestering us to take our meds. So it’s no surprise that people become attached to these robots. What is surprising is just how attached some have become. Researchers have documented people kissing their mechanized companions, confiding in them, giving them gifts—and being heartbroken when the robot breaks, or the study ends and it’s time to say goodbye.

And this is just the beginning. What happens as robots become ever more responsive, more human-like? Some researchers worry that people—especially groups like autistic kids or elderly shut-ins who already are less apt to interact with others—may come to prefer their mechanical friends over their human ones.

Are we really ready for this relationship?

There are over 100 different models of social robots worldwide. The family includes machines that can act as nursemaids and housekeepers, provide companionship, talk patients through physical rehabilitation, and act as surrogate pets. The most popular, Sony’s Aibo (Artificial Intelligence Bot) robot dog, sold more than 140,000 units before it was discontinued. The Japan Robot Association, an industry trade group, predicts that today’s $5 billion a year market for social robots will top $50 billion a year by 2025.

What makes these machines’ popularity all the more remarkable is that they are a long way from the charming pseudo-humans of science fiction, your chatty C-3POs or cuddly WALL-Es. Many of these helpmates are little more than animatronic Pillow Pets.

The Japanese-made Paro, for instance, looks like a plush-toy version of a baby harp seal. It coos, moves its head and tail, bats its long lashes—and that’s about it. Even so, people adore it. More than a thousand Paros have been sold since its creation in 2003, making it one of the most popular therapeutic robots ever produced. In one study, a few people in two nursing homes seemed to believe that the Paro was a real animal; others spoke to it and were convinced that the Paro, which can only squeak and purr, was speaking back to them.

Or consider the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner that has sold more than 6 million units. In a 2007 study, researchers from Georgia Tech’s College of Computing looked at the ways in which Roomba owners bonded with their gadgets. Though the machines have neither faces nor limbs, and do little more than scuttle around and pick up lint, users were noted speaking to them, describing them as family members, even expressing grief when they needed to be “hospitalized.”

“I love the silly thing,” says Jill Cooper, co-founder of the frugal-living website LivingOnADime.com. Cooper, like many Roomba owners, gave her robot a name (Bob), speaks to him, and shows him off to visitors. “I hate to get too deep here,” she says, “but it’s like trying to explain what it feels like to be in love to somebody who’s never been in love before.”

“I’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of robots,” laments Kjerstin Williams, a senior robotics engineer at the research-and-development firm Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif. “If you have animals as pets, you go through the same process: You grieve and move on, and you try to re-engage with the next animal, or the next set of robots. It’s just that socially, it’s perfectly acceptable to grieve over a dog and maybe never get another one. If you’re a roboticist, you can’t do that.”

And it’s not just social robots spawning teary farewells. When a U.S. Marines explosives technician in Iraq brought the blasted remains of Scooby-Doo, his bomb-disabling robot, to the repair shop, Ted Bogosh, the master sergeant in charge of the shop, told him the machine was beyond repair. Bogosh offered the Marine a new robot, but the mournful man insisted he didn’t want a new robot—he wanted Scooby-Doo back. “Sometimes they get a little emotional,” Bogosh told The Washington Post.

In another instance reported by the Post, a U.S. Army colonel halted an experiment at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in which a 5-foot-long, insect-like robot was getting its many limbs blown off one at a time. The colonel, according to Mark Tilden, the robotics physicist at the site, deemed the spectacle “inhumane.”

If veteran military officers can get choked up over a mechanized centipede, how hard might, say, a stroke patient fall for an artificial roommate? “Imagine a household robot that looks like a person,” says Matthias Scheutz, a computer science professor at Tufts University. “It’s nice, because it’s programmed to be nice. You’re going to be looking for friendship in that robot, because the robot is just like a friend. That’s what I find really problematic.”

Robots already are used extensively in Japan to help take care of older people, which concerns Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

“The elderly, at the end of their lives, deserve to work out the meaning of their lives with someone who understands what it means to be born, to have parents, to consider the question of children, to fear death,” says Turkle. “That someone has to be a person. That doesn’t mean that robots can’t help with household chores. But as companions, I think it is the wrong choice.”

Then again, assistive robots for the elderly are a hot topic precisely because, as populations age, there are fewer human caregivers to go around. “Our work never aims to replace human care,” says Maja Mataric, director of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. “There is a vast gap in human care for all ages and various special needs. The notion that people should do the caring is not realistic. There simply aren’t enough people. We must find other ways to care for those in need.”

And the robots do seem to help. A 2009 review of 43 studies published in the journal Gerontechnology found that social robots increase positive mood and ease stress in the elderly. Some studies also reported decreases in loneliness and a strengthening of ties between the subjects and their family members.

But Turkle wonders if such human-robot relationships are inherently deceptive, because they encourage people to feel things for machines that can’t feel anything. Robots are programmed to say “I love you” when they can’t love; therapeutic robot pets, like Aibos and Paros, feign pleasure they don’t feel. Are programmers deluding people with their lovable but unloving creations?

“People can’t help falling for these robots,” says Scheutz. “So if we can avoid it, let’s not design them with faces and humanoid forms. There’s no reason that everything has to have two legs and look like a person.”

Unfeeling or not, a robot and its charms can be hard to resist. In the weeks following my meeting with Bandit, I find myself Googling his name and USC just to see if there’s been any news about him. I don’t think I miss him, really. I just want to know what he’s been up to.

Williams, the roboticist at Applied Minds, understands what I’m going through. As a graduate student at Caltech, Williams became attached to an Aibo, one of many that she would take around to local schools to get kids interested in robotics. She took this particular Aibo home, named him Rhodium (her husband is a chemist), played with him, learned his likes (a pink ball) and dislikes (having the antenna on his ear pushed the wrong way). But after graduation, she had to return Rhodium to the university.

“I do wonder where he went,” says Williams. “And I hope he still has his pink ball, because he’d be awfully sad if he couldn’t find it.” Sorry to say, the little robot dog undoubtedly misses his pink ball as much as he misses Williams—which is not at all.

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China’s Cyberwarriors and the Pursuit of Information Dominance

An ongoing campaign of computer attacks on the U.S. this year has been traced to China. What are the hackers after?

Who has been hacked?
Government agencies, newspapers, utilities, and private companies—literally hundreds of targets. The cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which has been tracking these attacks since 2004, says data has been stolen from at least 140 companies, mostly American, including Google, DuPont, Apple, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, as well as think tanks, law firms, human-rights groups, and foreign embassies. A company that provides Internet security for U.S. intelligence was attacked; so was one that holds blueprints for the nation’s pipelines and power grids. Hackers even stole classified information about the development of the F-35 stealth fighter jet from subcontractors working with the plane’s producer, Lockheed Martin. Congressional and federal offices have reported breaches. In 2007, the Pentagon itself was attacked—and it won’t say what was stolen.

Who’s doing it?
Ten years ago, Chinese patriots working independently were behind many of the attacks. These young hackers were outraged by the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, an accident during the Kosovo War. Using the name Honkers, or Red Guests, they launched a series of denial-of-service attacks on U.S. government websites. But within a few years some of them had begun working with the Chinese government, targeting Tibetan and Taiwanese independence groups, the religious group Falun Gong, and anyone in the West who communicated with Chinese dissidents. In recent years, says anti-malware specialist Joe Stewart, the number of hackers has doubled, with 10 major hacking groups in China. “There is a tremendous amount of manpower being thrown at this from their side,” Stewart told Bloomberg Businessweek. China’s government now appears to be directing the attacks. “We’ve moved from kids in their bedroom and financially motivated crime to state-sponsored cybercrime,” said Graham Cluley, a British security expert.

Why is China doing this?
China sees cyberwarfare as a valid form of international business and military competition, and is pursuing what it calls “information dominance.’’ Mandiant has traced many of the U.S. attacks to a Shanghai office building that appears to be the home of the People’s Liberation Army’s cyberwarfare unit. Thousands of hacks, including ones by two of the prominent aliases, Ugly Gorilla and SuperHard, were traced definitively to the district, and in recent years, that building has installed super-high-tech fiber-optic cables able to handle massive data traffic. About 2,000 people are estimated to be working in the building. This group appears to specialize in English-language computers, and hackers seem well versed in Western pop culture; one of the hackers used Harry Potter references for his passwords. China has issued a blanket denial, calling Mandiant’s claims “groundless” and “irresponsible.”

How do the hackers get access?
Mostly by the technique known as “spear phishing”. They send an email with a link that an employee of a targeted company then opens, activating malware programs that sweep through databases, vacuuming up information, including emails, blueprints, and other documents. Some phishing emails are recognized as spam by the recipients—but the Chinese are getting better at disguising them, sometimes using email accounts with real people’s names that are known to the recipient, and using colloquial English, so the emails read as plausible company business.

What does China do with the information?
The corporate secrets are worth a lot of money to Chinese business. Blueprints of advanced plants or machinery could help many Chinese industries, and so could data on corporate finances and policies. Energy companies, for example, can benefit from knowing what their foreign competitors are willing to bid for oil field sites. Chinese companies have already been sued for allegedly stealing DuPont’s proprietary method for making chemicals used in plastics and paints. More ominously, some of the information could be used to disrupt U.S. industry or infrastructure (see below). And while China is the main source of attacks, other countries also frequently hack U.S. sites, including Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

What is the U.S. doing to protect itself?
Congress refused to pass a comprehensive cybersecurity act last year because of opposition from business groups, which complained that new computer regulations would be costly and onerous. As a result, President Obama recently issued an executive order requiring Homeland Security to identify “critical infrastructure where a cybersecurity incident could reasonably result in catastrophic regional or national effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.” Those companies will have to beef up their cybersecurity by installing multiple layers of protection for the most sensitive systems. Right now, some companies have only a single firewall, and once that is breached, all the data is available. “The dirty little secret in these control systems is once you get through the perimeter, they have no security at all,” said Dale Peterson of security company Digital Bond. Hackers “can do anything they want.”

A worst-case scenario
Derailed trains. Air traffic control systems suddenly shut down with thousands of planes in the air. Exploding chemical plants and gas pipelines. Blackouts over large parts of the country, lasting weeks or even months. These are some of the apocalyptic events cybersecurity experts fear—hacks that could kill people and sow widespread panic. But what might be even more damaging, the experts say, is a coordinated attack on multiple banks in which hackers alter—not wipe—much of the financial data stored on their computers. With balances, debts, and other data changed, no transaction would be trustworthy. Nobody’s bank account or mortgage statement could be deemed accurate. “It would be impossible to roll that back,” said Dmitri Alperovitch of the computer security company CrowdStrike. “You could wreak absolute havoc on the world’s financial system for years.” Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, warns that hackers are now testing the defenses of banks, utilities, and government agencies, and figuring out how to launch a paralyzing attack. “This is a pre-9/11 moment,” Panetta recently told business executives in New York. “The attackers are plotting.”

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Google Glass: Wearing the Internet

Google Glass is no longer a rumor, said Tim Parker in Forbes.com. “It’s real.”

The company unveiled a prototype of its Internet-equipped eyeglasses in March 2013, announcing that it would give a selected bunch of “bold, creative individuals” the chance to purchase the first version this year for $1,500. The futuristic spectacles have a tiny screen located in the top right-hand corner of the frame, where Web data can be projected in front of the user’s eyeball. Using voice-activated technology, you can do a Google search, call up GPS directions, video chat with your friends, and even record what you’re seeing with a tiny mounted camera—all without fumbling for a cell phone. “Welcome to the future,” said John Moltz in MacWorld.com. “Wearable computing technology” is finally here.

If this is the future, then count me out, said Andrew Keen in CNN.com. Google Glass significantly steps up the company’s “digital war against privacy.” Not only will users be able to record or take pictures of people without their knowledge or consent, the “all-seeing eyeglasses” will act like all Google products and collect data to send back to the “Googleplex,” with no way to opt out. A “pooling of all our most intimate data” is the “holy grail” for advertisers. Before we know it, personalized ads will magically appear whenever our gaze lands upon a particular product. What a “terrifyingly dystopian” idea. And just think of what it will mean for walking down the street, said Caille Millner in SFGate.com. Too many people already bump into me because they can’t tear their gazes away from their beloved cellphones. What happens when these tech-heads start “wandering the streets with a computer plugged into their eyes?”

Try it—you’ll like it, said Joshua Topolsky in TheVerge.com. I was given a test trial of Glass, and found it to have “tremendous value and potential.” As I walked around Manhattan, I was able to get instant directions, following a “real-time, turn-by-turn overlay” of my own line of sight. The screen does not interfere with your vision, and the ability to get information like the weather forecast or a new email as you walk makes you feel “better equipped, and definitely less diverted.” Yes, it remains to be seen how quickly consumers will warm to this “alien and unfashionable” technology. But after a few hours of using Glass, for me “the question is no longer ‘if’ but ‘when.’”

See also: digital jewelry, smart clothes


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Tendons, Bones, Phones & Smart Clothes

Who needs pockets? Thanks to a new fabric developed by Swiss scientists, cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices may soon be woven directly into clothing, said Chris Wickham in Reuters.com.

By mimicking “the way tendons connect to bones,” the polyurethane-based material is flexible enough to stretch without breaking but stiff enough to protect delicate circuits. The material “could revolutionize devices from smart phones and solar cells to medical implants.”

A Massachusetts start-up has used similar technology for a “flexible skullcap that monitors impacts to the head during sports.” The Swiss researchers say their product can also be used for artificial cartilage. “The vision is that you will be able to make materials that are as heterogeneous as the biological ones,” said Andre Studart of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

See also: digital jewelry, smart clothes, epidermal electronic systems

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Seduced by the Illusion of Privacy

When we send a text or an email, we imagine ourselves in a “protected and anonymous” cocoon, says Frank Bruni of The New York Times.

"You’d think by now it would be screamingly obvious that “there’s no true, dependable privacy when we’re tapping or typing,” said Frank Bruni. Yet Gen. David Petraeus—like Rep. Anthony Weiner, Tiger Woods, and so many others before them—has fallen prey to “the greatest contradiction of contemporary life: how safe we feel at our touchpads and keyboards” versus “how exposed and imperiled we really are.” When we send a text or an email, we imagine ourselves in a “protected and anonymous” cocoon. No one seems to be watching, so “with a reckless velocity,” we express anger, share gossip and criticism, or indulge in flirtations and sex talk we’d never put into words in person or even on the phone. Who hasn’t said something in an email about a friend, colleague, or boss that, if revealed to the world, would cause great embarrassment—or even the loss of a job or a marriage? We succumb to this temptation for the same reason Petraeus and the other fallen stars did: “That glowing and treacherous screen in front of you is somehow the greenest light of all.”

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Frank Langella’s Technological Complaint

Frank Langella thinks young people rely too much on technology when courting each other.

Frank Langella is worried about the state of romance, said Catherine Shoard in The Guardian (U.K.). Part of the problem, says the 75-year-old actor, is that young people rely on technology when wooing each other. “I think walking up to a pretty girl at a party and saying, ‘How are you? I’d like to take you for a cup of coffee,’ is much more exciting than, ‘Hey, I saw you last night at the whatever. Text me,’” he says. “Tech is giving people the opportunity to protect themselves from saying, ‘Thank you very much but I don’t like your looks and don’t want to go out with you.’”

Langella also thinks that technology is interfering with true intimacy. “I work with a lot of younger actors, and so many of my young friends fall crazy for each other, go to bed, and then within a couple of days they’re lying in bed and each is texting. God, when I was a young man, when you got into bed you were there for years. You lusted for each other, loved each other, were interested in each other. In the morning you made breakfast for each other, all the natural courtship things.” But today, he says, young people view sex the same way they would an interesting new app. “Let’s get the business done, then do something else.” I think Frank's right, don't you?

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Music Royalties in the Web era

In the first three months of 2012, the song “Tugboat” was played 7,800 times on Pandora. Tugboat's three songwriters earned 7 cents each.

The rise of streaming sites has made it impossible for most musicians “to earn even a modest wage through our recordings,” said Damon Krukowski in Pitchfork.com. My band, Galaxie 500, broke up in 1991, yet our single “Tugboat” was played 7,800 times on Pandora in the first three months of 2012. For that privilege, the song’s three songwriters earned 7 cents each.

“Spotify pays better”; the three of us earned a collective $1.05 for 5,960 plays there. In other words, “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one—one—LP sale.” When I began making records, the idea was simple: You priced your recording at slightly more than the manufacturing cost and hoped it sold. Now streaming sites are simply “selling access” and aim only to attract speculative capital for themselves.


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