The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 24 2014 5:46 PM

Google Senior VP Jumps From Stratosphere, Beats Red Bull’s Space-Diving Record

On Oct. 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon and fell 128,100 feet (24 miles) back to Earth at 843.6 mph. With funding from Red Bull, he broke the sound barrier and set a world record. But now a senior vice president of Google has taken the stunt a step further. On Friday Alan Eustace road a helium balloon 135,890 feet (more than 25 miles) off the ground and jumped.

The dive wasn’t sponsored by Google, though. In fact, the New York Times reports that Eustace declined the company’s offer for help with the jump because he didn’t want it to be a corporate stunt. Eustace also took a much simpler approach to the jump than Baumgartner and the Red Bull team did in 2012. For example, Eustace didn’t use a capsule to protect him during his ascent, and he asked Paragon Space Development, the company that made his suit, to create a pared-down pressure suit that would enable him to breathe pure oxygen during his fall.

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The Times describes:

Mr. Eustace planned his jump in the utmost secrecy, working for almost three years with a small group of technologists skilled in spacesuit design, life-support systems, and parachute and balloon technology. He carried modest GoPro cameras aloft, connected to his ground-control center by an off-the-shelf radio. Although Mr. Baumgartner was widely known for death-defying feats, Mr. Eustace describes himself as an engineer first with a deep commitment to teamwork.

Eustace fell farther than Baumgartner but at a slower speed of 822 mph. But he still broke the sound barrier, and observers reported hearing the sonic boom. He also did two backflips before using a parachute to steady himself.

Eustace told the Times, “It was amazing. ... It was beautiful. You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere, which I had never seen before.” Sheesh, who hasn’t seen the layers of the atmosphere? Oh right, almost everyone.

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Oct. 24 2014 1:55 PM

There Might Be a Way to Securely Reuse Abandoned Email Addresses

In June 2013 Yahoo decided to start freeing up inactive email addresses. The idea was to give addresses that hadn’t been used in more than a year a fresh start, so if bob@yahoo.com wasn’t active, then some other Bob who would appreciate it more could snap it up. The Bobs of the world rejoiced.

But the program had some potential security problems. As Mat Honan pointed out in Wired at the time, “It means that people will be able to claim Yahoo IDs and use them to take over other people’s identities via password resets and other methods.” Facebook was concerned about the security implications as well, so it partnered with Yahoo to try to find a solution.

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On Thursday the two companies announced a new proposed standard called Require-Recipient-Valid-Since (RRVS) that would use simple email timestamps to make sure that the email address that requested a reset didn’t suddenly have a new owner. Using the email protocol Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Facebook—and other sites that adopt RRVS—can put a timestamp in password recovery emails indicating when they last confirmed the ownership of a Yahoo email address. If a password reset request gets sent to an address after it has changed hands, Yahoo servers can recognize that there’s been a transition of ownership that Facebook’s servers aren’t aware of and keep the message from being delivered.

Facebook software engineer Murray Kucherawy wrote in a blog post:

Last year Yahoo announced that it was going to begin making long-dormant logins available for new registrations. This was a shift we knew we wanted to study closely to make sure we understood the impact to Facebook. ... [Our] new method for handling recycled email addresses is a new standard and it provides a way for senders to indicate to receivers a point in time when the ownership of the target mailbox was known to the sender.

Facebook and Yahoo are making RRVS available through the Internet Engineering Task Force as a proposed standard so other sites can start adopting it. This is crucial because recycled email addresses will still be a security concern until every Internet service is using RRVS. That may never happen, but the more big companies implement it, the more secure bob@yahoo.com will be.

Oct. 24 2014 11:10 AM

Does the Internet Sleep? Depends on Where You Are.

Does the Internet ever sleep? Not if you live in America: A new paper from James Heidemann and his colleagues at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California shows that, in the U.S. relentless online participation is not just an inevitability during normal waking hours, whether you’re a 3 a.m. news junkie or you work for a corporate office where antivirus software updates at night. But there are places where the Internet does sleep, as ISI discovered by tracking more than 500 million public IP addresses throughout the world.  

Heidemann and his colleagues looked at variations and patterns in public, active IP activity around the globe over 24-hour periods. Naturally, there are times when connection surges or wanes throughout a day, but after accounting for daily schedules, the researchers found that ebbs and spikes are more likely to occur in particular places, following what Heidemann calls a  “diurnal” network usage pattern. As shown in the animation below, some parts of the world have stable, continually active IPs, with less than 5 percent change over the course of a day (areas in white), whereas in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America, IP activity increases during the day and decreases during the night (areas in red or blue).

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Variation is greater in countries with lower per-capita GDP and electricity use, Heidemann found—unsurprising, since a poorer consumer would likely have less constant access. She might go to an Internet café, which may be open for service only during certain hours, or she might turn off her home Internet connection at night to save on fees. By contrast, in the rich economies of Western Europe and North America, modems are generally left constantly running (so a public IP is still active), though you might shut off your computer (turning off your private IP, which Heidemann does not track). Infrastructure and governance make a difference, too: Places with “Internet maturity,” the researchers note, are marked by network access that is always on. (Part of the FCC’s definition of “broadband” is a telecommunications system where a network is available at any time.)

Moreover, there is greater commercial connectivity in rich economies as compared to poor ones. While people access the internet mostly during the day, Martin Libicki of the RAND Corporation points out that machine access is mostly at night—a company backing up its data into a cloud, say, or running algorithms for procurement is more efficient when there are fewer human users around. More of those activities probably contribute to keeping IP activity consistent over 24 hours; carrying them out depends on having continuous access.

Measuring the activity of global IP activity required that Heidemann and his colleagues probe a large sample within the pool of 4 billion public addresses. They did this by looking at 3.7 million “blocks” of IPs, where each block had 256 adjacent (sequentially related, and thus geographically close) addresses. Apart from a correlation with per-capita GDP, they also found that blocks with newer IPs were more likely to display diurnal activity. In less mature Internet blocks, there is more on-demand, dial-up connectivity, says Heidemann— an environment that drives periodic rather than constant activity.

The research cannot tell us exactly why IP activity stays steady in the West and regularly cycles in emerging economies. But a comparison of Internet robustness and usage between richer and poorer regions suggests the lack of quality and ubiquity are the two big reasons for variation. A mere 19 percent of Indians have Internet access, compared to 86 percent of Americans and more than 90 percent of Estonians, who declared Internet access a human right in 2000. (According to Heidemann’s study, Estonia’s Internet use is consistent—unlike much of Eastern Europe. Its per capita GDP is more than twice that of Belarus, where IP activity fluctuates by 15 percent each day.) Renesys, an Internet security firm, ranks China and countries in Eastern Europe and South America to be at greater risk connectivity outages. In a world where commerce, knowledge, and wealth are increasingly exchanged online, investing in constant connectivity would be wise: Its adoption elevates activity and is a “direct driver of GDP growth in an economy.” 

Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM

South Florida’s Desperate Secession Movement

One way or another, South Florida is leaving the rest of the state. The Mayor of South Miami just wants to speed that process up a bit.

An unprecedented lucky streak of few serious hurricanes is lulling South Florida residents into a false sense of security. The threat from powerful storms, mixed with the now inevitability of 10 feet of sea level rise, means that Miami will likely be one of the first American cities to wink out of existence due to climate change.

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Sooner or later, Miami will sink into the sea.

In a resolution passed by the mayor and city commission on a 3-2 vote earlier this month, the City of South Miami proposed that, because of the unique threat climate change poses to its part of the state, the region should immediately break away and form the 51st state:

Whereas, South Florida’s situation is very precarious and in need of immediate attention. Many of the issues facing South Florida are not political, but are now very significant safety issues; and

Whereas, presently, in order to address the concerns of South Florida, it is necessary to travel to Tallahassee in North Florida. Often South Florida issues do not receive the support of Tallahassee. This is despite the fact that South Florida generates more than 69 percent of the state’s revenue and contains 67 percent of the state’s population; and

Whereas, the creation of the 51st state, South Florida, is a necessity for the very survival of the entire southern region of the current state of Florida.

Mayor Philip Stoddard, quoted in the Orlando Sentinel—Disney World, by the way, would be part of the new state—didn’t mince words. “It’s very apparent that the attitude of the northern part of the state is that they would just love to saw the state in half and just let us float off into the Caribbean," Stoddard said. "They’ve made that abundantly clear every possible opportunity and I would love to give them the opportunity to do that.” The city’s vice mayor and author of the measure, Walter Harris, agreed in a lengthy interview with Vice News.

Secessionist movements like this one (and others in Colorado, California, Texas, and Vermont) have failed for generations. But this time feels different. For the first time, a region of the United States is in a for-real existential battle, and its central government­—personified by Gov. Rick “I’m not a scientist” Scott—doesn’t seem to care.

Our planet’s current carbon-guzzling path ensures Miami is a city living on borrowed time. But now, you can’t fault them for taking matters into their own hands.

Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM

One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability

PowerPoint. It's a situation as much as it is a product. And people do (aesthetically) terrible things with it. But now hackers are exploiting it in a new way. Microsoft announced on Tuesday that a vulnerability in nearly all versions of Windows is being attacked through PowerPoint files. We would expect nothing less.

The only version of Windows that's safe from this attack is Server 2003, which is kind of significant because Windows Server 2003 is sort of like the XP of server operating systems. Basically it's still around. But for everyone else, opening a compromised PowerPoint file could give a hacker remote system control.

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Microsoft says that people who have encountered a malicious PowerPoint file often got a User Account Control prompt. That's sketchy and shouldn't happen just because you opened an Office document, so if you see that be on alert. Other office documents could spread the attack, too, or any file type that supports Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) protocol.

For now Microsoft has released a quick fix "OLE packager Shim Workaround" that fixes the PowerPoint issue, but isn't a full patch. That will presumably come as soon as Microsoft can churn it out. Microsoft also says that by operating Windows with limited permissions people can protect themselves from the attack.

Once and for all, just stay away from PowerPoint, okay?

Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM

Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Hae-in Lim and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in the Twittersphere, where activists in Mexico, Venezuela, and Turkey have faced steep and sometimes fatal consequences for politically charged tweets over the last two weeks.

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In Mexico, Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio was kidnapped and murdered in the northern border state of Tamaulipas in an apparent warning to citizen journalists reporting on drug-related violence. Photos of her corpse were posted on her Twitter account, which has since been suspended. Fuentes Rubio, who was a doctor, volunteered as a contributor to the citizen media platform Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas). An administrator of the platform later described her as “an angel who gave everything, her life, her future, her safety and peace ... for the good of the people of the state.”

In Venezuela, several users were arrested for sending tweets that police allege link them to the assassination of Robert Serra, a 27-year-old Socialist Party deputy who was found stabbed to death in his home on Oct. 1. All of those detained have voiced criticism of the current government on Twitter. Inés Margarita González (@inesitaterrible), a prominent voice on political issues, was detained and charged with "inciting crime" after tweeting her opinion on Serra's killing. She is currently being held incommunicado. 

The Turkish government briefly detained journalist Aytekin Gezici for tweets criticizing government officials and raided Gezici’s home, searching his computer, cell phone, camera and other electronics. Many believe this is the first use of Turkey’s new “reasonable doubt" rule, a pending amendment to the country's criminal code that will lower the threshold requirement for authorities to search and seize property in a criminal investigation. Now, rather than needing to show "strong suspicion based on concrete evidence", authorities must simply prove that they have a reasonable doubt of the suspect's innocence in order to obtain a search warrant.

China’s anti-rumor campaign continues
Daqin, a news website run by Tencent in Shaanxi province, is the latest casualty in China’s crackdown on “online rumors.” The site will be closed for seven days for its “lack of control on contents,” according to the Shaanxi Internet Information Office.

Hacks, hackers, and Russia’s proposed Internet fast lane
Russia may implement its own Internet fast lane as its Federal Anti-Monopoly Service considers allowing Internet service providers to collect fees from websites to prioritize delivery of their content. Citing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the FAS claims the fees would enable ISPs to make much-needed investments in national telecom infrastructure. But media freedom advocates argue they will endanger for the country’s already-threatened independent media space.

Russian hackers were able to spy on several Western governments, NATO, and the Ukrainian government, among others, by exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows, according to a report by computer security firm iSight Partners. It is unclear what information might have been retrieved through the attacks, which started as early as 2009 and ramped up this summer, but they were often tied to escalations in the standoff in Ukraine.

Oct. 22 2014 2:25 PM

The App That Will Make Algebra Classes Seem Even More Pointless

Math is important and I’m a big fan. No hard feelings about that time I got a 50 on a calc final in college. I still like math (plus I passed the class). But a new app called PhotoMath is making all those high school classes feel a little more pointless. You just take a picture of any equation and the app does the rest.

When PhotoMath captures the problem you’re trying to solve, it gives you an answer and you can elect to see the steps it used to get to that answer. Created by text recognition company MicroBlink, the app is meant for students who don’t get enough tailored instruction at school or who can't afford tutors and other aides. By seeing the steps to answering a problem, they can learn how a particular concept/strategy works. PhotoMath could also be useful for parents trying to help their kids with homework.

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But let’s be real here. Kids are going to use this app to cheat, right? A MicroBlink spokesperson told Quartz that that’s not the intention behind the product. And since there are so many ways to cheat already out there—Wolfram Alpha, TI graphing calculators, friends who are better at math than you—it doesn’t even seem like PhotoMath will make much of a difference. Though it is extremely simply to use. Tempting.

The main barrier to cheating using PhotoMath right now is that you can’t necessarily trust its results. The app works well enough for simple problems, but it still falters on complicated equations. And as Yahoo Tech points out, it sometimes mistakes things like “x” variables for the multiply symbol. Additionally, PhotoMath can only analyze problems that are typed out, it can’t read handwritten equations. 

Former math teacher and current math education graduate student Dan Meyer wrote on his blog on Wednesday that:

We should wish PhotoMath abundant success—perfect character recognition and downloads on every student’s smartphone. Because the only problems PhotoMath could conceivably solve are the ones that are boring and over-represented in our math textbooks.

The math teachers are ready for PhotoMath. Are you?

Oct. 22 2014 2:03 PM

Internet Weather Poseurs, Begone

It’s hard to know where to go to get a decent weather forecast on the Internet these days.

In just the last few months, we’ve had a nonexistent New York City snowstorm, a ”sideways tornado” in Baltimore, and faux hurricanes headed for New Orleans. Even the once-venerable Weather Channel has gone off the rails recently, earning acclaim for transforming into a leading source of clickbait.

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Because of these and other reckless antics and Facebook farces, 2014 will almost assuredly go down as the year of the Internet weather hoax. Last month, Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau, king of weather-hoax debunkery, wrote a surprisingly useful tutorial of the genre.

But take heed, all you who threaten us with your barometric bluffs and atmospheric ambuscades: The National Weather Association has just the thing. At this year’s annual meeting, which is currently taking place in Salt Lake City, the NWA announced a new certification program for purveyors of Internet weather blogs and webcasts: the NWA Digital Seal of approval.

Immediately, the meteorological community rejoiced:

To qualify for a NWA Digital Seal, you don’t have to have a degree in meteorology. If you’ve been writing about the weather or making Internet videos for awhile and pass a 100-question test, you can submit a portfolio of your work to the NWA. If the NWA considers you a trusted source of weather content, you’re in. Traditional TV meteorologists aren’t eligible.

By email, the very first NWA Digital Seal holder, Bill Murray (not to be confused with the actor who once famously played a meteorologist on the silver screen), told me the achievement is a validation of a lifelong education in the weather. “Weather on the Internet has a huge noise to signal ratio now and I believe that the NWA Digital Seal is a positive filter,” Murray told me. The other two inaugural Digital Seal holders are Mike Mogil, whose weather photography was enshrined on a U.S. postage stamp in 2004, and Jason Samenow, weather editor of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

Josh Larson, a Denver-area meteorologist who helps run the weather5280.com site, is eager to apply. “I feel it is doing the public a service,” he told me by email. Still, he has reservations: “The seal is only as good as the job the NWA does communicating to the public what it means.”

The NWA (not to be confused with the ‘80s hip hop group of the same name, or the U.S. government’s National Weather Service, where all your official forecasts come from) has been certifying broadcast TV meteorologists for many years. Now, with television becoming less and less popular source of weather information—checking the weather is the No. 1 mobile activity, according to one recent survey—the new move by NWA could help separate the sunshine from the storms, so to speak. There are signs that the American Meteorological Society, the NWA’s older and more well-known cousin, may also eventually follow suit.

As Samenow put it in an email: “When it comes to online weather info, it's a bit of a wild, wild west out there. I hope, that over time, the digital seal can help establish some order, directing the public to the best sources of credible information across platforms.​”

My bold prediction is that the NWA’s new program won’t do much to tamp down the plethora of misleading weather content, but at least we’ll know where to look first for the fact check.

Oct. 22 2014 8:43 AM

Thunderstruck: Rock Out With Mother Nature’s Evil Side

Windchimes aren’t the only musical instruments powered by the weather. The genre-defying musician and one-man band known only as Quintron has created a giant analog synthesizer controlled completely by the weather.

Called the Weather Warlock, it works when sensors detect changes in sunlight, wind, rain, and temperature. Copper wires then carry that information via a water-proof casing to the synth that sits, for now, in the living room of Quintron’s home in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.

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“The weather has so many elements that are constantly fluctuating all day, every day. My goal was to translate those into something we could actually hear—not just digital readouts on a weather station but actual sound changes,” Quintron said.

So what exactly does Mother Nature’s soundtrack sound like?  “If this were an orchestra, rain and wind would be the percussive elements and temperature provides the bass. Sunrise and Sunset are the soloists,” Quintron said.

For the curious who want to experience it for themselves —and who wouldn’t, really?—outputs from the Weather Warlock are streamed live, 24 hours a day on Weather for the Blind. Special audio events take place at dusk and dawn. The project’s name refers to circadian rhythm disorders often experienced by blind people brought about by being isolated from environmental time cues, such as sunrise and sunset. Of the 100,000 people in the United States who are completely blind, about 70 percent are unable to perceive enough light to establish a normal night sleep patterns.

The Weather Warlock is the latest addition to Quintron’s cache of self-made electronic instruments. Among them are the Spit Machine, a hand organ that uses saliva as a tuning conduit, and the Drum Buddy, a light-oscillated drum machine.

Quintron had been tinkering with the concept of a weather-controlled machine for years, but he began focusing on the project in 2011, when a health crisis forced him to spend time at home, instead of touring. The project began when he mounted the first set of sensors to the roof of his home and built the first prototype of the base station on the front porch. The earliest incarnation, he says, “literally sounded like the voices of hell.” 

“It was just white noise with these kind of burbling scary backwards voice noises going on,” he said. “Then about two or three months into it I stumbled on the idea that this thing had to be pleasant to listen to because I was wanting it to be on all the time.”

Once he settled on turning it to a major E chord, the instrument had a surprisingly meditative effect. “I instantly calmed down and was better able to focus on the building when I had these nice sounds going, too,” he said.

But working out its kinks was more than an exercise in tuning. It turns out all weather is not the same when it comes to the analog approximation of its sound. Translating rain at its various levels of intensity, Quintron says, was especially challenging.

“The obvious idea would be to just build some weather-proof contact microphones and pick up the actual rain as it hits a sheet of metal or something,” he said. But the result, he said, “sounded like an angle grinder, not the pitter-patter of God's springtime water can.”

Instead of capturing the sounds of rain via microphone, Quintron build electronic audio circuits to approximate those sounds. The circuits are based on those sounds you might hear on old organ drum—electronic bongos, for example, come to mind. He then used the semi-conductivity of rain to turn LED lights on and off. Light sensors, triggered by the LEDs, kicked in to turn the sounds on and off.

With the third and most recent prototype now finished after completing a residency earlier this year at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Quintron took the synth on the road as part of a touring band—also called the Weather Warlock—with Gary Wrong of Wizzard Sleeve and Aaron Hill of EyeHateGod.

“We took a very heavy guitar-bashing approach. I wanted it to be totally in tune with what the weather was doing but kind of represent the more evil side of Mother Nature,” he said.

Eventually, Quintron hopes to build more base stations around the world so that listeners can experience musical interpretations of a diversity of climates. In the meantime, Quintron is forever tweaking the Weather Warlock.

“I’m messing with it all day long. Tune in anytime and chances are you’ll hear me jamming,” he said.

Rain or shine.

Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM

Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist

We’ve reached peak Gamergate by now: Analysis of the venomous hydra/hashtag fizzes everywhere, from Deadspin to The New Yorker to the front page of the New York Times. I won’t try to unravel the details here, but the movement is largely understood as a defensive lashing out against the growing inclusivity of video game culture. For all its soapboxing about journalistic ethics, it mostly seeks to intimidate women and define games as meaningless, apolitical toys (rather than art with a message that can be espoused or challenged).

I think of the peculiar entitled, rageful sexism that expresses itself in Gamergate as “Cheeto-breath bigotry,” because I can’t help conjuring up some dude on his basement couch in his underwear eating Cheetos when I read about the harassment women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have faced and continue to face. Cheeto guy wants everything to stay the same, though it is changing. He doesn’t want his pastime to grow up.

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But it’s worth asking how we got to that basement in the first place. From World War II through the early ’80s, a lot of the world’s pioneering computer scientists—Grace Hopper, Alice Burks, Margaret Fox—were women. And as an episode of Planet Money pointed out this week, for many years, the number of ladies studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men doing the same. If the beginnings of the Internet and digital culture had female fingerprints all over them, how and why did the Web become a man’s man’s world?  

According to the Planet Money hosts, something strange happened in 1984. The percentage of women in computer science, which had been climbing at a comparable rate to the percentages of women in law, medicine, and the physical sciences, suddenly flatlined. And then it fell off a cliff.

Personal computers had begun to appear in American households “in significant numbers.” (Apple unveiled its version in 1977, and the more vastly popular IBM model came out in 1981. Between 1980 and 1985, the number of personal machines in the world leapt from 1 million to more than 30 million.) And the introduction of computers as a consumer good meant that people would have to figure out how to market them.

The strategy that emerged was to sell computers exclusively to men. Early devices were good for word processing and a few elementary programs like Space Invaders, Pong, and Zork. The violent, adventure-story themes of the primordial video game led advertisers to craft a narrative in which digital culture existed for the fellows—specifically, for smart, high-strung fellows called geeks. The novelist Julie Smith described the geek as “a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized … who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace—somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer.”

In short, the culture of computers represented a place for disaffected young men to exercise power.

Furthermore, as NPR’s Steve Henn observes, the ’80s saw the release of dork-canon movies like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds, and War Games. “The plot summaries are almost interchangeable,” Henn writes. “Awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.” The message sank in: By the ’90s, studies showed that parents were far more likely to purchase computers for their sons than for their daughters. The few female students who did pursue coding classes in college reported feeling isolated, unsupported, unprepared.  

And so on—you can see where this is going. Over time, thanks to a bunch of gendered advertisements, the “boys-only” narrative consolidated its grip on the popular imagination. Now it’s planted itself in the basement, and it’s fighting for its life.

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