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After books and vinyl, board games make a comeback | Life and style

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Forget Candy Crush, Fifa and Call of Duty – millennials are putting down their Xbox controllers and smartphones and picking up their dice as they embrace games their parents and grandparents used to love.

More and more people are exchanging marathon gaming sessions alone in a darkened room for the social fun of board games. With bars and cafes such as Thirsty Meeples in Oxford, and Draughts in London having a library of more than 800 games catering for the “cocktails and Cluedo” set, board games – as with colouring books – are no longer just Christmas presents for children.

Early next month tens of thousands of enthusiasts will descend on Birmingham NEC for the UK Games Expo, the third-largest hobby and games convention in the world. The event, in its 12th year, caters for all aspects of tabletop gaming, from classic board games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Cluedo to Warhammer and trading card games.

Tony Hyams, director of UK Games Expo, says: “The event started in 2007, right in the teeth of the financial meltdown. We assumed it would struggle and were prepared for it to just a be a little local show. The first year we had 1,200 attendees over the two days. This year we are expecting closer to 40,000 over three days.

“We knew that people didn’t have much money, and we just wanted a great weekend. We kept prices as low as we could and packed as much fun in as possible. This seems to be a winning formula for everyone.”

He adds: “We have seen a real growth of interest in board games over the past 10 years.

“While the internet is a great thing, sitting down and playing with friends and family is becoming increasingly important. Having time away from our phones and computers where we can talk, play and enjoy time together is something board games let us do.”

Purchasing a tabletop game, as Hymas notes, “makes good financial sense”. Computer gaming on games consoles or even mobile phones is no longer a “pay-once” situation. In comparison with in-app or in-game purchases, self-contained board games with no extras required seem more appealing. Makers of electronic games have faced outrage from fans over their reliance on in-game purchases for titles such as Fifa 18 or Star Wars Battlefront II, which can take the already high cost of the games to an astronomical level.

This is one of the reasons why an increasing number of games are moving from the console to the table top. The post-second world war “atompunk” role-playing game Fallout 4 generated $750m in the first 24 hours after its launch but now there has been enough appetite to make it into a board game alongside classic video games such as Doom.

They are part of a trend – from books to vinyl, there is evidence of growing interest in the “real thing” rather than the digital versions. It is also an interest that can be shared across generations.

Elsa Tarring, 17, says: “In our house, we only have two remote controls for the Wii, so you can’t play with a big group of people, whereas with a board game you can. And adults are often useless with technology, so you can play a board game with them and no one is excluded.”

The tabletop gaming industry looked to be on the wane in 2015, when companies such as Games Workshop, which makes Warhammer fantasy models, were struggling financially. However, profits have since increased as more people move away from screens and towards human interaction in gaming.

Jonathan Berkowitz, of Hasbro Gaming, says: “The gaming industry is doing very well right now. We’re continuing to see popularity grow for all types of face-to-face games. With classic favourites such as Monopoly and Game of Life and new, social games such as Chow Crown and Don’t Lose Your Cool we are confident this momentum will continue.”



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AppsContraception and family planningFamilyHealthHealth & wellbeingLife and stylePregnancySexual healthSocietyTechnologyWomen

Rise of contraceptive apps sparks fears over unwanted pregnancies | Society

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Growing numbers of women are using contraceptive apps, but experts have warned they could lead to unwanted pregnancies.

The Swedish app Natural Cycles, the only certified app for contraception, has seen a surge in the number of members from the UK in the past year with almost 200,000 signed up, an increase from 5,000 in 2016.

Sarah Hardman, the director of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare’s clinical effectiveness unit in Edinburgh, expressed concern that while some women were very pleased with contraception apps, others had had unwanted pregnancies while using them.

“We don’t have a good indication yet of how successful the average woman in the street in the UK is going to be when using them,” she said.

She added: “I would express concern about people knowing what they need to know before they use it and not just thinking: ‘this is modern because it’s an app and it’s something new, so it’s better and more effective’. It’s not – it’s just very different.”

Hardman said she understood there would be women who wanted to avoid hormones. “For them, they may say: ‘I understand that this is not as effective as lots of contraceptives, you need to work hard to get it right and it’s not a disaster if I did get pregnant.’ It’s about choice for women but it’s about making choices in an informed way and knowing something’s limitations.”

In the past few years, there has been a growth in the number of contraceptive apps. These include Kindara – which allows you to track everything from your body temperature to the appearance of your cervical fluid – to Ovia, which lets you monitor your moods, periods and other metrics. The apps work by pinpointing when you ovulate and when you are most fertile.

Natural Cycles requires women to input their temperature every morning. It then calculates their menstrual cycle and informs them when they can have sex without protection.

The app met with controversy earlier this year when it was reported to Swedish authorities after a hospital found 37 cases of unwanted pregnancies among women relying on it for contraception.

Natural Cycles said the efficacy of the app was backed by a wealth of clinical data: a study of 22,785 women demonstrated an effectiveness rate of 93%.

Hardman said: “It’s a good study as it has lots of women involved but they are women who went out to specifically look for something different for contraception … maybe they had problems on the pill … they chose to use this app, so may be more motivated than the average woman on the street.”

Raoul Scherwitzl, the chief executive of Natural Cycles, said: “It is important to note that our typical users are age 30 on average, in a stable relationship with a regular daily routine – and are willing to take their temperature on a daily basis and use protection on fertile days. Our users do tend to be highly motivated.”

The concept of tracking fertility has roots in the work of gynaecologists Hermann Knaus and Kyusaku Ogino, who in the 1930s revealed that ovulation occurs in the mid-point of the cycle. Their discovery led to the development ofcontraceptive practices such as methods involving daily temperature readings and checking the consistency of cervical mucus.

Hardman said: “We will not know how it works for the general population until it’s been out there and used and, at that point, we would love to be pleasantly surprised. But looking at the general population, we know people can use pills and condoms and not always use them perfectly, and the overall failure rate can be quite high. That is why we are concerned.”



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Shine: the self-care app that teaches you to ‘hustle more mindfully’ | Technology

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For all the things that the millennial generation struggle with (buying a house, cultivating a career, monogamy), self-care seems to be one area where they flourish. So much so that it is said to be a multibillion-dollar industry, and whatever your particular strand of self-care needs, Shine may be the app you have been waiting for. Along with recently landing $5m (£3.5m) of investment, the startup has picked up more than two million users in two years, with people tuning in for affirmations, meditations and salutations.

Its primary focus is a chatbot that dishes out life advice in text messages and then offers guided audio therapies and blog content, depending on your needs. The app has been used in 189 countries, despite the fact that it is only formatted in English. As a millennial snowflake, I tried it for a week to see how I would fare: would it help me “thrive”, as it claimed?

Its daily messages in the form of affirmations (“Your pace wins your race”) come through in the morning, asking you to “check in” and consider how you are feeling. Depending on your answers, Shine will direct you to a particular track, affirmation or blogpost, such as “Find your flow” or “Hustle more mindfully”.

Then there are its five-minute audio guides that offer positive reinforcement for different times of the day. For more specific situations, there are longer ones, with affirmations such as “I am the CEO of my thoughts” and “How to stay woke and well”, where I am assured that “being woke does not mean your spirit is broke”.

If that is not enough, there are seven-day challenges, with one podcast each day to help you be productive or feel more fulfilled. All are set to ambient, hypnotic music, and require some element of breathing exercise. There is lots of “getting grounded”, and the podcasts are presented by people with job titles such as “emotional wellness coach” and “self-helpery nerd”. Though it can feel nauseatingly upbeat, the app has managed to perfect the supportive friend tone.

Using Shine felt like having a life coach in my pocket. Leaving scepticism aside, and accepting that some of its content is repetitive, it shows how automating therapies could help people – for the same price as a monthly Netflix subscription.



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Inside Nintendo’s Labo toy factory: ‘Creating and learning are fun!’ | Games

Inside Nintendo’s Labo toy factory: ‘Creating and learning are fun!’ | Games


The launch of a new Nintendo product always generates excitement, because you never quite know what you are going to get. In 2004, Nintendo abandoned the wildly successful Game Boy portable consoles in favour of an ugly silver clamshell with two screens, the DS. Two years later, when other games companies were focused on improving their consoles’ graphical power, Nintendo popularised motion control with the comparatively underpowered Wii. Both announcements attracted scepticism and even mockery from players and market analysts alike, and both sold more than 100m each.

The company’s experimental approach is not always successful, however. Though Nintendo’s most recent console, the Switch, has been a huge success so far, its predecessor, the Wii U, was one of the worst-selling games machines of all time. Nintendo Labo, out today in the US and on 27 April in the UK, is one of Nintendo’s weirdest ever ideas: a set of cardboard construction kits that, combined with the game software packaged with it, can be used to create interactive toys.

The key to this magic is the Nintendo Switch’s little controllers, which snap away from the screen. These JoyCons contain a bundle of sensors and feedback mechanisms including gyroscopes, an IR motion camera and rumble. Slotted into a cardboard fishing rod, they can sense movement and velocity; tucked in the back of amini cardboard piano, they can see stickers on the back of the keys that tell the console which note to play. The game cartridge includes specially built games for each model, instructions for building them, and a “Discover” section that explains how they work in a kid-friendly but unpatronising manner.

“After the development of Nintendo Switch, we worked on creating all kinds of different prototypes, with the theme of creating something that was straightforward and that only the Nintendo Switch and Joy-Con could make happen. Nintendo Labo came out of this process,” says Koichi Kawamoto, producer on the Labo team.

Abandoned prototypes during that two-year effort included a model tank and a music box, according to Labo’s creators. “We made a music box prototype where you rotated a cylinder with reflective stickers stuck on it in a spiral shape,” elaborates Tsubasa Sakaguchi, project director. “By using the IR motion camera to detect the movements of the stickers, we could make the rotation speed of the cylinder determine how fast the music played. It was an interesting mechanism, but we thought that consumers wouldn’t actually have that much fun playing with it. The most important thing for us was whether consumers would find it exciting and fun.”



Koichi Kawamoto Photograph: Nintendo

The five models that have made the cut at launch include a little house with buttons and dials, a fishing rod with a string attached to an elastic-band reel, a simple remote-control car that judders across the floor powered by the controllers’ vibrations, an approximation of a motorbike with handlebars and a brake lever, and a working cardboard piano. There is also a cardboard robot suit, available in a separate kit, that can translate your movements into a game in which you are a giant robot smashing up a city.

The Labo software has a garage mode that lets you experiment with elements of programming, opening up the possibility for players to create their own cardboard contraptions. One example from Nintendo is a cardboard guitar with elastic-band strings. Expect to see a flurry of these sorts of creations from the maker community in the months after Labo’s launch.

It was during the prototyping stage that director Sakaguchi first felt that the team might be on to something. They found that building the models and customising them with pens and stickers was as appealing as playing with them. “When we were making prototypes, for one Toy-Con [cardboard model] we made, players were picking the nose of something shaped like a human head on the game screen,” he recalls. “The IR motion camera detects movements, so as you move your finger, the finger on screen moves too. When one member tried the prototype Toy-Con, they looked at their finger to check if there was anything on it. I found that really funny to watch, and that’s when I felt the product’s potential.”

Nintendo’s Tsubasa Sakaguchi, who also worked on hit series Splatoon



Nintendo’s Tsubasa Sakaguchi, who also worked on hit series Splatoon. Photograph: Nintendo

“The fundamental concept of Labo came from thinking how we could leverage the JoyCon controllers,” elaborates Shinya Takahashi, GM of Nintendo’s development division. “We wanted to see if there were any attachments that we could put on them, and cardboard was the material that came to our mind instantly. It’s a material that’s easy to modify, shape, and attach on to JoyCons – trial and error and repair are all easy. Through the experiment our development team realised that selling already created cardboard attachments may not be fun enough – the process of creating and learning the process and the mechanics behind it is rewarding in itself.”

Like all of Nintendo’s products, Labo is oriented towards families and children. A six-year-old might spend three hours using pens and glue to make the perfect RC car, whereas an older child (or parent) might spend more time learning how the models work. The more complex models would be demanding for many children to assemble by themselves, but with parental help the process is collaborative and fun – reminiscent of hours spent with Airfix models or dolls’ houses in previous generations.

When Nintendo announced Labo in January, the reactions ranged from perplexed delight to qualified scepticism: will people really pay £60 (or $70) for some cardboard? It might only be £10 more expensive than a “normal” game, but Nintendo’s madcap ideas often take some explaining before people buy in to them. The next few months will determine whether Labo becomes a fondly remembered curiosity, or another of the Switch’s big sellers.

Additional interviews by Keith Stuart.



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Wengie to RackaRacka: navigating the world of Australia’s YouTube superstars | Technology

Wengie to RackaRacka: navigating the world of Australia’s YouTube superstars | Technology


You don’t need to attend a VidCon meet-and-greet to be across the fact that young people are watching a lot of online video content; a casual glance around any bus, tram, cafe or quadrangle will reveal smartphones, tablets and laptops glued to favourite channels. The international phenomenon of teen YouTube stars is, by now, well-trodden ground – but who are the young YouTube superstars in Australia, and what are they peddling?

It happens to us all: one day, we wake up and realise that we’re no longer at the crest of the internet wave. For some of us, this can be shattering.

I realised my ship had begun to sail when, late last year, I attended a local wrestling promotion. After the show, two young women hopped on stage and had an impromptu photoshoot with the championship belts. It was only after I grumbled something about the rudeness of youths and how nobody would let me touch the belt that I was helpfully informed, by a very excited fan, that the two women were YouTube superstars, in town for the online video expo VidCon.

Upon my return home I looked up their YouTube accounts. Between them, they had upwards of 3.5 million subscribers, countless views, astronomical amounts of “thumbs ups” … and, in a moment a Wonder Years voiceover would pinpoint as watershed, I struggled to understand why. “But they’re just talking about stuff!” I whined to a friend, their eyes glazing steadily. “Do people really watch this??”

At the age of 36, the generation gap had yawned open before me. How do you do, fellow kids?

I attacked my problem with an anthropological zeal, and went straight to the source: the Young People all around me, both viewers and content creators. I wanted to better understand the viewing habits of those for whom “funny cats” compilations and jokes about Marxism (oh, how I laughed!) were no longer cutting it.

(My 15-year-old friend Isaac generously reassured me, “I don’t think that ‘grownups’ are a group that inherently can’t understand certain things.”)



Troye Sivan plays Saturday Night Live. The Australian parlayed YouTube views into music stardom. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

A handful of Australian YouTubers have enjoyed immense success beyond the boundaries of the site, from Troye Sivan to SketchShe, but there are plenty who are uploading content consumed by a mind-boggling number of viewers, often multiple times a week.

Exact numbers regarding exactly what young people are watching are closely guarded by Google, but by reverse engineering view counts and subscriber numbers for some of Australia’s more popular YouTube accounts, it’s safe to assume that many young people, both here and abroad, are eating the content up.

(On that note, many of the Australian YouTubers I spoke to suggested large slices of their audiences are from overseas, while the young Australian viewers also mainly watched international accounts. “I mostly like to watch people from other countries to see what they like and how they do things over in their part of the world,” said Edie, 13, who also enjoys hearing different accents; there are likely great swaths of teens in places like Manchester, Atlanta or Yokohama who are, right now, thrilling to the mangled vowel sounds of the Australian accounts I explored.)

My travels through young YouTube were eye-opening, and while I might not necessarily be signing up for a triple helping of certain types of content each week, at least the next time a YouTube superstar crosses my path I’ll be able to nod knowingly and say, “Ah, yes, I’ve seen their channel.”

Wengie

Genre: Lifestyle

Most popular video: 42m views

Subscribers: 10.8 million

Officially Australia’s most-popular YouTuber as of late 2017, the channel of rainbow-haired Wengie is like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life. Through her channel I have learned that “pranks” no longer necessarily means “jumping out of a bin and scaring your friends” – nor does it always mean the more sinister “pranks” of the disgraced YouTuber Logan Paul, whose video of an alleged suicide victim – uploaded to his 15.6 million, mostly-teen viewers – resulted in official reprimanding by YouTube. Now, the word “prank” also means making edible school supplies and worms, so that you can “prank” your friend by seemingly eating pencils in front of them.

I meditate on Isaac’s reassuring line about grownups not getting things, and move on.

RackaRacka

Genre: Comedy

Most popular video: 55m views

Subscribers: 4.5 million

I’ll just say it: the Adelaide-based comedy collective RackaRacka’s WrestleMania video is one of the finest works of satire in years. Like South Park’s Emmy-winning episode Make Love Not Warcraft, it is funny on two levels: amusingly ridiculous to those who’ve never partaken in WWE product, and sidesplitting to those who know the tropes of “sports entertainment”.

As I wandered through the Philippou brothers’ (many) videos, I did wonder if it was a case of lightning striking once – but then remembered a common theme among the responses from young YouTube viewers: this humour is not made for me.

Archie, 20, reckons the rapid-fire editing of much online comedy (and present in many of RackaRacka’s videos) “isn’t always understood by older people” – a position echoed by Michelle, 19, who told me, “If you’re not down with internet culture you won’t necessarily understand YouTube culture either.”

Bella Fiori

Genre: Beauty (… and murder mysteries)

Most popular video: 4.1m views

Subscribers: 1.5 million

Who knew strobe cream and the Lake Bodom murders would one day go hand in hand?

Bella Fiori’s account is a fascinating testament to the “multiple tabs open” mindset: she’s a cruelty-free beauty blogger who tests out new makeup products, posts “haul” videos and vlogs about her holiday trips, but who also uploads in-depth videos about missing persons and murder mysteries each Monday.

It raises the question: did she see beauty vlogging as a way to crack the market, and then use her profile to become an investigative journalist? If so, I’d like to shake both her hands.

Grace’s World

Genre: Toys/lifestyle

Most popular video: 60m views

Subscribers: 1.1 million

If you time-travelled to 1993 and told me and my best friend that our “Barbie videos” might one day translate into YouTube superstardom, we probably would have looked very confused. But 12-year-old Grace Mulgrew is one of YouTube’s “child influencers”; her episodic Barbie videos are so popular internationally she now also runs a Spanish-language channel as well as a more casual vlogging channel, Grace’s Room.

“I wasn’t looking to start a channel,” she tells me. “When I was six, I loved playing with dolls and I’d been starting to watch YouTube videos so I asked my dad to film me doing a tour of my doll house. When I finished I asked him to put it up on YouTube. We forgot all about it after that, but 10 months later someone pointed out that it had about 9 million views, so we thought we’d make more videos. And the rest is history!”

Grace’s World is now so popular that her dad, Greg, quit his job to help manage it. Somewhere, my father is weeping with regret.

Muselk

Genre: Gaming

Most popular video: 11m views

Subscribers: 4.3 million

Across all the young people I spoke to for this piece, nearly every one of them – from nine-year-old Milli to 15-year-old Isaac – watched gaming videos, though few of them self-identified as “gamers”.

“What I most enjoy about watching gaming videos is not the game itself,” explains Edie, 13, “but rather the players having fun and laughing over their mistakes, or some funny reaction they’ve had while playing the game.” (Isaac even cops to enjoying “videos of people just talking about what games they like”, revealing a saintlike patience not just for “grownups” but also for water-cooler chat.)

While I’m not immune to the charms of a Mickey Mouse in the Castle of Illusion boss playthrough, videos like Muselk’s, which feature sardonic live commentary as he and his friends play with or against each other, gave me flashbacks to unsuccessful Friday-night raids in World of Warcraft.

This seems to be a common generational issue when it comes to gamer vids; Gabe, 10, complains that: “Dad says [UK YouTubers] Dan and Phil are stupid, and they are really funny!” The war continues …

CKN Toys

Genre: Toys/unboxing

Most popular video: 253m views

Subscribers: 5.4 million

My first exposure to toy videos on YouTube was via a friend who’d become a father, who remarked that his young daughter was “obsessed” with watching Kinder Surprise unwrapping videos.

CKN Toys, a family of YouTubers from Melbourne, do exactly that: crack open surprise eggs and “unbox” newly released toys – and unlike many popular international unboxing channels, CKN is actually presented by children.

As someone who can no longer justify her expenditure in the toy aisle at Kmart, I freely admit to being fascinated by unboxing videos as a hallmark of late capitalism. This suggests, perhaps, that a large slice of the audience for channels like CKN Toys may more likely be comprised of people like me than those who you’d assume to be their prime audience. At least as far as Olli, 11, is concerned, who declares all toy videos to be “the worst scum in the history of the galaxy”.

Her little sister Henri, five, disagrees, assuring me that “toy videos are my favourite”. Perhaps this is why CKN Toys have comments turned off on many videos.

Mighty Car Mods

Genre: Automotive

Most popular video: 6.9m views

Subscribers: 2.6 million

The MCM guys may no longer be considered “young people”, though they certainly were when they began their channel in 2007, and their audience remains full of youthful enthusiasts.

Moog and Marty, who have undertaken enough “automotive projects” to release a 10th anniversary coffee table book, are aware of the dangers that come with role-model status. “I am conscious that there are a lot of people watching from very diverse backgrounds and there are some sensitivities that I think anyone in the public eye needs to take into consideration,” says Blair “Moog” Joscelyne, one half of MCM alongside Martin “Marty” Mulholland’. “A lot of children are watching, but I don’t think you can necessarily creatively cater to their specific needs, because then another group will feel a shift in the tone of what you’re creating.”

They needn’t worry about tailoring their content to suit me, however, because as compelling and entertaining as I find their videos (especially the “feature-length” projects), I can’t drive.

Superwog

Genre: Comedy

Most popular video: 8m views

Subscribers: 853,000

Following in the footsteps of the Wogs Out of Work and Fat Pizza crews in translating grassroots success into (possible) television fame, Theo and Naithan Saidden have parlayed their YouTube channel (mostly sketches, and rap videos inspired by the US channel Epic Rap Battles of History) into a TV-length pilot.

Of all the Australian YouTubers, Superwog seemed to be the one with the broadest reach; YouTube fans Gabe, nine, and Edie, 13, were well across it. It’s just as crass (and frequently hilarious) as their aforementioned forebears, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather see the Greek-Egyptian Saiddens skewering Australian multiculturalism than, say, FriendlyJordies’ strangely classist and very white Chronicles of Yilmaz. (Also, I get it: my mum was once on Acropolis Now.)

Tammy Hembrow

Genre: Lifestyle/fitness

Most popular video: 9.6m views

Subscribers: 1.1 million

Even as someone desperately trying to increase glute strength, it doesn’t take a genius to work out why Tammy Hembrow’s “Bigger Booty Workout” is about to crack the 10m view mark. Unlike many other “fitspo” vloggers, however, the 23-year-old Australian-Trinidadian Hembrow’s commitment to keeping things raw (and, when her children are around, chaotic) is a refreshing change from workout videos where the vloggers never break a sweat and cut away before the point of muscle failure.

(Don’t look for sweat or muscle crampsshakes on Instagram, however, where she has 8.1 million followers and a far more manicured presence.)

Georgia Productions

Genre: Lifestyle/comedy

Most popular video: 3.2m views

Subscribers: 253,000

Georgia is a 17-year-old self-described “aspiring YouTuber” whose “random and relatable” videos speak, presumably, directly to her peers. (Given the production values of Georgia’s productions, once she is no longer “aspiring” she’s likely to be producing major live television events.)

She has made a number of videos speaking to the difference between Australian and international teens, which reminds me of something Edie told me: “I adore the way [YouTube] lets you watch people from all over the place doing what they love, whether it be humour, adventure, story, make up, gaming or any other type of videos, and being able to share it with us so we can have a good time watching it.”

Who can argue with that?



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The clean breathing craze proves that you can put a price on fresh air | News

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First it was clean eating; now it’s clean breathing. Sales of air purifiers are soaring, with the global market expected to be worth £6.2bn by 2024.

The trend is in response to the rise in asthma and allergies linked to poor air quality inside buildings. Research says it can be up to five times more polluted than air outside, with chemicals from cleaning products, aerosols and perfume rivalling diesel fumes as causes of contamination.

Tech companies are racing to come up with ways to clean the air around us. The San Francisco startup behind Molekule, for example, promises its nanotechnology will “actually destroy” pollutants “at the molecular level”. Neither the $799 (£568) price tag nor an endorsement from Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop are putting buyers off.

BetterAir’s Biodify, meanwhile, is the world’s first probiotic air purifier, using healthy bacteria known as Bacillus subtilis to create a “protective shield of microflora”. CEO Taly Dery says the company has seen a 50% growth in sales since the last quarter.

But can tech really help? “There is no silver bullet because every home is different,” says Douglas Booker, CEO of NAQTS, a social enterprise seeking to improve awareness of indoor air quality through its monitoring technology. “But we spend 92% of our time indoors, so it’s important we’re aware of ways to reduce indoor air pollution, such as opening windows, using extractor fans when cooking and never smoking indoors,” he says.

There is also evidence that plants can reduce levels of toxic compounds – some have been used to filter air inside the International Space Station. Freddie Blackett is founder of the online plant shop Patch. “Air purifiers are our biggest sellers of 2018, up 130% in the last six months,” he says. He recommends aloe vera, which can improve sleep, and Epipremnum aureum (AKA Ceylon creeper or Devil’s Ivy), which removes formaldehyde and benzene from the air.

Not only do plants purify; they can also help boost productivity. So you’ll be able to worry more efficiently about all the things that are killing you.



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Scrubbed clean: why a certain kind of sex is vanishing from the internet | Society

Scrubbed clean: why a certain kind of sex is vanishing from the internet | Society


Craigslist has shut down its renowned “personals” section, which once featured ads titled “Hot days” and “Looking to fool around tonight”. Porn performers are complaining that Google Drive is no longer allowing them to share erotic videos with private clients. Microsoft has announced new rules banning “offensive language” from conversations on Skype and Xbox. And Reddit has closed sex industry discussion groups entitled “Escorts”, “Hookers”, and “SugarDaddy”.

All of this has happened in recent days and weeks; a particular genre of online sex, it seems, is vanishing from the internet.

The timing of all these internet sex crackdowns corresponds with the US Congress’s passage last week of a bill known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta).

While intended to protect victims of sex trafficking, critics say the bill will force internet platforms to censor their users in order to avoid being prosecuted for newly created sex trafficking offenses. Some sex workers argue the bill will hurt those who voluntarily work in the sex industry by pushing them off the internet and back on to the streets. Internet advocates say the bill may the beginning of a crackdown on free speech online.

“US Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘Fosta’, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully,” wrote Craiglist in a statement posted on Friday, where their online personals used to be. “Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline.”

The law puts new limits on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has broadly protected internet providers from being held liable for content posted by their users. It carries penalties of up to 25 years in federal prison for anyone who runs an internet service “with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person”.

“We used to be in a world where internet companies could provide platforms for lots of different types of internet speech without being in fear of being unduly prosecuted,” said Elliot Harmon, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Now there’s a lot of doubt. And, where there is doubt, platforms will err on the side of censorship.”

The bill passed through both the House and the Senate with broad bipartisan support and now awaits the signature of the president. Supporters of the new legislation said existing laws have allowed victims, including children, to be bought and sold through blatant ads on internet sites, which has created a surge of exploitation resulting in a multibillion-dollar industry.

“To the websites that for years have hidden behind Section 230 and profited from the sale of vulnerable women and children, know that your time has run out,” wrote Lauren Hersh, the co-founder of World Without Exploitation, a coalition of anti-trafficking groups that worked with legislators to get the bill passed.



Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which has recently shut down its renowned ‘personals’ section. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A video promoting the campaign featured Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers and a host of other stars, saying: “Today you can go online and buy a child for sex. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza.” The bill also won the vocal support of Ivanka Trump.

The group specifically targeted one of the most notorious sites for sex industry advertising, Backpage.com. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said that nearly three-quarters of the 10,000 reports of potentially sex-trafficked children that it receives every year involve victims who were advertised on Backpage. Law enforcement efforts forced it to shut down its “escorts” ads and resulted in numerous lawsuits and the 2016 arrest of Backpage’s owner. But the company has managed to shake off attempts to shut down its posting of potential trafficking ads.

Backpage.com remains open and many of the prostitution ads appear to have simply migrated to the personals section. They are now listed only by phone number, with busty photos and links such as “Amazing_service_to_your_place/Come_to_u/Asian/ .” Other ads feature doe-eyed girls that look like children.

Meanwhile, other areas of the internet are feeling the chill that has surrounded the bill. Craiglist’s personals came down on Friday. Another website taken offline was Pounced.org, a dating site for “furries” – or devotees of anthropomorphic animal characters who like to dress in costumes. A notice on the site said it was purely a personals site and not devoted to prostitution at all. “The problem is, with limited resources and a small volunteer staff, our risk for operating the site has now significantly increased. Now if someone posts an ad looking to exchange sex for something to pounced.org, and we don’t catch it, is that facilitating prostitution?”

Reddit closed down its escort service “subreddits” about the same time the bill passed the Senate, but said in a posting that the move was part of a larger crackdown against transactions involving such items as drugs, firearms, stolen goods, or sex.

On 1 March, as the bill was being debated in Congress, a blogger noticed that Microsoft had issued a change to its terms of service which will ban “offensive language”, in addition to formerly banned nudity, bestiality, pornography, graphic violence, or criminal activity, from its services, including Skype and Xbox Live.

In a statement, Microsoft said the new rules, which go into effect on 1 May, are not related to the new bill. “The recent changes to the Microsoft service agreement’s code of conduct provide transparency on how we respond to customer reports of inappropriate public content,” it said.

While some sex workers complained that they recently lost the ability to share erotic video files with their clients, a Google spokesman said the company regularly uses artificial intelligence to flag videos containing sexually explicit material under Google Drive’s longstanding Terms of Service policy. If the files are deemed to violate the policy after undergoing a review, he said those videos may not be watched or shared, but they can still be accessed by their owners.

A march to end violence against sex workers. Many say online forums help vet potential clients and avoid dangerous situations.



A march to end violence against sex workers. Many say online forums help vet potential clients and avoid dangerous situations. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

He said that, to his knowledge, there has been no recent increase in this kind of enforcement.

“Google is aware of the new legislation and we are reviewing it, but we haven’t reached a state where there are any proposed changes,” he said.

A site called YourDominatrix.com ended all US listings, with a note saying it was “due to a recent bill passed by Congress”. An escort site called CityVibe and the escort forums on “Hung Angels” shut down, as well. VerifyHim, a site devoted to helping sex workers stay safe by screening their clients, also removed its discussion forums.

Consensual sex workers say the new law will make the industry less safe, because they have been able to use internet sites without having to wander the streets.

“We knew it was going to be bad, but we didn’t know it was going to be this bad,” said Kate D’Adamo, an organizer for sex workers, who fought against the bill. “We’re going to be kicked off advertising platforms and we’re going to have to work in more dangerous situations.”

On Twitter, sex workers who had once managed their accounts online were scrambling to find new ways to do business in light of the disruptions caused by the law. Some were passing around safety tips and “self-censoring” advice for the new era, while others were converting to secure email accounts and offshore internet hosting sites.

“This affects my ability to keep myself away from dangerous situations through the safety forums I frequently use to decide if I will see a client or not,” one sex worker in San Diego, who goes by the name Jheri Mae, told the Guardian. She said she uses her sex work to survive as a single mom. “And with all the ad platforms disappearing, my potential income disappears with it and that does worry me.”



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Hackers steal data of 150m MyFitnessPal app users | Technology

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Personal details of about 150 million users of the MyFitnessPal app were compromised in one of the biggest hacks in history, its owner has confirmed.

US sportswear brand Under Armour said user names, email addresses and scrambled passwords were among the stolen data. However, payment card data was not affected. It urged customers to change their passwords immediately.

The company said on Thursday that the accounts were compromised in February, sending shares of the company down 3% in after-hours trade. The breach was not discovered until 25 March and users were informed four days later.

Under Armour said: “We do not know the identity of the unauthorised party. Our investigation into this matter is ongoing.”

The app allows customers to monitor their calorie intake and measure it against the amount of exercise they are doing using a database of more than 2 million foods. It was founded in 2005 by brothers Mike and Albert Lee.

The data breach is the largest this year and one of the top five to date, based on the number of records compromised, according to SecurityScorecard, a risk management consultancy.

Larger hacks included 3bn Yahoo accounts compromised in 2013 and credentials for more than 412 million users of adult websites run by California-based FriendFinder Networks Inc in 2016.

Under Armour said it was working with data security firms and law enforcement, but did not provide details on how the hackers got into its network or pulled out the data without getting caught.

While the breach did not include financial data, large troves of stolen email addresses can be valuable to cyber criminals.

Email addresses retrieved in a 2014 attack that compromised data on some 83 million JPMorgan Chase customers was later used in “pump-and-dump” schemes to boost stock prices, according to US federal indictments in the case in 2015.

Under Armour bought MyFitnessPal in 2015 for $475 m. It is part of the company’s connected fitness division, whose revenue last year accounted for 1.8% of Under Armour’s $5bn in total sales.



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Did Facebook read my private emails? | Letters | Technology

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The news reminds me why I stopped using Facebook (Report, 22 March). Back in 2015-16 my mother was dying and I only used my BT email when writing to family and friends about her, never mentioning her on Facebook, the only social media I used. Suddenly I started getting pop-up adverts on Facebook for funeral organisers, will writers and monumental masons. At a time of great emotional pain, I was confronted by this every time I went on to Facebook like a slap in the face. I complained to BT that it seemed my emails were being compromised, when I thought what I wrote in them was private. They said it should be and they would investigate but I heard no more.

I tried to contact Facebook to complain about inappropriate advertising which, to me, was of an emotionally abusive nature, but could find no working contact details. It left me no alternative but to come off Facebook because I could no longer trust the site. My main worry was the link between what I wrote in emails and what appeared on Facebook. I tested it by sending an email saying I was thinking of going to Italy. Hey presto, up came an advert on Facebook for Alitalia. It felt like an invasion of my privacy even if it’s only computers talking to each other with no humans aware. To use my mother’s final illness as a means to persuade me to buy things is inappropriate and caused me immense distress.

At least I knew it was happening, which those whose profiles may have been manipulated by Cambridge Analytica did not. But it seems more of the same thing. Facebook has got too big to care about its members. No one apologised; indeed as I was not able to contact Facebook to complain, they don’t know, although I posted why I was coming off to my friends. Shouldn’t all websites by law have a visible contact address? I still feel I am owed an apology. I am still not sure my emails are private.
Charlotte Soares
London

Join the debate – email [email protected]

Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters



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Bento the Keyboard Cat, internet sensation and YouTube star, dies | Technology

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Tonight he’s jamming with Kurt and Jimi. Keyboard Cat, the internet meme that bookended a thousand pratfalls, is dead.

In April 2009, thanks in part to a single tweet by Ashton Kutcher, videos of a cat “playing” a junky little Casio riff became the de rigeur way to “play out” any footage of, say, a man falling down an escalator in a wheelchair, a singing woman collapsing a table, or just a mortar round misfiring.

The cat’s owner, Charlie Schmidt, posted the news on Keyboard Cat’s Facebook page, with its 820,000 followers.

The original Keyboard Cat.

Only, that isn’t quite the story. Schmidt’s original clip of a musical cat – the one you’re most likely to have seen – was shot in 1984. Hence the grainy VHS quality, which made the vaporwave-obsessed internet of 2009 fall in love with it. The cat in that video was called Fatso. He died in 1987.

The recently deceased Bento, born in April 2009, just as the Keyboard Cat phenomenon was hitting its peak, was already a remix. It seems that Keyboard Cats can spontaneously regenerate whenever a few million dollars are dangled in front of them.

Schmidt used Bento to make a second Keyboard Cat video, plus any number of side adventures: a parody of Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball, an ad for Wonderful Pistachios, all the way up to a spoof on Banksy’s Exit Through The Pet Shop.

Bento taking on the starring role of Keyboard Cat.

You can hardly blame Schmidt for needing a physical product. Grumpy Cat is reputed to have a net worth of $100m. Within days of the first post to a Reddit thread, Grumpy Cat’s Red Lobster waitress owner was able to quit her job and go full-time. She shares a manager with Keyboard Cat, and with fellow celebrity felis catus, Lil Bub, and with animated cat meme Nyan Cat. Lil Bub generates enough that owner Mike Bridavsky can give away $200,000 a year to animal charities.

Hamilton, the moustache-toting “Hipster Cat”, had a web series, appeared in commercials, and had his own calendar line. Henri, a black cat, who appears, subtitled, in black-and-white, in French, like a cat Sartre, earns a $1,000 a week just from his online store. Appearance fees can be far greater. Maru, a Japanese-owned Scottish Fold, is the most watched cat of all time, with 325m YouTube views of him doing very basic cat stuff, like getting slightly freaked out by boxes.

Keyboard Cat’s spoof on Banksy’s Exit Through The Pet Shop.

The internet cat-industrial complex is vast. Cat food company Friskies flew Grumpy Cat, real name Tardar Sauce, first class, to South by Southwest. They paid for a chauffeur, a personal assistant, and unlimited food. At a conference with Al Gore and Elon Musk, she was the star. The 2013 documentary Lil Bub and Friendz began when the makers witnessed 10,000 people turn out to the Internet Cat Video Film Festival.

How do you make a smash like Keyboard Cat? “You start with $850 of cat piano lessons,” Schmidt once quipped. Certainly, it helps if the cat has bodily issues. Keyboard Cat is notable among the truly great cats of the internet for being just a standard moggy, who had to work his way up on his boogie-woogie skills alone. Grumpy Cat has an underbite and feline dwarfism. Lil Bub a short lower jaw, toothlessness and osteopetrosis. Pop Tart Cat (Nyan Cat) has a pop tart for a body. Hipster Cat has a strange white moustache.

Bento’s generation is getting long in the tooth. Perhaps not for nothing has Maru’s owner adopted and begun showcasing a second cat in addition to the 10 year old. The death of a cat is a private tragedy. The death of an internet cat is an economic catastrophe.



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