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4 Scary Toys in Big Brother's Toolbox

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BY MEGHAN HOLOHAN. It seems like government agencies are ready to party like it's 1984. In its zeal to prevent another terrorism attack, the U.S. has relaxed laws that protect our privacy, making it easier for the government to keep an eye on you. The following four products could help Big Brother keep watch.

1. Wristy Business: Monitors for Airline Passengers

A senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland security supposedly has his eye on a new accessory—an EDM security bracelet made by Lamperd Less Lethal, Inc. The scary notion is that this bling will be mandatory for airline travelers to wear on their wrists (at least according to this agency letter on the Lamperd web site). A microchip in the bracelet would contain the passenger's personal information, including: departure and destination locations and times, boarding passes, social security number, name, address, and phone numbers. More importantly, the GPS unit in it helps the government know where passengers are during their entire journey. The strangest part is that the bracelets are also equipped to restrain passengers: in the case of a hijacking, the flight staff can actually activate the bracelet to shock passengers much like a Taser. The friendly DOH is reassuring the press that law abiding citizens need not worry—personal data is only stored in the jewelry during flight and only airline staff will be able to stun wearers.

2. Cell Phone Tracking (aka That thing Morgan Freeman Refused to Do)

Picture 103.pngRemember that thing Morgan Freeman almost quit his job over in The Dark Knight? Well, it's already happening. Albert Lazlo Barabasi has been using cell phones to track people, so that he could better understand human social habits. For a year, the Northeastern University physics professor and his colleagues' monitored 100,000 people in a country outside of the United States, described only as "a large industrialized nation."

The exciting news from this study? That most people stay within 20 miles of their homes. More evidence that we aren't as spontaneous as we like to think. Ethicists balked at the research because tracking people through an item like a cell phone clearly violates U.S. citizens' ideas of privacy. Barabasi says his research included several layers of anonymity so researchers had little idea who they were watching. He claims the upswing of this technology is that transportation could be changed to meet the real needs of people and that it might help doctor's track contagious disease or bioterrorism outbreaks in the future. The downfalls are obvious: the tracked citizens of this industrialized country have no idea they were being watched. Worse still, Big Brother now knows he can track large groups of people for at least a year without anyone being suspicious.

3. Electronic Leashes for Dogs (and why they're coming to humans)

Rocco the beagle's 10-year old owner was delighted when her beloved pet was brought back home. The furry scoundrel had escaped from the backyard, and his return was due mainly to a microchip implanted in his neck. Most pet microchips use RFID and GPS technology, and are smaller than a grain of rice. They also contain huge amounts of data on them that can be accessed by scanner (i.e. where Rocco lived, his owner's phone number, and if his shots were updated when the chip was installed).

This technology won't just be limited to pets though. Applied Digital Systems has applied for and earned the first patent for human RFID chips, called VeriChips. The company says the VeriChips contain a person's complete medical record and will save lives. For example, if someone's allergic to penicillin, a doctor will just scan the person, access that information immediately and prevent a medical error. Genius. Because many of these RFID chips come with GPS capability, you too will be traceable just like Rocco. ADS reps say it has no plans to track people—unless they're lost and families are desperately searching for their loved ones.

Amazingly, the technology is being used to track other things as as well. Food manufactures already use RFID in products, allowing grocery stores to track consumer-purchasing habits, reduce theft, and keep accurate inventory. They claim that as soon as consumers check out, the RFID becomes inactive, but many worry that the companies are tracking where their products go. In the future, expect RFID in clothes—to reduce theft, of course.

4. Online tracking: making the Internet a giant mouse trap

Internet Service Providers have been searching for ways to make extra revenue, and they haven't always been ethical about it. Embarq, a Fortune 500 telecom company, sold its users' personal information to other businesses. The company tested out technology created by NebuAd, without informing its subscribers. Unfortunately the plan wasn't foolproof and the U.S. House of Representatives has been investigating whether this is a privacy violation.

NebuAd works in the ISP, recording every click, creating a consumer profile so that it can send users targeted ads. DoubleClick does the same thing, but only from select web pages. Because NebuAd works within the ISP framework it lurks in the system and sees everywhere you click your mouse. For it to work, ISPs install a sniffer box, which catalogs user behavior as it monitors communication between the user's computer and web sites. Free Press and Public Knowledge contend that NebuAd also includes fake information at the end of a Yahoo or Google search that directs users to a NebuAd website that inserts cookies on your browser. The process supposedly improves the nefarious company's ability to monitor everything you search on the web. NebuAd reps argue that the information they collect is anonymous and web users can opt out at any time. Unfortunately most users don't know if their ISP is using NebuAd.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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