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Does a Refrigerator Make a Good Faraday Cage?

The other week, the New York Times reported that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was understandably cautious about planning his departure from Hong Kong to Russia (emphasis mine):

“It was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Mr. Snowden wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying, to block any eavesdropping. Then began a two-hour conversation during which Mr. Snowden was deeply dismayed to learn that he could spend years in prison without access to a computer during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum here or surrendered to the United States.

Wait. What? Why are the cellphones getting chilled? Snowden’s idea, presumably, was that the refrigerator would act as a Faraday cage. As I explained last year when talking about the effectiveness of tin foil helmets, a Faraday cage is an enclosure made up of a conducting material that shields its interior from external electrostatic charges and electromagnetic radiation by distributing them around its exterior and dissipating them. While these enclosures are sometimes actual cages, they come in many forms, and most of us have probably dealt with one type or another. The scan rooms that MRI machines sit in and the shielding on USB cables, for example, both provide protection as Faraday cages. Inside such a cage, signals to and from these lawyers’ cellphones would be blocked, preventing them from being used to surveil the meeting.

In theory, a sturdy metal fridge should make a good Faraday cage. In practice, some fridges don’t really cut a cell phone off from the rest of the world. Make magazine writer Michael Colombo tried it out with his home refrigerator, and was able to make a call to a phone inside of it. He had better results with a metal cocktail shaker.

I put my fridge to the test, too, and got the same result. Calls and data transmissions went right through. I have a glass cocktail shaker, so that's not an option for me if I'm trying to stay hidden. I wondered if there was a decent kitchen Faraday cage available to people like me, or the poor souls who have no cocktail shaker at all.

I lurked on some survivalist message boards for a while (not an activity I can recommend) and learned that a lot of doomsday hobbyists plan on relying on their microwave to protect their electronics if the government/aliens/New World Order tries to mess with them with an electromagnetic pulse. This makes sense, since, unlike a fridge, a microwave oven is actually designed specifically to shield the electromagnetic radiation of microwaves and keep them from getting out of the appliance. If electromagnetic radiation can’t get out, then it shouldn’t be able to get in either.

Sure enough, calls and data sent to my phone while it sat in my old GE microwave never went through. I could see it sitting in there, but there was no ring, no alerts. When I pulled it out, there was no missed call notification, either. So, the next time you need to keep prying eyes and ears away from your phone, your best bet seems to be tossing it in the microwave or a (metal) cocktail shaker. Just don’t forget about it when you heat up some leftovers or make a Manhattan.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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