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The Evolution of Facebook's Pronoun Problem

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Remember when you had to talk about yourself as some sort of outside observer of your own thoughts on Facebook? In the early days, the status update frame was a fill-in-the-blank sentence (Arika is _______) that forced you to talk about yourself in the third person (…enjoying her breakfast). Later, under the influence of Twitter's more open-ended form, the frame dropped the "is" and used the prompt "What's on your mind?" At first people found the old third-person habit hard to break and persisted in using the username as the subject of every update (Arika ate an omelet for breakfast!), but eventually the username was moved out of the way and we started talking about ourselves in the first person (My breakfast was so good today. I love omelets!).

But the evolution of the status update didn't solve all of Facebook's third-person problems. Facebook didn't just report what you wrote, it would also talk about you to your friends. Before 2008, if you hadn't specified in your profile whether you were male or female, your friends might see updates like these: "Arika has changed their profile picture." "Arika commented on their status." If it didn't know whether to use his or her, it resorted to the old standby, singular they.

Singular they has a long, distinguished history, and though it is yet to be universally accepted as correct, it seems to be well on its way there. While sentences like "Everyone clapped their hands" and "Someone left their bag behind" don't ruffle too many feathers (they are at least less cumbersome than "Everyone clapped his or her hands"), sentences where the gender of the subject is known do sound a bit jarring with a singular they. People complained when they saw Facebook's singular they (especially with the word "themself" in updates like "Arika tagged themself in a photo"), and so Facebook came up with the solution of forcing people to chose male or female when creating profiles and asking those who hadn't specified before the requirement to make a pronoun choice:

People who wanted to keep the gender-neutral choice objected. Facebook explained that while they wished to respect groups "that find the male/female distinction too limiting" they also had to respond to "feedback from translators and users in other countries" where "translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles."

Facebook's solution to the pronoun problem introduced a different sort of pronoun problem. People who didn't want to identify as male or female had to either switch to Google+ (which offered a choice between male, female, and other) or find a workaround. They eventually discovered some workarounds that involved changing elements of the Facebook code so that the old default with singular they showed up again, but one ingenious fix by Meitar Moskovitz goes even further than that, allowing the user to choose whatever pronouns "zie" wants. You can be zie, xe, thon, yo or anything you choose.

There have been attempts to introduce gender neutral pronouns since the 1850s. Dennis Baron, author of Grammar and Gender, keeps a list of them, ranging from hiser to zon, here. These were originally proposed for grammar reasons, to avoid singular they. Later, in the 1960s and '70s, they were put forward as tools for avoiding sexist language. Lately some of them have gained traction in transgender forums. But getting English speakers to embrace a totally new pronoun is a hard sell. English speakers already solved the problem long ago when they started using singular they (like Chaucer and Shakespeare did) which is already widespread in casual speech, if not in writing. Facebook is a mode of casual communication; they had the right idea in the beginning. Arika misses thons old profile.

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People With Limited Mobility Can Now Use Amazon Alexa to Control Exoskeletons
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One of the challenges that comes with engineering exoskeletons that compensate for limited mobility is giving control to the people who wear them. Some systems use hand controls, while others can detect faint signals in the wearer’s muscles and respond accordingly. Now one exoskeleton startup is taking advantage of a technology that’s become mainstream in recent years: voice recognition.

As Engadget reports, Bionik Laboratories has integrated Amazon’s Alexa into its ARKE lower-body exoskeleton. The apparatus is designed for people with spinal chord damage or a history of stroke or traumatic brain injury that has hindered their movement below the waist. After strapping into the suit, wearers will now be able to use it just as they would a television set or stereo enabled with Alexa. Saying “Alexa, I’m ready to stand,” brings the joints to an upright position, and the command “Alexa, I’m ready to walk” prompts the legs to move forward. An Amazon Echo device must be within hearing range for the voice control to work, so in its current state the exoskeleton is only good for making short trips within the home.

Compatibility with Alexa isn’t the only modern feature Bionik worked into the design. The company also claims that ARKE is the first exoskeleton with integrated tablet control. That means if users wish to adjust their suit manually, they can do so by typing commands into a wireless touchpad. The tablet also records information that physical therapists can use to make more informed decisions when treating the patient.

Before the ARKE suit can be made available to consumers, it must first undergo clinical trials and receive approval from the FDA. If the tests go as planned Bionik hopes to have a commercial version of the product ready by 2019.

[h/t Engadget]

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The Most Popular Emojis Around the World
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Emojis may be the closest thing we currently have to a universal language. But even between English-speaking countries, emoji-texting habits can vary greatly.

HighSpeedInternet.com recently conducted an international survey on emoji usage and used the data to make the map below.

Of the nine English-speaking countries they studied, all nine chose the basic smiley emoji as their favorite pictograph. The second-place symbols are where interesting trends start to appear: For example, respondents in Jamaica, Trinidad, the UK, and the U.S. are all partial to the teary-eyed laughing emoji. Love is also a popular theme. Texters in Canada like sending one heart, while in New Zealand they prefer two. But not every country is so wholesome: In Ireland, the most popular emoji message behind a smiley face is a double poop.

They also determined that different countries have different interpretations of the same images; while everyone seems to greet that the kissing heart face means "love you," where some countries see an innocuous food image like an eggplant or a peach for exactly what it is, other countries have a less PG-rated view of them. (Learn more about their findings here.)

HighSpeedInternet.com

It should come as no surprise that emojis are loved in the U.S., where residents report including them in over half of all text messages. Besides Trinidad, all other countries included in the survey reported using emojis in less than 25 percent of texts. For a more localized look at visual texting trends, check out this map of the most prevalent emojis in each state.

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