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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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How to Perform the Star Wars Theme—On Calculators
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The iconic Star Wars theme has been recreated with glass harps, theremins, and even cat meows. Now, Laughing Squid reports that the team over at YouTube channel It’s a small world have created a version that can be played on calculators.

The channel’s math-related music videos feature covers of popular songs like Luis Fonsi’s "Despacito," Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You," and the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, all of which are performed on two or more calculators. The Star Wars theme, though, is played across five devices, positioned together into a makeshift keyboard of sorts.

The video begins with a math-musician who transcribes number combinations into notes. Then, they break into an elaborate practice chord sequence on two, and then four, calculators. Once they’re all warmed up, they begin playing the epic opening song we all know and love, which you can hear for yourself in all its electronic glory below.

[h/t Laughing Squid]

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Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
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Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

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