The True Purpose of Solitaire, Minesweeper, and FreeCell

If you haven't ever played Solitaire, Minesweeper, Hearts or FreeCell, it's safe to say you're in the minority. These simple Windows games have probably caused more lost worker hours than anything short of a worldwide coffee shortage. Whichever one was your favorite, the temptation to take just one more go at beating them—to get a faster time or a better score—was hard to ignore.

But as fun as these games were, they weren't actually designed for entertainment. At least not in their Windows incarnations.

The oldest of the four, Microsoft Solitaire, was first added to Windows 3.0 in 1990. Although the game (sometimes called "Patience") has existed since the late 1700s, this digital version seemed to be demonstrating that in the future we would no longer require a physical deck to play simple card games. But that's not what it was doing at all. Its real aim was far more modest: it was teaching mouse-fluency by stealth.

The intention was that Solitaire would get a generation of computer users still most familiar with a command-line input to teach themselves how to drag and drop, without realizing that's what they were doing. The fact that we're still dragging and dropping today suggests that it worked rather well.

Minesweeper, too, has a similar place in technological culture. The numbers-based logic puzzle has roots in the mainframe gaming scene of the 1960s and 1970s, where a version called "Cube" by Jerimac Ratliff became incredibly popular. Decades later, in 1992, the Microsoft version Minesweeper was introduced to Windows 3.1—not to demonstrate that Windows was an adept gaming operating system, but to make the idea of left and right clicking second nature for Windows users, and to foster speed and precision in mouse movement.

If you needed any proof that this isn't a coincidence, look at another Microsoft card game: Hearts. It was introduced with 1992's Windows for Workgroups 3.1—the first network-ready version of Windows—and used Microsoft's new NetDDE technology to communicate with other Hearts clients on a local network. Again, this wasn't just a card game. It was a way to get people interested in (and hopefully impressed by) the networking capabilities of their new system.

And finally, there's FreeCell. Released for Windows 3.1 as part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack Volume 2, FreeCell was bundled with the Win32s package that allowed 32-bit applications to run on the 16-bit Windows 3.1. Its purpose was actually to test the 32-bit thunking layer (a data processing subsystem), which had been introduced as part of Win32s. If the thunking layer was improperly installed, FreeCell wouldn't run. So what you thought was a game was actually a stealth test of software systems.

Of course, none of this explains why those games persisted once their remit was fulfilled. The answer is simple: people had too much fun with them. Any time Microsoft tried to remove the games from a release of Windows, testers went crazy. Eventually, in 2012, Microsoft released a version, Windows 8, without any of the games. Users could download the Solitaire Collection and Minesweeper separately, but you had to pay extra to play without ads.

However, with this year's release of Windows 10, Microsoft has at least brought back Solitaire. If you go looking for the others in your search bar, you'll instead be shown search results from the Windows Store where you can download the latest versions. And maybe that's intentional, because what better motivation do you need to learn how to use the Windows Store than to get your hands on your favorite games? Maybe they're still teaching by stealth, even after all these years.

This post originally appeared on our UK site.

Why Robocalls Just Keep Getting Worse

iStock.com/Oleksii Spesyvtsev
iStock.com/Oleksii Spesyvtsev

Artificial intelligence was supposed to make life easier for all of us. In the case of robocalls—those persistent, indefatigable automated dialers that pester millions of people with often-bogus sales offers—it’s proving to be one of our biggest nuisances. Somehow, we’re powerless to stop them.

According to a recent NBC News report by Nigel Chiwaya and Jeremia Kimelman, they’re now worse than ever. NBC cited data from YouMail, a voicemail and call-blocking service for iPhone and Android customers, that demonstrated a staggering increase in robocalls: Americans received in excess of 4 billion of the calls in June 2018, up from more than 2 billion in January 2016. Telemarketing calls also topped the list of consumer complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

How frequently you’re interrupted by these calls may depend on your region. Residents of Atlanta received an average of 68 robocalls in September. Those with a 202 area code in Washington, D.C. got 49 calls. On average, a U.S. resident can expect to receive 13 robocalls a month.

There are two possible reasons for the uptick in the calls. Phone apps that block unwanted or unfamiliar numbers are increasing in popularity, which may be prompting scammers and telemarketers to make more calls in an effort to get through. It’s also easier than ever to dispatch the calls, as new software programs make it a snap for anyone to set up a system to mass-dial potential customers. The effort is so cheap—sometimes pennies per call—that if even a small percentage of people respond, it’s worth the investment.

According to CBS News, 25 million Americans were drawn in by a pitch of this type last year alone, losing $9 billion to scams. (“Spoofing,” which can display a local number on a person’s caller ID function, can be an effective way to get an individual to answer the phone.)

What’s the FCC doing about it? This year, they’ve suggested multimillion dollar fines for companies targeting people with robocalls that use spoof numbers. That may deter domestic companies, but because many robocallers are located outside of the United States, it might not lead to a drastic reduction in the number of calls.

There was also hope that the National Do Not Call Registry, which allows consumers to request their number not be dialed by businesses, would lessen the volume. Unfortunately, law-abiding businesses make up only a fraction of those making the calls.

Industry experts have drawn comparisons to spam emails, citing the wave of unsolicited messages that blanketed the internet in the early 2000s before services were able to funnel them out of view. The same may hold true for phone carriers. AT&T offers Call Protect, a service that tries to caution users when an incoming call might be dubious. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps an inventory of known scam numbers so it can block them from coming in.

For now, the best thing consumers can do is ignore calls from unknown numbers and hope technology—like Google’s Pixel smartphone, which will answer and transcribe calls for review, or Stir/Shaken, a cross-platform standard that might one day authenticate phone numbers—will be able to stem the tide of unwanted calls.

Unfortunately, the robocall epidemic could get worse before it gets better. It's being predicted that by 2019, half of all incoming cell phone calls will be from a non-human.

[h/t NBC News]

New Netflix Hack Lets You Control the App With Your Eyes

Netflix, YouTube
Netflix, YouTube

Watching Netflix could become a truly hands-free experience, Popular Mechanics reports. As part of the streaming giant's recent Hack Day—a biannual event where Netflix employees come up with experimental features—engineers debuted Eye Nav, a feature that lets Netflix iOS users navigate the app with simple eye movements.

Using Apple’s augmented reality platform, ARKit, Netflix engineers programmed the Face ID function for iPhone and iPad to recognize eye movements as gestures within the Netflix app. Users can control a cursor by moving their gaze around a screen, browsing the catalog and playing content without ever lifting a finger.

As you move your eyes, a yellow circle moves through the catalog, serving as a giant cursor button. A longer stare results in a click, while sticking out your tongue dismisses the current screen.

While the feature may seem a bit dystopian to some—why would you want Netflix to track every one of your tiniest movements?—it could actually be super useful for people with disabilities who might have an easier time browsing and selecting shows with their eyes rather than tapping the app with their fingers.

So far, Eye Nav is just experimental, but it could become a more permanent part of the mobile app in the future. Since it does require eye-tracking functionality, though, it likely isn't coming to your television anytime soon.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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