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The Truth About North Korea's Ultra-Lockdown Against Covid-19

The country has turned inward more than ever, leaving the true impact of the pandemic a mystery. Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. At the time, what we now know as Covid-19, had killed just nine people and infected 400 others. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say. The lockdowns and quarantines it has imposed have been strict, while border restrictions have put a halt to fishing and the smuggling of goods into the country. At the same time the nation’s state media and propaganda apparatus has pumped out messages warning its citizens of the dangers of Covid-19 and praising the country’s “flawless” approach to the pandemic. But the real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inwards more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research at Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders. “It seems clear to me that, nonetheless, the North Korean government has massively overreacted”. Officially, North Korea has recorded no cases of Covid-19. Weekly reports from the World Health Organization’s South-East Asia office show that North Korean samples from PCR tests are being processed in 15 laboratories but all of these have come back negative. As of January 8, the most recent date for which figures are available, 26,244 samples from 13,259 people have come back negative. Around 700 North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, are being tested each week. “I don't know many people in the North Korea watcher, analyst and journalist community that actually believe there are no cases,” Park says. All of the North Korea experts spoken to for this article agree. Some have accused North Korea of lying, while others suggest its approach is all about keeping control and public perception. The closest officials got to admitting there may be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless”. From the outside, it is impossible to prove the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. All official messaging is controlled by Kim Jong-un’s regime and international diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The last remaining members of the International Committee of the Red Cross left the country on December 2. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea—those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground. Despite reporting no cases of Covid-19, North Korea has been quarantining potential suspected cases. As of December 3, 33,223 people had been released from quarantine, according to the figures reported to the WHO—though no numbers have been reported since. Quarantine rules in North Korea are also strict, according to reports. When an outbreak occurred in China, North Korea tracked down all Chinese visitors in the town of Rason ​and quarantined​ them ​on an island for a month. In its attempts to control Covid-19, North Korea has taken a similar, though more extreme, approach to other nations. It has restricted people’s movement and travel, gatherings of people are limited, masks are mandatory and state media has been blanketed with public health information. Such measures are coupled with existing limits on freedoms, human rights abuses, economic failure and food shortages. The country is also subject to wide-ranging international sanctions linked to its development of nuclear weapons. “They've really reinforced border security with more border guards,” says Jieun Baek, a fellow with the Korea Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “They've created buffer zones between one and two metres wide at the border.” The country is reported to have “shoot-to-kill” orders in place to stop anyone bringing Covid-19 inside its borders. South Korean intelligence agencies claim to have uncovered the execution of one Covid rule-breaker within North Korea. In September the country was forced to apologise to South Korea after it shot and burned the body of a South Korean official who was in the North’s waters. The strict rules North Korea has put further strain on a country already on the brink. New satellite data and analysis from the non-government organisation Global Fishing Watch shows that illegal North Korean fishing in Russian waters dropped 95 per cent last year and fishing in North Korea’s waters dropped 50 per cent in the last part of its season. These findings are in line with border controls placed around the country’s fishing industry. Meanwhile, within North Korea, the message has been clear: people need to follow the rules. “North Korean state media has been unusually upfront about the need to prevent the virus spreading, describing it as a matter of ‘national survival’ and ‘life or death’,” says Pratik Jakhar, an expert on North Korea at BBC Monitoring. The state-run media outlets—including TV stations, radio and newspapers—have told people about the symptoms of Covid-19 and broadcast images and videos of workers disinfecting public places. “The coverage appears to send a message domestically that the strict measures Kim Jong-un took have worked, and that he has saved North Koreans from the virus,” Jakhar says. He points to an October 16 article in the state-run DPRK Today that claimed the country is “a uniquely clean land on the planet” and “a place free of infection from the virus.” When North Korean officials locked down Kaesong City in July, party propaganda said the state had “established a strict and flawless anti-epidemic measure”. In November Rodong Sinmun argued the country must “maintain an ironclad barrier” if it was going to protect itself from Covid-19. Such extreme steps may reflect the country’s paranoia about Covid-19. “North Korean media have also been pushing out fringe theories and unverified claims on how the virus is spread,” Jakhar adds. “It has warned that smokers are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, and that migratory birds or even snowfall could spread the virus”. As reported by NK News, an independent publication reporting on what happens inside North Korea from anonymous sources both inside and outside the country, the warning about snow included advice that people wear a mask, glasses and a cap to protect themselves. While claiming that it has defeated Covid-19, North Korean media has also been keen to point out the spiralling global case count and death toll. Internally, this makes its response look strong. Earlier this month, at North Korea’s Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party the country tried to set an example of how normal things are. Thousands of people gathered indoors and outdoors without masks or any form of social distancing during the eight day event. But just days before, at its new year firework celebrations, everyone outdoors was pictured wearing masks. “Image for the regime is really important,” says Jung H. Pak, a former CIA officer and now senior fellow in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “And they still want to project this sense that they have got things under control”. The threat of widespread Covid-19 transmission within North Korea is likely being taken seriously due to its fragile healthcare system. Studies have found the country’s universal healthcare system has “large disparities” and that many people “struggle to obtain healthcare” from the state. “Most people don't have access to hand sanitisers or soaps, much less PPE,” Baek says. “And many people do live in very close quarters.” Hanna Song, a researcher at the South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, agrees that healthcare is a major concern. “There is a depletion in a lack of medical supplies [during the pandemic],” she explains. “This is not something that we have heard directly from North Koreans but this is something that we predict has been happening.” The full impact of Covid-19 on North Korea may never be known—at best, experts believe details will trickle out over the coming years. The border controls put in place have been an effective buffer in stopping information coming out. The number of defectors, normally a key source of knowledge for what happens in North Korea, plummeted last year. Recent figures from South Korea show just 229 people entered the country from the North in 2020—an all-time low. In 2019, that figure stood at 1,047. Despite tough border controls, there’s one thing that North Korea does want to flow freely into the country: Covid-19 vaccines. At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023. Living under strict controls until then could have a long term impact. Park, from Liberty in North Korea, worries that the country may use the pandemic to keep even stricter control measures in place even once the pandemic is over. “The mode of operating under global pandemic conditions could become a new normal in North Korea,” he says. This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.  More From WIRED on Covid-19 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! Schools and the high-stakes experiment no one wanted How many microcovids would you spend on a burrito? Everything we know now about kids and Covid-19 It’s not just you: Everyone’s mental health is suffering If Covid-19 did start with a lab leak, would we ever know? Read all of our coronavirus coverage here

The Secret Ingredient That Powers Supernovas

Three-dimensional computer simulations have solved the mystery of why doomed stars explode at all. In 1987, a giant star exploded right next to our own Milky Way galaxy. It was the brightest and closest supernova since the invention of the telescope some four centuries earlier, and just about every observatory turned to take a look. Perhaps most excitingly, specialized observatories buried deep underground captured shy subatomic particles called neutrinos streaming out of the blast. These particles were first proposed as the driving force behind supernovas in 1966, which made their detection a source of comfort to theorists who had been trying to understand the inner workings of the explosions. Yet over the decades, astrophysicists had constantly bumped into what appeared to be a fatal flaw in their neutrino-powered models. Neutrinos are famously aloof particles, and questions remained over exactly how neutrinos transfer their energy to the star’s ordinary matter under the extreme conditions of a collapsing star. Whenever theorists tried to model these intricate particle motions and interactions in computer simulations, the supernova’s shock wave would stall and fall back on itself. The failures “entrenched the idea that our leading theory for how supernovas explode maybe doesn’t work,” said Sean Couch, a computational astrophysicist at Michigan State University. Of course, the specifics of what goes on deep inside a supernova as it explodes have always been mysterious. It’s a cauldron of extremes, a turbulent soup of transmuting matter, where particles and forces often ignored in our everyday world become critical. Compounding the problem, the explosive interior is largely hidden from view, shrouded by clouds of hot gas. Understanding the details of supernovas “has been a central unsolved problem in astrophysics,” said Adam Burrows, an astrophysicist at Princeton University who has studied supernovas for more than 35 years. In recent years, however, theorists have been able to home in on the surprisingly complex mechanisms that make supernovas tick. Simulations that explode have become the norm, rather than the exception, Burrows wrote in Nature this month. Rival research groups’ computer codes are now agreeing on how supernova shock waves evolve, while simulations have advanced so far that even the effects of Einstein’s notoriously intricate general relativity are being included. The role of neutrinos is finally becoming understood. “It’s a watershed moment,” said Couch. What they’re finding is that without turbulence, collapsing stars may never form supernovas at all. A Chaotic Dance For much of a star’s life, the inward pull of gravity is delicately balanced by the outward push of radiation from nuclear reactions inside the star’s core. As the star runs out of fuel, gravity takes hold. The core collapses in on itself—plummeting at 150,000 kilometers per hour—causing temperatures to surge to 100 billion degrees Celsius and fusing the core into a solid ball of neutrons. The outer layers of the star continue to fall inward, but as they hit this incompressible neutron core, they bounce off it, creating a shock wave. In order for the shock wave to become an explosion, it must be driven outward with enough energy to escape the pull of the star’s gravity. The shock wave must also fight against the inward spiral of the star’s outermost layers, which are still falling onto the core. Until recently, the forces powering the shock wave were only understood in the blurriest of terms. For decades, computers were only powerful enough to run simplified models of the collapsing core. Stars were treated as perfect spheres, with the shock wave emanating from the center the same way in every direction. But as the shock wave moves outward in these one-dimensional models, it slows and then falters. Only in the last few years, with the growth of supercomputers, have theorists had enough computing power to model massive stars with the complexity needed to achieve explosions. The best models now integrate details such as the micro-level interactions between neutrinos and matter, the disordered motions of fluids, and recent advances in many different fields of physics—from nuclear physics to stellar evolution. Moreover, theorists can now run many simulations each year, allowing them to freely tweak the models and try out different starting conditions. One turning point came in 2015, when Couch and his collaborators ran a three-dimensional computer model of the final minutes of a massive star’s collapse. Although the simulation only mapped out 160 seconds of the star’s life, it illuminated the role of an underappreciated player that helps stalled shock waves turn into fully fledged explosions. Hidden inside the belly of the beast, particles twist and turn chaotically. “It’s like boiling water on your stove. There are massive overturns of fluid inside the star, going at thousands of kilometers per second,” said Couch. This turbulence creates extra pressure behind the shock wave, pushing it further from the star’s center. Away from the center, the inward pull of gravity is weaker, and there’s less inward-falling matter to temper the shock wave. The turbulent matter bouncing around behind the shock wave also has more time to absorb neutrinos. Energy from the neutrinos then heats the matter and drives the shock wave into an explosion. For years, researchers had failed to realize the importance of turbulence, because it only reveals its full impact in simulations run in three dimensions. “What nature does effortlessly, it has taken us decades to achieve as we went up from one dimension to two and three dimensions,” said Burrows. These simulations have also revealed that turbulence results in an asymmetric explosion, where the star looks a bit like an hourglass. As the explosion pushes outward in one direction, matter keeps falling onto the core in another direction, fueling the star’s explosion further. These new simulations are giving researchers a better understanding of exactly how supernovas have shaped the universe we see today. “We can get the correct explosion energy range, and we can get the neutron star masses that we see left behind,” said Burrows. Supernovas are largely responsible for creating the universe’s budget of hefty elements such as oxygen and iron, and theorists are starting to use simulations to predict exactly how much of these heavy elements should be around. “We’re now starting to tackle problems that were unimaginable in the past,” said Tuguldur Sukhbold, a theoretical and computational astrophysicist at Ohio State University. The Next Blast Despite the exponential rise in computing power, a supernova simulation is far rarer than an observation in the sky. “Twenty years ago there were around 100 supernovae being discovered every year,” said Edo Berger, an astronomer at Harvard University. “Now we’re discovering 10,000 or 20,000 every year,” a rise driven by new telescopes that quickly and repeatedly scan the night sky. By contrast, in a year theorists carry out around 30 computer simulations. A single simulation, re-creating just a few minutes of core collapse, can take many months. “You check in every day and it’s only gone a millisecond,” said Couch. “It’s like watching molasses in the wintertime.” The broad accuracy of the new simulations has astrophysicists excited for the next nearby blast. “While we’re waiting for the next supernova [in our galaxy], we have a lot of work to do. We need to improve the theoretical modeling to understand what features we could detect,” said Irene Tamborra, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Copenhagen. “You cannot miss the opportunity, because it’s such a rare event.” Most supernovas are too far away from Earth for observatories to detect their neutrinos. Supernovas in the immediate vicinity of the Milky Way—like Supernova 1987A—only occur on average about once every half-century. But if one does occur, astronomers will be able to “peer directly into the center of the explosion,” said Berger, by observing its gravitational waves. “Different groups have emphasized different processes as being important in the actual explosion of the star. And those different processes have different gravitational wave and neutrino signatures.” While theorists have now broadly reached a consensus on the most important factors driving supernovas, challenges remain. In particular, the outcome of the explosion is “very strongly dictated” by the structure of a star’s core before it collapses, said Sukhbold. Small differences are magnified into a variety of outcomes by the chaotic collapse, and so the evolution of a star before it collapses must also be accurately modeled. Other questions include the role of intense magnetic fields in a rotating star’s core. “It’s very possible that you can have a hybrid mechanism of magnetic fields and neutrinos,” said Burrows. The way neutrinos change from one type—or “flavor”—into another and how this affects the explosion is also unclear. “There are a lot of ingredients that still need to be added to our simulations,” said Tamborra. “If a supernova were to explode tomorrow and it matches our theoretical predictions, then it means that all the ingredients that we are currently missing can safely be neglected. But if this is not the case, then we need to understand why.” Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences. More Great WIRED Stories 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! The unsettling truth about the “Mostly Harmless” hiker How many microcovids would you spend on a burrito? 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A Beginner’s Guide for Working Out at Home

You can start by doing a few push-ups in your pajamas. Also, Chris Hemsworth has a workout app. I consider myself an athlete, but I don’t engage in any particularly impressive physical feats. I am not “cut” or “swole.” My superpower is consistency. Barring the rare knee surgery or birthing the occasional child, I have worked out daily for more than 20 years. Physical activity is also how I avoid injuring myself while picking up my kids, and how I combat anxiety. As the pandemic has worn on, it's become more vital to find a way to move your body every day, especially if you've discovered that the sedentary days are starting to wreak havoc on your neck or lower back. For suggestions, I enlisted the help of Cassey Ho, the animating spirit behind the wildly popular Blogilates fitness platform, as well as Ben Musholt, physical therapist, parkour coach, and the author of The Mad Skills Encyclopedia. (Disclosure: Ben is a friend, and I used to work out in his garage.) And an FYI: This is not a guide to making "gains" or meeting your weight loss goals. It's just a bit of advice to help you get (or stay) active. Updated January 2020: We added new information, new apps, and new equipment reviews. Set Up Your Space Photograph: Suga Most sports manufacturers won’t tell you this, but you don’t need anything—no, not even a pair of fancy leggings or shoes—to start working out. Just do a couple of push-ups in your pajamas every time you pee, and congratulations! You’re on your way. Still, a basic kit may help you establish a routine. Fitness expert Cassey Ho recommends starting with a yoga mat. “Obviously, a lot of us don’t have space for our own home gym,” she says, but a mat can help you define a workout space within the chaos of your living room floor. A yoga mat will cushion your joints and keep your feet and hands secure. Parkour enthusiast Ben Musholt also notes that for apartment dwellers, it will dampen the sound of your footfalls for your downstairs neighbors.  Ho uses her own Popflex mats; I have a basic Gaiam mat, but I also recommend the dense, recycled Suga mat, though it's pricier. Many free online workout tutorials will also feature workouts that use weights, like small dumb bells or a kettle bell. Musholt likes a versatile piece of equipment called a Lebert equalizer, which can be used as an overhead weight, a step stool, dip bars, and so forth. My colleague Matt Jancer also builds muscle using a weighted vest. These are nice to have, but body weight exercises will suffice for most people. You probably also have a lot of alternative weights in your house. I have danced around in my living room swinging cans of beans, jugs filled with water, and a backpack filled with books. A 3-year-old clinging to your ankle who needs to be repeatedly picked up and cuddled also works. Musholt also notes that viewing your home as a parkour practitioner can help vary your workout. “There’s opportunities all around,” he says. You can do tricep dips off chairs or step workouts in a stairwell. I’ve also found this Ikea stepstool to be a surprisingly useful piece of workout equipment. Pick Your Workout [embedded content] The best way to start working out consistently is to find something you like to do, and then do that—whether that’s running, walking your dog, or attending weekly Dance Church. But if you're still not certain what will tickle your fancy, I recommend starting with free services. The New York Times has a quick, efficient, strength-building 7-minute workout that's easy to do on a lunch break. Musholt also devised a beginner's whole-body workout for WIRED readers. January is also a good time to kickstart your routine with a 30-day online program. I'm currently doing the Yoga with Adriene 30-day program with Adriene Mishler, who I've started to refer to as my only quarantine friend. Her voice is soothing, the instructions are clear, and the expectations mercifully low. Cassey Ho's Blogilates also has a 30-day program, as well as a free quarantine workout. Despite the name, PopSugar Fitness has plethora of trainers of different genders, shapes and sizes. Orangetheory also offers free classes on YouTube. Advanced Gear Once you have some idea of what you like to do, it's easier to invest in real gear (if you need it at all). For example, I have less trouble dropping a hundo on a running jacket, since I know I'll use it every day. For in-home options, Peloton is the clear winner of the Pandemic Olympics, but new competitors are springing up every day. If you're a serious cyclist, the Wahoo Kickr will probably be a better fit. For casual athletes, the Myx system is actually a more cost-effective alternative to the Peloton. If you miss travel, I also like NordicTrack's treadmills and Studio Cycle. If you have the money, but a little less space, you might want to consider investing in a Tempo or a Mirror, which can be mounted on a wall. These in-home gym systems have a wide array of workouts and screens that help you check your form. I also maintain a list of the Best Fitness Watches and Trackers. If you prefer one kind of fitness tracker over another, Fitbit and Garmin have their own proprietary workout apps and coaching services. This may take some experimentation to find your personal preferences, as a runner and a biker, I like to use Strava to record runs on a Garmin or Apple Watch. If you're looking for gear ideas in a specific sport, I encourage you to check out our Best Running Gear guide, as well as our guides to the Best Workout Earbuds and Headphones and the Best Biking Accessories. If you need a device to stream some of these free workout services to your TV, take a look at our guide to the Best Streaming Devices. Try More Intense Services Photograph: Apple  Let's be honest. You're probably tired of doing sit-ups in front of Netflix and taking those stupid little walks to get out of the house. Now is a great time to try out something different. Again, the Peloton app is unquestionably the most popular app, and you don't even need a bike. It offers 10 different kinds of workouts, including strength training, guided outdoor running sessions, and meditations—and the first two months are free. Two of Peloton's major competitors recently debuted new health programs, too. If you're an Apple stan, try Apple Fitness+ to coordinate workouts between your watch, iPad, and Apple TV. If you need more accountability, Fitbit recently debuted a 1:1 coaching service. I tried it, but checking in with an online coach as well as my husband, boss, co-workers, kids, friends, and family felt more oppressive than encouraging. I also liked Obé Fitness. It has a free trial full of brutal workouts, with instructors ensconced in a disconcertingly empty, white Clockwork-Orange-like room. If, like me, you have set training goals for imaginary races that will take place only in your head, you'll want specialized training apps. Nike Training Club, Strava, or Aaptiv are all popular.  Whatever your niche interest is, the odds are that 10 months into a pandemic, someone has started a workout app around it. Personally, I like the MuTu system and MommaStrong for rebuilding my core after having two children. My niche interest, the thing that usually gets me going, is that I love to dance. If you haven't fallen down the rabbit hole of learning TikTok dances, Steezy has a variety of dance styles on a clean and easy-to-navigate site that you can stream to your television. I also like online barre classes from Pure Barre, The Bar Method, and Barre3. If you have a Samsung TV (2018 or newer), you can access many of these services for free. Your gaming console is also a workout opportunity. For example, on the Nintendo Switch, I like Just Dance, Ring Fit Adventure, and Mario Tennis Aces. My other niche interest is the best Hemsworth. He has also launched a workout app. Personally, I find the app a little difficult to navigate and the food recommendations impossible to follow with two picky young kids, but you may be a better Hemsworth than me.  Finally, if you used to attend fitness classes before the pandemic, I encourage you to contact your old in-person instructor to see if they offer private Zoom classes. Fire It Up, Don't Stop Photograph: Robert Kamau/Getty Images If working out with El Hemsworth on a daily basis isn’t enough of an incentive for you to get off the couch, you can try other simple tips to jump-start your exercise habit. How to Get Started and Stay Motivated: Set a recurring appointment in your calendar app. Make sure you have clean, comfortable workout clothes. Start small and stop if it hurts. Don't injure yourself. Cross-train and try a lot of different things! You set that recurring appointment, right?! For Ho, putting an appointment in your calendar means you'll mentally set aside the time for working out and get a reminder about it. Making a date with a friend is another incentive—nothing will make Zoom more appealing than seeing your best friend (and Chris Hemsworth) at the start of your day. Your workout apparel can also be minimal, especially if you're staying inside your house. But it may help you to get motivated if it's clean, organized, and fits well. The less energy I put into digging through my laundry basket for a clean sports bra or matching pair of socks, the fewer excuses I have for ditching my plans, and the more time I have for actually working out. In the winter, that usually means slipping on a base layer and some running shoes. Finally: This is the worst possible time to go to a hospital. Most coaches recommend consulting a doctor before starting a new routine to rule out possible heart or respiratory problems, but that’s not easy to do at the moment. Musholt has a simple rule of thumb to avoid injuring yourself: “If a movement is hurting, that’s the biggest indicator that you should stop.” It’s normal to be sore afterward, but a motion shouldn’t hurt while you’re performing it. For example, if you're a new runner and you feel pain in your shins, stop running. Walk home and try again later. Modify workout instructions to match your fitness level, whether that means transferring a push-up to a chair instead of the floor, or doing half-burpees instead of full ones. Ho also recommends building in warm-up and cool-down times to stretch before and after workouts. “You never want to just jump into something,” she says. My advice is to cross-train, or try different activities every few days. If you’ve discovered you like running, throw in a few of Runner’s World's 7-minute strength training sessions. If a barre workout has your glutes burning the day after, go for a walk with your kids, partner, or dog. “In times of uncertainty, what makes us feel better is when we have a plan of some sort,” Ho says. Right now, there’s a lot going on that you can’t control. But for the next 30 minutes, you can do whatever you want—whether that’s a jog around a forest while listening to a podcast or a dance around your living room with your kids. This much, at least, is up to you. Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-Year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day. More Great WIRED Stories 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! The plan to build a global network of floating power stations A 25-year-old bet comes due: Has tech destroyed society? What Hades can teach us about ancient Greek masculinity The SolarWinds hackers used tactics other groups will copy The best cheap phones for (almost) every budget 🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more 🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers

D&D Must Grapple With the Racism in Fantasy

And getting rid of it will take a lot of work. “Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.” This damning assessment of one of fantasy’s most ubiquitous villains comes from N. K. Jemisin, titan of modern fantasy and slayer of outdated genre tropes. As “kinda-sorta-people,” she writes, orcs are “fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of ‘the Other.’” The only way to respond to their existence is to control them or remove them. What is an orc? To their creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, they are “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” More than half a century after Tolkien wrote that description in a letter, here is how Dungeons & Dragons describes the orc in the latest Monster Manual, where all such demi-humans are relegated: “Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces.” Half-orcs, which are half-human and therefore playable according to Player’s Handbook rules, are “not evil by nature, but evil does work within them.” Some venture into the human-dominated world to “prove their worth” among “other more civilized races.” Genetic determinism is a fantasy tradition. Dwarves are miners and forgers. Half-orcs are rampageous. Elves have otherworldly grace and enjoy poetry. Dark elves, known as Drow, have skin that “resembles charcoal” and are associated with the evil spider queen Lolth. As both a ruleset and a fantasy backdrop, D&D is in the business of translating these racial differences into numerical scores: Dwarves get extra points when they try to hit something with a battleaxe. Elves get plus two dexterity. Half-orcs’ “savage attack” lets players reap extra damage off a critical hit. All because of their race. D&D has mostly shunned the same approach when it comes to gender. The original version, from 1974, had no special rules for women player characters, but a Dragon magazine column from 1976, with the header “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D,” gave some women’s strength scores a nerf compared to men’s, and replaced their charisma scores with one for “beauty.” Those rules didn’t stick, and the latest Players’ Handbook reminds gamers that they “don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.” Over the years, however, D&D has made only trivial movements away from racial essentialism. Sure, publisher Wizards of the Coast has removed, for example, half-orcs’ –2 debuff to intelligence. One faction of orcs has more complex, even humanizing qualities in a recent book. Yet the stereotyping remains. The game’s designers know they have a problem, too. In June 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, the D&D development team posted a blog titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons.” In no uncertain terms, this explained how D&D’s 50-year history of characterizing orcs and Drow as monstrous and evil is “painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.” To make things right, they said, D&D would offer new descriptions and possible rule changes for races in supplementary books, and correct some past errors. Removing fantasy racism from D&D would take more than a pore vacuum; think somewhere between a chemical peel and reconstructive surgery. You can only get so far with a couple of rule changes and a $30 book. D&D is a fantasy game, and fantasy has this unfortunate obsession with an anti-intellectual sort of ethnography. These people live in this place and behave like so, by nature. These other people don’t get along with them, simply because they are civilized and they are uncivilized. D&D cocreator Gary Gygax’s nods toward fantasy forefather Tolkien—including elves, dwarves, halflings (hobbits), and orcs—were so obvious that Tolkien Enterprises threatened to take copyright action. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction—the latter focused on the immeasurably horrible “other”—also served as inspiration for the first D&D rulebooks. Fantasy worlds are, definitionally, made up. There doesn’t have to be racism, yet in some of fantasy’s most cherished texts it is almost always present. Helen Young, author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, has cataloged the prevalence of fantasy racism across countless fantasy media. “I ended up finding that it’s rare for a fantasy world not to have an idea of race or racism built into it,” says Young, particularly in the way that fantasy heroes and beauties are often coded as white. For Howard, desirable women were “lily-white.” Elves, considered a superior race, were fair-skinned and light-eyed. In his work and Tolkien’s, she says, “pretty much all of their own evil races—and even evil individuals, for the most part—are based on anti-black, anti-Semitic or Orientalist stereotypes.” It’s something Graeme Barber, who runs the POCGamer blog, noticed when he read through the Dragonlance novels, published initially by D&D’s first publisher, TSR. One character bothered him: the underdog hero Tanis Half-Elven. As a half-human, half-elf, Tanis felt perennially alone. “According to humans, half an elf is but part of a whole being,” Tanis said in one of the books. “Half a man is a cripple.” Barber wasn’t a fan. “I’m biracial myself. The animosity [Tanis] got from everywhere really sort of rubbed me the wrong way,” he says. Lately, rereading Dragonlance has been painful for him, and not just because of the depiction of biraciality. He points to the Gully Dwarves, written as unintelligent sub-humanoids. They’re portrayed “as being profoundly mentally disabled to the point of not really even having a language,” says Barber. When he began playing D&D, Barber noticed that this sort of lore-sanctioned stereotyping bled out into the game’s ruleset as hard-and-fast “racial bonuses,” but also in the way people role-played their characters. For example, gnomes get +2 to intelligence, priming them for a life in wizardry. So if players chose to play wizards, they’d often designate their race as “gnome” and role-play holier-than-thou attitudes. Half-orcs, who get bonuses to strength and constitution, make great barbarians. So friends role-played them as aggro, uncontained. When Barber chose to play race and class combinations that strayed from stereotypes, he was looked at askew. “There was always pressure from the outside for me to make my characters conform to narrow boxes,” he says. And even in the absence of such pressure, he would be falling into another trap: exceptionalism. Half-orc scholars, gnome barbarians. Exceptional in a world that remains the same. Removing fantasy racism from D&D would take more than a pore vacuum; think somewhere between a chemical peel and reconstructive surgery. What isn’t laid out in source material has been codified in the game’s culture, as Stanford University professor Antero Garcia observed while doing research at gaming cafés in the Midwest for his upcoming ethnography of D&D players. He recalled how, in one group, partymates acted distrustful of a player-character whose race was tiefling—humanoids with infernal heritage who canonically live in ghettos in human cities. “They were all friends, but they knew the expectation was to be suspicious,” says Garcia. “That relationship is racism.” Wizards of the Coast did take one small step in mid-November, putting out a new sourcebook, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, that acknowledges these concerns. According to its rules, players can increase any of their characters’ ability scores—strength, constitution, dexterity, etc.—to better reflect their capabilities regardless of race. So traditionally, dwarves at base get two extra points in “constitution” because, in D&D-land, they’re sturdy. “That reinforcement is appropriate if you want to lean into the archetype, but it’s unhelpful if your character doesn’t conform to the archetype,” reads Tasha’s Cauldron. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” Mix and match. Days after the supplement was released, Barber penned

How to Back Up Your Most Important Emails

Google, Microsoft, or Apple may deliver and store your emails, but the most valuable ones deserve a second home, just in case. We're all used to having all our emails available in the cloud all the time, easily searchable and on all of our devices. But there are multiple points of failure to think about—what happens if something in the cloud breaks, or your connection to the internet does? What if your account gets banned or closed for whatever reason, and all of your email goes with it? Those are only a few potential problems. You might accidentally delete a bunch of emails you didn't mean to; someone else could access your account and wipe everything they find; or your email provider might suddenly decide to lock you out. With all that in mind, access to your email doesn't seem like such a given. It might not matter for all those newsletters, special offers, and account notifications that clog up your inbox, but what about emails and documents you really need access to? It helps to have at least some of your emails backed up in another location so that you can always get at them, offline or otherwise. Forward Emails to a Backup Account Forwarding emails is one way of backing them up. Apple via David Nield The simplest way to get all of your emails sent to another account is to forward them, either manually one by one or automatically as they come in. From iCloud Mail, for example, you can click the cog icon (bottom left), then choose Preferences and General: Tick the box next to Forward my email to and enter another email address. If you open up Gmail on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then See all settings. Under Forwarding and POP/IMAP, tick the box labeled Forward a copy of incoming mail to and enter your secondary email address. Gmail actually lets you create a filter for forwarded emails (messages from a specific contact, for example), so you don't get everything forwarded—click the create a filter link next to Forwarding to do this. Finally, for the Outlook web client, click the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settings, Email, and Forwarding. Tick the Enable forwarding box, enter the secondary email address you want to use, and all of the messages that arrive in your Outlook inbox will be sent on to the other account too. If something happens to your primary account, you can still at least reference your messages. In each case, you can choose to delete the original copy of the message or keep it—you'll want to keep it, otherwise it defeats the purpose of creating a backup. Forwarding emails is a quick and simple way of getting your messages in two places, but if you're forwarding your emails to another cloud account, you can still lose access to both copies if you're unable to get online for whatever reason. Use POP and IMAP (Remember Those?) Both POP and IMAP can be used to back up emails. Microsoft via David Nield POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) are the two main ways of getting emails in multiple places at once, and both standards are supported by most email providers. Choosing which to use for the purpose of backing up emails is a bit tricky, as they tend to be implemented in slightly different ways depending on the programs you're using. Generally speaking, the older POP technology is a less effective way of collecting two or more copies of an email from where your email is hosted. The newer IMAP standard is usually preferred because it offers features like two-way sync. IMAP makes it easier to keep your inbox looking the same across multiple devices and multiple email apps because it keeps talking to the email server as you go. In this case, though, we're not particularly worried about keeping up a two-way sync: We just want copies of our emails stashed away. IMAP can also be more difficult to set up offline because it relies more heavily on a constant connection to the web—you usually have to tell your email client to keep certain IMAP folders offline, as it won't necessarily happen automatically. But in some cases, POP will just download all of your messages, leaving your account empty and all of your mail now stored in one place—on the device you wanted to use as a backup. It's really up to you which you use. IMAP is best if you want to be able to interact with your email from different devices and apps, but it requires a bit more attention to set up properly as a backup. On the other hand, POP isn't always available—iCloud supports IMAP but not POP, for example. Download Everything To a Desktop Client Thunderbird is a free desktop client that can download emails via POP or IMAP. Thunderbird via David Nield To provide a safety net against most potential issues—an account hack, having no internet access, accidentally deleting messages—we'd recommend downloading messages to a desktop email client such as Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird, and keeping them separate and untouched unless you need to refer to them. POP is ideal as long as you make sure its settings leave copies on the server so you don't inadvertently wipe the account you're trying to back up. IMAP is fine too, especially for accessing your emails offline, but as we've said any data wipe disaster that befalls your cloud emails will be synced to your desktop client, as well, unless you're careful or tell it only to sync manually. With Gmail, you need to make sure POP or IMAP is enabled first: Click the cog icon (top right), then See all settings and Forwarding and POP/IMAP. With Outlook, IMAP is automatically enabled, and POP can be switched on by clicking the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settings and Email. iCloud email from Apple only supports IMAP, and it's always enabled, so you don't need to do anything to set it up. A modern-day client like Thunderbird can connect up using just your email address and password, though it'll use IMAP by default. To go for POP instead, click Configure manually during the setup process. You can find the various access codes you need online for Gmail and Outlook emails (iCloud only supports IMAP, remember, so Thunderbird can set it up automatically). With accounts that are protected with two-step authentication, you might need an app-specific password for Thunderbird. As your emails sync to Thunderbird, there are a couple of checks to make. If you've gone for POP, right-click on the account heading and choose Settings then Server Settings to make sure Leave messages on server is checked—otherwise your emails will be deleted from the cloud as Thunderbird downloads them, as we mentioned. If you've chosen IMAP meanwhile, right-click on the folders you want to be able to access offline, then choose Properties and Synchronization to make sure offline access is enabled. Other Options You can download everything in your Gmail account as part of the Google Takeout feature. Google via David Nield As we've already explained, there's more than one way to do this, so think about the sort of scenarios you want to put in contingency plans for, and how robust you want your backups to be. Individual emails can be downloaded from iCloud on the web, for example, by clicking on the cog icon at the top of an open email and choosing Download Message. For a handful of messages, that might be all you need. There's nothing comparable on Outlook on the web, but Google gives you a far more comprehensive download option: Go to the Google Takeout page on the web, and you're able to download absolutely everything in your Gmail account, or just emails with specific labels. If you just want to make periodic, local backups of key messages that you're unlikely to need very often, maybe this is the way to go for you. Gmail on the web is actually smart enough to access other accounts via POP and IMAP—if you go to the settings pane (click the cog icon then See all settings), open Accounts and Import then Add a mail account, you can set this up. This will give you another copy of emails from another account inside Gmail, and you can even ensure offline access from the Offline tab of the settings page. This is another alternative to using a desktop client like Thunderbird. Both Windows and macOS come with default desktop clients of their own, meanwhile, and these are programs you can use in place of Thunderbird and Outlook to back up your emails while primarily accessing them through the cloud. Some combination of the methods we've mentioned should be enough to give you peace of mind that your most important messages are copied somewhere else, safe and sound. More Great WIRED Stories 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! I am not a soldier, but I have been trained to kill Everything we know now about kids and Covid-19 In India, smartphones and cheap data give women a voice In Minecraft’s Dream SMP, all the server’s a stage How to get more plant-based meat onto plates in 2021 🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more 📱 Torn between the latest phones? Never fear—check out our iPhone buying guide and favorite Android phones

Flash Is Dead—but Not Gone

Zombie versions of Adobe’s troubled software can still cause problems in systems around the world. On January 12, just after 8:15 am local time, computers started to malfunction at the Dalian Train Operation Depot in northeast China. The dispatcher's browsers weren't loading train schedule details. Six hours later, dispatchers also lost the ability to print train data from the web app. According to the depot's account on Weibo and WeChat, and a follow up post a couple of days later, the system flickered on and off for 20 hours before IT staff finally stabilized it. The culprit appears to have been a seismic, but not unforeseen, shift on the internet: the death of Adobe Flash Player. As 2020 came to a close, Adobe fully ended support for its infamous yet nostalgia-laced multimedia platform. On January 12, Adobe took things a step further, triggering a kill switch it had been distributing in Flash updates for months that blocks content from running in the player—essentially rendering the software inoperable. The company had warned about the transition for years, while browsers like Chrome and Firefox gradually nudged users toward other standards. Apple spent a full decade attempting to wean web developers off of Flash. But organizations like the Dalian Depot didn't get the memo. Frantic staffers ended up pirating old versions of the software, even modifying them to run on all different versions of Windows to stabilize the system. “Twenty-plus hours of fight. No one complained. No one gave up. In solving the Flash problem, we turned the glimpse of hope into the fuel for advancement,” officials wrote in a post mortem, as translated by journalist Tony Lin.  The Dalian Depot incident speaks to the reality that Flash is not really dead yet, and will persist untouched—and sometimes unbeknownst to anyone—in networks around the world. Mainland China is the only region of the world where Flash will still be officially available through a distributor that Adobe partnered with in 2018. But some users have complained about problems with the dedicated Chinese version of the program and have found workarounds to keep using the regular edition. After decades of abuse by hackers, particularly those running “malvertising” ad schemes, Flash installations—whether forgotten or intentionally maintained—could expose networks for years to come. Versions of the software that haven't been updated recently don't have the kill switch inside, after all. And because Adobe isn't supporting the software anymore, there won't be security patches for any new Flash vulnerabilities that come to light. “Flash Player may remain on your system unless you uninstall it," Adobe says in an FAQ. “Adobe blocked Flash content from running in Flash Player beginning January 12, 2021, and the major browser vendors have disabled and will continue to disable Flash Player from running after the EOL Date.” In October, Microsoft also released an optional update for Windows 8 and above that removes the operating system's built-in version of Flash.  In spite of this multipronged strategy, though, some installations will persist. On top of the risk that organizations won't update their software, Adobe's last release of Flash included a special enterprise feature that lets network administrators essentially override the kill switch and place Flash functions on an “allow” list. “Any use of the domain-level allow list … is strongly discouraged, will not be supported by Adobe, and is entirely at the user’s own risk,” the company says. Even organizations that uninstall desktop Flash will also need to worry about the browser versions if they aren't updating those regularly. For systems that don't or can't receive updates easily, these two locations of Flash Player can mean double the exposure. “Flash has been a massive security hole for decades, and a whole ecosystem of cybercriminals have been preying on those who use the software," says Rob Cheng, CEO of the antivirus maker PC Matic. “Even now that the software has been killed by Adobe, the threat will not immediately go away.” There's some good news still. As Flash has approached its end of life and lost users, researchers say that attackers have tapered off their investment in finding and exploiting new vulnerabilities in the software. One of the most recent Flash bugs that has been widely abused by hackers is a memory flaw disclosed in January 2019 that could be exploited to take control of a target device. “Recently, exploit kit authors started to slowly move away from Flash exploits,” says Jérôme Segura, director of threat intelligence at the antivirus firm Malwarebytes. “In part this was due to newer vulnerabilities for Internet Explorer, with more precise targeting in specific countries where Internet Explorer is still relevant enough for drive-by attacks.” Segura notes, though, that the Flash Player plugin was specifically appealing for so long because of its proximity and relationship to serving online ads. With less ubiquity, Flash attacks will be less useful to hackers, but they will remain in offensive toolkits. “Flash will be around for several years even though it's ‘dead,’” says David Kennedy, CEO of the threat tracking firm Binary Defense Systems, who also runs a corporate penetration testing firm. “Many systems and applications still heavily use it, and updating those could be super expensive, or companies may have custom applications that were built to rely on Flash. So the exposure will still be there in systems that don't receive updates or get overhauled often.” Legacy software that's no longer supported and receiving patches inevitably becomes a cybersecurity issue, whether it's ancient industrial control software deep in always-on infrastructure or historic networking protocols in internet-of-things devices. Microsoft's Windows XP has had such a long tail that the company famously was forced to release critical patches for the operating system multiple times—and years after formally ending support.  Thanks to the tech industry's and Adobe's efforts to really kill Flash dead, researchers say they don't expect the catastrophes that resulted from Windows XP to repeat themselves with Flash. But they caution that since attackers are so familiar with Flash tactics, they won't hesitate to exploit it whenever they can for years to come. More Great WIRED Stories 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! The unsettling truth about the “Mostly Harmless” hiker How many microcovids would you spend on a burrito? 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The FTC Cracks Down on Bot-Wielding Ticket Scalpers

Plus: A security company creeper, Biden’s cyberteam, and the rest of this week’s security news. This week, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. To commemorate the outgoing Donald Trump's four years in office, we took a look at the most absurd, bizarre, or outright dangerous things Trump has said about cybersecurity. (At least he's not saying them on Facebook or Twitter anymore.) He's also not saying them on Parler, because no one has since the far-right platform got booted by Amazon Web Services. But! Remember how hackers downloaded every public post, image, and video from Parler right before it went down? A new site called Faces of the Riot has run that trove through some machine-learning and facial-recognition software to publish thousands of images of people who were at the Capitol Hill protests—and riots—on January 6. The project alarms privacy advocates, who say that it underscores the pervasive threat of facial recognition; the Faces of the Riot also doesn't distinguish between the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building and those who drew the line at protesting. In other Parler news, the platform has sputtered back to life, sort of. Well, OK, it's just a landing page. But it wouldn't have gotten even that far without the help of DDoS-Guard, a Russian cloud infrastructure company that also counts white supremacist site the Daily Stormer among its clients. All that data flowing through Russia has security professionals concerned; Parler says it hopes to find a US host, but the pickings are slim for a site of its size. The SolarWinds news keeps getting worse. Now that the tactics the hackers used post-infiltration have proven effective, researchers expect other groups to use them as well. And on top of its Russia woes, the US needs a new plan to beat China in AI, former secretary of defense Ash Carter argued in a WIRED interview. And there's more! Each week we round up all the news we didn’t cover in depth. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there. The FTC Cracks Down on Bot-Happy Ticket Scalpers In 2016, Congress passed the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, intended to target the bots that flood sites and snatch up prime seats before everyday fans can. On Friday, the Federal Trade Commission took its first enforcement action under BOTS, hitting three New York-based ticket brokers with a collective $31 million in fines for allegedly using automated ticket-buying software, creating hundreds of fake Ticketmaster accounts, and more. Because they can't afford the fines, the three defendants will pay $3.7 million instead. Hopefully it's a sign that the FTC is going to take its enforcement role more seriously when it comes to bots and beyond. An ADT Employee Spied on Customers Through Their Security Cams A former technician for home security company ADT pleaded guilty this week to charges that he had illicitly accessed customer accounts 9,600 times over a four-year stretch, at times tapping into the home security cameras to spy on them. He got in by adding his personal email address to the online accounts of 220 Texas-area clients, allegedly targeting homes with women he found attractive. ADT first disclosed this issue in April of last year, but the guilty plea at least brings some closure to the victims. The company faces three ongoing civil cases related to the matter. The UK Handed Out Remote Learning Laptops Loaded With Malware Mistakes happen! In this case the UK's Department of Education distributed 23,000 computers to school children learning remotely, a well-intentioned gesture tainted only by the presence on some of those machines of Garamue, a remote-access worm. It's unclear exactly how many devices are affected, but schools have already taken extra precautions—in one case, reimaging the laptops—to make sure they don't accidentally hand out malware to their already beleaguered students. Biden Assembles His Cybersecurity Dream Team While cybersecurity suffered during the Trump administration, Joe Biden has already assembled by all accounts a highly competent team. The new administration has also created the position of deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, giving more weight to an increasingly critical area of focus. In addition to the return of a few Obama-era vets, Reuters reports that the smart money is on former NSA official Jen Easterly to assume another new role, national cyber director. The AI Defense Startup With Deep Government Ties The American Prospect this week profiled Rebellion Defense, an Eric Schmidt-backed startup founded by former members of the Pentagon's Defense Digital Service. It's worth a read for an in-depth look at how Schmidt has positioned himself in DC, and the shadowy AI firm that has reaped the benefits. More Great WIRED Stories 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters! The plan to build a global network of floating power stations A 25-year-old bet comes due: Has tech destroyed society? What Hades can teach us about ancient Greek masculinity The SolarWinds hackers used tactics other groups will copy The best cheap phones for (almost) every budget 🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more 🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers