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 You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

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Scope Out the Best Christmas Light Displays in Your Neighborhood With Nextdoor's Cheer Map

can72/iStock via Getty Images
can72/iStock via Getty Images

For many people, driving around the neighborhood to admire the gorgeous light displays (or laugh at the garish ones) is a beloved holiday tradition. But if you live in a big city or only want to check out the most impressive displays, you might not know where to look. That’s where Nextdoor’s Cheer Map comes in.

Nextdoor is a free and private social network that lets you interact with other people in your neighborhood. It’s used in more than 250,000 neighborhoods around the world, and if yours happens to be one of them, you can use the Cheer Map to find the nearest Christmas light displays in your area. The map is crowdsourced and voluntary, so your neighbors can mark their own homes with a holiday lights icon. And if you're eager to flaunt your own festive decorations, you can mark your home on the map, too.

The results will look something like this:

A woman uses Nextdoor's Cheer Map app
Netxtdoor

You can access the Cheer Map online, or via an iPhone or Android device. To get started, click the Cheer Map link, and you’ll be prompted to create a free online account with Nextdoor if you don’t already have one (signing up is quick and easy). Once you’re logged in, a pop-up window will ask whether you plan on decorating for the holidays; select “I will” or “Not this year,” then click "Continue." If you don’t want to participate, you can also select “Skip” to jump ahead to good stuff and access the map of decorated homes in your neighborhood. And that’s it! If you selected “I will,” a colorful light icon will mark your home on the map.

For those who live in small towns, there’s a chance you’ll be the first person in your neighborhood to join the site. Unfortunately, that means your neighborhood won’t be officially “launched” on Nextdoor unless you get nine of your neighbors to sign up. But even if you aren’t able to use the Cheer Map this holiday season, you could help spread the word (and holiday cheer) to get your neighborhood on the map for next year.

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