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How A “Grass Mud Horse” Leapt Over China’s Great Internet Firewall

China’s imaginary animal that’s actually both a filthy play on words, and a symbol of internet freedom

image via (cc) flickr user andy-li

The barrier surrounding China’s state-run internet services is the stuff of legend: A multi-layered “great firewall” designed to exert near-total control over what goes in, and out, of that country’s computer networks. While China credits its restrictions on internet giants like Google and Twitter as having created the necessary vacuum in which that country’s own crop of tech juggernauts—web portals like Alibaba, and Baidu—could grow into the market successes they are today, the cumulative effect of China’s “great firewall” is that digital information is policed on a scale unlike anywhere else on Earth.


image via youtube screen capture

For years though, China’s internet censorship efforts have been subversively mocked by a set of imaginary animals, each with bizarre, but seemingly harmless names like “Chrysanthemum Silkworm” and “Franco-Croatian Squid.” While they may sound innocuous to most English speakers, in their native Chinese the names are puns, homophones, and in-jokes—often incredibly vulgar ones—meant to sneak past China’s sophisticated keyword filtering, and tweak the noses of those in charge of the state controlled internet services. Of all these animals, though, it’s the “Grass Mud Horse” that’s become synonymous with rebellion against China’s great firewall. This video, found and posted recently by programmer Craig Hockenberry after his website went down following what he theorizes was a Chinese hack attack, is a helpful primer on both the great firewall, and Grass Mud Horse. Watch ‘til the end...

Since springing to life in 2009 (with, as one internet commenter points out, possible roots reaching as far back as 2005) Grass Mud Horse has become a full-blown phenomenon. It has its own theme song [NSFW Chinese lyrics and English subtitles]:

And even a celebrity endorsement, of sorts, in the form of acclaimed artist and Chinese activist Ai WeiWei [again, lyrics in both Chinese and English are NSFW]:

Of course, since becoming a phenomenon, Grass Mud Horse and his equally offensive friends have probably lost a bit of their subversive edge, to say nothing of their digital-censor-dodging abilities. Still, among those advocating for a more open internet, Grass Mud Horse is a wonderfully impolite and wildly creative symbol that, for a time, managed to leap all the way over even the great firewall of China.

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





Culture
Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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