North Korea: Please turn off your cell phone... or else

Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending.  The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.

Of course, it's easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well. But the more pertinent question is, how effective will this crackdown actually be?

As Peter Beck wrote in 2010, there were over 300,000 cell phone users in North Korea, all on a network developed by Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom. Reuters reported last November that the number has since grown to nearly a million people on the 3G capable network. Analysts at the time said that the network posed little of a threat to the regime, mainly because officials had controlled outside information so tightly.  Additionally, severe limitations on the internet restrict access to any domain except a handful of historical sites that are accessible to a select few people.  However, as the Nautilus Institute's Alexandre Mansourov said in a report, "The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price."

Of course, its not to say that the North Koreans won't try their hardest to ban the technology. They did it in 2004 following the explosion of a passenger train, which officials suspected was due to a bomb controlled via a cell phone. To the regime's chagrin, cell phone usage continued to grow in the expanding North Korean black market, with relay stations set up on the Chinese border that connected North Koreans with their counterparts in the South.

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Is Newt's zero-gravity sex idea any good?

This author cannot answer the question posed above from experience. But space sex has been a kind of final frontier for mankind (and a bonanza for headline writers: See "Houston, We Have a Problem"). And Newt Gingrich's contribution to this grand (dare we say grandiose?) quest has resurfaced in the wake of his pledge yesterday in Florida to establish an American colony on the moon by the end of his second term.

In the mid-1990s, Gingrich predicted in his book To Renew America that "space tourism will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of children born this year, that honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020." Then came the subtle sex allusion: "Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions," Gingrich mused.

But is this really an attractive proposition? Empirical evidence is in short supply, since it's unclear whether -- beyond the fantasy worlds of Isaac Asimov and Moonraker -- anyone has actually had sex in space. Rumors of astronaut intercourse or weightless sex experiments -- fueled by hoaxes such as a fake NASA report cited in Pierre Kohler's The Final Mission -- have never been proven. In 2010, NASA commander Alan Poindexter responded to a question about space sex by saying that he and his fellow crew members were "professionals" who didn't have personal relationships. Last April, a Russian expert told the Interfax news agency that "there is no official or unofficial evidence that there were instances of sexual intercourse or the carrying out of sexual experiments" in the history of Russian space exploration.

All this hasn't stopped journalists and researchers from investigating the subject. And the consensus appears to be that space sex would be supremely difficult -- and pretty lousy -- for a variety of reasons:

  • Privacy: When the United States sent the first married couple into space in 1992, they worked opposite 12-hour shifts and shared a tiny shuttle with five other astronauts. "You have cameras all over, people talking to you," astronaut Bonnie Dunbar told the Associated Press at the time. "You hope you can go into the waste-management system (toilet) and close the curtains for maybe about 10 minutes of privacy."
  • Choreography: "It's a pretty messy environment," NASA physician Jim Logan explained in 2006. "And for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." But, Logan added, "I can well imagine how compelling, inspiring, and quite frankly stimulating choreographed sex in zero-G might be in the hands of a skilled and talented cinematographer with appropriate lighting and music." Maybe that's what Gingrich had in mind?
  • Physiological problems: Space travel can induce nausea, decrease blood pressure (and hence the size of certain body parts), and make people perspire more. "The moisture associated with sexual congress could pool as floating droplets," Alan Boyle noted at MSNBC in 2006. How romantic.   
  • Procreation: Russian studies involving pregnant rats indicate that fetal skeletons may not fully develop in space (fish and frog eggs have also been launched into orbit), and scientists worry that microgravity could have deleterious effects on the formation of neural connections and immune functions. Cosmic radiation is another concern; last summer, NASA researchers concluded that proton particles would probably sterilize any female embryo conceived in space and reduce male sperm count unless scientists develop an effective shield. 

We may not know how humans would respond to these daunting challenges, but we do know how rats have. In 1979, Russian scientists placed male and female rats into a "mating chamber" separated by a partition and sent them into orbit. The rats didn't mate when the doors opened two days later, though it was never entirely clear whether it was low gravity that killed the mood.

There are potential solutions, of course. Future space travelers could create artificial gravity. Or there's the Velcro-outfitted "2Suit," which sci-fi novelist Vanna Bonta invented to facilitate weightless intimacy. For a sense of just how difficult space sex might be, check out this clip from a History Channel documentary on space sex in which Bonta and her husband struggle to kiss in their 2Suits (begins at 6:15):

But don't let these obstacles deter you, Newt! America, as you noted last night, is a country of big, bold ideas. A future of space tourism and sexless honeymoons beckons.

NASA via Getty Images