----- 3 stars -----

The FBI Agent Who Can’t Stop Thinking About Waco / Texas Monthly

A quarter century after 82 Branch Davidians and 4 federal officers were killed, Byron Sage is still arguing about what happened. [...] At 12:32 p.m. on Monday, April 19, 1993, FBI agent Byron Sage placed his right hand on his PA system’s power switch and flicked it from on to off. Sage knew the small gesture was momentous. For the previous seven weeks, he and 51 other negotiators from various agencies had tried to persuade the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his more than one hundred followers to leave their home, a rambling, multilevel structure on a 77-acre property ten miles east of Waco known as Mount Carmel. Now that building was engulfed in fire. “It’s one of those points in your life that you’ll never, ever forget,” Sage says. “By turning that switch off, it was like I had fifty-one other guys that were looking over my shoulder, watching me say, ‘We failed.’ ” Nearly two months earlier, Sage had been the first FBI negotiator to arrive on the scene after a disastrous Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raid left four federal agents and six Branch Davidians dead. Ever since, he’d been the lead negotiator, speaking frequently with Koresh and his deputy, Steve Schneider, cajoling them to cooperate when he could, arguing with them when he felt that he had to, making demands when it seemed nothing else would work. On that final day, when the FBI’s on-scene commander, Jeff Jamar, picked a negotiator to tell the members of the sect that they had to surrender, Sage was the obvious choice.

‘God Made Me Black on Purpose’ / Politico

Tim Scott is the most prominent African-American Republican in America. In the Trump era, that’s no easy thing. [...] When the unified Republican government made tax reform its top priority—after failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—he emerged as a star player, one of four senators who crafted the legislation and worked alongside the administration to win over holdouts. Scott’s repeat visits to the White House were punctuated by a victory lap on the South Lawn after Congress passed the GOP tax plan. It should have been a crowning moment in his career—not only for the role he played in writing and passing the law, but because he had triumphed in securing bipartisan language in the final product that accomplished a longtime goal: creating “Opportunity Zones” across America, with tax incentives offered for investing in poor communities. (He makes a point of noting that both urban and rural areas will benefit.) When Scott took his place at the ceremony on the afternoon of December 20—flanking President Donald Trump, right next to Speaker Paul Ryan—the extent of his influence was on full display. But that’s not what everyone saw. Just minutes before Trump invited Scott to speak at the lectern, Andy Ostroy, a HuffPost blogger, tweeted: “What a shocker … there’s ONE black person there and sure enough they have him standing right next to the mic like a manipulated prop. Way to go @SenatorTimScott.” When the event ended, Scott opened Twitter and spotted the comment. He responded: “Uh probably because I helped write the bill for the past year, have multiple provisions included, got multiple Senators on board over the last week and have worked on tax reform my entire time in Congress. But if you’d rather just see my skin color, pls feel free.” The exchange crystallized the central dilemma of Scott’s political existence. Concerned about narrowing his brand, the senator long has tried to downplay his ethnic exceptionalism and avoid the role of race-relations ambassador for the GOP. And yet Scott, now more than ever, cannot seem to escape being perceived as such. He is not just a generic black Republican in a generic period of history; he is the most powerful and prominent black elected official in America, serving at a time of heightened racial tension and widespread accusations of xenophobia against his own party and the president who leads it.

King of the Ride / New York Times

The world's best hitchhiker on the secrets of his success [...] People generally believe hitchhiking takes no particular know-how; and it’s true that to catch one ride, you don’t need to do much but stand there. But when, like Villarino, you rely entirely on hitchhiking to traverse tremendous distances, there’s a great deal of skill involved to quickly and safely arrive at your destination. Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times. [...] Equal parts Don Quixote and Che Guevara, Villarino describes his peregrinations as protests not just against boredom but also against parochialism and even capitalism. “The 12-hour workday,” he wrote in an early manifesto, “is more dangerous than hitchhiking.” As a Latin American, from a downwardly mobile middle-class family — he watched his parents be crushed by those 12-hour days — he defies the old characterization of hitchers as “uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty,” as James Baldwin once famously put his pin in the Beats’ balloon.

My Brother, The White Nationalist / Pacific Standard

Hours later, Josh watched the video in his living room. There was Nathan, clearly identifiable in a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, square chin jutting out, blond hair kept in a Hitler Youth style. He cocked back his right fist and let fly; the woman's head rocked violently. Josh replayed the clip. Was there something he had missed, an angle that could somehow justify the punch? The scene was chaotic: Dozens of people swarmed around and shoved each other as smoke swirled. The woman, with dreadlocks and a red bandana around her neck, came into focus just as Nathan stepped to center frame and decked her. It was just as ugly on second viewing. Josh is 34, two years older than Nathan. The brothers shared a bedroom for 16 years, and have always been extremely close—or always were, until Nathan's recent transformation. In 2016, Nathan had founded a white nationalist organization called Identity Evropa and quickly become one of the most prominent racists in the country. He was profiled by the Los Angeles Times and interviewed by CNN. He would be one of the key organizers of the "Unite the Right" rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville last August.

----- 2 stars -----

The decades-long quest to end drought (and feed millions) by taking the salt out of seawater / Wired

His latest project in Somaliland (an autonomous but internationally unrecognised republic in Somalia) takes that bullish optimism to the extreme. On a 25-hectare plot of desert land close to the coastline, he’s building the region’s first sustainable, drought-resistant greenhouse. Using solar power to pump in seawater from the coastline and desalinate it on site, Paton is generating freshwater to irrigate plants, and water vapour to cool and humidify the greenhouse interior. In January – less than a year after its launch – this improbable desert oasis produced its first harvest of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. “The idea is so simple that it’s rather insulting,” Paton says. “People say, ‘If that’s going to work then somebody would have done it before.’”

Worst Roommate Ever / New York Magazine

“You’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re pretty, you’ve got this house — well, you don’t have this house anymore. This house is my house.” [...] Creek was tall, slim, and handsome, with hair as black as squid’s ink. Though he was 60, he looked to be in his late 40s. When he came to visit the apartment, he brought his dog, a 13-year-old Border-collie mix named Zachary, so that he could meet Miller’s arthritic black Lab, Cosimo. To Miller, Creek’s arrival felt like a godsend. She was dealing with the sudden departure of a roommate, a looming lease renewal, a bank account kept precariously afloat by part-time work at a juice bar and at a nearby law firm filing paperwork. Here was a courtly gentleman, Miller thought, as she walked Creek through her cluttered apartment, an experienced lawyer who’d lived in Europe and the Middle East. At the end of the tour, they settled on her couch and fell into a deeper conversation. Creek shared his interest in Buddhist meditation; Miller told him about recent romantic troubles and Creek offered advice. The sky outside was turning dusky blue when Creek said, “I like the place, and I like you. If you like me, I could just do this now”—move in, he meant.

One Morning in Baghdad / The Atlantic

One morning in October 2003, I was shaken out of bed by an explosion. I was in Baghdad, leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a special operations task force that was hunting down the famous “deck of cards”—the last of the Ba’ath Regime loyalists, and Saddam himself. Because we did all of our work at night, I had only been sleeping for a few hours. When I first felt the explosion, I rolled out of bed, grabbed my M4 carbine, and ran out of the house we were living in on the southern tip of Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone. Improbably, my giant grizzly bear of a platoon sergeant remained asleep, snoring away in the cot next to mine. When I got outside, I was initially blinded by the sunlight, but eventually I could see the al-Rashid Hotel, where visiting dignitaries often stayed, smoking in the distance. It had been struck by some kind of rocket. The only other person awake, meanwhile, was one of my Rangers, who was on the porch of our house with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Marlboro Red in the other. He looked me up and down. I was wearing my underwear and flip-flops and carrying my carbine in one hand and my body armor in the other. He took a drag from his cigarette and looked at me again, bemused. “Good morning, sir. What the fuck are you doing?” It was a good question.

Robert Mercer’s Secret Adventure as a New Mexico Cop / Bloomberg Businessweek

Until a few months ago, Mercer, 71, ran what is arguably the world’s most successful hedge fund. He employs a phalanx of servants and bodyguards and owns a 203-foot yacht named Sea Owl. He was the money behind Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, whose fiery populism helped propel Trump to the White House, as well as the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shaped the campaign’s messages. Shortly after the election, Mercer donned a top hat and welcomed the president-elect to a costume party at his seaside mansion on Long Island. What was a guy like that doing in the desert, wearing a gun and a shiny badge? I was surprised when I first heard about Mercer’s sojourns in Lake Arthur, but then I’m used to his surprises. During the two and a half years I’ve covered Mercer, I’ve come to think of him as a hard-right version of that guy in the beer commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of incredible-but-true Mercer stories, including his pioneering research that begat Google Translate, his funding of a stockpile of human urine in the Oregon mountains, his million-dollar model train set, and his habit of whistling constantly, even during work meetings. The common threads in these stories are a fierce intelligence, a wide-ranging curiosity, and an utter indifference to the judgment of others. The story of his adventures in Lake Arthur, which hasn’t been previously reported, adds yet another strand. It shows just how far a man of means will go to get something he can’t buy: the right to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in America.

Good Game Well Played: The Story of the Staying Power of ‘StarCraft’ / The Ringer

On Saturday, StarCraft will turn 20, and we’ll marvel at the mileage on an almost ageless game. Three days later, professional StarCraft competitors will take the stage in a standing-room-only studio in South Korea, selecting their species and pitting Protoss against Terran and Terran against Zerg—not because it’s the game’s 20th anniversary, but because it’s Tuesday. They played the previous Tuesday, too, with thousands of fans streaming on AfreecaTV, the Korean video-streaming service that sponsors the Afreeca StarCraft League. [...] Blizzard hadn’t anticipated that StarCraft would catch on in South Korea; they hadn’t localized it, so Koreans could only play it in English, and Wyatt says that the company hadn’t expected to sell more than a few thousand copies in the country. Sigaty remembers that shortly before or after the release of Brood War, Blizzard vice president Paul Sams flew to Jeju Island and met with South Korea’s vice president. “[It] was like, ‘What the heck?’ Our VP of this little company is meeting with the vice president of a country,” he says. [...] The explosion of StarCraft in South Korea stemmed from a confluence of sociocultural factors, none of which was Blizzard’s doing but all of which were to Blizzard’s benefit. In his 2010 book, Korea’s Online Gaming Empire, Dal Yong Jin, a professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, explains that in 1995, the South Korean government enacted efforts to install high-speed internet on a massive scale, a movement that accelerated when a 1997 financial crisis led to large-scale unemployment and forced the South Korean economy to shift from heavy and chemical industries to “a more IT-oriented structure based on telecommunications and computers.” Some of the workers who had been laid off started PC bangs, 24-hour internet-café-like establishments that weren’t expensive to operate. In 1997, there were only 100 PC bangs in South Korea; by the next year, there were 3,000, and that total had increased nearly eightfold by 2001.

Aliens Could Detect Life on Earth. Here's How. / National Geographic

That means if aliens are out there, they could just as easily discover us. First, they'd need to find Earth from afar, either by watching our sun wobble as the planet's gravity tugs against it, or by seeing the sun dim as Earth blocks a tiny fraction of sunlight during its orbit. Nine known alien worlds can see Earth transit across our sun, just as we've seen thousands of alien planets dim their host stars. Once spotted, our planet would likely intrigue E.T. Our sun is relatively stable, not prone to disastrous flares that'd rip our atmosphere to shreds. What's more, we fall squarely within our sun's habitable zone, the area around a star where liquid water can persist on a planet's surface. (These are just some of the things that make life as we know it possible on Earth.) Faraway scientists might then attempt to spot our atmosphere, to see whether life's thumb is on the chemical scales. But what would they be looking for? And could they really infer life's presence across trillions of miles?

‘We Are Ready to Die.’ Five North Korean Defectors Who Never Made It. / New York Times

Ms. Choi was worried about her sister in North Korea. The last time they spoke, two months earlier, her sister had sounded desperate. She said she had been imprisoned and beaten, and could no longer bear the torment. She said she wanted to escape and join Ms. Choi in South Korea. She said she would carry poison, to kill herself if she were captured. For Ms. Choi, 63, a grandmother with large brown eyes and a steely fortitude, getting the rest of her family to South Korea was the most important thing left in life. She had fled North Korea herself 10 years ago. Her son had made it out too, as had her sister’s daughter, now a hairdresser living near her in Seoul, the South’s flashy capital. Ms. Choi longed to be reunited with the sister, a 50-year-old dressmaker with her own home business, and also the nephew she had left behind. She wanted to get them to safety, out of the reach of the government that had arrested her husband, her brother-in-law and her son-in-law on suspicions of helping people leave. They had been targeted as enemies of the state and were never seen again.

The Invasion of the German Board Games / The Atlantic

In Eurogames, by contrast, such naked metaphors for capitalism and predation are outré. The Spanish-themed El Grande, for instance, does not permit players to attack their opponents directly. Rather, players maneuver their caballeros around a map of medieval Spain in a bid to win the favor of local courtiers. Players don’t beat their opponents so much as thwart them. The same is invariably true in rail-themed Eurogames such as Ticket To Ride, in which players rush to claim choice routes. The action is always passive-aggressive—never just aggressive. This mode of play is pleasant on multiple levels. There is an enormous amount of fussy micromanagerial satisfaction that comes from amassing A so you can invest in B, so you can trade for C, so you can build a D, which in turn pumps out more A. To outsiders, this churn of wood, brick, sheep, ore, and wheat always makes Eurogames seem overly complicated. (In Friedemann Friese’s masterpiece Power Grid, there is even a step called the “bureaucracy” phase.) But in practice, all the busywork keeps players immersed in their own projects, and less spiteful in regard to others’ success. Which makes for gentler competition, fewer arguments, and (in my experience) less in the way of intra-spousal recrimination. [...] And so most Eurogames are designed such that scoring comes at the end of the game, after some defined milestone or turn limit, so that every player can enjoy the experience of being a contender until the final moments. If this sounds somewhat Euro-socialistic, that’s because it is. But such mechanisms acknowledge that no one wants to block off three hours for gaming, only to get knocked out early and bide their time by watching TV as everyone else finishes up.

6 Simple Animations That Explain Complicated Things / National Geographic
The first three are pretty good...the last three are a bit flawed:

How do scientists edit DNA? Why does coral turn white when it dies? These six animations answer those questions and more.

This Galaxy Has Almost No Dark Matter—And Scientists Are Baffled / National Geographic

Normally, not all of a galaxy’s mass is visible. In addition to a mix of ordinary matter—like stars and planets and manatees—galaxies are expected to contain dark matter, an invisible substance that makes up most of the mass in the universe. Although we can’t directly observe it, we know dark matter is there because we can see how its gravity affects ordinary matter. Based on the ratio in other galaxies, an isolated galaxy like NGC1052-DF2 should have about a hundred times more dark matter than ordinary matter. But this one appears to have … almost none, scientists report today in Nature.

These Trade Jabs Don't Mean War. Yet. / Bloomberg
From Tyler Cowen:

China, of course, knows that Trump’s actions don’t always match his rhetoric, and so they are likely to hold back on their retaliation. Why send your best punch back when you don’t know how badly you’ve been hit? [...] Keep in mind that the U.S. is a relatively large buyer in many markets; in economic lingo, it has some monopsony power. So if it cuts back purchases of, say, Chinese toys, China cannot simply reroute those now-surplus toys and sell them to Canada or Indonesia at the same price. This gives the U.S. significant power in trade conflicts. And China cannot throw around its weight as a buyer in similar fashion because it does not import on the same scale. [...] What we’ll get is more expensive imports, more domestic political uncertainty and more trouble on the foreign policy front. That’s all for the worse, but still I don’t see a major trade war in the offing.

Fake laughs! The invention of the laugh track. / Kottke

No technique in television production has been more maligned than the laugh track, yet it somehow perseveres through decades of ridicule. It all started innocently, as a quick hack to solve a technical problem. Charley Douglass, a sound engineer at CBS in the early ’50s, was annoyed at studio audiences who inconveniently laughed at the wrong moments. Sometimes they chuckled too long at unfunny bits; other times, they refused to bellow with sufficient gusto. To evenly redistribute the laughter, Douglass invented a contraption that looked like a steampunk organ collided with a cyberpunk adding machine, connected on the back end to magnetic tapes with recorded laughter. By pressing buttons on the laff box (that’s actually what he called it), an orchestrator could punch up guffaws, chortles, and giggles on demand. The magical machine also acted as a sort of demographic keyboard, with inputs for specific genders, ages, and ethnicities, plus a foot pedal that controlled the duration of each laugh. One keystroke might simulate frothy housewife giggle; another, guy who missed joke but laughs anyway. Keys could be combined into melodic chords of laughter, bringing down the house in a crescendo of hilarity.

----- 1 star -----

The Rise in Self-Proclaimed Time Travelers / Mel Magazine

In the year 2000, a time traveler reportedly walked among us. He was from the year 2038, but he drove a 1967 Chevy Corvette. His sweet time ride disrupted gravity using a twin singularity system. This time traveler arrived in present day to stop a civil war in the U.S. He did so by contacting the U.S. intelligence community and convincing them to let 9/11 happen. And it worked. The civil war of 2008 was averted, and the history of the world hopped onto a different timeline. This isn’t the plot of a bad movie. At least, not yet. However, it’s probably the most popular internet legend you’ve never heard of. Not to mention, it’s definitely one of the strangest 9/11 conspiracy theories you’ll ever come across. But most of all, it’s just the tip of a very weird internet iceberg: The Invasion of the Time Traveler.

7 ancient ruins around the world, reconstructed / Expedia

Ancient ruins give us a fascinating window into the past: how people lived, the spaces they inhabited and their daily lives. Historians, architects and travellers alike marvel at these remnants of time past, but it’s often hard to get a sense of what these spectacular buildings would have looked like at their peak. We decided to step back in time and recreate some of our favorite ancient ruins in their original locations.

A game of tag that’s been going for 20+ years / Kottke
I thought I'd e-mailed about this a couple years ago, but I couldn't find anything in my archives:

I was tagged spectacularly a few years back when a friend popped round to show me his new car. As I approached it, Sean sprang out of the boot where he’d been hiding and tagged me. He’d flown 800 miles from Seattle to San Francisco just to stop being “it” — to shrug off the “mantle of shame”, as we call it. My wife was so startled she fell and injured her knee, but she wasn’t angry; she was pleased to see Sean.

Guy Makes A Huge Sphere Out Of Matches And Then Sets It On Fire Because The Internet Is Awesome Sometimes / Digg

After 23 years in prison as an innocent man, former White Sox groundskeeper returns to his old job / Chicago Tribune

Nevest Coleman looked around the White Sox ballpark in wonder as he walked down the third base line. Flanked by colleagues, Harry Smith and Jerry Powe, Coleman marveled at how much the stadium had changed since 1994, when he last worked for the team. As he took in the sights, legendary head groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard came over and embraced Coleman in a quick hug. “I saved your spot for you,” Bossard said. “I knew you’d be back.” And he told him, “Just remember, I’m counting on you to help me with that tarp, too.”

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