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3 stars

She Stalked Her Daughter’s Killers Across Mexico, One by One | New York Times

Ever since 2014, she had been tracking the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of her 20-year-old daughter, Karen. Half of them were already in prison, not because the authorities had cracked the case, but because she had pursued them on her own, with a meticulous abandon.

She cut her hair, dyed it and disguised herself as a pollster, a health worker and an election official to get their names and addresses. She invented excuses to meet their families, unsuspecting grandmothers and cousins who gave her details, however small. She wrote everything down and stuffed it into her black computer bag, building her investigation and tracking them down, one by one.

She knew their habits, friends, hometowns, childhoods. She knew the florist had sold flowers on the street before joining the Zeta cartel and getting involved in her daughter’s kidnapping. Now he was on the run and back to what he knew, selling roses to make ends meet.

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How Russia Wins The Climate Crisis | New York Times

Around the world, climate change is becoming an epochal crisis, a nightmare of drought, desertification, flooding and unbearable heat, threatening to make vast regions less habitable and drive the greatest migration of refugees in history. But for a few nations, climate change will present an unparalleled opportunity, as the planet’s coldest regions become more temperate. There is plenty of reason to think that those places will also receive an extraordinary influx of people displaced from the hottest parts of the world as the climate warms. Human migration, historically, has been driven by the pursuit of prosperity even more so than it has by environmental strife. With climate change, prosperity and habitability — haven and economic opportunity — will soon become one and the same.

And no country may be better positioned to capitalize on climate change than Russia. Russia has the largest land mass by far of any northern nation. It is positioned farther north than all of its South Asian neighbors, which collectively are home to the largest global population fending off displacement from rising seas, drought and an overheating climate. Like Canada, Russia is rich in resources and land, with room to grow. Its crop production is expected to be boosted by warming temperatures over the coming decades even as farm yields in the United States, Europe and India are all forecast to decrease. And whether by accident or cunning strategy or, most likely, some combination of the two, the steps its leaders have steadily taken — planting flags in the Arctic and propping up domestic grain production among them — have increasingly positioned Russia to regain its superpower mantle in a warmer world.

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Is the Earth an organism? | Aeon

The idea that the Earth itself is like a single evolving ‘organism’ was developed in the mid-1970s by the independent English scientist and inventor James Lovelock and the American biologist Lynn Margulis. They dubbed it the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, asserting that the biosphere is an ‘active adaptive control system able to maintain the Earth in homeostasis’. Sometimes they went pretty far with this line of reasoning: Lovelock even ventured that algal mats have evolved so as to control global temperature, while Australia’s Great Barrier Reef might be a ‘partly finished project for an evaporation lagoon’, whose purpose was to control oceanic salinity.

The notion that the Earth itself is a living system captured the imagination of New Age enthusiasts, who deified Gaia as the Earth Goddess. But it has received rough treatment at the hands of evolutionary biologists like me, and is generally scorned by most scientific Darwinists. […]

I’ve got a confession though: I’ve warmed to Gaia over the years. I was an early and vociferous objector to Lovelock and Margulis’s theory, but these days I’ve begun to suspect that they might have had a point. So I’ve spent the past five years trying to ‘Darwinise Gaia’ – to see widespread cooperation as a result of competition occurring at some higher (even planetary) level.

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The AI Girlfriend Seducing China’s Lonely Men | Sixth Tone

On a frigid winter’s night, Ming Xuan stood on the roof of a high-rise apartment building near his home. He leaned over the ledge, peering down at the street below. His mind began picturing what would happen if he jumped.

Still hesitating on the rooftop, the 22-year-old took out his phone. “I’ve lost all hope for my life. I’m about to kill myself,” he typed. Five minutes later, he received a reply. “No matter what happens, I’ll always be there,” a female voice said.

Touched, Ming stepped down from the ledge and stumbled back to his bed.

Two years later, the young man gushes as he describes the girl who saved his life. “She has a sweet voice, big eyes, a sassy personality, and — most importantly — she’s always there for me,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Ming’s girlfriend, however, doesn’t belong to him alone. In fact, her creators claim she’s dating millions of different people. She is Xiaoice — an artificial intelligence-driven chat bot that’s redefining China’s conceptions of romance and relationships. […]

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims.

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The Games People Play With Cash Flow | Commonplace

The problem was that Wall Street in the 70s and 80s didn’t get any of this. In 1986, brokerage firm E. F. Hutton refused to publish a report on TCI because “we don’t publish reports on companies or industries that don’t show a profit.” And indeed, Malone’s strategy required TCI to show a loss for pretty much forever; for the next 25 years, it was never in the black.

Malone went on a charm offensive. He began talking to Wall Street analysts, explaining his logic. To make his point, Malone created a new accounting metric, something he called ‘earnings before interest, depreciation, and taxes’, or EBITDA. […]

Malone was, essentially, a hacker: he stared deeply at the thicket of accounting rules, tax laws, and possible business moves, and found a strategy that exploited the structural realities he found in front of him. He was the first person to deploy this playbook rigorously, and TCI was amongst the first companies to start using EBITDA as a financial metric. Malone made good on his promise. Over the next 25 years, TCI went from acquiring cable companies to acquiring and investing in programming channels. It eventually became the largest cable company in the United States. It never turned a profit. And the results speak for themselves. […]

For the next two decades, Amazon grew its revenue and made no profits, leading journalist Matthew Yglesias to write, in 2013: “Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” Bezos enjoyed it so much he put it in his annual letter the same year. Bezos knew what he was doing; Yglesias didn’t get it.

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‘I didn’t make it’ | Washington Post

A Walt Disney World waitress struggles to hold on to her middle-class life amid a pandemic and catastrophic layoff

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We Had the Vaccine the Whole Time | New York Magazine

You may be surprised to learn that of the trio of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, the most promising, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5 percent efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13. This was just two days after the genetic sequence had been made public in an act of scientific and humanitarian generosity that resulted in China’s Yong-Zhen Zhang’s being temporarily forced out of his lab. In Massachusetts, the Moderna vaccine design took all of one weekend. It was completed before China had even acknowledged that the disease could be transmitted from human to human, more than a week before the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States. By the time the first American death was announced a month later, the vaccine had already been manufactured and shipped to the National Institutes of Health for the beginning of its Phase I clinical trial. This is — as the country and the world are rightly celebrating — the fastest timeline of development in the history of vaccines. It also means that for the entire span of the pandemic in this country, which has already killed more than 250,000 Americans, we had the tools we needed to prevent it .

To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Moderna should have been allowed to roll out its vaccine in February or even in May, when interim results from its Phase I trial demonstrated its basic safety.

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2 stars

The Obsessive Life and Mysterious Death of the Fisherman Who Discovered The Loch Ness Monster | Narratively

A humble Scotsman saw something strange in the water—and daringly set out to catch it—only to have lecherous out-of-towners steal his fame and upend his quest.

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Fifty Years of Tax Cuts for Rich Didn’t Trickle Down, Study Says | Bloomberg

Paper looks at fiscal policies in 18 countries over 50 years […]

Tax cuts for rich people breed inequality without providing much of a boon to anyone else, according to a study of the advanced world that could add to the case for the wealthy to bear more of the cost of the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper, by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London, found that such measures over the last 50 years only really benefited the individuals who were directly affected, and did little to promote jobs or growth.

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He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? | National Geographic

But if Gánti’s theories had been more widely known during the communist era, he might now be acclaimed as one of the most innovative biologists of the 20th century. That’s because he devised a model of the simplest possible living organism, which he called the chemoton, that points to an exciting explanation for how life on Earth began.

The origin of life is one of science’s most perplexing mysteries, partly because it is several mysteries in one. What was Earth like when it formed? What gases made up the air? Of the thousands of chemicals that living cells now use, which ones are essential—and when did those must-have substances arise?

Perhaps the hardest question is the simplest: What was the first organism?

For scientists attempting to re-create the spark of life, the chemoton offers an attractive target for experiments. If non-living chemicals can be made to self-assemble into a chemoton, that reveals a pathway by which life could have formed from scratch. Even now, some research groups are edging startlingly close to this model.

And for astrobiologists interested in life beyond our planet, the chemoton offers a universal definition of life, one not tied to specific chemicals like DNA, but instead to an overall organizational model.

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The Appealing and Potentially Lethal Delicacy That Is Fugu | New York Times

Almost everything written about fugu in the West, including the previous two paragraphs, revolves around the potential for death. To enter a fugu restaurant is cast as a daredevil feat akin to skydiving, with each bite a roll of the dice. You don’t just toddle home afterward with a full belly; you survive. While historically the Western attitude toward Eastern delicacies has often been one of suspicion and disgust, fugu is treated as a special case, not necessarily unpalatable — since it’s not widely available beyond Asia, few in the West have actually tasted it — but a literal threat. Even the lovely chrysanthemum that the chef painstakingly builds on the plate is read as a morbid omen, since, in Japan, the flower traditionally appears in funeral wreaths. Rarely is it mentioned that the chrysanthemum is also a symbol of long life and the signature of the emperor. Without any equivalent on Western menus, diners outside of Japan (and China, where fugu is called hetun and also treasured) tend to assume that the whole point of eating fugu is the risk, latching on to the notion, likely apocryphal, that some chefs will intentionally leave a trace of the toxin in the flesh, just enough to bring a tingling to the lips, a cautionary reminder of our transience on earth.

Yet a Japanese diner experiences no such fear. What that chrysanthemum of fugu on the plate represents is the opposite of risk: its very erasure, through a chef’s precision and skill.

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Pound for Pound, Taiwan Is the Most Important Place in the World | New York Times

The new Cold War, between the United States and China, is increasingly focused on access to just one industry in one place: computer chips made in Taiwan.

Over the past year, Taiwan has taken a lead in the race to build thinner, faster and more powerful chips, or semiconductors. Its fastest chips are the critical building blocks of rapidly evolving digital industries like artificial intelligence and high-speed computing. The thinnest chips will be powering the coming “internet of things,” in which homes, cars, appliances and even clothes will connect to smartphones and voice-activated speakers over 5G networks.

As of now, any country looking to dominate the digital future has to buy these superfast, ultrathin chips from either Taiwan or South Korea. And Taiwan has the edge in both technology and market power. It is a small island of just 24 million people, but it is at the center of the battle for global technological supremacy. Pound for pound, it is the most important place in the world.

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Ancient DNA continues to rewrite corn's 9,000-year society-shaping history | PhysOrg

Kistler and an international team of collaborators report the fully sequenced genomes of three roughly 2,000-year-old cobs from the El Gigante rock shelter in Honduras. Analysis of the three genomes reveals that these millennia-old varieties of Central American corn had South American ancestry and adds a new chapter in an emerging complex story of corn's domestication history.

"We show that humans were carrying maize from South America back towards the domestication center in Mexico," Kistler said. "This would have provided an infusion of genetic diversity that may have added resilience or increased productivity. It also underscores that the process of domestication and crop improvement doesn't just travel in a straight line."

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Social Networking 2.0 | Stratechery

Remember that the key characteristic of v1 digital products is that they simply copy what already exists offline. For Facebook that meant digitizing connections between friends and family, and for Twitter it meant broadcasting conversations as if you were sitting at a bar. Such literal translations, though, have limits: Facebook soon found it necessary to augment content from friends and family with professionally produced content from publishers, while public Twitter conversation has disappeared in the face of performative putdowns and political proclamations. The problem is that digital makes analog goods worse: a lot of what your friends and family believe is boring or objectionable, and conversations constrained by the geography of a bar simply don’t translate to a worldwide audience.

What truly makes a category is v2: products that are only possible because of the unique properties of digital. That, for example, is why TikTok is such a threat to Facebook’s hold on attention.

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The Undoing of Jeffrey Toobin | New York Times

Now that name was a punchline, a headline, a hashtag (#MeToobin) — and a point of debate. For as many people were excoriating Mr. Toobin for lewd and inappropriate behavior in a virtual workplace, others were thinking, or even saying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” acutely conscious of all the private or potentially embarrassing moments they’d stolen in this odd new zone where we now meet our colleagues.

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This Team Thinks They Can Fix the Electoral College by 2024 | Slate

Trump’s efforts to overturn the election also create new challenges for the National Popular Vote movement. Koza and his organization have taken a strongly nonpartisan stance toward Electoral College reform, working particularly hard to try to convince Republicans that the current system harms the interests of every voter who doesn’t live in one of a small group of battleground states. That has become a harder sell for Republicans in recent years, as GOP presidential candidates have lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight elections. The fight over the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the dangers of an American autogolpe only make that work harder.

At least one member of Koza’s own team supported Trump’s effort to overturn the Electoral College outcome this year. […]

That is one reason Koza’s group has long argued that this is not a partisan issue. The Electoral College has historically benefited different parties at different times. In 2004, George W. Bush nearly lost Ohio and the Electoral College despite decisively winning the popular vote. In 2012, Democrats were thought to have a major advantage in the Electoral College thanks to the “Blue Wall” in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

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Raphael Warnock’s Dog Ads Cut Against White Voters’ Stereotypes Of Black People | FiveThirtyEight

These ads have been praised as cutehumorous and clever. And the two spots have gone viral, generating almost nine million views while Warnock’s dogoriented tweets accumulated over half a million likes on Twitter in November. The campaign has even profited off the pooch by selling “Puppies for Warnock” merchandise.

But some close observers of race and politics have noted that there is much more here than just an adorable electoral campaign. These ads, they argue, are carefully crafted attempts to neutralize racial stereotypes that work against Warnock in his bid to become Georgia’s first African American senator.

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The Texas Lawsuit and the Age of Dreampolitik | New York Times

When it comes to Donald Trump’s efforts to claim victory in the 2020 presidential election, there are two Republican Parties. One G.O.P. has behaved entirely normally, certifying elections, rejecting frivolous claims and conspiratorial lawsuits, declining to indulge the conceit that state legislatures might substitute their votes for the electoral outcome.

The other G.O.P. is acting like a bunch of saboteurs: insisting that the election was stolen, implying that the normal party’s officials are potentially complicit and championing all manner of outlandish claims and strategies — culminating in the lawsuit led by the attorney general of Texas that sought to have the Supreme Court essentially nullify the election results in the major swing states.

What separates these two parties is not necessarily ideology or partisanship or even loyalty to Donald Trump. (Nobody had Brian Kemp and Bill Barr, both prominent members of the first group, pegged as NeverTrumpers.) It’s all about power and responsibility: The Republicans behaving normally are the ones who have actual political and legal roles in the electoral process and its judicial aftermath, from secretaries of state and governors in states like Georgia and Arizona to Trump’s judicial appointees. The Republicans behaving radically are doing so in the knowledge — or at least the strong assumption — that their behavior is performative, an act of storytelling rather than lawmaking, a posture rather than a political act.

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Canada's little-known Emerald Isle | BBC

Besides its spectacular natural scenery, one of the most striking things about Fogo Island is the pure Irish accents of its people.

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Man who died of constipation 1,000 years ago ate grasshoppers for months | LiveScience

A man who lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas sometime between 1,000 and 1,400 years ago may have died from a horrible case of constipation, according to a study of his mummified remains. 

And during the painful months just prior to his death, he ate mainly grasshoppers, the study researchers found. 

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1 star

This Artist Posed As a Hungarian Billionaire Buyer to Get Into 25 New York Penthouses | New York Magazine

Did you discover anything interesting about the apartments themselves?

They are all the same! I mean, really! For example, the layout of the apartments are essentially identical. You enter, and there’s a main view, always from the living room—in the case of Billionaires’ Row, everything’s facing the park. The second-best view is from the master bedroom, which is usually the corner. Then there’s the countertop, which usually a kitchen island in the middle, and there’s different types of marble but there’s always marble — Calacatta Tucci, or Noir St. Laurent, or Chinchilla Mink, and they always tell you, “It’s the best of the best,” from a hidden corner of the planet where they hand-selected the most incredible pieces. After five of these, it’s incredibly similar, all of them. Also they put a lot of emphasis on naming the designer.

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'Like nothing seen in nature before': strange dinosaur has scientists enthralled | The Guardian

The highly unusual Ubirajara jubatus boasted a mane of ‘hair-like structions’ and two ‘ribbon-like features’, researchers say

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How a Homeless High School Dropout Became CEO of a $1 Billion Company | Bloomberg

His rags-to-riches story is among the most remarkable to emerge from a small-cap stock boom that’s minting fortunes in Japan. Kobayashi’s company, which helps startups and other firms to design and create new businesses and products, went public in July and its shares have since more than tripled.

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The Art of Traditional Japanese Wood Joinery | Kottke

This video is three minutes and nine seconds of pure precision — welcome to the world of Japanese wood joinery.

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How One NBA Player Turned A $350,000 Salary Into $600M | Huddle Up

In an effort to prepare himself for life after basketball, Bridgeman spent his offseason working at a local Wendy’s drive-through to learn the business model of fast food restaurants. While other players were taking advantage of offseason freedom, Bridgeman was putting in the time and essentially building his empire. By the time retirement came, Bridgeman had already purchased three Wendy’s.

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Lego Version of Hokusai’s Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa | Kottke

Jumpei Mitsui, the youngest-ever Lego Certified Professional, has created a Lego version of Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

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Paul McCartney as management study | Marginal Revolution

Paul has been writing songs and performing since 1956, with no real breaks.  Perhaps he has written more hit songs than anyone else.  He brought the innovations of Cage and Stockhausen into popular music, despite having no musical education and growing up in the Liverpool dumps.  His second act, Wings, sold more records in its time than the Beatles did.  On a lark he decided to learn techno/EDM and put out five perfectly credible albums in that area.  He decided to learn how to compose classical music, and after some initial missteps his Ecce Cor Meum is perhaps the finest British choral work in a generation, worthy of say Britten or Nicholas Maw.

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The Reason Why No Photography is Allowed in the Sistine Chapel | Mental Floss

In return for funding the renovation, Nippon TV received the exclusive rights to photography and video of the restored art, as well as photos and recordings of the restoration process by photographer Takashi Okamura, who was commissioned by Nippon TV. While many initially scoffed at the deal, the high-resolution photos provided by Nippon offered a hyper-detailed peek behind all of the scaffolding that hid each stage of restoration, and eventually won over some critics of the arrangement.

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