The Sunday Post for December 4, 2016

Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about

Sometimes you try to turn off the relentless media engine that is the Donald Trump pre-presidency, just for a few hours – then get an eloquent reminder of why none of us can afford the luxury.

This piece by Nigerian novelist and MacArthur Genius Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the call to action we need right now. Clear-eyed, urgent, and right:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.

Unclaimed: Two countries, thousands of families, and a 16-year quest to identify a silent man in a bed

A truck crashes in the desert near Mexico, and the survivor becomes a human palimpsest: without a name, a memory, or a voice, he offers to fulfill the dream of reunion for families separated by a border. At the end of this gently investigatory piece by Brooke Jarvis, there’s an answer to his mystery — but one that breaks as much as it mends. A great human story, and a revealing look at the surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) vast network that helps immigrant families find members lost in a border crossing.

People began to contact the hospital, to ask detailed questions about his moles or his scars ... Each had a son or brother or husband or cousin or friend who’d headed northward and then disappeared, leaving no answers about what might have happened to him, whether he was dead or incarcerated or suffering somewhere, whether he’d abandoned them. In the anguish of their uncertainty, they looked to the man in the bed and saw hope. They peered into his empty past and saw the possibility of themselves.

The first year, there were dozens of these families. Eventually, there would be thousands.

Inside Alphabet’s Jigsaw, the powerful tech incubator that could reshape geopolitics

First off, did everyone else already know that Google’s code of conduct has shifted from “Don’t be evil” to “Do the right thing”? One can only imagine the hours of corporate copywriter angst inspired by that change … while speculating on the subtle moral distinction.

Regardless, you should read this piece about Jigsaw, Google’s Alphabet’s tech incubator intended to tackle “geopolitical challenges.” Tech innovation for social good has been on the rise for some years, but we may be reaching a boiling point — e.g., the recent entry into the philanthropic fray by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

These tech juggernauts bring invaluable expertise and ingenuity to the table — but not necessarily the nuance and experience that the nonprofit sector has learned over decades. Worth watching.

Jigsaw wants to be politically neutral, but it also wants to make an impact by assisting activists and journalists engaged in the messy business of real-world politics. That is not an easy balance to strike. If its products work, they could have complicated knock-on effects — for example, empowering a regime’s critics to spread their message online, thereby shifting the local balance of power and perhaps even provoking violent unrest.

And so, while Jigsaw is clear on its core values, it could benefit from clarifying its procedural philosophy. Should Jigsaw base its choices simply on whether they go hand in hand with “good” principles, like opposition to censorship, or should its decisions be judged by their consequences?

The true story of Nintendo's most wanted game

And now, an epic quest in a completely different vein: the story of a video game whose price rose to the hundreds of thousands — though even its most ardent collectors acknowledge that it’s just not very much fun. Justin Heckert tracks lives changed and pocketbooks emptied by the rare (and almost unplayable) Stadium Events.

It was a blurry photo, but the words stamped on the side of the case came through clear enough: BANDAI AMERICA, INC. STADIUM EVENTS. 6PCS. Tom posted the picture on, the largest online gathering place for fans and collectors, with the title: After years of waiting ... it is here and it's beautiful!

"That's when the frickin' s---storm happened," Tim says. "I should've kept my big mouth shut."

Decades in the Making: Fidel Castro’s Obituary

Oh, the agony of a public typographical error! After Fidel Castro’s death, the Internet was abuzz (admittedly business as usual) over CNN’s obituary, which included the telling line: “Fidel Castro outlived six of those presidents … [[Note: Change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]].”

A flurry of articles followed to unpack the practice of keeping advance obits for public figures on file — and update them over the course of a life. The New York Times has one of the best, told by the 16 journalists who shared responsibility for the newspaper’s final words on Fidel.

For years, as we weathered one scare after another that Fidel Castro had died, I kept the Cuba plan close at hand. We had lists of every Times reporter who either had experience with or family ties to Cuba. Some would go straight to Miami; others would try various routes to Cuba, even though no one had visas. The former executive editor, Bill Keller, and I made a pilgrimage to Havana in 2009 to plead for better access, to no avail, although I did have my copy of “Love in the Time of Cholera” signed by Gabriel García Márquez, a career highlight.

We even had a plan to sneak someone in via the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel launched the revolution in 1953 and proclaimed victory in 1959 ...

52 things I learned in 2016

Hat tip to the inimitable Jason Kottke for unearthing this piece by Tom Whitwell of Fluxx. While it puts this column at risk of joining the year-end list frenzy (and also of linking to a list from a list), Whitwell’s collection of insights is charming, unusual, and perfect for Sunday-in-December browsing. A few favorites below.

  • 8. Australian musicians have performed with a synthesiser controlled by a petri dish of live human neurons: “The neurons were fed dopamine before the gig and went ballistic. The interaction with the drummer was very tight. The drum hits are processed into triggers and sent to the neurons.”
  • 14. A Californian company called Skinny Mirror sells mirrors that make you look thinner. When installed in the changing rooms of clothes shops, they can increase sales by 18%.
  • 28. Tuareg guitar players really like Dire Straits.
  • 33. When they launched, both Mastercard and Visa were not-for-profit membership organisations.
  • 42. Japan Airlines serves KFC to economy class travellers during the Christmas season. The in-flight KFC has 15% more salt to compensate for the lower pressure and humidity.