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Putting a price on the priceless

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In their latest full episode, Radiolab examines the concept of worth, particularly when dealing with things that are more or less priceless (like human life and nature).

This episode, we make three earnest, possibly foolhardy, attempts to put a price on the priceless. We figure out the dollar value for an accidental death, another day of life, and the work of bats and bees as we try to keep our careful calculations from falling apart in the face of the realities of life, and love, and loss.

I have always really liked Radiolab, but it seems like the show has shifted into a different gear with this episode. The subject seemed a bit meatier than their usual stuff, the reporting was close to the story, and the presentation was more straightforward, with fewer of the audio experiments that some found grating. I spent some time driving last weekend and I listened to this episode of Radiolab, an episode of 99% Invisible, and an episode of This American Life, and it occurred to me that as 99% Invisible has been pushing quite effectively into Radiolab's territory, Radiolab is having to up their game in response, more toward the This American Life end of the spectrum. Well, whatever it is, it's great seeing these three radio shows (and dozens of others) push each other to excellence.

Tags: audio   death   economics   podcasts   Radiolab
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rafeco
1 day ago
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I thought the episode from last year on Translation from RadioLab was amazingly good.
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cinebot
2 days ago
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flagging to revisit. i havent listened to radiolab in months
toronto.

★ Siri Improvements

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I’ve noticed over the past year that Siri is getting faster — both at parsing spoken input and returning results. I use iOS’s voice-to-text dictation feature on a near-daily basis, and it’s especially noticeable there. I’ve been using a Moto X running Android 5.0 the past few weeks, so today I did a side-by-side comparison between Siri and Android’s Google Now, asking both the simple question, “What temperature is it outside?” Both phones were on the same Wi-Fi network. Siri was consistently as fast or faster. I made a video that shows them in pretty much a dead heat.

My point here isn’t “Siri is better than Google Now”, or even “Siri is as good as Google Now”. Once you get past the superficial level, they’re different enough that it’s hard to make a blanket one-is-better-than-the-other comparison. I’d even agree that Google Now is better at many complex queries, and, further, that “What’s the temperature?” is a very simple question.

But: it’s a question I ask Siri almost every day, before I get dressed, especially during winter. I want to know whether it’s going to be just plain cold, or really fucking cold. When Siri debuted in 2011, it was often (usually?) relatively slow to parse your spoken input, and slow to return results. Your mileage may vary, but for me that just isn’t true any longer. Siri has also gotten much, much better while on cellular networks. Part of that is surely that LTE networks are maturing, but I suspect part of it is Apple’s doing as well.

Nor is my point about which service presents the information in a more attractive or useful layout. My point here is simply this: Siri is noticeably faster than it used to be. Even just a year ago, I don’t think Siri could have held its own with Google Now pulling information like the current temperature or sports scores, but today, it does. Apple has clearly gotten much better at something everyone agreed was a serious weakness. Two years later, I don’t think “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services” feels true any more.

Notes:

  • After I posted that video to Twitter, DF reader Steven Op de beeck made an overlay showing his results in Belgium. Outstanding Siri performance.

  • Here’s a Storify Storified collection of just about every response to my “Just me, or is Siri getting a lot faster?” tweet.

  • My 2010 piece for Macworld, “This Is How Apple Rolls”, on the company’s pattern of steady, iterative year-over-year improvements to its products, seems apt.

  • I think this is a case that shows how important first impressions are. Quite a few of the responses I got on Twitter were along the lines of, “I don’t know, I gave up on Siri years ago.” No product or feature is ever perfect when it debuts. Quite the opposite, brand-new products/features usually debut needing numerous obvious improvements. But, ideally, they should debut on the right side of the “good enough to engender affection” line. The original iPhone had no third-party apps, EDGE networking, and lacked copy-and-paste. But we loved it. Siri, I think it’s clear in hindsight, debuted on the wrong side of that line. It’s harder to change a negative perception than it is to create a positive one from a blank slate.

  • Lastly, a rather obvious but important observation: Improvements to Siri across the board — reducing latency, improving accuracy, increasing utility — are essential to the success of Apple Watch. And — given the previous note on first impressions — it’s pretty important that Siri integration on Apple Watch work well right from the start. Apple will find itself in a deep hole if voice dictation via Apple Watch gets saddled with an “Egg Freckles”/”Eat up Martha” reputation.

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rafeco
17 days ago
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I asked Siri "What is horchata?" the other day and got the right answer. I don't use it very often and was surprised.
aaronwe
17 days ago
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Today I needed to return a rental car, so I asked Siri to "take me to the nearest gas station." She gave me turn-by-turn directions to a Marriott hotel, no gas anywhere in sight. I asked Google, and it found me an actual gas station 4 blocks away.

When it comes to map data, you don't get many do-overs. Why would I bother with Siri again after that?
Sioux City, Iowa
peelman
10 days ago
pedantic or not, that's a fault of the map data; not Siri. Apple's map data is terrible, that fact is undisputed. But "i don't use Siri for directions again" is a different sentence than "I won't use Siri again"
aaronwe
10 days ago
I assure you end users are not worried about the difference between Siri and Apple's map data. Bad answers are bad answers, and if Apple isn't confident in Siri's ability to give good answers involving maps, Siri should politely offer to Google that for you.
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Healthcare: America's Bitter Pill

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Steven Brill has written a book about the making of the Affordable Care Act called America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.

America's Bitter Pill is Steven Brill's much-anticipated, sweeping narrative of how the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was written, how it is being implemented, and, most important, how it is changing -- and failing to change -- the rampant abuses in the healthcare industry. Brill probed the depths of our nation's healthcare crisis in his trailblazing Time magazine Special Report, which won the 2014 National Magazine Award for Public Interest. Now he broadens his lens and delves deeper, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners.

Malcolm Gladwell has a review in the New Yorker this week.

Brill's intention is to point out how and why Obamacare fell short of true reform. It did heroic work in broadening coverage and redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots. But, Brill says, it didn't really restrain costs. It left incentives fundamentally misaligned. We needed major surgery. What we got was a Band-Aid.

I haven't read his book yet, but I agree with Brill on one thing: the ACA1 did not go nearly far enough. Healthcare and health insurance are still a huge pain in the ass and still too expensive. My issues with healthcare particular to my situation are:

- As someone who is self-employed, insurance for me and my family is absurdly expensive. After the ACA was enacted, my insurance cost went up and the level of coverage went down. I've thought seriously about quitting my site and getting an actual job just to get good and affordable healthcare coverage.

- Doctors aren't required to take any particular health insurance. So when I switched plans, as I had to when the ACA was enacted, finding insurance that fit our family's particular set of doctors (regular docs, pediatrician, pediatric specialist that one of the kids has been seeing for a couple of years, OB/GYN, etc.) was almost impossible. We basically had one plan choice (not even through the ACA marketplace...see next item) or we had to start from scratch with new doctors.

- Many doctors don't take the ACA plans. My doctor doesn't take any of them and my kids' doc only took a couple. And they're explicit in accepting, say, United Healthcare's regular plan but not their ACA plan, which underneath the hood is the exact same plan that costs the same and has the same benefits. It's madness.

- The entire process is designed to be confusing so that insurance companies (and hospitals probably too) can make more money. I am an educated adult whose job is to read things so they make enough sense to tell others about them. That's what I spend 8+ hours a day doing. And it took me weeks to get up to speed on all the options and pitfalls and gotchas of health insurance...and I still don't know a whole lot about it. It is the most un-user-friendly thing I have ever encountered.

The ACA did do some great things, like making everyone eligible for health insurance and getting rid of the preexisting conditions bullshit, and that is fantastic...the "heroic work" mentioned by Gladwell. But the American healthcare system is still an absolute shambling embarrassment when you compare it to other countries around the world, even those in so-called "developing" or "third world" countries. And our political system is just not up to developing a proper plan, so I guess we'll all just limp along as we have been. Guh.

  1. I hate the word "Obamacare" and will not use it. It's a derisive term that has been embraced for some reason by ACA/Obama supporters. It needlessly politicizes an already over-politicized issue.

Tags: America's Bitter Pill   Barack Obama   books   economics   healthcare   Malcolm Gladwell   medicine   politics   Steven Brill
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petrilli
24 days ago
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Sadly, America's political class lack neither the spine, nor the foresight to do the right thing.
Arlington, VA
rafeco
24 days ago
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Real talk on how messed up health insurance is
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lousyd
17 days ago
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There is much that could have been done to fix America's health care system that would have made it less expensive, covered more people, and all without sacrificing freedoms. But it seems that "more government control" was a must-have for the ACA's authors and the President. Gladwell's cheer for wealth redistribution shows that health care itself wasn't the only concern for supporters of the bill.
digdoug
23 days ago
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I work on the financial side of the Healthcare industry. I sure hope there's never been a more grotesquely misincentivized industry in all of human history. And I hope it never gets worse than American healthcare.
Louisville, KY

How to save $1,000-3,000 on any new car purchase

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The Google Maps mobile app on iOS/Android has really improved in the last year or two, especially since Google acquired Waze, the crowd-sourced accident/traffic data company. Several times I’ve been using Google Maps to navigate to a spot an hour away only to have my route changed due to traffic and in at least one instance, I saw a small detour for a recent car accident save me easily 30 minutes of traffic time.

The level of detail in ever-improving maps plus the networked information about real-time accidents and traffic is something no car-based GPS navigation can come close to. If you’re car shopping, skip the navigation options entirely since the phone you already have in your pocket is more capable than anything being sold in a car today.

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rafeco
26 days ago
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This is why the trend toward the screens in cars just being peripherals for your handset is both awesome and inevitable.
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The Rise of AdBlock Reveals A Serious Problem in the Advertising Ecosystem

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By Frédéric Filloux

Seeing a threat to their ecosystem, French publishers follow their German colleagues and prepare to sue startup Eyeo GmbH, the creator of anti-advertising software AdBlock Plus. But they cannot ignore that, by using ABP, millions of users actively protest against the worst forms of advertising. 

On grounds that it represents a major economic threat to their business, two groups of French publishers are considering a lawsuit against AdBlockPlus creator Eyeo GmbH. (Les Echos, broke the news in this story, in French).
Plaintiffs are said to be the GESTE and the French Internet Advertising Bureau. The first is known for its aggressive stance against Google via its contribution to the Open Internet Project. (To be clear, GESTE said they were at a “legal consulting stage”, no formal complaint has been filed yet.) By his actions, the second plaintiff, the French branch of the Internet Advertising Bureau is in fact acknowledging its failure to tame the excesses of the digital advertising market.

Regardless of its validity, the legal action misses a critical point. By downloading the plug-in AdBlock Plus (ABP) on a massive scale, users do vote with their mice against the growing invasiveness of digital advertising. Therefore, suing Eyeo, the company that maintains ABP, is like using Aspirin to fight cancer. A different approach is required but very few seem ready to face that fact.

I use AdBlock Plus on a daily basis. I’m not especially proud of this, nor do I support anti-advertising activism, I use the ad-blocker for practical, not ideological, reasons. On too many sites, the invasion of pop-up windows and heavily animated ad “creations” has became an annoyance. A visual and a technical one. When a page loads, the HTML code “calls” all sorts of modules, sometimes 10 or 15. Each sends a request to an ad server and sometimes, for the richest content, the ad elements trigger the activation of a third-party plug-in like Adobe’s Shockwave which will work hard to render the animated ads. Most of the time, these ads are poorly optimized because creative agencies don’t waste their precious time on such trivial task as providing clean, efficient code to their clients. As a consequence, the computer’s CPU is heavily taxed, it overheats, making fans buzz loudly. Suddenly, you feel like your MacBook Pro is about to take off. That’s why, with a couple of clicks, I installed AdBlock Plus. My ABP has spared me several thousands of ad exposures. My surfing is now faster, crash-free, and web pages looks better.

I asked around and I couldn’t find a friend or a colleague not using the magic plug-in. Everyone seems to enjoy ad-free surfing. If this spreads, it could threaten the very existence of a vast majority of websites that rely on advertising.

First, a reality check. How big and dangerous is the phenomenon? PageFair, a startup-based in Dublin, Ireland, comes up with some facts. Here are key elements drawn from a 17-pages PDF document available here.

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Put another way, if your site, or your apps, are saturated with pop-up windows, screaming videos impossible to mute or skip, you are encouraging the adoption of AdBlock Plus — and once it’s installed on a browser, do not expect any turning  back. As an example of an unwitting APB advocate:

347_adblock_3c

Eyeo’s AdBlock Plus takes the advertising rejection in its own hands — but these are greedy and dirty ones. Far from being the work of a selfless white knight, Eyeo’s business model borders on racketeering. In its Acceptable Ads Manifesto, Eyeo states the virtues of what the company feels are tolerable formats:

1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Who could disagree? But such blandishments go with a ruthless business model that attests to the merits of straight talk:

We are being paid by some larger properties that serve non-intrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.
Whitelisting is free for all small and medium-sized websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists.
Note that we will never whitelist any ads that don’t meet these criteria. There is no way to buy a spot in the whitelist. Also note that whitelisting is free for small- and medium-sized websites.
In addition, we received startup capital from our investors, like Tim Schumacher, who believe in Acceptable Ads and want to see the concept succeed.

Of course, there is no public rate card. Eyeo doesn’t provide any measure of what defines  “small and medium size websites” either. A 5 million monthly uniques site can be small in the English speaking market but huge in Finland. And the number of “larger properties” and the amount they had to pay to be whitelisted remains a closely guarded secret. According to some German websites, Eyeo is said to have snatched $30m from big internet players; not bad for a less than 30 people operation (depending of the recurrence of this “compliance fee” — for lack of a better term.)

There are several issues here.

One, a single private entity cannot decide what is acceptable or not for an entire sector. Especially in such an opaque fashion.

Two, we must admit that Eyeo GmbH is filling a vacuum created by the incompetence and sloppiness of the advertising community’s, namely creative agencies, media buyers and organizations that are supposed to coordinate the whole ecosystem (such as the Internet Advertising Bureau.)

Three, the rise of ad blockers is the offspring of two major trends: a continual deflation of digital ads economics, and the growing reliance on ad exchanges and Real Time Bidding, both pushing prices further down.

Even Google begins to realize that the explosion of questionable advertising formats has become a problem. Proof is its recent Contributor program that proposes ad-free navigation in exchange for a fee ranging from $1 to $3 per month (read this story on NiemanLab, and more in a future Monday Note).

The growing rejection of advertising AdBlock Plus is built upon is indeed a threat to the ecosystem and it needs to be addressed decisively. For example, by bringing at the same table publishers and advertisers to meet and design ways to clean up the ad mess. But the entity and leaders who can do the job have yet to be found.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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petrilli
33 days ago
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I am convinced that Internet advertising continues to be largely a Ponzi scam of epic proportions. When it first started with banner ads in the 1990s, the actual conversion rate was abysmal, and from what I've heard, it's still not really statistically correlated today.
Arlington, VA
rafeco
35 days ago
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I had no idea that there was a company behind AdBlock Plus or what their business model was, although extortion seems pretty obvious.
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My Best Reads This Year

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by Frédéric Filloux

For this year’s last Monday Note, I chose to share a few interesting topics I followed in 2014. I expect many of them will stay high in next year’s news cycle. Here are my picks, in about 40 links.

The Great Mobile Takeover…

Next year, the vast majority of media will see more than 50% of their traffic coming from mobile devices (Facebook is way ahead with 65%). We might see a new breed of mobile-only quality media, but the ecosystem still has to come up with ad formats that don’t irritate audiences, and adjusting revenue streams won’t be easy. Last October, Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans came up with his Mobile is Eating the World stack of data. It goes in the same direction as Mary Meeker’s bi-annual State of the Internet slide deck, thus reinterpreted by the Atlantic : Mobile Is Eating Global Attention: 10 Graphs on the State of the Internet.

… And How it Will Impact “The Next Billion”

Quartz coined the “Next Billion” phrase and went on to build a cluster of conferences around it (the next is May 19 in London). If 85% of the world population lives within range of a cell tower (including 2G connectivity), 4.3 billion people are still not connected to the web. They will do so by getting a smartphone. According to the GSMA trade group, the number of smartphones will increase by 3 billion by 2020 as the infrastructure is built and handset prices keep falling (they cost currently less that $75).

More in this series of links from Quartz:

Internet cafes in the developing world find out what happens when everyone gets a smartphone
How to map wealth in Africa using nothing but mobile-phone minutes
How to sell gigabytes to people who’ve never heard of them
This mobile operator wants to charge $2.50 a year for access to Facebook
Kenya’s merchants are warming up to a payment system born in a Seattle basement

Last Fall, BusinessWeek ran a special edition about tech outside Silicon Valley. I found these two pieces:
China’s Xiaomi, the World’s Fastest-Growing Phone Maker
Ten Days in Kenya With No Cash, Only a Phone in Nairobi.

Thanks to fancy technologies, 2015 will see all Internet titans competing for these billions of potential customers. In 2013, Wired came up with The Untold Story of Google’s Quest to Bring the Internet Everywhere—By Balloon, followed by this recent update, Google’s Balloon Internet Experiment, One Year Later.

Time Magazine broke all limits of “access journalism” (lots of space in exchange of an exclusive) with this cover story:

facebook-cover

It’s  a nine pages quasi-stenographed account of a press junket arranged by Facebook in India. In it, Lev Grossman “soberly” sums things up:

Over the past decade, humanity hasn’t just adopted Facebook; we’ve fallen on it like starving people who have been who have been waiting for it our entire lives as it were the last missing piece of our social infrastructure as a species.

Since it is behind a paywall I’m not providing a link for this de facto press kit (I assume you can live without it.)

The social doubters

Not everyone has been touched by grace as Lev Grossman was. Among skeptics, Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Last month, he wrote The Fall of Facebook, a contrarian piece in which he states that “The social network future dominance is far from assured”. He is not the only one to cast such doubt. Bloomberg, for instance, notes that Facebook’s Popularity Among Teens Dips Again while its columnist Leonid Bershidsky, in his trademark stern way, contends Google Deserves Its Valuation, Facebook Doesn’t. On the social phenomenon, this NYT’s OpEd page: The Flight From Conversation by MIT professor Sherry Turkle is a must read.

Journalism

2014 has been quite a year for journalism with endless reverberations of the Snowden affair and the subsequent release of Citizen Four. A must-read of the documentary background is this NYT story:

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The Snowden affair is sure to give a boost to investigative reporting.

I bet 2015 will see the rise of Pierre Omidyar’s media venture First Look Media. The project has been mocked for its stumbling debut (read Mathew Ingram piece First Look Media has forgotten the number one rule of startups). A few weeks ago, I spoke with Pierre and John Temple, First Look’s chief, at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Our discussion fell under the Chatham House Rule, meaning I’m not saying who exactly said what. To me, both men have the vision (and the funding) to build a media that could rattle the right cages. (A good read: The Pierre Omidyar Insurgency — New York Magazine). I simply hope Pierre and John will look beyond the United States, there are plenty of stories in Europe as well. Still on journalism, don’t mis Dan Gillmor’s piece about The New Editors of the Internet (The Atlantic); it raises interesting questions about who controls what we see and don’t see on the Web.

Ebola was — and remains — one of the big stories of the year.

I have two friends — two American doctors — who have been on the front line in Sierra Leone and Liberia for months. There is not a single day when I don’t think about their commitment and the risks they take to help the victims of this terrible disease.

Just to grasp the gruesomeness of the situation, watch this video from Time Magazine in which photojournalist John Moore explains his coverage of the epidemic.

Mashable also published Eyewitness to Hell: Life in Ebola-Ravaged Liberia, a horrifying photo essay. Also among the must-reads: Inside the Ebola Wars and In the Ebola Ward, both by The New Yorker’s Richard Preston, an expert on the matter and author of the famous book The Hot Zone. On the economics side, Business Week came up with this cover story: How the U.S. Screwed Up in the Fight Against Ebola

349_ebola_BW

The rise of the Islamic State was the other big story of the year

Here are my picks in the abundant coverage. First, Vice News’ subjective, but extremely effective four part videos was a revelation. For the first time, a reporter was embedded (sort of) in ISIS. (He had to obey the Rules for Journalists in Deir Ezzor compiled by Syria Deeply.)

More classical but definitely a must-read is Guardian’s Isis: the inside story by Martin Chulov, probably the best account so far. As backgrounders, read ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed (NYT), The Ancestors of ISIS (NYT), How ISIS Works (NYT) and How the US Created the Islamic State  (Vice).

[miscellaneous]

Let’s conclude with subjects such as the Sony hack. First, to get an idea of the relentlessness of the cyberattacks the US faces on a permanent basis, have a look at this real-time map:

349_cyber_atatck

As far as Sony is concerned, the studio’s apparent cowardice shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Still, was the stolen information legitimate news fodder? Certainly not, yells Aaron Sorkin in a New York Times OpEd : The Press Shouldn’t Help the Sony Hackers. Of course it is, retorts Los Angeles Times’ business columnist Michael Hiltzik: Why The press must report those Sony hacks.

In the Sharing Economy, Workers Find Both Freedom and Uncertainty (NYT) or the reality of a Uber/Lyft driver. Uber will remain a big story in 2015 as its ruthlessness will keep feeding the news cycle (read Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick’s Warpath (Vanity Fair)

The Military’s Rough Justice on Sexual Assault (NYT) by Natasha Singer who came up with extraordinary journalistic work on the women who dare to fight the institution.

And finally, another Vanity Fair feature: How Marine Salvage Master Nick Sloane Refloated Costa Concordia, and a moving reportage from The New Yorker: Weather Man, Life at a Remote Russian Weather Station served by the work of a fabulous young photographer, Evgenia Abugaeva, herself born in the Russian Arctic town of Tiksi.

Happy Holiday readings. See you next year.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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rafeco
35 days ago
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Nice year-end review, except that it misses race in America entirely.
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