This year I worked on fascinating projects in food, media, storytelling, AI and health at Magnetic, and learned many learnings.
In a recent experiment, “a group of domesticated birds were taught to call one another on tablets and smartphones.” They enjoyed it and made new friendships. [Schuyler Velasco]
A group of Carmelite monks in Wyoming are building themselves a gothic monastery using 3D design software and stone-carving robots: [Anool Mahidharia]
There’s been a colony of 15,000 wild scorpions living in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard, Kent, for over 200 years. [John Nurden]
A ‘payola’ guitar is an electric guitar with four pickups and four output sockets, so that 1950s session players could get paid four times while playing one solo. [Allen St John]
Job satisfaction in the US is at a 35-year-high. In 2010, less than 45% of people said they were satisfied with their jobs. In 2022, over 62% said they were, and you need to go back to the 80s to find satisfaction as high as today. Big gains come from work/life balance and the performance review process. [Emily Peck]
The US Defence Department earns $100m/year operating slot machines used by soldiers on their bases. [Gabby Means]
1 in 5 people currently have a disability. 100% of people will have some form of disability in their lifetime. [Jim Nielsen]
A specialness spiral is when you wait for the perfect time to use something, then end up never using it at all. “An item that started out very ordinary, through repeated lack of use eventually becomes … seen more as a treasure” [Jonah Berger & Jacqueline Rifkin]
Psychedelic cryptography is a way of concealing messages (normally in videos) so that only people who’ve taken LSD can receive the messages. [Andrés Gómez-Emilsson]
When Italy banned Chat-GPT, productivity of coders in the country fell by 50% before recovering. [David Kreitmeir & Co]
Canadian researchers gave homeless people $7,500 in a bank account that they could spend on anything they wanted. They spent it on food, clothes, and rent. Many moved into stable housing and saved enough to give them some stability. [Sigal Samuel]
“Bertie Sheldrake was a South London pickle manufacturer who converted to Islam and became king of a far-flung Islamic republic before returning to London and settling back into obscurity.” [Sharon O’Connor]
Humans are now roughly as tall as we were 12,000 years ago. 4,000 years ago, the average man was 5’4”. [Michael Hermanussen]
Some corrupt Mexican police are now using card terminals to make collecting bribes at traffic stops more convenient. [Daniela Dib]
The number of supercentenarians in an area tends to fall dramatically about 100 years after accurate birth records are introduced. [Saul Justin Newman via Alex Tabarrok]
In the 19th Century, champagne was sweetened depending on local tastes. Russians had 300 grams of sugar added, the British just 50 grams. In 1842 Perrier-Jouët introduced unsweetened champagne. It failed and people called it ‘Brut’, but that’s how all champagne tastes today. [Chris Mercer & Karen MacNeil]
Fashion models in China are cutting prices to compete with AI: “If designers using AI charge 800 yuan, I’ll do 600. If they charge 600, I’ll get down to 500. There’s no other way out. I’ll fight till the end.” [Andrew Deck]
A “nonattitude” is a weakly held belief, entirely invented in response to a question in an opinion poll. [Philip Converse]
Three-quarters of the murders in Chicago are caused by arguments, altercations that have gone too far. [Jens Ludwig]
A tank museum in Dorset made £2m last year from online activities, including YouTube and TikTok channels. A £2,000/year subscription buys you ‘Field Marshall’ status, which includes Executive Producer credit on every video. [Alex Marshall]
The UK government recently changed the law to ban company names containing computer code, after Michael Tandy of Hatfield registered a company called “; DROP TABLE “COMPANIES”; — LTD,” which could theoretically erase the companies house database. [Alison Thewliss MP]
In August, two Chinese influencers with elderly audiences, Xiucai and Yixiaoqingcheng, held a ‘livestream battle’ where they competed for tips. The three-hour show had 20m viewers. One 60 year-old female fan claims to have given Xuicai her entire pension worth 520,000 yuan (£58,000). Unfortunately, his account has now been closed after a tax investigation. [Yang Caini]
Researchers have created a detailed live 3D model of all the people in a room by analysing Wifi signals using consumer-grade antennas. [Jiaqi Geng & co]
Guardian Centers is a privately owned disaster preparedness training campus, which includes 1.7 km of four lane highway and two city blocks of “dynamic collapsed structures.” [Anna Pendergrast & Kelly Pendergrast]
Fake belly buttons are temporary tattoo-style stickers. Placed a few inches above your navel, they give the illusion of longer legs. One Chinese reviewer described them as “the most successful invention of 2023.” [Yating Yang]
Washboard sales went up 57% during the pandemic, inspired by “fears of societal collapse and limited laundry service”, although 40% are sold as percussion instruments. [Kris Maher]
Only 28 books sold more than 500,000 copies in the US in 2022. Eight of them were by romance novelist Colleen Hoover. [Jason Colvato]
The average US fridge uses 3–5 times more electricity than an entire human being consumes in Nigeria. [Daisy Dunne & Simon Evans]
31% of all children attending University of Chicago Burn Center for scalding injuries were hurt by instant noodles. [Timothy J. Shen & co]
Scotland’s forest cover is nearly back to where it was 1,000 years ago, while England has risen to levels last seen in 1350. [Hannah Ritchie]
For millennia, the population of North and Central Switzerland suffered mysterious health problems: large neck swellings and congenital abnormalities. In 1914, GP and poet Heinrich Hunziker realised the problem was iodine deficiency. A vast ice sheet had scraped away the topsoil, surface rock and natural iodine 25,000 years earlier. Tiny quantities of iodine were added to table salt and the mysterious symptoms went away. [Jonah Goodman]
A Locate Rodeo is where people who work for utilities like electricity, water and gas come together to competitively locate underground hazards. Competitors have 12 minutes to locate hard-to-find infrastructure. [James Coleman]
Two street food stalls, in Bangkok and Singapore, have Michelin stars. The third, a Singaporean noodle stall, lost its star in 2021 after expanding into a chain. [Marielle Descalsota]
For both stone-age people and modern enthusiasts, making flint tools is surprisingly dangerous. [Nicholas Gala]
40% of people shown a photoshopped image of themselves riding in a viking ship as a child claimed to remember the (fictional) incident. This replicates a similar experiment from 2002 involving a fictional balloon ride. [Miriam S. Johnson & co]
In 2004, it took one year to install 1 gigaWatt of solar power. In 2023, installed 1 gigaWatt of solar power every day. [Kees van der Leun]
Ukrainian defenders print out giant 1:1 life-size aerial photographs of damaged airfields. Once the site is repaired, they hang the images over the sites so they look damaged and not worth attacking again. [Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi & co]
2,529 individuals were offered a free online subscription to their local newspaper worth $45. Only 44 subscribed. [Daniel J. Hopkins]
In 1909, George Cove was New York’s biggest solar power and battery innovator. Then he was kidnapped, his business mysteriously failed and he was almost erased from history. [Foeke Postma]
In 1992 there was a bank robbery every 45 minutes in Los Angeles. [Peter Houlahan]
Steering a bike is much, much more complicated than it seems. [Lori Dorn]
Infant mortality in Rajasthan fell by 30% between 2016 and 2021 — so over 100,000 more babies in the state celebrate their first birthday each year. Causes included breastfeeding promotion and a Rs2000 (£20) cash transfer for women who attend four antenatal clinics. [Angus Hervey and Abusaleh Shariff]
It was 1976. Scrambling to avoid being overtaken by events in the wake of Cuba’s earth-shattering intervention in Angola, he had decamped to southern Africa, where his immediate goal was to assess whether the illegal white minority regime in Rhodesia might endure. (Rhodesia, fearing that London was beginning to favor African majority rule in the colony, had recently issued its “Unilateral Declaration of Independence,” or UDI.) However, he had taken a tourist detour to the natural wonder European colonizers had earlier termed Victoria Falls—twice the height of its cousin, Niagara Falls. There, his overloaded boat almost capsized.
Kissinger and his navigator were able to right themselves in the nick of time. But US policy in the war-torn region seemed perpetually on the verge of capsizing, particularly when the Rhodesian minority regime was overthrown and replaced by the independent Zimbabwean government in 1980. Later, in 1994, Washington’s client in neighboring apartheid South Africa was finally dislodged in that nation’s first democratic election, which led to the swearing into office of President Nelson Mandela.
Still, that perilous journey to what became the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe did more than just potentially jeopardize the life of the US secretary of state. His unsuccessful negotiations with the Rhodesian regime also inflamed the base of the Republican Party in the United States, whose white supporters sympathized with their racial brethren under the flinty leadership of the Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith.
As Kissinger was gallivanting in southern Africa, President Ford was facing a challenge from former California governor Ronald Reagan in the GOP primaries. Reagan and his supporters charged that Kissinger and Ford were selling out the interests of the European minority in Salisbury and Pretoria. The white settlers of southern Africa, these critics of Washington’s policy charged, were, like themselves, the embodiment of “law and order” in the face of stiff and unruly challenges from rambunctious Negroes, be they in Harlem or in the city that would soon be Harare.
When Ford lost a critical GOP primary in May 1976, the supposed reason was Kissinger’s abandonment of the European minority population in southern Africa. James A. Baker III, a future secretary of state himself, was among those who demanded Kissinger’s resignation in response to the diplomat’s presumed malfeasance in the region. In the immediate aftermath of this setback, Kissinger was bewildered when he received, via correspondence, no fewer than 1,700 negative appraisals of his African handiwork, and a mere twenty-three messages backing African majority rule.
However, these critics had not followed events carefully. The eradication of fascist rule in Portugal in 1974 was followed in seriatim by the liberation of Lisbon’s colony in Mozambique; likewise, the compelled decolonization of its sister colony in Angola, with a Cuban military force acting as skilled midwife, came soon after. These developments tightened the noose now encircling these nations’ besieged neighbors in Rhodesia and South Africa, while reducing Kissinger’s leverage. Kissinger was not engaging in puffery when he suggested that these Copernican changes in Portugal and southern Africa “revolutionized the geopolitical context.”
With the liberation of the former Portuguese colonies, the forces fighting for majority rule had a rear base: Mozambique served as a point from which to launch attacks inside South Africa, while Angola served as a site from which guerrillas could be trained under the expert tutelage of Cuban instructors. Portugal was a key ally of the United States in NATO, and providing basing rights for Washington in the Azores was deemed strategic. This had hampered Washington’s ability to adjust to the new era of African majority rule, but now it seemed that failure to adjust could mean advances for a major geopolitical adversary: Cuba, Moscow’s ally in the Caribbean.
This placed Kissinger in a real bind. The Africans fighting minority rule—even today’s sainted Nelson Mandela—were then perceived as little more than Cuban and Soviet proxies. Thus, the secretary of state had to cede ground to those seen widely in the GOP as little more than communist dupes, while simultaneously inducing Salisbury to do the same. Unsurprisingly, this pushed the ordinarily duplicitous Kissinger into stances that were stunning, even by his unprincipled standard.
The largest bloc of votes in the United Nations was comprised of African nations, many of which were still smarting from decades—if not centuries—of colonial rule by Washington’s closest European allies. The events of 1974–75 in Portugal and its erstwhile colonies impelled independent Africa to step up its support for anti-regime forces in Rhodesia. In the Cold War context, these anti-colonial victories were seen in Washington as victories for the Soviet Union. This was bound to redound to Kissinger’s detriment, as this all occurred on his watch which his ultra-right detractors did not see as coincidental.
Kissinger did not help his case with the GOP base when he pledged “unrelenting opposition” to minority rule. “American travelers will be advised against entering Rhodesia,” he declared. “American residents will be urged to leave.” The response to his remarks was unbridled anger. After all, there were a mere few hundred thousand Europeans in Rhodesia, surrounded by millions of Africans, and as a direct result, Euro-Americans had been flooding into this erstwhile colony since the UDI in 1965, not only as tourists but also as mercenaries and investors.
Thus, as Gerald Ford put it in his memoirs, Republican conservatives “hit the ceiling” when they heard Kissinger’s remarks. In retrospect, however, these comments should not have been taken so seriously (and indeed they weren’t by savvy African leaders), since US mercenaries fighting rifle-in-hand in southern Africa seemed to have little difficulty traveling to Rhodesia and went curiously unprosecuted upon returning home, while US oil giants continued to “smuggle” their valuable commodity into the beleaguered colony with little fear of retribution from Washington.
Unconvinced, a resolution was unanimously adopted by the Republican National Committee Heritage Groups Council that echoed Baker’s démarche by demanding Kissinger’s immediate ouster. Saltier critics said Kissinger was either a “traitor” or a “communist.” These obdurate detractors were also displeased when Kissinger, in a failed attempt to assuage African-Americans’ growing opposition to US policy in Africa, initiated a series of “emotional” meetings with this group, whose foreign policy interests had been routinely ignored; this was the “first time,” he said, that they “had [been] systematically consulted by a Secretary of State.” John Reinhardt, an African-American, was even added to Kissinger’s negotiating team in South Africa. But the situation there had soared beyond cosmetic reforms, no matter how ill-intentioned.
Reagan took advantage of the contretemps, and his success in the polls raised the specter of a sitting president not receiving his party’s nomination. Kissinger considered resignation. But then Reagan stumbled when he seemed to indicate that he would send US troops to Rhodesia, causing even some hardline conservatives to blanch, given the recently concluded disaster in Vietnam.
Kissinger’s right-wing opponents did not accept the point that events in Portugal, Angola, and Mozambique had changed the “geopolitical context” fundamentally, necessitating the unscrupulous wiliness that was the hallmark of the secretary of state’s tenure—winking at the arrival in Rhodesia of mercenaries and investors alike while mouthing anodyne words that appeared to oppose minority rule. Then, in June 1976, the South African township of Soweto exploded in protests. In the resultant tumult, youth began flooding into neighboring Mozambique and Angola, where they received military and political training—from Cuban comrades. This had a ripple effect in the Pretoria colony of Namibia—larger in size than California and Texas combined—and pushed that nation closer to independence from South Africa, which was to emerge finally in 1990.
Beyond the perception that the liberation of southern Africa represented a Cold War setback, there were other reasons that Kissinger scrambled to shore up a losing cause in Rhodesia. When Prime Minister Smith met the secretary of state and his spouse, the Rhodesian leader, in an attempt at camaraderie, once said of Mrs. Kissinger, “Like me [she] was conservative by nature, had Scottish blood through ancestry and believed that we had much in common.” Smith himself had an uncle who was “well established in the United States” and eventually resided in southern California. Then-president Lyndon Johnson was “very interested” in the Baines School in Bulawayo—the second city of the colony—and wondered if it was part of a familial relationship. He could trace the Baines branch of his family back to 1741 and wondered if he had relatives in Rhodesia.
This would not have been unusual. From the beginning of this British colony in the 1890s, Euro-Americans had been prominent in Rhodesia and, like the mercenaries that Kissinger pretended not to notice, had been instrumental in the war against Africans. But, at long last, despite the herculean efforts of white settler governments to preserve their power, majority rule came to the region—and in the fall of 1976, Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter. Carter, aware of his electoral debt to African-Americans, appointed civil rights leader Andrew Young to be his ambassador to the United Nations.
However, Reagan and his relentless supporters simply reloaded. They defeated Carter in 1980, with Zimbabwean independence that spring held against the Democratic incumbent from Georgia. By that point, Kissinger was well on his way to cashing in on his diplomatic tour of duty, having formed a business consultancy that would translate his foreign policy knowledge into a minor personal fortune.
Only the Good Die Young features contributions from Carolyn Eisenberg, Gerald Horne, Bancroft Prize-winner Greg Grandin, and others. It is available now from Verso.
Addresses are given to us to conceal our whereabouts
— Saki (H.M. Munro)
First you take a right after the vegetable seller's kiosk. The blue one.
Then you'll pass the school painted green by the way before the T-junction
Turn right, you'll find him just after the big mango tree on the left
If you get to the gold house with the black gate, you'll know you've gone too far
You can't miss him, his prose style is inimitable
There's no artifice, he's the genuine article
Elliptical, yet full of quips and surreal turns
When you read him, you feel as if you're with a friend
Deceptively deployed and unadorned, the language is unassuming
Yet, on a sentence by sentence basis, his writing is simply sparkling
But even with the arcane plots, his characters come out fully fleshed
Still, don't ignore those few hints in the dialog, he might be pulling your leg
Harmful, for though it made for the perfect rhyme
Its impact was marred by that red, squiggly underline
I checked, not only in that web browser,
But also in countless other word processors
The word is nary to be found in most dictionaries!
I'll admit a strong case of disbelief
For even in the authoritative one from Oxford,
I came to find it marked obsolete
Hurtful that such a perfectly good word
Would fall into this state of disrepair
So that future editors of my prose
Would be confronted by supposed linguistic error
An intimation of lack of care or poor grammar
Inattention and pretension in equal measure
Nuisant, as a word, it doesn't get much press
Forever prone to replacement by auto-suggest
Yet its plain meaning isn't hard to decipher
An apt weapon in the hands of a writer
And so it behooves me to take a stand
In favor of the adjectival nuisance
And pen a minor ode in its defense
This is plainly a nuisant development
A state of grace, a rarefied connection
Revealed belatedly the identity of your companion
Retrospectively located through track and trace
A fellow traveler similarly internally displaced
A fleeting encounter, side looks and glances
The human marketplace of second chances
Leading to a stolen moment of solidarity
A stare, recognition, and then complicity
Your lot in life, still, you were startled by the realization
Strange bedfellows you were, normally masked in alienation
Sporting badges of ambivalence, angst and dismay
And now to find a comfort suite in social interplay
A conversation that seemed as if it would never end
The joys of discovering you've made a new friend
Such are the pleasures of proximity, the virtue of presence
And the ease with which you share a comfortable silence