The Ingram Christmas Letter 2021

Until just a few weeks ago, I had some hope that this Christmas letter would be significantly different from last year’s version, which looked back on the year that COVID-19 arrived and became a global pandemic (we found a Christmas ornament online that expressed our thoughts about 2020 — see if you can make out what it says). Before about mid-December, things were looking pretty good, relatively speaking: most people (the smart ones, anyway) had gotten not one but two shots of vaccine — in many cases, mRNA vaccines, which were developed faster than any other vaccine in human history. The rate of COVID growth had slowed in most places, hospitals were no longer overwhelmed, and Christmas looked like it might be something approaching normal.

Then we found out about the Omicron variant, which spreads somewhere between two and three times as rapidly as the Delta variant. International — and even local — travel suddenly became a gamble. If we’re double-vaxxed and boosted, does that mean we can still get together with family, or should we bail on Christmas yet again? With so many unknowns (is Omicron milder than Delta? Is this the beginning of the end, where we all get COVID but it doesn’t turn into anything serious and it gradually becomes just like the flu?) everyone has had to make their own personal choices — it’s like a roll of the dice, except you’re rolling at the same time you’re playing Russian roulette.

Last year, we wound up shelving our plans to have family at our place near Buckhorn for Christmas, and instead had a delicious meal and quiet evening with our next-door neighbours Marc and Kris. On Boxing Day, we wound up having a wonderful surprise visit from our oldest daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade, who called to say they were out for a walk and then showed up at the door, having driven all the way from Ancaster. We set up chairs and a propane fire-pit in the garage and had a charcuterie plate and some drinks, then went for a hike, and it was lovely. After things calmed down a bit, and we had gotten our first vaccine, we got together for a late Christmas at our place in March, and went for lots more hikes and skated on the pond and visited the neighbour’s sheep.

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Setting up a nativity in Catalonia? Don’t forget the pooper

Since it’s Christmas-time, this is your annual reminder that in Catalonia, a traditional part of the nativity scene for the past couple of hundred years or so is the “caganer,” a small figurine of someone taking a crap. It’s become such a prominent tradition that dignitaries such as former US president Barack Obama have been given figurines of themselves as “caganer.”

Why? Interestingly enough, no one is really sure. The following is from Vox:

“Though excrement is gross, for peasants and farmers it’s actually important since it serves as fertilizer. Some think the caganer was originally a portent of good harvest and fortune to come, a type of fertility symbol. “There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables,” Joan Liiteras, a caganer connoisseur, told the BBC. In the words of an old Spanish proverb, “Dung is no saint, but where it falls it works miracles.”

There might also be theological reasons for the nativity addition. According to Maureen Tilley, professor of Christianity at Fordham University, the caganer is significant because it’s a reminder of the early Christian belief in the Incarnation: that in order to redeem humanity, God had to be fully embodied (incarnated) in human flesh. And what’s a more unifying human trait than “Everybody Poops”?

New secrets revealed about the Antikythera Mechanism

“One object recovered from the site, a lump the size of a large dictionary, initially escaped notice amid more exciting finds. Months later, however, at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the lump broke apart, revealing bronze precision gearwheels the size of coins. According to historical knowledge at the time, gears like these should not have appeared in ancient Greece, or anywhere else in the world, until many centuries after the shipwreck. The find generated huge controversy.

The lump is known as the Antikythera mechanism, an extraordinary object that has befuddled historians and scientists for more than 120 years. Over the decades the original mass split into 82 fragments, leaving a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle for researchers to put back together. The device appears to be a geared astronomical calculation machine of immense complexity. Today we have a reasonable grasp of some of its workings, but there are still unsolved mysteries.”

Source: An Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculation Machine Reveals New Secrets – Scientific American

New updates: Life in a time of COVID-19

December 2021: The Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, is in the process of sweeping the globe — on December 15, the UK reported the highest number of COVID cases since the pandemic began: more than 78,000 in the past 24 hours. Because the Omicron variant is much more infectious than the Delta variant, the number of cases in most countries is expected to expand rapidly. “If you have 100,000 cases today, it’s 200,000 cases [in] two days, 400,000 two days later, and then it’s 800,000 two days later,” a WHO official said. “So in a week, the actual number of cases can increase eight or tenfold.”

Medical authorities say even if the Omicron variant proves to be milder than Delta — which some early studies and anecdotal evidence from South Africa seem to suggest it might be — because of the higher reproductive or “R nought” rate, this could still overwhelm intensive-care units and hospitals, many of which are already stretched due to the previous waves of the virus, and patients who should have gone to the hospital but didn’t, and are therefore in worse shape. Some early studies appear to show that Omicron is much more prevalent in the nose and throat, and much less prevalent in the lungs, which could explain both the less serious symptoms and the higher rate of infection.

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Chasing the ever-changing goal of media scale

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, Vox Media and Group Nine announced that they have agreed to merge their operations, in what Jim Bankhoff—Vox’s co-founder and CEO—told Axios will create “the fastest-growing company of scale in media.” Vox controls a suite of websites, including the eponymous Vox, as well as The Verge, Eater, and SB Nation, while Group Nine owns a number of niche interest sites such as NowThis, The Dodo, PopSugar, and Thrillist. The merger comes on the heels of a number of media-related deals, including BuzzFeed’s merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which gave the company a public listing and a theoretical value of $1.5 billion, and Axel Springer’s acquisition of Politico, in a deal valued at $1 billion. Donald Trump has also hitched a ride on the SPAC train by merging his media venture with an entity in a deal valued at $2 billion.

The idea of achieving something called “scale” is often referred to when deals like the Vox-Group Nine merger are announced, but the definition of that term is surprisingly hard to pin down. For example, Group Nine acquired PopSugar less than two years ago for $300 million, and yet, according to some sources who spoke with the New York Post, the Vox merger deal values all of Group Nine at less than $300 million—a little over half what the entire company was valued at in 2016, when it got a $100 million investment from Discovery. The current deal reportedly values Vox at $672 million, substantially less than the $1 billion it was theoretically valued at in 2015, during its last funding round, despite the growth the company has reported in the years since that investment.

In a similar vein, BuzzFeed’s SPAC deal originally valued the company at about one and a half billion—less than what it was theoretically worth in 2016, when it got a two hundred million dollar investment from NBCUniversal. Since BuzzFeed merged with the SPAC—and subsequently acquired Complex Networks, a global content network targeting millennials, which itself had a theoretical market value of three hundred million dollars—the new entity’s market capitalization has plummeted by close to forty percent, to the point where it is worth less than eight hundred million dollaes, or less than half what it was supposedly worth when it got the NBCUniversal funding. BuzzFeed had seventy-two million unique visitors in May of this year, according to Comscore; even after the merger with Complex Networks, it will only be slightly larger than Vox (by that measure, at least).

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The retro-futuristic offices of the Central Social Institution in Prague

This office photo might look like something out of a bizarre retro science-fiction movie like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” but this is a real office — located at the Central Social Institution in Prague, in a picture taken in the late 1930s. The desks that slide up and down the wall are essentially tiny, open individual elevators with a desk and chair built into them, and were designed to make it easy for staff to access the files held in the massive card catalogue that the CSI maintained at the time — 3,000 drawers, 10 feet high, reaching from floor to ceiling and covering approximately 4,000 square feet, which at the time (and probably even now) was the largest filing cabinet in the world.

Paperboy Love Prince, New York’s strangest mayoral candidate

This profile of a New York mayoral candidate who goes by the name Paperboy Love Prince is fascinating — not just because of the personal quirks like the name, or the fact that they (Prince uses “they/them” pronouns, and also goes by “god/goddess”) wear four wristwatches and a variety of outlandish costumes, but because when you get past all of that, Prince seems like a remarkably level-headed person with some pretty good ideas:

This past Wednesday morning, Paperboy Love Prince, a twenty-eight-year-old activist, performer, content producer, and prankster whom a small but pollable number of people would like to see take office as the next mayor of New York City, sat at a computer behind the front desk of the Love Gallery, a pink storefront on Myrtle Avenue, in Brooklyn, which operates as a vintage store, community space, and campaign headquarters. Every week, Prince’s campaign gives away food donated by churches and other community groups to anyone who shows up.

Prince, who uses the personal pronouns “they” and “them,” as well as “god” and “goddess,” wore a gold turban, four wristwatches, a red-and-yellow short-sleeved shirt open at the front, blue-and-black flowing pants, and sparkly gold high-tops with Teddy-bear tongues. At one point in the day, Prince described themself to me as “the Steve Jobs of mutual aid.” Prince is an artist, rapper and entrepreneur whose Utopia Plan includes a universal basic income of $2,000 and health care and housing for all. Prince’s Utopia Plan proposes to turn the police into a “Love Team” and NYCHA developments into mansions. Prince studied journalism at the University of Maryland before moving to New York City to work as a performer, party planner, web developer and brand consultant.