Daily Briefing

Deep buzz for the content-deprived

Every weekday, while you get showered and dressed, we pluck these dewy- fresh, breaking stories from the info-clogged byways of the datasphere. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and stoke up on everything you need to know, or at least enough to fake it.

The Intelligent Plant
Michael Pollan, The New Yorker | The Intelligent Plant | January 12, 2014

In 1973, a book claiming that plants were sentient beings that feel emotions, prefer classical music to rock and roll, and can respond to the unspoken thoughts of humans hundreds of miles away landed on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction. “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, presented a beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship that captured the public imagination at a time when New Age thinking was seeping into the mainstream...

Iraq Veterans On Fallujah: City Was 'A Microcosm Of The Iraq War'
Erin McCann, The Guardian | Iraq Veterans On Fallujah: City Was 'A Microcosm Of The Iraq War' | January 12, 2014

Three former members of the occupation forces reflect on the capture of the strategically important city by insurgent forces...

For TV Fans, Cramming In Sunday's Best
Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times | For TV Fans, Cramming In Sunday's Best | January 12, 2014

Pity the DVR, destined to be overworked on Sunday night.

The 9 p.m. hour alone this Sunday is a traffic jam of vexing choices, a thoroughfare gridlocked with hit shows like “The Good Wife” on CBS, and “Downton Abbey” on PBS, to which HBO is adding the premiere of “True Detective,” a thriller starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, to be followed at 10 by the first episode of the new season of “Girls.”..

Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp
Paul Slade, Planetslade | Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp | January 10, 2014

Reg Smythe was the greatest British newspaper strip cartoonist of the 20th Century – and second only to Peanuts’ Charles Schulz on a global scale. So why don’t we treat him that way?
Smythe invented Andy Capp for the Daily Mirror in 1957, personally writing, drawing, inking and lettering every line of the 15,000 Andy cartoons he produced over the following 40 years. When he died in 1998, the strip was syndicated to 1,700 newspapers – 1,000 in America alone – translated into 14 languages and read by a combined audience of 250 million...

SNL'S Race Problem: It's America's, Too
Tanner Colby, Slate | SNL'S Race Problem: It's America's, Too | January 9, 2014

The fact that a history of racial integration at Saturday Night Live can fit within the confines of a Slate article is, in itself, a pretty clear indication of the problem at hand. And the current struggles with race in Studio 8H offer us a sadly useful illustration of what’s wrong with “diversity” in this country generally.

The entire roster of black performers from the show’s 39-year history can be quickly broken down into three simple groups:

a) The disgruntleds, the washouts, and the walk-offs.

b) The ones who stuck around.

c) Eddie Murphy.

Afghanistan Games: Robert Gates, Obama, and Karzai
Amy Davidson, The New Yorker | Afghanistan Games | January 8, 2014

“If I believe I am being gamed…,” President Barack Obama said, in a “blast” at an unhappy meeting about Afghanistan in March, 2011; that’s how Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, remembers it, according to early reports on his memoir. (Bob Woodward and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post and Thom Shanker at the Times got their hands on copies of the book, which comes out next week.)...

Saudis Back Syrian Rebels Despite Risks
Robert F. Worth, The New York Times | Saudis Back Syrian Rebels Despite Risks | January 8, 2014

On his eighth trip to fight with the rebels in Syria, in August, Abu Khattab saw something that troubled him: two dead children, their blood-soaked bodies sprawled on the street of a rural village near the Mediterranean coast. He knew right away that his fellow rebels had killed them...

Ahmed Maher, Jailed Egyptian Activist, Describes Prison In Smuggled Letters
Shadee Ashtari, The Huffington Post | Letters From Prison | January 8, 2014

"I met with some of the most famous and important figures of Europe, America, India, Korea and Turkey ... And here I am now looking for a loaf of stale bread to eat." In 2011, the letter's author, Ahmed Maher, played a central role in the movement that deposed former President Hosni Mubarak and earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his work toward democratic reform through peaceful revolution. Today, he is kept in solitary confinement under maximum security surveillance, and only permitted two hours a day outside of the cell, according to Michelle McElroy, a human rights activist and spokeswoman for Maher. Since his imprisonment in December, he has managed to smuggle out more than 10 letters, scrawled on toilet paper and napkins...

'Downton Abbey' With Cats
John Hodgman, The New Yorker | 'Downton Abbey' With Cats | January 6, 2014

Look, I never want to tell stories about my children, because it always seems a little lazy. Children tend to be sort of dumb, and, in the end, the stories are always the same: children say hilarious things, and I am old and dying.

So when I tell you these stories about my children let’s just pretend they are about my cats...

NSA Seeks To Build Quantum Computer That Could Crack Most Types Of Encryption
Steven Rich and Barton Gellman, The Washington Post | NSA Seeks To Build Quantum Computer That Could Crack Most Types Of Encryption | January 5, 2014

In room-size metal boxes ­secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world.

According to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the effort to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” — a machine exponentially faster than classical computers — is part of a $79.7 million research program titled “Penetrating Hard Targets.” Much of the work is hosted under classified contracts at a laboratory in College Park, Md...